The common meaning of ZANSHIN nowadays is exactly as the kanji suggest – 残心 – “remaining spirit.” In other words, once you have struck you have to remain aware of your opponent in case they attempt to strike you back and, if they do so, you should be in a position to counterattack. In modern kendo this usually (for men) takes the physical form of turning around, facing your opponent, and going into kamae after a strike. I’ll explain why this can be slightly odd behaviour further down.
Coincidently, Andy Fisher just recently made an excellent video describing and showing what zanshin is (how it’s supposed to be) today. He also clearly shows postures that can be described as “zanshin-less” (but that we commonly see in shiai, more on that below). His textbook description and demonstration is spot-on, saving me both time and effort! Specifically, please watch the video between 1:27-6:18:
Going back to our topic of discussing what “zanshin” is, did you know that there is an older, more classical, and almost unknown definition of the term? This is something I have puzzled over for years, but I have avoided introducing it on kenshi 24/7 because of both the potentially confusing nature of the definition, and (mainly) because it flies in the face of pretty much everyone’s idea of what “zanshin” is. A recent edition of the magazine Kendo Nippon mentioned it, re-fueling my thoughts on the matter and supplying the impetus to talk about it today.
So, what is this other definition?
Zanshin and Sutemi
Here we go:
“Zanshin is the consequence of striking with full spirit (without attempting to leave anything behind).”
In other words, ZANSHIN IS THE RESULT OF SUTEMI. If you do not attack with full spirit (sutemi), that is, if you try to force “zanshin” or try to keep something back, then not only will you not have any real zanshin, but your attack will be half-baked.
“If you imagine you have a cup full of water. In one swift motion you flick your wrist and the water flies out at speed. Looking in the cup you will see a little bit of water left. This is zanshin.”
By attacking with sutemi…
“… not only will you naturally be ready to face any counter-attack by the opponent but, in fact, no opening for your opponent to strike will appear.”
So, our two definitions might look different, they might even seem like they are saying the opposite thing, but the end result is more-or-less the same.
This definition, by the way, is from Itto-ryu kenjutsu.
Turning round and facing the opponent
In kendo shiai today flags go up and an ippon is awarded pretty much at the very instant the datotsubui is stuck (and even sometimes when it isn’t), and very often before the person who has struck has time to turn around to face his or her opponent. The “zanshin-less” postures shown in the video above are also seen more often than not. Both of these go against the very definition of what makes up a yuko-datotsu, as I discussed here back in 2010:
According the article linked and chart show above, you must show zanshin (via kigamae and migamae, or mental readiness and physical posture) before a strike becomes a valid ippon. The “zanshin” we are referring to at the moment is of-course our first definition, which is implicitly understood (for men) nowadays as turning around and returning to a ready kamae.
However, despite what the rules may state, zanshin in competition doesn’t really seem to be a part of deciding whether a strike is valid or not because, as we mentioned above, the flags often go up before there is a chance to express it. In jigeiko and gradings, however, things may be different depending on the level of kenshi sparring and which grade is being attempted.
Hang on a second, doesn’t something feel a bit contradictory or inconsistent with this situation? Sometimes we don’t need it but other times we do?
In this case, the awarding of a valid strike (particularly in shiai) without turning around and facing the opponent or by breaking posture and eye-contact, it is tempting to say that the “zanshin” being applied is that of our second definition… but since this definition is barely known anymore we can only conclude that the reality is that zanshin just doesn’t factor into the decision making process as much as we think it does, or perhaps as only an occasional afterthought.
Zanshin-less hikiage and yuko-datotsu
When did zanshin start to factor into yuko-datotsu anyway? The answer is 1982. Yup, you read that right. Zanshin as part of a valid strike is relatively new. Before this, none of the shiai rules mentioned zanshin, rather, they mentioned something you SHOULD NOT DO called “hikiage.”
The famed Busen instructor Ogawa Kinnosuke sensei wrote this in his 1937 book Teikoku Kendo Kyohon (The Kendo Textbook of Imperial Japan):
In a battle where one’s life is at stake, who can, I wonder, afford to be without zanshin? In a real fight it is common, after cutting someone down, to cut them again before finishing them off with a stab.
Recently, however, this real intention of zanshin is starting to disappear as displays of hikiage increase. Nowadays you can see many instances of these break-points during shiai. One reason for this is that historical customs stemming from the time when kendo was performed in what is called Gekken-kogyo are still alive. Another reason is that weak people who don’t have enough technical or spiritual power to do as is required of them, make the mistake of trying to change the display of “hikiage” into something of high repute. Like the now commonplace “play-for-hikiwake” style in judo, this is a cowardly act.
The Butokukai is trying to combat this abusive practice by changing the shinpan methods for shiai.
If you have even the slightest respect of Bushido and the sense of honour it prizes, and if you desire to comprehend this through the practice of kendo, then you must never copy these cowardly people who do hikiage. Also, needless to say, if you perform hikage then your technical progress will be compromised.
