Kendo

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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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

Master the 4 Inner Principles of Japanese Samurai Swordsmanship

When it comes to the Japanese way of the sword, it’s fair to say there’s more to it than meets the eye. Obviously, external movements play a major role in drawing a blade and effecting a cut, but the internal skeletal and muscular mechanisms are every bit as important.

Often called the “inner principles” of movement, they have four main components.

1     Breathe

The primary element of action is breathing. The flow of air into and out of your body is directly connected to how smoothly you flow from movement to movement and how polished you look.

Your inhalations and exhalations should be calm, smooth and full. It’s essential to observe the transition from moving air in to moving air out. If you lack proper muscle control, it will be noticeable to an opponent who’s looking for an opening to attack or to a judge who’s grading you as you cut. Beginners tend to gasp for or gulp in air because of nervousness or overextended action.

It takes time and effort to cultivate the ability to stay well oxygenated. Try repetition drills that raise your aerobic levels and stationary meditation that calms and centers you.

2     Footwork Places Stance

Don’t stand flatfooted with your feet relaxed. The bones of your feet can move a considerable distance within the skin that encases them. Their musculature must exert firmness to take up that slack. Use your muscles to anchor yourself to the surface you’re standing on. Grip it with your toes and brace yourself as if you’re resisting a strong wind.

You should allow your heels to settle onto the surface so they provide a direct connection from the bones in your legs and hips to the ground. Then, when you drive from your heels, you can move with minimal delay.

Imagine a wild animal, coiled and ready to spring into action. It’s poised, with its breath flowing in and out, muscles ready to strike. Use your breathing to relax and energize your muscles and to keep them fresh. Release the tension in your body to avoid stiffness and cramps.

3     Stance Supports Posture

Your posture should provide balance for your intended direction. Feed it too much, and you telegraph your intentions. Give it too much angle, and you lose your balance point. Give it too little, and you stress your structure and fatigue your muscles more quickly.

Samurai Swordsmanship: The Batto, Kenjutsu and Tameshigiri of Eishin-Ryu is written by Masayuki Shimabukuro and Carl E. Long. Order your copy today!

Don’t let contracting muscles shrink you. Strive for height in your posture. Use the length of your arms and legs to enhance your stature. Your hips and core are the connection and energy-transfer point for generating power and moving it through your swing.

Carry firmness in your hips, the small of your back, your buttocks and your tailbone area, but it doesn’t stop there. That firmness must wrap all the way around and up through your pelvic girdle, where it contains your energy. With practice, you can create energy and hold it in place before spreading it throughout your body.

4     Posture Supports Swing

Strive to ground your structure from the waist down and elongate it from your torso to the base of your skull. This may sound contradictory, but the balance of power and unified articulation of these areas depends on your inner awareness. That connection and the energy of your grounded structure are transferred to your shoulders during the downward swing. Your shoulders and the rest of your being must “cut down” through the target.

Advanced Samurai Swordsmanship is a 3-DVD set from Masayuki Shimabukuro and Carl E. Long. Order from Amazon now!

You should strive for technical clarity in sword action. Effective cutting technique doesn’t require a big demonstration. Time and practice will refine the inner principles until they’re invisible. In ancient times, they had to be, for when two samurai dueled, a stiff or cumbersome action was all that was needed to telegraph a man’s intention and allow his foe to end his life.

Russell McCartney is a seventh-degree black belt and the founder of ishi yama ryu battojutsu.

(Photos by Rick Hustead)

Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Swords: What You Need to Know to Get Started

This article provides a brief overview of the categories of Japanese swords and the ways they’re used in arts like kendo, kenjutsu, iaido and so on. That knowledge is important because before you can wield a weapon — whether it’s made of foam, hardwood, bamboo or steel — you need to understand what it was designed for.

Wooden Sword

The bokken, or bokutou, is the ultimate learning tool in the sword arts. Its lack of sharp edges and a point allows you to practice techniques and execute moves.

Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate student or advanced practitioner, a bokken can teach you a great deal, including one- and two-handed gripping and cutting patterns. Many bokken have a tsuba, or hand guard, which makes partner practice even safer.

Bamboo Sword

The shinai is a piece of bamboo about 40 to 45 inches long that’s been split into four strips. Held together by leather, the strips form a weapon that’s less rigid than wood because it has a built-in shock absorber.

Being lighter and less likely to injure, a shinai can be manipulated at full speed during sparring sessions. It’s used to teach students how to efficiently incorporate energy into their movements.

All those qualities make the shinai the weapon of choice in kendo. Competitors focus on developing their timing, rhythm, speed and breath control, which are essential to success in the sport and help build a solid foundation for other forms of sword practice. Endorsed by Japan’s Department of Education, the shinai makes frequent appearances in the nation’s middle and high schools.


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Steel Sword

Shinken and iaito are the Japanese terms for steel and metal-alloy swords. They’re functional and practical, often chosen to develop finesse in techniques that aren’t practiced with the bokken or shinai.

Unlike the previously mentioned weapons, the shinken and iaito require a sheath, which enables the student to rehearse ceremonial sword movements. That also permits students to engage in iaido, the art of drawing the sword, executing a pattern of cuts and returning the blade to its sheath.

