kendo shiai

Re-imagining shiai

Recently I wrote two articles that took a critical look at the current kendo style and the (obviously directly related) problems with modern shiai.

Engendering positive kendo

Zanshin confusion, sutemi, and hikiage

Of course, I am not the only person who looks at and thinks about the current kendo situation. In most cases, however, any criticism given or suggestions made seem to fall on deaf ears – the ruling kendo elite make decisions for the rest of us often unilaterally without seeking input from general practitioners (a rare exception).

Since I hold no official role in any kendo organisation and have no or little impact on the community at large, I have a lot of freedom when it comes to re-imagining or thinking about shiai… especially as I don’t have any responsibility to see any amendments through! Today I am going to riff out loud on this issue. Sure, it’s purely an academic exercise, but why not?

So, how could shiai rules be revised?

Yuko-datotsu (valid strike areas)

First, would be a re-examination of what a “yuko-datotsu” is. If you need to revise the official definition, check out the following article from 2009.


At the moment, the official definition is, I suggest, overly complex and somewhat vague. Let’s simply it:

  1. Was the strike/thrust deliberate?
  2. Was it clear? (Ai-uchi or near ai-uchi strikes are invalid)
  3. Was a valid area struck?
  4. Was the hasuji correct?

For point 3 above, if we were to many any armoured location a valid strike area (except the tare for obvious reasons) the datotsu-bui would then become:

Men – including yoko-men and men-dare (if someone bobs their head to avoid a strike);
Kote – right and left kote, including the kobushi;
Dou – including orishiki-dou (see pic below);
Tsuki – including mune and dou tsuki. Morote and left/right katate.

Any head bobbing or any overly-defensive actions could be effectively addressed by widening the datotsu-bui area in this manner. Personally, anybody that attempts to move their head out of the way of my men strike and is hit in the ear or shoulder deserves to lose!

btw, check out the mune-zuki at the 2:00 mark of this following video. My question to you is “why shouldn’t this be an ippon?” You would have a severely hard time trying to convince me that this shouldn’t be a yuko-datotsu.

Ashi-garami (leg sweeping) leading to an immediate strike or kumi-uchi (grappling) as a result of a leg sweep could also be considered, though I’d hesitate to reintroduce these as they were removed for a reason: not only because of the obvious dangers involved (especially with unskilled/unpractised grapplers which would account for most of today’s kendo practitioners), but also because kendo is the art of the sword, and it’s in the wielding of the shinai where we should place emphasis on. Takano Sasaburo et al plainly stated that this was the main reason that main senior people disapproved of grappling and what led to it’s very early removal from shiai and eventual disappearance in kendo in general.

(Though, to be perfectly honest, a little bit of leg sweeping and wrestling in jigeiko wouldn’t hurt now and then!)

Shinpan (referees)

For the first chapter of modern kendo’s history, there was only ever one shinpan. Another two were added to increase perceived fairness once kendo became democratic post-WWII, but let’s face it, one shinpan should theoretically suffice.

(Note that three shinpan were also used in the pre-war Tenran shiai as well, also citing fairness reasons.)

Actually, thinking about it, why not use shinpan as a sort of “mediator” only and allow the competitors to decide by themselves? If the shinpan declares something was an ippon, the receiver of the ippon (the person who executed the attack) could be able to cancel it if they are not satisfied. Of course, this assumes that the competitors are good sportspersons (i.e. are honest and have humility)… which is almost certainly wishful thinking!

Ippon-su (number of ippon in a match)

Either settle for a single un-timed ippon (mainly decided by the competitors themselves) or set a time limit and see how many ippon can be scored within it. The latter was experimented with in the past and, I suggest, would make for an easy and interesting change to shiai rules, especially for youngsters.

See below for why I think this might be a good idea.

Chiba vs Yano, 17th All Japan Champs 1969

Points value

In conjunction with the how-many-ippon-can-be-scored-in-a-set-time-limit mentioned above, why not award different areas different points?

George’s point system:
Men: 10;
Tsuki: 8
Kote: 5
Dou: 5
(Kumiuchi surrender: 4)

What values you give the datotsu-bui would strongly influence the competitors strategy, so we would have to be careful when deciding the point values.

Back in 2009 (article now archived) I translated part of an 1895 published book called “Budo Kyoshi” by Kumamoto (an ex-Battotai member who was at Keishicho at that time). Here is the kendo point-chart that was published within in it, showing past experimentation with a points value system:

Area struck Description Points
Men A strong cut to shomen or yoko men 10
Men Slightly weak, too deep, or otherwise imperfect men 9
Kote from jodan* Fully out streched cut or hikiwaza 8
Kote from jodan* A cut that is a little bit light 7
Do A string cut to the left or right do or hiki do 6
Do Slightly light cut or one that brushes the tare 5
Men tare A strong 1 or 2 handed cut 4
Men tare Slightly weak cut or one that glances off the mengane 3
Seigan kote# Makikomi or slightly tapping cut 2
Seigan kote# A light cut or one that strikes the fist stongly 1

* Heiji(?) kote (兵字小手): Based on an article written by Nagao (近世・近代における剣術・剣道の変質過程に関する研究:面技の重視と技術の変容) this is a kote scored from jodan. # Seigan kote (精眼小手): based on * above, I think its a safe guess that this refers kote scored from seigan/chudan kamae.

