Sword of the virtuous, sword of the inferior 君子剣、小人剣

Almost straight away after graduating university back in 1996 I moved to the east coast of America and began working in the I.T. industry. I’d already started kendo a couple of years before and wanted to continue while I was over there. It took a while for work to settle down and to find a dojo (at that time kendo was not nearly as popular as it is now), but when I did get back into it I was lucky enough to become a member of Ken-Zen dojo in NYC. Different dojo do things differently and this dojo required that we say some Japanese out loud before keiko began. Not speaking Japanese at the time, I just had to memorise it as best I could:

Ken to wa kokoro nari.
Koroko tadashi kereba sono ken tadashi.
Kokoro tadashi karazareba sono ken mo mata tadashi karazu.
Ken wo manaban to suru mono wa subekaraku sono kokoro wo manabe

This is of course the well known saying by renowned late Edo-era Jikishinkage-ryu kenshi Shimada Toranosuke (1814-52). It translates as:

The sword is the mind.
When the mind is right, the sword it right.
When the mind is not right, the sword is also not right.
He who wishes to study kendo, must first study his mind.

Today in 2014, 200 years after Shimada’s birth, I think this still resonates with a lot of modern kendoka… or at least it does with me. I was happy, then, to find another quote from Shimada a while back, and I’d like to present a translation of it for kenshi 24/7 readers today:



There are two contrasting types of people (kendo practitioners) nowadays. The first looks for an opening before pressing forward and striking or, sensing an impending attack, steps back and defends. When calm, he stands like the mountain; when moving quickly, he does so like the wind or rain. This type of person neither celebrates victory nor gets angry at defeat. He learns from those stronger than him by following their example, and educates those less skilled than himself. This type of kendo is called “the sword of the virtuous.”

The second type of person arrogantly runs in to attack with a great shout. He feels joy in victory and annoyance in defeat, and his attacks are wild and without reason. This type of kendo is called “the sword of the inferior.”

Personally, like the “ken to wa kokoro nari” I learned almost 20 years ago, I find that this exemplifies simply the type of kendo I want to do ( = the type of person I want to be).

Virtuous vs Inferior

In kanji, the “virtuous” referred to above is 君子 (kunshi) and it’s opposite (“inferior”) is 小人 (shojin). A man (or woman) who is “kunshi” is one of virtue, someone who is just, moral, dignified, and cultivated. The opposite of this is morally suspect (or even bankrupt), carries themselves in an undignified way, lacks culture, acts unjustly, etc, that is, (comparatively) an inferior person.

A few years ago I was given a t-shirt from a kendo friend in China, the back of which reads “kunshi no michi”:


In a way I feel we have come about circle: “ken no michi” (the way of the sword, i.e. kendo) is the same as “kunshi no michi” (the path of virtue). I say same, but in reality kendo shugyo is just a device that helps orientate people onto or towards a virtuous path. “Help” here is the key word as many people choose not to do kendo with these things in mind. Anyway, you don’t have to believe me, instead re-read the kendo no rinen (the concept of kendo):

The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Katana (sword).

Eikenkai Edinburgh – August 2014 3rd Eikenkai seminar in Scotland - August 2nd and 3rd

Returning home to Scotland this summer I took some time out from my busy schedule and taught a small kihon-based seminar similar to how I run the Eikenkai sessions here in Osaka. The event was hosted by my home dojo, Edinburgh Kendo Club. Led by Edinburgh University’s Head of Strength & Conditioning Steve Bishop sensei, Edinburgh Kendo Club is one of the largest dojo in the U.K.

It’s the third time I’ve done the this (the first was in 2010, the second in 2012) and the format was mostly similar: a double session on Saturday then a morning session on Sunday. The focus on Saturday was on the traditional kendo pedagogy: kirikaeshi, uchikomigeiko, and kakarigeiko. On Sunday we did a short (but exhausting!) review of this followed by an introduction to Takano Sasaburo’s Gogyo-no-kata, including the history behind it and it’s relation to the kata we study today as part of kendo.

