Every year, the kendo community in Aomori conducts two tachikiri events. Tachikiri is often rendered in English as “stand all the way training.” Even has a long time practitioner of kendo, the first time I got to witness tachikiri keiko, I would have been tempted to describe it as “loser stays in” kendo training. Essentially what goes on in a tachikiri event is an individual is selected to take on multiple opponents in succession. The exact protocol for the event differs from location to location in Japan. In Aomori there is a younger person’s tachikiri in which two opponents take on thirty six opponents, and on a second occasion during the year, a senior tachikiri in which an older motodachi takes on twenty-four opponents. In this article, I will describe the protocols for these events and share the lessons I learned as an observer and participant (kakarite) in this unusual, lesser-known form of kendo training.
History, Selection of Motodachi and Objectives
According to my teachers, tachikiri has been practiced in Japan since the Tokugawa period. Some sensei have told me that back then tachikiri could be practiced continuously for as much as five days. I file this story away in the same file that I put the “when I was a kid, I used to walk ten miles to school every day, both ways up hill” sorts of stories. And having seen a 36 opponent tachikiri first hand, I have no reason to think it is humanly possible to do this for more than several hours. The 36 opponent junior tachikiri, in its present format has been conducted in Aomori since 2002.
[ Editor: the above story is of-course referring to Yamaoka Tesshu’s famed tachikiri ]
In Aomori, a committee selects the motodachi. The members of the committee include kenshi that have performed tachikiri in the past. The committee is chaired by the senior kenshi in the prefecture. Essentially the committee selects people who they know will not refuse the suggestion that they take part. Most of the members of the committee are nanadan and above, particularly the ones who speak out and make suggestions for people they might reach out to. Also, the group considers carefully whether the person is in good health, how often he practices, and whether they believe he can successfully complete the task. The committee also assembles the list of kakarite. Most motodachi for the senior event are in their late fifties or early sixties, and are active hachidan candidates. For the junior event, the motodachi are usually rokudan working towards nanadan, or young nanadan.
The tachikiri committee chairman explains the purpose as to engage in training so physically stressful that after a certain point it is no longer possible for the motodachi to rely on his physical reserves, and he must draw upon spiritual faculties. Specifically, he wrote in his greeting in the program for the 2010 junior tachikiri, “In tachikiri, the motodachi exceeds his physical limitations and enters a state where he does not have the leeway to think. He will engage his opponents unconsciously, with his spiritual strength, and he will begin to execute techniques that have no waste. This is the control of the self that humans possess subliminally, and is an example the mushin (無心) at work—the unity of heart, spirit and power (心気力一致).”
Senior Tachikiri Keiko
The senior tachikiri keiko is less elaborate in format than the junior event, so I will explain it first. First of all, this event is considered (and is named) a keiko, not a shiai. There is a person on the floor acting in a shimpan sort of role, but he does not award points. He essentially just helps to keep the participants from going out of bounds and gives signals to the timekeeper to make sure that the motodachi isn’t cheated out of the full five minutes of keiko with each opponent. Each match is five minutes long. There are generally about twelve kakarite, each one engaging the motodachi twice. When one of the participants goes out of bounds, breaks a shinai, snares a shinai in the dou himo, etc., the shimpan calls time to stop the clock. Since there are frequent brief time outs like this, and since it takes few seconds to go in and out of sonkyo, the entire event takes more than two hours (5 min x 24 opponenents). It takes about two hours and fourty-five minutes, or more.
Generally, a person is not invited to act as a kakarite unless he or she is godan or above. The first time I had the opportunity to witness senior tachikiri, I remember thinking at about the fourth or fifth kakarite point, “ok, I think I got the point.” That was at about the 25 minute point. I remember thinking at about 45 minute point, “OK, I think the motodachi got the point.” For this event, almost all of the participants know each other and practice with each other on a weekly if not daily basis. So I was particularly surprised by the ferocity with which some of the kakarite attacked the motodachi, in some cases repeatedly giving him taiatari against the wall, giving him tsuki while he was against he wall, etc. At times during the event I felt sleepy, but I remember thinking at that time, “how can I possibly feel sleepy at a time like this, when someone much older than me is under such physical and spiritual duress. I had to bite my tongue to keep from yawning at times. Particularly since all of my teachers were in the room. For me, a big part of the lesson I learned as an observer of senior tachikiri keiko was that what I know as suffering is nothing compared to the suffering that others have endured.
