Kendo photography

I started taking kendo pics back around 2003-4 with a small point and shoot camera and, after a few iterations of pretty low-end cameras, have settled on reasonably cost effective setup that allows me to take pics in a variety of situations, both for pleasure and images for use on this website. Since I get a lot more likes on pictures than articles on facebook, and because a lot of people ask me about the equipment I use, I thought I’d share my current setup as well as some sample images over the last 10 years using a variety of (mostly very) cheap cameras. Putting this post together has also allowed me to look to see how my technique has (or has not) matured over this time.

Basically, my current setup is as follows –

Digital: Sony Nex 5n (kit lenses 16mm/2.8 and 18-55/3.5-5.6; also use a nikon lens adapter)
Film: Nikon FM2n (primarily Nikkor 50mm/1.8; still experimenting with films; negatives self-scanned)
Mobile: iPhone 5 (instagram and/or KitCam for processing)

Nothing special nor professional, and nothing too expensive!

Please note that all photos are copyright yours truly. Downloading for use as desktop wallpaper is cool, but no unauthorised commercial use please. Cheers!

2003-7 Casio ExSlim-z40


2007-8 Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30

2007 February. Panasonic Lumix.


2008-11 Nikon D40





2011+ Sony Nex5n





2012+ Nikon FM2n




2012 Point-and-shoot test with a Nikon Coolpix P310 (i.e. can I pull some decent images from a point and shoot?)


In my experience…

For me, personally, a good kendo picture is about timing and location rather than the sharpness or quality of the image produced.

As you might have noticed in the above selection, all the kenshi are in kamae or are watching/waiting rather than actually striking. With the nex5, I can easily put the shooting mode on continuous and take a burst of 10 shots/second.. in fact, I had great fun doing exactly that when I got the camera at first. Wading through the hundreds of images I would produce per fight, I could easily find 1 or 2 of clear strikes. However, the whole thing became old and rather boring quickly. Not to mention the hassle involved. Looking at the pictures I produced I also realised that I preferred to see my pictures showing ‘semeai’ or to catch the kenshi in a moment of reflection (catching facial features can be hard). Of course, I do like to take the odd ‘exact strike’ shot, but when I am doing that I stand in kamae with my camera, and take the shot as if it is a debana-men… !

Location, also, I think is vitally important. For me, kendo has to be done in a dojo. There nothing worse (for me) than seeing kendo photography done on a colour-lined basketball court or something similar. I realise that this isn’t always possible to avoid (I take pics like this as well, though I don’t like to), especially for kenshi247 readers abroad without a ‘real’ dojo. My access to a variety of dojo is probably my only advantage over other camera-loving kendo friends abroad. A way to get around this of course, is to bokeh the background out.

There are a few other things I could chat about here, but nothing extraordinary – my kendo-photography philosophy is pretty simple… just like my kendo style!

Other pics from yours truly can be seen on:

my public kendo photo album on facebook

Also check out the flickr ART OF KENDO group for brilliant kendo pics from around the world.

Kendo kotoba 剣道言葉

Kendo kotoba

I wandered into the dojo a week or so back, and overnight my sensei had written and taped some kendo-specific kanji to the wall (see picture above).

The terms are very commonly used when talking about or describing kendo, but I thought I’d use this this opportunity to go over them here. As an added bonus, his handwriting is beautiful – enjoy!

For each term I will present the ‘official’ translations available from the Japanese-English dictionary of kendo where available (italicised), then supplement my own additions after that. The final version of my additions became somewhat larger than I intended, sorry!

The descriptions of the words are written below as the appear on the picture from top-bottom and right-left (the traditional direction of Japanese writing). Pay careful attention to the order that the vocabulary are presented in, as its not random.


The act of vocalising. The act of shouting at the opponent when facing each other. The act of shouting kote, men, do, when striking.

KIAI (気合)

The state where one is fully focused on the opponents move and one’s planned moves. Also, it refers to the vocalisations one produced when in such a state of mind.

