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.”
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.
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.