Bowing to the “7”

Editors note:

The following is a guest post by NYC Ken-Zen dojo’s iaido instructor, Pam Parker. Last year Pam became one of only a small handful of American’s to pass the iaido nanadan exam in Japan (and probably the first American female) and as such I immediately asked her for her thoughts on the matter. She ruminated a little bit over it, but finally here they are!!

Note that the article is in two halves: an ‘omote’ part which describes how the testing process works, and an ‘ura’ part that is more personal in nature.

This is the omote (for people who are not familiar with Iaido).

The All Japan Kendo Federation holds high-level exams for Iaido, the sword-drawing art that is one of three arts under its aegis, twice a year, in November and in June-July. These are national-level tests, and are attended by candidates from all over the world. These twice-yearly tests are for 6th and 7th-degree black belt (called ‘dan’) ranks. The highest degree available nowadays is 8th-dan. The test for that rank is only held once a year, in Kyoto at the beginning of May. The November tests are in Tokyo, with more than 300 people testing. The summer tests are in two locations each year, one in the East of Japan, and the other in the West. These tests each have fewer candidates.

I went to Tokyo in November of 2013, trying for 7th-dan for the first time. I did not pass. This July (2014), I went to the Western part of Japan, to Okayama Prefecture, to try again. This test was scheduled for Friday, July 11.

All of my Japanese teachers have been from the Western part of Japan: Hiroshima, Okayama and Kobe. So I had some confidence based on that. Also, I had been working very hard to improve since November.

I went to Kobe (just west of Osaka) on Friday, July 4, for a week of preparation. Every day, sometimes once, sometimes twice, I practiced with my teacher, who holds 8th dan, in his private school.

The day before the test, we traveled to Ako City, for practice with some of my teacher’s other students. Thursday evening we continued on to Okayama City, checking into a hotel a short walk from the testing venue. Three of us who were testing walked over to the Momotaro Arena, which was open, to get a look at the place. The main arena is very big, with a nice floor.

Friday morning, we returned. We had some time to warm up (in a very hot secondary space), with our teacher. The 6th-dan candidates went first, signing in, and lining up. The whole group is divided by age, into a younger group on the left, and an older group on the right. There are two sets of judges, 6 per each age-group. The candidates go forward, four at a time, to perform the kata (prescribed sets of techniques) required. When all the 6th-dan candidates were finished (about 100 people), the judges retired; and the administrators sat down to calculate the results.

Meanwhile the 7th-dan candidates signed in, and prepared to line up. While we were waiting, the results were posted, and we saw that of the three 6-dan candidates from our group, one passed. This was his second attempt. (Jubilation all around!)

After 7th-degree candidates completed the sign-in process, we lined up and the judges came back out. I was in the 6th row, of the younger group, on the far left side. There were 7 rows, and a similar number on the older group’s side. There were 3 candidates from Italy (1 for 6th-dan and 2 for 7th-dan); together we made up the entire contingent of non-Japanese.

Each row stands up together, walks out, and waits for the head judge to give the order to begin. There is a 6-minute time limit. When all 4 candidates in the row are finished, the head judge dismisses the group, and calls in the next.

Afterwards I got a lot of handshakes, and did a lot of bowing and thanking. It turns out that I am the first non-Japanese 7th-dan from the US, to pass this test in Japan (Editor: see comments), and the first woman, also. For some perspective, while there are lots of Japanese 7th-dans (I attend a yearly seminar with 40-50 7th-dans), and a fair number of Japanese women who hold this rank, in the US there are a total of 4 7th-dans, three of whom are men, Japanese or Japanese-American. The passing percentage for this exam was 20%.

That was the omote.

Next is the ura: Bowing to the “7”

It’s started already…bows from students who only nodded to me before; bows from students who, before, only bowed if I specifically taught them. I need to remember that it’s the 7 they are bowing to, not me. I am no different than I was a week ago.

Over the course of preparing for 7th dan (which began the day after my 6th dan examination), I have written a great deal, in training notebooks, in compilations of notes from seminars and gasshuku. Mostly on the order of ‘KenZen solo; Seitei Mae.’ Every once in a while, something more abstract, or wafty, depending on your point of view, like ‘what am I doing? I’m doing THIS.’ All the writing was in service of practice, correction and intensification. Not elucidation.

Senior student jokes that I have become ‘a destination;’ buys a guestbook. Visitors sign it.

But, what am I doing? I do feel some increase in my sense of responsibility. Also I am experiencing an increase in the clarity of my feeling of the relationship between my responsibilities (to teach, to model good Budo behavior) and my practice. This is not to claim an increase in understanding, more like an increase in density.

I wish I understood this better.

My students want to receive their menjo from my hands; they will wait if I am not available. I manage to figure this out with only a little assistance.

In Merida, Mexico, at the CLAK (Latin American Kendo Championships) I am given the use of a separate gym, to teach Iaido while the Kendo taikai goes on. I think to myself, “Wow, they are trusting me to take these folks.” A bit later, I think, “But, I’m a 7th dan, so that’s just fine.”

In the ‘sensei’ bus, a recently promoted 8th dan Kendo Sensei asked me if I had changed because of the 7th dan. He said he had certainly experienced changes because of his 8th-dan.

We are planning a big party to celebrate the 7th dan. Certainly we never did this before. Two of (the 3) local 7th dans told me we should have a party. No-one ever suggested such a thing (to celebrate a new rank of mine) before. The party is a smashing success. It perfectly conveys my conviction that this 7th-dan is good for all of us.

Not even two weeks later I get told, quite clearly, that I have to act like a 7th dan: show stronger leadership. But it’s OK; I’m a 7th dan, I can do it.


Tenouchi (revisited) 手の内(改めて)

Last week I published a loose translation about tenouchi which was quite popular. However, when I was reading the original piece, and again whilst I was translating it, I was struck by the sheer detail of description and it made me uneasy. Now, I know that many people like to read quite detailed descriptions about techniques and what not (and I’ve translated my fair share of them for kenshi 24/7), but I am generally not one of them. In fact, when it comes to things such as tenouchi and fumikomi (for example) I think that overly detailed descriptions are almost useless (for the majority of practitioners that is).

