Kendo kata is an integral part of modern Kendo. More important than the fact that it is included in kendo rank testing, the kendo kata embody concepts and techniques that are essential for our shinai kendo remaining and developing as true Kendo. Accordingly, the Fall 2018 Southwest Kendo and Iaido Federation training event opened with a seminar on the kendo kata. Robert Stroud, sensei, (Kendo Kyoshi 7-Dan) led the kendo kata seminar at the Fall Event, held in Omaha, Nebraska, the weekend of October 12-14, 2018. During the seminar, Stroud sensei focused on several important concepts involving both engagement, disengagement, maai and general mindset during the kata.
Stroud sensei emphasized that when closing distance in the various kamae, one should not do so in a passive manner. Rather, kenshi should assume kamae and approach at a slightly quicker pace and more importantly, with the "feel" of cautiously closing as though entering an actual sword fight. Accordingly, Stroud sensei also emphasized expression of strong situational awareness at the completion of each kata. As in an actual life and death encounter, Stroud sensei advised uchidachi and shidachi to "disengage gingerly."
As kenshi rise in rank, there is an expectation of less reliance upon rote memorization and execution of the kata. Rather, elements such as the specific number of footsteps taken and expression of various maai are increasingly determined by the physical characteristics of the individual practitioners. Stroud sensei noted as an example that just prior to cutting in nihonme, uchidachi should be at uchi-ma, but when each kata is completed, uchidachi and shidachi should be back at shokujin no maii. Throughout the kata, both uchidachi and shidachi will be adjusting the length of their steps. So instead of just focusing on the number of steps in kata, we should consider how close or far we need to be from the opponent during different stages in kata, and position ourselves as the situation dictates.
In addition to the spatial aspect of combative engagment distance, the temporal interval was also addressed. Stroud sensei noted that the interval between "yaa" and "tou" is to be such that it corresponds to a vigorous, rapid cut by shidachi in response to uchidachi's attack. Again, the idea of realistic adaptation and response to the situation was reinforced. This is akin to execution of techniques such as oji-waza in shinai kendo, whereby the opponent's sword/cut is parried and immediately followed with a counter without waiting, delay, rocking back on one's heels, or otherwise breaking "connection" or seme.
Stroud sensei also provided several corrections or tips for specific portions of the kata. One notable example was the shidachi's response to uchidachi's thrust to the left lung during sanbonme. Rather than a hooking redirection with the mune of shidachi's sword, shidachi instead utilizes nayashi waza (tsuki nayashi tsuki) in order to neutralize the incoming thrust and counter attack. Shidachi neutralizes the tsuki (rendering it ineffective) by redirecting it to their left and down (see photos below). Stroud sensei also emphasized that while doing so, shidachi must not allow her left hand to pull away from her center.
Finally, Stroud sensei discussed the progressing skill or even nobility of action demonstrated by the kenshi, during the kata, particularly in the first three longsword kata. The conclusion of these three kata show the development of ability and sophistication of the swordsman from lethal dispatch of the attacker in ipponme; de-fanging the attacker with an injurious cut in nihonmne; and finally defeating the attacker without injury in sanbonme. In a way, this was a recurring theme that could be found throughout the seminar; i.e., that over the years, as our understanding and skill at kendo increases, our execution of its waza will evolve as well.