By Tyler Rothmar
Originally published in Kendo World 3.4, 2007.
Embedded in the ji-geiko style of many kendo Sensei are unique behavioural codes, most of which are widely understood by experienced kendōka. These signals are by no means easily interpretable to the uninformed spectator, and are often downright baffling to foreign kendōka who are in the initial stages of development.
Ji-geiko is by definition ‘free sparring’, an opportunity to use the techniques you have been practising in an open bout against an opponent. As there are no shimpan, the senior student will often guide the direction of the match; in cases where opponents are evenly matched, they self-regulate. In any case, the progression is more often than not communicated via a set of understood gestures, as stopping to speak to each other at length is frowned upon.
The purpose of this article is to serve as a general outline and explanation of some of the most common of these signals. It is by no means exhaustive or definitive, and is written in the hope of helping kendōka who may be encountering these signals for the first time. As those who have experience often take these signs for granted, this article is intended for beginners.
Speaking from personal experience, the beginning stages of full-bōgu practise can be a very confusing time. For example, there is often a strong emphasis on kiai —for many, learning to get in touch with such an urgent and expressive vocalization can be a very self-conscious and difficult process—and the effect can seem (and may well be) quite primal.
Participants face off and give sudden and blood-curdling yells whilst pressuring and making decisive, uninhibited attacks on each other. Yet as one progresses, the importance of control, restraint and etiquette emerges. In the midst of this exchange, there are strange moments; communication which facilitates learning and may appear to stand in contrast with the otherwise violent impression that keiko can leave on a novice practitioner or casual observer.
Such moments might be any number of things, from a gesture to a whole set of actions, such as your opponent suddenly and inexplicably disengaging in the middle of a bout. These are things which I struggled to understand when I first began to engage in ji-geiko with more experienced kenshi and Sensei. I found it difficult to know what was expected of me at various times in the keiko session, and I was confounded by the seemingly arbitrary shifts in the mood and actions of the various senior practitioners whom I faced. Listed below are some of the more common signals, set within the framework of an average training bout with a kenshi with more experience than yourself.
Naturally there is a whole range of physical expression, and individual Sensei are bound to have personalized styles. These are some of the most common gestures which you are likely to encounter.
The ‘Ippon Thumb’ – The kote, being essentially a mitt, is divided into a large pocket for the fingers and a smaller one for the thumb. Kendōka wishing to communicate a desire for ippon-shōbu (a one point match) often do so by holding up their fist with thumb extended upwards in a ‘thumbs up’ pose. Occasionally, curling the thumb in while extending the finger section up is used to initiate sanbon-shōbu or a three point match. As this is ji-geiko and not shiai, it is up to the practitioners involved to self-regulate their matches.
The ‘Chigau Hand’ – In the course of ji-geiko where the opponents have agreed to a one or three point match, this gesture is used to show negation of a potential point. For example, a senior kendōka may attempt to cut men, and may indeed strike his opponent. The junior kendōka may feel that the conditions for yūkō-datotsu were fulfilled, and concede a point. If the senior kendōka disagrees, he or she will wave an open hand from side to side in front or their face or chest.
‘Nice kote’ – In cases where a clear kote point has been taken, the rather obvious gesture of cocking the wrist to highlight the kote area is used. It is used by the person who was struck to indicate a clean point.
‘Come Here Hand’ – A source of much confusion between Japanese and Western cultures. Whereas a Westerner would extend an arm, palm up, and bring it back towards their face to indicate “come over here please”, this gesture can be confusing for Japanese. The Japanese gesture for the same message is to extend the arm palm down, curling the wrist and fingers towards the ground. For Westerners, this can be misinterpreted as “go away” or “shoo”, when in fact it means the opposite. Sensei often use this gesture when they want to give you some advice or otherwise summon you from across a room.
‘The X’ – Hardly needs explanation. Used to indicate that someone is not available to practise with. Sometimes, if a line forms, a Sensei will cross their arms in front to make an ‘x’. Reasons vary from time concerns to other commitments (perhaps they are hoping to play another Sensei before the practise ends).
‘Oops Hand’ – Everyone makes mistakes. Unfortunately, in kendo this often means hitting someone else where they aren’t protected by their bōgu. Traditional etiquette holds that displays of protracted apology are superfluous and interrupt the flow of keiko. Instead, to show recognition of a wayward strike and by way of apology, kendōka will hold out their right hand, palm open and up, often blowing slightly to show deference. Thus keiko can proceed with the knowledge that no harm was meant.
Aside from simple gestures, there are a number of other things which Sensei sometimes do in order to control the way a ji-geiko session proceeds. Where a bout between practitioners of roughly equal skill often closely resembles a match, bouts between a Sensei and a student tend to take different forms. In some cases, Sensei might behave in a way which seems to you to be contradictory to what you have been taught. For example, we are often told not to do defensive kendo (backing up), but rather to move forward and make positive strikes. Yet sometimes a Sensei may continually step backwards, in an attempt to show you something about your kendo, to make a point. Listed here are a few such behaviours, what they generally tend to mean, and what you should do when you encounter them.
