2017 Mar 11 : Sueno sensei and the 45-degree myth
I didn't write the post below. The author is Geoff Salmon sensei over in the U.K. I think this short entry is worth thinking about carefully. There are many examples of kendo instruction that may seem to contradict common sense or may even seem illogical or just plain wrong, with the result being that we may feel confused or frustrated by the teaching. This actually happens A LOT, even concerning core elements of fundamental kendo instruction that we hear over and over again from everyone, lower-level instructors all the way up to the highest-ranked sensei.
Salmon sensei's post is a good example. Sueno sensei says that we don't have to limit the swing of the shinai to 45 degrees. But nearly EVERYONE else says that we should do this. How is this possible? Is Sueno sensei wrong?
To a certain extent we have to be able to understand why these kinds of apparent contradictions happen so often in kendo pedagogy. We have to develop ways of analyzing what we are taught so that we can decide what and how we want to learn. If we don't do this we are going to spend a lot of time being confused and unable to move forward.
Just in case you're curious, Sueno sensei looks like this. I consider his kendo to be an important "model" for my own kendo although obviously I'm not in his kendo universe. He's written an excellent book (Japanese only; many excellent reference sequential photographs).
Sueno sensei and the 45 degree myth
September 19, 2016 by Geoff Salmon.
Sueno Eiji sensei, hanshi hachidan is back in the UK and has taken us through two evenings and two long but enlightening days of instruction. The seminar evolved from a detailed look at suburi through to the best way to display you skills in grading examinations, but sensei’s overriding thesis was that kendo training should be a step-by-step process, based on getting each stage right before you move on to the next.
He summed this up by expanding on his previous remarks ”that you can’t do keiko if you can’t do suburi” by explaining that you need to be able to reach a good level of men suburi before attempting tobikomi men drills in armour. You should be able to make correct single men strikes before moving on to making renzoku waza. Your renzoku waza should be correct before attempting uchikomi-geiko, which you should perfect before trying kakari-geiko and you should only go on to ji-geiko when everything else is correct. Once you have all of these points straightened out, you should keep them on track by spending 50 minutes of each kendo hour on kihon and the remaining ten on ji-geiko.
Sensei’s most controversial point was that in suburi and uchi-komi our furi-kaburi (upswing) for men should not stop at the 45 degrees insisted upon by many other kendo teachers. Instead our hands should come back in a low arc past the top of our heads. He qualified this by saying that we should not bring them back to a point where he have to open our elbows, but that the swing should go back as far as it can while keeping the arms in correct cutting position.
When asked why 45 degrees is still recommended by many teachers, his answer was that it was written down many years ago but had since been rethought about and that many sensei just keep quoting conventional wisdom. He quoted an example of the seminar held before the All Japan 8th dan Championships where every participant regardless of what he usually taught was bringing his shinai back past the 45 degree point in the warm-up suburi.
Sueno sensei’s other repeated point was that you should relax your arms immediately after striking men, so that the shinai could bounce upwards, allowing your forward motion and following zanshin to continue smoothly. As he said himself, “there are many paths to the top of the mountain”.
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