The Nuts & Bolts of Kendo — Men Waza
By Hanshi 9th Dan Nakano Yasoji — Translated by Alex Bennett
First published in Kendo World 1.3, 2002
Striking Targets (datotsubui)
Q: In kendo, the target areas are men, kote, do, and tsuki. How were these particular targets decided upon?
In the old days of mortal combat, warriors were particularly careful about protecting volatile areas like the head and arms. In kendo we are not aiming to strike these ‘target’ areas on the bogu per se , but are really attempting to cut these critical areas on the body, which in a real combat situation would inflict the most damage. So, in a sense the main purpose of bogu in kendo is not so much for hitting, but for protecting these areas.
Originally, kote were actually quite long and covered a fair portion of the forearm. However, as competition became popular, they started to make the kote shorter to reduce the actual target area. I actually have a set of bogu that belonged to the late Monna sensei. Monna sensei wasn’t so tall, but he had a fantastic posture. Incidentally, Monna sensei, Naito Takaharu sensei, and Takano Sasaburo sensei were called the three birds of kendo. They were all amazing kenshi, but each one of them had untold trouble dealing with one of the other two. Takano sensei was often able to get the best of Naito sensei, but found it difficult to better Monna sensei. However, Naito sensei was particularly effective against Monna sensei with his imposing stature and powerful kiai, and Monna sensei always gave Takano sensei a difficult time.
Anyway, Monna sensei’s kote were very long. He could have made them shorter to reduce the hittable area, but he didn’t. My father, Mochida Moriji 10th dan, also had long arms, so his kote were quite large too. The length of the kote depended on the size of each individual, but I wonder if the length of kote have been standardized by bogu manufactures these days. As I mentioned bogu was originally devised to offer protection to vital parts of the body, and the basic design has been carried through to the modern day. The body’s vital areas have become the striking targets in modern shiai. If one person is particularly big in stature, in theory they would need larger kote than a smaller person. However, as this is disadvantageous in shiai, people prefer to cut back on the size of the target area, and make them shorter, even if this means exposure of a vital area. We never did this in the old days, as the actual training itself was deemed more important than shiai.
To strike these areas is very difficult, and offer the most devastating or life threatening targets.
Q: What’s the difference between cutting and striking? In kendo we are often told to treat the shinai as if it was a katana, but surely the method of using the two is different?
Of course the way of using a katana is very different to the way we use a shinai. There are some people who claim that they use them in the same fashion, but I think they are different entities altogether. To start with, the shape of the katana and shinai, and the materials they are made of are completely different. So, when cutting with a katana you don’t leap forward and make an extended cut as we would in kendo. Instead, you move in and cut down.
However, in modern kendo the concept of ki-ken-tai-ichi is one of the main objectives in an attack. In order to make a fast strong strike, your ki, shinai, and body have to act in complete unison. If you observe the correct distance or ma-ai, apply pressure (seme), and then make a resounding strike with ki-ken-tai-ichi, this will be considered a valid strike, and you will be awarded the point.
This is what modern kendo is all about, so it is a different entity altogether from using a katana. If you really want to make your kendo close to katana technique, you could do what some people did in the war and use a curved shinai with shorter length.
During the Edo period there was a fencer called Oishi Susumu. He was well-known on the Edo fencing circuit for the long shinai which he used in bouts. I believe it was about 5 shaku (approx. 150cm) in length, and he put it to good use causing havoc wherever he went. He didn’t use this long shinai to hit his opponents, but thrust it at them instead. There were other swordsmen of large build like Kurozaki of the Shudogakuin who also overcame most adversaries using his reach and a long weapon by thrusting. It is more technically viable to thrust with a longer weapon that try and cut with it. Nevertheless, in the kendo tradition, as long as you are able to make a successful strike on your opponent, this will be counted as a valid point. Strikes are required to meet certain criteria such as lifting the shinai above your head far enough to be able to see what you are aiming for from under your left hand. At least this was the reasoning behind the basic moves in modern kendo kihon when it was first formulated.