Junior Tachikiri Shiai
The junior tachikiri event is referred to as a shiai because it is just that, a competition between the two motodachi participants. Although this event in Aomori even has “three hours” in the Japanese title of the event, in practice it takes much longer for the participants to finish with each of their 36 opponents. The shiai aspect of the event is that each match is scored, and the winner of the event is selected by whoever has the largest number of overall wins. The matches take much longer than five minutes since the clock is stopped every time a valid point is scored. And the participants are brought back to the center of the shiaijou. There is no limit to the number of points that can be scored in a single match. In the event I witnessed, in some of the individual matches the score was 0 to 20 against the motodachi. The program for the event showed the statistics for the past events. The largest number of wins in the history of this event in Aomori was 24. The smallest was 4. One interesting point about the event in the year that the one participant only had 4 wins: The two participants that year were in their late forties, and neither of them took water during the course of the event. (Whether or not the motodachi took water is recorded.)
At first glance, one can tell that the junior tachikiri event is a very special day. The venue is decorated in the red and white vertical striped curtains one often sees at special events like kagami biraki. Every special guest, helper and adult associate of the participants was wearing a suit and tie. The organizers of the event had set up a break room of sorts for the kakarite in the adjacent judo dojo with sports drinks, onigiri, etc. as refreshments. Every possible thing was done to allow the kakarite to refresh themselves between matches. There were twelve of kakarite and two motodachi. The kakarite ranged in age from twenty-seven to forty-six, and in dan from godan to nanadan. More than half of them are active duty police officers or prison guards, some tokuren members. Each kakarite has six matches. A doctor (also a seasoned kendo practitioner) was in attendance during the entire event. When each motodachi finished (approximately four and one-half hours after the start of the first match) the doctor performed a physical exam on him. After the first two sets of twelve matches, each motodachi was given a one-minute break to adjust his himo.
It was extremely interesting to watch this event, to be able listen to people talking about it during, and to ask questions after its completion. At the event I witnessed in February of 2010, one participant was thirty-seven, and the other was forty-six. Both were rokudan. I was sitting immediately on the edge of the court with the thirty-six year old. One of my first observations was that the flourishy parts of his zanshin (the part where he energetically turned around and faced the opponent with a snappy, athletic return to his kamae) was gone half way through the fourth match. Towards the end of the event, his kiai was limited to the start of the match (only for some matches) and to when he was executing a strike. I also noticed that any vertical motion of his torso during fumikomi was utterly absent in the later matches.
What was even more entertaining to watch was the number of interesting, mean things that some of the kakarite did to the motodachi. “Mean” is certainly a [culturally] relative term, but I am certain that an observer not familiar with kendo and Japanese culture, would agree with my selection of the term. One of the kakarite consistently tried to taiatari, or in most cases, outright shove the motodachi into the guests table and out the door of the dojo. This same individual delivered countless tsukis to the motodachi, shoved him to the ground, and hit him repeatedly while he was on the ground. Most of the time when this was happening, the observers were laughing. The people laughing included not only the multiple hachidan sensei in attendance, but also the doctor and even the motodachi’s parents. At one point the motodachi on the court where I was sitting was shoved to the floor outside of the shiaijou right at his father’s feet. His father gave him a slap on the shoulder and pushed him back inside the white line. Periodically during the event I looked over at the motodachi’s mother to see what her expression might reveal. It is difficult to know what she was thinking or feeling without asking. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to ask.
One of the “mean” things that happened didn’t get any laughs. At one point, one of the particularly animated, aggressive kakarite broke the motodachi’s shinai. The situation was one where the motodachi kensaki got trapped underneath the kakarite’s arms, and momentarily got snagged on the kakarite’s mune. Rather than lift his arms and allow the motodachi to remove the shinai while stepping back, the kakarite brought his tsuka down horizontally, perpendicularly onto the middle portion of the shinai, breaking the motodachi’s right in two. The room was silent. Several weeks after event, I asked the teacher that had been the shimpan during that match why no one was laughing at that point. Interestingly, he “didn’t remember” the incident I described.
One particular kakarite really impressed me. He periodically wins the prefecture individual championship and is a graduate of a university that is very respected for its kendo program. Every time this kakarite attempted to strike the motodachi, his datotsu resulted in a valid point. It was captivating to watch. He absolutely annihilated the motodachi, from the first time he got to him to the last (third) time. But he did so artfully. He did few taiatari, and never tried to push the motodachi out of bounds. I also got the impression that he might have actually used every known waza and capitalized on every single opportunity to hit that he created or that arose. I found myself wondering which must be more challenging or more demoralizing for the motodachi, to face an opponent like this, or one who is more brutal.
