Arts

Mastering Kendo and Kenjutsu: First You Need to Get a Grip!

Grip is an important facet of Japanese sword arts like kendo, kenjutsu and iaido. Simply said, if you don’t hold the kodachi (short sword) or choken (long sword) correctly, everything else leading up to the execution and follow-through of your cut will be substandard and ultimately cause you to perform below your potential.

Furthermore, poor hand placement when using a sword promotes inadequate hand-eye coordination and telegraphs your technique. The latter is very important if you’re engaging in kendo.

Conversely, holding the sword correctly allows for smooth execution and seamless transitions between stances and movements. You’ll be able to perform offensive and defensive techniques in such a fluid manner that the sword will become part of you.

Dana Abbott

Dana Abbott learned Japanese swordsmanship while living in Japan for 14 years.

Before beginning a discussion of sword-gripping methods, it’s important to note that the handle (tsuka) of some practice weapons, including padded swords and the shinai (bamboo sword), is round, whereas wooded and steel sword handles have an oval cross section. The oval pattern is better for gripping and is a more efficient design. Round handles are associated mostly with training in the Japanese sport of kendo and its Korean counterpart, kumdo, because exact cutting isn’t required.

Right Hand

When gripping the kodachi or choken with one hand, you’ll probably find that your right hand feels more natural. Many people make the mistake of applying too much pressure with it, resulting in stiff and rigid movements. Avoid the problem by reducing the pressure you exert with your right hand by 30 percent and consciously trying to relax.

kodachi

Black Belt Hall of Famer Dana Abbott assumes a ready position with a choken.

Pay extra attention to your little, ring and middle fingers while applying pressure to the sword’s handle. That will promote good hand, wrist and forearm positioning. Your thumb and forefinger should touch each other slightly at their tips without applying as much pressure. Make sure you leave your arm bent to act as a shock absorber when striking. Keep your body supple.

Left Hand

Holding the kodachi or choken in your left hand will seem awkward at first, and it may feel lifeless and unresponsive. Nevertheless, it’s imperative that you train your left side in the proper sword-gripping methods.

When learning the sword, your left hand plays an important role in the overall picture. Through combative practice, your left arm will gain a stronger sense of perception and see an increase in motor skills and rhythm within a short time. It will develop its own strength through repetitive strikes and thrusts.

Almost immediately, you’ll be executing left-hand techniques at double your speed, timing and rhythm. What was originally your weak side will become a secret weapon your opponent can’t defend against.

Both Hands

Because of its length, the choken is best wielded with two hands. Of course, you can manipulate it with only one hand, but that’s not optimal for balance. When gripping the long sword with both hands, it’s imperative that the hands work in unison.

Dana Abbott

Dana Abbott executes a basic vertical sword strike to show proper grip.

Your back hand produces the strength and power, while your front hand controls the subtleties of your movements. That’s not to say that your front hand imparts no power to your techniques. It’s just that in most Japanese sword arts, the rear hand is considered the source of power and the right the navigational tool.

This method introduces less telegraphing and reduces the margin for error. It also enables you to generate maximum speed, torque and leverage. It’s a time-tested way to improve your technique with the Japanese sword.

dana abbott sword cover

 

About the author: Dana Abbott is a kendo and kenjutsu practitioner and Black Belt’s 2004 Weapons Instructor of the Year. He’s the subject of the cover story of the April/May 2018 issue of Black Belt, on sale now. Go here to subscribe.

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Karate Combat Organization Launches Full-Contact Fighting League

Karate Combat has launched a professional combat-sports league that was created to revitalize the art of karate. The fighting is full contact with rules developed by martial arts experts and top fighters. It takes place in the patent-pending Karate Combat Fighting Pit, which is designed to encourage continuous action. Karate Combat viewers can access league content now through Karate.com, as well as on branded iOS and Android apps.

The league will air its first live event, Karate Combat: Inception in Miami Beach, on April 26, 2018. This will be followed by an all USA-vs.-Iran fight card in May in Dubai. A string of exotic locations for future fight cards will be announced soon, including Athens, Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Karate Combat

Achraf Ouchen vs. Elhadji Ndour

Karate Combat: Genesis, the company’s private pre-season event, took place in Budapest, Hungary, in February 2018. All Genesis bouts, highlights and recaps are available for viewing now on Karate.com.

The Vision

Karate Combat is an innovative sports experience optimized for digital and mobile consumption. The professional league is the first to display biometric, nutrition, training and DNA-based data in real-time via its custom interactive heads-up display, giving fans unprecedented insight into all fighters’ hidden strengths and weaknesses.

