Sequencing your kendo DNA

(this article mentions kendo specifically, but can apply to any budo)

I often get email from people abroad wishing to join Eikenkai or Yoseikai pracises when travelling through Osaka, and the odd email about people wishing to look for dojo in places outside of the Kansai area. The usual format is “Hello, my name is X and I am Y grade.” After that I may get more information, for example where they practise, the duration of their experience, and – less commonly – their teachers name. People with experience in training in Japan, however, find that when first entering a dojo they are usually asked these questions in the reverse order, i.e. the initial question asked is “who is your sensei?”

Over the net, if someone tells me their age, duration of experience, and grade I can make a pretty good guess of where I think they should/may be technically. Generally. However, this is just what it is: a guess. I can’t possibly know how they do kendo or – more importantly – their attitude to it. This is where telling me your teacher becomes very important. If I know your teacher – either personally, through word of mouth, or reputation – its a much better indicator to me about your method, style, and purpose for practising, which is arguably more important than simply how good you are. Even if you are not so experienced now, if your teacher is well thought of then I know that you are going in the right direction. These people – i.e. those I can easily profile – I am more inclined to spend more of my time to help out. In the same vein, I know that the initial treatment you receive when attending a new dojo in Japan can be affected (both positively and negatively) depending on your answer to the initial “who is your sensei?” question.

Of course there are many times when people mention instructors whom I don’t know, and at that time mentioning your teachers-teacher can be useful. Since I study mainly under a couple of teachers, one being relatively well known (in Japan) the other not so, I often qualify the other sensei when I go to a new place by telling a little bit about his background.

How many people actually know their teachers teacher and what qualifies as a ‘teacher’ anyway? These questions might seem sudden, but they are an important part of this discussion. Let me tackle these questions in reverse.

A teacher is someone you learn from and study under for a (somewhat long) duration. Someone – at least in the earlier stages of your kendo career – you simply copy. If they are a good teacher you will never outgrow them. They should hopefully also be someone who has reached a proper teaching level. It follows that I do not – and I hope you don’t either – consider someone my teacher if I do kendo with them at seminars once or twice a year, even if that spans multiple years or even decades (if they are Japanese then they almost certainly don’t consider me their student in that situation anyway, despite what I or you may wish to believe).

Your teachers teacher is obviously someone that your teacher spent many years studying under, and is possibly someone who you have never met. What good is it knowing about them anyway? If your teacher is serious he/she probably limited themselves to a small number of instructors and studied under them for a good many years. What they learned from their teacher is what they imparted to you. So your teachers teacher has, in effect, influenced your own kendo as well (fundamentally so). So when someone asks you “who is your sensei?” or “whats your experience?” its not only much more useful (to the experienced questioner) but may even be more ‘correct’ (in a traditional manner) to tell them not only your immediate teacher, but your teachers teacher as well (especially if your teacher is not well known). If you list a few dojo’s or multiple names (or heaven forbid, you can’t think of anyone who you would gladly call your ‘sensei), then I’d say you’ve not just gone of on a dangerous tangent, but you are not doing ‘Kendo,’ at least in an orthodox manner.

Kendo is – as I’m sure you don’t need a reminder of – a physical tradition that is taught not through websites, books, and certainly not through video, but is a living tradition taught and learned physically and verbally. If knowing your teachers teacher is to (start to) know your own roots, then it follows that not having a teacher means you have no base.

Unnatural selection a.k.a. the bespectacled watchmaker

Like a lot of people when I was in my teens I often wondered if the strange people living in my home were actually my relatives – their ideas seemed so alien to me I suspected that I might have been adopted!!! As a poor student living hand to mouth I was often bitter about being born in a family that was far from wealthy. As you can guess, I was (am?!) quite an ungrateful son! We can’t choose to whom we are born nor (at the moment anyway) whats going to pop out in the maternity wing. Luckily, kendo-wise, we DO have the ability to choose, for want of a better word, our parent(s) and our genealogy.

What we are taught and study in the dojo is simply the physical (and verbal) teachings of generations of instructors. From your teacher you simply inherit what they were taught and these teachings are, if you will, part of your kendo DNA. Naturally, choosing a ‘bad’ teacher leads to a dubious (even bleak at times) future.