The Various Degrees of Striking Men; big, medium, small, dynamics, and distance
Q: The great swordsman Chiba Shusaku made mention of the varying degrees, dynamics, and distance utilised in striking men…
The question of whether a men strike should be big or small depends on the ma-ai or distance. It rests on the same logic of whether you choose to use a pistol or a canon to overcome an enemy. The size of your strike depends entirely on the situation at hand. If you sense your opponent is about to make a move, you should instantaneously be able to judge the distance and make an appropriate attack without hesitation. You should be able to do this as soon as you assume kamae. These days, kenshi are not so good at achieving this. Even big kenshi tend to wait until they are very close before they make an attack. I am not talking about disabling the opponent’s shinai before striking. Nowadays people tend to rely on speed with small fast waza. As there are no rules stipulating that each attack must be made big, strikes must be called valid, even if they are very small.
Herein lies the biggest difference between the kendo done now, and kendo in the old days. It’s not objective to say which is better and which is worse, as opinions vary from person to person. However, from a practical perspective, if you insist on considering the shinai as a sword, it should be made shorter. But this would result in close-counter scuffles, and you would not see very clean kendo as a result. Because there is a certain amount of distance maintained between the fencers, there is enough room for subtle seme, and a high level of technicality has room to develop. The whole process stretches out making for invigorating and aesthetically pleasing movement. This is not achievable using an instrument the length of a katana.
Some people advocate imagining you are using a live blade, and treating the shinai as such, and want to resort back to the ways of the old days, but practically speaking, this is impossible with a shinai.
Bad example of men-uchi with the lower body lagging behind
However, some aspects of using a real sword must be retained in kendo. I am referring to hasuji, or correct path or flight of the blade. Even with a shinai, a strike must be made with assumed ‘cutting edge’. As long as a strike is made with correct hasuji, it should be counted, even if it seems too light. After, all, it doesn’t require much strength to make a devastating cut with a live blade, and this aspect should be retained in modern kendo. After all, strikes or cuts with too much power applied can easily be taken advantage of. In this sense, certain relevant aspects of the principles of katana use should be retained as this will help kendo survive. But, retaining other aspects to the extent that kendo just becomes a scrappy brawl will encourage its decline. Nobody will want to do kendo if it’s like this.
That is why I am against people using 36 size shinai. If kendo is to develop as an interesting and fulfilling physical activity, it’s important to maintain a certain amount of distance. Still, if that distance is too great, it will turn into a tsuki-fest, and this would not do either. All things considered, I think that shinai lengths in the range of 37, 38, or 39 are the most appropriate.
Swinging the Shinai Overhead (Furi-kaburi) Before Striking Men
Q:You made the comment that when you swing the shinai overhead to make a men-strike that it is important to use the left hand well, thrusting it out and up as if to pierce the opponent.
This is just one method of instruction. If you leave beginners to their own devices, they will inevitably grip the shinai with too much power in their right hand when they swing the shinai up, and the balance required in use of both the left and right hands will be forsaken. This is because they have too much power in their right hands from the moment they assume kamae. So, in the case of beginners, to make sure that the balance in maintained in the use of power in each hand, it is effective to encourage them to throw out more power from their left. This should actually bring the left and right hands into sync, and they will be able to execute furi-kaburi correctly. Of course, it would be ideal if people could do this naturally without having to place unnatural emphasis on either hand, but it doesn’t work like that, unfortunately. So, emphasising the upward movement of the left hand is an effective way of remedying the problem.
Principles of Leverage
Q: It is said that as soon as the strike connects, you should stretch out your right hand, and pull back your left. What does pulling back you left hand actually entail?
In the old days, there were some great kendo masters who explained the use of the left hand as a pulling movement. This shouldn’t be misinterpreted. I consider the pushing-pulling of the hands as the end result. If a strike has what is known as sae (sharpness or crispness), it is the end result of power induced through leverage, by pulling the left hand and pushing the right hand. However, if you set out from the start to push with your right and pull with your left, the eventual strike will be limp. To demonstrate what I mean, I would like to use the example of a javelin thrower. When throwing a javelin, you run first, build up momentum, and then let the javelin fly. Just because you are running at a very high speed doesn’t necessarily mean that the javelin will go far. The secret lies in stopping for an instant in mid-run just before letting go of the javelin. Your body stops, but the momentum is transferred to the javelin, and the javelin is propelled using the principles of leverage.