Jikan (time)

The addition of a fixed shiai time limit has caused lots of problems for kendo, and is perhaps it’s single most restrictive element. Shiai with short times results in competition with little seme-ai or tactics, just randomly rushing in and hacking away until some ippon is given. This type of shiai is commonly seen in school level over here in Japan. Once an ippon is decided, time-wasting and defensive strategies begin. Of course, very young students (primary and junior high age) are usually neither mature enough technically, tactically, and/or emotionally to act otherwise.

Longer or un-timed shiai would be good but the idea is far from practical in large competitions and rented halls.

Experimentation done in the All Japan Championships over the past few years has seen the shiai time in the final part of the competition changed to 10 mins. But, as discussed in the two articles at the top of this piece, even that is sometimes not enough time for an ippon to be scored.

Changing shiai time seems un-doable, but if we were to loosen up/simplify the yuko-datotsu rules, add in a points value system, and don’t settle on a two-ippon restriction per encounter (i.e. score-as-many-as-you-can within the time limit) then, I suggest, the problem could potentially become somewhat moot.

Shiai-jo (competition area)

The shiai-jo is probably the least contentious part of current competition rules. Basically, unless you have an unlimited space in which to hold a competition, you probably need to set a standard shiai-jo size. Once a size is set then rules will emerge dealing with it (jogai) and tactics will change to take advantage of it (pushing).

Since we want to see good technical kendo and nice seme-ai, a larger shiai-jo is preferable to a smaller one.


This article has looked at the past when thinking about how shiai could be revised for the better, but what about new ideas? What other areas could be addressed?

Equipment: shinai (length, size, shape, weight), bogu (for arms, legs?)
Scoring: electronic system, removal of human judges, video replay?
Weapons: mixed competitions – ken, yari, naginata, jo… !

One excellent idea that was floating about for a while (and never really caught on) was the red-white tasuki being moved to the tare, as shown above.

Anyway, like I said at the top of the page, this post is simply an academic exercise, a bit of fun. Although I do believe some of the ideas mentioned above have merit, I don’t expect any change in shiai rules any time soon.

I’m sure kenshi 24/7 readers can come up with many more interesting and innovative ideas! Please feel free to comment on facebook or below.

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
For more information check out the About page.

18 replies on “Re-imagining shiai”

So much to talk about with this one! We need to meet up for a beer. I love the idea of expanding the datotsu-bu. Seems a great way of encouraging more confident and diverse Kendo.

I’d love to see some of those changes being implemented (like the ribbons in the tare) but as everybody know japanese are beyond conservative in everything even the most obvious changes (upgrade equipments for exemple) so don’t think this will happend someday =/
The mune tsuki is actually a pretty good idea to make people use and learn tsuki more. I have some friends who practice kendo for 30 years and they told me they never EVER tried a tsuki in a shiai. Sometimes i feel tsuki are slowly fadding away from kendo.

Wasn’t mune tsuki removed as a valid target because of injury reasons?

In Kendo World Magazine 5.4 is an from article Otsuka Tadayoshi sensei that’s called “A proposal for new regulations and organisational reform in kendo”. It was translated by Alex Bennett from Otsuka sensei’s book “Kenshi ni tsugu” (A proposition to kenshi).

For example, he proposed to define yuko-datotsu as a strike which embodies accuracy accompanied with one of the other elements of appropriate strength and rendering the opponent off-balance physically. Any strike which embodies all three requirements will be counted as atto-datotsu (perfect strike). A match will be decided by on atto-datotsu or by two yuko-datotsu.

He further says: “The abovementioned proposal is not an attempt to create an artificial category of evaluation merely to decide matches. This original objective quality of datotsu form already exists, but has been buried due to various distortions in interpretations. The New Regulations aim to re-establish and clarify the quality of datotsu either as ‘valid’ or ‘perfect’, and to encourage appropriate evaluation.”

The article is about 8 pages long. If you are interested, please contact me.

@Helton: not only is tsuki fading out of use, the amount of people that can do dou well is decreasing…

@Stefan: munezuki was added as a yuko-datotsu in the mid-70s to combat the popularity of jodan in shiai and it’s perceived advantage. It was removed in the mid-80s (sorry, don’t have time before work to look up the exact dates in my books!) as it did it’s job – jodan people decreased rapidly.

An example of a technique that was banned due to it being dangerous was men-zuki. It was explicitly banned in the Meiji period. If you search around hard enough, I’m sure you can find a posed postcard showing the waza.