As someone who coaches students on a day to day basis, how then do I teach something like tenouchi?

It’s simple: I don’t… (at least, not in the manner of the last article).


The first thing I do is to show students how to hold the bokuto/shinai in their hands. I basically say:

“Hold your hands in this way . Grip tightly with the bottom fingers and leave the others loose.” And that’s it.

From then on I’ll just ensure that they aren’t pinching with their thumb+forefinger and that there is some looseness around that area. Making unnatural shapes with their hands is also a no-no (people coming from an iaido background will often make affected shapes with their hands): “hold the shinai naturally.”


The next step for beginners is lots of suburi. I focus almost on extending the arms (more so the left) and cutting down to around chin level (on men strikes). I emphasis a sharp downward strike with hikitsuke.

That’s it. I don’t teach any squeezing of anything: “just swing up and down naturally” I say, “don’t think too much.”

Striking (simple)

The next step is to actually hit something. Usually this is a partners shinai, but it could be a tyre or some sort of uchikomidai. Here the emphasis is almost completely on relaxing the hands after striking: “after the cut relax the tension in your shoulders and hands.”

Kirikaeshi: the secret ingredient

What I do now is simple: have the students do loads of receiving-on-the-men-kirikaeshi everyday for the first few months. In the beginning this can simply be shomen (cut 1 shomen, then do 4 shomen forward, 5 back, repeat) and/or yokomen type (cut 1 shomen, then do 9 yokomen, repeat).

“Slowly and carefully cut large, cut round, and cut strongly” is the mantra I use. The only thing I warn students about here is rebounding up after a strike: “after hitting relax and leave the shinai where it is.”

Stepping back

Now all I do is step back, keep quiet, and let kirikaeshi do it’s job: the students will work it out for themselves naturally without prompting.

The next step

After this the next step is doing the normal type of kirikaeshi plus moving onto normal kihon practice. By this stage many of my beginner students will have pretty good tenouchi and I don’t need to interfere much at all. Great! It is now their responsibility to ensure that they are using their hands correctly across multiple different kinds of techniques (tsuki being the one where many struggle).

Note that I always start every session with multiple receiving-on-the-men-kirikaeshi, partly as a way of checking tenouchi before moving on to other techniques.

The instructors main role: striking and being struck

The best way to teach a student about tenouchi, however, is to strike them correctly. In the same vein, the only way to get feedback on a students tenouchi is to be struck by them. If their tenouchi doesn’t “feel right” I tell them so and tell them to work more on it (I don’t bother going into minute analysis).

As far as I am concerned, then, striking and being struck is the most important way to develop tenouchi, if not the only way (obviously repetition and time is required). It’s also faster than overly verbose instruction.

… and that’s my secret to developing good tenouchi in a nutshell (assuming you were actually interested in the first place!!).

Tenouchi 手の内

The following is a liberal translation of the teachings of Shimatani Yasohachi sensei as told by one of his students. Probably you have never heard this particular sensei’s name before, I hadn’t until quite recently. I had, however, seen his picture very many times, often beside the creators/influencers of the modern kendo style. I was very happy then, when I was at a friends place and randomly picked up a not-for-sale, self published book, and found that it was all about him.

In the picture above Shimatani is the bearded gentlemen at the back left. To the right is Nakano Sosuke. Seated at the front (l-r) is Ogawa Kinnosuke, Mochida Seiji, and Saimura Goro.

Shimatani Yasohachi: a very brief bio

1870: born in Kagoshima as the 4th son of a Satsuma-han samurai
1880: begins study of Jigen-ryu
1885 – 90: studies under the the Itto-ryu swordsman Sugi Jihachiro
1893: becomes a policeman in Nara prefecture
1887: joins the Butokukai
1899: becomes a police kenjutsu instructor in Nara
1905-6: enters the Butokukai’s Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo
1906: becomes the kenjutsu teacher at Nara Butokuden
1916: awarded kyoshi
1916-21: becomes teacher at Busen
1926: awarded hanshi
1929: takes part in the tenranjiai as both competitor (in selected professionals section) and shinpan (in non-professional section).
1933: part of the group set up to review kendo kata
1946: dies at 77.

In 1905 Shimatani is sent to the newly formed Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo (the precursor to Busen) to study kendo under the Hokushin Itto-ryu kenshi Naito Takaharu and Monna Tadashi. At 35 years old (depending on some sources he was 38) he was by far the oldest member of the group. The group consisted of such soon-to-be famed kenshi Saimura Goro (at 18 years old he was the youngest member), Nakano Sosuke and Nakajima Jikida, and would be joined a little bit after with the likes of Mochida Seiji, Ogawa Kinnosuke, Miyazaki Mosaburo, Oasa Yuji, etc. The course lasted from 1 to 3 years depending on the ability of the student. Naito graduated Shimatani in only a year, awarding him a Butokukai teaching grade of 3rd dan.

Please note that the following translation is not literal nor full, rather it’s liberal and abridged. It is Shimatani’s teachings as described by one of his students and interpreted by me. Pictures are from the source.

“Hold the shinai loosely let correctly” – although it sounds easy it’s actually very difficult to master. For example, what in fact does “correct” mean?

When talking about “tenouchi” we often say “grip like squeezing a tenugui” however most people squeeze too powerfully resulting in their hands turning in too much causing tension in the arms and shoulders. Gripping with the pinky 1/2 off the handle might make thrusting easier, but it disrupts the central axis of the shinai making striking difficult. Some people say that whilst gripping your thumb and forefinger should be in such a shape that you can balance a sake cup on them, but this results in the shinai titling inwards. And if you concentrate on a pulling and pushing action when striking you will just end up using too much right hand/arm power. Learning to strike a powerful and strong men ippon is indeed very difficult.