So when you go to new hospital or visit a new doctor and you are asked about any congenital conditions in your families background, maybe you will recall your first visit to a Japanese dojo when they asked you “Who is your sensei?”


Addendum

Obviously peoples learning experiences and situations are different. Some people may not even be interested in their teachers teacher or further down the line. But for those of us that take the study of kendo seriously, researching and discovering your roots is, I believe, vitally important.

The kanji for KEIKO means – as everyone knows – to ‘reflect’ on the ‘past.’ One basic meaning of this is ‘repetition’ – to repeat what you have (and your teacher, and their teacher, and… has) done before, polishing and refining it.

I remember *Ken-Zen dojo’s Ebihara-sensei stop and tell the class one day:

“Everything you do in the dojo has been done before. You might think you have made up some new technique or strategy for attacking but thats rubbish. Its all been done before. Just repeat kihon. This is keiko.”

(I paraphrase – I have a strong memory of the scene and the gist of what was said, but not the exact words. I was a young and immature kendoka in Ken-zen in the mid/late 90s… I hope my understanding of Ebihara-sensei’s words are correct, in content if not in words.)

kenshi247 selected articles

Presenting our first publication – kenshi247: selected articles 2008-2011. Available online now in printed (20 USD) or digital (10 USD) version it contains over 20 of the best kenshi247 published articles, revised and reformatted. Printed in America using Hewlett-Packard’s MagCloud POD service you can pay with credit card or paypal. If you choose the printed version there are a number of delivery options available.

Please click on the image below or in the side-banner (or here) to see a full preview and to purchase.

kenshi247: selected articles 2008-2011

By George McCall

50 pages, published 4 DEC 2011

A collection of the best kendo articles from kenshi247.net spanning 2008-2011.

Contents:

1. About kenshi247
2. Kenshi (swordsmen): Takano Sasaburo; Fujimoto Kaoru; Takizawa Kozo; Ikeda Yuji; Furuya Fukunosuke; Kendo no kata creators.
3. Oshie (teachings): The reality of seme – Furuya Fukunosuke; Kendo Is – Sawaki Kodo; The Concept of kendo – Nishino Goro.
4. Waza (techniques): Kobayashi Mitsuru hanshi’s katatezuki; Dead or dying.
5. Shinsa (gradings): A brief investigation of the shogo system; How to pass hachidan (2 versions).
6. Extras: The formation of reiho in modern kendo; Some naming guidelines.
7. References and sources.


Why publish something now?

From the start kenshi247.net has always been free and will remain so in the future as well. All the articles in the publication above are still available online for you to enjoy completely free. So why bother? Basically, I had 2 reasons why I decided to publish now:

1. Over the years I’ve had many people ask ‘how do I donate?’ or ‘how can I support you?’ an answer to which I’ve never really had. Rather than just accept money, I thought I’d collate some of the articles for posterity and give people the chance to donate by buying them. Any profit made will go into hosting and domain costs and theme purchasing. If a miracle happens and 10 million copies are sold then I’ll build a dojo!

2. Next year I am aiming to publish at least 2 kendo books, one is a completely original book written by yours truly, and the other is a top secret translation piece. This ‘selected articles’ is a sort of dry run for these. I have never published anything online before, and never done any book design or what have you, so this is all new to me.


Some pictures


Thanks!

Just a final word of thanks to the kenshi247 readers out there. Hopefully we can continue to produce interesting and informative content (online and in print) for many years to come!!!

Cheers,
– George
Osaka, December 2011.

Kamae equation

The prerequisite of beautiful kendo is a beautiful kamae

The importance of developing a good kamae is stressed by every kendo instructor that you meet: without a correct kamae, many sensei state categorically, you cannot do correct kendo. Only once your kamae is correct can this lead to execution of correct technique (and thus “beautiful” kendo). It naturally follows, then, that a kamae that is flawed can only lead to flawed strikes, even if the execution is fast and strong.

But what is a correct kamae?

Although I could easily show you a diagram of the definition of a “correct” kamae, the fact of the matter is that individuals develop their own kamae based on their own body characteristics through years of experience. The length of peoples arms and legs, their height and frame, the length of their trunk in comparison to their legs, etc etc, all these parameters are part of what I will call the kamae-equation.

