Tactics in Kendo

Tactics in Kendo

Tactics in Kendo Part 1

Sotaro Honda 6th Dan & PHd, University of Gloucestershire


In this and future articles, I would like to discuss tactics in Kendo. What I would stress, from the start, is that this will never mean describing how to win at competitions by pushing the rules to the limit. The word “tactics” is quite often thought of by many people as a means of winning at any cost for “Shiai Kendo”. Japanese Kendo practitioners especially regard tactics this way and they do not like teaching them. However, tactics are not practised and used purely for striking an opponent and winning a Shiai, we can also learn a great many of the technical aspects of Kendo and develop our understanding of Kendo in the process of thinking, learning, practising and creating tactics. In this article, firstly, some of the negative aspects that people imagine from tactics are described. This is followed by the introduction of my experience of Kendo and tactics at Fukuoka University of Education and a discussion of the effectiveness of learning tactics.

1. Tactics and Kendo

Tactics are an important element in the performance of sports and Budo as are other elements such as physical fitness, techniques and mental strength. In Japanese Kendo society however, tactics are quite often thought of negatively. It seems that peoples reasons are closely related to their ideologies of Kendo as Budo. For example, the results of the interviews with Japanese high school physical education teachers who were in charge of Kendo lessons revealed that fifty three teachers out of fifty five had negative thoughts about teaching tactics. Their negative reasons were strongly related to their ideology of this purpose of Kendo as Budo, the traditional training and teaching of Kendo as Budo, the posture and movement of Kendo as Budo and matches, winning and losing of Kendo as Budo (Honda, 2003). More concretely, in some teachers ideology of the purpose of traditional Kendo as Budo, take it for granted that doing Kendo for the purpose of character building is the “correct Kendo”. For them, tactics are used only for the purpose of winning and they are not compatible with real Kendo. In some teachers ideology of traditional Kendo training and teaching, good posture and reasonable Shinai control that we need in Kendo are acquired as the result of following the traditional way of Shugyo which involves repeated practice of Kihon again and again. They also take it for granted that correct Kendo is acquired as the result of following this process for a long time. The reason why tactics are rejected is because these are not included in the traditional Shugyo which makes for correct Kendo.

Planning and using tactics means aiming for oneself and ones team to win even if the right posture and movement are broken and therefore, the teaching of tactics is rejected by them. Finally, in some of the teachers ideology about matches and winning and losing in Kendo as Budo, they often see Kendo matches as being for the purpose of grasping ones ability and progress, getting opportunities to find out about ones problems and to review the process of ones Shugyo. The contents of Kendo matches place an emphasis on fighting by ones Ki and an opponents Ki. Even if there is little exterior movement, there are active interior movements in two competitors minds. They take it for granted that trying to overwhelm an opponents Ki by ones own Ki and to strike is the real Kendo. For them, planning and using tactics means bringing wasteful external Shinai and body movement into play which is not compatible with the correct Kendo as Budo.

Europeans, especially those who play Western sports may think that the above opinions of the Japanese Kendo teachers as a bit strange. Needless to say that Kendo is a one-on-one combat activity through attacking and defending by using Shinai. As Kern (1998) identifies, one-on-one combative activities require greater tactical acumen in performance than non-physical contact activities such as volleyball and tennis, activities that a certain number of athletes play in a game or race at the same times such as swimming and rowing, and activities which are not played simultaneously, where performance is compared by time, distance, height and judges scoring such as gymnastics, weight lifting. In fact, we all fight in Ji-geiko and Shinai by making use of tactics, consciously or unconsciously, in attacking and defending with an opponent. The Kendo teachers who participated in the interviews commented that an expected way of fighting in Kendo would be that one did not rely on physical abilities, but one overwhelmed ones opponent by ones Ki and stroke. This is actually quite a high level tactical act in a way. Beyond this level and to attack an opponent with the mental state of “Mushin” would be the ultimate level of fighting in Kendo, but this would also be the ultimate tactical act acquired through enough experience and a high level of technique. To think this way, it seems that the word “tactics” itself does not give a good impression to the Japanese Kendo teachers, but gives an impression that using tactics means allowing their students to aim for winning as the prime purpose at any cost. After all, whatever their reasons for rejecting teaching tactics and their ideologies of Kendo as Budo are, I believe coming from their love for Kendo that they want to pass on “correct Kendo” to the next generation as a pathway for self-cultivation and traditional Japanese culture.

2. My experience at Fukuoka University of Education

Although I myself had many Shiai practices and actual Shiai when I was a high school and a university student, I almost never learned from my teachers explicitly how to win and how to fight in a particular situation. Is this because there exists negative thoughts related to tactics (or to the word tactics itself) in Japanese Kendo society? This was left to students independent-learning and I acquired them naturally through watching other peoples Shiai and experiencing Shiai.