I have read Otsuka’s book (and Alex’s translation) about 10-15 years ago… I don’t have copy at home, so will check it out.

Yeah, that’s one of the pics I was thinking of. I’m not sure that pic shows a thrust, but that’s the gist of it.

I don’t know the technical term, but Japanese consonant sounds sometimes change depending on the sound directly before or after. For example it’s not “debana kote” but “debana gote” or “morote tsuki” but “morote zuki.” I often ignore that when writing though, as most readers are not Japanese speakers. Sorry for the confusion.

I very much agree with the concept of widening the scoring areas, though I’m not sure how I feel about the differing points per target area. I see how that could be beneficial, but I agree it would be really tricky to get right. A couple other things that would be interesting would be adding suneate as a target, or (truly a bit different) increasing the coverage of the kote to allow for strikes to the underside of the forearm. I think these would bring back some of the kamae that are rarely if ever used now.

Some proper Hokkushin-Itto-ryu in that link there. Good stuff!

Kiriage would be hard to incorporate in today’s kendo I think… it’s just too fast. When you mentioned it I just though about facing people in jodan.

I hadn’t even thought about that, but it would make facing off against jodan interesting!

These suggestions sound like turning kendo into chambara.
There is a reason these decisions are left up to the highest ranking people- it’s because the rest of us don’t know what we’re talking about. People who only see “debana” in tournaments will enjoy kendo more once they develop better seme and ki. Kendo is “kizeme”, not how much you swing the sword.

The reason that’s not ippon at 2:00 is because it’s not a proper tsuki. That’s why none of the shinpan raised their flags. In a situation where people who are more skilled and knowledgeable make a decision or do something that you don’t understand, it’s better to investigate the reason instead of arguing or criticizing- or acting incredulous.

Bogu is fine the way it is. Making wider tsuki dare is just an excuse to be sloppy. If your striking and posture are correct, then you have nothing to worry about. Granted, unless your opponent is like the guy in the video.

Making the datotsubui larger or with more variety? It’s not that hard to hit the targets we already have. In my opinion anyway. If your opponent ducks or dodges, it simply means your seme was too weak and didn’t phase them, maybe surprised them, but ultimately was ineffective. So, we don’t need larger target areas, we just need to work on having stronger seme.

As much as I would like to see one point per match- as they do in sumo- the two point system is fine.
Ultimately, there is no perfect way to score kendo; but how we react to the decision of the shinpan is part of our “shugyo”; it’s also part of our character development and part of “rei”. Facts and truth are not what rule the world. Life is not fair. How we react to life is the only thing we can control. If you want instant replays and electronic monitors, maybe it’s best to do Western fencing instead. Maybe sports are better for this type of person, I guess.
Kendo is not about winning, it’s about your character, how well you win or lose is a manifestation of your character. Searching for easier ways to win by re-imagining the structure of shiai is bad character. All the decisions that have previously restructured kendo shiai has made it more difficult to win, requiring higher skill and deeper training, not turning it into a circus act like they did with Judo.

Three shinpan are best. It is very difficult to be a lone shinpan and feel good about making calls when you always have a few blind spots.
Being shinpan is not simply about judging who won and who lost, though. It’s an exercise in studying living kendo- and with three shinpan, they help each other refine their understanding and perceptions of living kendo. We should remember that being shinpan is one other aspect of our shugyo. After all, you cannot become Renshi without having been shinpan plenty of times. You know, “rei” is the most important part of kendo, and that should go without saying that it extends very highly to the shinpan. If you cannot respect their decisions, then it’s time to reevaluate your perception and understanding of “rei” .

All of these ideas can be made real- just start your own “martial art”. Why contaminate kendo? You have your own dojo- so go ahead and do things this way at your dojo. No one is stopping you.

Shugyo vs sports… what’s the difference to people who only care about their self esteem?

“Yawata Umataro” – thanks for your constructive comments. Please note the line “Sure, it’s purely an academic exercise, but why not?” in the introduction as well as the italic “could” in the line after. This post is simply a piece of fun.

Since you are writing anonymously, I won’t bother saying more. However, you might want to reevaluate the meaning of “rei.”

Cheers, and good luck to you!

When the Kendo was established, why do you think they made so restrictive rules?
Is there really a learning reason for that? I think most kendo practitioner would like more techniques available.


When the idea of modern “kendo” was being constructed there were no set rules for competitive sparring as it didn’t really exist. When people started first experimenting with competition more frequently a first set of official rules (from the Butokukai) was put together, consisting of only, if my recollection is correct, 10 articles. It wasn’t particularly restrictive.

Over time – especially after the war (see my article on Shinai Kyogi) – more and more rules were added, to the point that nowadays some things have become convoluted.

I personally think that kendo is quite simple, and has no need of complicated rules. In fact, despite writing this article, I think it has no need for competition either!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.