Beginner's Guide to Kendo
Chapter 4: Kata
Modern kendo kata developed from the koryu, old schools of swordsmanship, and had its beginning in the Keishicho Ryugenkiken Kata developed in 1887 for the Japanese Police forces. It consisted of ten techniques drawn from 10 of the most prominent ryu. In 1895, the Dai Nihon Butokukai, the All Japan Martial Virtue Society, was founded to encourage kenjutsu and other martial arts. In the following year its official Kenjustsu no Kata was introduced. In 1912, the Butokukai announced a new kata called the Dai Nihon Teikoku Kendo Kata, the Great Imperial Japan Kendo Kata consisting of seven odachi, long sword, and three kodachi, short sword, techniques. In 1928, the Zen Nihon Kendo Remmei was formed and accepted this kata, which was renamed Nihon Kendo Kata and remains as required study for advancement in kendo as it reflects the essence of classical kendo.
These kata are conducted in a formal context with requisite etiquette observed. Strong posture, swift decisive movement, precision timing and control and an element of danger characterize these fascinating forms. Not only are these kata an important link to past, they also serve to illustrate the fundamental principles, technical and philosophical, embodied in the techniques of kendo.
Kendo kata is a paired exercise. Uchidachi, the striking sword, is the aggressor who initiates the kata. Shidachi, the performing sword, is the defender who executes the demonstrative waza. Usually, uchidachi is sempai, or senior, while shidachi is kohai, or junior. Uchidachi provides the guidance and leads shidachi through the kata. Shidachi takes his cue from uchidachi and waits for uchidachi to move first before responding. Shidachi shouldn’t wait to long though, as the kata should appear to an observer as flowing smoothly with the two kenshi moving simultaneously.
A unique aspect to kendo kata is the use of kiai, or spirit-shout. Kiai is the focused application of bringing voice to breath, thus demonstrating the presence of spirit, a key component of ki ken tai ichi (spirit, sword, body, unity). Uchidachi and shidachi each have a different sound, “Ya” and “Toh” respectively. Kiai is properly exercised by using the diaphragm and abdomen to draw breath deep into the lungs and expel the air forcefully through the windpipe and vocal chords.
One of the major psychological and spiritual aspects of kendo is ki ken tai itchi, the unification (itchi) of spirit (ki), sword (ken) and body (tai). On the psychological level it involves marshalling all of one’s human faculties, intellectual, emotional and physical to accomplish a difficult task. On the spiritual level it involves transcending the everyday reality and literally becoming one with the sword. On the practical level it is the coordination of the breath with the stroke of the sword and the movement of the body in the application of a kendo technique, such as shomenuchi.
Footwork, or ashi sabaki, is the single most important aspect of kendo. Without it one cannot close the distance to strike nor avoid the attack of one’s opponent. Generally, kendo footwork can be characterized as suri-ashi, rubbing feet. That is, the feet are slid along the floor while keeping constant contact. There are three varieties used in kendo kata: ayumi-ashi, okuri-ashi and hiraki-ashi. Ayumi-ashi is used to cover large distances. Okuri-ashi is used for short, rapid attacks. Hiraki-ashi is used to sidestep an attack and position for a counter attack.
Okuri-ashi is the most commonly used footwork in kendo. It is used in combination with most attack and defense techniques. The starting point is to have the left foot slightly behind the right with the heel raised up of the floor about an inch. The body weight is evenly distributed on both feet. Pushing off on the left foot, the right foot is slid forward. The left foot is brought forward to take a position slightly behind the right. In this way a kenshi can move forward very quickly and remain in good balance ready for any situation.
Ayumi-ashi is similar to normal walking except that the feet are sliding across the floor. By alternating the feet, left and right, a large distance can be covered very quickly. Ayumi-ashi is used in kendo kata when the performers move forward to reach issoku-itto, the striking distance, and when retreating after each waza is completed.
