Concerning Zanshin

In the past year, I have often been too busy to attend keiko regularly. Previously I have tried to maximize my physical output to make the most of my limited keiko time to maintain my level, however, I feel I have actually improved more by trying to do kendo with a focus on thought.  

Very recently I was surprised by a Sensei who practices less than me, who is older than me, and yet seemingly effortlessly, could strike me every time I moved. He was there every time I turned and was constantly catching me flat footed at tsubazeriai. It was immeasurably frustrating, all of my progress seemed lost, my kamae and footwork broken. 

"Zanshin" he said after practice, "you have to remain focused all the time". Of course it was a valuable learning experience, one that I hope I can build upon. 

Photo : source

What is Zanshin?

In most of our first lessons, it is thought as one of the key elements of a valid point. After striking, we push past our opponent and turn to face them, returning to a strong kamae in preparation for another attack and prepared for a counter-attack. We learn this finishing of a cut as Zanshin

Zanshin (残心) coming from the Japanese, [Nokoru (残る) To remain, to be left] and [(心) mind, spirit, thoughts], is usually defined as a mental state after striking. 

As we develop, we watch people strike each other and then stop, they wonder why they didn't get a point and we say "no Zanshin". We see someone strike kote, and then move with poor posture or week kiai and again say "no Zanshin". 

We watch clips of high level kendo players and imitate their (often flamboyant) posture and movement after striking, and our sempai say, "hey, nice Zanshin!". 

But what is Zanshin? Is it something we tag on to the end of our techniques, on top of Ki-Ken-Tai no ichi, to make it a valid strike worthy ippon? Is it a physical and mental posture adopted after a strike to show our control? It certainly isn't the strange shinai and head wagging that high-school players do, almost as if saying, that was ippon, you better believe it. 

Or is it a broader concept, something we need to constantly exert effort to maintain at all times during keiko. 

Two examples of Zanshin as posture
Photo : source

Gaining Experience

I was once berated by a sempai after I repeatedly hit his elbow while trying to cut do with no opening. He said my kendo was selfish, and that I didn't consider my opponent before cutting. He made me begin to think more about making my opponent react before striking. 

Fast forward a few years to my fourth dan test preparation, one of the questions was "What are the opportunities to strike in Kendo". Apart from the obvious debanna and hiki-bana, one piece that stuck out was watching for the moment when they either stop moving following an unsuccessful strike, or lose focus at tsubazeriai. 

As seems to be natural for me, I often have eureka moments when I read things like this. I finally figure out what has been tickling the back of my brain, and I realize that this is where people are scoring ippon on me.

Is it a natural progression for your subconscious mind to notice these things first before you can understand it?

With that concept in mind, I approached kendo with new motivation, aiming to be more aware of my focus, reducing when I was hit and hopefully catch some people off guard. I especially tried to break the one strike pattern of stopping after a hit. 

Results were mixed to say the least, and I am still learning and being learned (see opening paragraph).  


My current understanding of Zanshin is that it is not just something we do after a strike, but rather a constant state of mental concentration that we should aim to maintain at all times.

An article on the ever great by Geoff Salmon Sensei refers to another concept in relation to Zanshin: Kigame.  
Kigamae in everyday Japanese means mental position or approach. According to the AJKF Japanese English Dictionary of Kendo the meaning of kigamae is “the state where one’s entire body is alert and ready to react to the moves of the opponent’s mind and body that precedes a strike”.
So, I guess I am getting terms mixed up. But I'm sure that Sensei would agree, that what ever its called, we need to be constantly maintaining focus before, during and after a strike. 

My understanding and implementation of this idea is far from complete, but by watching those around me I have learned to spot moments where one player intentionally uses their opponents lack of concentration to take an opportunity to strike. I hope through practice, to be able to master this myself. 

If you have any comments or feedback, I welcome all input!

Thanks for reading!