Seito-ha, nanken, and communication breakdown

Have you ever been in a discussion with someone about something and at some point realised that the person or people you are conversing with somehow doesn’t seem to get what you are attempting to communicate, no matter how simply or clearly you (think you) you are being? I am sure you have. Of course, I am not suggesting that one side is “right” or “wrong” or that the discussion is in some way one-sided, rather that – for some often mysterious reason – “communication” doesn’t seem to be occurring … at least not of the edifying sort (usually for both parties, but the other side might sometimes find it a productive conversation even if you don’t).  

I seem to get this a lot. Occurrences increase when messaging someone (as visual cues and gestures are absent) and are easier to happen when using Japanese (because I am non-native). 

Seito-ha (正統派)

My kendo is, I’d say, 95% bog-standard, super orthodox kendo. Sure, there are things that I do my own way, and some waza I prefer over others, but in general my kendo is basically of the margarita pizza variety: easy to prepare/make, mostly satisfying, and very little can go wrong with it (=not much to complain about). Sure, it’s ok, but not many people will travel to a pizza shop in another town just to have some.

In other words, even if you haven’t done kendo with me before you pretty much know what to expect:

Practice menu
- Lots of kihon
- Lots of kirikaeshi, uchikomi, oikomi
- Emphasis on correct execution of individual waza

Oji-waza choice
- Against men: debana men, degote, kaeshi-dou
- Against kote: kaeshi-men, aigote-men, suriage men

Jigeiko style
- Proactive “makko-shobu” style (see below)
- Fundamentally my central goal is to defeat my partner by debana-men

As you probably realise, my kendo can be kind of predictable, and isn’t flashy in the least. Maybe it’s even boring.

However, this type of “seito-ha” kendo – that is, the “orthodox style” – has an important (and highly attractive, at least to me) feature: a proactive “makko-shobu” style based on debana-men.  “Makko-shobu” (真っ向勝負) refers to a proactive, confrontational style. There is no (or we at least try to minimise it as much as possible) running way, blocking, use of the dreaded “amashi” waza, and overly flashy techniques or hikiwaza are generally de-emphasised. Debana waza (in particular: men) is where it’s at. 

 “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

All the quotes in todays article are said to be from Marcus Aurelius

(I suggest re-reading the popular five-part “Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo” series, a translation of an essay by Morishima Tateo sensei)

As you already know, when two “seito-ha” kenshi face each other (assuming they are of equal skill) it can look a little bit (to the inexperienced kenshi) un-energetic or even boring I dare say. Seme is subtle and done with a combination of the spirit, kensen, and right foot, not feints, mysterious twirling of the shinai, and – of course – with shinai-to-shinai contact. The last one is extremely important, as the very conduit of communication is via this. 

Seito-ha kenshi know one another when they meet, and enjoy the battle for debana men. If they are struck, they admit defeat graciously. 

Nanken (難剣)

Like the section above, this part will be generalised… even more so because of the nature of what’s being discussed. 

 “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Literally, nanken means “difficult sword.” This term has been used throughout the history of kendo to refer to those whose kendo was, to put it nicely, awkward. This doesn’t mean that they are weak or don’t have shiai (or grading – at least in the past) success, just that your average  “orthodox” kenshi struggles to cope with them. Perhaps their timing is different, their rhythm feels“off”,  their swing is larger or smaller than normal, they favour non-standard waza, and so on. It is almost as if they are speaking a slightly different language. Some other “features” include:

- their kendo is usually based on hitting and not being struck, so they like to evade or dodge, often bending their head or even body out of the way of attacks;

- sutemi is often lacking, which leads to hitting while standing in place (with no fumikomi);

- hitting out with their arms (zero fumikiri and often no fumikomi) then running away backwards (related to the above);

- overuse of feinting or whirling of the shinai;

- it is very common for them to just stand and wait for something to happen with no forward pressure;

- some (generally older people) fight from a very close distance;

- there is zero “aiki” so it doesn’t feel “friendly.”