Before, in-between, and after the weekend I had plenty of chances to sit down over beer and discuss kendo with friends (new and old) and had a great time. I hope I don’t have to wait 2 years to see everyone again !!!

Summer break 里帰り

Just a quick status update – yours truly will be going home to Scotland for 3 weeks over the summer (from Tuesday!) so there will be a break in the regular posting schedule and facebook updates… apologies!! I did intend to write another post this week, but I ended up doing loads of keiko (14 sessions) so I ended up with no time. Oops!

If you are starved for kendo reading during this time don’t worry: we have 7 years of archives and have published a bunch of quality kendo books (available in print or digital). Hopefully there is enough reading here to keep even the most voracious reader occupied!!

Also, if you happen to be in Edinburgh on the 2nd and 3rd of August please feel free to come to the 3rd Eikenkai Edinburgh Kendo Kihon Seminar run by yours truly.

Have a good summer and remember to hydrate before, during, and after keiko!

Tenouchi (revisited) 手の内(改めて)

Last week I published a loose translation about tenouchi which was quite popular. However, when I was reading the original piece, and again whilst I was translating it, I was struck by the sheer detail of description and it made me uneasy. Now, I know that many people like to read quite detailed descriptions about techniques and what not (and I’ve translated my fair share of them for kenshi 24/7), but I am generally not one of them. In fact, when it comes to things such as tenouchi and fumikomi (for example) I think that overly detailed descriptions are almost useless (for the majority of practitioners that is).

As someone who coaches students on a day to day basis, how then do I teach something like tenouchi?

It’s simple: I don’t… (at least, not in the manner of the last article).


The first thing I do is to show students how to hold the bokuto/shinai in their hands. I basically say:

“Hold your hands in this way . Grip tightly with the bottom fingers and leave the others loose.” And that’s it.

From then on I’ll just ensure that they aren’t pinching with their thumb+forefinger and that there is some looseness around that area. Making unnatural shapes with their hands is also a no-no (people coming from an iaido background will often make affected shapes with their hands): “hold the shinai naturally.”


The next step for beginners is lots of suburi. I focus almost on extending the arms (more so the left) and cutting down to around chin level (on men strikes). I emphasis a sharp downward strike with hikitsuke.

That’s it. I don’t teach any squeezing of anything: “just swing up and down naturally” I say, “don’t think too much.”

Striking (simple)

The next step is to actually hit something. Usually this is a partners shinai, but it could be a tyre or some sort of uchikomidai. Here the emphasis is almost completely on relaxing the hands after striking: “after the cut relax the tension in your shoulders and hands.”

Kirikaeshi: the secret ingredient

What I do now is simple: have the students do loads of receiving-on-the-men-kirikaeshi everyday for the first few months. In the beginning this can simply be shomen (cut 1 shomen, then do 4 shomen forward, 5 back, repeat) and/or yokomen type (cut 1 shomen, then do 9 yokomen, repeat).

“Slowly and carefully cut large, cut round, and cut strongly” is the mantra I use. The only thing I warn students about here is rebounding up after a strike: “after hitting relax and leave the shinai where it is.”

Stepping back

Now all I do is step back, keep quiet, and let kirikaeshi do it’s job: the students will work it out for themselves naturally without prompting.

The next step

After this the next step is doing the normal type of kirikaeshi plus moving onto normal kihon practice. By this stage many of my beginner students will have pretty good tenouchi and I don’t need to interfere much at all. Great! It is now their responsibility to ensure that they are using their hands correctly across multiple different kinds of techniques (tsuki being the one where many struggle).

Note that I always start every session with multiple receiving-on-the-men-kirikaeshi, partly as a way of checking tenouchi before moving on to other techniques.

