history kendo theory

What are you (not) looking at ?

“When facing an opponent in shiai, the two metsuke are as follows. For opponents in jodan, you should watch the point from which they raise and lower their weapon [i.e. the hands]. Opponents in seigan will raise and lower their kissaki, attempting to hide their intent. When they are going to strike, they will raise the kissaki, and when they are going to thrust, they will lower it. Observing the kissaki, you should watch for when the opponent moves the sword in a real attack. In this way, the truth will make itself known to you.”

The above quote is from the sayings of a short collection of writings by Takano Mitsumasa, a senior student of Nakanishi Chubei Tanemasa, that were re-published in his grandson Takano Sasaburo’s 1915 book “Kendo.” Takano himself often repeated the same teaching, recommending people to keep their eyes fixed on the opponents shinai tip or fists. If you look at your opponent in their eyes, he intimated, you will forget yourself. This is a teaching from Itto-ryu called “futatsu no metsuke.”

The distinctive Oni-gote of the Itto-ryu style.

In complete opposite to this are the teachings found in the letter Takuan Soho wrote (somewhere between 1624-45) to Tokukawa shogunate retainer and head of the Edo Yagyu(-Shinkage)-ryu, Yagyu Munenori, known as the Fudochishinmyo-roku: 

“If one puts his mind in the action of his opponent’s body, his mind will be taken by the action of his opponent’s body.

If he puts his mind in his opponent’s sword, his mind will be taken by that sword.

If he puts his mind in thoughts of his opponent’s intention to strike him, his mind will be taken by thoughts of his opponent’s intention to strike him.

If he puts his mind in his own sword, his mind will be taken by his own sword.

If he puts his mind in his own intention of not being struck, his mind will be taken by his intention of not being struck.

If he puts his mind in the other man’s stance, his mind will be taken by the other man’s stance.

What this means is that there is no place to put the mind.”

Although this is talking about something more than metsuke, you can see why I included it here. 

Yagyu shinkage-ryu

Miyamoto Musashi had a different idea, condoning looking directly at the face of the enemy. Not only the face, however, but also their “soul” if you were. He called this “kanken ni you no metsuke” (looking at the soul was the more important).

“Obi no kane” is a rarely used term that teaches to look at the opponents belt (waist) rather than their eyes. This is done in response to a partner that is overwhelmingly strong and pressuring you too much. By removing your glare this could cause confusion in them and give you a chance for victory. 

In modern kendo the most often cited metsuke rule, or style, is “Enzan no metsuke” – to “look at a far mountain.” This says that if you look at a particular tree you won’t see the forest, and if you look at the forest you will miss the trees, so it’s best to “gaze vaguely” at the opponent, taking in no particular point yet seeing the full picture. Although not often stated explicitly, ones eyes are implied to be directed at the opponents, thought not strongly focused on them.

Nowadays, I think everybody basically looks (and teaches others to look) at their opponents eyes. Well, I assume so… I wouldn’t know because, actually, I rarely do so (and I generally say nothing about metsuke to my students other than “don’t look at where you want to strike unless it’s for a reason”). In 99% of cases I don’t look directly at my opponent, instead I look at their tsukidare. This, seemingly, gives me a more “distant” and sometimes – if has been said – “scary” appearance. That was never my plan of course. 

I am pretty sure I used to look at my opponents eyes when practising years ago but, at some unspecified juncture in the mists of time, I changed. Not sure why. However, although it might not have been a planned change in my kendo, it is something I now definitely prefer.

First, I don’t “forget myself” as mentioned above. On the rare occasion I do look someone in the eyes, they always seem to look, well, angry maybe, or to have non-friendly (violent!) intentions… which kind of bothers me as I like to enjoy kendo. Anyway, by not looking at someone I can control myself better. Secondly, I don’t give myself away through my eyes. What I mean is that I don’t suddenly widen my eyes when I intend to strike or close them when sensing (through psychological intimidation) imminent defeat. Occasionally I WILL obviously look at a datotsu-bui to telegraph that I am going to strike there… which is of course a deception. I tend only to do this with people who don’t have much experience, as they can be easily led astray by such outward tactics.

Anyway, what about you? Do you have any particular metsuke preference?


The unfettered mind: Writings from a zen master to a master swordsman. Takuan Soho (Trans. William Scott Wilson). 2002.

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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12 replies on “What are you (not) looking at ?”

Interesting article. I too try to focus on the tsuki, but probably end up looking in the wrong places.

What are you looking for kata practice?
In fact, once in my life I refused to practice kata with someone.
He was continuously looking at the ground.
At that time (5 dan) it was impossible for me to practice the kata under these conditions.

I’ve also become a tsukidare gazer and I’m unsure if it’s something i want to embrace or change. It feels most stable to me internally, and it’s clearly a natural tendency since it’s happened without any particular intention. But i wonder if I’m missing a whole world of insight into my opponent’s intent or mental state by not connecting with their eyes.

Nigel, sometimes I do look at a persons eyes just to check.

JP – in kata I do look at my partners eyes. Or sometimes maybe chin?

Sometimes I tend to look at the shoulders as I feel that gives me an indication they are coming.

Hi Sensei, I have been looking at the eyes all these years. But I too often see the very intense or not so friendly face and I do remember a couple of specific shiai situation where that interfered and rattled my emotions resulting me in making a stupid move. After reading this posting I have first tried to look at the tsukidare but it feels too low for me. I have started to try looking at the lower part of the mengane, around the chin area, and it seems it has helped me to “gaze vaguely”. Thanks again for your wonderful posting!

Gosh, a nice piece of material it is. Thanks George!

My preference is to look in a mirror if there is one. Hopefully I do have plenty at my own dojo.

Since my eyesight is a bad combination of +/- I’ve got hard time to focus on something in general. Not mentioning kendo. In the beginning it was a real pain with maai. Now I’ve got used to it and prefer to behave as a semi blind person, so I can look elsewhere, a mirror preferable, since it helps to feel the room without actually focusing on smth.

I’m guilty of looking for love in all the wrong places. I focus nowhere though. Perhaps I’ve finally reached satori.

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