keiko, keiko, keiko

As far as the pursuit of kendo goes (shugyo), the most important thing is keiko, the second most important thing is keiko, and the third most important thing is keiko. You must not put academic learning of the principles of kendo before actual practice. If you do manage to become technically proficient then you will naturally come to understand the theory that lies behind the practice. This is real kendo.

If you start by trying to understand the principles then attempt to apply them to your keiko, well, you will look a bit silly. Deep understanding comes only by forging skill through hard training.

Nowadays (unlike when the writer was young) there are plenty of good kendo books available. However, attempting to apply research from books to actual keiko (without doing lots of training) cannot lead to great success. Kendo is, more than anything else, the pursuit of JI-RI-ITCHI (the unison of technique and principle).

First do the hard practice then, later, understanding of the principles will come.”

– Sato Sadao, hanshi kyudan.

“Keiko, keiko, keiko” – the importance of doing lots of keiko has been repeated to me many times over the years. Also, in pretty much every kendo book I have read by (or about) a renowned kenshi there is always talk about long intense periods of kendo training, and explicit statements that without such a period the kenshi would never have come to be as strong in kendo as they did nor achieve as much in their kendo careers as they have. The result of this hard daily practise over years for these kenshi led not merely to an increase in skill, but also the development of a strong body and mind. These factors allowed the kenshi to acquire what Sato sensei spells out above – deeper understanding of the principles of kendo – and, finally, to ji-ri-itchi.

A caveat to Sato sensei’s quote above (and one that a particular 8dan sensei gave me a few years back) is that any intense kendo period you go through should be done under guidance (of course, the stronger/stricter the sensei the better!). Sato sensei doesn’t explicitly mention it above, but while going through the long, intense part of your shugyo you should simply DO what your sensei tells you… without hesitation or thought (SHU). Eventually you will begin to experiment or discover things for yourself (HA), and finally you will come to your own, personal, understanding (RI).

This road towards deep understanding is a long one, both physically and mentally demanding, even exhausting at times. What’s needed at this time is expressed in Sato sensei’s own hand on the tenugui pictured below: extremes of patience and endurance.

By the way, 2 related terms on this subject you may have heard are HYAKU-REN-JITOKU (百練自得) and HYAKU-TAN SEN-REN (百鍛千練): multiple repetitions (“one hundred times… one thousand times”) pave the way to self realisation.

The calligraphy on this tenugui is by Sato sensei and reads 克堪克忍 (yoku-tae, yoku-shinobu). Taken from Mencius, it means to overcome extreme patience and endurance in order to cultivate the self.

A short timeline of Sato Sadao hanshi

– 1904: Born Meiji 37
– 1913: Started kendo at age 9 (including Jikishinkage-ryu)
– 1921: enter Meishinkan at 17 years old and studied under Takano Sasaburo (studies Ono-ha itto-ryu)
– 1927: Enter the Imperial Guards as policeman/kendo specialist
– 1931: becomes imperial guards kendo assistant (promoted 1935 and 1944)
– 1954: becomes imperial guards kendo shihan
– 1960: hanshi
– 1964: retires from imperial police guards (remains as honourary shihan)
– 1972: kendo kyudan
– 1985: died (81 years old)

The difficult years

When I was a wee bit younger than I am today (I’m 39) I wanted to be good at kendo NOW. Not tomorrow. Not in 1 or 2 years time. Now. Immediately. I practised (and still practise -> more on that later) like a madman, feverishly awaiting the point where I’d make the switch over from mediocre to good (or even better, amazing!). Frustration over lack of (self perceived) progress only worsened with time, especially as people started to praise my improvement (lies!) and more so when I’d meet the odd Japanese person who’s kendo was technically sound but who barely practised (i.e. they had practised hard from the age of 6 through university but only casually continued after entering the work force).

If you note a sense of jealousy here you would be right. I’d grimace and brood while watching the folk mentioned above, comparing them to children who were forced into learning another language (or musical instrument) by their parents from childhood. That is, their kendo was/is, as far as I was concerned, a ‘freebie’ from their parents… not something they particularly desired, loved, or tried seriously at acquiring themselves. Their current casual manner was my proof = their attitude was the opposite of mine. Obviously, it’s not healthy to think like this, nor fair on the people involved (they don’t share my obsessiveness after all!).

The next logical step was then to analyse my keiko to see if there was someway I could change it to become more efficient (a shortcut). I read quite a bit about coaching athletes, sport psychology, and pondered on the quantity vs quality debate and the myth of talent. However, the ‘sport’ paradigm never really sat well with kendo: sport is (for the serious or elite player) a relatively short term activity (careers often finish with people in their 30s or younger) with the goal being competitive success and (often but not exclusively) financial reward – I’m sure you see the problems here.

If you want to get the gist of this article (if there is one!) then it is important to realise that that on top of all this reading was a continual research into the history of kendo itself. Specifically, I was (and am still) intensely interested in the biographical aspects (stories) of our kendo forebears. This interest has fundamentally changed my perception of and long term goals for kendo.

