38. Ken and Kan: Seeing and Feeling

There are many philosophical, mental and attitudinal elements in learning traditional, classical budo. More so, I think, when learning a koryu, which is much more intricately tied to traditional Japanese culture.

One of the concepts I think many of my own students still have a hard time wrapping their heads around is the notion of ken and kan, or literally translated, “seeing” and “feeling.”

To elaborate: in learning a traditional Japanese art, such as a koryu, there are things you can learn by “seeing,” i.e., through a visible, clear, rationalistic learning process, and things you need to learn to intuit, or “feel.”

Most of modern budo, although not all and not all teachers of modern budo, are often very good at the former teaching pedagogy. They take apart a kata or a method and in clear, logical terms, talk about the physical and technical structure of the movement and the results thereof. In large part, this rationalism is a reaction against what was perceived as a haphazard, archaic way of training that stereotyped the koryu when the modern budo were formulated.

To a degree, such criticisms of koryu might have been valid. But I have to wonder, after decades of training in both koryu and modern budo, if it’s a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There’s something to be said for developing a sense of intuition in martial arts.

The longer I train, the more I realize that there’s an ineffable, intuitive, inexplicable aspect to budo. I don’t mean the woo-woo mystical “wave your hands and the guy will fall down” mumbo jumbo. I mean aspects of a koryu martial art that are really, really hard to explain in logical, verbal terms, aspects that cannot quite yet be captured and exposed clearly in digital media such as videos, books or photographs. It’s a feeling. A mood. A kind of tension, timing and subtle movement, spacing and distancing that can best be felt, but not yet explained easily in words.

“Ken” comes from another way to pronounce the Japanese verb “to see,” miru. Seeing with one’s eyes is symbolic of logical, rational thought processes. You see a technique, you try to repeat it overtly with your own body movements. It’s all there in front of you to see.

In contrast, “kan” comes from the verb “kanjiru,” or “to feel, to sense.” In koryu, it’s not just a matter of physical aping. It’s a matter of understanding very subtle body dynamics, spacing, timing, rhythm, distancing, breath, angle of entry and evasion. I can explain these terms individually, but putting them all together into one seamless whole requires not just rational cognitive learning skills, but also a “sense” of how they fit. This calls for intuition, “feeling.”

This is not to denigrate the ability to see what’s in front of you clearly. It is to emphasize that the ability to learn rationally and empirically is just one component of the mental training process. The other necessary part is learning to develop one’s intuition.

It may be that the ability to ken and kanjiru are two sides of the same coin; the two are actually fluid terms, and the rational and intuitive need to flow one into the other, like the Yin and Yang of Taoist philosophy complimenting each other. You need both.

Indeed, I’ve seen where students have a hard time grasping the essentials; the basic, signature movements of the koryu school. If you can’t process which foot goes ahead of which foot, then all the intuition and “feel” in the world won’t help you. You need the rational, step-by-step essentials. But I’ve also seen cases where I’ve seen some students in my school and in other koryu demonstrate, and I’d turn to an acquaintance and we’d agree, “That guy has got the moves and order right, but he still hasn’t got it.”

–“IT” being that underlying “feel” of a true practitioner of the style, who can MOVE like a Takeuchi-ryu person, or a Shinto Muso-ryu Jo person, or a Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu person. Each koryu has a particular kind of fun’iki, or “feel,” and if you watch the really good practitioners, no matter how their own body morphology and personal character shapes their movements, there’s something about their kata that is imbued with the style. They got it. It’s in their heart as well as mind.  The person who doesn’t get it may have used half his brain to learn the moves, but he hasn’t used his other half of his brain to intuit the “feel” of the style.

In a way, it’s like listening to a computer voice try to read a line from Shakespeare. Computers nowadays are so powerful they do a decent job of being able to read text and turn it into acceptable audio readings. But computers, and even most people, still can’t compare to a trained Shakespearean actor reading the Bard’s lines. Both can read the text. But only the accomplished actor (so far) can raise the bare lines to heights of grandeur worthy of Shakespeare through his “feel” for the words and his experience, and knowledge of artistic timing, pitch, meter and rhythm.

So the danger some martial artists have is that they see their art as stopping at the workmanlike practicality of robotic movements.  They don’t “feel” the art yet. They need to get more Shakespearean.

13 thoughts on “38. Ken and Kan: Seeing and Feeling

  1. Wayne,

    Great job explaining something that is really hard to get across to some people. Even when someone does get the ‘feel’ in kata, it is often difficult to get this to transfer across to partnered work with an uke.

    Having said that, I still struggle to get that ‘feel’ myself. Those of us from technical backgrounds try to understand things by breaking it down in to its ‘mechanical’ components. Getting the ‘feel’ usually needs all the parts working together in unison, breaking it down can work against this.



