japanese kendo

Kendo iroha

Like most kenshi 24/7 readers, I always have a few kendo books and mags lying on my desk at work. When I have time to kill I like to randomly flick through them. Every now and again I’ll rotate a book from my desk with one from my bookshelf at home. In all honesty, however, a lot of the kendo books are pretty much the same. I do have some great books but, in general, the majority of them just repeat the same things. If I am honest, after a while, it all becomes a bit uninspiring. However, repeatedly reading similar content for decades has really helped my Japanese ability, especially when it comes to kendo terminology, so I shouldn’t really complain.

Random page from a random kendo book on my desk

It is not too much to say that, nowadays, I actually find it easier to talk about kendo in Japanese than I do in English. So much so that at the Edinburgh kendo seminar a couple of years back I sometimes struggled to translate Yano-sensei’s words into smooth English! You might feel that my writing here is ok, but each article takes time and (usually!) undergoes careful editing. If we were to talk about kendo face-to-face I might struggle to articulate myself well (feel free to test that this year).

Yano sensei teaching in Edinburgh

In most instances, luckily for me, we can use Japanese terms to explain kendo things (somewhat) accurately even when discussing a matter in English. Of course, some nuance is sometimes lost, and occasionally non-Japanese speakers misunderstand or mislearned words (as I did early on in my kendo career), which can cause a bit of confusion. This is perfectly understandable of course. The worst thing that can happen – and it does happen, especially with younger Japanese kenshi or those who haven’t studied the culture of kendo itself enough (i.e. they don’t read) – is native Japanese speakers themselves may not understand Japanese kendo terminology precisely: they might have only a vague sense of the term’s meaning or, sometimes, simply guess. This can lead to more confusion.

Anyway, in today’s article I want to pick up some kendo terminology that is either unknown in the English kendo lexicon (and I think it should be introduced) or that is used but perhaps mistakenly, and explain a little bit more in detail (if I can). I have listed them in alphabetical order.

(Actually, if I am being honest, the choice of terms here is mostly random and based on my mood!)

I want this book…
ROMANISATION - literal meaning in English | Kanji (hiragana)

AGEKOTE / AGEGOTE – “rising kote” | 上げ(揚げ)小手(あげこて・あげごて)

Agegote was a term used until recently to describe the situation when someone’s hands had risen above the area of about their solar plexus. In this situation the left kote became a valid target. In the 2019 iteration of the shiai rules, the term was removed and replaced (in by-law 13) with the phrase:

“The correct strike area for kote will be the right kote when in chudan kamae (if someone has a left hand forward kamae, then the left kote) or both left and right kote when the opponent takes a kamae except for chudan and so on.”

The change was made to stop over defensive kendo including the use of “Sampomamori” (a term first introduced to international kendo audiences here on kenshi 24/7, but not widespread in Japan). In reality, however, left kote strikes are almost never given unless the person being struck is in jodan (in a later article I want to discuss the loss of left kote as a valid strike).

Traditionally, however, the term “agegote” referred to the situation where someone lifted their hands up, even a little bit, giving rise to a chance to strike debanagote or telegraphing intent to strike.

AMASU / AMASHI – “to save, to leave over, to spare” | 余す・余し(あます・あまし)

Have you ever tried fencing someone who kept stepping away from your strikes and hit you after you missed? This is AMASHI waza. For example if you attempt to strike men and your opponent steps (diagonally or straight) back and hits your raised kote while continuing backwards, this is “men amashi-(hiki)kote.” The stepping back out of distance is what makes it “amashi” and should not to be confused with “nuki,”which is more of a ducking or dodging action forward. Not many people use the term correctly nowadays.

In a side-note, I find it frustrating doing kendo with people who rely on waza like this instead of squaring-off and having a more direct, confrontational debana-centric style. For me, over-reliance on this type of waza is short-sighted, and dare I say it, weak.

btw a related term is 見切り(みきり・MIKIRI). This is the act of stepping back (or to the side) – very slightly, just a hairs breadth – to avoid a persons attack. This requires the ability to read the opponents distance, as well as a good dash of bravery. Any strikes delivered afterwards will (should) be short and sharp.

CHOSHI – rhythm / condition | 調子(ちょうし)

“Choshi,” as used in daily Japanese, usually refers to someone’s condition (i.e. health) or, musically, to refer to rhythm or timing. In kendo we usually use it when talking about how you feel about your kendo today, both physically and mentally. When your keiko is going smoothly, your techniques are working well, and you have enough power and speed in your strikes, then your choshi is good.

See a related article about the term Hyoshi (2012).

