Kendo Sanmai

I have large stack of unread, or partly-read, kendo books in my closet. I pick them up from time to time and flick through them. Also in the stack is, I must admit, books I read (some only sort-of) but decided they didn’t contain much useful information. All my really good kendo books don’t live in the closet, but on my bookshelf. At any rate, today’s translation comes from one of the former: a book called 剣道三昧 (“kendo sanmai”). 

SANMAI is a word of buddhist origin that corresponds to Samadhi, a state of meditative consciousness. In daily Japanese, however, the original meaning is moved aside slightly and instead it refers to a state where you are absorbed or devoted to something wholeheartedly. You can add -sanmai to the end of anything to show devotion (obsession!) with it, for example:  “beer sanmai” or “benkyo (study) sanmai” and so on. “Kendo sanmai” could be used to describe many kenshi 24/7 readers I guess! 

A rare picture of the Osaka Butokuden (destroyed during WWII)

The author of the book, Nakao Iwao, was (and still mostly is) someone unknown to me, so the book lay in my closet collecting dust. Having some spare time at home recently I found myself flicking through some books looking for some inspiration. I picked up Kendo Sanmai and read the mini bio section by the author. Although Nakao sensei was (the book was published nearly 40 years ago when the author was already hanshi hachidan) nobody particularly well known, he still led a full and enviable kendo career: 

- Started kendo at around 8 years old at the Osaka Butokuden (where he was taught by Akiyama Takichiro, the son of the legendary Momoi Junzo)
- Had lots of shiai success as a youth and had a choice of universities to attend and practice kendo
- Was inspired by a visited from Wasada kendo club and their teachers (Takano Sasaburo, Saimura Goro, Shibata Mansaku, Takano Hiromasa)
- Graduated from Wasada and his first kendo teaching position was at the Osaka Butokuden (during the war most kendo teachers were drafted one way or another, so there was a severe lack of instructors)
- the day before he was meant to join the army the local municipal council took his draft papers from him and instead asked him to teach all around the city in various places
- after the war (1958) he was recruited by the Hyogo prefectural police system as a kendo instructor in Kobe city
- at the time of the books publication in 1986 he was hanshi hachidan and an honorary kendo shihan at the Hyogo prefectural police HQ as well as holding a senior ZNKR position

Grades: 1937 renshi, 1943 kyoshi, 1965 hachidan,  1971 hanshi

Reading his bio I realised that he wasn’t a kendo nobody, and that there must have been many highly capable kenshi who have come before us that are simply unknown nowadays. Perhaps that’s because they liked to keep things quiet, or maybe it’s because they simply never left anything behind. Information about even those who won top-level shiai – even though we might know their names – have mostly disappeared into time. Such is the fate for all of us I guess. Thinking all of this I decided that it is my duty to read this book, and perhaps share any insights Nakao sensei might have had. 

To start with, here is my translation of a – completely random – section of 92 little “poetic sayings” found at the start of the book. I don’t know why the topics are so random, and I have no idea why these are at the start of the book. 

Note that my translations are not necessarily literal. It can also be hard to get what he is trying to say sometimes due to lack of context. I have filled in the blanks using my imagination and experience. I hope you enjoy the translation nevertheless.