The slope-sided Karate Combat Fighting Pit allows for cage-free views and Hollywood production quality, and has the flexibility to be installed in unusual indoor and outdoor locations globally. Coverage of the competitions is produced with multi-camera cinematic angles and musical scores. The presentation combines high-tech, video-game-style analytics with real action from the world’s best strikers.

Karate Combat Rafael Aghayev vs. Dionicio Gustavo

Rafael Aghayev vs. Dionicio Gustavo

“Karate is back,” said Michael DePietro, CEO of Karate Combat. “Approximately 50 million Americans have participated in karate at some point in their lives with an even greater worldwide following, yet no professional league exists. To date, nobody has harnessed the beauty of this ancient sport for 21st-century fans and mass media appeal.”

Karate Combat has signed more than 100 of the top karate fighters from 30-plus countries, giving fans around the world opportunities to rally behind their nations’ fighters. The roster includes Elhadji Ndour of the USA, Achraf Ouchen of Morocco, Dionicio Gustavo of Dominican Republic, Davy Dona of France, George Tzanos of Greece and Rafael Aghayev of Azerbaijan. Rafael Aghayev is the most decorated fighter alive, arguably the world’s greatest living karateka and a 2020 Olympic front runner.

The league boasts the top fighters in each weight class of semi-contact karate, in addition to karateka with athletic attributes suited for full-contact competition. For the first time, the best practitioners in the sport will have a professional outlet that allows them to build global fan bases and compete for their nations.

The Rules

The newly established Full Contact Karate Unified Rules and Regulations reward the execution of clean offensive techniques with maximum impact, creating action-packed, easy-to-follow contests. Throwing techniques are allowed with immediate follow-up. However, the match is reset if both combatants go to the mat, which is intended to keep the action focused on striking. Each contest consists of three rounds of three minutes, with offensive techniques scored higher than counterstrikes.

Karate Combat

Achraf Ouchen vs. Elhadji Ndour

KARATE.COM is the main gateway for distribution through Karate Combat’s platforms, including its branded mobile apps. Events and content will also be available via multiple digital, TV and OTT outlets, including the global FITE app, YouTube, Twitch, The Fight Network, Facebook, Dailymotion and other TV and cable carriers in the USA and abroad. The native platforms will boast a heads-up display that will be familiar to video gamers, along with interactive aspects to heighten the viewing experience.

Go here to watch the bouts from Karate Combat: Genesis.

Video footage of several Karate Combat bouts is also available on YouTube.

The information and photos in this post came from a press release from Karate Combat.

Swordsmanship in Ancient Japan and the Quest for Self-Mastery

Excellence in Japanese swordsmanship demands that a martial arts practitioner — whether that person trains in kendo, kenjutsu, iaido or another style — make a conscious effort to learn and execute correct sword techniques, practical cuts and the samurai way of life.

With time and experience — and assuming a certain level of physical ability and perseverance — the road to self-mastery in Japanese swordsmanship can be traveled by anyone in a relatively short period. When the road is not correctly navigated, however, self-mastery can elude one for a lifetime.

Mastering the Self

The key to self-mastery in swordsmanship is the melding of body and blade, thus creating an inner spirit. The samurai understood this need to control the mind and body and developed a keen but subtle awareness to aid in its pursuit. Without such total involvement, they would have found it difficult to adhere to a disciplined life or excel at any of its phases.

Japanese swordsmanship

Author Dana Abbott in action with his katana.

As the samurai followed the precarious path to swordsmanship self-mastery, they could be forced to act as judge, jury and executioner when the occasion demanded. Yet their social status and the strict Japanese way of life and code of ethics imposed certain responsibilities. They were forced to look beyond the present to the consequences of their actions and contemplate the possible results of drawing their swords. One reason they were so respected is they demonstrated exceptional perception and a sensitivity for the intricacies of wielding weapons while adhering to the moral precepts of the time.

Deadly Weapons

The samurai were always conscious of the razor-sharp lengths of steel at their side even as they acted in accord with their social position, which commanded reverence on and off the battlefield. They believed that to live and die by the blade was a point of honor. Because war was a proving ground for them, they quickly learned how to live from day to day, skirmish to skirmish, battle to battle. In the face of conflict, they gained insight into survival using all the knowledge they’d accumulated during their lives. That made the battlefield the ultimate arena for testing mettle and fortitude.

katana

Drawing the sword.