All of Shimatani sensei’s students were taught about tenouchi. You have to remember that when he started to learn kenjutsu (he first studied Jigen-ryu, but later also learned Asayama ichiden-ryu, and Itto-ryu) it wasn’t even 3 years after the end of the Satsuma rebellion – the sensei of that period all placed heavy emphasis on use of a real sword. Subsequently, the teachers of Shimatani’s era also placed like emphasis on using the shinai as you would a real sword, focusing specifically on tenouchi.


Grip depends a lot on the handle that you are using.

We can break it down into 3 types : tenouchi when during kamae, tenouchi when striking, and tenouchi after the strike.

A. How to grip the handle

1. Empty hands

Place your hands together. Keeping them there change your grip as it holding a sword/shinai. Your wrists should bend to form the same shape is the hiragana く shape and they should be twisted inwards. Move your right hand forward and left hand back as if you were going into chudan no kamae. Your thumb and forefingers should form a ring parallel with the floor and you should be able to balance a sake cup on them.

2. Squeezing (chakin shibori)

Holding a wet cloth (tenugui) bend all your fingers and grip it. Using your pinky, ring finger, middle finger, and thumb as a base, twist the cloth inside and wring it.

(Confusingly, wringing water from a towel is done differently in Japan!!!)

3. Finger placement

Rest the pinky of the left hand on the bottom knot of the tsukamaki (the leather, cotton, or silk binding on katana), the bit that sticks out. The sword should be held a little bit deeper than the base of the pinky. Your left hand should not be resting on top of your metal fixtures at the base of the handle. You should wring the handle with the pinky and ring finger, close your middle finger, and feel as if you are putting a little bit of pressure with the base of your thumb on the handle from above. Your thumb should be in a round shape and rest above the middle finger. The index finger is also round and rests lightly along side the thumb.

Your right hand should grip the sword as the left one and be about 1cm in distance from the tsuba. A little bit off the metal fixtures, but not fully.

Lightly put power into your pinky, ring, and middle fingers (of both hands).

3. Hold the blade at a right angle

The blade should go down the centre line of the body. The left hand wrist should be in a く shape. The blade must be held in the manner described above so it’s at a right angle to the grip. The hands should be gripped softly when in kamae.

The left hand grip should be as if you were holding a paper umbrella, and the right as if you holding a baby bird. That is, neither grip too strongly nor too lightly, but do so softly.

4. Gripping a shinai

When gripping a shinai do so with your wrists in the same く shape and make sure the shinai is held down the body’s centre line. The left hand should be placed at the very bottom of the handle with the pinky gripping a little bit from the bottom (a small part of the handle will jut out). The fingers should grip as described above, like you are holding a paper umbrella. The right hands wrist uses the く shape and should be placed directly on top of the handle. The palms of your hands should sit comfortably on the shinai and your grip soft.

I see a lot of people who place their fingers on top of the shinai, or pinch the handle with their thumb and forefinger. Strange tenouchi like this results in upper arm strength being employed.

B. The functions of tenouchi

1. Tenouchi when during kamae

You should grip correctly yet softly. In chudan no kamae the knuckle at the bottom of your left thumb should be pushed out a little bit from your navel, and the kensen should be on the centre line.

2. Tenouchi when striking (kiri-te)

Bending your left hand, move the sword up through the centre line of your body with the feeling of pushing back the kensen. The right hand follows the lefts action. When bringing the sword down to cut do so as if drawing a circle with the kensen. In that instant you should squeeze with the pinky, ring, and middle fingers, especially strongly with the pinkies of both hands. At this time the underarm muscles of both arms will be employed and, depending on the utilisation of the right hand’s pinky, the upper part of the right arm will be stretched straight. The left hand is the driving force, and the right gives direction and support.

Kiri-te (The instant of the cut): Squeezing both hands employ the push and pull action (right hand push, left hand pull). When you do this the wrists of both hands will extend straight. Immediately relax your hands to finish the cut. The quality of the “sae” (snap) of the cut is decided by the squeeze and release of the grip at this time.

3. Tenouchi after the strike

At the instant of striking the grip must be immediately relaxed. That is to say, you should immediately return both your grip and spiritual bearing to what they were before the strike, then move slowly – without a hint of carelessness – back into kamae.

Shimatani sensei used to emphasise this during large men practice: after striking you should relax and immediately allow your tsuba to come down to the level of the motodachi’s throat then, slowly and without losing concentration, step back into kamae.



Budo and Breathing

About Iaido and Breathing: excerpts from “The Essence of Budo” by Kawakubo Takiji

Editors note: the following guest post/translation comes from Eric Spinelli based in Tokyo. Although the notes were put together for iai practitioners, the content here is also not only highly applicable for kendo people, but to all practitioners of Japanese martial arts.

About the Author

KAWAKUBO Takiji (1896 – 1985) studied Yamauchi-ha Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu under SAKAGAMI Kameo, a student of UNO Mataji, in Nagasaki1. He held the rank and title of Iaido Hanshi, 10th dan and Kendo Kyoshi2.


These notes were written as a reference for the members of the Iaido Aikokai3. They cover the important breath control techniques as written in “The Essence of Budo”4 by Prof. Sato Tsuji, (Professor of Literature, Kogakkan University). Breath control has an incredibly deep connection with budo and it is my hope that you will read these notes thoroughly and make use of them in your practice.

-Kawakubo Takiji, Iaido Hanshi, April, 1978

Kokyu-ho (呼吸法, Breathing Techniques)

Iai and breathing techniques have an incredibly deep connection with each other. It is said that, “when exhaling, the body is true; when inhaling, the body is false.5”  Obtaining both truth and falsehood within one’s movements is of utmost importance. Practitioners of iai must practice breath control at the same time they practice iai technique.

Correct breathing techniques is tanden breathing. The following is a summary of the important parts of Prof. Sato’s “The Essence of Budo” and should be a reference for all iai practitioners.

By adjusting our breathing, we can tense6 our entire body and move in a fluid and lively manner. It is for this reason that breath control is important for iai.

Kikai-tanden (気海丹田7)

When the muscles of the lower abdomen are tensed, the seat of body’s power, the tanden, appears. The tanden is the tension of the muscles and appears only in the living body. It was not discovered through western medicine or academics because it cannot be found in a dissected body.

