About 10 years ago a student of mine – a tall 15 year old girl who had only started kendo seven months earlier) – approached me in the dojo and suddenly said “please teach me jodan.” Not having thought too deeply about it before but knowing that I wanted to learn myself at some point I replied: “Um, ok. Let’s work something out.”
The inspiration behind her sudden request had been the wining of the All Japan Championships (mens) by a young jodan-wielding policeman from Kanagawa prefecture a few days earlier (this was early Nov. 2008). It had been the first time a jodan kenshi had won the title since Aichi prefecture’s Higashi Kazuyoshi sensei back in 1983 (he was the only jodan kenshi to win the title while the “anti-jodan” mune-zuki was a valid datotsu-bui, between 1979-1995*). There had been a number of other prominent jodan kenshi active at the All Japan level in the two decades prior to Higashi’s win – Toda Tadao, Chiba Masashi, Sasayama Haruo, and Kawazoe Tetsuo being the main ones – but none after Higashi sensei.
Despite there being a lack of jodan kenshi winners at the All Japan Championships level in the 25 years between 1983-2008, I saw with my own eyes (during the early 2000s) that there were in fact lots of people doing jodan at all different levels here in Japan, and asked out loud: “are we in for a Jodan Renaissance?” That win in 2008 only added to my expectation.
The student mentioned above was the first to ask me to teach her jodan, but she wouldn’t be the last. In the intervening 10 years I have taught a total of four students, all successfully, the basics of jodan. By necessity I had to figure out my own method of instruction, and in todays article I will attempt, very briefly, to share something of it. At the end I also want to discuss my own experience/progression with jodan because, after all, how can I teach something I don’t know myself?
Note: I want to clear something up before we move on because I suspect some people will pick up on it: if the girl above had only a measly seven months of kendo experience, why did I agree to teach her jodan? The answer is easy – we practise 6 days a week. Multiply that with the about 2.5 years I have with a student before they retire combined with the fact that they continue to do chudan in tandem with their jodan, and you can understand why I allow it. The girl, btw, successfully passed both her shodan and nidan (in chudan, of-course).
*(I personally think mune-zuki should be a valid target anyway, whatever the kamae…)
Before starting it’s worth briefly clarifying the teaching/learning environment in which the following article “happens” in. First, although I didn’t do jodan myself prior to this time, I have been – over most of the last decade – in constant touch with experienced people who do. This was good in that I could not only receive direct instruction myself, but I could see (execution and instruction), feel (being struck and sparring), and ask for advice on jodan freely. I did not start practising or teaching jodan from a state of zero, and wouldn’t advise anyone to either.
My students (and myself) also do a lot of kendo. Naturally this impacts greatly on things like physical condition, fumikomi, tenouchi, stamina, and resilience. I would never have bothered to teach my students jodan had they only attended keiko once or twice a week, unless their kendo ability (i.e. chudan) was at a pretty good level already.
Let me now briefly explain the steps I go through when teaching a student jodan. Note that this is only a rough outline – I will leave a more fully detailed run down for a future publication.
Part A: BASICS
If a student asked to learn jodan the first thing I would do is work on their kamae, footwork, and suburi. After putting men on, they would then put all of it together and practise ONLY the first few kirikaeshi like this before reverting to chudan. Maybe I’d have them do this for 3 or 4 keiko’s before moving on to the men-cutting steps described in part B below.
1 – Kamae
There are a few variations of the kamae out there and I always teach the “classical” shape – elbows open, left hand a little bit out in front and around or a little bit above the height of the left eye, body square-on, face forward, shinai about 45 degrees. The right hand doesn’t grip the shinai, but holds it lightly. With time and experience I assume that the student will adjust the kamae to suit themselves, but at first I require them to fix their shape to my style. This is no different than if I was teaching chudan.
2 – Ashisabaki
Immediately after choosing jodan their ashigamae is reversed, and any and all footwork drills are done with the left foot forward.
3 – Suburi
Suddenly moving all suburi from two-handed to one-handed is a asking a bit much, but based on the students strength and stamina, I do in fact slowly ensure that the majority of their suburi ends up one-handed.
Unlike normal suburi, with a large circular cutting action, one-handed suburi should be executed by pulling the left hand down to about mouth height then pushing out with the right hand while extending the left arm.
Of course, feet are reversed.
4 – Kirikaeshi (slow, no fumikomi)
Putting 1, 2, and 3 together, I immediately have the students execute slow, non-fumikomi, non-blocking kirikaeshi that we do at the start of every keiko. All strikes are two-handed at this point.
Part B: LEARNING TO STRIKE
After doing the very basic stuff for a few days I then move on to working on men cutting. Here problems become immediate – the unfamiliarity of right leg fumikiri, left foot fumikomi, and katate strikes mean that everyone’s kendo basically “breaks.”