The instructors main role: striking and being struck

The best way to teach a student about tenouchi, however, is to strike them correctly. In the same vein, the only way to get feedback on a students tenouchi is to be struck by them. If their tenouchi doesn’t “feel right” I tell them so and tell them to work more on it (I don’t bother going into minute analysis).

As far as I am concerned, then, striking and being struck is the most important way to develop tenouchi, if not the only way (obviously repetition and time is required). It’s also faster than overly verbose instruction.

… and that’s my secret to developing good tenouchi in a nutshell (assuming you were actually interested in the first place!!).

Tenouchi 手の内

The following is a liberal translation of the teachings of Shimatani Yasohachi sensei as told by one of his students. Probably you have never heard this particular sensei’s name before, I hadn’t until quite recently. I had, however, seen his picture very many times, often beside the creators/influencers of the modern kendo style. I was very happy then, when I was at a friends place and randomly picked up a not-for-sale, self published book, and found that it was all about him.

In the picture above Shimatani is the bearded gentlemen at the back left. To the right is Nakano Sosuke. Seated at the front (l-r) is Ogawa Kinnosuke, Mochida Seiji, and Saimura Goro.

Shimatani Yasohachi: a very brief bio

1870: born in Kagoshima as the 4th son of a Satsuma-han samurai
1880: begins study of Jigen-ryu
1885 – 90: studies under the the Itto-ryu swordsman Sugi Jihachiro
1893: becomes a policeman in Nara prefecture
1887: joins the Butokukai
1899: becomes a police kenjutsu instructor in Nara
1905-6: enters the Butokukai’s Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo
1906: becomes the kenjutsu teacher at Nara Butokuden
1916: awarded kyoshi
1916-21: becomes teacher at Busen
1926: awarded hanshi
1929: takes part in the tenranjiai as both competitor (in selected professionals section) and shinpan (in non-professional section).
1933: part of the group set up to review kendo kata
1946: dies at 77.

In 1905 Shimatani is sent to the newly formed Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo (the precursor to Busen) to study kendo under the Hokushin Itto-ryu kenshi Naito Takaharu and Monna Tadashi. At 35 years old (depending on some sources he was 38) he was by far the oldest member of the group. The group consisted of such soon-to-be famed kenshi Saimura Goro (at 18 years old he was the youngest member), Nakano Sosuke and Nakajima Jikida, and would be joined a little bit after with the likes of Mochida Seiji, Ogawa Kinnosuke, Miyazaki Mosaburo, Oasa Yuji, etc. The course lasted from 1 to 3 years depending on the ability of the student. Naito graduated Shimatani in only a year, awarding him a Butokukai teaching grade of 3rd dan.

Please note that the following translation is not literal nor full, rather it’s liberal and abridged. It is Shimatani’s teachings as described by one of his students and interpreted by me. Pictures are from the source.

“Hold the shinai loosely let correctly” – although it sounds easy it’s actually very difficult to master. For example, what in fact does “correct” mean?

When talking about “tenouchi” we often say “grip like squeezing a tenugui” however most people squeeze too powerfully resulting in their hands turning in too much causing tension in the arms and shoulders. Gripping with the pinky 1/2 off the handle might make thrusting easier, but it disrupts the central axis of the shinai making striking difficult. Some people say that whilst gripping your thumb and forefinger should be in such a shape that you can balance a sake cup on them, but this results in the shinai titling inwards. And if you concentrate on a pulling and pushing action when striking you will just end up using too much right hand/arm power. Learning to strike a powerful and strong men ippon is indeed very difficult.

All of Shimatani sensei’s students were taught about tenouchi. You have to remember that when he started to learn kenjutsu (he first studied Jigen-ryu, but later also learned Asayama ichiden-ryu, and Itto-ryu) it wasn’t even 3 years after the end of the Satsuma rebellion – the sensei of that period all placed heavy emphasis on use of a real sword. Subsequently, the teachers of Shimatani’s era also placed like emphasis on using the shinai as you would a real sword, focusing specifically on tenouchi.


Grip depends a lot on the handle that you are using.

