Know Your Opponent

By Chiba Masashi (Kendo Hanshi 8-dan)

Translated by Alex Bennett. Originally published in Kendo World 4.3

img_0782Chiba Masashi Sensei is well-known throughout Japan as a jōdan fighter. He won the All Japan Kendo Championship three times and was runner-up twice, as well as placing highly in many other prestigious titles. He is currently Honourary Shihan for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and Hitotsubashi University. 

It is important to be able to do your own kendo in shiai. In order to do this, you need the ability to take charge of the situation. This means that you have to know how to deal with the many different kinds of opponents you may encounter. Your opponent may be wily, strong, have good footwork or be particularly skilled at striking kote… You never know who you will have to face which necessitates the knowledge to deal with different types of kendo styles in the most effective way.

It is often said that everybody has their own idiosyncrasies, and there are as many different styles of kendo as there are people doing it. Regardless of what kind of kendo someone may do, the onus is on you to be able to manage the situation. When I was in school, my teacher told me on an outing to other schools, “You never know when or who you will have to go up against, so pay close attention to the habits of every one of your potential opponents”. This was very wise advice that I still take to heart even now. In other words, never take an opportunity to do keiko with somebody lightly. You can learn many things about your opponent and his or her distinctive tendencies. This guidance served me well in high school and later on when I started kendo at the Keishichō (Tokyo Metropolitan Police).

Mitori-geiko (watching others as they train) is also a useful way of ascertaining the tendencies of other kendoka. Consider ways in which you would deal with each person if you were fighting them. I check their keiko and devise strategies of how to defeat their strengths and weaknesses. It also helped me understand my own style of kendo.

As I mentioned, there are as many styles of kendo as there are practitioners. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to divide them into specific groups based on their typical movements and method of fencing. In order to successfully compete against other fighters, it is useful to categorise them and have an appropriate model strategy in mind from the start. Your opponent is probably thinking the same thing so you should also expect the unexpected. You can only develop the skill to do this by training hard and focusing on the basics. In the final analysis, matches are usually decided by the quality and amount of keiko each competitor has accrued. Keiko is the underlying crucial factor in competition, and must never be neglected in place of premeditated stratagems.

When engaging an opponent initially I maintain a slightly distant interval; one in which my opponent’s attack will not reach, but from which I am able to apply pressure with my body and kensen and threaten to strike or thrust. It is a little further apart than issoku-ittō-no-maai. If my opponent reacts the same way twice to my probing, I am able to ascertain which category he falls into. There is no third time. If he reacts the same way for a third time, he will realise that he is being assessed and become wary. The third time is when you strike. There are some occasions when you know immediately, and can strike the second time.

In kendo matches it is also very important to have insight and to be able to trust your gut feelings. It is also essential that you are physically at your best and are focused. In my competitive days, I was careful about what I ate one month before a competition such as police tournaments and the All Japan Championship. Of course, I didn’t drink alcohol before tournaments either. This kind of discipline is essential if you wish to progress up the path of kendo. I wanted to be satisfied with my results knowing that it was the best I could do on each occasion. I would promise to reward myself with good food and a beer when the tournament was over. That way, I could concentrate on what had to be done.

If training didn’t go well, I wouldn’t console myself by saying that I was ‘in a slump’. There was a job that had to be done, and there was no room for complacency or excuses. In other words, I always tried to maintain a positive frame of mind with regards to my training and condition.

On the day of the tournament, I made sure that I put my men on before my opponent did. In the old days, the All Japan Championship was conducted on an elevated stage. We would bow to each other on the stage and then put on our men. I would put mine on quickly, and sit and wait for my opponent to put on his watching his every move. The higher you go up the ladder, the closer the spectators watch you. When my opponents realised that they were slower and everybody was watching them, they would inevitably get flustered and conversely, I became more confident. These may seem like trivial matters, but they are still important factors.

Fighting a tall opponent

Engaging a taller opponent than you is similar to the kodachi kata. You need to move in and fight from a closer distance that is advantageous to you. He will have a reach advantage from the start so by closing the gap you need to ensure he is unable to make the most of it.

Because he is tall you will feel that your men is threatened. You must close the distance while remaining completely on guard. Your opponent will attack you tying to use his superior reach. You have to observe carefully and move in swiftly each time he attacks to render it ineffective or prevent him from committing. In other words, take away his fire by controlling the interval. Then, as is often the case with tall kendoka, he will lift up his hands. At that instant, you strike kote as if you had been waiting for that exact moment. is also an option. Your success rate will be high, but even if you miss the point you will be able to take control of the match.

Fighting a short opponent

Take the opposite course of action against a short opponent. If he or she is shorter than you, then the burden is on them to close the gap. Pressure from above but don’t attack hastily. Wait for your opponent to make his move. He will try and move in to close the interval, to which you strike at that instant.

Fighting an opponent with a strong kensen

When faced with an opponent who has a strong kensen, prod, whack or flick his shinai away. He will brace himself even more so as not to be unsettled or knocked off-centre. That is what you should aim for. The strength in his right hand will increase as a matter of course, which means he will not be able to strike when you move (degashira). So, against an opponent with a strong kensen, the secret is to make it even stronger and make him rigid.

Fighting a wily opponent 

Opponents of this nature tend to avoid or dodge your attacks, and are difficult to pin down. When you try to pursue him or strike as he appears to be about to make an attack, he will take advantage when you are unbalanced. That is precisely what a wily opponent is hoping for. The best way to deal with such an opponent is to control him with ma-ai. When he tries to close the distance, move out of the way smoothly so that the interval stays distant, essentially telling him that you are not going to commit yourself or play his game. After a while, he will become impatient and attempt to strike from tō-ma, but will not be able to do it with a straight or pure attack. He will always try some sly move to unsettle you before making the strike. You have to nip this in the bud as he is about to attack, and score first.

