The ability to read and utilise distance in kendo is paramount. In Japanese this is referred to “Maai” (間合) and “Ma” (間) – “physical distance” and “interval.” Some people use the terms interchangeably or overlapping – though they really are different words, they definitely overlap (a kind of “spatial relativity” as it were) . At any rate, it is important to understand the physical space between you and your partner, and the time it takes to traverse it (with your body or shinai).
It is usual for teachers to explain maai (not ma) by breaking it down into simple segments: far (Toi-maai), one-step one-cut/dodge (Issoku-Itto-No-Maai), and close (Chikai-maai)*.
People with more kendo experience have probably heard the terms shokujin (触刃), the point where shinai start to touch, and kojin (交刃), when shinai are fully crossed. Kojin is closer than shokujin. If you go in slightly deeper than this, you finally reach uchi-ma (打ち間), or striking distance*.
[* Note that it’s important to note that toi-maai and chikai-maai are often (sometimes confusingly!!) abbreviated to to-ma and chika-ma. Uchi-ma suffers the same abbreviation.]
If this seems a little bit out of sync from what you have been taught then that’s possibly because different teachers use the terms with slightly different stress and/or nuance depending upon their theoretical knowledge and experience. My explanation was written referring in particular to Ogawa Chutaro sensei’s definition (hanshi kyudan, head kendo instructor at Keishicho and Kokushikan amongst other things).
As everyone reading this has probably experienced, these terms – while usefully when chatting about kendo technique – can be only somewhat awkwardly applied to keiko itself: if you and your partner have the exact same build, have identical experience and skill, and share the same idea about how kendo should be executed style-wise, then it becomes much easier to say “this is toi-maai, that is issoku-itto-no-maai” etc., but in reality what may be an easy striking distance for you might be too far for your partner. This is because we all have different builds, experiences, and kendo styles. In other words, “distance” (maai) is a personal thing.
(I won’t attempt to discuss time interval (ma) here today…)
New kendo books on the shelves here in Japan often leave much to be desired as the vast majority simply recycle or even just repackage technical material. Occasionally, however, a book comes out that I like the look of, and one such was the two-volumed “A message from the teachers before us” by Yano Hiroshi sensei (retired Kokushikan university kendo teacher). In it Yano sensei tells an interesting anecdote, and it is this account that led me to write today’s article.
The following is an abridged translation:
In 1959, just after I entered Kokushikan university, I took a letter of introduction from my sensei and went to visit Saimura Goro sensei. Saimura sensei was hanshi judan, and the professor emeritus of the kendo club (he had been teaching there since 1917), so I was really nervous.
Upon meeting him I made my self introduction. Sitting in seiza drinking tea and dressed in traditional Japanese clothes, he just sat there silently. He finished another cup of tea and started on his third. His wife, sensing the awkwardness, suggested “Why don’t you talk to him about something?”
“If he doesn’t have any questions then there is nothing to talk about…”
A week later – this time armed with a question – I came back to try again:
“Can you please teach me something about Maai?” asked Yano.
“Maai is willpower” replied Saimura.
I translated the word used by Saimura sensei into “willpower” but it could easily be rendered as “vitality” or – though not a direct translation this word feels more to the point – “confidence.”
Yano sensei continues the story above by coming to the conclusion that the only way to cultivate this “willpower” is through keiko (the easy example given is making sure to shout loudly). By cultivating your willpower, you will then find it easier to overpower your opponent psychologically, be able to control the flow of the encounter, and do kendo at your distance. In other words “maai” is not only about the space between you and your opponent.
Yano sensei backs up his conclusion by mentioning a classical kendo concept about distance. For reference, here is a quote about this from Noma Hisashi’s Kendo Tokuhon:
By using your mind one should create a situation where, even if the physical distance between the enemy and yourself is the same, you put the enemy at a disadvantage and at the same time yourself at an advantage. Many of the mystery’s of maai are encompassed in an old teaching: “For the enemy it is far, for myself it is near.”
The teaching referred to by both Yano and Noma sensei is actually called “Enkin-no-koto” (遠近之事) from Itto-ryu. Of course, it is not physically possible for one person to be closer to another when squared-off (the distance between them is the same), rather, this is a perceived distance which can be influenced by psychological state.
In other words, although we can define maai quite simply, the fact is that is that when we square-off against an opponent the perception of the physical distance (and spatial interval) is what matters most. Therefore, if you can psychologically manipulate your opponents perception of the distance between you, then you have the upper hand.
By manipulating your opponents mental state and controlling the distance, we finally arrive at the at this well known kendo mantra:
“Don’t strike and win, win and then strike”
It is this, Yano sensei posits, that Saimura sensei was hinting at when he said “Maai is willpower.”
What do you think?