gradings kendo

Shinsa – things to think about

The following is a translation of three very short pieces by Sakuma Saburo hanshi on the subject of gradings. Obviously there is some overlap between the articles. I don’t know about you, but I personally hate gradings and need all the advice I can get !!

Things to be careful about in gradings

1. Improve your posture
In other-words, ensure that you learn kendo-no-kata thoroughly.

2. Kiai with a loud voice
This serves not only to rouse your own spirit but intimidate your opponent.

If I were to give an example from my past, there was a time I went on a 10-day gasshuku. By the 3rd keiko of the day my voice would be hoarse and dry and I couldn’t kiai anymore. Around about the 5th day my voice started to survive even the 3rd keiko session. Going through this pattern over-and-over you will finally develop a loud and sharp kiai that resonates in your opponents stomach.

3. Attack with abandon (fervour)
“Now!!!” – the very instant you think you see an opening for attack you should attack with full abandon irregardless of what your opponent may attempt to do to you or your shinai.

If your strike doesn’t land then you should – in the same breath as your first attack – continue striking over-and-over until a valid yuko-datotsu is struck.

To develop a nimble and flexible kendo style (so you can do the above) you should do intense kakarigeiko with your sensei or sempai (of about 50 seconds to a minute)

4. Express zanshin
If you think you have struck a valid yuko-datotsu then take an appropriate distance and express your confidence in that strike.

5. Only do keiko with people better than you
Never do kendo with people of lesser ability than yourself.

If you are currently practising with the intent of taking a kendo exam then you have to be a little selfish and decline doing keiko with those that aren’t at your level. If you do kendo with these people then your focus will relax and your level will drop. If for whatever reason you can’t refuse, use the keiko as a chance to practise your techniques.

Against a more senior opponent, first fight for the first strike (shotachi). After that is over continually attack them until the keiko is finished. At that time, be sure and get advice from them.

6. Acquire various techniques
Do lots of kihon and oji-waza practise. You will face many kenshi who have many different styles of kendo. It’s important that you learn enough techniques so that you can deal with any style of kenshi that you face (i.e. have a large repertoire of techniques which you can select and apply appropriately depending on your opponents style).

Ten points on gradings

  1. Sink slowly and composed into sonkyo. Resolve yourself to feeling “When I stand up I’m going to strike the instant you move (debana).” Stand up deliberately with this in mind.
  2. From the pit of your stomach kiai so as to rouse your spirit and intimidate your opponents.
  3. It doesn’t matter what happens during the shiai, never move back.
  4. Don’t attack recklessly – aim for debana.
  5. If your attack isn’t successful don’t stop and rest – continue striking until you land a valid yuko-datotsu.
  6. If you think your strike is successful take an appropriate distance, ensure that the extension of your kensen is aimed towards your opponents throat, and express zanshin.
  7. Aim for ai-uichi, that is, strike at a hairs-breadth before your opponent.
  8. Get out of tsubazeriai quickly.
  9. Don’t face your back towards the examiners.
  10. After doing the final bow move backwards 3 steps before leaving the area.

About kendo gradings

Some people think that gradings should be approached in a special manner, but I believe that you should just do your normal kendo, nothing special. Just do what you have been taught by your sensei and sempai.

Here are things that you should be doing as a matter of course:

  1. Wear your uniform correctly.
  2. Act respectfully (i.e. proper emphasis on reigi).
  3. Fight energetically and with a strong spirit.

Here are some extra points worthy of note

Don’t just attack men

Some teachers say “Strike men, strike men… who cares about dou etc.” but following this advice can make it difficult for you to pass.

Strike gyaku-do

There are people that don’t strike gyaku-dou even when it is wide-open. Left and right dou hold the same value in kendo.

In competitions sometimes shinpan haven’t read the rule book carefully on this point (and thats why they don’t award it and hence why people don’t do it in gradings). Some people, however, end up hitting the floor after striking gyaku-dou, that shouldn’t be considered ippon.

Sometimes I see people strike ai-uchi and then they turn and look at each other as if they are mutually resting… I have no idea why they do this

If your opponent seems to be resting, strike him immediately. If the distance is relatively close people tend just to strike men, but at such a distance it’s simple to defend against. At this time you should tsuki your opponent back, breaking their posture, then strike.

Half-baked strikes are minus points

Don’t strike randomly.

People often lose (fail) because their movements become ‘stuck’ or their kensen is often off-centre.


About the author

Sakuma Saburo was born in Fukushima prefecture in 1912 and started kendo in primary school. Before the war he taught kendo in various places. After the war he trained under Mochida Moriji at the Mitsubishi dojo before opening his own. He held a senior position in the Tokyo kendo renmei. He passed away at the age of 84 in 1997.



By George

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6 replies on “Shinsa – things to think about”

Thanks for this post. My next grading is over a year away, but I’m already mulling all this stuff over in my mind. I’m bookmarking this particle article to come back to from time to time.

Thanks for the positive comments. Remember that these are translations of notes… I’m not sure when they were originally written down… so it’s possible that some things are not as relevant now as they were then.

Howard, please refer to my comment above.

I think the culture of kendo has changed over the years so although there are no ‘rules’ against some things, we tend not to do them because we are told so. Easy examples are gyaku-dou, hiki-waza, tsuki…. grayer areas include what colour of tenugui you are meant to wear and maybe the quality of bogu you have to use.

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