(Note that in particular I am talking about descriptions about how kendo was done pre-WW2, that is, how kendo was done, by whom, and why. There is also a lot of written information from kendoka after the war commentating on the seismic change in kendo’s culture and execution.)

Through my reading I started to realise:

1 – Competitions used to be rare – i.e. people practised to strengthen their mind and body. Therefore competitive success had only a limited impact on stature, repute, or status;

2 – People expended years of effort in obscurity honing their already strong basics before achieving technical mastery;

3 – Mastery and repute were based not on technical skill alone, but on a more composite basis, including teaching ability, work experience, and conduct.

Although the kendo has shifted the manner in which it judges mastery and awards status over the years, I do believe believe that the kernel of kendo pre-sportification (pre shinai-kyogi) remains somewhat intact, in particular point 2. I mention sportification here because the first point is now no longer true which has had an irrevocable influence on point three.

This has been something I’ve pondered and considered for some time now, but I am only just posting my ideas on kenshi 24/7 now because of a couple of videos and a blog article that appeared on my facebook wall at the same time a couple of days ago. Of course, they are not kendo related, but they do say something pretty insightful about acquiring skill and mastery of a subject. In particular, this documentary (split over 2 videos) is of interest:


I’m still waiting to become good/amazing, of course, but it’s now not important whether I actually achieve technical mastery or not – it’s the process, the journey if you will, the shugyo aspect that is important. As such, the quality over quantity debate has become a moot point for me (quantity please), and my jealously of the technically-superior casual kenshi has dissipated (I see them now as simply lazy).

I do believe, of course, that if I continue to work hard and practise as often as I do now (8-10 times/week), that my technical ability will increase, and I suspect that I will overtake casual kenshi around the same age as myself easily in the future (perhaps in our mid 40s/early 50s), it’s just that I’m not obsessed about immediacy as I once was: I am playing the long game.


Applied theory

In the last post on the site I discussed about what the term ji-ri-itchi means to me personally on a more macro level, and now I want to discuss a particular example of a theory applied to physical practise.

Ken-chu-tai, tai-chu-ken

AFAIK the first reference to the teaching of Ken-Tai appears in Yagyu-shinkage ryu’s Hyoho Kadensho, written by Yagyu Munenori in 1632 (it also appears in Hozo-in ryu and Itto-ryu documents, and probably more traditions as well). Ken-tai and variants of it (e.g. Kobo-fuki, Do-sei-ichinyo, etc) are usually rendered into English as “defense within attack, attack within defense” or more simply as “attack and defense as one. A description from the Hyoho Kandensho reads:

“Ken means to attack single-mindedly, to strike fiercely in order to be the first to strike a blow.

Tai means resisting making the initial technique while awaiting the opponent’s first move. It must be understood that tai is a position of utmost watchfulness.

Ken and tai mean to attack and wait.

Concerning the principles of ken-tai pertaining to the body and the sword, advance upon the opponent with an attacking posture and hold the sword in a position of waiting, making efforts to entice the opponent to make an attack and counter it. In this way ones posture is in an attitude of ken and the sword one of tai. The ken posture is used to induce the opponent to initiate the attack.

Ken-tai pertaining to the mind and body. The mind should retain an attitude of tai and the body an attitude of ken; this is because if the mind retains an attitude of ken it races and this is not good; thus have the mind wait in tai, and with the body in ken induce the opponent to make the first move and defeat him.

Again there is the principle whereby the mind takes an attitude of ken and the body in one of tai; the reason for this is that with the mind in ken it is put upon its guard and with the sword in tai the opponent is induced into making the first attack. One should think of the body as being the hand that holds the sword. Thus the mind takes the attitude of ken and the body one of tai.

Ultimately both methods are the same, the aim is to induce the opponent to make the first move and defeat him.”

Kendo Tokuhon (The Kendo Reader),, October 2013

I don’t think the theory of Ken-Tai is particularly difficult to understand cerebrally, but utilising it effectively within keiko is another matter. Specifically, I’d like to talk about it in reference to executing oji-waza.

I’ve sometimes seen oji-waza described as “reactive” techniques in English but I posit that this is – for advanced practitioners anyway – a misnomer. I mention this in my Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills under the “Oji-waza is not a guessing game” section. To be clear (under this definition): oji-waza are techniques executed with prior knowledge to what your opponent is going to do. The reason you have this foresight is that you have setup the situation: that is, you are in control of not only the area being struck, but also the timing.

A specific example: men-kaeshi-dou

To setup the situation you need to do two things:

1. Open up your men for attack;
2. Seem to be unaware of the impending attack.

There are many ways to open your men up, but the easiest one is done simply by dropping the point of your shinai down diagonally to the right (preferably subtly) and, at the same time, moving your right foot out diagonally (body in ken). By doing this all you need do is raise up your arms to catch your opponents men strike and move smoothly into the dou strike. Needless to say, you should be calmly watching your opponent and calculating while doing this (mind in tai).