Because it isn’t sharp, the iaito is used solely for drawing practice, cutting through the air and resheathing. The shinken is sharp, which means it’s reserved for more advanced students.

Special Sword

The next variation is called, for lack of a better name, a “special sword.” It carries as much value to its owner as a prized firearm does to a gun collector. Such cherished possessions are often displayed in cases and may never be used in practice.

They’re periodically taken out, polished and admired, but that and the occasional “show and tell” are the extent of it. In other words, they’re seldom used.

Padded Sword

The most recent development in the evolution of bladed weaponry is the padded sword. They’re perfect for beginners because they’re quite forgiving when contact is made. That characteristic makes them perfect for sword sparring because students are free to make contact without having to endure pain or injury.

Some traditionalists have reacted negatively to the popularity of padded-sword practice, but historians have noted that the same reaction greeted the shinai two centuries ago when it was introduced into the martial arts.

About the author:
Dana Abbott is a kenjutsu practitioner and Black Belt’s 2004 Weapons Instructor of the Year. For more information, visit the Samurai Sports website.

Resources
Black Belt Hall of Fame member Masayuki Shimabukuro, along with senior disciple Carl E. Long, are responsible for three modern-day classics in the Japanese sword arts: Samurai Swordsmanship (3-DVD set), Advanced Samurai Swordsmanship (3-DVD set) and Samurai Swordsmanship: The Batto, Kenjutsu and Tameshigiri of Eishin-Ryu (book).

Katana Tricks and Stupid Japanese Sword Injuries

Do not allow anyone to swing a sharp sword at you.

You’d think that would be common sense—like “Don’t walk in front of a speeding bus.” Apparently, though, while people walking directly and deliberately in front of oncoming traffic is blessedly rare, it’s fairly easy to see videos of people in a dojo or a demo standing or sitting while some “master” swings a sharp sword at them. Sometimes, they’re prostrate, with a watermelon or some other fruit on their exposed belly, allowing Master Bozo to hack it to pieces. Other times, they’re in various poses, looking like department-store mannequins, holding fresh produce in different ways while the master wanders around, whacking away as if he’s creating a salad.

This is almost insanely stupid.

Let’s get some initial observations out of the way. First, cutting fruits and veggies laid on bare skin or held in the hand without cutting into the flesh below is easy to do, even with a dull blade. Japanese swords cut not from the touch but from the horizontal sawing action. Teachers in classical swords schools in Japan sometimes explain the mechanics of good cutting by tapping a blade against their palm. As long as they just hit straight on, the blade, although razor sharp, doesn’t cut. Further, just as it’s possible to slice into the rind of a melon and split it using a butter knife, a dull sword can work the same way. So these masters aren’t proving anything about their supposedly incredible control.


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Second, no classical school of Japanese swordsmanship has any training that’s even remotely like this. Chopping stuff balanced on a student’s body has never been an aspect of traditional martial arts. No matter what ridiculous tale has been told to you by the master in question, aside from solo iai training designed to teach students how to get the sword out of the scabbard and cut with it, live blades almost never appear in a classical dojo.

Certainly they’re never used to slice and dice. For one thing, it’s too dangerous. Even among experts, accidents happen. Exponents of these old schools regularly get bruises and dings from dull wooden bokken. What would happen with just a tiny slip or error in distancing when using a live blade? Contrary to a lot of romantic goofiness, the traditional martial arts weren’t about courting death; they were about building a strong, cohesive unit that could protect the group. You don’t do that by killing or maiming your own guys in training.

For another, swords are too expensive to be put to such abuse regularly.

What exactly is the point of such demonstrations then? Are they intended to impress an audience? To show how great the master is? If so, somebody’s got an ego problem.

If they’re to bring in students who are supposed to want to learn from this guy, it’s not particularly effective. Were I to witness one of these displays, I’d be tempted to ask the master if he’d switch places with his student. Isn’t the proof of a good teacher in his student? Shouldn’t he be willing to risk his safety to demonstrate the quality of his students? After all, he’s asking those students to do that for him.

There’s always been a romance, a mystique, about the Japanese sword. Tales of its incredible sharpness and power are legendary. A lot of tripe has been written about how it was the “soul of the samurai.” (In reality, it was a tool. Tools in Japan, whether a warrior’s sword or a carpenter’s saw, have always been thought to have an indwelling spirit, and they’re typically treated with a respect we don’t have for tools in the West.) So a lot of martial artists take up the sword in their dojo, even if the dojo is devoted to karate or some other art that doesn’t involve such weapons. That’s a sure sign of trouble.

Japanese budo teachers are not immune to this. I’ve seen Japanese karate teachers suddenly appear at tournaments, outfitted in hakama and wearing a sword, doing some sort of kata they’ve created, clearly imagining they’re embodying the spirit of their ancient samurai ancestors.

It’s all laughable. Until there’s an accident. And the master is standing there, watching the paramedics wade through a pool of blood to work on the student. At best, these displays pervert the real nature of the martial arts. At worst, they can cost someone his life.

There’s no reason, rationale or legitimate explanation for putting yourself in the path of a sword during a demonstration. Trust your teacher, yes, but do not throw away your common sense. Do not, if such a demo is being planned …