HIRAUCHI – flat striking | 平打ち(ひらうち)

Shinai are round. Sure, there are different types of tsuka used to help us feel which is the top and bottom of the shinai, but they are only aids, and not perfect, so sometimes the shinai moves or rotates too much within the hands. The result can sometimes be that people strike with the side of their shinai and not the bottom. This is called “hirauchi” and is not considered a valid strike. Almost everyone (except young kids), however, get this pretty quick, so it doesn’t tend to be a major problem…. except for jodan people trying katate-kote. If you are a jodan person ensuring that you don’t do hirauchi is paramount. The same goes for nito kenshi as well.

Shinpan also must always be looking out for people whose shinai rotate in their hands and strike flat, and never reward them for doing so.

IRIMI – to enter | 入身(いりみ)

The term irimi is generally only used in kendo nowadays when referring to kodachi kata. It refers to stepping deeply (and quickly) into the opponents distance so that you can strike or take control of them in someway. In the kodachi kata the uchidachi strikes at the moment the shidachi is just about to irimi or enter into their (closer) distance.

Kodachi kata were explicitly added to kendo-kata in order to teach irimi because it is far more obvious to learn when one person has a far shorter weapon. But, as you no doubt understand, irimi is not limited to this particular scenario alone, right?

IRO – colour | 色 (いろ)

I have written about IRO in the past I think. Iro corresponds to an opening and there are two types of it: unintentional and deliberate.

Unintentional is the most common use and it refers to the times during keiko where you, accidentally, open yourself up, giving your opponent a striking chance (the JITSU of kyojitsu – see below). The other type of iro, the deliberate, is when you intentionally show a target to your opponent in the hope that they will – believing it is unintentional – take the bait and strike. Of course, being a trap, you would be ready with a counter (e.g. men kaeshi dou, kote suriage men, etc).

ITSUKU – to get stuck (in place) | 居つく (いつく)

A very common term used in kendo it refers to the times in keiko where you – for whatever reason – freeze. This is often the fault of your opponents seme and sometimes due to your own indecision. “What’s happening?” you might ask yourself when the opponents drives in… but by asking yourself the question you have already lost the initiative and are in danger of being struck.

“What should I do?” is also another question you probably should not be thinking too deeply about in a jigeiko or shiai situation. In normal kihon or waza practise it is of-course important that you carefully watch your partner and carefully consider what it is you are doing = deliberate practice. But in a free sparring or competition situation, this is potentially a recipe for disaster.

You of course know the kendo term 驚懼疑惑 (きょうくぎわく) – fear, surprise, doubt, and confusion. The manifestation of any of these is leads to itsuku.

KYOJITSU – Falsehood and truth | 虚実(きょうじつ)

All keiko/shiai situations are about the battle between KYO (falsehood) and JITSU (truth). Rather than try to explain it let me give you an example: person A steps in confidently and pressures. The opponent, B, sensing an imminent strike is momentarily paralysed with indecisiveness (see Itsuku and Iro above). A is in JITSU, B is in KYO. Although B has the upper-hand they fail to see/take it and step back, allowing B to come to their sense’s, step forward, and dip their shinai slightly to bait A to strike men (see Iro above). A is on the back-foot but, seeing the opening for men makes the split decision to go for it. A is in KYO, B is in JITSU…… and so on.

When two strong opponents face off sometimes both can be (momentarily) in the jitsu state. However, striking at this point is akin to striking two rocks together: you might get sparks but both are damaged. Usually kenshi of this calibre take a far more nuanced approach to seme, constantly looking to create small breaks in the opponents kamae in order to defeat them. The change between states between kenshi like is constant and often fleeting.

As you know from experience, weaker people or beginners can constantly be in a state of kyo. They have no idea of the concept of kyojitsu and so their kendo is completely random. This is of course a phase that everyone goes through. However, through time and practice, every now and then – even against a highly experienced partner – they might find themself with the upper hand (jitsu). It is important for them to learn to notice this feeling.

This is a kendo concept that has fallen out of general use nowadays.

MOTOUCHI – striking at the base | 元打ち(もとうち)

There is one person who I sometimes see at keiko that has repeatedly tried and failed nanadan. There are many reasons why this might be, but one obvious one is he strikes way too deeply – almost at the base of his shinai. This is “motouchi” and no matter the timing will never be regarded as a good strike. A fundamental problem, how he managed to get rokudan was a mystery at the time he passed, and remains one today.

NAYASU – to wither, to droop, or become lame | 萎やす (なやす)

In kendo kata sanbonme the uchidachi attempts to tsuki shidachi. Shidachi counters with nayashi-waza: they lightly press the shinogi (side) of their blade on the mine/mune (top) of the uchidachi’s blade and – just after they start moving back – pulls it towards themself. The result of this is to, in theory, slightly move the uchidachi’s point very slightly out of centre. Shidachi then, whilst twisting their wrists back (resulting in their blade facing down), tsuki’s forward.