The words hassei, kiai, and (not mentioned above) kakegoe, are three – at times – overlapping and interrelated words that we in the English kendo community commonly package (mistakenly) into single word: kiai. Why is this mistaken? Basically, kiai refers to a feeling of focus and determination, an internal will or drive to do something (e.g. desire to pass an exam, determination to ask a girl you like out on a date, etc). Sometimes (though not always) this is expressed vocally as a shout. We are in the habit of calling this kiai, but its probably more correctly termed kagekoe. Hassei is the act of doing kakegoe.


The strength of spirit to face any situation. Also called ki-gai. A strong mind capable of responding properly to a pressing matter or an attacking opponent.

To express kihaku in your kendo you would stand up and face your opponent without wavering. A power, both mental and physical, with which you face adversary. If your kendo lacks kihaku, its empty.

KI O KOROSU (気を殺す)

An important teaching concerning three ways to overwhelm an opponent. The three ways are ‘killing the ki (spirit),’ ‘killing the sword,’ and ‘killing the waza.’ Killing the ki means that one’s ki overwhelms the opponents ki, thereby forestalling his/her attack. Killing the sword means that one controls the movement of the tip of the opponent’s sword by restraining or deflecting the sword. Killing the waza means that one anticipates the opponent, giving him/her no chance to attack.

The order of the terms in the ‘official’ description above is misleading, and the descriptions simplified. The order that my sensei wrote it shows a flow of progression to maturity. When kenshi are in an immature stage they tend to attack their opponents by hitting their sword away, pushing and/or slapping it up or down, left and right, and jumping suddenly in to attack. As they become more experienced they start luring in the opponents attack and defeating them as they attempt to strike. The final stage of this progression, of the truly mature kenshi, is when they are able to overwhelm and control their opponent through mental power alone. It sounds a little bit fantastic but, as any experienced kenshi knows, it happens.

SEME (攻め)

To take the initiative to close the distance with the opponent in full spirit. This puts the opponent off balance mentally and physically and prevents him/her from moving freely. This enables one to maintain a constant advantage over the opponent. In kendo its important to intentionally attack and strike, not to just strike by chance. The back and forth action of offense and defense involved in seme (attacks) and seme-kaesu (counterattacks) not only improves the skill of both players but also develops their minds and bodies. All of this leads to the mutual self-creation of both people and to the building of human character.

Here, my sensei has broken the act of seme into three parts. Seme-komu is the act of driving in for the attack. This can be in a physical or mental sense. Seme-kiru is the act of finalisation of the strike, and Seme-katsu refers to victory as consequence of the attack. Seme is not something singular but, rather, has its own progression. Seme without seme-kiru or seme-katsu leads to nothing.

KOKYU (呼吸)

The act of inhaling and exhaling. In kendo this term also means to predict the opponent’s movement and adjust one’s moves accordingly as part of the interaction with the opponent.

KI (気)

The basic energy which exists in all matter that is born, develops, and dies. In human beings, it is the source of the kinetic energy responsible for perception, sensation, and instinct. In kendo, it refers to the environment surrounding one’s self and one’s opponent, and it is the basic energy in making the functioning of one’s body and mind full and harmonious.

Breathing is taught little in modern kendo circles nowadays, mainly because even some of the most senior teachers aren’t schooled in the traditional breathing methods. AUN NO KOKYU is usually mentioned at this juncture. It is a method usually associated with zen meditation (and sometimes yoga) which refers to not only breathing, but a sort of mental harmony between you and your partner, with the goal being a unification with the entirety of existence.

Looking at the description of kokyu and ki above, you can see that kokyu’s function is to tap into ki. This results in gaining access to all the energy in the universe, becoming one with it. In other words, kendo is simply a physical activity (any activity would actually do) who’s purpose is to unite you with the universe. Your partner helps you with this… they are not the enemy, and winning/losing are irrelevant. Kendo’s final goal is revealed through kokyu.


Simply tapping or hitting your opponents armour is not good enough for ippon. It has to be a strong strike with good tenouchi. It should be strong enough that your opponent (and any watching shinpan or grading panel) can acknowledge the strike, but not so hard or heavy to cause injury or pain. The strike must be deliberate and definite.