In war, the samurai were masters of destruction. They slowly began to comprehend the delicate balance between life and death. Many were aware that they might fall in battle, so they adhered to a strict code of ethics. If they were going to die, they wanted to do so with dignity and humility and without thought for their own welfare. In this light, a samurai who controlled his own destiny, and did it well, achieved self-mastery.

Not all samurai adhered to the code of ethics. Some had no desire to fulfill their social responsibilities and discarded honor while manipulating others for their own benefit. They wished to experience again and again the sensation of killing without putting themselves in harm’s way as one would do in battle. They frequently derived pleasure from cutting down unarmed peasants in the field. Today, we’d call them serial killers. Those samurai terminated life not for their clan or their lord; they did it for sport while pretending to be true samurai. They were the source of much grief throughout the ages and the perfect illustration of how the quest for self-mastery can go awry.

About the author: Dana Abbott is a practitioner of kendo and kenjutsu, as well as Black Belt’s 2004 Weapons Instructor of the Year. He’s featured on the cover of the April/May 2018 issue. Go here to subscribe.

Black Belt mag

Dana Abbott on the cover of the April/May 2018 issue of Black Belt.

Photos by Robert Reiff

Karate Terms: 5 More Words You Need to Understand

In the first half of this article, goju-ryu instructor and Black Belt Hall of Fame member Chuck Merriman discussed five karate terms you should know: bunkai, bushido, dan, dojo and kata. In this conclusion, he addresses five more essential karate terms — kumite, mokuso, rei, reishiki and sensei — that will benefit practitioners of all Japanese martial arts. (Go here now to read Part 1.)

Karate Terms #1: Kumite

Misunderstood meaning: sparring

Actual meaning: grappling or engagement of hands

Why it matters: Composed of two roots — kumi (grapple) and te (hand) — kumite refers to the instant a fight actually begins. It’s when you and your partner first make contact, Chuck Merriman says. “When you think about it, you’ve got to be standing right in front of each other when you touch. It’s important to understand the real meaning of the word to better understand what happens during oyo bunkai.”

Karate Terms #2: Mokuso

Misunderstood meaning: meditation

Actual meaning: reflection and contemplation

 

Why it matters: Practicing mokuso gives you an opportunity to get in the proper mind-set to train, Chuck Merriman explains. “It’s not meditation in the sense of going off into another world. It’s reflecting on your past training and contemplating the training you’re about to do.”

Karate Terms #3: Rei

Misunderstood meaning: bow

Actual meaning: spirit or soul

Why it matters: “For somebody practicing karate for exercise or sport, rei is merely a salutation,” Chuck Merriman says. “These days, people bow by nodding their head and slapping the sides of their legs, but that’s not the proper way do it.” The bow must come from the abdominal area because that’s where the tan tien (the seat of the soul) is. “If rei is ‘soul,’ obviously the bow has to be done from there,” he adds.

Karate Terms #4: Reishiki

Misunderstood meaning: spirit

Correct meaning: manners, etiquette or correctness

Why it matters: “[It refers to] the correct attitude — why you’re training and always keeping your mind on the path or way,” Chuck Merriman says. For example, you’re expected to know and demonstrate proper etiquette in the kohai-sempai (junior-senior) relationship. “Your sempai always precedes you. You open the door and let him go first. Before you take care of yourself, you always make sure he’s taken care of.”

Karate Terms #5: Sensei

Misunderstood meaning: teacher

Correct meaning: guide

 

Why it matters: Because it’s composed of the roots sen (before) and sei (life), the literal translation of sensei is “before in life,” Chuck Merriman says. “A sensei is somebody who guides another person. For example, if you went to climb a mountain, you’d probably need a guide. Why? Because the guy has climbed that mountain before, and he made it.”

It’s the same thing with karate. The sensei was once at the same stage of training you’re at, and he can show you the way up. If you understand what his role is, you will have a better idea of what you can expect from him and what he can expect from you, he says. “Think of it this way: A sensei is behind you, pushing you forward, not standing in front of you, pulling. Ultimately, it’s your responsibility to progress.”

Conclusion

Whether you practice for exercise or are a fanatic who’s interested in every nuance of the art, it’s essential to comprehend the true meaning of the karate terms that describe what you do, Chuck Merriman contends. “If you understand [them], it fills you with a feeling of having something more than just the ability to kick, punch and block.” And that’s what practicing karate is really all about.

Story by Sara Fogan • Photos by Rick Hustead

BONUS!

The Meaning of Karate

Some karate students misunderstand even the name of their art, Chuck Merriman says. In the beginning, karate was derived from the characters kara (China) and te (hand), he says, but Japan changed the meaning of kara to “empty.” And over time, the hand emphasis of the art’s name has been replaced by kicks.

