Leather Tsuba 皮鍔

A few months ago I was roaming around the internet looking for some interesting stuff and by accident I landed on the facebook page of a gentleman that hand makes tsuba – mainly for bokuto, but also for shinai. I love this sort of handmade product and posted a link on the kenshi 24/7 page. Immediately people began to like the link so I knew that I was not alone in enjoying such craftsmanship.

Fast forward a couple of months and I found myself looking at the page a few more times and getting more intrigued by the tsuba. I wanted one for myself! I got directly in touch with the craftsman – Tom Bengston – and inquired more into his work. After some chat, Tom kindly sent me a couple of his kendo leather tsuba for review – one in antique tan, and another in dark brown.

Review (kendo tsuba)

When I placed my order I asked for just a plain shinai tsuba – if you have a look on the website you can see that you can customise tsuba with either kamon or writing. The only other information I supplied was the diameter of the hole. Less than 10 days later the tsuba arrived safely here in Osaka.

The first thing I noticed when I opened the package was the thickness of the tsuba and the gorgeous colour of both… especially of the antique tan one. I realised that in 20 years of kendo practise I’d never set my eyes on a “beautiful” tsuba before!! These leather tsuba really are quite unique.

Despite the thickness mentioned above (required for durability), the tsuba are quite light. I’ve only been using them for a few days now, but I suspect that the tsuba will easily last a long time… in fact, I can’t imagine them breaking, ripping, tearing, or otherwise being damaged during kendo practise.

One concern that immediately came to mind was if it was illegal to use this type of tsuba in shiai. I’m not sure of the answer, but I can’t imagine they would be disallowed. Even if that were the case, there would be absolutely nothing to stop you from using them in your daily keiko.


For me this is a no-brainer: if you want a durable and unique tsuba for your shinai, these are great. I think they make awesome gifts as well, perhaps as a thank you to a sensei or a grading congratulations for friends. Everyone I’ve shown them to here in Japan love them.

More than anything, however, there is something personally satisfying in having and using a unique handcrafted product.

(I haven’t seen the bokuto tsuba but I assume that they are finished the same high standard.)

Check out and order Leather Tsuba’s work at the following places:


Facebook page

Note that the shop closes Dec 18th and re-opens January the 2nd.

Applied theory

In the last post on the site I discussed about what the term ji-ri-itchi means to me personally on a more macro level, and now I want to discuss a particular example of a theory applied to physical practise.

Ken-chu-tai, tai-chu-ken

AFAIK the first reference to the teaching of Ken-Tai appears in Yagyu-shinkage ryu’s Hyoho Kadensho, written by Yagyu Munenori in 1632 (it also appears in Hozo-in ryu and Itto-ryu documents, and probably more traditions as well). Ken-tai and variants of it (e.g. Kobo-fuki, Do-sei-ichinyo, etc) are usually rendered into English as “defense within attack, attack within defense” or more simply as “attack and defense as one. A description from the Hyoho Kandensho reads:

“Ken means to attack single-mindedly, to strike fiercely in order to be the first to strike a blow.

Tai means resisting making the initial technique while awaiting the opponent’s first move. It must be understood that tai is a position of utmost watchfulness.

Ken and tai mean to attack and wait.

Concerning the principles of ken-tai pertaining to the body and the sword, advance upon the opponent with an attacking posture and hold the sword in a position of waiting, making efforts to entice the opponent to make an attack and counter it. In this way ones posture is in an attitude of ken and the sword one of tai. The ken posture is used to induce the opponent to initiate the attack.

Ken-tai pertaining to the mind and body. The mind should retain an attitude of tai and the body an attitude of ken; this is because if the mind retains an attitude of ken it races and this is not good; thus have the mind wait in tai, and with the body in ken induce the opponent to make the first move and defeat him.

Again there is the principle whereby the mind takes an attitude of ken and the body in one of tai; the reason for this is that with the mind in ken it is put upon its guard and with the sword in tai the opponent is induced into making the first attack. One should think of the body as being the hand that holds the sword. Thus the mind takes the attitude of ken and the body one of tai.

