Elements of Seme

Many martial artists have heard of the concept of seme ().  While the application of the concept varies depending on the type of budo under discussion, the term itself means an attack; or, alternatively, to point to the idea of taking the initiative in an encounter.  Some posts I have read on line consider seme to be perception - a sense that there will be an opening or weakness in an opponent's defense that an opponent can exploit.  Kendoka I have talked with suggest seme is simply an opening in the opponent's defense, an opportunity for attack.  Both kendoka and karate practitioners suggest that seme is psychological pressure exerted on an opponent that precedes a (successful) attack.

One of my colleagues suggested that seme has three elements: Ito (), monogoshi () and metsuke ().  I had never heard of the concept being broken down quite in this way, so I decided to investigate.

Ito means "intention."  In the budo sense, ito could refer to that sense of pressure referred to above.  After all, the opponent can't just arbitrarily feel pressure (at least, not if he is an opponent with some experience).  That sense of pressure must come from somewhere.  If a kendoka or karateka walks onto the mat or floor with the idea of creating a sense of dread in her opponent, ito is how that sense might be described.  How to communicate that sense of intention (which in turn creates pressure) might be done in terms of the other two elements (see below).

Monogoshi means "bearing" or deportment.  I personally think this is one of the very difficult aspects to understand, let alone accomplish.  My colleague suggested that as an element of seme, monogoshi referred, specifically, to noble bearing; in other words, a sense of confident dignity.  There is so much to unpack in this idea, and, to be honest, I think it does not especially belong to the world of karate or kendo competition, having so little to do with the idea of "pressuring" an opponent, or taking the initiative to attack.  I can only think of an example (and perhaps not a very good one).  Many years ago, a former colleague told me about his kungfu  teacher with whom he practiced in NYC's Chinatown in the 1970's.  The way, at the time, in which an upstart teacher could make a reputation for himself as an effective fighter was to show up at another's school and challenge the teacher and/or senior students to a match.  The winner would generally retain and perhaps acquire more students if he was the teacher being challenged.  However, if the challenger won, the losing teacher would lose students instead.  Since this also involved matters of "face," the challenged teacher could not refuse, and the damage to his reputation if he did not win could possibly go beyond the headcount as well, depending on the circumstances.

In this case, the teacher was an older gentleman and the challenger a relative youngster.  It almost goes without saying that the challenger won the match and walked off with the majority of the students.  The older teacher, however, continued to teach, and I remember my friend at the time pointing out the location of his school, still operating more than a decade later.  It seemed that, though the established teacher had "lost," he may have actually won, in the sense that the students who were attracted only to the challenger's youth and strength disappeared, while the students who were more interested in wisdom and skill remained.

Perhaps a better example would be the story of the tea master.  A tea master was traveling with the daimyo, and (for some reason) was dressed as a retainer.  While on the journey, he ran afoul of a rogue samurai.  The ronin challenged him to a fight to the death, to take place the next morning.  The tea master was not a swordsman, and, though he did not fear death, he was concerned that if he died without dignity it would embarrass the daimyo.  A fellow retainer taught him the proper protocol of how to prepare for the duel, thus putting the tea master's fears to rest.  The next morning, the ronin went to the appointed place, and the tea master (still dressed as a retainer) was waiting for him.  The ronin wanted to fight, but the tea master insisted on following the protocol for removing his haori jacket, etc. that the retainer had taught him.  He performed this task with so much grace and concentration that the ronin was mistakenly convinced the tea master must be a great swordsman and began to fear for his life.  The ronin ran away before the tea master had finished preparing himself for what he assumed would be an honorable death.

In both of these cases, the idea of monogoshi elevated both the kungfu teacher and the tea master.  While the second story is apocryphal, both stories suggest that a sense of dignified comportment is a useful skill worth cultivating.

If monogoshi is a complicated idea, metsuke is a somewhat controversial one.  It's controversial not in the sense that one should keep one's gaze on one's opponent, but in where that gaze should rest.  In some forms of budo, metsuke is supposed to center below the face, in the upper chest area.  There are several sound reasons behind this idea.  By not gazing directly into the eyes of the opponent, you can still see his every move as well as be able to detect a certain amount of random movement around him.  It's also been suggested to me that focusing on the opponent's movement in this way obscures your own intention.  In other practices, not looking your opponent in the eye is considered a mistake, and perhaps even an insult.  Many years ago I took a naginata seminar with a senior teacher.  We were practicing our kata while she came down the line and practiced with each of us in turn.  Suddenly we were startled by her shrieking at one of the seminar students, chasing him down the floor.  He had refused to look her in the eye, even though she had instructed him to look at her several times.  She explained to me later that not engaging her eyes as his teacher and training partner meant that he was not paying attention to anything she might do, and she proved it by suddenly attacking him.  I believe after that he never looked away from her again!

With apologies to my colleague, I am still considering how the elements of ito, monogoshi and metsuke combine to form seme, given the definition above.  Each element is worthy of developing on its own.  Certainly these elements would contribute to a successful attack in the budo sense.  Monogoshi, on its own, could open doors in life as well as on the dojo floor.  Perhaps that is really what he meant.

Special thanks to Ismael Franco Sensei of Tora Dojo in Rochelle Park, NJ for pointing out the elements of seme.


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