Defined broadly, the tanden is the front of the lower body, the abdominal muscles that can be tensed together. Defined more narrowly, it is where power gathers when the abdominal muscles are tensed.

This point is approximately three centimeters below the navel. The point above this is called the kikai. Inhaled breath fills the the kikai naturally and without effort but when it is exhaled, power is focused on the tanden below it.

The tanden is sometimes called the center of the body, but it is more accurately called the center of gravity. The center of gravity presides over the body, controlling the function and movement of the extremities. It performs all true movement in budo and other arts.

Tanden-sokuho (丹田息法, tanden breath technique)

Breath is what gives life to posture. Correct posture only has meaning when it is based upon correct breathing and correct posture follows naturally from correct breathing.

Let’s examine the human body’s breath. When sleeping lying down, the breath naturally enters the body, expanding the chest and upper abdomen.  As the breath is exhaled, those parts become empty. Both the inhalation and exhalation happen only in the upper body; the lower body does not participate. However, if the tanden is actualized when the body is upright and the hips are bearing the weight of the body, breathing can be done through the tensing and relaxing of the tanden.  When the tanden relaxes, air naturally is pulled into the center of the body. When the tanden tenses, this air is expelled from the center of the body8. If the breath does not pass through the center of the body, but only the upper body, the breath is the same as a sick or feeble person.

How to Breathe Deeply

Laughter demonstrates natural deep breathing, with the breath passing through the center of the body.  Consider the human lungs as a single vessel. When the chest is used in unfocused breathing, only twenty or thirty percent of the vessel is filled. Try emptying the chest, keeping the body straight and exhaling until you feel the chest muscles relax. Because there is still a lot of air left in the body, try laughing.  When you do so, you should feel a comfortable strength naturally filling a single point in the lower abdomen. The seat of this power is the tanden.

The tanden is described as three centimeters or 1.5sun below the navel but, in reality, it should not be defined from the outside of the body. Rather the tanden is the point you felt fill with strength when you laughed with an empty chest. Laughter is a sign of health. Humans laugh often when healthy and by purposely laughing more one’s health naturally improves.

Laughter occurs as convulsions. Let us examine this process. First, one fills the lower abdomen with strength, pushing the air out. Next, the strength in the abdomen lessens, pulling new air down into the bottom of the lungs.  The air flows in in an instant but in that short time the vessel is almost completely refilled. Laughter is an efficient form of deep breathing.  Breathing as if one is laughing, without convulsions, calmly and without pause, is tanden-soku (alternatively, tanden-kokyu). It is a form of deep breathing using the lower abdomen to exhale. It is the genuine kokyu-ho of zazen and seiza9, as well as all varieties of budo and other arts.

While standing upright, you must always extend the lower back and fill the lower abdomen with strength. At the same time you must keep tension in your center, specifically the lower abdomen, and quietly breath out. Keeping twenty or thirty percent of the air in your lungs, you should relax the lower abdomen. Because there is always an atmospheric pressure around you, air will flow into you naturally just as if you had loosened your grip on the bulb of a dropper10. This happens in an instant but, as mentioned above, an incredibly large amount of air is inhaled.

On a slightly different topic, it is necessary to always keep the external sphincter muscle of the anus contracted. In kyudo they teach, “keep your hole closed.” However, focusing on the anus is an uncomfortable, animalistic feeling. Instead you should put strength into the lower abdomen and the sphincter will contract proportionally and unconsciously.

Laughter is an action of exhalation but humans can discover the location of the tanden through the action of inhalation as well. Try swallowing your saliva. When you do your muscles contract towards your navel but, immediately after the saliva enters the stomach, the lower abdominal muscles clench tight, stopping the saliva there. The place where these muscles contract is the tanden11.

Exhalation is Truth, Inhalation is Falsehood

All true human action is performed while exhaling. The exhaled breath is the breath of a human realizing an action and when breathing out one is in an active kamae. In budo and other arts, exhalation is truth, inhalation is falsehood. A human’s upright body is a body in action and, while awake, exhalation should be the principle form of breathing. Inhalation is a natural, unconscious state.  It is a principle of budo that the change from stillness to action must start by breathing in and the principle movement must be brought to a finish while breathing out.

It is desirable to exhale for as long as possible. Breathing shallow breaths without strength in the hara, it is normal to take 17 or 18 breaths in one minute. The hurried breaths of a sick man are countless. When correct tanden breathing is practiced, one will take only seven or eight breaths in a minute, dropping to four or five with mastery. In zazen or budo, a person who has achieved complete harmony in his body will number one or two breaths per minute, or even less. It is said that in the Edo period, a famous spearman once walked the length of Ryogoku Bridge12 with just one breath.

One must not strain when breathing. In correct breathing there is no stopping or holding of the breath. The breath must flow out naturally.  With the lungs full to the bottom from correct breathing there is more air available than one might imagine and even a big, unwavering exhalation will continue for a long time.

Each of us can discover whether our exhalation is correct and the entire body is in harmony or if our exhalation is in discord and out of harmony. The first step is to focusing our awareness inward. If there is no stiffness or strain in the body when breathing out, the nasal passage opens and an indescribable, pleasant strength fills the lower abdomen. The second step is to feel the breath with the palm of the hand.  Correct breath comes out warm and gently.  Discordant breath comes out cold and rough.  In the past, practitioners of budo and zazen would place a candle in front of the nose and practiced tanden breathing so that the flame would not flicker.

When the method of correct breathing is mastered, neither the breath in nor the breath out should be able to be felt.  There should be only the tension and relaxation of breathing in and out. If the breath can be felt or heard, there is still some stiffness or strain in the body (for example, the chin muscles or oral cavity).

In contrast to the tension of exhalation, inhalation is a relaxation and should be done in the shortest possible amount of time. This relaxation, however, must not be a complete relaxation but a relaxation supported by tension.