Hiraki-ashi is used to side step an attacking opponent creating an excellent opening for a counter attack. When stepping to the right the right foot is moved first with the left coming around behind the right. When stepping to the left the left foot is moved first with the right foot coming around behind the left.
All these kata are performed with the bokken, sometimes called bokuto, the wooden training sword of kendo. It is designed to simulate the weight, length and feel of a katana. The important parts are the tsuka or hilt, the tsuba or hand guard, the kensen or sword point, the mono-uchi or cutting edge and the shinogi, a ridge running the length of the blade used in parry techniques. In an interesting side note, many samurai including the famous Miyamoto Musashi, preferred the bokken in duels and battles as they felt is was less likely to break than a steel blade.
The techniques, or waza, of kendo are very direct, very economical, and of course, very deadly. When performing kendo kata, extreme care must be taken as injury, or even death, could occur if struck with a solid bokken with a full stroke in a vital area. Avoiding this possibility requires full attention, complete concentration and control.
The primary technique is the shomen-uchi, the straight cut to the forehead. Most of uchidachi’s attacks are shomen-uchi. The secondary technique is kote-uchi, the cut to the wrist. Next is tsuki, the only thrusting technique. Two variants of this intimidating waza are used in kendo kata. One with the blade turned parallel to the floor, the better to slip between the ribs, and the second with the blade perpendicular to the floor, used to penetrate under the solar plexus and up into the heart and lungs. Finally, there is do-uchi, the great sweeping cut to the torso, used only once in kendo kata.
Men-uchi is the primary technique of kendo. From the chudan no kamae posture it is executed by raising the bokken over one’s head such that it is pointing upward and back at a 45 degree angle and then swinging the bokken outward toward the opponent’s forehead. This is done in a continuous fashion while stepping forward using one of the ashi sabaki, usually okuri-ashi. From the jodan no kamae posture one needn’t raise the bokken since it is held there in this kamae.
Kote-uchi is executed by raising the bokken over one’s head such that it is pointing upward and back at a 45 degree angle and then swinging the bokken outward and down toward the opponent’s right wrist.
Tsuki, the only thrusting waza in kendo, is executed by thrusting the bokken forward toward the opponent’s throat keeping the blade perpendicular to the floor while stepping forward using ashi sabaki, again typically okuri-ashi. Alternatively, the blade is twisted such that it is parallel to the floor and thrust at the right side of the opponent’s chest just below the pectoral muscle as if to slide between the ribs to pierce the heart and lungs.
Do-uchi is executed by raising the bokken over one’s head such that it is pointing upward and back at a 45 degree angle and then swinging the bokken outward and down toward the right side of the opponent’s trunk, the blade is turned diagonally 45 degrees, while stepping forward using ashi-sabaki.
Kamae, or posture, are the fighting positions uchidachi and shidachi assume from which to launch their attacks and defenses. The two most common kamae are jodan no kamae, the high guard posture, and chudan no kamae, the middle guard posture. Both of these kamae are also used in shinai kendo as they have proven to be the most practical and effective for fencing. The others include gedan no kamae, the low guard posture, hasso no kamae, the eight direction posture, and wakigamae, the hidden posture. These kamae are almost never used in fencing, but are used in kata to demonstrate important concepts about distance and psychological states.
Chudan no kamae, middle guarding posture, is the most basic kamae in kendo. During kendo keiko (fencing) it is the most widely used as it affords the best protection and allows a kenshi to attack all four targets (men, kote, do, and tsuki). The bokken is held in front of the abdomen with the kensen aimed at the opponent’s throat. The left hand is about a fist distance from the abdomen approximately level with the navel.
Jodan no kamae, the high guarding posture, is also used in kendo keiko. It is a highly provocative stance that sacrifices protection for a more aggressive attacking platform. There are two varieties. In hidari-jodan (left jodan) the bokken is raised overhead such that it is pointing upward and back 45 degrees while the left foot is brought forward. The left hand should be about a fist distance from the left forehead. The bokken is shifted slightly off the center-line to the right, about 10 degrees. In migi-jodan (right jodan) the bokken is held in the center line and the upper torso is turned slightly to the left, about 5 degrees. The right foot is forward. In both forms the elbows are opened just past the shoulders.
