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.
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.
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.