The act of exhalation starts from the natural state of inhalation. Inhalation, however, is the opposite; it is born from a state of human effort and the tension of exhalation.  It starts with the lower back extended and strength filling the lower abdomen and the relaxing of that tension, but without releasing all of the strength.  To understand this method it may help to consider how one breathes while sprinting. It is necessary to put strength into the lower abdomen to run but breathing in can only be done by slightly relaxing that tension.

The Principles of Breathing

Having understood the correctness of and realizing the depth of logic of tanden breathing, let us now provide some additional support.

Even in the middle of physical exertion budo masters do not become short of breath nor does their breathing become rough. This is because the muscles throughout their entire body are settled in the correct position and because they regulate their diaphragm correctly.

The Diaphragm

The Japanese term for the diaphragm is oukakumaku (横隔膜, horizontal separating membrane). It gets its name from the fact that it separates the chest and abdominal cavities.  It is called a membrane but it is actually a thick, membrane-like layer of muscle. It is the only voluntary muscle among the internal organs and can be tensed at will. Those who aim to master correct breathing must first start by training the diaphragm. To do so, practice allowing the upper abdomen (solar plexus) to draw in as you exhale. It may help to place the hand on the solar plexus to feel the movement of the diaphragm.

If, as you breathe out, you tense the lower abdomen and relax the upper abdomen (solar plexus13), the lower abdomen will become round like a rubber ball. As the solar plexus depresses the navel will point upwards.  As you continue to breathe in and out, this round shape should not change but as you breathe out it should become harder.

When breathing using the tanden, the diaphragm should first move down as you breathe in and the ribcage should rise as air enters the body.  Next, as you breathe out, the ribs should lower as the diaphragm rises, pushing the air out of the lungs.

The Solar Plexus14 (Strengthening Character and Moral Sense)

Directly below the diaphragm in the abdominal cavity is the solar plexus nerve complex. his is a group of autonomic nerves the size of the thumb that receives instructions from the diencephalon15 to regulate the body. The solar plexus is such an important organ that, it is said that if the brain is the seat of knowledge, the solar plexus is the seat of moral sense.

Tanden breathing stimulates and trains the solar plexus, calming the nerves, and works to strengthen the character. This is one reason that budo and zazen aid in a person’s moral education.

In addition to the very real effects on efficiency of movement, as discussed above, focusing the whole body’s strength in the tanden invites a spiritual benefit as well.

The diaphragm is shaped like an arched ceiling. When one has put no strength in the abdomen and is, for example, surprised, the diaphragm contracts towards the chest cavity and presses up against the heart, pushing the apex of the heart against the chest wall causing the heart to beat faster. If the diaphragm can move up and down in a controlled manner the base of the heart can expand and the heart can pump slowly.  This reduces mental states such as anxiety, surprise, and fear. It is important to note that a calm and composed mental state is not achieved by the mind alone, but by correct posture and correct breathing. It must be build on the strong foundation of the physical body.

The Second Heart

Some call the diaphragm the second heart. The heart in the chest pumps blood through the arteries but the contractions of the diaphragm are incredibly important in returning the blood from the veins of the lower body to the heart.

Normal breathing is a matter of controlling the lungs. As you inhale the chest expands and the upper abdomen inflates.  As you exhale, the chest becomes empty and the upper abdomen collapses in. The lower abdomen is not involved at all. This is true of shallow breathing and surely also when sleeping laying down.

As mentioned above, when one wakes and stands upright, allowing tension to keep the body balanced, the tanden appears as the seat of the whole body’s strength. Because all true movement, without exception, must be generated from the tanden, the breath too must originate from the tanden.

Breathing from the chest and breathing from the tanden are completely the same. Breathing from the tanden, however, is incomparable with natural breathing in the amount of air that fills the lungs.

Tanden breathing is neither unnatural breathing nor reverse breathing. Rather, it follows natural breathing and takes the same form, but is one level higher and more efficient. It is the absolute correct way to breathe.

Because tanden breathing does not go against the natural order of breathing, with the exception of sleeping, it should be possible to do all day without issue. It is in fact the best thing you can do for your health.

The function of breathing is to absorb oxygen from the air and expel the carbon dioxide gas generated inside the body. If one’s breathing is shallow, the oxygen in the blood decreases and,  carbon dioxide combines chemically with water and builds up inside the body, decreasing the life force of the body’s cells.

Focus on Breathing Out

Normal air is made up of over twenty percent oxygen and the air humans exhale is approximately sixteen percent oxygen. Our bodies absorb the four percent difference. The air we exhale, however, contains over 100% more carbon dioxide than normal air (0.04% in air and 4.4% in exhaled breath).  We can induce from this that if we breathe a large amount of air into the lungs, as long as we are exhaling, the body continues to absorb oxygen.  We should thus focus only on exhaling and expelling carbon dioxide. In budo and zazen it is unnecessary to think about inhalation and important to focus instead on our exhalation.

The Importance of Deep Breathing

The lungs are made up of millions of microscopic alveoli. The inner surface of the lung that makes contact with air is 56m2, twenty-five times greater than the outer surface area of the body. This is half the size of a tennis court. The greater portion of alveoli are unused in normal, shallow breathing and remain unexposed to fresh air. This is why it is important to breath deeply.

Deep breathing consists of an inhalation component and an exhalation component. A naturally occurring inhalation component of deep breathing is yawning.  When yawning the lungs fill completely and there is a feeling of the kikai (below the navel) filling as well. Professor Sato gives this type of breathing the name kikai-soku16. Inducing yawns throughout the day, inhaling deeply into the lower abdomen and stretching the body, has health benefits.

Likewise, a naturally occurring exhalation component of deep breathing is laughter. Here air is pushed out by tension of the tanden, the point below the kikai.  When the tanden relaxes, air is sucked in. This is called tanden-soku.  It is the breath of budo, zazen, and seiza17. Tanden-soku is the same deep breathing as laughter but steady, without the convulsions.

