After many years of consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that some people may find me hard to work with. This is (mostly!) due to the fact that I am a bit of a sceptic: for things that I am invested in – or that I find important – I tend NOT to take what is said to me at face value. The result of this is that I have been known to ask the odd awkward question to colleagues. This comes, not from some desire to nit-pick, but because I am genuinely interested in doing things better (=more logically). Needless to say, some people sometimes mistake my line of questioning as critical and/or confrontational… which it isn’t (usually!). As you might imagine, living and working in Japan, where almost everything is top-down and more-often-than-not illogical, my sceptical side is often in overdrive.
So yeah, kendo. There are a few things about the “official” kendo line that I struggle to accept as is. I say “struggle” but what I really mean is probably stronger: things about “official” kendo that really need some critical discussion. In the past I have discussed how problematic the grading system is and introduced briefly (for the first time to the English speaking kendo community) the oft-ignored Shinai-kyogi’s impact on modern kendo, but there are other things I have yet to tackle on kenshi 24/7 (for example, how the official history of kendo skims over the militarisation era or how modern kendo exalt the sensei of the past yet ignore their teachings).
In today’s article I don’t want to go deep into a single subject, instead I will take a critical look at a couple of common physical teachings plus one conceptual one. Remember, you are free to disagree with any of the points I raise here… in fact, please do so. The aim of this article is, after all, to stir discussion.
Note that any conclusions reached here are based on my experience – by critically watching, listening, reading, and doing over many years with many different people in many different environments. The key is, of course, to be as honest (with yourself) as possible.
The nonsensical “45”
One of the first things I questioned about the usual ZNKR teachings many years ago was the“45 degrees” thing. This applies to both upswinging when doing suburi or large men-cuts, as well as the cutting angle of kirikaeshi. My conclusion is that the angle is basically arbitrary and I now no longer teach nor aim to do anything at a 45 degree angle.
Let’s have a look at swinging first.
Part 1: swinging
I’ve heard many reasons why you must swing to 45 degrees but none of them convincing. One of the simplest rationales given for doing this is easy to disprove: that if you swing more than 45 degrees your strike will be somehow slower and/or weaker. This is quantifiablly nonsense: research* shows that a larger swing, one where the shiai tip is behind you (but not so much as to be touching your bum), is faster and has better impact. You could probably empirically test this yourself.
It is also obvious (to one who looks) that someone who swings like this often looks quite stiff, probably because they aren’t using – or are using only very little of – their shoulders, elbows, and/or wrists.
Allowing your body to work naturally rather than applying the breaks at some arbitrary point (one, btw, that many people cannot grasp properly anyway, as your average person has problems with imagining where something spatially exists when it isn’t in their line of sight) is always going to be better.
(What are large strikes for anyway? … see below)
* The original article I read about this is lost in the mists of time. However, if you can read Japanese you can find some research online if you care to look.
Part 2: kirikaeshi
45 degree cuts for kirikaeshi were implemented first, I suspect (this is an educated conjecture), as a safety precaution – to stop ear drums being burst (anecdotally rather common in the past) – rather than some “correct” cutting angle thing… that justification seems to have come later. Takano Sasaburo, one of the “fathers of modern kendo” taught horizontal striking kirikaeshi, for example. Was he wrong?
Two of the most (historically) important things that kirikaeshi was said to have taught were 1) the development of physical stamina/strength, and 2) the “kaesu” part, that is, training the wrists to be flexible and light… NOT the cutting part per-se. Note that there is a hint in the Japanese itself: we usually use “yoko” (side) or “sayu” (right-left) rather than “naname” (diagonal) when describing the cutting action.
btw, it seems that diagonal “yoko” men cuts aren’t quite valued the same was as normal “sho-” men cuts, or is this just me? If they were deemed legitimate (as in the same way as “sho-men” are) they they’d score more ippon and wouldn’t be frowned upon (i.e. ignored) in gradings. So what is the over emphasis on the 45 degree “cut” for?
In short, kenshi247-ryu says:
1. “On large cuts, swing up naturally; just ensure that your left fist is above your line of sight… don’t overthink it.” 2. “Do lots of kirikaeshi at full power and focus on working the wrists.”
