Disclaimer: this article was written by a mudansha, for other mudansha. While I have learned a lot the past few years, I am by no means a kendo expert.
To many beginning kendoka, the many different waza we practice can become confusing. Good kihon is where it’s at of course, but if you’re asked to practice men-suriage-men, then you’d better know your suriage-men! I’ve always loved this particular explanation at Kendo Guide because of its simple summary of kendo techniques. Their picture gives an easy overview the most important techniques.
The initial division of techniques is into shikake waza and oji waza, respectively offensive and countering techniques. It’s a matter of initiative: who moves first. The Kendo Guide image can be summarized in the following table.
|shikake (仕掛け)||oji (応じ)|
|renzoku waza (連続)||nuki waza (抜き)|
|harai waza (払い)||suriage waza (刷り上げ)|
|debana waza (出鼻)||kaeshi waza (返し)|
|hiki waza (引き)||uchiotoshi waza (撃落シ)|
|katsugi waza (担ぐ)|
|maki waza (巻き)|
The Kendo Guide article does a good job of explaining most of these techniques, but I thought we could add upon that. For example…
Nuki versus debana
What’s the difference between a nuki kote and a debana kote? On the floor, during keiko, they may feel the same to most beginners. They see sensei square up against a victim, the victim does an attack and sensei whacks him before the attack lands.
The table above should make the biggest difference clear: timing. Nuki kote, or more famously nuki dou, is performed by evading a strike that is already on its way to you. Debana kote and so on, are done before your opponent has even started attacking. Right before he attacks, you do. It’s a matter of sen (先), from “sen wo toru“, “to anticipate“.
Where debana waza are “sen no sen” (先の先), nuki waza are “go no sen” (後の先). With the prior you sense that your opponent is going to act and you counteract at the same time. With the latter you can still prevent your opponent’s action from succeeding by blocking and then attacking. Ai-men is also “sen no sen“. Many great teachers have written about the concept of sen, so I will leave it as an exercise for you to read up on the topic. Kendo World magazine has had a few articles on the concept and Salmon-sensei has also written about it.
The remaining oji waza are all “go no sen“: suriage, kaeshi and uchiotoshi. Which brings us to…
Kaeshi versus suriage
To many beginners, including myself, kaeshi waza and suriage waza can look very much alike in demonstrations: sensei faces his opponent, opponent attacks, sensei whacks the shinai out of the way and the counter attacks. But as before, these techniques are very different despite both being of the “go no sen” persuasion.
Kaeshi waza are demonstrated in kata #4, where shidachi catches uchidachi’s bokken and slides it away along his own bokken with a twist of the wrists. The counter attack is then made from the wrists as well. Suriage technique on the other hand is shown in kata #5 where shidachi counter attacks uchidachi, hitting the bokken out of the way on the upswing. In suriage techniques your own shinai stays on the center line, it does not move sideways.
Suriage versus harai
Ivan stumbled upon this matter back in 2006: if both suriage and harai waza move your opponent’s shinai out of the way in an upwards or sideways motion, what’s the difference? Well, for starters there is timing: harai waza is shikake waza where you take the initiative, while suriage waza is oji waza i.e. reactive.
In suriage waza, your opponent’s shinai is caught by your upswing straight through the centerline. It is then moved aside by the curvature and the movement of your own shinai, as a setup of your own attack. In harai waza, you hit your opponent’s shinai upwards or downwards out of the way, before starting your own attack.
Seme versus osae versus harai
In all three cases you will see the attacker step in, while the defending shinai disappears off to the side. It’s just that the way in which the shinai moves aside is very different.
In seme waza it is your indomitable spirit that makes your opponent’s kamae collapse: you move in strongly and he is overwhelmed. That, or you misdirect his attention by putting force on one target, while truly attacking a second target. In osae waza (“pinning techniques“, like in judo) you hold your opponent’s shinai down and prevent it from moving effectively by moving your shinai over it, coming from the side. It is not a strike, push or shove! You’re merely holding him down. Finally, with harai waza, you make a small and strong strike against your opponent’s shinai thus smacking it out of center. This may be done in either direction, left/right, up/down, whichever is more useful to you.
One more sen: sen sen no sen
There are three forms of initiative: go no sen (block and act), sen no sen (act simultaneously) and sen sen no sen (act preemptively). All shikake waza, aside from debana, are classed as sen sen no sen: you are acting before your opponent does.
In other budo which traditionally ascribe to a non-antagonistic approach, sen sen no sen is described not as an act of aggression, but as ensuring that your opponent does not get the chance to attack you. Your opponent has already made up his mind to fully attack you, but he has not started yet. And by using sen sen no sen, you are not letting him. For example: an analysis through aikido and an explanation through karate.
A graphical summary
Based on all of the preceding, I have come to a new graphical representation of kendo waza. Below are a Venn diagram and a table that show the most important waza and their various characteristics.
The leftovers, what hasn’t been discussed yet
- Renzoku waza is something we practice in kihon every class: two or three consecutive strikes. Kote-men, kote-men-dou, etc.
- Hiki waza are a favourite of many youngsters. It’s flashy! Who doesn’t like a shove, a jump, a strike and a cool pose? ;)
- Katsugi waza are sometimes mentioned by Roelof-sensei: they are intended to surprise your opponent by coming in from an odd angle. You raise your shinai over your shoulder, instead of high over your head.
- Maki waza are famous for making someone lose their shinai. It’s a hard technique, where you spin your opponent’s shinai out of the way by using a small and supple movement from the wrist. Makiotoshi (巻落し, “spin downward”) is the same technique but in the other direction, where the shinai is flung downward.
- Like suriage and kaeshi, uchiotoshi is an oji waza that happens in “go no sen“. But unlike these two, uchiotoshi consists of two separate movements: one to knock your opponent’s shinai downwards and one to make ippon.
- Katate techniques are not listed in the table. They are one-handed techniques, often used to surprise your opponent from a larger distance. For example, at the january CT Louis-sensei had us do katate-yoko-men.
- Kiriotoshi (切り落し) is a “go no sen” timing technique like nuki waza. While your opponent is making his attack, you cut straight down the center line thus not only deflecting his attack but also making ippon. It is demonstrated here and here.
- Osae waza, familiar in judo, are a form of “hold”. You push your opponent’s shinai downwards (push, not hit!) offering him no escape.
- Hikibana has been explained to me as grasping the chance offered when your opponent gives in to your seme and is forced backwards.
- Seme waza involves confusing your opponent, by making him think you’re going for a specific target. Ben Sheppard-sensei explains it over here.
I’m told there are more techniques. Maybe we’ll learn about them some day :)
To end this essay, I would like to quote Salmon-sensei:
The one thing that I am sure was obvious to most people is that in kendo, as in the rest of life, you have to “make it happen”. Shikake waza does not work unless you break your opponents centre and oji waza is effective only if you control your opponents timing and pull him into your counter attack.
We are reminded of this in class, if not every week! What ever you do, you need to have an acting role in it. Simply waiting does not work!
I would like to thank both Heeren-sensei and Salmon-sensei for their explanations through email. They helped me a lot in figuring this stuff out.