Signed and sealed:

Kawakubo Takiji
Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido, Hanshi 9th dan18
Third Month19, Showa 5320


1. From “Kyoto Yamauchi-ha Muso Jikiden Eishin-Ryu Iaijutsu” by Yamakoshi Masaki and Tsukimoto Kazutake. back

2. From Kawakubo Takiji’s own signatures. back

3. The Kodaira City Iaido Aikokai (小平市居合道愛好会) in Tokyo Prefecture. back

4. Japanese title: 武道の神髄, published by 日本教文社 in Oct., 1977. back

5. 実, “truth” or “substance”, and 虚, “falsehood” or “emptiness”, appear as polar opposites in the philosophy of Zhuangzi (4th c. BC).  In kendo and jukendo, these same words can refer to the absence or presence of an opening (隙, suki). back

6. “Tense” and “tension” (緊張) is used throughout this translation.  It refers to the prolonged or continuous contraction of muscles and tendons.  Its opposite is “relax” or “relaxed” (弛緩). back

7. Kawakubo gives the following footnote:

“Kikai” is a term used in traditional Chinese medicine. It is a vital spot located 1sun below the navel.

“Tan” is the Taoist elixir of immortality; “den” is the earth that creates this elixir.  The tanden is an acupuncture point 1sun5bun below the navel. The tanden is between the kikai and the ishi-mon, a point 2sun below the navel. back

8. 正中, the true, three dimensional center of the body. back

9. Seiza (静座) here does not refer to the Japanese sitting position, but “sitting calmly and quietly” for meditation, etc. back

10. Pasteur pipette or eyedropper back

11. Kawakubo writes heso-shita-tan (臍下丹, tan below the navel).  This is simply a graphic description of the tanden. back

12. Ryogoku Bridge in Tokyo has a modern span of 164.5m and a historical span of 94ken (~170.9m). back

13. Here Kawakubo uses the Japanese term 鳩尾 (mizo-ochi), also known as the 水月 (suigetsu).  This is the point of the depression on the surface of the chest directly above the solar plexus nerve complex.  Mizo-ochi literally references a pigeon tail, similar in shape to the depression of the chest. back

14. Here Kawakubo uses the term 太陽神経 and 太陽神経叢 (taiyou-shinkei-(sou)), terms used for the solar plexus nerve complex itself.  This term literally references the sun, as does the English term, because of the radiating nature of the nerve fibers. back

15. The interbrain (間脳) which connects the cerebrum to the brain stem. back

16. 気海息 or “kikai breathing”.  See footnote 5 for a definition of “kikai”. back

17. See footnote 9 back

18. Although Kawakubo later obtained the rank of 10th dan (seen in signatures from Showa 59 (1984)), at the time of this writing, he held the rank of Hanshi 9th dan. back

19. Kawakubo writes 弥生月 (yayoi-tsuki, month of new life),  the third month of the traditional Japanese lunar calendar. This may or may not correspond to March. back

20. The year 1978 back

Working Towards a Coherent and Cohesive Teaching Approach

Introduction: Many good teachers are able to plan on the spot and pull together whatever is at hand to make their lessons work, sometimes ‘picking and mixing’ seemingly disparate approaches, methods, techniques and activities to aid learning. However, for this ‘eclectic fusion’ to be effective, rather than it being unplanned, random and confused, it needs to be underpinned by a clear and sound understanding of the fundamental principles behind various teaching practices. Unfortunately, most people who find themselves in the position of being a teacher of Iaido or indeed any type of Budo; regardless of their nationality be it Japanese, British, North American or other, are untrained as teachers and have a questionable grasp of the methodology involved in effective pedagogy. As a result this can lead to dull, confused, repetitive and unplanned lessons that are often lacking coherence or cohesion.

Recent research into classroom teaching practice (for example by Baynham et al, 2007) confirms that it is the most experienced and effective teachers who use what might be called a ‘principled eclecticism’, based upon their own critical evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of different established approaches. In my own field of psycholinguistic and academic language teaching, established professionals usually draw on a wealth of different frameworks, approaches, methods, procedures and techniques. These have been developed throughout the history of teaching and continue to evolve to this day. Practitioners’ perceptions of the value of these models, approaches and methods – and indeed, of the very concept of method – have also evolved, in line with paradigm shifts in generic teacher education and in the social sciences. However, it is not within the remit of this short paper to define and discuss differences between the various approaches, methods, procedures and techniques, or indeed the vast cultural differences often found between Japanese and non-Japanese pedagogical approaches, or the arguably antiquated methods of instruction used in Budo.

Nevertheless, what can be clearly stated is that rarely in any dojo context does a teacher (sensei) have the chance to instruct a group of learners with the same skill sets and knowledge base as each other, as every learner is unique in their personal needs based obviously on individual grade and level. So how can a teacher effectively cater to a group of learners all with different needs and wants in a timely, efficient and cohesive manner? With this question in mind, I would like to share a basic 3 Levels framework I use to teach Iaido and briefly discuss how it fits in well with the fundamental needs of all level of learners in a clear and consistent manner. ** However, all ideas relating to the following 3 Level approach in this essay are my own, and therefore are still very much work in progress. Thus, all mistakes or misunderstanding at this point of my own learning and development are mine.

Terminology: Within the dojo I regularly use the terms Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 techniques, to describe and explain different points being taught in Iaido. In short, these 3 levels can be summarised as being:

Level 1: Are points relating to the highly prescriptive sword work found in areas of study such as Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei (ZNKR) Seitei Gata (or arguably Shoden level koryu) and how the body essentially fits around the sword. This is a fair start since during the early study of Iaido many beginners and lower grades focus solely on the sword, thus focusing on prescribed sword and body positions and movements is key to building fundamentally sound foundation and technique to build from.

Level 2: Are points relating too more effective bodywork being used thereby meaning that the sword now starts to fit around or more in sync with the practitioner’s body. This level of input is required when the learner has internalised a decent amount of basic Iaido knowledge and the instructor tries to move the focus away from the sword controlling the person to the new desired level of the person and body controlling the sword. As an instructor, this requires a deeper understanding of how the body is supposed to work to achieve effective technique and investigation into how different body types need to interact with the sword. Despite what many think, one size does not fit all and sometimes adjustments need to be made for differing body types, just like some of the technique may vary slightly for both male and female practitioners.

