kendo theory

Engendering positive kendo


In a recent opinion piece posted on the Tokyo Kendo Associations website, Morshima Tateo sensei re-iterated his desire for kendo to return to its historically attack-centric style rather than the “win-at-all-costs” defensive style that is often seen nowadays. Although winning-at-all-costs and defending may seem contradictory it actually isn’t: winning is predicated on not-losing, and the surest way to do this is to minimise attacks (which create 隙, or “openings” which can be struck) and constantly be on the defensive. This of course works especially well if you are one ippon up.

That Morishima sensei was not the only person concerned about this trend can be clearly shown in two recent moves to change or adopt new shiai rules. The first was the perceived need for changes of shiai rules in high school (2009) and junior high school (2013) level kendo in order to promote a more “positive” style (more on that below). I have discussed both in prior articles:

Tsubazeria rule changes in high school kendo

Rule changes for the better

(of course, there have been other attempts at addressing the issue as well)

As mentioned in the second of the above articles, the high school tsubazeriai rule has had, I believe, a lasting effect on high school kendo. I am not involved in the university scene as such, but I do, however, think that this change, though not an actual rule in university competition, has seeped into and has influenced the kendo style there. This was, of course, part of the plan.

I am not involved in the junior high school scene either, so I really don’t know whether the 2013 rule changes had a great effect there, but from inference – that is, by looking at the kendo style of new high school students that came up through junior high school clubs – I can say that any effect the changes there had was either short-lived, minimal, or non-existent.

So, in my opinion, the high school changes have worked well (and fed through to university level) but the junior high school ones not so much.

(As an aside, when it comes to adults, as most stop competing, or compete very little, shiai becomes less of an emphasis, and most end up eventually seeking to acquire “correct” kendo. At this point many sensei will clearly state:  “what you have been doing up until now was fine while you were a student, but now it’s time to fix it and do proper kendo.” I, btw, don’t ascribe to this thought-process per-se, but this attitude really is quite common. Of-course, the vast majority of kendoka quit after graduating university, or continue only super-casually, but that’s a separate issue outside of todays article. In addition, people who begin as adults are never inculcated into a shiai-orientated mindset anyway, and are almost always taught kihon very slowly and carefully.)

The second area where kendo’s defensive trend is plain to see is if you look at the statistics of Japan’s top-shiai, the All Japan Kendo Championships (mens), over time. What can be seen is two things:

  • scoring has become more difficult (as shown by most shiai being won by ippon-gachi and having to go into encho before being decided)
  • Ippon variation has plummeted (almost all ippon are kote or men)

Data from 41 All Japan Kendo Championships (mens individual competition, 1953-1994) was analysed by Otsuka in his book “The history of Japanese kendo” (see sources):

The trend shown in these diagrams (and expanded upon in more detail in the book) has continued unabated in the 23 years since the book’s publication).

What this clearly shows is that it is taking much longer to get an ippon than it used to and fewer strikes are being scored (they have experimented with changing shiai time to 10 mins – in both the All Japans and the hachidan senbatsu – but even then sometimes an ippon isn’t scored). The suggested reason for this is that competitors have become more defensive, less “positive,” over time. It might also be partly due to the average young age of competitors nowadays but, again, that’s out with the scope of todays article.

The increasing lack of ippon variation (this goes not only for the All Japans, but in most shiai nowadays) suggests not a reduction of skill (I’d argue that your average kendoka has more technical skill than they did in the past) but the tendency to choose “safe” waza, the best example being, of course, debanagote. In years gone by if you were struck men directly or a little bit after you hit kote, it was deemed “ai-uchi” and neither blows were counted. This is not the case today.

The kendo style that Morishima sensei is commenting about above, then, is generally related to student kendo (junior/high school + university level) and shiai-orientated adults (usually, but not exclusively police tokuren and jitsugyodan).

By the way, please check out this related opinion piece from Iho Kiyotsugu sensei:

Is there anything you feel that is lacking in kendo today?

It is not my goal here today to complain about or put down anyone’s kendo style, rather, I want to discuss how to engender the positive, attacking style that Morishima sensei (and many others) explicitly favours. Please also note that I am not particularly talking about shiai, but about general kendo style.

I hope this article will help spur on some post-keiko discussion!

“Positive” kendo

Advice one (technical):

The first piece of advice is a simple one: go forward. By this I mean pressure forward constantly (moving back and forth, left and right is fine, but your feeling should be forward), aim to initiate attacks first (including luring someone into attacking you), execute techniques with forward momentum, etc.

In order to help make this a reality I suggest practising forward-only waza during kihon geiko. Emphasise forward motion in waza, for example in kote-gaeshi-men it might be easier to strike hiki-men, but attempt going forward on the men (and instructing it this way as well).