Gedan no kamae, the low guarding posture rarely is used in fencing as it leaves the kenshi wide open to men and tsuki attacks. Only the very brave or foolish would use it. It is achieved by lowering the kensen to knee level from chudan no kamae. The bokken is held in the center.
Hasso no kamae, the eight direction posture – so named because it is theoretically possible to execute a cut in any direction – is also rarely used in fencing. This posture is assumed by raising the bokken above the right shoulder then lowering it until the left hand is in front of the sternum while stepping forward with the left foot. The blade is pointing up and slightly back over the shoulder with the blade running along the jaw line.
Waki-gamae, the hidden guard posture, is also rarely used in fencing. This posture is assumed by raising the bokken up and back to the right in a large sweeping motion while stepping back with the right foot. The body is turned slightly to the right, about 10 degrees. The bokken is held close to the right hip and extended back and down at a 45 degree angle. The blade is turned at a 45 degree angle. The bokken should be hidden from the opponent. The theory behind this kamae is to prevent the opponent from knowing the length of your sword, thus making it impossible for him/her to properly judge the distance at which you can strike.
Between the various waza performed during kendo kata the two performers will lower their bokken to knee level turning the blades toward the center while opening slightly to the right, about 5 degrees. This motion is called kamae-otoku, lowering the guard. The performers then back away five small steps using ayumi-ashi.
Kendo no kata should be more properly seen as a performance art and should incorporate elements of drama, elegance and aesthetics. Body language, facial expression, rhythm and timing become important components as well. After an initial learning curve, kenshi should approach kata with this mind frame. Observers of kendo kata should sense the danger, the conflict and tension, the suspense as well as admire the elegant movements, the mastery and control of the sword and feel transported to another place and time, perhaps watching Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro dueling to the death on the beach at Ganryu Jima.
This mood is set by the proper attention to reiho, the traditional etiquette of kendo kata. These rituals are completely alien to most Western audiences and create an atmosphere of mystery and curiosity. For the performers it serves to focus the mind on the moment and places them in context and character.
Kendo kata begins with uchidachi leading shidachi to the center of the performance space. They face each other; assume seiza placing their bokken to the side, and formally bow to each other, zarei. They retrieve their bokken, stand and proceed to positions opposite each other nine paces apart. They face forward to the kamiza, or the head of the dojo, and bow deeply, ritsurei. Turning to face each other once again, they bow less deeply this time. Up to this point uchidachi and shidachi have been carrying their bokken in their right hand which represents a non-hostile intent. They slowly bring the bokken in front, careful not to obscure their vision, and switch the bokken to their left hand and lower it to their left hip with the thumbs held on the tsuba. This represents placing the sword into their obi, a belt worn for the purpose of holding a katana.
With uchidachi initiating, the performers take three bold steps toward each other using ayumi ashi while drawing their swords. As they reach the third step, they assume chudan no kamae at issoku itto ma-ai pointing their kensen at the other’s throat and then slowly descend into sonkyo, the crouching ‘en garde’ position of kendo. Sonkyo is meant to assure each other that they have no dishonorable intent and are not planning any sneak attacks. After rising back to chudan they lower their kensen in a move called kamae otoku and retreat five steps using a slow, cautious, small ayumi ashi and then assume chudan no kamae.
Uchidachi and shidachi then proceed to perform all seven waza in sequence. They begin each by assuming the kamae appropriate for that waza and advance to issoku itto. They end each waza by returning to chudan no kamae at issoku itto, perform kamae-otoku and retreat five steps to the nine pace distance. After the last waza and before retreating, uchidachi and shidachi move into sonkyo, symbolically re-sheath their swords by placing the bokken on their left hip, stand up and retreat five steps. They return their bokken to their right hands and bow to each other. Facing kamiza once again they bow deeply.
