Rule changes for the better

In 2009 I wrote a post called TSUBAZERIA RULE CHANGES IN HIGH SCHOOL KENDO that looked at new rules that were being implemented for high school kendo competitions here in Japan. Just over 4 years later and I can say without a doubt that the flow of shiai has improved drastically due to this simple change: there is less time wasting in tsubazeriai and students kendo has become a lot more positive and forward-attacking than it was before. There’s probably not been enough time since the rule implementation for a larger change in shiai flow to occur in university and adult shiai, but I’m pretty positive we are going in a good direction. So, it’s with great interest that I listened to a sempai of mine talk about a further change happening in Junior High School kendo (which I am not personally involved in).

A new rule in junior high school change states the following under the section “Strange defensive postures” (変形な構え等の防御姿勢):

“In the case of a strange defensive kamae, the following shall occur:

In the first instance: call a goki and instruct the players (of what is acceptable and what isn’t);

In the second instance: issue a hansoku.”

What is defined as a “strange defensive posture” is basically when you “lift your left hand above your eye level in order to block your men, kote, and dou” i.e. the “Sanpomamori” posture referred to by Morishima Tateo sensei. The rule change goes onto state that any waza executed out of this kamae (or something near to) will not be judged as valid.

As things stand at the moment, you can see people run into tsubazeriai using this posture a lot in shiai. I guess it’s a combination of not wanting to be hit and time wasting. Even if you look at video of the All Japan Kendo Championships – and of 3-time winner Uchimura Ryoichi – you can see that in the highest level shiai in Japan this type of movement happens a lot. It’s not just time wasting and defensiveness that’s the problem – it’s that it looks ugly.

I think that this is a great rule change. If it’s as successful as the tsubazeriai rule change in high school kendo then I think the flow of shiai will become much better in the future, and we will see students perform not only more beautiful kendo, but also less defensive, more positive kendo.

Personally, it’s my hope that this new rule in junior high school, plus the tsubazeriai rule of high school, be applied to not only adult competition here in Japan, but be spread abroad as well (the conduit for which would be the World Kendo Championships). I assume that these changes are part of the ZNKR’s long term plan, the aim of which is to eventually produce kenshi with better kendo who will in turn teach and influence others. Will it work? I guess only time will tell.


平成25年度 (公財)日本中学校体育連盟剣道競技部申し合わせ事項

The Sword of the Samurai in the Hands of Americans

“Another new fad has come to New York – Japanese fencing. If you hear the clash of armor and clang of steel as you saunter through the brown stone districts uptown it’s wealthy young men taking lessons in palace stables and studios where the famous two handed swords to the samurai are at work. The weapon always has been described as formidable in the hands of an expert. The word “samurai” means knight, and for three thousand years he has been the ideal swordsman of Japan – always using the terrible two handed blade of his fathers.”

I get an awful lot of correspondence from readers, most of it asking me about this and that, but occasional people volunteer ideas or information. This was one such case: a Canadian gentleman by the name of Maxime Chouinard who practises koryu/iai over in Quebec, got in touch and passed me the following newspaper clippings about early kendo practise in America. Wow, I thought, this is reeeeeeeally fascinating information, specifically as an important look into a) how the general America society viewed the art and b) as an insight into some Japanese ex-pats thinking.

At the end of the Edo period when Japan finally opened up there was a large influx of people from various nationalities that went to seek their fortune in the yet undeveloped country. It’s uncertain exactly how many non-Japanese people were working in Japan, but the government hired hundreds and we can assume there were probably thousands more working in private enterprises. Through historical records we know that some of these people did study kendo (gekken/gekkiken/kenjutsu as it was variously called at that time) while there were there. In fact, some of the men that went over were charged with re-developing the Japanese military, swordsmanship included. Around about the same time – and I admit that my knowledge is a bit vague on this matter – many Japanese people also started to go abroad, whether it was to study, on business, or indeed to make a new life.

It’s probably at around this point that kendo first travelled abroad: either taken back by the non-Japanese people who had been in Japan or transported by Japanese people themselves. Maybe a bit of both.

This interesting topic is large and deserves some serious attention… unfortunately not something I have the time or resources to do so at the moment. The purpose of this article is simply to introduce the subject and hope that it creates more interest. I’m sure there are hundreds of more newspaper articles out there on this topic, probably spanning quite a few countries as well. If you have any links, please post them on facebook or comment here.

Maxime and I talked back and forth about what to do with the information here and we decided to leave writing a more in-depth, fuller article on these clippings and this subject to him. Make sure and check out Maxime’s own fascinating blog which has covered and I’m sure will cover some of the issues raised above.