Ultimately both methods are the same, the aim is to induce the opponent to make the first move and defeat him.”

Kendo Tokuhon (The Kendo Reader), kenshi247.net, October 2013

I don’t think the theory of Ken-Tai is particularly difficult to understand cerebrally, but utilising it effectively within keiko is another matter. Specifically, I’d like to talk about it in reference to executing oji-waza.

I’ve sometimes seen oji-waza described as “reactive” techniques in English but I posit that this is – for advanced practitioners anyway – a misnomer. I mention this in my Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills under the “Oji-waza is not a guessing game” section. To be clear (under this definition): oji-waza are techniques executed with prior knowledge to what your opponent is going to do. The reason you have this foresight is that you have setup the situation: that is, you are in control of not only the area being struck, but also the timing.

A specific example: men-kaeshi-dou

To setup the situation you need to do two things:

1. Open up your men for attack;
2. Seem to be unaware of the impending attack.

There are many ways to open your men up, but the easiest one is done simply by dropping the point of your shinai down diagonally to the right (preferably subtly) and, at the same time, moving your right foot out diagonally (body in ken). By doing this all you need do is raise up your arms to catch your opponents men strike and move smoothly into the dou strike. Needless to say, you should be calmly watching your opponent and calculating while doing this (mind in tai).

However, we still have a problem. If your fighting spirit is obvious and/or your look like you are setting things up, then your opponent will not attack you (unless they are inexperienced): you have to fool them into actually believing that you are actually open. If you are overtly obvious in your setup or desire to strike then experienced people will not strike.

In this situation it’s often best to make your attacking spirit obvious immediately prior to the setup described above… then slightly relax the pressure. The switch from overt pressure to a relaxing of it is often enough for someone to launch an attack… inexperienced people will attack at this point even when there are no openings. This, of course, is Ken-tai in application.

Do I need to know the theory behind the action?

The answer to this is “no” if you are doing kendo casually, and “yes” if you are not. To some extent, “knowledge” of kendo will come naturally through doing it… in fact, I suspect that the best and most naturally way of understanding kendo is simply through constant daily practise without too much thinking. At some point, however, especially if you want to become a teacher, then it’s probably better if you spend time on the whys and wherefores.

Many people might say “I can describe my experience without relation to the more traditional kendo terms” which I think is a fair comment. I guess it’s up to the individual to choose how they teach and describe kendo. For me personally, I prefer to pepper the description with classical terminology…. kendo is after all, for me anyway, also a study of the past.

There are a number of overlapping theories used to describe the physical and mental process of executing kendo techniques, for example the different kinds of sen, discussion of kyojitsu (a term almost unknown in the English kendo community and disappearing in the Japanese one), and various other teachings from classical swordsmanship schools that have found their way into kendo theory. On top of this there is also the more modern boxing of waza into shikake and oji techniques, the odd sports-science explanation, and of course personal theories (sometimes eccentric) from various teachers. Some of these complement each other (for example, my use of ken-tai to describe oji-waza), and some don’t (the various types of sen and the shikake/oji waza definition).

I guess the point here is that for every action you do in kendo has, theoretically, some sort of rationale behind it, and if you want to be a good kendo teacher then you should spend time not only in research of these theories, but in actually application of them. At least, this is my aim.

“An important teaching, comprehension is difficult to come by without hard training.”

For a longer discussion on Ken-Tai, please see p84-6 of the kenshi 24/7 published Kendo Tokuhon (The Kendo Reader). Also, don’t forget to check out Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills for discussion and description of oji-waza.


Due to an injury, I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting down and watching keiko a lot recently. This is usually termed KENGAKU (見学) or MITORI-GEIKO (見取り稽古) in Japanese. The former uses the kanji 見 for “look” and 学 for “study” thus means “study through observation.” The latter has a slightly different literal translation but in effect the meaning is identical. Basically, through watching people do kendo you yourself can perceive something or reach some sort of (sometimes new) understanding.