As an individuals kendo career advances, they undoubtedly change their kamae many times. This is a natural part of kendo growth and teachers should not only encourage their advanced students to think deeply about their kamae, but be considerate of individuals physical differences. We should also be aware of physical changes that occur over time and there impact on an individuals kendo. For beginners or less-experienced students, however, its best to try to fix their kamae into a single style until they get more experienced.

The following will not attempt to explain or expand on the above in full, but simply look at a single difference that can be explored when studying kamae. Its up to you as an individual to research further.

Chudan-no-kamae

Walking into a dojo today, each sensei has their own (based on experience) kendo style including, naturally, their own kamae. Even though this is the case, we can say that, very broadly, chudan-no-kamae falls into one of two main – and equally acceptable – types:


From l-r (all sensei are hanshi 9dan): Ota, Shigeoka, Ono, Nakakura

* Straight kamae (chudan-no-kamae)

As you can see by looking at the first 2 sensei in the picture above, their body is straight on, hips are square, and the shinai/sword is pointing directly straight. This style is universally taught to children and beginners, and is the way you must kamae in kendo-no-kata. This is by far the most common way to kamae for the general kenshi.

* Open kamae (seigan-no-kamae)

Looking at the last 2 sensei in the picture above you can easily see that their body is slightly open to the left (hips are diagonal, left foot is sometimes slightly splayed), their left fist is moved to the left, and their shinai is pointing to the right. This is very common kamae seen in elder and/or more experienced kenshi in Japan (I sometimes see it in very good high-school and university level kenshi as well). This is almost probably the more classical or orthodox shape of what we refer to as “chudan” nowadays.

Although I referred to this open kamae as “seigan-no-kamae” above, this nomenclature has fallen out of general use in recent years (or is sometimes used to describe the shape taken when facing a jodan kenshi*). In fact, either of these kamae can correctly be called ‘chudan.’

* this is sometimes called ‘kasumi(-no-kamae)’ but this branding is, it seems, a product of internet forums.

Chudan type vs center line

Commonly the ‘center’ is usually taken to be the line of extension from your kensen to (usually) the vertical line from your opponents forehead down to their stomach/abdomen. ‘Semeai’ is the battle to see who can control this line and, by extension, be in the best position to execute a successful strike. This works fine for the general chudan described above, but for seigan the extension of the kensen tends to be from the opponents left eye, down the left side of their body to their stomach/abdomen. It naturally follows that semeai will be slightly different in this state.

Another often heard explanation is that the ‘center’ is not a line, but a (sometimes triangular) ‘zone’ in which you can freely move your kensen in order to pressure your opponent.

Either way, the ‘center’ is generally a nebulous thing, with a strong psychological element as well as physical aspect attached, the understanding of which only comes after years of training (not that I understand it of-course!!).

Chudan vs Seigan

As a teacher of kendo who is still very much first and foremost a student himself it is, I believe, worthwhile thinking about who uses which type of kamae and why, and which shape leads to easier use of what waza. Not just that, however, I also believe its important to consider your own and your students kendo in total (e.g. age, experience, body type, etc) when it comes to studying kamae and what springs from it (seme(ai) and the execution of techniques, etc). In this way you can develop a correct kamae that fits the individual, and by extension bringing yourself and them closer to our goal of correct and (thus) beautiful kendo.

Summary?

Although this small article is called kamae-quation I didn’t expand the description on that part on purpose. I also chose not to talk about other elements that spring up from the description on chudan types, for example the difference in semai. This to was done on purpose. Japanese kendo manuals are replete with the terms “kenkyu” and ‘kufu” (to research, study, and work things out by yourself), i.e. the final responsibility for the kendo that we do is ourselves. In that way, I offer no summary here, just (maybe) pause for thought.

Kakashi jodan 案山子上段

There are some people that take jodan-no-kamae whilst sparring their sempai or sensei. Jodan is about overpowering the enemy and forcing their technique, spirit, and power to cower before yours, all the while unreservedly attacking any of their openings wholeheartedly (sutemi). To reach the point where you can do this requires a long and arduous training regime. Even skilled masters take 30 or 40 years after first putting on their bogu to reach this level… so its only really these people that are ready to take jodan. People that try jodan without first reaching this level have a kamae that is completely open to attack and – whether they are on the attack or are attacking – they just look clumsy. Their attacks are strangely groping-like, relying only on luck and good fortune for success. This type of jodan has been called KAKASHI-JODAN from a long time ago.

