kendo theory

Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 1)

This is the start of a five-part series that translates a lecture made by Morishima Tateo sensei in December 2007. The speech was made to senior kendo sensei and its theme was about the state of modern kendo, and what can be done to change it. A brief bio of Morishima sensei can be found at the bottom of this article.

To see the entire series please click here.

The series will be released in the following order (I hope!). Please note that I will translate part-by-part, so there is the chance that some of the translated terms below will change as I draft, edit, then finally publish. Sectioning the lecture into the below “parts” was done by me for the sake of ease.

Part 1: Introduction; Post war kendo change: overemphasis on shiai / winning at all costs; popularity of surprise methods; the shift from attacking to defensive kendo;
Part 2: The road to regenerate kendo; developing instructors; sanma no gurai; returning to the origin; the establishment of The Concept of Kendo; about The Mindset of Kendo Instruction;
Part 3: From “technique kendo” and “power kendo” to “spirit kendo”; the steps of kendo pursuit; looking at “spirit kendo” from the teachings of Shirai, Mochida, and Saimura sensei; about The principles of kendo; posture and breathe; ki;
Part 4: mai and ma; the essential mechanism for striking;
Part 5: winning by striking simultaneously; thinking about the important points in kendo;

* note that I have rendered 心の剣道 as “spirit kendo” although I am not really satisfied by doing so.

心の修行と現代剣道 ー 初太刀一本・相打ちの勝 ー
Pursing the spirit and modern kendo: the first winning ippon / winning by striking simultaneously



A sincere thank you for coming here today, and in such large numbers. When it comes to kendo speeches, things can be a bit formal… and todays talk will probably be a bit more formal than normal, so please relax and sit comfortably. (note that the original Japanese has a play on words here: 「堅」苦しい vs 「方肩」の力を抜いて)

The current kendo situation is in confusion. Essentially, Japanese kendo has a positive attacking character, but it seems that recently a more defensive kind of kendo has emerged as the main style. Although the theme of todays talk is “Pursing the spirit and modern kendo” I will mainly be talking about how to fix this problem; i.e. how to change this popular “defensive” kendo style into an “attacking” one.

Post war kendo change

Overemphasis on shiai and winning at all costs

In 1952 the nascent ZNKR made the statement “From now on Japanese kendo will be taught as an Educational Sport” (教育スポーツ). Maybe its because of this, I don’t know, but kendo has changed into something with an overemphasis on shiai, and with winning being the most important aspect.

I can’t remember the exact date, but Prof Nishiyama (at that time of Tokyo university of education) wrote critically of “sport kendo” in a magazine. At the end of the article he commented “I wonder if Japanese kendo will simply remain as some sort of artistic accomplishment” (遊芸. Like ikebana, tea ceremony, etc… i.e. presumably as something with form only, with its spirit removed?). At that time I was still young and remember thinking to myself “I wonder if kendo will become something that simple?” I distinctly remember that feeling, even 60 years later.

The popularity of surprise methods

Essentially, the objective of kendo is to seek to deeply understand and polish the spirit (心法). Worrying about winning and losing with a shinai, kendo will simply descend into a method of achieving technical skill with a shinai; if I say it in the extreme, it will turn into nothing more than a “Sporty artistic accomplishment.”

About 15 or 16 years ago I first saw people who reacted to attacks using SANPOMAMORI (三方守り) – that is, they lifted their hands up in a manner where they could block their men, kote, and dou. The high school that suddenly started using this method went on to win the All Japan High School Championships. This method of blocking rapidly gained popularity after that and immediately spread throughout the country. This still hasn’t been addressed and is currently part of kendo.

(editor: I assume that this is a sole example of methods that have recently/suddenly been employed simply to gain victory)

The shift from attacking to defensive kendo

At this point I wish to reference a couple of sempai’s written works on the characteristics of Japanese kendo.

At first I would like to quote Shimokawa Ushio sensei. He’s know as the writer of “The development of kendo” which has been used as a kind of kendo dictionary in the kendo community for years.

[blockquote align=”center”]Western (i.e European) fencing styles, be it in their kata or there competition, generally tend to rely on defensive techniques, with attacks (ripostes) coming out of defense. Even when on the attack, the tendency is to protect or escape from opponents attacks skilfully, taking the chance then to attack. In our (Japanese) fencing, the most — is to use “sen sen no sen”, the exact opposite of the general Western style, which we would call “go no sen.” In other words, their fencing places a heavy emphasis on protecting the body, and we could say its a negative style of fighting. In comparison, Japanese fencing is generally a positive attacking one, where we aim to strike first, disregarding even our body (sutemi).

Even if we are in the path of the opponents blade we chose to throw away our physical body for the purpose of cutting down the opponent in one strike. This attacking, selflessness style can be said to be the number 1 characteristic of Japanese fencing.[/blockquote]

The next is from the posthumous transcripts of someone that everyone knows: Takano Sasaburo sensei.

[blockquote align=”center”]Japanese fencing has no ‘blocking’ or ‘defending’ techniques. Against an enemies attack, we evade, cut through their blade (kiriotoshi), or deflect and strike (ukenagashi). These cannot be categorised as blocking as these actions are done with the objective of cutting or thrusting the enemy. All these techniques are used to place yourself in an advantageous position. For example, when you are doing kiriotoshi the goal should be to cut the enemies body, and the instant you perform ukenagashi you must turn your blade and strike him. While doing this you must not even allow the tiniest opportunity for the enemy to attack you.