The body posture and state of mind in which, even after striking, one is alert and ready to respond instantly to any counterattack by the opponent. Generally speaking, after striking one should put the proper distance between one’s self and the opponent and face him/her in the chudan posture in order to be ready for a possible counterattack. If one cannot move the proper distance from the opponent, one should put the tip of one’s shinai in the center or around the throat of the opponent to guard against a counterattack.

Zanshin is often mistakenly taken to be simply a physical state, as suggested in the description above. It also tends to be thought of something that comes after a strike. In actual fact, zanshin should exist in your kendo at all times, right from when you face your opponent and bow (ritsurei) until you finish. I might even go as far as to say that you should aim to be ‘switched on’ and aware at all times, whether that is in the dojo – you see a student looking tired and like they are about to collapse and make them sit out – or at the bar after keiko – you see your sempai is about to finish his beer and you quickly order the next one.

Minus the extra information I added in my additions, you can see that there is a logical progression from Hassei (kakegoe/kiai) through to Zanshin in the kanji shown above, from your first shout, through to pressure, attacking, and finally zanshin.

What we have described here then is, in the end, the act of hitting an ippon. I hope this extended definition of kendo terms is useful!!!

Ken-mi-fu-i (剣身不異)

One of my favourite sensei is also an artist. He not only paints but has amazingly beautiful writing as well. Being 85 I guess he’s had lots of practise!! One of the things he does every year is paint something for hanging in the dojo, themed by whatever the current years (Chinese) zodiac is. Along with the animal (sometimes wearing bogu or holding shinai) he writes something inspiring in the picture. Some are his own thoughts, others are inspired by kendo’s traditional pedagogy. For the whole year we practise in the dojo the painting hangs there silently reminding us of its teachings.

Every year I am excited to see what my sensei will create, and every year I am never disappointed. Quite a few times i’ve thought about introducing his paintings on but somehow never got around to it. This years painting, however, really struck me. I thinks its a combination of the haunting snake and the beautiful kanji. I sat down with my teacher and chatted to him about it. He said that when painting a snake you have to be bold. He also told me more about the words written on the side and where they came from. Here I would like to introduce to you not only the painting, but the words written.

The explanation of the term KEN-MI-FU-I is taken from the Itto-ryu gokui, a large collection of itto-ryu material produced by Sasamori Junzo, the 17th soke of Ono-ha Itto-ryu, the kenjutsu style that had the largest impact on the development of modern kendo.



When you take a sword in your hand and face the enemy there can be no disconnection between your sword and body. Your sword and body should become one: your body must become full of your sword (ken-chu-no-tai), and your sword full of your body (tai-chu-no-ken). Cutting something is not done only by the workings of your hands – moving your body filled with the spirit of your sword, utilising your sword in possession of your body, then with your body as the principal factor and your sword in the center (chushin), you will finally be able to start cutting properly with your sword. If your body and sword act in one like this at all times then there will be no opening (suki) for the enemy to attack. This is whats meant by KEN-MI-FU-I.

The heart/spirit of someone with this body is the instrument that controls the sword. This heart controls the body which governs the sword. This secret teaching is called KEN-SHIN-FU-I.

After many many years of practising, your sword, body, and spirit become one, and if you continue in this oneness towards a state of nothingness you will naturally shine with the brilliance of a treasured sword, and you will be invincible.

This is the revelation Ittosai had, and that he passed down in the teachings of itto-ryu through his students as KEN-MI-FU-I.

In other words: your sword and your body must become as one, a familiar teaching for all kendo practitioners nowadays, usually taught as kikentai-no-ichi.

Check out a handful of my teachers other kendo-inspired paintings here:

一刀流極意。笹森 順造。

Looking back

Happy 2013! For the first post of the new year I spent some time looking back af old kendo pictures, some from books, others that I picked up randomly on the web. I really enjoy looking at these old pics so I’d like to present a handful of them here (the earliest picture is from 1906). Its good to see and reflect on what changes there has been to kendo over the past century or so, as well as whats stayed more-or-less the same.

If kenshi247 readers have any high quality kendo pics from before WWII and are willing to share, please get in touch!