And here are the Butokukai rules mentioned above:
6. If, after a strike the competitor breaks their kamae, slackens the spirit, and doesn’t express zanshin appropriately (termed “hikiage”) they should be cautioned. If they continue to violate the rules then the shiai will be stopped.
7. If a competitor makes a valid strike but then does hikiage, and if their opponent then strikes them, the second strike shall be deemed valid.
Here is another quote from Noma Hisashi’s Kendo Tokuhon (1939):
Even after striking one must not relax one’s guard. In modern kendo shiai there is what is called hikiage, it is the action made to indicate the scoring of a point, but if taken to extremes there is a likelihood that zanshin is lost and for this reason it was at one time banned. However, in the case of shiai using shinai a degree of hikiage may be unavoidable, and therefore I wonder whether it should be the subject of such a strict ban. However, even at the moment of hikiage one must not forget zanshin.
Hikiage, simply put, is the action of showboating after striking. Think of something like hitting kote and then shouting “kote kote kote!” Or striking men then pointing your shinai towards your opponent after the ippon has been given still kiai-ing as if to say “yeah, I got you.” Imaging hitting someone in jigeiko turning your back to them and walking away (or perhaps going into sonkyo). Some more examples were shown in the video above. All of these fall under the definition of “hikiage” and none of them show zanshin. What they do express, however, is disrespect for your opponent.
But wait, aren’t all these actions common in kendo (especially shiai) today? The answer is yes. It was probably to combat these actions that the zanshin rule was added but, as you can perhaps understand from this article, the addition hasn’t helped anything. Hikiage is still common in kendo, and zanshin doesn’t seem to factor much in deciding an ippon.
Redefining Zanshin — the move towards understanding “True Zanshin”
Let’s look at this liberally translated and abridged 1972 quote from Mitsuhashi Hidezo, a student of Takano Sasaburo:
“Don’t try to force zanshin, but rather allow it to happen naturally after a strike. Do this by attacking with your full mental and physical power, then allowing yourself to relax directly after. This will allow you to assume a mental and physical condition where you can react quickly and appropriately.
If you make an effort to relax before striking, strike with abandon, and move naturally into a focused and stable posture after striking then, eventually, you will acquire True Zanshin.“
Today we’ve briefly discussed the confusion behind the current application and understanding of “zanshin,” the difference between the classical idea of “zanshin” and the current (very modern) one, and we’ve realised that something that was taboo for decades amongst prior kendo generations – “hikiage” – is the norm now. Thinking deeply about the matter over the last few years (*yeah, I’ve been gnawing on this topic for a while now!), I’ve come to a personal conclusion that it would be useful if all references to “zanshin” were removed from the definition of yuko-datotsu, and instead “hikiage-less sutemi” be added. However, the big problem with this is, as you might guess, is the fact that the term “hikiage” is now all but unknown amongst todays (Japanese speaking) kendo population.
In other words, things have changed and they aren’t going back. “Zanshin” will continue to be considered needed but often ignored, ippon will continue to be awarded without it, and kendoka will continue to do things that were anathema to prior generations of kenshi.
I didn’t write about this before as, basically, it’s irrelevant to todays kendo practitioners, and I’m not confident I could explain the sometimes confusing nature of zanshin in todays kendo (especially shiai) either. However, I’m sure that many kenshi 24/7 readers out there have wondered at or discovered some confusing, inconsistent, or contradictory elements within kendo (and budo). I guarantee, you are not alone!
*btw I also wrote two essays on this matter in my now out-of-print collection of essays called “Kenkyu and Kufu.” If you have a copy please check out “The suspicious fox” and “From zanshin to kime.” If there is more interest in the topic I may edit and re-publish them online.
Teikoku Kendo Kyohon. Ogawa Kinnosuke, 1937.
Kendo Tokuhon. Noma Hisashi, posthumously published 1939.
16 replies on “Zanshin confusion, sutemi, and hikiage”
That was a great article. Thank you. Its a shame really as I know several kendoka who struggle to “sell their ippon” with text book apllication of zanshin. Take debana kote for example. You strike firm and true quickly closing the distance to prevent counter attack and make taidari to ensure the opponent cannot seize the initiative to counter. Many judges will not score it becuase it looks like the attack “stopped” or are not confident they all witness the cut itself depending on line of sight . Whereas next bout a shiai specialist cuts a kote bends his head and shoulders 90 degrees to the left escapes under you armpits whith the shinai parked far behind their body behind the shoulder with tsuki, men and dou all exposed etc going backwards or even with their body twisted with next to no ability to strike again in that moment…
I think this is why some people have two seperate visions of Kendo. Traditional and Shiai Kendo. Its only at the higher Dan levels where these converge. Perhaps its time to bring that merging point forward to earlier ranks ? It has to be done in a way that beginners can still be encouraged to cut with full commitment. I find that is the more difficult part to keep intact. People learn easily to do “tricks to avoid conceding a point”. To attack in the spirit of the old definition is much harder. Its more “undeniable” though which I think should be encouraged.