For starters, please check out the quotes and corresponding articles below:

A fencing and kendo demonstration with Mark Twain in attendance, New York, 1893:

“Dueling swords were now in order… the bouts ended with a side-splitting scrimmage with Japanese singlesticks between Mr. Charles Tatham and the samurai Shilo Sacaze (sic) of Nagasaki. This epic combat showed the samurai extremely quick and clever with the peculiar bamboo stick of his native land. His odd movements and loud shouts delighted the audience with screams of laughter and applause when the samurai closed with Mr. Tatham and began to wrestle with him on the stage.”

– The New York Times, November 21, 1893 (full article)

The Japanese fencing club “Sunrise” in Honolulu, 1896:

“By way of introduction the combatants removed their kimonos and donned loose skirts and a helmet with strong iron bars across the face. Then they sheathed their bodies with stiff bamboo breastplates. Heavily padded gloves with gauntlets finished the costume. The “short sticks” are about five feet long, and are made of several pieces of bamboo fastened together. There seemed to be no call of “time” by a referee. The men stepped to the center of the room and saluted each other by a motion of the arm, and then one uttered a guttural sound signifying his unwillingness to begin the fray and they crossed sticks, the point of each being held on a level with the neck and the handle grasped with both hands. Yajimai led, and throughout the bought was acting on the offensive, while Karikawa braced himself so as to resist and ward off any blow that might be directed toward him. Once he was thoughtless. Yajimai gave him a crack on the helmet that resounded throughout the room. All the time the men were fencing they were shouting as if warning each other to look out for what might be coming.”

– Kentucky new era, 1896 (full article)

A Japanese fencing club for ex-pats (the picture at the top of this article is from this piece) from 1897:

“Everywhere in Japan since the late war they are teaching this fencing. The clubs are formed throughout Japan and they teach it in all boys’ schools. It is not merely for sport. During the late war with China the government found that it would be necessary for the people to understand how to use a sword. Japan cannot keep a standing army of any size, so her subjects have to be trained.”

– San Francisco 1897 (full article)

Annapolis 1906:

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The quote at the start of the article matches the pictures here.

– Omaha Daily Bee, 1906 (full article).

Eikenkai December 2013

Yesterday the last Eikenkai session of the year was held in the usual place: Sumiyoshi Budokan. Although it was a little bit chilly, the weather was fantastic, so spirits were high and the practise was dynamic! In attendance were 17 kenshi, mostly from around the Kansai area but we were visited by two friends from Nagoya as well.

Keiko was the usual pattern: 45 minutes of kihon, 30 minutes of waza practise, and about 45 minutes of jigeiko. After keiko we changed and retired to the local okonimyaki restaurant for food, beers, and chat.

The next session will be on the 23rd of February 2014. If you are in town, please consider getting in touch and joining us.

Check out this link for more information about Eikenkai, what you need to know before joining us, and to see next years schedule. Cheers!!

Leather Tsuba 皮鍔

A few months ago I was roaming around the internet looking for some interesting stuff and by accident I landed on the facebook page of a gentleman that hand makes tsuba – mainly for bokuto, but also for shinai. I love this sort of handmade product and posted a link on the kenshi 24/7 page. Immediately people began to like the link so I knew that I was not alone in enjoying such craftsmanship.

Fast forward a couple of months and I found myself looking at the page a few more times and getting more intrigued by the tsuba. I wanted one for myself! I got directly in touch with the craftsman – Tom Bengston – and inquired more into his work. After some chat, Tom kindly sent me a couple of his kendo leather tsuba for review – one in antique tan, and another in dark brown.

Review (kendo tsuba)

When I placed my order I asked for just a plain shinai tsuba – if you have a look on the website you can see that you can customise tsuba with either kamon or writing. The only other information I supplied was the diameter of the hole. Less than 10 days later the tsuba arrived safely here in Osaka.

The first thing I noticed when I opened the package was the thickness of the tsuba and the gorgeous colour of both… especially of the antique tan one. I realised that in 20 years of kendo practise I’d never set my eyes on a “beautiful” tsuba before!! These leather tsuba really are quite unique.

Despite the thickness mentioned above (required for durability), the tsuba are quite light. I’ve only been using them for a few days now, but I suspect that the tsuba will easily last a long time… in fact, I can’t imagine them breaking, ripping, tearing, or otherwise being damaged during kendo practise.

One concern that immediately came to mind was if it was illegal to use this type of tsuba in shiai. I’m not sure of the answer, but I can’t imagine they would be disallowed. Even if that were the case, there would be absolutely nothing to stop you from using them in your daily keiko.


For me this is a no-brainer: if you want a durable and unique tsuba for your shinai, these are great. I think they make awesome gifts as well, perhaps as a thank you to a sensei or a grading congratulations for friends. Everyone I’ve shown them to here in Japan love them.

More than anything, however, there is something personally satisfying in having and using a unique handcrafted product.

(I haven’t seen the bokuto tsuba but I assume that they are finished the same high standard.)

Check out and order Leather Tsuba’s work at the following places:

Facebook page

Note that the shop closes Dec 18th and re-opens January the 2nd.

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.