Kicks are more spectacular for spectators, he says, and in tournaments they’re awarded more points than hand strikes are. Consequently, students tend to work harder on improving their kicks and less on their hands.

All practitioners should review karate’s roots, he says. “I tell my students, ‘Karate is empty hand, not empty foot.’”

Read “Karate Terms: 5 Words You Need to Understand,” which is the first half of this article with Chuck Merriman, here.

Karate Terms: 5 Words You Need to Understand

For many karate practitioners, one of the most challenging components of the martial art is learning the nuances of the terms used in the dojo. Any instructor worth his salt can offer a one-word definition of each Japanese word, and that can certainly lessen the complexity of what’s being taught. But often a quickie translation isn’t enough to convey the true meaning of the terms that Japanese martial artists chose to describe the concepts of karate.

Unfortunately, the average student in the West seldom gives it a second thought. When he’s told that bunkai means “application,” that’s the end of the story as far as he’s concerned. Few have the time or the inclination to delve into the kanji characters that compose each Japanese word, says goju-ryu karate expert Chuck Merriman. “The misunderstanding comes from just physically training in karate and not really studying karate. The important thing is the kanji. They can mean a lot of different things depending on how they’re written.”

 

That lack of understanding often leads to certain words being linked to the wrong meaning, says the Waterford, Connecticut-based instructor. “The true meaning of these words isn’t important if you only practice karate for exercise or sport, but for karate-do — the physical, mental and spiritual study of karate — it becomes very important.”

In this article, Chuck Merriman identifies five often-misunderstood karate terms and sets the record straight on what they really mean. If, after reading his interpretations, you discover you were somewhat off track, don’t worry. You probably aren’t alone.

Bunkai

Misunderstood meaning: application

Actual meaning: analysis

Why it matters: When Chuck Merriman says bunkai is one of the most misunderstood terms in karate, he’s speaking from experience. “The first thing I do when I run seminars is ask people what bunkai means, and the first answer is invariably ‘application,’ ” he says.

In fact, the word refers to analyzing a technique by looking at the overall movement and breaking it down into the individual components, he says.

“Bunkai is not the obvious,” he continues. “It’s like having an outline that’s not filled in.” Furthermore, it can change over the years as your body, experience and depth of knowledge change.

 

There are three levels of bunkai, he says. The first, kihon bunkai, is basic. Everybody does the movement exactly the same way. It’s like learning kata, he says. The second is oyo bunkai. It refers to varying the movement according to your body size. The third, renzoku bunkai, entails a continuous action whereby you do one technique, then your opponent executes a different one. “It’s almost like fighting,” he says. “It’s a gradual progression, almost a free exercise, but it’s not sparring.”

Bushido

Misunderstood meaning: warrior way

Actual meaning: military-gentleman way

Why it matters: Based on the characters bushi (bu — military, and shi — gentleman) and do (way), bushido refers to a method of training designed to enable you to protect yourself and others, Chuck Merriman says. The Okinawan interpretation isn’t aggressive; it’s defensive, he adds. “Bushido is not, ‘Let’s attack those guys.’

“The term sanchin means ‘three conflicts.’ The three conflicts are mind, body and spirit. That’s where the warrior comes in; that’s the battle. If you train properly, you won’t be so quick to take offense and jump into fights because you’re more secure in yourself.”

Dan

Misunderstood meaning: degree

Actual meaning: level, step or grade

Why it matters: When karate was introduced in the West, many people erroneously believed that anyone with a black belt was an expert, Chuck Merriman says. That may also account for their tendency to refer to dan ranking in terms of degrees. “It’s the furthest thing from the truth. There are different levels — from shodan, or first level, all the way up to 10th dan — [which mark your] progress throughout your career in karate.”

That’s one reason he’s a little skeptical when he runs into a 20-year-old boasting about his fifth-level black belt. “It doesn’t add up to the training time and experience you need to achieve that level of expertise,” he argues. “Of course, if it’s just for sport, everything is based on how many tournaments you win and what seeding you have. So, in that respect, you could be a 20-year-old fifth dan.”

Dojo

Misunderstood meaning: academy, school or studio

Actual meaning: “way place,” a location at which you study the deeper aspects of karate

Why it matters: Derived from the words do (way, or a philosophical approach to training) and jo (place), a dojo is not just “a building where you go to practice karate twice a week because you don’t want to go bowling,” Chuck Merriman chides. It’s a place where you learn a traditional art and acquire a new viewpoint on life.…

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