I started thinking tactics in Kendo when I became a womens coach at Fukuoka University of Education Kendo club. My students were aiming to win the All Japan University womens Taikai and so were practising for two hours five days a week. Two hours-five days a week practice itself is not too much at Japanese university Kendo clubs. After each practice, however, they always gathered together in the coachs room, watched video of their Keiko and Shiai which I had taped and we discussed their Kendo. The person who suggested watching video was me, but the focus on what to watch and what to improve as individual and team tasks was decided by them. After continuing this for seven months, they began to grasp what each member of the team was expected to do in each position, how to fight and how they could fight according to the different situations. Their aim was achieved in November 1995. They did not win by using mean tactics, such as running away from their opponents who seemed to be stronger than they were, running away after scoring the first Ippon, using only surprise and tricky attacks, or fighting with bad posture. They always reflected on the content of their Keiko and Shiai after each Keiko, discussing what to do to develop, the choices they could use against various types of opponents in various situations in Shiai, trying to use something new in the next Keiko and Shiai practice, and developing their scope in Kendo. Three years later, two of them were selected as members of the Japanese team for the 11th World Kendo Championships and one of them won the individual championship.

Through the experience of being a coach at the Fukuoka University of Education, I started thinking seriously about tactics in Kendo. But it also might have related to the negative thoughts of tactics. Little was introduced and known about the application of tactics in Kendo lessons. Although there were only a few books and research which described tactics in Kendo, often the descriptions of the content were too abstract and difficult to understand and apply in practice. Therefore, in 1997 I came to the U.K. to look for a place I could study theories and practice of sports tactics. Here I studied theory, practice and the educational effect of teaching the tactics of games called “Teaching Games for Understanding” as developed in England and I attempted to apply it to Kendo. Through this study of tactics, in England, I realised that learning tactics would be useful not only for winning Shiai but also for understanding various aspects of Kendo. The following describes some of my ideas about tactics in Kendo.

3. Re-consideration of tactics in Kendo

Tactics play a role to connect Kihon-geiko with Ji-geiko and Shiai. We apply techniques that we have acquired in Kihon-geiko into Ji-geiko and Shiai with tactics of, which technique, when, where and how to use it. Considering general Kendo Keiko, it seems that in most clubs a practice normally starts with warm-up and Suburi followed by Kirikaeshi, Kihon Waza-geiko and Ji-geiko and tactical training, in which the aim to learn which technique, when, where and how to use, is left to self-development through experience. Of course, in Ji-geiko and Shiai where there are a lot of changes in attacking and defending and no one can predict what to do in advance, judgement of what to do is left to each practitioner. In order to make an appropriate judgement consciously or unconsciously in each situation and execute an action chosen, however it is important to learn tactics in Keiko. There are some people, especially experienced Kendo-ka who believe that they do not need to learn any tactics, but think that to fight with Mushin is the best approach to Ji-geiko and Shiai. In the state of mental condition “Mushin”, ones body will function the best unconsciously by automatically making the best choice of technique and movement. However, it will be impossible to do this if one does not work on developing choices of techniques and movements in various situations through Keiko. Choosing and executing Waza in the mental state of Mushin is an unconscious tactical act that is developed as the result of the conscious learning of tactics. There are also some people who insist, “I do not need tactics. I just do my Kendo whoever my opponent is.” I am not sure exactly what they mean by “doing my Kendo”. It has to be considered, however, “doing ones Kendo” does not mean doing Kendo in which one attacks with the same timing and same Waza all the time against every opponent. To be able to do ones best Kendo against various types of opponent, one needs to face them, changing the way of Seme sometime boldly and sometime delicately, timing and Waza according to each opponent. To be able to do this, one has to try to develop a choice of Waza and have a broader scope in ones Kendo. This does not only mean acquiring many different Waza, but means that one should try to practise with consideration of how to use the Waza one has acquired. Sumi Sensei told me, “In my brain there are hundreds and thousands of different patterns of Seme, striking, combination and dealing with my opponents attacking. I can use these properly according to each situation and each opponent.” In addition, Sumi Sensei”s Kendo makes us have less choice and we end up attacking where Sensei is making us attack as if we were swallowed up in it. It is extremely hard (almost impossible?) to reach Sumi Sensei”s level, but nothing happens unless we try to develop scope in our Kendo!

4. Effectiveness of Learning Tactics

Once, you start thinking of tactics such as Waza, when and how you use or you want to use them in Ji-geiko and Shiai, you will start thinking of which Waza you need to acquire, what you can do at the moment and what you cannot. By thinking like this, you will be able to see the technical and psychological structure and mechanism of basic movements, each Waza and their interaction with your opponents. In addition, in the process of acquiring Waza you will feel the need to have a positive attitude and that you do not want to waste any unecessary time in practicing: Waza-geiko, Kata-geiko, Ji-geiko, Kakari-geiko, Uchikomi-geiko and the whole Keiko. Moreover, you will also begin to think whether you are fit enough to achieve your tasks? which part of your body needs to be improved? and whether you are mentally tough enough to execute your tactics?

The traditional way of Keiko in Kendo is through repeated practice and I do not reject this. By considering tactics in Keiko, you will realise the meaning and importance of this repeated practice and you will come independently to tackle Keiko rather than just doing in a parrot fashion or like clockwork, what your teacher tells you in. In the next article, I would like to discuss the process of learning tactics according to practitioners” levels.


Kern, J. (1998) Sports no Senjyutsu Nyumon (Tactics in Sports) (translation M. Asaoka, H. Mizukami, and A. Nakagawa). Tokyo: Taisyukan Publishing Co., Ltd.

Honda. S. (2003) Budo or Sport? Competing Conceptions of Kendo within the Japanese Upper Secondary Physical Education Curriculum, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Gloucestershire Park Campus Learning Centre

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