Really Seeing the Opponent and Opportunities to Strike – Part 1: “O” Sensei

A young Kyoshi 7 dan  from Japan visited the dojo that I practice at this week.  I’ll refer to him as “O” sensei as he preferred not having his name mentioned.  He had once placed near the top in the Kanagawa-ken prefecture stage of the annual All-Japan Kendo Tournament after losing to Takanabe Susumu (Kyoshi 7 dan).


When I did keiko with O sensei, I was astonished by his ability to strike me at moments just before or as I was about to launch an attack.  I have experienced being hit some time (e.g. a heartbeat) after launching an attack while in motion.  However, it’s been quite a while since I last experienced being hit just before or just as I would even start to move – as described by Miyamoto Musashi from Section 24 “Sen (the initiative) of “The Kendo Reader” by Noma Hisashi [Noma, p. 53]:

When the opponent tries to strike he will be stopped at the very onset of his attempt, at the S of Strike and not be allowed to continue on. For example you must stop the opponent when he tries to attack at the A of the Attack.

Update:  Added a quote by Yagyu Munenori on Nov 10, 2019.  Changed the title from “… – Erasing Wagamama Kendo” to “… – Part 1: ‘O’ Sensei” on July 2, 2019.  Added an insight from neuroscience and the following quote on Mar 18, 2019.

The foolish reject what they see, not what they think; the wise reject what they think, not what they see. – Huang Po

How Did He Do It?

When I spoke with O sensei afterwards, he kindly described what he was doing.  He “observes” the opponent intently (not intensely) while creating and looking for an opportunity to launch a strike (e.g. when the opponent is about to strike, go backwards or is confused or stuck from one of the four sicknesses (shikai) [KendoInfo_Shikai] as also described by Saburo Iwatate (Hanshi, 8 dan) in “Kendo-related Quotes.”)

The key is really seeing.  Seeing the opponent and the opportunities (like those mentioned above) to strike.  Without projections, biases, an aforementioned sickness, thoughts or other distractions which might shift us away from being present and seeing with clarity – as illustrated in these two videos: “Selective Attention Test” (1:21 mins) and Daniel Simons’ TEDxUIUC talk on “Seeing the World as It Isn’t.” (7:22 mins) and these teachings:

  • If you have something to think about in your mind, …  (y)our mind tilts to one side with that something, and as it does … you don’t see while seeing …Yagyu Munenori (Swordsman from the 16th Century)
  • If your mind is innocent (free of preconception), you can see through all your opponents actions and strike freely without any hesitation, catching every available chance. – Matsumoto Toshio (Hanshi, 9 dan) [KendoInfo_Matsumoto]
  • If you are thinking about some sort of ideal or worldly thoughts then you can’t move freely.  If your spirit is like a mirror you will be able to respond to your opponents movements and execute techniques freely. – Morishima Tateo (Hanshi, 8 dan) [Kenshi247_Morishima4]
  • There’s a clarity of perception – the pureness of perception – that comes in when the conditioned (mind) is no longer operating. – Eckhart Tolle [Tolle, 3:57 min mark]

Otherwise, we may miss seeing opportunities to strike or may strike in the absence of such an opportunity.  For example, some, including myself, may tend to strike when “we” want to strike – while paying less attention to the state of the opponent and more attention towards ourselves.  Koda Kunihide (Kyoshi 8 dan) refers to this self-centered approach to kendo as “Wagamama kendo” or selfish kendo.*  Alas, why strike when the opponent seems ready to strike and has no apparent opening or vulnerability?

Other Aspects to How He Did It

There is a scientific angle which may explain O sensei‘s uncanny ability to strike me so early in the process of my initiating a strike.  There are neuroscience studies [Libet] [Soon] [Matsuhashi] which suggest that:

a person’s brain seems to commit to certain decisions before the person becomes aware of having made them. Researchers have found delays of about half a second or more. With contemporary brain scanning technology, scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice [Soon]. [Wiki_Neuroscience]

We may unconsciously decide and reveal our intention to strike before being consciously aware of our decision to initiate a strike.**

Of course there are many other ingredients to O sensei‘s remarkable ability to strike me just before I would even start to move:  his beautiful kamae, seme, footwork, speed… Nonetheless, “seeing” appears to be a most important component as reflected in this kendo proverb:

Sight first, legs second, guts third and power fourth.  一眼二足三胆四力 (ichi-gan ni-zoku san-tan shi-riki[Kendo-Guide_IchiGan] [KendoInfo_Enzan]

Some Tips to Develop Seeing

Here’s some tips from O sensei and others to help develop seeing in general and recognizing an opportune moment to attack:

  • With regards to seeing:
    • Make sure to release any tension in and around the eyes and to observe with Soft Eyes (also known as Effortless Seeing, Open Focus or Peripheral Vision) [KendoNotes SoftEyes] [KendoNotes_OpenFocus].
    • Section 12 “Me-no-Tsukekata (the way of perception) in [Noma, p. 28] describes this in more detail.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to do keiko with weaker opponents ~ Shoraku Takao (7 dan Kyoshi).
    • Practice observing the opponent while creating and sensing opportunities to strike and then striking at the “right” moment.
      • This is contrast to attacking whenever you might “feel” like it – especially when you could strike with ease or a high probability of success.
    • This exercise tends to be easier, of course, with weaker opponents and more difficult with stronger ones.
  • Take advantage of the time when serving as a motodachi and receiving strikes e.g. during uchikomi-geiko. ~ O sensei:***
    • Watch for the moment when the opponent is about to strike.
    • Also, watch “while” moving.
  • To develop the ability to intuit an opportunity to strike, O sensei recommended ai-kakari-geiko at varying distances or ma-ai.
    • This ability to “predict” opportunities beforehand is needed because “at  the  moment  of  seeing  an  opportunity  to  strike,  already  the  opportunity  no  longer  exists [Noma, pp. 50-51].”
  • When practicing with a high-level sensei (e.g. a 8 dan sensei), O sensei noted how he and many may be expected to initiate attacks (しかけるように)with less space for “observing.”
    • And that, in such situations, we can shift back to observing more if the sensei calls for a one-point match (ippon-shobu) or admonishes us for attacking indiscriminately.


I thank O and Shoraku sensei for their comments.

May you “see” more clearly.

(Continue to Part 2:  Reflections)

* Koda Kunihide (Kyoshi 8 dan) described this during the 2018 All United States Kendo Federation (AUSKF) Summer Camp (Thanks to Susan Zau sensei for sharing this with me.)  Wagamama means selfish, self-indulgent or childish in Japanese.

** I’d like to acknowledge a meditation colleague (Don) for pointing out to me this area of research.

*** This was O sensei’s response to my quandary on how I could develop the ability to simultaneously “observe” and “move” (to create opportunities to strike with seme and hikidasu).  Though I’ve had some success in doing one or the other, I have struggled with doing both in parallel.


[Kendo-Guide_IchiGan] Masahiro Imafuji, “Important Body Parts.  Ichi Gan Ni Soku San Tan Shi Riki”,

[Kendo-Guide_Looking] Masahiro Imafuji, “Enzan no Metsuke:  Looking at Distant Mountains,”

[KendoInfo_Enzan] Geoff Salmon, “Enzan no metsuke,”, Oct 13, 2010.

[KendoInfo_Matsumoto] Geoff Salmon, “The Aim of Kendo – by Matsumoto Toshio, Hanshi Kyudan,”, Feb 3, 2011.

[KendoInfo_Shikai] Geoff Salmon, “The four sicknesses “shikai” – is there a cure?” KendoInfo.Net, April 13, 2015.

[KendoNotes_OpenFocus] “Open Focus, Mushin and Kendo,” KendoNotes,com, May 3, 2016.

[KendoNotes_SoftEyes] “‘Soft Eyes,’ A Way of Seeing and Being – Quote and Resources,”, December 21, 2018.

[Kenshi247_Morishima4] George McCall, “From “Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 4),”, March 30, 2011.

[Libet] Benjamin Libet, “Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action,” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1985.

[Matsuhashi] Masao Matsuhashi, Mark Hallett, “The timing of the conscious intention to move,” Eur. J. Neurosci., (PDF, 19 pages), Dec 2008.

[Noma] Noma Hisashi (1910-1939), The Kendo Reader (PDF, 55 pages)

[Soon] Chun Siong Soon et al, “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain,” Nature Neuroscience – Brief Communications (PDF, 3 pages), 2008.

[Tolle] Eckhart Tolle, “All problems are illusions of the mind,” (9:34 mins).

[Wiki_Neuroscience] Neuroscience of Free Will, Wikipedia.

Copyright 2019

2 thoughts on “Really Seeing the Opponent and Opportunities to Strike – Part 1: “O” Sensei

  1. Erich March 5, 2019 / 3:15 am

    I was fortunate to play against Shoraku Sensei on Wednesday and he summed up our match with this advice. ” Always hold your kamae always,”


    • kiai March 5, 2019 / 3:35 pm

      This relates to patience, tame and “seeing”. Thank you for sharing that Erich.


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