(Some of these factors of-course lead to the timing being “off” as mentioned above)

Obviously, anyone who does jigeiko or shiai before acquiring a good grounding in basics will go through a sort of “nanken”phase. Only “sort of” because your average beginner will often honestly attempt to convert kihon into jigeiko use, which is very difficult even for the experienced. Usually, the less experienced will go back to kihon, work on it, then attempt to use what they have worked on in jigeiko, cycling round and round slowly getting out of the beginners phase and into a more “orthodox” style. 

However, some people never seem to get out of their “difficult” phase. Why, I am not sure. This is different from my kendo experience, so it is hard to comment on, but I’ll try anyway!

1. They believe that their kendo is effective.  By doing or acting differently you can often surprise or even deceive people in a manner that opens them up to be struck. Of course, this is perfectly “valid” in a competition and ippon may be awarded, reinforcing their tactic. This is of course absolutely fine (and to an extent is expected) in shiai for lower ages and ranks. Some, however, will persist in doing this during jigeiko (not only shiai) throughout their entire kendo career. 

2. They don’t care. This is of course connected to the above. It might also be the case that kendo is just a hobby, something they do for fun sometimes. They aren’t aiming for hachidan or anything, and have no interest in it above and beyond having fun. That’s cool too, I guess (it’s not me however).

3. They don’t practice enough and/or have no direct model. A “model” of course refers to both an instructor (physical skill) as well as a teacher (guide). Again, this is something that is difficult but not a disaster: it just takes time, travel, and extra effort to improve… assuming the desire is there.

4. Something perceptual inside them is different. This is hard to explain and I am not a scientist or anything, but some individuals seem to have a different perception of time (3D space, interval, distance, etc) than others. Of course, this is wholly in reference to myself (perhaps it is me who is “off”). This is something I’ve become acutely aware of as a teacher of high school students (and younger) for over 20 years. This is not something that can be “cured” or “fixed” rather, it has to be understood for what it is. I believe that this is probably the most influential factor in the “nanken” scenario. People like this can still have successful kendo careers despite being “out of sync” with the majority of others. 

So yeah, some people end up having non-standard “difficult” kendo. Numbers 1 and 2 above can be problematic, but the potential for change (should the person wish it) is there. Number 4, however, is different. 

“Because a thing seems difficult for you, do not think it impossible.”


Recently I’ve been having a few frustrating keiko experiences, in particular:

- people constantly backing away from me; 

- people not trying to “makko-shobu” with me at all, rather using evasive techniques or amashi waza instead (in some cases not even trying to hit men at all);

- people (not so many thankfully) that won’t let my shinai touch theirs who then twirl their shinai around and jump at me randomly;

- people attacking totally randomly (times, distances, techniques). This can be forgiven in the less experienced, but not in those with more.

During these times I calmly tell myself to “chill out… “ or “don’t let it bother you…” and so on. Point three above in particular I find super irritating. During keiko a few times recently I found myself thinking:“This is probably how hachidan feel when facing me.” 

 “You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.”

btw, it is important to note that I don’t have “strong” or “overwhelming” kendo or anything of the sort. I am just “normal” at best. Sometimes I strike people, often I am struck (and admit it); either way I “enjoy” doing kendo and hope my partner has a pleasant experience as well. 


After some thought I came to realise that some of those “nanken” people will probably never “right” themselves and I shouldn’t expect them to. Instead, I have to learn to cope with whatever kendo style comes my way, even if they are passive, try to flee, or have (according to my feeling) kind of “wonky” timing or distance. In fact, as some sensei have wrote about in the past, it is important to seek out “nanken” people to face as you can use them to improve your own kendo. The caveat is of course that they are of the skilled variety rather than just inexperienced. 

