kendo theory

Imagining seme

Striking in kendo, for the experienced, is something that occurs at the end of a process, which is usually encompassed in the umbrella term “seme” : through pro-actively applying some sort of pressure on your opponent you “break” their posture (physical and/or mental) and defeat them. This is the theory of-course. The less experience someone has the less likely they are to play the seme-ai “game” and instead strike randomly without consideration for what tactics their partner might be attempting to apply to them. This kind of “selfish” (as I have heard it described) kendo is readily seen in kids and young adults, but can also be found in technically immature adults as well. Of course, there are many strategically mature younger kenshi out there to be found too.

This article aims to discuss the type of seme-ai found in between mature kenshi and is based on an interesting article found in the December 2006 edition of Kendo Jidai by Yoshinari Masao (sorry, I don’t really know much about his background). There will be heavy input from yours truly.

p.s. check out some translations I did about seme back in 2012 and 13: one, two, three and four, five, and bonus (2010).

PART ONE: From seme to strike: understanding the process

The following will briefly list the four stages of the seme process mentioned in the article, from intention to attack to strike. 

A. Kizeme (draw in for the attack)

The first thing is to have the intention to attack. This is mainly WILL but also implies movement of the body and sword as you apply pressure on your opponent. 

The more mature a kenshi’s kendo is the less physical movement tends to happen. 

B. Tameru / infer response 

As your intention manifests itself and you “close in” on your opponent (not necessarily in the spatial sense) you “hold off’ on striking immediately and, watching your opponent closely, challenge them: “so, what are you going to do?”

The more experienced the kenshi is, the better they can control the opponent and infer the most likely response they’ll make. This inference can often be made somewhat successfully because those with more experience have done more keiko with more types of people and can recognise not only physical seme patterns but are good at reading the psychological aspects of seme-ai.

C. Partner intuits they will be struck

At this point your opponent, perceiving the incoming attack, will feel under pressure to react – they have a decision to make: strike back or dodge/block? Alternatively, they may be unable to choose either and simply stop indecisively (termed “itsuku” in Japanese).

If one of the four sickness occurs in them at this point (fear, surprise, confusion, or doubt) they will find themselves in a bad situation quickly.

D. Strike

If the opponent:

1. attempts to strike first, do some sort of oji-waza (response inferred/baited); 
2. stalls, strike them (mentally defeat);
3. breaks their posture, strike whichever area is open (physically defeat).

Of course, things don’t always go as smooth as this, and there is a lot of to-and-fro between both kenshi in the midst of the seme-ai. In mature kenshi especially, there will be a lot of back and forth between stages A and B on both sides before a “sickness” appears and stages C and D occur. 

PART TWO: types of seme

The article that nudged me to write todays post had a very unique way of describing the types of seme, grouping them in to three categories : strong, weak, and other. “Strong” doesn’t mean “strength” and “weak” doesn’t imply a lack of it, rather it refers to how the pressure feels. It also explicitly stated that not all renowned kenshi were of the same type. 

I don’t want to discuss much about these types but will just note that I found it highly interesting because of the language used (Japanese of course) and the nuanced feeling from it. Since it wouldn’t translated well at all into English, I will give you only a taster here before writing my own thoughts on the matter:

STRONG seme types: powerful seme, heavy seme, large seme, deep seme, sudden seme, etc.

WEAK: light seme, small seme, shallow seme, fine seme, slow seme, flexible seme, etc.

OTHER: long seme, short seme, round seme, far seme, warm seme, cold seme, etc.

Reading the article I pondered on how I would describe my varied partners seme in English. I soon realised my problem: although I started kendo in Scotland and have practised in many countries over the years, the vast majority of my shugyo has occurred in Japan under Japanese teachers and with Japanese partners. My students are also Japanese… so I actually find discussing kendo and its concepts much easier in Japanese than I do English, believe it or not! However, not being a native Japanese speaker means that I am sometimes not sure whether – during discussions with Japanese kendo friends or in articles like the one referenced – I am getting the exact nuance.

Anyway, my own opinion would be that the mature kenshi has (or should have) the ability to do many types of seme. Most people will fall in to a general style, probably dependent on a combination of personality and kendo maturity. The more adept practitioner almost certainly moves between kinds of seme as well as seme patterns in any particular encounter.