We can break it down into 3 types : tenouchi when during kamae, tenouchi when striking, and tenouchi after the strike.

A. How to grip the handle

1. Empty hands

Place your hands together. Keeping them there change your grip as it holding a sword/shinai. Your wrists should bend to form the same shape is the hiragana く shape and they should be twisted inwards. Move your right hand forward and left hand back as if you were going into chudan no kamae. Your thumb and forefingers should form a ring parallel with the floor and you should be able to balance a sake cup on them.

2. Squeezing (chakin shibori)

Holding a wet cloth (tenugui) bend all your fingers and grip it. Using your pinky, ring finger, middle finger, and thumb as a base, twist the cloth inside and wring it.

(Confusingly, wringing water from a towel is done differently in Japan!!!)

3. Finger placement

Rest the pinky of the left hand on the bottom knot of the tsukamaki (the leather, cotton, or silk binding on katana), the bit that sticks out. The sword should be held a little bit deeper than the base of the pinky. Your left hand should not be resting on top of your metal fixtures at the base of the handle. You should wring the handle with the pinky and ring finger, close your middle finger, and feel as if you are putting a little bit of pressure with the base of your thumb on the handle from above. Your thumb should be in a round shape and rest above the middle finger. The index finger is also round and rests lightly along side the thumb.

Your right hand should grip the sword as the left one and be about 1cm in distance from the tsuba. A little bit off the metal fixtures, but not fully.

Lightly put power into your pinky, ring, and middle fingers (of both hands).

3. Hold the blade at a right angle

The blade should go down the centre line of the body. The left hand wrist should be in a く shape. The blade must be held in the manner described above so it’s at a right angle to the grip. The hands should be gripped softly when in kamae.

The left hand grip should be as if you were holding a paper umbrella, and the right as if you holding a baby bird. That is, neither grip too strongly nor too lightly, but do so softly.

4. Gripping a shinai

When gripping a shinai do so with your wrists in the same く shape and make sure the shinai is held down the body’s centre line. The left hand should be placed at the very bottom of the handle with the pinky gripping a little bit from the bottom (a small part of the handle will jut out). The fingers should grip as described above, like you are holding a paper umbrella. The right hands wrist uses the く shape and should be placed directly on top of the handle. The palms of your hands should sit comfortably on the shinai and your grip soft.

I see a lot of people who place their fingers on top of the shinai, or pinch the handle with their thumb and forefinger. Strange tenouchi like this results in upper arm strength being employed.

B. The functions of tenouchi

1. Tenouchi when during kamae

You should grip correctly yet softly. In chudan no kamae the knuckle at the bottom of your left thumb should be pushed out a little bit from your navel, and the kensen should be on the centre line.

2. Tenouchi when striking (kiri-te)

Bending your left hand, move the sword up through the centre line of your body with the feeling of pushing back the kensen. The right hand follows the lefts action. When bringing the sword down to cut do so as if drawing a circle with the kensen. In that instant you should squeeze with the pinky, ring, and middle fingers, especially strongly with the pinkies of both hands. At this time the underarm muscles of both arms will be employed and, depending on the utilisation of the right hand’s pinky, the upper part of the right arm will be stretched straight. The left hand is the driving force, and the right gives direction and support.

Kiri-te (The instant of the cut): Squeezing both hands employ the push and pull action (right hand push, left hand pull). When you do this the wrists of both hands will extend straight. Immediately relax your hands to finish the cut. The quality of the “sae” (snap) of the cut is decided by the squeeze and release of the grip at this time.

3. Tenouchi after the strike

At the instant of striking the grip must be immediately relaxed. That is to say, you should immediately return both your grip and spiritual bearing to what they were before the strike, then move slowly – without a hint of carelessness – back into kamae.

Shimatani sensei used to emphasise this during large men practice: after striking you should relax and immediately allow your tsuba to come down to the level of the motodachi’s throat then, slowly and without losing concentration, step back into kamae.