Its useless simply to just stop or block the enemies attack. In deflecting or receiving a blade you must instantly turn it into an attack. Simply blocking/stopping the enemies attack is not beneficial (in defeating your enemy).

Therefore, the merit of kendo is using “sen sen no sen” to take the lead and attack with strong resolution and overwhelming power, all the time without leaving any opening for the enemy to attack you. This will lead to a superb victory.

If you stop to think for a while, this method is not simply about flying blindly into an attack; rather its about spending a long time working out when the right time is to attack, learning about what works when and what doesn’t (the principles)… only after you do this can you gain (true) victory.[/blockquote]

(Note that some assumptions we can make are: “evade” is referring to nuki; “kiriotoshi” had a wider meaning for Takano than it does for modern kendoka; “ukenagashi” also refers to kaeshi waza.)

For the sake of the reformation of Japanese kendo, if we all promote “attacking kendo” then things will soon be fixed. I’d like to talk about a plan of how to do this with everyone today.

To be continued in part 2……

Brief bio of Morishima Tateo sensei

1922: Born in Kumamoto prefecture.
1939: Enters Kokushikan university. His kendo sensei there are Saimura Goro and Ogawa Chutaro (graduates 1943).
1945: Enters the army and was stationed in Kagoshima as part of the group to stop the advancing American army. Due to the end of the war, on August the 15th his service ends.
1948: Becomes a police man. His kendo teachers are Saimura Goto, Ogawa Chutaro, and Mochida Seiji.
1952: Spends a year learning Ono-ha itto-ryu from Sasamori Junzo.
1975: Is appointed kendo shihan for Keishicho (retires 1979).
1982: Is appointed teacher at the Police Academy (retires 1983).

Has worked in the following posts for the Zen nippon kendo renmei (ZNKR): standing member, deliberation member, and vice president.

Currently (at the time of the lecture):

* Kendo hanshi hachidan (he was awarded 9 dan but voluntarily relinquished it)
* Currently on the advisory board of the ZNKR.
* Keishicho honourary shihan
* Meiji university shihan

Morishima sensei also had the honour of winning the ZNKR’s 20th anniversary 8dan invitational tournament (1966).



By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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16 replies on “Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 1)”

Mark, thanks for commenting!

When I first came to Japan I had no idea what people were talking to me about in the dojo… but after a few years of doing keiko with your sensei, and drinking with your friends after keiko, it all becomes clear!!!

Take the opportunity to work at your Japanese (I won’t translate for you!).

Hi George, could you tell me why morishima-sensei relinquished his kyudan status?

It’s interesting because in the West, I think you will find less people using sanpomamori because it isn’t taught or even observed very often. In fact, alot of the Japanese sensei will actively discourage it so that it never even has a chance to get a grounding, or at least in my experience – it may be different in other countries.

Thanks for the article!

I have no idea (i could do some research).

As for sanoomamori, Ive never seen it taught here (though its highly possible that some people do)… I think younger shiai-people just pick up on it. Case in point is one of my students: she just suddenly started doing it, and doing it alot. She started as a beginner with me and ive never taught any blocking in the time she has been doing kendo (and she has no other teacher). I should strictly berate her for it….!

I was under the impression that it was Miyazaki Masahiro sensei’s accomplishments in the AJKF that popularized the sanpomamori…is that not so?

Normally, I don’t want to block, but I block… Sometimes I do a sheet like sanpomamori.

@David: I don’t think so. He’s just a highly visable individual (especially abroad, where people were in the dark about other strong competitors over almost the entire spectrum of kendo’s history).

Hi George, yes that’s my feeling too that it is not really taught anywhere, it just catches on but much more-so in the east, despite sensei telling you not to do it. For years I have tried to use gyaku-do against it but have never had enough luck or practise so far but that’s another topic.

Looking forward to hearing morishima sensei’s ideas on how to reform “attacking kendo” in the next volume. And very much interested to hear why he relinquished his kyudan if you have time for a future article perhaps? (someone?)

And yes, you should berate and humiliate your student in class for using sanpomamori and use her as an example for anyone thinking about it!!! (jokes)

Thanks for another interesting article and taking the time to get it out to us all!

It is important to acknowledge/recognize where we may have been or are deviating in the comprehensive practice of the way of the sword. As we let ourselves to continue to be dragged into the present currents of Kendo practice the true essence of Kendo vanishes, thus becoming “a practice in the void”.
Some instructors have even expressed concerns that all they can do is just teach but cannot tell students what to do or what the choices are for improving character through the practice of Kendo. As an educator in other arts and sciences I was, I couldn’t but pull my hair… The path is not like a light that has been turned on all of a sudden but guided steps on a journey full of choices.

Great set of articles George!

I’m new at Kendo, I’ve doing it for almost 4 years and graded Shodan last year, so this kind of insight is very meaningful to me.

I don’t do sanpomamori, and our sensei strongly discourages the practice of defensive Kendo, but I find myself blocking attacks from my opponents very often, rather than taking the opportunity to attack them.

I don’t attribute this to a sense of tactic, or because I seek the advantages of that kind of fighting, it’s simply because I react slowly – because my mindset is not always the adequate, or the body doesn’t follow the mind at times.

What is changing indeed – and the tendency should be reversed – is the mindset of people who practice Kendo, be it in the east or the west.

Kendo doesn’t change, the people practicing it do. I guess some people don’t remember/reflect that on their hakamas are seven virtues that connect them to a tradition, and that Kendo is far more than scoring ippon.

I try to keep that in mind when I practice and that’s why I know I can do better, and that I should do better.

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