“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.”
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.
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?
Sources 剣道。高野佐三郎。島津書房発行。1915。 一刀流極意。笹森順造。礼楽堂発行。1965。 兵法一刀流。高野弘正。講談社発行。1985。 剣道はこう学べ。井上正考。玉川大学出版部発行。1986。 剣道いろは論語。井上正考。体育スポーツ出版社。1997。 The unfettered mind: Writings from a zen master to a master swordsman. Takuan Soho (Trans. William Scott Wilson). 2002.