Kendo is the same. The shinai is lifted overhead, and then brought down again. If you just bring both hands down in the same movement, the strike will inevitably be weak. As you bring the shinai down, your left grip should solidify bringing the left hand to a halt. As a result of this, the right hand will continue forward in a pushing motion. This will result in a strong and correct striking motion. This is easy to understand if you are making a big sweeping men-uchi on your opponent. The same principles apply even when your opponent makes a small men attack and you parry it and counter with an equally small attack. Don’t think about pulling your left hand back, just tighten your left grip. The grip of your left hand is the decisive factor in striking.
Q: A lot of people lift their arms and shinai up high after striking. I suspect that this is an incorrect way of striking…
You should not lift the shinai up after completing a strike. I have told my students not to lift their hands up even when they land a successful strike, and their kendo has gotten better recently. Each attack must be as good as the next, and should be decisive. This decisiveness is sacrificed if you lift your arms and shinai up after each attack.
Once you have made a decisive attack, zanshin or maintaining mental alertness is important, but this should be accompanied with correct posture and movement. In other words, you should maintain physical stability after an attack. If you are able to maintain a strong physical posture followed by an unrelenting mental posture after an attack, your opponent will be unable to follow up with anything. This is what we should be aspiring to. True zanshin is born through maintaining an unbreakable physical and mental presence. You can’t maintain an unbreakable mental presence or altertness if your body is lurching all over the place. Both body and mind need to be kept in order. Keeping these things in order, is what makes a decisive attack.
Sae (Sharp or crisp attack)
Q: I think that crisp attacks come as a result of years of hard training. Even light strikes can be devastatingly crisp, or have sae…
To get sae in your attack, a build-up is necessary. If you have a stiff kamae, you will be unable to make a crisp attack. A lot of it boils down to attitude. You must be open-minded, and of the disposition that you are ready to take anyone on. If you go on the floor with a feeling that you can take on the world, you will find that your waza will be very crisp. If your waza are crisp, you will be able to deal with anything that your opponent throws at you with ease. In other words, before you even get to the physical aspect of the attack, you should have a free and relaxed frame of mind. To be able to make attacks with sae, you must be positive and confident.
Q:Even Miyamoto Musashi mentioned in his book Go-rin-no-sho the importance of timing when cutting. What is a one-count attack?
As far as I can tell, a one-count attack is an attack where you strike an opponent in one movement, in one beat. There are also two-count attacks where you strike your opponent in two movements, with a rhythmical beat of bang-bang, and three-count attacks, bang-bang-bang.
The Key to Striking Men Successfully
Q:You’ve shared with us a number of hints to improve men-uchi. From your experience, what is the key for that perfect men?
Many people have their favourite techniques, like kote-men, or hiki-men and so forth. Miyamoto Musashi said that it’s not advisable to rely on favourite techniques. True strategy is found in adjusting and acting in accordance with the opponent at hand. This is where ‘true’ waza come from.
Even though, I consider myself far from adequate, of utmost importance here is recognising what are genuine striking opportunities and capitalising upon them. To my mind, there are three major striking chances, where the opponent is left open; debana (just as they are about to make an attack), after they have completed their attack, when they have come to a halt. You should be able to take advantage of these situations as they come to hand. As far as debana is concerned, that can be achieved slightly after the opponent has started their attack, or as they are thinking about it but haven’t actually moved yet. Both are effective.
The real problem in kendo is knowing how to read the situation before an attack, and knowing how to deal with each situation with an appropriate waza. I am always researching what other people are doing and looking for their weaknesses. When you get to my age, you learn how to deal with many different types of opponent. You learn how to seme certain types of opponent, and know what to do to overcome them. I am always investigating different ways and methods to deal with different people.
In the course of keiko, you will come to a stage where you are unable to pull off a technique that would normally work for you. For some reason, you seem to become unsuccessful. When this happens, you have to remain positive and try something else to see if that will work instead. In this way, you gradually build up valuable experience, and improve as a result. Even just the study of waza, regardless of the spiritual aspects of kendo, is a massive undertaking with so much to try and learn.