The treatment of the motodachi after the last match has ended is a stark contrast to the treatment they receive during the event. As soon as the motodachi stand up from the last sonkyo, two officials run out to him and physically support him as he walks off the shiaijou. They remove his bogu, and place a screen around him while he receives a medical check up. He is given water, and is carefully observed in these minutes after the event. About fifteen minutes later the awards and closing ceremony begin. Both participants receive gifts. I was puzzled to learn during the planning stages that one of the gifts is ten kilograms of fresh eggs. One the opportunity arises, I plan to ask one of the participants what they do with so many eggs. They also receive many liters of sports drinks, and some other memorabilia. Kenshi who successfully complete the task are also allowed to purchase a special dou that has the image of Mount Iwaki embroidered in the mune. I was surprised to learn that they do not have it purchased for them. They are only given the privilege of purchasing it. Those that do purchase it only wear it on oshogatsu (for hatsugeiko) and [I suspect—I need to confirm this] when they participate in the Kyouto Taikai.
Lessons and Recommendations
After witnessing the event, I had a lot of questions. Since my the members of my dojo are all organizers and former motodachi and kakarite for tachikiri, I was able to get plenty of good answers to my questions. One gentleman that I practice with frequently was the motodachi from the first (2002) junior tachikiri, the motodachi that had only 4 wins. I was very curious about the impact the day’s effort had on his health. I was surprised to hear from him that he didn’t feel particularly sore the day after, or two days after. He said that what surprised him most was that he said he was unable to sleep. I asked him whether that was because he was getting woken up because of muscle cramps. He explained that the reason he couldn’t sleep was that he was far too stimulated mentally by the experience. I asked him to describe the effect that the experience had on his kendo. He replied that there was definitely an immediate positive effect. He described is as feeling like he had a stronger base. He used the term “koshi ga shikkari suwatte ita.” (More rigidly translated, “hips are more firmly sitting down / anchored.” ) He caveated this however by adding that the effect seemed to have a shelf life, so it didn’t last forever.
I think that just observing this made my kendo better. At a very minimum, it gave me awareness that my paradigm about my physical capabilities is just that—a paradigm, and that it can be easily shattered by an experience specifically geared for that purpose. It also gave me a strong desire to participate in tachikiri, just from the sheer honor of being selected to be a kakarite. As far as being a motodachi, another thought that I had, based entirely on my personal knowledge of the bacgrounds of the kenshi that have been motodachi, is that one is probably only capable of making it through this ordeal if one has several consecutive years of horrific kangeiko and shochuugeiko under one’s belt. Not as if those experiences in any way can physically prepare one for thirty-six consecutive opponents. I don’t believe that there is anything one can do physically to prepare for this other than make sure one is hydrated at the start. (The organizers stack the deck in favor of the motodachi on this parameter by conducting the event in February.)
But I was left with the motivation to think of ways I can work towards the benefits of tachikiri in my daily practice. One thing that is key is to get used to taking opponents one after another for an extended period of time. This is difficult in Japan as an adult, if one is (as is usually the case if one is a foreigner) a more junior person. More than likely, most of one’s time in the dojo as an adult, working person is going to be spent in lines waiting. Here is a summary of my recommendations:
- Try to attend a practice regularly where the group does mawari geiko.
- Participate in kihon, even if you are the leader of the group. Make kihon be in a rotational format, rather than in lines, if space allows, and if your position in the group allows you to make such an adjustment.
- If you are unable to go to an adult practice where they do mawarigeiko, go to a high school or even a junior high school practice where you can be a motodachi for the children during jigeiko.
- Don’t avoid kakarigeiko. Make an effort to ask for it. Even if your senior opponents don’t make a practice of giving it, ask for it at the end of every jigeiko.
- Always go to the shortest line after you have finished with the senior person or the person from whom you want keiko the most.
- If you are in a position to run the practice, actually conduct tachikiri keiko, but do so with full attention to the motodachi’s (or your, if you’re going to be the motodachi) state of health and hydration.
- Make every exchange in every keiko count, regardless of the level of your opponents.
I close this article with a thought that I had when watching tachikiri keiko the first time, a senior tachikiri where the motodachi was a fifty-eight year old hachidan candidate. I was standing in the corner of the dojo operating a video camera, and he tachikiri committee chairman (also the senior kenshi in Aomori) was sitting on the floor next to me laughing and chatting with whomever happened to be sitting next to him. At one point I heard him say something like, “hmmm, should I just intervene and stop this? I’m not sure he’s going to make it.” What this comment made me think of was the nature of kindness. In this situation, would it be a kind gesture to step in and stop the ordeal? Or would doing so be such an emotional let down that the mental detriment to the motodachi would outweigh the physical damage he might be receiving? Seeing some of the more violent people in action at the junior tachikiri made me think of the same thing. Based on the mental gains that people get from this experience, I think that the physical trauma that one endures during the event is actually a rare gift.