Level 3: Are higher- level points relating to the mental and spiritual development of the practitioner. This is where the focus changes from solely what is happening outside the body, with all things being equal and hopefully done effectively, to dealing with what is happening inside the body and head. These Level 3 points enhance the physical technique and add flavour to it, turning it from a two-dimensional empty movement or sword dance, into a three dimensional (or dare I even say 4 dimensional) effective technique. However, even higher-level practitioners constantly have to review the basic Level 1 and 2 points, so as to check accuracy, especially when the ZNKR Seitei Gata are revised by the AJKF.

Thus, these 3 Levels tie neatly into my aims of making my own technique effective as I remember the mantra I was taught as a beginner:

Dai – Make the technique (technically) BIG

Kyou – Make the technique (technically) STRONG

Soku – Make the technique (technically and appropriately) FAST

Kei – Make the technique (technically) SMOOTH

LEVEL 1: The term Level 1 can be used to define and teach the highly prescriptive techniques of the sword and body required by all practitioners of Iaido, and especially, but not exclusively, those of beginners. Experience has taught me that in the early days of Iaido training most beginners are usually focused entirely on their sword and what that is supposed to be doing, so their bodies generally fit around that. Thus, it seems key to inculcate first the correct knowledge and muscle memory for where the sword and body are supposed to be. This ties into the first mantra point Dai, as lower grades often have trouble not only understanding what the katana or the body is supposed to be doing or where the correct finishing positions are supposed to be, they often have trouble freeing and building up their muscles enough to do these prescribed movements effectively. Thus, emphasizing BIG correct movements with the sword and body not only helps develop the essential Iaido muscles needed to endure practice but also helps creates a strong foundation to work from.

Example 1: From a ZNKR Seitei Gata point of view, Level 1 can be thought of as those points written down in the ZNKR Seitei manual and shown constantly at any regional or national seminar. These highly prescriptive points which are required to be understood and inculcated by all ZNKR Iaidoka. Using the very basic example of the opening sword movement in the first technique called Mae, Level 1 could refer to points such as the correct drawing technique of the sword and how both hands work, where the tsukakashira should aim during the draw and at what point the sword starts to turn onto its side. Then moving on to the shape of the first cut, where the two hands should be after completion of the cut, how the left hand creates effective sayabiki, the angle and position of the blade during and after the cut, the shoulder and hip positions after the cut has been made and the kissaki and right hand finishing position after nukitsuke… to name but a few points. These of course seems very obvious to experienced Iaido-ka; however, in retrospect how many can claim to do these correctly all the time?

Because many beginners in Iaido are focusing only on the sword at this point of their learning, it is useful and important to make as much of this prescriptive knowledge as clear to them as possible and make it easy for them to identify what is relevant to them at their level. From that initial starting point, which deals with only the sword and what is happening with the top part of the body, other Level 1 points for the lower half of the body should also be focused on.

Simple points such as the squeezing of the knees to help put the toes under in the correct way and at the correct position directly behind the hips, the correct foot placement on first cut, and the correct left knee, hip and left shoulder alignment after the first cut etc. Thus, even in this opening part of the first technique we can describe it in very prescriptive terms.

Example 2: Level 1 input should also include areas such as something as fundamentally important as the correct ashi-sabaki in any of the standing forms. This can be something as simple (but apparently difficult to do) as trying to get the learner to just take three steps forward in an absolute straight line. Remarkably, this is something that many find difficult, and despite having walked almost all of our lives, we still tend to walk with splayed open feet and often on our heels, thus, not exactly straight or using the lower body the way that we need to for effective Budo. Although there may be some slight variation in understanding and application of techniques based on different ryuha or lineage, there should be more similarities than differences within these Level 1 applications. Needless to say, many will scream that the application of footwork in the ZNKR Seitei Gata standing forms varies form to form. This of course is true and there are many subtle ashi-sabaki differences that must be shown in the various standing techniques; however, it is up to the individual instructor to decide whether they want to have their students walking correctly in a straight line, on the balls of the feet with the hips and body being used more effectively than on civilian street, or running into the form attempting Jo-Ha-Kyu acceleration but at the cost of sword and body control, AKA: correct form.

LEVEL 2: At this level of instruction the focus shifts to the way the body interacts more effectively with the sword. This might usually begin in earnest once the practitioner has reached perhaps a good 2nd or 3rd Dan level. The marco-goals as given by the ZNKR for 1st to 5th Dan are given below; however, as stated above, it is up to the individual instructor to decide at what point to start focusing on Level 2. My own understanding of this, based on many years of living and training in Japan, would be that Level 1 input is suitable for new beginners to a good 2 Dan level, because it takes considerable time and practice to internalise even to a basic level many of these points. However, even the most experienced Iaido-ka need to be reminded of these fundamentals sometimes. The macro goals as set out by the ZNKR are:

ZNKR – Seitei Gata: 1st to 3rd Dan the Iaido-ka must show knowledge of:

a)  Correct wearing of uniform (chakuso)
b)  Correct etiquette (saho)
c)  Correct horizontal cut (nikitsuke)
d)  Correct vertical cut (kiritsuke)
e)  Correct blood wiping action (chiburi) and correct angles
f)  Correct returning of the sword (noto)

ZNKR – Seitei Gata: 4th and 5th Dan the Iaido-ka must show knowledge of and including:

a) The previous points for 1st to 3rd Dan
b) A tranquility of heart and mind when performing (kokoro no ochitsuki)
c) Correct use of eyes (metsuke)
d) A sense of vigor, energy, spirit and drive in the performance (kihaku) 
e) The body and sword being used as one in unison (kikentai no ichi)

Example 3: Following on from the above example of the initial draw in Mae, the Level 1 nukitsuke can be further developed from the simple prescriptive positioning of the sword in relation to basic body movements, and further developed into Level 2 with the aim of using the body more effectively with the sword for Iaido purposes. For example, this could include elements of how to achieve better sayabinari considering hand and arm positioning of whether the left hand was used to turn the saya or if the right was used thereby locking/straightening out the right elbow, correct sayabiki and whether the hand and wrist position of saya-biki are correct and the elbow is being used, that the application of the tenouchi in the cut is effective so that the kissaki is alive and not dipping and the angle the cut moves through the intended target is correct, that the hips are solid and the shoulders are correctly extended forward so that the target is indeed hit in the correct way so as to check that the practitioner is not doing a hikigiri, that the left hand, sword and right foot act as one when the sword is released from the saya, and that a continuous acceleration of jo-ha-kyu is used. This would equate to an improved understanding of some of the nukitsuke technical issues, and lead to a better application of Kikentai no ichi and kihaku. In Japanese terminology this can be referred to as Dokan; or the revisiting the same technique but at higher levels of understanding. A useful image for this is that of an upward spiral staircase, where you revisit items over and over, but always at a higher level of understanding and execution.