Uchidachi assumes hidari-jodan posture. Shidachi responds by assuming migi-jodan posture. The performers advance three steps forward using ayumi-ashi. Uchidachi steps forward with the right foot executing a large sweeping shomen-uchi cut. The momentum of the cut takes uchidachi slightly off balance, leaning forward. The trajectory of the bokken is meant to cut shidachi from fingers to groin. Just before uchidachi’s cut strikes, shidachi slides back one step using okuri-ashi and uchidachi’s cut misses. Shidachi immediately steps forward using okuri-ashi and counters with shomen-uchi. Uchidachi straightens up and shidachi drops the kensen right between his/her eyes. Uchidachi takes a small step backward using okuri-ashi. Shidachi steps forward with the left foot and assumes hidari-jodan. Uchidachi steps back again using okuri-ashi narrowly avoiding shidachi’s kensen.
After sufficient zanshin, uchidachi raises his/her bokken to chudan no kamae while shidachi steps back with the left foot and lowers his/her bokken to chudan no kamae. The performers assume kamae-otoku, retreat 5 small steps using ayumi-ashi and return to chudan no kamae.
Uchidachi and shidachi remain in chudan no kamae. The performers advance three steps forward using ayumi-ashi. Uchidachi steps forward using okuri-ashi executing a kote-uchi cut. Just before uchidachi’s cut strikes, shidachi drops his bokken to gedan level, slides back diagonally to the left one step using okuri-ashi. As uchidachi’s cut misses, shidachi immediately steps forward using okuri-ashi and counters with kote-uchi.
After sufficient zanshin, uchidachi raises his/her bokken to chudan no kamae while taking one step back using okuri-ashi. Shidachi steps back to the center passing his/her bokken over uchidachi’s to chudan no kamae. The performers assume kamae-otoku, retreat 5 small steps using ayumi-ashi and return to chudan no kamae.
Uchidachi and shidachi both lower to gedan no kamae. The performers advance three steps forward using ayumi-ashi. With uchidachi initiating, both slowly raise their bokken to chudan. Uchidachi steps forward using okuri-ashi executing tsuki while turning the blade flat. Shidachi immediately steps back using okuri-ashi while controlling uchidachi’s bokken by sliding his/her bokken back using the shinogi. Once uchidachi’s thrust is neutralized, shidachi counters with tsuki stepping forward using okuri-ashi. Uchidachi steps back with the right foot parrying with a sharp motion using the right side shinogi. Shidachi executes another tsuki stepping forward with the left foot. Again, uchidachi steps back with the left foot parrying with a sharp motion using the left side shinogi. Uchidachi quickly retreats three steps using ayumi-ashi starting with the left foot. Shidachi chases uchidachi back stepping forward three times also using ayumi-ashi aiming his/her kensen between uchidachi’s eyes.
After sufficient zanshin, uchidachi raises his/her bokken to chudan no kamae. Shidachi slowly retreats five steps using okuri-ashi while maintaining chudan no kamae. Uchidachi follows shidachi stepping forward three steps using ayumi-ashi. The performers assume kamae-otoku, retreat 5 small steps using ayumi-ashi and return to chudan no kamae.
Uchidachi assumes hasso no kamae. Shidachi responds by assuming waki-gamae. The performers advance three very small steps forward using ayumi-ashi. Uchidachi steps forward with the right foot executing a shomen-uchi cut. Simultaneously, shidachi immediately steps forward using okuri-ashi and counters with shomen-uchi. Since they were at a far distance, toh-ma’ai, their bokken clash and “stick”. With uchidachi initiating, both performers lower to chudan no kamae while keeping their bokken in tight contact. Uchidachi executes tsuki turning the blade flat while stepping forward using okuri-ashi. Shidachi parries the thrust by lifting his/her bokken while keeping contact with uchidachi’s bokken, side stepping to the left using hiraki-ashi. Shidachi, in a continuous movement, counters with shomen-uchi.