Continually Frustrating Your Attacks – This can be particularly unnerving when initially encountered. It generally consists of the Sensei or senior kendōka blocking or deflecting your attacks, often without counter-attacking. They may ‘catch’ your sword and throw it off-line, thereby taking your balance, and subsequently execute a strong taiatari. Others may continually sidestep your attacks, the point being that they frustrate your efforts to strike, often without making any positive strikes of their own.
There are generally two reasons for doing this. The first is to teach correct striking motion by impeding incorrect motions while admitting correct ones. Sensei will watch your kamae and subsequent strike, and frustrate any attack which comes from a weak kamae or incorrect motion. Should you suddenly find yourself landing an attack, chances are you are using a good motion, and should therefore endeavour to learn and repeat that motion.
The second reason is generally as a test of grit or endurance, and it need not be connected to whether or not the motion or kamae is correct. To have your attacks continually derailed is often frustrating. Once frustrated, it becomes even more difficult to execute correct techniques, which ends in a downward spiral of both technique and morale. Regardless of whether Sensei’s behaviour is intended to correct your motion or test your resolve, the correct response is always to continually do your best to strike correctly and with spirit. Giving up in the face of this kind of treatment is ill-advised.
Holding Centre – It is quite common for a Sensei to adopt a very strong kamae, fiercely guarding the centreline. In some cases, they will maintain this as you attack, resulting in your being speared on their kensen. Playing a strong Sensei can be very daunting, and it is often difficult to maintain mental composure, knowing that any attack you initiate will likely end in this way. This too can be a test of resolve, and a way to give you physical feedback about your attacks. Again, the idea is to be unflappable, executing each new technique with full conviction. Over time, this will result in a calm and centred mental approach to practise, whereas giving in to frustration will bring about an instant deterioration of both physical and mental technique. A Sensei who tenaciously holds the centre line is trying to give you a lesson about it. You must endeavour to take centre before striking, something which can only be learned by throwing yourself wholeheartedly into each and every attack.
Disengaging – From time to time, opponents may arrive at a stand-off or stalemate. Kenshi may sometimes disengage by lowering their kamae and taking a few steps back. This is simply a way of resetting, and affords each person a moment to re-compose themselves before engaging again for a more fruitful exchange.
Switching Gears – When there is a significant difference in level between two opponents, a bout is often concluded with a round of kakari-geiko, wherein the stronger kenshi provides openings in rapid succession. It is an exercise in basics and stamina and is markedly different from ji-geiko, where opponents probe and pressure each other for openings to strike.
A good Sensei will endeavour to draw quality kendo out from a student using any number of means. Sometimes this entails frustrating poor attacks and accepting correct ones, which means that a Sensei let themselves be hit. For this reason it can sometimes be difficult for the novice to understand where ji-geiko ends and kakari-geiko begins. The ‘change of gears’ is generally marked by a dropping off of pressure on the part of the Sensei, creating obvious openings for you to strike, and otherwise creating the urgent feeling that you had better go all out if you know what’s good for you.
The goal for the student is to strike continually with full spirit, inputting proper motion into the body’s muscle memory. Sensei often use encouraging kiai during this phase of practise, urging you to strike just one more time.
Kakari-geiko ends with Sensei gently tapping your dō with his hand as you pass by, or perhaps even an affectionate taiatari/hug to reward your efforts.
The Breakdown – Rather than disrupt the flow of keiko, Sensei will often wait until your bout is over to impart some verbal advice or instruction. After you have retreated from sonkyo and bowed, Sensei may sometimes make the “come here hand”, while some students who have a long relationship with a Sensei will simply run over without being invited. The length and content of this little debriefing session, and indeed whether or not it will occur at all, will vary from Sensei to Sensei.
Hopefully this will help those who are just starting kendo to understand some of the basic patterns and signals of keiko, which will make for smoother and more productive practises in the future.
Template of a Standard Keiko
1. Kirikaeshi/Basics Practise – Length and content can vary, but basics are usually practised at the beginning.
2. Ippon-shōbu – Sensei comes up kicking. He views the first exchange as an ippon-shōbu/do-or-die scenario and is doing his damnedest to beat you. By no means should you do anything other than your best to stick it to him.
3. Standard ji-geiko – Sensei adjusts his kendo relative to the student’s in order to produce in them the proper motions and attitudes, while also working on some aspect of their own kendo. Ji-geiko may or may not conclude with a one-point match.
4. Kakari-geiko – Sensei provides openings for the student to strike in rapid succession. A way of building basic skills and endurance.
5. The aftermath – Whether immediately following the bout, or after bowing out at the practise’s conclusion, the Sensei gives some advice based on the day’s practise.