Also, as intimated to above, hopefully this post will help you respect the highly-experienced and hachidan even more, as they have to – preferably patiently! – deal with people with all sorts of kendo while showing constantly good, model (seito-ha) kendo. This is something I am actively going to endeavour to do from now on, though, honestly speaking,  I am not sure if my character will allow it!!!

(takes a deep breath)

“That cucumber is bitter, so toss it out! There are thorns on the path, then keep away! Enough said. Why ponder the existence of nuisance?”

Being honest, how would you describe your kendo style? 

Related terms

Other related terms you may have heard are “Seiken” (正剣) which has the same meaning of “Seito-ha” I used above. “Henken” (変剣) means “weird kendo” and is the same as “Nanken” but with a more subtle negative nuance to it. 

Other colourful terms include:“Goken” (剛剣) which is “strong, powerful kendo” and “Jaken” (邪剣) or “evil” or “unjust kendo.” The former is quite commonly seen on tenugui, the latter is generally heard (thought not always) in reference to nito-kendo!

 “The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
For more information check out the About page.

14 replies on “Seito-ha, nanken, and communication breakdown”

Hi George sensei,
Hope you are well.
I find this article fascinating.
I try as much as possible to have a proactive instance at jigeiko (although my level is not that high), and if I get hit or I got caught in oji-waza, I get thankful and try to improve.
What I’ve really identify with the post is the struggle with Nanken, or what we call here “anti-kendo”. Not that I can judge others, but I feel the negative energy during ji-geiko.
These people not only do everything that you described, and when they hit something, most of them celebrate with a very exaggerated zanshin (almost like laughing).
Later, they mention to everyone in a kinda patronising way : “oh, I hit this person at ji-geiko, so I’m the better then them”. Almost like they have a little book where they keep the score of all jigeikos they have done (and their mood depends on how they are “winning”).
I agree that sometimes kendo is a hobby for them and/or they are just “street fighting”, but what’s really scary is that some of these persons get very high grades, and they teach their students the way of “anti-kendo”.
I really find very difficult to cope with this situation, and I can’t really try to have a conversation with anti-kendo people because they have arguments like “I’m hitting, doh”.
Anyways, I’ll come to the next Edinburgh seminar, so let’s chat about it if you have time 🙂
Hope to see you again soon.

My best regards,

Andre Pimentel

Hey Andre,

I hope you are doing well, and thanks for registering for the seminar!!!

Unfortunately human nature is one where hubris is common, and is something that happens to everyone from time to time. There’s nothing you or I can do about that, what’s important is how we react to and deal with it.

The impetus for this post is that I realised I was getting frustrated, even angry from time-to-time during keiko. As an educator, I realised long ago that getting angry with students is a waste of time: it serves no purpose to them or for me. It took me a while to apply this to keiko however. This post is therapy for me!

Nice post!
When I consider myself Seiken against someone I also tend not agree on certain ippon they score on me…
I find that my ego getting hurt by losing against someone who is more nanken than me is very detrimental to my improvement.

Seiken cannot “loose” per-say as part of it is accepting (with grace) when you have been struck and reflecting on it to improve oneself. Whether the opponents kendo is weird or not is moot.

Wonderful article as always George. This is always on my mind because it’s rare to find people that I can enjoy practice with. I’ve struggled to find descriptive terms because I don’t want to disparage people who may have better control of their shinai than me, or better concentration than me for example. I sometimes wonder if I’ve misunderstood but then I experience the swell of goodwill when I find a partner who is excited to see what I’m trying to do. It’s also revealing to me when my kendo breaks and I do uncharacteristic things. Usually a sign of some mental problem. I’ve also considered this as an obedience problem ie why don’t people follow the standard advice? (Which is consistent across all the senseis that I’ve met as far as I can tell) but I think that is another article and I’m guilty in that area too. I spoke to a senior about a particular style I observed and he replied: “Their kendo has no future”. In education it became fashionable for a while to talk about someone’s trajectory rather than their performance, ie if you concentrated on getting people on the right trajectory, the outcomes will take care of themselves. I think this explains why I can enjoy practice with some less experienced people more than with some of my peers. They are showing signs that their kendo has a future.