However, we still have a problem. If your fighting spirit is obvious and/or your look like you are setting things up, then your opponent will not attack you (unless they are inexperienced): you have to fool them into actually believing that you are actually open. If you are overtly obvious in your setup or desire to strike then experienced people will not strike.

In this situation it’s often best to make your attacking spirit obvious immediately prior to the setup described above… then slightly relax the pressure. The switch from overt pressure to a relaxing of it is often enough for someone to launch an attack… inexperienced people will attack at this point even when there are no openings. This, of course, is Ken-tai in application.

Do I need to know the theory behind the action?

The answer to this is “no” if you are doing kendo casually, and “yes” if you are not. To some extent, “knowledge” of kendo will come naturally through doing it… in fact, I suspect that the best and most naturally way of understanding kendo is simply through constant daily practise without too much thinking. At some point, however, especially if you want to become a teacher, then it’s probably better if you spend time on the whys and wherefores.

Many people might say “I can describe my experience without relation to the more traditional kendo terms” which I think is a fair comment. I guess it’s up to the individual to choose how they teach and describe kendo. For me personally, I prefer to pepper the description with classical terminology…. kendo is after all, for me anyway, also a study of the past.

There are a number of overlapping theories used to describe the physical and mental process of executing kendo techniques, for example the different kinds of sen, discussion of kyojitsu (a term almost unknown in the English kendo community and disappearing in the Japanese one), and various other teachings from classical swordsmanship schools that have found their way into kendo theory. On top of this there is also the more modern boxing of waza into shikake and oji techniques, the odd sports-science explanation, and of course personal theories (sometimes eccentric) from various teachers. Some of these complement each other (for example, my use of ken-tai to describe oji-waza), and some don’t (the various types of sen and the shikake/oji waza definition).

I guess the point here is that for every action you do in kendo has, theoretically, some sort of rationale behind it, and if you want to be a good kendo teacher then you should spend time not only in research of these theories, but in actually application of them. At least, this is my aim.

“An important teaching, comprehension is difficult to come by without hard training.”

For a longer discussion on Ken-Tai, please see p84-6 of the kenshi 24/7 published Kendo Tokuhon (The Kendo Reader). Also, don’t forget to check out Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills for discussion and description of oji-waza.

SEME #5: Arimitsu Masaaki

The following is a short translation of a famous sensei’s description of SEME.

Seme #5: SEME #5: Arimitsu Masaaki

“Kamae with the centre line (the extension of your shinai) being around the area between your opponents chest and throat, all the while energetically pressuring your opponent. However, don’t intentional show this spirit at the end of your shinai; as much as you can, keep your outward composure at all times. For example, if the opponent does something like strikes down your shinai etc, quietly and unhurriedly allow your shinai to go back to the centre line.

However, at the instant when your partner threatens to step in and strike, without a moments delay face them enthusiastically and ensure that your pressure is projected out through the tip of your shinai towards your opponent with the feeling of “If you are going to attack, come on then!!!”

To do this, you must relax your shoulders, soften your hands, and kamae in the centre utilising your spirit to face the oncoming attack. In order to achieve this you must always sink your spirit into your lower abdomen (tanden)…. so much so that your abdomen feels tight against your obi and tare.

Depending on your ability to do this, your shoulders will become relaxed, your hands soft and flexible, and your kamae will look bigger and more impressive.

If you can achieve this then during a fierce bout then you will be able to read even the smallest behavior in the disposition or movement of your opponent, and you will be able to strike wholeheartedly with abandon using all the resources available to you. This ability to read your opponent is connected to one’s belief and therefore ability to throw themselves into an attack wholeheartedly (sutemi).

During keiko, especially of your partner is more senior to you, its common that you find yourself being constantly pressured strongly by the tip of their shinai. At this time its important that you fight with the feeling of receiving that shinai on your throat, and that when you step in and attack, to do so with the aim of getting past that shinai tip. This is the first stage in the study of true kendo.”

Arima sensei was the winner of the All Japan police individual championship 3 times and the team championships once (2nd place once as well). He has also taken part and placed highly in the All Japan Championships, Kokutai, and the Meiji mura taikai amongst other competitions. At the time of writing this piece he was a police kendo teacher in Kagoshima police HQ and kyoshi 8dan. He is currently the vice-director of Kagoshima kendo renmei and a director of the All Japan kendo association. He is now hanshi 8dan.


This small section is part of a much larger series of interviews called “Mei senshu, renma no hibi” (famous competitors and their day-to-day practise) published by Kendo Jidai between 1983-84. The series was compiled into 2 books and published as “Renma no hibi” in 1989. Most of the interviewed sensei were only 7dan at the time and are now renowned 8dan sensei.