    1. Stu,

      Same here. I’m still working towards getting it right myself; the only advantage I have is that I’m only a little ways ahead of my club mates, and I at least “see” what I need to strive for. “Breaking down” the parts has been a dilemma for me. I used to really take things apart and put them together for my students, who had a hard time grasping the whole of the forms, but I now also feel that too much “breakdowns” can lead to them looking robotic. I’m still not sure what the answer is…

  2. In my experience, many students won’t commit to something unless it “makes sense” to them intellectually. They keep trying to “get it” but won’t really let go… it’s always a “managed” performance. Until they totally commit, even though it doesn’t make sense, and be willing to learn from the mistakes, etc. they’ll never get the feel of the principles that are at work. There’s always a separation that’s palpable. Some seem to never get it, and, if they don’t quit, it suddenly happens. They always are amazed and say something to the effect, “I didn’t realize it was this easy.” Of course, it’s not that easy… until it is. Some students are naturally adept at intuitive feeling because that’s one of their primary tools in the way they see, feel, and experience all things. After all these years, I can spot them pretty quickly. As Stu wrote above, often the “brainy, tech types” seem to have a problem for quite awhile. It seems that they just won’t stop “watching” and commit to doing a hundred percent.

    These things of course, as Wayne wrote, are parts of the same whole and should be partners in our expression of our practice. At some point we aren’t just practicing… we’re doing and doing in a way that combines both ken, and kan as one intent.

    Wayne, I was thinking while reading your last piece and then the thought was clear during this one; please write about riai because I think using both ken/kan involves understanding riai. I look forward to your take on this.

    As usual, your insights about ken and kan and your writing skills blend to give a great picture (wouldn’t it be neat if your photography skills could produce another kind of picture!) to us all.

    Thanks again.


  3. I will second Chuck’s request for a piece about riai…that would be both enormously interesting and enormously helpful to me and the others in my aikido dojo.

    Wayne, thanks for all the writing over the years.

    Matt Fisher
    Allegheny Aikido
    Pittsburgh, PA

    1. Matt,

      You are most welcome, sir. I’ll do my best to make some comments on riai. Hopefully it will help, or at least not hurt!

  4. I’m struggling a bit with the Western way where a brilliant coach may not have been one of the best players of his generation…say, a Glen Sather who lead the Edmonton Oilers when Gretzky was a big deal. A journeyman player may possibly become a superlative coach and manager. It seems that in the koryu way of instruction, only the best of the best are worthy as teachers. Does mastery in a technical sense lend to one’s ability as an instructor?

  5. Todd,
    I’m not sure how to answer this succinctly, but in short, I believe that mastery in a technical sense does lead to ability as a koryu teacher. You have to be able to walk the walk because you are constantly demonstrating and leading by example. On the other hand, once you begin teaching, you have to develop teaching and coaching skills as well, which is different from sports, in which there is a clear distinction between a player and a coach, and quite different skills sets necessary for both. On the other hand, I don’t think “only the best of the best” are worthy. “Highly skilled” as well as “good teaching skills” would be a more ideal combination, at least as I see in my own koryu school. In fact, the higher one gets, the more expectation there is with regards to teaching ability, not just athletic and technical skills. That said, different koryu schools have different criteria for how they deign “mastery.” I can’t speak for all of them. This is really a subject for another blog, actually…

  6. Wayne,
    I really enjoy reading your blog.
    For some reason I especially enjoyed this entry, it’s kind of like an additional online lesson for me.
    Gives me something to think about over the long break.
    Keep up the good work. Have you ever thought of publishing this as a book?

  7. Dave,
    I’ve thought of this blog as the raw material for a book, but I’m not sure if it will get to that, given the vagaries of book publishing. But maybe one day…


  8. I’m almost caught up with your blog!

    This entry reminded me of something my sensei told me just this last Monday. He was telling me that I was picking up on the mechanics of one of our techniques very nicely, and that all I needed was the “magic” part. My probably-confused expression elicited a response from him in which he described the translation for the second word in jiu-jitsu, Jitsu (術) as having three possible meanings, “art, science, and magic.” He said that while some argue over which of the meanings is most appropriate for the martial art jiu-jitsu, he thinks it’s better to keep all three meanings in mind, as many Japanese words don’t have literal translations, but more of a “feeling translation.” In this case, his point was that jitsu was representing a combination of the meanings of art, science, and magic. Clearly, it’s a martial art. Clearly, there is an element of science (particularly anatomy and kinesiology) but that there is also what he called an element of “magic” to many of the techniques; Not hocus-pocus smoke-and-mirrors magic, but a less tangible, less explainable element that brings everything together. A part of the technique that the truly proficient practitioner not only makes look like magic to an observer, but in all likelihood can’t really explain or demonstrate effectively to another person… I believe he was explaining the same thing as the kan concept you were writing about.

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