Nakao sensei teaching kendo
92 snippets of wisdom

1. Kendo is about striking the opponents heart with yours.
2. In shiai, neither wait nor rush, go with the flow.
3. Kakarigeiko should be short and executed at full throttle. 
4. A good maai is one in which the opponent feels close to you yet they feel it far; you should be able to strike at anytime with ki-ken-tai.
5. Both legs should act in tandem; striking with your whole body from your legs is the basis of good kendo.
6. When initiating a strike, your opponent will telegraph their intention; strike their intention.
7. The eyes are a window to the heart; when your opponent intends to strike their eyes will signal their intention - strike in that instant.
8. True strength lies in good technique, not in strong strikes.
9. Doing keiko every day is like the piling up of daily delivered newspapers.
10. A kodansha who does un-spirited keiko is inferior to a shodan.
11. If you enter tsubazeriai quickly strike and move away; in tsubazeria be careful to relax yet not be careless. 
12. The moment after a mutual-strike (ai-uchi) is decisive.
13. During keiko, always aim to get shodachi.
14. Watch the opponents movement careful and strike when they either enter in or step back.
15. Chudan kamae is the state where your heart is true with no wicked thoughts in mind; be sure you are gripping the shinai correctly.
16. Maai exists in physical space as well as mentally; from there you should be able to strike anytime in ki-ken-tai.
17. When facing an opponent you must first read the opponents mind and strike them first.
18. When facing an opponent if you have no confidence or are unsure whether to strike but do so anyway, your strike will fail.
19. In kendo you should not only think about winning or losing, but seek to understand the spiritual depth found through practice itself.
20. You shouldn’t try to forcibly attain grades, rather, through keiko you will naturally acquire status (respect).
21. People who are truly good at kendo will say nothing about others, only talk about their own imperfections.
22. When facing an opponent, first pressure with the spirit and the the body, finally pressure with kiai and then strike.
23. If you get angry during keiko you have lost.
24. During shiai if you are overly concerned with striking an opening will appear in yourself.
25. If you refine the body, the spirit, and your ki, then your kendo outlook will broaden immensely.  
26. First is keiko, second is keiko, and third is keiko; the way of kendo is found through keiko.
27. In jodan, smash the chudan opponents shinai tip with your fist and strike their men.
28. Pressure first with the spirit, the body, and the shinai, after that look for an opening and strike.
29. Without relaxing the spirit, execute waza by first pressuring as if you intend to tsuki your opponent.
30. When you and your opponent are in chudan, pressure slightly from the opposite side of the shinai; when your opponent attempts to strike, hit their kote immediately.
31. First defeat the opponents mind, then strike them with the shinai.
32. When you and your opponent are in chudan, break through the opponents shinai tip with your tsuba and strike men.
33. When doing a standing bow you should already be pressuring the opponent with your spirit.
34. In zanshin, your body and spirit should be as one.
35. When doing suriage do so with the monouchi of the shinai while opening to the right, then strike men.
36. Respecting and appreciating your sempai is etiquette for kendo people.
37. While doing morotezuki, don’t put power in the right hand but thrust from the hips using the left hand.
38. When receiving kirikaeshi do so as if inviting your partners shinai in.
39. If your opponent goes to strike kote take a half step back with your left foot, move your shinai out of the way, and strike men.
40. A real kendoka is someone who actually does something, not someone who only says something impressive.
41. Kendo improvement comes through continual daily effort.
42. If your first strike isn’t successful, strike again; if that doesn’t land keep striking until you meet with success.
43. Even if your job is busy or difficult, remember that you have kendo to help bring you peace.
44. If you can block a strike you can strike. 
45. When you are tired during keiko, breath through your mouth not your nose.
46. In order to not thrust a katatezuki with a bad posture or timidly, remember to strike from the hips with a good posture.
47. In jodan, never go back and never retreat; always go forward and strike before the opponent.
48. On a strike the right hand should be relaxed and the left hands pinky should squeeze firmly.
49. In kendo, the basis of movement is a natural stance.
50. When looking at your opponent look at them at a glance from the tip of their toes to the top of their head.
51. To help relax yourself after keiko a kirikaeshi will help.
52. There are no shortcuts in kendo, only keiko.
53. During shiai, a strong desire to win at all costs is the result of loss of mental control.
54. To have correct kendo requires devotion to kihon.
55. In keiko it is ok to allow someone to hit you, not to actually be hit due to lack of control.
56. During keiko, if you believe hitting someone means victory you are still very far from the path of kendo.
57. You should keiko with a lot of partners whose kendo you don’t like.
58. In kendo we have MA (spatial distance), MAAI (physical distance), and KIKAI (chance); we have these in society as well.
59. Don’t strike only with the hands or only with the body; strike with the legs and always pressure with the spirit.
60. Kendo instructors must always be strict with themselves and reflect on their actions constantly.
61. Rather than wait to be asked for keiko, do the asking.
62. There should be no receiving in kendo, you must execute a kaeshi or suriage technique, etc.
63. Don’t move back and don’t stop; if you continually pressure with your spirit you might be surprised at the techniques that you execute.
64. People who study kendo shouldn’t do anything socially embarrassing. 
65. The frame of mind for kendo and life is the same.
66. If someone approaches kendo shugyo with honesty then they will come to know what it means to be a human being.
67. It is from mutual respect between you and your opponent when real kendo can occur.
68. It is more important to do a full spirited keiko with a single person than lacklustre keiko with many.
69. Kendo instructors need patience and compassion.
70. Develop a lofty character by academic study and disciplining oneself through study of the sword.
71. Even if you are strong at kendo, having conceit in your heart means you are nothing but a dead autumn leaf.
72. Take the techniques you have been taught and make them yours.
73. The tricks to techniques such as suriage and kaeshi are are found in tenouchi and body movement.
74. In order to discourage your opponents heart you should shout with a loud voice from the pit of your stomach.
75. In kendo, when you think “now!” you should fly forward with abandon; victory can be found here.
76. Voice and movement are connected; the louder you shout the more sharp your movement will be.
77. Rather than using a heavy shinai, it is best to use a lighter one so that your techniques become more nimble.
78. Kendo strikes shouldn’t be as if you are punching or hitting someone, rather they should be as if you were cutting.
79. If you practice kihon correctly with a good posture then someday you will find yourself executing techniques you thought you couldn’t do.
80. Pressuring forward with your ki, your movement, and when you come into your distance, strike.
81. When you and your opponents hearts are connected in keiko then we have KO-KEN-CHI-AI (an friendly exchange of mind and sword); it is not simply about whether you are skilful or not.
82. You can’t get good at kendo by listening to your sensei or reading books; good kendo can only emerge from severe keiko.
83. Do kendo with the feeling of sincerity in your shinai and cut cleanly and correctly.
84. You can discover the truth in someones heart if you allow their heart to be reflected in yours during keiko.
85. It is in the tough battles you have when you face those stronger than you where improvement happens.
86. The heart and technique of someone who boasts at victory is unseemly.
87. Rather than chatting pointlessly, it is best to work on the heart; it is here the path to improvement lies.
88. Rather than who won or lost, kendo is more about polishing the spirit and drilling techniques.
89. Teaching something you were taught is to come in to contact with the one who taught you.
90. Through contemplation after keiko we should seek to modify our heart as well as our kendo.
91. It is natural that humans die; to conduct ourself in the face of death without fear, this is what kendo shugyo is about.
92. If we are lazy and skip keiko for a day that laziness will enter our heart; if we skip keiko a second day, everyone will know about it; if we skip a third day, everyone will laugh.
Nakao sensei as a young man at Wasada university

If you enjoy listicles like this, check out the listicles section at the very bottom of the Kendo History archive page. There are lots of other goodies on that page as well. Cheers!


By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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8 replies on “Kendo Sanmai”

Very nice, it’s like the collection of advice that Sensei told me and quite a lot more. Thanks for translating and sharing.

I loved reading the article (and “listicle”) and learning about Kendo sanmai. So much wisdom in Nakao sensei’s words. Thank you for the translation George!

“In kendo, when you think “now!” you should fly forward with abandon; victory can be found here.”

So much here in the list seems so useful. Bookmarked.

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