Body movement and distance NECESSARILY changes with strike size
Large men cuts and small men cuts are NOT the same. The distance of the arc that the arms travel necessarily affects the speed of the strike and, needless to say, your body movement/timing. Of course it does. There is no need to – on large strikes – swing up and down at some crazy speed to match the same speed as you would do on a small strike. It would be silly to try, right?
Note that I am making an assumption here that is vital to note:
On small strikes the right foot is lifted up and moves forward BEFORE the (small) swinging action of the hands
If this is what you do (or aim to do) then you should agree with my assessment. If, however, you don’t move your right foot out first- that is, keep is fixed in place – before executing a small strike, then fair enough, you might be able to somewhat match the distance and general body movement (but not speed) for both large and small strikes. I strongly suggest you move your foot out before you strike though.
Note that, in general (= in most cases), for larger swings, people usually“throw” (or “cast”) the shiai forward and the body – pulled forward by the momentum – travels further.
Taking and analysing video can help you see what’s happening more clearly here, so if you are sceptical about what I am saying here (good!), please investigate for yourself.
But wait, why do we strike large anyway? In theory, as we don’t really do them during keiko, it is unnecessary. Then why do we still do it? Well, for most people it seems to be simply habit.
For me, however, large (men or kote-men) strikes are done with a particular purpose: they train the body to make large movements; large movements foster stronger fumikomi; and strikes (obviously because the swing is larger) are far more solid when done larger. I then try to execute smaller strikes with the same feeling and strength as I do larger ones.
While we are on it …
The most important part of a large cut is not the upswing (certainly not at a fixed degree…), nor is, I posit, 90% of the downswing – it is the point of impact and the immediate before and after. This is, of course, connected to your body movement and kikentai-icchi as well.
So, kenshi247-ryu says:
1. “Treat footwork and body movement for large and small strikes differently.” 2. “Aim for the strength (tenouchi/snap and fumikomi) of small strikes to be the same as large strikes” (this is not always possible, but attempting to get the “feeling” is important).”
Recently (by chance) an excellent video of Okada Morimasa sensei mentioning something of this was released:
“Tadashii kendo” – one size does not fit all
I’m 173cms. My weight fluctuates between about 64 and 67kgs, but (obviously) my arm and leg length doesn’t change. I tend to prefer heavier 3.8 shiai but I often use 3.9s as well, generally of the lighter variety. I am confident in kaeshi-dou and katatezuki, but not so good at kaeshi-men or nuki-dou. Nowadays I practice usually around about 8-10 times a week or so.
The students I do keiko with, my friends at asageiko, the random kenshi I meet at degeiko, everyone is different: heights, weights, arm/leg lengths, length of shinai, weight of shinai, thickness of shinai handle, experience, keiko volume, and so on and so forth. Everyone is unique and individual. Why are we, then, all expected to do the same style of kendo? Isn’t this… bizarre?
One size doesn’t fit all and, by logical extension of this, there is no such thing as “correct” kendo.
The ZNKR has very slowly, over a span of decades, slowly shepherded everyone to follow the same “shape.” If you don’t have the shape you might still be able to score ippon and even win some shiai, but you might struggle to enter the yudansha ranks (6dan and above). Sometimes people with non-standard kendo do appear in the upper ranks, but nowadays you’ll never see a (newer/younger) hachidan with different looking kendo. In the past, having unique kendo was seen as a plus, not now.
So, kenshi247-ryu says:
1. “When looking for a model to copy as an aide to improvement, look to someone your own age and general body shape. A 20 year old nidan shouldn’t be trying to copy a 70 year old 8dans kendo.” 2. “Experiment and seek your own kendo. It is ok to try different kamae and waza.”
Obviously I am not saying that I am “right” or “correct” with anything I said here today as that would be totally against my own policy. Through listening, contemplating, trial-and-error, I have chosen to discard elements of “official” kendo in my own practice. I have taken possession of my own kendo.
(btw, at this juncture it is important to note that I can actually, for example, do suburi or large cuts at a 45 degrees angle, it’s just that I choose not to.)
By all means try and follow the “official” methods, especially in the earlier stages of your shugyo, but at some point you have to realise that your kendo is “yours” and yours alone, you don’t need to do it the same way as others. YMMV.