Kendo for Beginners
4. Technical Tips
Holding your shinai
The grip on your shinai is very important in delivering a scoring cut. The tsuru is the back of the sword (opposite the blade), so when holding your shinai in chu-dan, this should be on top. Hold the tsuka with your right hand just under the tsuba and your left hand all the way at the bottom of the tsuka. Grip firmly with your little finger and the one next to it on your left hand. There should be no tsuka sticking out through the bottom of your fist. The driving power comes from your left arm, and your right hand is only there to guide your sword accurately to the target. The “V” between your thumb and your index finger should be lined up with the tsuru. Turn your wrists in so that your right kote target is not easily visible from your opponent and your left wrist is delivering power most efficiently. You should be “shaking hands with your shinai”.
Your left fist should be at the height of your navel and about one fist in front of your body.
Your arms and shoulders should be relaxed, with your elbows bent slightly. Imagine a circle from your chest, to your right arm, to your hands to your left arm and back to your chest. Your back should be straight.
A shinai weighs about 500 grams, which is not that heavy. But because it is fairly long, you will feel it much heavier when you first hold it. Resist the temptation to hold it with your right hand and or the thumb and index finger of your left hand, and concentrate your feelings in your navel area. Imagine the shinai is growing out of your navel.
Kamae is a stance or a position you take ready to strike. There are 5 kamae’s; chu-dan, jo-dan, gedan, hasso-, waki. The first is the most basic and the most important. The second is sometimes used by experienced Kendokas, and the remaining 3 are hardly used in normal fighting, but do appear in kata.
“Chu-dan no kamae” is when you stand square to your opponent, sword in front of you with the tip pointing to your opponent’s throat. The method of holding the shinai described above is also describing the “chu-dan no kamae”. It should be reiterated that this kamae is very important. You should check your posture in the mirror at home and learn it correctly.
“Jo-dan no kamae” is when you stand square to your opponent with your sword swung up. You should be able to see your opponent from under your arms. There are 2 jo-dans; right and left. This refers to which leg you have in front. Left jo-dan is more useful and hence more common in shiai.
The more rare kamaes are not explained here.
Standing in kamae requires some attention. Unless you are in one of the more rare kamaes you should have your right foot in front of your left foot at all times. Even after you move, your left foot should never go in front of your right foot (except for when you do hiraki ashi).
Stand with your feet at shoulder width apart. Your feet should be parallel to each other. Move your right foot forwards so that there is one fist between your left toes and your right heel. Neither of your heels should touch the floor. Imagine slipping a matchbox on its side under your left heel and a piece of cigarette paper under your right heel. Your knees should be bent slightly so that they are not locked in. Your weight should be at the very worst 50-50 on both feet but better if it is 60-40 or 70-30, left and right.
Now that you are standing correctly, you should learn to move correctly. There are 3 ways in which you can move; ayumi ashi, okuri ashi, fumikomi ashi.
Ayumi ashi is what we are accustomed to as “walking”. You use this when you walk up to and away from your opponent before and after fights, and any other time when you are not engaged in a fight.
Okuri ashi is the most basic and important footwork. This is when you slide your right foot forward, then your left so that you are back to the correct Kendo standing position. When you do okuri ashi you must remember never to put your heels down. Failing to master this footwork will result in you damaging your right heel when you come to learn fumikomi ashi. Ask any senpai and they will tell you how much they hate injuring their heels because it does not get better for months!
In okuri ashi you can move in all directions. When you move forwards and or right, always move your right foot first. When you move backwards and or left, move your left foot first. Always remember to bring in the other foot to the correct stance.
A slightly more complicated variation on this is the hiraki ashi. This is used when you rotate your body and cut diagonally. Turning right, you move your left foot to the left and forwards, then your right foot left and backwards, so that you are standing in the correct posture, just with your left foot in front of the right in stead.
Turning left, move your right foot forwards and to the right, then your left foot to the right so that you are standing in the correct posture.
Fumikomi ashi is used to ensure you move your whole body when delivering a cut. Pushing off with your left foot, throw the right foot forwards from your hip and land with your knee bent, flat on your right foot with a bang. Immediately bring in the left foot to one fist behind your right heel. Your left knee should also be bent so that you still have enough spring left to launch another step. Take one okuri ashi step to shed momentum. The feeling is that of launching forwards, not upwards. Your upper body should maintain the original posture, so if anyone was looking at just your upper body, you will appear to glide forwards very quickly.
You can also do fumikomi ashi going backwards. This is difficult to learn and to explain. Here are 2 different descriptions of how you should learn it.
The first method is this. Standing in the correct posture, put more and more of your weight on your left foot. At the point when you think you will fall over, push off with your right foot and launch yourself backwards.
The second method is by considering the forward fumikomi ashi. Imagine making the step you take smaller and smaller until the step is so small you are doing it on the spot. Now, when you do fumikomi ashi, instead of launching forwards, launch backwards, as if there is a barrier just in front of you so that even if you do launch forwards you will end up travelling backwards.
Trajectory of the sword
The basic trajectory of the sword (shinai or bokken) is straight up and straight down. Read through this section and practice with very slow movements to start with. Remember to keep your left fist in the centre line of your body.
From chu-dan, bring your left hand up along the centre line of your body. Remember to always have your wrist turned in. Relax your elbows and shoulders and pull up the sword with your back. As your sword starts to go up, slide your right foot forwards.
At the top of the swing, your left fist should be at the height of your forehead and you should be able to see your target from under your arms. Your sword should not be leaning too far back. Try to get your sword to be vertical above you head. It will inevitably be leaning slightly back even if you think you have it vertical. This slightly leaning position is the correct position of your sword at the top of the swing. Your elbows should be bent comfortably.
Now, swing your sword down by bringing your hands almost directly down in front of your face. In doing so, your hands will automatically swing the sword forwards for you. When your left hand comes down past your eyes, start to stretch your arms forwards, still bringing your hands lower. The rate at which you stretch your arms should be faster than the rate at which you lower your hands. As your sword is coming down, bring your left foot in, back into the correct standing position. When your right arm is completely outstretched and parallel to the floor, squeeze your hands and turn your wrists in (not up!) further. This is the shibori or tenouchi.
You must learn to do the shibori correctly for various reasons. When cutting an armoured person with a shinai, if you do not use shibori, your shinai will slip off the target after impact, making it difficult for you to take good zanshin. It also hurts the person in armour if you do not use shibori. A correct cut will bounce off the target slightly at impact and allows you to travel forwards and or to execute further cuts in succession. In a real swordfight, if you do no use shibori, your sword will get stuck in the corpse!
Once you stop the swing of your sword with a good shibori, you have completed the motion for a (sho-)men cut. Naturally, the tip of your sword should be at the height of your partner’s head. If you are doing suburi, this should be your own head height.
Now go back to chu-dan ready for the next cut by taking a step back in okuri ashi.
Your back should be upright in good posture throughout the execution of a cut.
This is the most basic way of swinging a sword, and you should learn this slowly before you start to swing your sword quickly.
Ki ken tai no icchi and breathing
An important concept in Kendo is “ki ken tai no icchi”, meaning, “concurrence of spirit, sword and body”. A cut with no “ki ken-tai no icchi” is not correct, does not look pleasant, and hence will not score in shiai.
The above description of the trajectory of the sword should take care of the “concurrence of sword and body”. The more difficult problem is the concurrence of spirit. In practise, this is done by shouting. We shout before, during and after a cut.
Before the cut, we shout as part of seme to show the opponent we are alert and ready to fight. During a cut we often shout out the part of the body we are attacking (men, kote, do-, tsuki). This shouting should occur at the same time as the cut. After the cut, we hold the shouting from during the cut as we run past or away from the opponent and get back to chu-dan. This is the zanshin which shows the opponent that you are still alert after your cut and are ready for the next cut. All three shouting should be used correctly in order to show that your spirit is concurrent with your sword and body.
We use our voice as a tool for showing our spirit because without correct breathing, you cannot shout at the correct time, and without correct shouting, your cuts are not executed with correct spirit and attitude. (Try punching a pillow while inhaling sharply. Now try again while exhaling sharply. Which felt more natural?)
During a swing, you should breathe in on the way up, and breathe out on the way down. This way, you are guaranteed to be able to shout as you strike the target. Needless to say, shouting without spirit is no use.
You are only allowed to cut certain parts of the opponent’s body.
|Men||Sho-men||Top of the head.|
|Migi men||Up to 45o to the right of sho-men.|
|Hidari men||Up to 45o to the left of sho-men.|
|Kote||Migi kote||Right wrist.|
|Hidari kote||Left wrist. Only when it is raised above the head.|
|Gyaku do||Left torso.|
You are also only allowed to score with a certain part of your sword, the monouchi. This is the top 1/3 of your sword (from tip to nakayui) on the blade side (opposite the tsuru). To ensure you use this part of the sword to execute cuts, you must start your cut at a correct distance, or maai, away from your opponent.
Issoku itto- no maai is the basic maai, where it literally means “one foot, one cut”. You and your opponent can both cut each other with just one step. You should be in this maai when you are ready to strike. Your swords should be crossing just at the tips.
To-ma is the long distance where you and your opponent are safe from each other, but require one extra step to get to cutting distance, the issoku itto- no maai. When learning seme you should start here and attack your opponent so that you can get to cutting distance safely. Your swords are not in contact in this maai.
Chikama is the close distance where you and your opponent can deliver cuts very easily with a small movement. The swords should be crossing at about the nakayui.