After sufficient zanshin, uchidachi returns to chudan no kamae while taking one step back. Shidachi steps back to the center with the right foot and lowers his/her bokken to chudan no kamae. The performers assume kamae-otoku, retreat 5 small steps using ayumi-ashi and return to chudan no kamae.
Uchidachi assumes hidari-jodan posture. Shidachi responds by slightly raising his/her kensen aiming at uchidachi’s left wrist. The performers advance three steps forward using ayumi-ashi. Uchidachi steps forward with the right foot executing shomen-uchi cut. Just before uchidachi’s cut strikes, shidachi slides back one step using okuri-ashi deflecting uchidachi’s strike using the left shinogi in a circular motion called suriage. Shidachi immediately steps forward using okuri-ashi and counters with shomen-uchi. Shidachi steps back with the right foot into hidari-jodan with a motion that simulates cutting uchidachi’s face.
After sufficient zanshin, uchidachi raises his/her bokken to chudan no kamae while shidachi steps back with the left foot and lowers his/her bokken to chudan no kamae. They both move back to the center by taking three small steps using okuri-ashi while maintaining chudan no kamae. The performers assume kamae-otoku, retreat 5 small steps using ayumi-ashi and return to chudan no kamae.
Uchidachi remains in chudan no kamae. Shidachi responds by lowering into gedan no kamae. The performers advance three steps forward using ayumi-ashi. Shidachi slowly raises his/her kensen to chudan. Uchidachi, unable to stop shidachi, steps back quickly with the right foot into hidari-jodan. Shidachi closes the gap raising his/her kensen aiming at uchidachi’s left wrist. Uchidachi steps back once again quickly with the left foot into chudan and executes a fast kote-uchi with a small motion. Just before uchidachi’s cut strikes, shidachi side steps to the left using hiraki-ashi deflecting uchidachi’s strike using the right shinogi in a circular motion called suriage. As shidachi brings the right foot around behind the left he/she counters with a small, fast kote-uchi. Uchidachi steps back diagonally to the left using okuri-ashi lowering his/her bokken to gedan and turning the blade toward shidachi. Shidachi steps forward with the left foot into hidari-jodan.
After sufficient zanshin, uchidachi raises his/her bokken to chudan no kamae while stepping forward to the center. Shidachi steps back with the left foot and lowers his/her bokken to chudan no kamae. The performers assume kamae-otoku, retreat 5 small steps using ayumi-ashi and return to chudan no kamae.
Nanahonme: Men Nuki Do
Uchidachi and shidachi remain in chudan no kamae. The performers advance three steps forward using ayumi-ashi. Uchidachi steps forward using okuri-ashi executing a small tsuki turning the blade parallel to the floor. Shidachi slides back using okuri-ashi extending his/her arms raising uchidachi’s bokken with the left shinogi turning the blade flat. Uchidachi takes two steps forward using ayumi-ashi, first the left then right while executing a large sweeping shomen-uchi. Just as uchidachi begins his/her strike, shidachi steps diagonally to the right three steps using ayumi-ashi executing a large sweeping do-uchi. On the third step shidachi lowers his/her knee to the floor. Shidachi maintains eye contact throughout this movement.
After sufficient zanshin, uchidachi moves through wakigamae stepping back with the left foot while raising the bokken over head and down into chudan no kamae and turns to face shidachi. At the same time shidachi snaps his/her bokken to wakigamae raises his/her bokken over head and down into chudan no kamae while swinging around sharply to face uchidachi straight on. Uchidachi steps back once using okuri-ashi maintaining chudan no kamae. Shidachi rises and steps forward with the right foot maintaining chudan no kamae. Uchidachi and shidachi rotate clockwise 5 steps keeping the bokken in contact at issoku-itto. The performers lower into sonkyo, move their bokken to their left hip as if returning a sword to its scabbard and rise to standing. They then retreat 5 small steps using ayumi-ashi. They exchange the bokken from the left hand to the right and lower it to the right side and bow.