Example 4: Another example of Level 2 input could be that once the learner is able to walk correctly in a straight line using correct foot and bodywork, that can be added to by building in specific movements such as of small, medium and large steps to develop back foot suriashi. Footwork such as this is found and needed in techniques such as the nukitsuke in the technique ZNKR No. 6 Morote Tsuki. At higher levels, many of the ZNKR Seitei Gata standing technique have different types of footwork that should be used, so the instructor needs to be able to explain those elements more deeply. Another example of Level 2 development could be to then introduce elements of jo-ha-kyu into the different size of the steps, so as to build better and more explosive timing. Thus, again adding an improved element of kihaku into the forms.

Level 3: Are arguably the mental and spiritual technical elements of Iaido. Perhaps this can be developed from around 4th Dan onwards; however, in my own experience in Japan it is more likely to be deliberately and increasingly focused on at a 5th Dan level and beyond. By the time the practitioner has mastered (to a suitable degree) the Level 1 and 2 elements of the various techniques, they will have also by imitation, but not necessarily because of explicit instruction, tried to implement some of these higher-level elements of Iaido. The higher level points are described below:

ZNKR – Seitei Gata: 6th and 8th Dan the Iaido-ka must show mastery of and including:

a) The points covered for 1st – 5th Dan (considered the basics)
b) Logic and understanding of all the elements of the form within the forms (riai)
c) Developed presence, style, gusto; character and personality in their execution (fukaku)
d) Be able to perform with elegance, dignity and grace (hin-i)

Example 5: At Level 3, the aim of tuition is to help bring all of the practitioner’s skills together and polish them into a formidable thing of power, beauty and presence. Continuing on from the previous nukitsuke example, once Levels 1&2 have been achieved, the Level 3 elements such as ma and ma-ai should be focused on more deeply as this will not only have an improved impact on the execution and shape of the cut but also aid in proper depth perception which also improves metsuke and zanshin. These are also elements of riai, or understanding the true meaning of the technique and ultimately where the opponent is. Metsuke in this case should not only mean a calm enzan no metsuke, but also a type of ganriki, which shows the difference between looking with the heart and looking with the eyes, or put another way, the difference between a 2 dimensional technique with no real opponent and a 3 dimensional one when you know exactly where your opponent is. At this level, elements such as meri-hari are also required so that the technique has a balance of strong and soft, and fast and smooth use of the body and sword. This shows that the technique is not just one tempo or strength and that it has appropriate pressure (seme), thus displaying fukaku and hini, which shows kokorogamae, or in other words the depth of practice of the Iaido-ka and thereby showing sufficiently high levels of Dai, Kyo, Soku, Kei.

Level 3 requires an in-depth study of the fundamental mechanics of the various techniques. It is also important to develop the ability to discern when someone is not doing Levels 1&2 effectively but doing what seems fast, effective and spirited Iaido. On several occasions we have all encountered new students or other Iaido-ka who display the most spirited and sometime ferocious Iaido. Nevertheless, a hard or aggressive spirit without effective control of the sword and body is not effective technique and arguably not the true purpose of Iaido.

Conclusion: The approach of using Levels 1, 2 and 3 to describe techniques and application works well for the way I teach Iaido, as it allows me to consider a persons level or grade and quickly decide what is appropriate input for them. This of course can be adjusted up or down as necessary. It also allows me to explain to large mixed level groups at the same time, while emphasizing what is relevant at that time to the different grades present and what might be the next suitable points to consider adding on, thus being able to show what the current goal is and also what the next level up is. For those willing to learn to walk before they run this can be very motivational, providing clear and definable current, short and long-term goals. Another of the benefits of this approach is that it allows information to be disseminated in deliberate manageable chunks of input. By being able to clearly define targets in a lesson I can also employ different teaching and learning techniques that allow varied and interesting ways of engaging these learning targets. These can include approaches such as (but not limited to):

  • Test-Teach-Test: where we can check for specific knowledge, understanding or performance; then show, build and improve on that knowledge; give time to practice and internalize the new input; then test to see what has been retained. This technique works well with individuals or groups.
  • Collaborative Learning: Where groups or pairs can work together to ask and/or answer questions on technique. This also leads us on to:
  • Peer Assessment: where learning targets can be given and practitioners work in pairs or groups to check each other’s understanding and performance. Thus, helping them to notice the gaps in application in both others and ultimately themselves.

However, regardless of which approach is used it is important to remember that different people learn in different ways, so a variety of methods should be employed so that audio, visual and kinesthetic learning takes place, thus hopefully reaching all learning types preferred input methods.
Needless to say, the ideas presented in this paper may seem unclear to the reader, but those who have participated in any classes or seminars where I have taught, have commented positively about the way points are explained and the sequential clarity and cohesion of this approach. This I believe is much to do with the simplicity of using a 3 Levels approach of focusing initially on sword-work and basic bodywork, then improved sword and bodywork and finally on to higher level elements such as timing, and spirit. For many who practice Iaido as a hobby rather than an in-depth lifestyle, this makes the awareness of these various learning targets easier to understand as they are presented in manageable chucks of input. Sadly, it does not make the actual doing and mastering of them any easier. That still requires the hard work!

For anyone wishing to contact me about this paper or the ideas in it, I can be reached on through the Edinburgh Genbukan webpage: