At the Sharp End

By Stuart Gibson

Originally published in Kendo World 4.3, 2008.

Recently in Tokyo there has been something of a furore regarding mukae-zuki, which at the beginning of August this year culminated in letters from the Municipal Kendo Association going to all dōjō in Tokyo. Basically, a high ranking teacher in a particular ward had seriously injured someone with mukae-zuki, to the point that the person actually needed time off work to recover. The injuries included severe bruising to the throat and required treatment at hospital. The offender, who was the president of the ward kendo association and a K8-dan, was then asked to leave his post, and he did so in a somewhat vocal fashion, additionally, I believe, leaving the club. The Tokyo Kendo Renmei then sent a letter to all dōjō asking them to consider the dangers of using mukae-zuki.

This, and my own recent experiences, having had a hefty one planted on me a few weeks ago, and watching a visitor to my regular dōjō attempt to do mukae-zuki to everybody he did keiko with, including the visiting 8-dan, has got me thinking:

Does mukae-zuki really have any place in kendo? And if so, what is it?

There are of course arguments for and against. For instance as a tool to teach centre it could be argued that it has its uses, but then I have always been more of a proponent of just keeping centre or lowering my kensen slightly and holding it on my opponent’s dō-mune when I want them to know that there was no seme/incorrect timing etc. there. In my own experience at the dōjō I used to teach at before coming to Japan, the student is more likely to trust you if you safely manage the situation as opposed to doing something that can result in their injury. Why indeed would you trust anyone who does something that has a good chance of hurting you? This kind of leaves the “for” argument for using it fairly limp in my mind. If you can safely do something ‒ in this case muna-zuki ‒ as an equivalent that will have just the same teaching effect and give the same message, why would you risk serious injury to your opponent by doing it to the throat?

Then there is the argument that nothing of the sort is vaguely needed at all. If the attacker was coming in without a proper opportunity, rather than doing nothing or just sticking your hands out, which can be seen as a lack of preparation on your own part, surely returning the attack in some form of yūkō-datotsu would be preferable? Especially if you could see it was coming and had the wit about you and the spare time to thrust your kensen into their throat.

I’m not entirely sure where I stand on what is better, muna-zuki or a proper technique of some sort, but I’m surely of the opinion that mukae-zuki is probably one of the most un-required pieces of kendo that is still done. I know of one 8-dan (who was recently made Hanshi) who said he doesn’t do mukae-zuki at all; and he really doesn’t, on the reasoning that he hated receiving mukae-zuki, so why would he do to someone else something that he hated himself. This, if anything, is good enough for me. That, and the fact that he really does return any kind of technique regardless of his position, is Hanshi material indeed! But in all seriousness, and to return to the point of preparation as well, if you can’t return what is coming to you and have only the presence of mind to do something that can injure, doesn’t that in actual fact point to a deficiency? In the short time I’ve been in Japan, and even before then too, I’ve seen many sensei return kaeshi-dō after kaeshi-dō, take four de-gote in a row, or any manner of other techniques, even if it’s as simple as using only their kensen to move their opponent’s whole body in a different direction while they themselves are still in the same place and are barely moving, and I’ve seen enough of these kinds of things to confirm that mukae-zuki, even to teach centre (or lack of it), is unnecessary, and that these teachers are indeed well-prepared for pretty much anything that comes at them. All it would take is a quick “chūshin ga nai yo!” (“You have no centre!”) after the fourth kaeshi-dō for the junior side to figure it out anyway.

There will of course always be people who say that the threat of having a kensen jammed into your unprotected throat is a good lesson in keeping centre, and will teach you to respect a shinai held by someone else a little more, and create better openings. I’m sure that this is the case, and that in the past this kind of viewpoint may have been the accepted norm. I think, however, to my young and unadulterated (naive?) mind, that this might be a more old fashioned way of approaching a subject that demonstrably has safer ways of being taught. If you can teach someone safely and have him or her come back, why risk injury to someone and put them off? Again, in days gone by it might have been okay to weed out the weak in this way. However, in a time when we are all worried about inclusion and its associated problems (especially in Japan where it seems that there is a tendency for people who feel socially excluded in some way to lash out, sometimes with horrific consequences) surely allowing people to practise in safety, and not making them feel weak and inadequate and therefore not “appropriate” to their chosen pastime, is a better approach? Just maybe….