Fighting an opponent with a raised kensen 

A good strategy for engaging an opponent with a high kensen is to pressurise his hands and make him think you are going to strike his kote by holding your shinai horizontally. He will try and suppress your shinai from above. If his kamae doesn’t change, apply more spirited pressure and show him that you are determined to attack. Without fail he will lower his kensen, which is an indication that his rhythm has been disturbed. The more you pressure his kote, the more he will lose his composure. This is when you can take control. When he brings his shinai down on top of yours, use harai-age to slap his shinai up. He will lose confidence in his ability to apply his favourite techniques. If you can make him think this then the battle is practically decided.

Fighting an opponent with a lowered kensen

It is quite effective to pressure him with tsuki. Make him think you are about to thrust at his throat and he will inevitably raise his right hand slightly in defence. In other words, force him to raise his kensen and prevent him from executing his preferred style of kendo. You will also be presented with a good opportunity to strike kote.

Fighting an opponent with a yielding kensen  

In this instance you should do as you would with a wily opponent and keep your distance so that he thinks that none of his attacks will reach. He will then be coerced into taking the initiative and making an attack. When he does, use go-no-sen to counter, or execute ai-uchi. However, he may also entice you to strike by feigning an attack. You have to be careful not to be taken in.

Fighting an opponent with a wide stance

Opponents with wide stances tend to be good at techniques such as nuki-waza or suriage-waza. When you attack, he will move his body weight to the back foot and counter-attack. This is why he maintains a wider stance. Consequently, he will rarely if ever make a straight-out attack to men from issoku-ittō-no-ma. You can use this against him by holding back on your attacks and encouraging him to come forward instead. He doesn’t like to attempt shikake-waza but you give him no choice, thereby not allowing him to do his own kendo.

Fighting an opponent with a narrow stance

If your opponent has a narrow stance, he will appear to be good at scoring degashira techniques. However, this is not the case. He will more likely be adept at striking go-no-sen techniques instead such as kaeshi-waza or suriage-waza.

If he stands with little room between his feet, he has to move his right foot forward first when he strikes, otherwise he will be unbalanced and unable to strike instantaneously at his opponent’s okori (start of a technique). He unavoidably widens his stance the moment before he launches into an attack. Thus, there is a constant change between a wide and narrow stance. When it is narrow, he will be defensive and aiming to strike go-no-sen. In reply to this, the best strategy is to apply pressure from the ura side. His kamae will become unsettled and openings will appear. Also, katsugi-kote and feinting men then striking kote are particularly effective.

Fighting an opponent who specialises in kote

When faced with an opponent who is skilled at striking kote, encourage him to keep attacking it, obviously without letting him succeed. Make him strike kote but don’t let it connect. Then counter with suriage, kaeshi or ai-kote-men. If you are successful then that is a bonus, but the point here is to make your opponent believe his specialty technique is ineffectual against you. He will then try different techniques, but you will have succeeded in controlling the flow of the match and will be able to apply your own speciality waza.

Fighting an opponent who is good at men

The same applies for an opponent who is skilled at men attacks. Make him attempt men strikes and counter his attacks with debana-kote or kaeshi-dō. He will gradually lose the will to strike men, and you will have the upper hand. Regardless of whether it is kote or men, if you take away your opponent’s confidence to make his specialty work, he will become disheartened thereby leaving himself open. This is how you can turn things in your favour and win matches.

Fighting an opponent who is good at Oji-waza

People who have fluid movement and yielding shinai are usually good at ōji-waza. Again, encourage him to make many ōji-waza attacks. Know that he is waiting for you as you attack. If you know that he is waiting to counter-attack he will not be able to make his cuts decisive. He will then begin to think that his techniques are hopeless against you, giving you the advantage. Then you can attempt techniques such as katsugi-kote, or changing your timing slightly and attacking men.

Fighting an opponent who returns pressure when pressured

There are various ways of returning pressure (seme) when pressurised. Some people will drive in from above your shinai, and others lower the kensen and apply pressure to the hands. This is the first point that you must observe. If he comes over the top of your shinai you may have the opportunity to strike kote. However, regardless of whether he comes from above or below, if he is coming directly down your centre you should be extremely careful. In this case it is obvious that he or she is very experienced and strong, and will not be easily defeated.

Fighting an opponent who moves back when you apply pressure

Even if you strike, it will not reach the target. As soon as he moves back, you can carry on and apply more pressure. Or, even if you are in the uchi-ma position, refrain from striking and force him to attack instead. Don’t feel compelled to rush in and attack. When faced with such an opponent you can use the same strategy as when fighting someone with a yielding shinai or a wide stance by paying careful attention to controlling the distance.

Fighting against jodan

My speciality is fighting from jōdan. From my experience it is difficult to fight against opponents who have their kamae open to hide their kote. That means that the only open target is men. This is restricting what the jōdan fighter can do, and essentially ‘cramping his style’. He will not be able to attack so readily, and you should take advantage of this by applying spirited pressure to his left kote. When he pulls his hand back to avoid being hit on the kote, it will be possible to thrust at his throat; or if he lowers his hands you can strike his right kote.

All of the above scenarios are just basic models. Of course there will always be exceptions and variations which require different approaches. These models should provide you with a basis to experiment and develop your intuition and skills in keiko.