If you suddenly try to do all of these at the same time you will not only end up with a mess, the students confidence will disappear. Therefore I have a few steps I make the students go through before they are exclusively practising katate strikes on their left foot.
1 – From jodan, cut morote-men with the right foot.
Here we are working on distance, tenouchi, body form, and the general “feel” of cutting down from jodan. This is relatively easy, so even someone with only a little experience can do it. This, in the beginning, I like to use as a “barometer” strike.
2 – From jodan, cut katate-men with the right foot.
Ok, so here is where the trouble will begin. Cuts will of course be too deep, and probably too light. There might be a bounce-off or a slide-down to the side after the strike. They might even miss completely. The left hand may rotate in the air or on the strike itself.
At this point I take quite a lot of time working on the striking movement itself (pull fist down with left hand and push out with right hand), the position of the left hand at the moment of striking, reading the distance properly, and – very very very important – keeping the chin tucked in.
At first I have the student do two morote strikes as a barometer, then one katate strike. As they get better at the katate strikes, the morote ones are cut down and eventually removed.
The students might spend a few weeks just practising 1 and 2 above until I and they are happy with it.
3 – From jodan, cut katate-men with the left foot.
I used to add in morote cutting with the left foot, but over the years I abandoned it. If the students are doing 2 fine, I move on to right leg fumikiri/left foot fumikomi.
Things will get really fun now! First of all, the distance is a little bit different than 2 above, and we are adding in right foot fumikiri (pushing-off with the right foot), which will probably be weak. At first, strikes will almost definitely be really weak because of the lack of fumikomi.
As we did with 1 in 2 above, this time we use 2 as the barometer for 3. If the student can execute a solid one handed strike on their right foot, they should aim for this feeling using their left.
Part C: WAIT
At this point you now have the student finally working on the very basic katate men strike. I would have the student abandon every other waza and practise this alone. While their chudan friends are doing men, kote, dou, and tsuki, they do men. While their chudan friends are doing Oji-waza, they do men. Etc. That’s it. Uchikomi and kakarigeiko are of course katate-men only.
This men-only practise continues for around about 6 months (x 6 days/week), depending on the prior skill and experience of the student. And shiai? They can’t enter until I’m happy. That’s the deal. High school students only have about 2.5 years of active training while in school, so agreeing to give up 6 months to practise only a single waza is a big decision for them.
Jigeiko in jodan, btw, I wouldn’t allow for at least two or three months in and then, at first, only with me or other people at instructor level. They can still only do men at this point (or revert back to morote men/kote on the right foot), so I aim to tsuki them a lot and beat them up a lot while they are thus disadvantaged. At first they will be confused and try to block or step away, but after time they learn to ignore being struck and go forward (hopefully).
What happens during these 6 months will, I believe, decide the future of the students jodan career, so I like to take time, fine tune technique, and build up confidence.
Part D: LEARNING HOW TO RECEIVE
During the 6 months described in part E above it’s time for the jodan kenshi to learn to receive in jodan. Although they will only be doing men, their partners will still be practising all the other techniques, and it is a good chance for them to learn how to strike someone in jodan. This chance to practise basics against a jodan motodachi is an added bonus to having someone learn in your club.
Distance – both kakarite and jodan motodachi start in chudan at issoku-Itto-no-ma, then motodachi steps back into jodan, increasing the distance.
Men – move both hands down and open up the men to be struck.
Kote – in kamae allow both kote to be struck. It will take time to get used to being struck on the left, but they have to suck it up. Also, they have to realise that getting hit on the forearms happens, and they have to learn to accept that as well.
Dou – stand in kamae, allow both left and right dou be struck.
Tsuki – stand in kamae, tuck chin in, allow tsuki. Jodan kenshi must learn to take a solid tsuki and, even if it misses, not to complain.
There is nothing difficult with these receiving methods. As skill increases I add in a katate-men counterattack in certain circumstances.
Part E: BASIC WAZA
After a solid left handed katate-men strike with decent right leg fumikiri/left foot fumikomi is acquired, I start adding a handful of basic waza almost immediately. For brevities sake I will simply list them here rather than explain them fully:
– Morote kote
– Morote tsuki
– Men o misete -> kote
– Kote / dou o misete -> morote men
– Harai morote-men
– Debana men (vs men and/or kote)
– Kote nuki men
– Kote otoshi men
Once your student has come this far (whether or not they have perfectly acquired the waza above yet) they can be said to have, or be well on the way to, a workable/survivable jodan level. At this point I start to unleash them in competition and would expect their keiko to be almost exclusively in jodan.
