Many many moons ago, straight after graduating university, I uprooted and moved to America. I had started kendo only a couple of years earlier and, after taking some time to settle down, I eventually joined Ken-Zen dojo in NYC. There I found myself in great environment with awesome teachers and – for the first time in my life – a proper dojo. Before iaido and kendo keiko on Saturdays there was also kenjutsu being taught, something I knew absolutely nothing about… and so, after some persuasion and with recommendations from some of the kendo and iaido sensei, I was given permission to join. The kenjutsu was Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, and the teachers were the soon-to-be headmaster of the style, and Meik Skoss. The stars had aligned!
Highly inexperienced in kendo, and a complete beginner in iaido and kenjutsu, I flailed around doing the best I could to learn what I could. The time I spent in this lucky jumble was actually only about two years in total, but a number of the experiences or realisations I had at that time have greatly influenced my entire kendo career to this day. In particular, it was in this period that my desire to understand more about the history behind the arts as well as to seek continuity between them started in earnest. Where did these arts come from exactly? How did they come to take their current forms? Who were the people that influenced their evolution? What are their common threads? etc.
At that time I could speak no Japanese, and therefore had no access into the vast resources available in that language, so was left scrambling and scraping at the at times abysmal resources in English. Remember, this was in the mid-90s, before the internet had really started to take off… a dark age I’m sure some of the younger kenshi 24/7 readers can’t even fathom!
Amazingly, however, in amongst all the dodgy budo books that were out there, there actually was a translation about the very style of kenjutsu I was studying: The Sword and the Mind, which was mainly a translation of the Yagyu Munenori’s “Hyoho Kadensho,” a book concerning the Yagyu family tradition of swordsmanship.
A slim book, I read it quickly, but being rather vague I was left with more questions than answers. There was one phrase right at the start of the book that really caught my interest however. It said:
You should make a shield of your own fists
(Note that this is the phrase from a different version of the translation than linked above as I don’t have that particular copy at hand)
This simple sentence has stuck with me for years, and is the basis for todays post.
Position and functions of the hands in kamae
The phrase above was input into my young and impressionable head very early in my kendo career and has, over the years, become a consistent theme throughout my kendo and koryu study. My understanding of the phrase didn’t happen overnight, and its meaning has evolved after coming across kendo-specific teachings related to the placement of the fists, use of the hands, and also as my kendo has matured. Lets see if I can verbalise my ideas here.
1. Settling of the left hand (左手の収まり)
In kendo I have been taught directly and have read about the importance of positioning the left hand correctly. “Correctly” of course means “correct to you,” so where exactly your left hand sits depends on the length of your arms, trunk, and legs.
Finding a comfortable distance between your left fist and your body is also something that should be worked on. Many kendo teachers say that the fist should be between one and maybe two fists distant in front of your body, but this is only a general rule. I think it’s probably better to have your left fist out more than jamming it in close to your body.
It may take some time and experimentation to discover exactly where is right for you (and certainly the position will evolve as your kendo matures) but once you have “got it” you should attempt to keep your left hand from moving too much from that position during keiko. Of course, it has to move when executing certain waza, but thats ok.
btw, it’s my opinion that this settling in of the left hand also goes for jodan as well.
2. Left hand for protection (守れ手)
Based on our discussion thus far you can see then why many senior sensei frown when (almost always younger but unfortunately not always inexperienced) kenshi do this:
Yes, the infamous sanpomamori (the jumping is a no-no as well btw). On the face of it the shape is quite defensive, but if you aim to acquire good-styled kendo then you’d best avoid this and learn how to defend against attacks by keeping your left hand mostly where it is. I’m actually quite pedantic on this matter, but thats because none of the hachidan or nanadan sensei whose kendo I respect ever do this.
Learning how to defend by keeping your left hand in the centre can take some time, because it’s usually easier to block by simply raising your hands up as shown above. The main reasons you want to learn how to defend with your left hand is for economy of movement and ease of counterattack. Unfortunately it’s not something usually taught within basic practise (I am guilty of barely teaching it) which is probably why many people end up reacting instinctively by moving their hands up or going into wind-wiper mode.
If you are not sure how to defend yourself in this manner, now is your excuse to start experimenting!
3. Right hand for threatening (攻め手)
This final point might be the most difficult to make sense of because the trend over the past few decades has seen the kendo kamae “straighten” up much more than had been the norm before. Anyone that has spent time in Japan doing kendo at various places already knows that many older sensei have a more “open” kamae, for example please look at Ono and Nakakura sensei’s (both hanshi 9th dan) kamae:
Of course, not everyone’s kamae was like this, but it certainly wasn’t as uncommon as it sometimes seems nowadays. A few years ago I briefly discussed it and intimated that this was the norm until quite recently.
Anyway, for today’s discussion the point is that (bear with me!) using the right hand to pressure the opponent is much more easily done when your kamae is more open than straight. From this open kamae you can push down and on top of your opponents shinai without compromising your left hand position (i.e. allowing it to go outside of your body width). Needless to say, your this type of seme makes it easier for your shinai tip to seem more “alive,” which hopefully causes your opponent to think twice before launching an attack.
If this doesn’t make sense, don’t worry, I understand why not. It’s best if you meet me in person for a demonstration!
(btw, the seme from the right hand works in combination with that from the right foot (攻め足), but that’s a story for a different post)
Put together, the three things I have mentioned above form, what I conceive of as, a conceptual “shield” against the enemies attacks:
- Fists out in front of the body
- Left hand-as-protection
- Right hand for threatening
The further your fists are settled out in front of your body and the more you keep your left hand in its position no matter what, the easier it will be for you to defend against attacks, the more difficult it will be for you to be struck, and the easier it becomes to counterattack (the possibility of which is also defensive). The constant threat from your right hand also serves to instil doubt in your opponents mind, which is a kind of psychological defence.
This combination, then, is your “shield.”
The Sword and the Mind. Yagyu Munenori (trans. Sato Hiroaki). 1988.
The Life Giving Sword. Yagyu Munenori (trans. William Scott Wilson). Kodansha Int., 2003.