I certainly change how I keiko depending on the partner: senior sensei (thoughtful with fewer strikes, more intricate, less waza, seme-ai centric), peers (pro-active, strong, debana-centric), students (super aggressive, large waza variation), kids (passive and light), adult beginners (mostly passive with deliberate movements), etc.

What about you? How would you describe the type of seme that you generally do? Do you change your kendo depending on the partner or the situation? Please feel free to comment in the post below or on FaceBook etc.

I must admit that todays article was a bit rushed, and probably incomplete (you probably worked that out already!), but please forgive me. As you know, it has been far from a normal year.

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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8 replies on “Imagining seme”

George, the article is what I’ve been looking for but unable to find proper words to explain differences to my students. Thx mate! Thus my personal seme-description is yet under construction)

Answering your second question, for me it depends on a particular individual. If I see some Japanese gaffer-sensei is super-proactive and doesn’t mind me acting same way, I will do my part aggressively. Otherwise I will focus on looking for a 100% opportunity to perform one hit-to-kill type strike, i.e. one ippon from my jodan. Regarding other kenshi, save for beginners, children and when I teach, I always do it with all strength and speed I have till I fill totally exhausted. Even in this case I diverge two approaches (i) one for self-study purposes (where I focus on desirable waza to achieve by myself) and the best way fits me to do it on the limit; (ii) the other one is for teaching others (where I focus on my students achieving desirable waza of theirs) and for this one I will adapt my speed and strength. These are my thoughts, I’m in the beginning of teaching carrier though, thus might change in future.

“Gaffer sensei” heh heh – I’ve never heard that term used before, but I am happy to have heard it now, you made my day!

Glad the article was worthwhile to someone, and thanks for adding your personal thoughts as well. Seme from jodan – if done properly – is a slightly different beast I think. Same in theory, but different in practice.

Have a good New Year Andrew.

Thank you George!

Since returning to kendo a couple of years ago after a VERY long time, this “thing” called “seme” has been a bit of a dark art to me. I feel as though my own is very “monochromatic”, or predictable. Your article has opened my eyes to new possibilities. when we are eventually able to return to the dojo, I hope to be able to put this in to practice.

George McCall Sensei.
Thank you kindly for you kindly for the article on Seme, its one of those topics that are out there but nobody has really touched upon it, your article gave me lots to think about and just when I think i’ve got a grasp on a subject, whether its posture, footwork, Seme, Kiai, Striking with different Waza etc, now your writting has given me food for thought and something that I’ll work on in these crazy Covid 19 days.
I certainly wish you well and very grateful to you for sharing this article.

Best Regards from Nova Scotia, Canada.

Good article on seme.

As with you, I’m very keen on that and sensitive to what I’m doing. Of course from 6Dan this has picked up like a runway fright train, and for good measure. I’ll admit, up until 5dan this was as you would say, “more random” and I certainly didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now. However, as a beginner or an intermediate (lack of a better word through 5dan) I wouldn’t conclude it’s a bad thing because you learn from this randomness by sticking to the basics processing「守」while reimagining and reflecting through 「破」 (with good teaching too) and all the while progressing to your own form「離」. This is what makes this holistic process beautiful. By the way, the 「破」process I think is the “middle mountain” both in physical and mental aspects in developing this seme. It’s extremely euphemistic in meaning and includes this randomness by picking up the pieces and doing it again at keiko while sticking to the basics and learning what works and what doesn’t. To be honest it’s quite simple but to do, but it takes structure and most importantly good discipline and self-reflection.

Proactive seme and passive seme I think is how I break it down. Maybe there’s something in between as well “invisible seme”? You also can’t forget (and you mentioned it) that if your opponent is good, they’re also doing the same thing. Which makes kendo a lot more interesting rather than just the hitting which is, in fact, not really the important part. It’s how you get there is most important. A good result depends on this process. You can strike, but if the process is not acceptable, depending on what dan level you are, then your kendo is always defeated (probably won’t pass your dan testing either!).

The “invisible seme” is probably more “mushin” related, but if you you want to back it up with sport science your seme has become reflexive in that moment of cause and effect. Your mind just says, “Oh we’ve seen this before,” and “BAM!” you score that perfect ippon where everyone “oohs and ahhs”.

Kendo IS fun!

Great comment Jon!

I am not sold on the “reflex” kendo thing at this point. Sometimes its ok, but reliance on it will lead to disaster as you age.

Kendo is fun… sometimes!

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