This is a term that is basically alien for Japanese speaking kenshi as well. If you press them for the name of the waza you might hear tsuki-kaeshi-tsuki – which, though not technically accurate, is basically fine as well. That’s how I usually describe it to my students.

ORISHIKI – kneeling down (on one knee) | 折り敷き(おりしき)

In kendo kata nanahon-me when the uchidachi goes to strike men the shidachi does a nuki-dou and goes down on one-knee. This type of waza is called ORISHIKI. A few years ago – in a now archived article series entitled “Dead or dying waza” – I talked a little bit about orishiki techniques. In the past, when kendo wasn’t as athletic, orishiki-dou (nuki or kaeshi) was a standard technique (kote was another option but not necessarily a pragmatic choice). It’s not that you can’t do it nowadays, it has just become hard because in todays kendo people barrel through you at high speed.

To tell you the truth, I practice this waza sometimes. In particular, I find it very useful against nito-kenshi as they generally don’t run through as much and, because their kendo is usually highly defensive, you have to do something out of the box to get past them. It is quite satisfying when done well.


UCHIKAESHI – to strike back | 打ち返し(うちかえし)

After the war, when shinai-kyogi made an appearance, it was decided that the term “kirikaeshi” was not suitable as it had the kanji KIRU (cut) in it. The term was changed in 1952 to UCHI (strike)-kaeshi instead. The term was commonplace for decades and you can still hear it from time-to-time today.

Bonus: it is from that time also that the term “opponent” or “partner” started to be used rather than “enemy.”

WAZAMAE – before the technique | 技前(わざまえ)

A commonly used term that is relatively easy to understand: “waza” as you know means technique, and “mae” means before, so it is used to describe what happens (the process) before a technique is launched. This includes seme-ai (the physical/mental seme that happens between two people, i.e. the to-and-fro of kyojitsu) as well as shinai movement, body placement, reading the distance, and so on.

Many people, especially younger or inexperienced ones, have little or even no wazamae – they rely solely on speed (or surprise) rather than the process. This is generally not their fault though, and as their kendo matures what happens before a technique is launched becomes more important than the technique itself. I am sure you have heard the kendo saying: “Utte katsu na, katte utsu” = “don’t strike and win, win and then strike.”


YOMI – reading | 読み(よみ)

The ability to read or judge/predict an opponent and the situation you and they are in based on their breathing, body/shinai movement, and so on. Someone who is highly experienced has probably done kendo with many different types of people over the years. This experience allows them to read peoples kendo “type” quickly and adapt to the situation in a logical manner (waza choice, distance, etc).

If you are someone who is easily struck it is probably because you are being read easily. A good thing to do is to take video of your keiko and look closely at not only where you are struck, but when (see iro and kyojitsu above).

It is possible that you know some or all of the terms of course, and that’s fine. Although I mainly plucked the terms from the book that happens to be on my desk this week, the definitions in todays article are basically mine. Actually, I should probably check the ZNKR’s official Japanese-English language dictionary to see if there are any more “official” definitions, but I gave it away to a Japanese friend a few years ago.

Anyway, todays article is just a mini one done because I had some spare time. I hope it was of interest, cheers!

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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5 replies on “Kendo iroha”

Are you sure that the term “Age-Kote”(上げ小手) is also written as ‘揚げ小手’? Because the verb ‘ageru’ with the Kanji “揚” actually means “to fry”!, while “上” means ‘top’, as in “上段” (‘Jōdan’)…!????

Hi George! Andrey from Moscow here!
I was recently asked about the “four sicknesses” and the way they’re written in Japanese. I see you use the same Kanji that I was asked about: 驚擢疑惑. The question was that the Kanji for “fear” in this case isn’t read “ku” and doesn’t mean “fear” according to the dictionaries that I have access to. The more usual Kanji that I see in interpretations (including the sources that cite the same 4 Kanji that you use) is “恐”, e.g. “…擢(恐)れたり…する心の状態”, but it’s not read “ku” either.
It seems to me that “擢” is just a misspelling for “懼” which has both the right reading and the right meaning (and is also found quite often in the internet). Or is it the case that “擢” has/had a different meaning that is not found in the more common sources? Could you please clarify this or give a link where there is some info?
(I found the “Kendo Yougo Jiten” to be very informative, but it doesn’t answer my question fully.)

Hey mate, you are absolutely right. It should be 懼 and not 擢. It’s a copy-and-paste and/or bad editing error (I’ll fix this article and be more careful in the future). I bet you will find the exact same error on many Japanese sources as well – native Japanese people make these types of errors constantly. Cheers !!

Thanks, George! I don’t think it’s your typo, but a misspelling made way before your post 🙂 I definitely found a lot of websites that use the same Kanji.

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