I’d also recommend relegating all hiki-waza to minor techniques practised only after other waza have been done (if you don’t have a long keiko time, then they should be the first waza to be cut). It goes without saying, then, that getting out of tsubazeriai as soon as possible is important. This will also reduces unproductive time, unneeded resting, and helps makes your keiko more dynamic.

Btw, during my jigeiko sessions at school I simply ignore hiki-waza struck on me by students. I either hit them as they are moving back, or chase and pressure and strike while they are on the back foot.

Advice two (psychological):

Rather than trying not to be hit, put the stress on striking often. In a team competition you might consider that doing whatever needs to be done for the sake of the team is the most important thing, and this is true… for sport. Doing the minimum required for you to win is the smart sportsperson’s tactic. However, time-wasting, toying with your partner, blocking repeatedly, running into tsubazeriai, ducking and dodging – truly skilled people don’t need to do this. You certainly don’t need to do this in jigeiko.

Instead, during keiko, why not prove your overwhelming skill by simply beating your opponent? If you are truly skilled then striking decisively in a short time shouldn’t pose any problem. Of course, this is more easily said than done, and attempting to do kendo like this can be demanding, but nobody said kendo was easy.

Engendering positive kendo

So, in our daily keiko, what’s a good way to practise the above? How do we engender positive kendo?

I: The first thing I would say is to teach and practise a wide variety of waza. The more techniques someone knows, the more likely they are to attempt to execute them. Knowing very few waza means that you have to wait for the chance to execute them, or you might end up repeating the same thing over and over again. This can not only be boring but your style may end up shrunken.

Instead, encourage people (including yourself of course!) to try out different waza and patterns against different types of opponent. This makes keiko more interesting in general, which can only be a good thing. Trying to acquire many techniques is challenging, and it can be very rewarding when you finally get the hang of them.

Needless to say, emphasising forward attacking, multiple striking, and luring techniques, is paramount. By “luring techniques” I am referring to what is termed “oji-waza.” Many people mistakenly consider them to be “reactive” techniques that happen in response to an opponents attack – this is a complete misunderstanding. Techniques like, say, men kaeshi-dou, are initiated by the person striking dou, not by the person striking men.

II. Teach the proper way to defend (not “block”). I’ve talked about this in a recent article. Lifting your hands up into the infamous “sampomamori,” waving your shinai wind-wiper style to block an attack, striking and turning your back to your opponent, ducking/dodging/weaving your head, etc., are all less, favourable ways to thwart an attack (they are all symptoms of fear). In fact, doing some of them will still result in you getting struck, just not on the datotsubui. If you wave your head to the side and the opponents shinai hits you in the shoulder, it’s your own fault – don’t complain.

Knowing how to defend yourself without compromising your posture, for example by suppressing the opponents attacks by stepping in and controlling the movement of their fists (and thus their shinai), is an important (and often under-looked) part of kendo.

III. Attack is defence. It really is that easy. If you are not sure what to do, rather than wildly blocking, attack. Even if you have to close your eyes, do so! This is good advice for people with not so much experience, and therefore a smaller repertoire of waza. btw, I am not condoning replacing wild blocking with wild attacking…

IV. Consider being struck a chance to learn. What were you doing when you were struck? What was your posture like? Where was your shinai? What were you looking at and thinking about? etc. If you consider being struck a chance to improve your kendo then you’ll fear it less. Once you have no or less fear of being struck making positive attacks becomes much easier.

These are just a handful of my ideas.

Positive kendo = “good” kendo = “correct” kendo = strong kendo

I’m not sure I can say with authority what makes a “good” kendo style or what is “correct” kendo or not, but I am lucky to have studied under (and study under), done kendo with, and watched many top-level sensei. They all have different styles of course, but the one thing that I can say makes their kendo so impressive to me is that have a positive style. They don’t wait to be struck, they move in first. They use a variety of waza (almost never hiki-waza). They never ever wind-shield wipe or use sampomamori. They defeat most people with ease. This is, I believe, truly “strong” kendo. Personally, although I am still a long way from reaching this goal, it is this type of kendo I seek to acquire.

日本剣道の歴史。大塚 忠義。1995年発行。

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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12 replies on “Engendering positive kendo”

Hmm. Team matches: Our ‘scene’ here is small enough that we we know when we’re outmatched. In those situations I see nothing wrong with trying to maximize the time spent in tsubazeria, etc.
Individual matches are different. They’re for me, to test my kendo and while winning is nice, it’s not the end goal.

I’ve always taught my students to go for two points. Whether its an individual or team match. Whether their opponent is far superior or inferior. I teach that facing a strong opponent is a blessing, not a curse. NOT making an effort to get ippon is the worst thing you can do in my book.

As you might imagine, my thoughts diverge quite significantly from most high school kendo teachers here in Japan….

great article, I never thought about my kendo style before but now this positive kendo is the one style I’m aiming for. I’m still pretty new (less than 2 years kendo experience) but I hope I can do this!

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