These maai should be adjusted according to the size of your opponent.
The sho-men was described earlier in the section about the trajectory of the sword. Here are some variations on the sho-men which can be used alone or in consecutive waza. For any cut, it is important to move your feet at the same time as you cut.
Migi (hidari) men is similar to sho-men, but on the way down, bring your right hand to the right (left) so that at the end of the cut, the sword hits the right (left) temple of your opponent, about 45o away from the centre. Remember to guide the sword with your right hand, and that your left hand travels along the centre line of your body at all times.
(Migi) kote cut requires a smaller movement than sho-men. Normally, kote refers to migi kote. In the same manner as described in the section about the trajectory of the sword, bring your sword up, but this time, just enough to see the kote of your opponent from under your arms. Bring down your sword in a similar manner to that for sho-men, but lower, so that the sword reaches the kote when it is horizontal to the floor. Your right arm should be stretched out fully, and you should execute a correct shibori.
Although you are striking a part of the opponent’s body which seems to be slightly to the left of the centre (from your side), you should still swing your sword up and down perfectly straight along the centre line of your body.
For a do- strike, bring up your sword as with men and kote in a straight line until you can see your opponent’s do- from under you arms. On the way down, bring your left hand straight down along the centre line of your body and swing your right hand out to the left to about 45o and strike your opponent’s right do-. The tip of your sword should draw a “half heart” shape as it comes down to hit the do. Your sword should not hit the do- sideways.
Hidari kote, gyaku do- and tsuki are slightly more advanced, so will not be described here. They should become obvious as you get used to Kendo movements anyway.
After each cut executed on your opponent, always advance forwards and go past your opponent, then turn around (to face your opponent, never turn around to show your back) and get back to chu-dan as quickly as possible. You should still be fully concentrated on your movements, and alert and aware of your opponent’s movements. This is zanshin, literally meaning “remaining heart”.
A strike that stops immediately after the shinai hitting the target is not complete. Your kiai and spirit should carry on until you are ready for your next attack. Part of the idea is to show your aggressive spirit to your opponent and try to discourage him from counter-striking.
Suburi literally means “empty swing”, that is, you practice cutting without a target. It is used to learn basic sword swinging movements and as warm-up. It is important to concentrate on every cut and treat each as real cuts executed on an opponent.
We usually do suburi in units of 10s. It is common to count by shouting each cut from 1 to 10. Shouting, as explained earlier, helps you learn the correct timing for breathing. Especially on haya suburi (or cho-yaku suburi), it is common to count louder and hold each number longer on the last 10 to show that you are not tired.
In addition to sho-men there are several common suburi cuts; jo-geburi, diagonal suburi, sayu-men and hayasuburi.
Jo-geburi is when you swing your sword from full back swing, as with sho-men, and cut all the way down to knee height. (It used to be taught to take the back swing all the way until the sword touched your bottom.) This is used as the first type of cut to be practiced at warm up as it utilises your back and shoulders in a large movement. One thing to be careful is to not take your sword too far down that your hand is pointing to the floor at a sharper angle than the rest of your arm. This will put a huge amount of stress on your wrists and will damage them.
As you cut, take one step forward in okuri ashi, that is, your right foot slides forwards as you swing up, and your left foot follows as you swing down. On the next cut, move back a step in okuri ashi. This is the common footwork when doing renzoku suburi. For single-cut suburi, go back to chu-dan every cut.
A variation on this is the diagonal suburi. Hiraki ashi is used for this. You start by turning to the left using hiraki ashi as you cut in a large movement at 45o right to the vertical. Your left hand remains in the centre line of your body as you guide your sword around with your right hand. Similarly, on the next step, turn right using hiraki ashi and cut at 450 to the left.
Sayu- men is when you hit migi men and hidari men in turn in renzoku suburi. As with any other diagonal cuts, take care to leave your left hand in the centre of your body as you guide your sword around with your right hand.
Haya suburi or cho-yaku suburi poses most problems for beginners. This is when you jump at each cut and execute cuts at a rate of about one cut per second. From chu-dan, swing up to the top. Then kicking off with your left foot, jump forwards landing on your right foot as you swing down your sword for a cut. Immediately bring in your left foot. Now jump back wards kicking off with your right foot, landing on your left foot as your sword goes back to the top of the swing. Bring in your right foot immediately. Again, although this is called the “jumping” suburi, you should not be bobbing up and down too much. This suburi is the most tiring, but you should make each swing a definite cut.
On the last cut of haya suburi, do a big men cut with fumikomi ashi, once forwards, then turn around and do it again to get back to where you started.
A typical suburi menu
|Diagonal suburi||20 times|
|Renzoku sho-men||30 times|
|Haya suburi||50 times|
Each entry can be multiplied a number of times depending on how well they were done!