Tristan, I think you’ve hit on a point. I hinted at this in my coaching manual — the fact that shinpan can strongly influence peoples styles. I’ve also mentioned on this very site many many times that shiai is – at least here in Japan – almost exclusively a young persons thing (up until university level).
I personally don’t need anybody to decide if my strike or my opponents strike was an ippon… all I need is the understanding of the person I’m fighting.
Yeah. I’ve often seen strong kendoka talking after the bout acknowledging “you definitely got me ” even if you didn’t get flags. I suppose the other point that’s worth attention with this is the skill of becoming a strong shinpan. Its a difficult thing to do well and the job comes with perhaps more stress than it should. It should be considered that its absolutely fine if shinpan do not agree and that a quick gogi may be needed to see why someone may have revoked a point or not given it at all. After all, we’re all trying to do this with dignity. So for me as a competitor I dont mind waiting a few seconds if the judges feel they need a quick chat. Even if they retract my possible ippon becuase it lacked Zanshin. It’ll be better for my Kendo in the long run when I go back to training to consider why the point didn’t stand. Next time I’ll come back more determined , balanced and aware and with better technique . WIN! Lol
In all the thousands of shiai I’ve been to, I’ve never seen anyone have an ippon retracted because of lack of zanshin. And I’ve been to loads and loads and loads of shiai (remember, its part of my job).
Thank you for this George. Is there any truth to zanshin meaning “aware mind”, or is that something that hasn’t translated across well enough over the years?
Great article. I was wondering if this topic has come up at the recent (or past) FIK Shinpan Seminar?
@ John – I guess you could literally translate it into something like that. Asian cultures tend to put mind and heart/spirit together, whilst European cultures tend to separate them. It makes translation a bit difficult!
@ Brandon – Never been to any FIK shinpan seminars, so you’ll have to wait for someone else to answer that. I’ve attended shinpan training events here, and done my fair share of judging at shiai, and its as I mentioned in the article – “zanshin” is an afterthought. The main point of these seminars is training people to move in a triangle while recognising strikes.
Thank you for your throughts about this. Since my sensei and mentor attended Busen, I was instructed in the more traditional practice of kendo. BIg waza, no shiai kote strikes with that weird zanshin that exposes your right wrist; that after a men strike, the tip should be 1 to 2 cm above the opponents men, not raised up in the air (metal swords do not bounce). There is a lot more I could write, but will save it for another time.
I’ve never seen anybody teach “shiai kote” or “bouncing men”… but people still seem to end up doing it!
Great article George. One that I hope will start a lot of discussion amongst shinpan and instructors.
Not sure if anyone will really discuss it to tell you the truth… even if they did, how would people go about changing or modifying rules anyway? Japan will never change so…..
Great article, thank you! I frequently lose a point in shiai to someone doing hikiage, and that bothers me, but I am glad that my decision to NOT follow suit is a good one…
Good man Marek!
In response to Howard’s comment above “(metal swords do not bounce)”….
Of course I believe that’s true.
However, I believe that real katana require tenouchi to cut properly. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!)
If you don’t use tenouchi with a shinai, you are simply clubbing people with a bamboo stick.
If you do use tenouchi with a shinai (as you would with a katana), then the effect is a sharp cut-like strike, and a small bounce away from the target.
So, a small bounce would be correct, but a large pull-up or bounce would not.
I personally don’t like the shiai kote with the big pull away. However, I’ve seen 7th dan sensei teach this.
I guess you could argue that this demonstrates readiness to cut again?
Also, if it’s a prelude to tsubazeriai (which it often is in shiai), then it might be OK?
Very interested in further thoughts from anyone on this.
Thanks for the great blog, George.
Cheers Russell! I have a good audience to thank for inspiring me.
As far as cutting with a real sword or whatever goes, I’m guessing that in a real fight clubbing someone with a sword will do the trick fine (i.e. opponent bleeding, dead, incapacitated, whatever). I think the concept of tenouchi in kendo might not translate well into a real situation. I don’t plan to have a real sword fight soon, so the question itself is kind of moot.
The reason there are so many references to “spirit” in the Asian martial arts is that the incorporation of the “spirit” subconscious into movement was an important goal and skill. The “ki” aspects of strength and movement have largely to do with the involuntary-muscle systems which evolved to supplement our normal movement, a process that is controlled by the subconscious, which is the “spirit”. The “spirit”/subconscious is looked at as almost a “god” in itself (hence the character for Shin/Kami). There are many processes for training the Shin/Shen in Asia and often they’ll refer to the melding of the subconscious and the conscious as a “spirit possession”. The idea of Mushin and Zanshin both refer to a time in which the larger subconscious is in control of movements. But a lot of that understanding has been lost in many of the Asian arts, unfortunately.