Even when I am not sidelined due to injury, I routinely find myself queueing up to face senior sensei. At this time I find myself watching the pair in front of me, not just the teacher him or herself, but their opponent as well. This is a chance not just to learn the mechanics of kendo, but the strategies that come into play between two opponents. A pet peeve of mine is when people line up for a sensei but don’t study their kendo… they are looking elsewhere or even, god forbid, chatting. But I digress.

I also routinely instruct my students to watch other students shiai: I think it is vitally important that they have a strong image of the type of kendo that can be done at their own age and gender… an image that a nearly-40-year-old bearded Scotsman can’t project!!!

Thinking about this over the last few days I remembered something I read a few years ago in regard to copying the kendo of those whose who went before you, that is, your sempai and sensei. I present a translation of this piece below. It was originally written by Sakuma Saburo hanshi, and was published in 1997, the year of his death.

When people call themselves “unskilled” or “clumsy” we can say as a general rule the problem is not lack of skill, but inability to copy or mimic others. As long as a someone is normal bodied (head, neck, chest, arms and legs) then they should really have no problem doing this. The practise of budo, sport, the arts, and academic study all begin by copying those that went before you (sempai/sensei). A person who can’t copy or mimic others often fall into these categories:

– they are self-important and can’t find the value in others: bias and preconception;

– they imagine that they are not good enough to mimic whats being done: timidity;

– they don’t even want to try to copy others: laziness;

– they think copying others is somehow bad: misunderstanding.

Of course there are people who are good and bad (at some things), but most people can expect to become generally decent at most things outside of their particular strong areas.

Kendo shugyo is pursued with the aid of a shinai and falls within a defined range. Thus, depending on the methodology used, we can expect anyone to become proficient in its practise. If you watch a skilled sempai in front of you and constantly strive to do your best, you will definitely be able to arrive at or even surpass their ability. Improvement after this is down to your own research. Try your best.

If you think that you are already skilfull, then you are a Tengu, and a way forward for you does not exist.

Thus, kendo is learned essentially through the copying of models and mitorigeiko is the conscientious process whereby you choose what to (or not to) mimic. Depending on your current kendo goals, there’s almost certainly some filtering going on as well.


Recently I’ve seen the odd blatantly commercial website selling lots of learning-kendo dvd’s (for a pretty-penny I might add). It strikes me that if there was one thing that you couldn’t learn from a dvd then it would be kendo. Sure, it’s possible a dvd could give rise to new ideas about training to those already experienced, but theres zero chance a dvd can replace a teacher or a dojo – who, after all, is there to watch and copy? A 2D image on a screen? I have a strong feeling that those that buy these expensive dvd sets live in areas where these is no kendo infrastructure. I feel sorry for people in this situation who pay a lot of money for these essentially useless dvd’s.

My message to those of you reading this that don’t have someone in front of you to model yourself on is simple: rather than waste your time with dvd’s and backyard-budo fantasy, consider doing a different martial art – one where you have access to a proper teacher. At the end of the day, whether you study kendo or judo, shorinji-kempo or aikido, the end goal is the same… and the guide towards that goal is a teacher.


平成・剣道 地木水火風空 読本(下)。佐久間三郎。平成9年発行。

16th World Kendo Championships

So, at the 2012 World Kendo Championships in Italy there was a presentation and vote to decide where the next championships would be held. There were two countries in contention: Japan and Korea.

A few weeks before the event I was contacted by a rep of the ZNKR and asked to give my opinion on how to grab the interest of non-Japanese kenshi (I assumed, and still assume now that they asked quite a few people the same questions). i.e. they wanted something that would appeal to the FIK board members to choose Japan over Korea.

One of my ideas was to interview famous kenshi and have them talk about why the Budokan is THE place to take part in shiai… about their experiences there, and about how its often seen as the pinnacle of every (Japanese) kenshi’s dream to compete there.

I was told that this idea was used, but I never saw the result of it until today – here it is (or at least a re-edit). I’m sure other people had the same or similar ideas, but it’s a thrill to see it nonetheless !!!