Hi Rob, thanks for your great comment – I was pondering it over the weekend. I whole-heartedly agree with you and have experienced much of what you mention. You are not alone!!!! “Trajectory” is something that I will use from now on. Cheers!

Hi George-sensei!

This post has been on my mind since I’ve read it, so I thought I would send my thoughts! I started kendo because I saw good “seito-ha” kendo. It was everything I wanted to develop my kendo into. Although some may find “boring”, I think it’s beautiful and elegant. I’m still very (very!!) far from it but I try to implement it in each keiko I do. However, when I come across others with “nanken” kendo during jigeiko or shiai, I find myself getting eventually swept away with it and acting the same. It may have to do with my lack experience or perhaps my want to “win”. So I suppose it’s more of a reflection on myself than the person on the other side of the shinai! Hopefully, I can become someone who stands by my conviction to become a good seito-ha kenshi.

Hey Angela,

Thanks for sharing!

What you are describing happens to me as well, to everyone from time-to-time I guess: getting so caught up in the opponent that we forget ourselves.

If we ever find ourselves in the same dojo at the same time I guarantee that you’ll get a nice “boring” keiko with me…!

Hi, interesting points and discussion. I have always thought about this similar to e.g., chess. If the opponent does weird things, they are not making optimal moves. Therefore, in theory, they can be punished (taken advantage of) with optimal moves. In my view, similar principle applies to kendo. If the basic style is to be considered “optimal” then deviation from this is a mistake and can be taken advantage of. This is, of course, easier said than done. I remember clearly when at shodan-nidan level I got frustrated because I was not effective against kyu-level people despite being able to see their mistakes and analyze their patterns. Now it is better, but I still struggle with opponent whose style is different than mine.

Very informative. Twirling the shinai may come from other martial arts experience, fencing, or they felt it looked good in film/anime.
Still new to kendo, but after some humiliation and enthusiastically reading a few things elsewhere, I am actively changing my timid and evasive style to directly charging in for men cuts before they get comfortable. It seems much easier to hit now! Am jumping on a few swords though, but unbothered (thank you armour). Want to be even quicker and more decisive, and spend much less time blocking/parrying.
The terms you are using like “Goken” (剛剣) and “Makko-shobu” (真っ向勝負) are going straight into the journal… done.

Dear McCall Sensei

Thank you for this article. This is my first time commenting. I come across a particular YouTube video featuring “national team A” vs. “national team B” that took place in Europe recently. From what I can see, “national team A” tried to do Seiken and “national team B” displayed textbook examples of Nanken as emphasize in your article. In addition to subpar refereeing, it was difficult to watch. Towards the end, you can kind of tell that even “national team A” sort of give up on doing Seiken and just want to get a point. I can almost guarantee Nanken style will be in full display in the upcoming WKC. In essence, I felt particularly hopelessness that winning at all costs is what Kendo has become. If you can hit another person before he/she hit you, more powers to you.
I am very glad to have some wonderful senseis teaching correct kendo in my own dojo and the dojos that I visited. They always preach correct kendo is like a performance – beautiful to watch. One particular sensei once told me “if you have a choice to do strong kendo or beautiful kendo, always choose beautiful kendo.” I think now I understand why…because everybody is watching.
**I just want to get this out of my chest – if you can’t do sonkyo properly, you shouldn’t be on a national team representing your country. There, I said it

Just “George” is fine.

Well, I don’t think that kendo has become something that you must win at all costs… at least, it is not that way in the sphere that I am in.

If you know something is going to bother you ahead of time, just don’t involve yourself in it = problem solved!

I will probably only watch a bit of the WKC – just to see/support my friends really. Who wins or loses has zero effect on my life, so….

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