Part F: KATATE KOTE
I left this to last for a reason: one-handed kote is a devil to acquire. The technique is just really difficult and, in some execution methods, extremely unintuitive, especially so for the experienced kendoka. However, acquiring it is a must if you want to be a well rounded jodan kenshi.
In my students case, as I only have 2.5 years with them, I don’t have enough time for them to master it. I concentrate on form, katate-men, fumikiri/fumikomi, and distance first. I then add on to that waza that are generally much more easy to execute and are more readily useable. If is only after that when I shift to serious kote practise.
1 – Basic katate-kote (straight)
The basic katate-kote I teach is pretty much the same as men. The motodachi opens up their kote as they would for a chudan kakarite, and the jodan person pulls their left hand in and pushes the right out. The cut path should be straight down the middle with the left arm extended (almost over-extended) at the instant of the strike. After the strike the shinai will “bounce” up a little. With katate kote you don’t have to fly forward into taiatari or anything, just move forward one or two steps naturally.
Having already acquired the one-handed men cut, this should be relatively simple. Unlike that, however, it is almost impossible to use in jigeiko, so it should be considered the “barometer strike” for katate-kote.
(In fact, I suggest actually starting to add this into your students practise once their katate-men was somewhat decent, just to get them used to striking a much lower target.)
2 – Move out and cut down (diagonal)
The next step is to have the motodachi stay somewhat in seigan-no-kamae (the common – though mistaken – nomenclature used for a modified chudan kamae when facing a jodan opponent nowadays), that is, they shouldn’t open up and allow their kote to be struck. For basics, however, I wouldn’t have the kamae overly-protecting kote, as the jodan kakarite would be unable to practise, rather, adjust based on progress.
From jodan step out to the left so you can see around the tip of the motodachi’s kensen. At the same time move the left first diagonally out to the left, turn the wrist in to the right, and cut down diagonally to the kote.
As it’s pretty obvious what you are up to when you move out, this method isn’t really that effective unless you go fast.
3 – Wrist-twist and slap-down kote
I’ll update this when I can do it ……….
My personal experience
After my initial – quite intense – study, planning, and putting together of a step-by-step jodan teaching plan a decade ago, I continued to experiment and refine the processes while working in tandem with individual students. Needless to say, each of my four jodan students were different, so there was a lot of individual tailoring of the process happening.
As I taught the students I too would take up jodan and do it with them, at least initially. Once they had managed to get to Part E above, I would generally move back to chudan and concentrate on being a solid partner in chudan AGAINST them. In other words, I made it their job to learn how to defeat me (because striking the other students successfully is generally a lot easier). In the beginning it was relatively easy for me to, frankly put, beat them up… and beat them up I did! However, over time, as their jodan sense became better, they would lose less easily and start to land solid strikes on me. A couple of the students got so adept that, by the time they were retiring, I struggled to hit them.
So, for about the last decade I did a little bit of jodan practise here and there, and almost exclusively katate-men cutting on the left foot. I didn’t bother with jigeiko. That all changed about a year or so ago.
I’ve been doing kendo for a 1/4 of a century now. As time goes by, I am finding that it’s getting harder to feel any real progression. Spans between gradings are large, and I don’t do any shiai, so it’s hard to measure growth. I don’t know what it was exactly, but with my last jodan student I decided “it’s time” and made the decision to try jodan out more seriously. If I can’t “grow” I thought, perhaps it’s time to “evolve.”
So, for the past year I’ve gone into jodan almost every keiko session at school. Somedays I will do 20% of the session in jodan, other days 90%. Doing jigeiko in jodan at the beginning was a nightmare, but now it is clicking. I’ve started to jigeiko with students from other schools and, occasionally, with adults as well. I’m not ready to bust it out in my adult keiko sessions yet, but it will come (once my left foot fumikomi and my katate-kote are up to a decent level).
My jodan isn’t great at the moment. Since I don’t plan in doing it full time, it doesn’t have to be amazing. But as a teacher, I know that I must reach a somewhat better-than-average level in order to be a better model for my future jodan students. As a kenshi, making the effort to study jodan has been invaluable, so much so that I recommend everyone to spend a few years studying it. The caveat is, of course, that it is better done after acquiring good chudan basics…. without doing so you are in danger of becoming a one-trick pony or, even worse, a no-trick pony.
I have also set myself a (super!) difficult goal in regards to jodan: master it to a degree that, sometime in the future, I will use it at the Kyoto Taikai. Ippon-me in chudan, nihon-me in jodan. Whether I can polish my skill up to this level is questionable, but I’ll give it a damn good try. As it stands at the moment, I am giving myself another decade…
Jodan related articles on kenshi 24/7:
- Jodan Renaissance (2008)
- A practical guide to jodan training (2011, Guest post)
- Kakashi jodan (2011)
- Takano Shigeyoshi’s jodan (2014)