(‘kakashi’ means someone who takes the outward form of something for the sake of status or pride despite their lack of ability to do the thing they say or attempt to do. It can also refers to scarecrows – they look human, but they aren’t.)

It we gathered all the current active hanshi and split them into 4 groups and ask each “What do you think makes good jodan?” we’d have a lot of discussion on the matter… jodan is that difficult to master.

In other words, it is only superior level kenshi should be taking it up and beginners or low-skilled people using such a prestigious kamae against their sensei or sempai are simply rude. For people that wish to make their opponents look foolish (i.e. use the kamae in order simply to strike their opponents, win at shiai, or to get prestige and look cool through using it) I want to tell you that this is an unacceptable attitude.

Even if our partner is of the same level we are taught to say “GO BU-REI SHIMASU” (‘I’m being impolite’) before taking jodan; people using the kamae must fully understand why they say this.

My point is that there are many more important things worthy of study than simply the desire to hit people, and I want you to think of and work on these things instead. I’ve other things to say on the matter but I’ll leave it here. I hope this can be of some aid.

– Nakayama Hakudo


Editors comment

The above small piece is Nakayama Hakudo’s comments on jodan. He has a particularly strong opinion on who is eligible to practise jodan. Takano Sasaburo, senior to and probably a more influential kenshi than him, forced all of his students at Tokyo Shihan Gakko to practise jodan in their 3rd year of school (he was training people to be kendo teachers however). As a hanshi active at the same time as Nakayama, he serves to illustrate a different approach than the one above.

Although the era and the style of kendo in which Nakayama wrote the above is different from ours, it doesn’t take a close inspection of youtube to see that many people attempt jodan far to early on in their careers (never mind nito…). Kakashi jodan, as Nakayama would recognise it, is sadly still very alive today.


Sources

中山博道剣道口述集。堂本昭彦 (原者:中山善道・稲村栄一)。スキージャーナル株式会社。2007年発行。

Some naming guidelines

One of the turning points in a budoka’s lifetime is when he or she is given teaching responsibilities. This is not a sudden thing of-course, and they are expected to continue study under their sensei (and sempai) for years to come. Eventually the budoka becomes a senior teacher and may either take over their sensei’s position or even leave to start a new group. This is of-course an orthodox/ideal path. Some people are suddenly found – for no reason other than chance – that they have to become a leader of a group, or – for more personal reasons – decide to start a group earlier than expected*.

When a new group is started one of the first things to decide is what you call yourselves. Unfortunately, in the Japanese budo community today (across many martial arts) there are some strange names in use. Usually this is through no fault of their own, but simply a lack of Japanese language skills. In the internet age it should be easier to do some research into whats-good-and-whats-strange, and with more people coming to Japan to study budo (and the language) I imagine group-naming will improve.

Personally I have been involved in inheriting a group suddenly, have created my own group, and have been involved in advising people on what to call their new groups over the past few years. Although I cannot tell you what to name your own group, hopefully this small article can help you choose a name – if you choose to use something Japanese – that won’t cause potential awkwardness in the future (believe me, I’ve seen it!).

Note that I’ve used ‘group’ throughout the introduction, the reason for which will become clear below.

* You cannot open a new group under the auspice of the Osaka kendo federation unless you are nanadan


Before we even start to talk about what to call your group, the easiest thing to determine is which SUFFIX you should use. Budo groups in Japan follow some pretty standard rules, so lets have a look at some good examples to explain what I mean:

Mid 19th century-pre-war schools:

tobuKAN (Ozawa Torakichi. Built 1874.)
shumpuKAN (Yamaoka Tesshu. Built 1882.)
museiDO (dai-yon kotogakko bujutsu dojo. Built 1887)
meishinKAN (Takano Sasaburo. Built 1890.)
Waseda daigaku gekkikenBU (Naito Takaharu. Founded 1897)
butokuDEN (Butokukai. Built 1899.)
shudogakuIN (Takano Sasaburo. Built 1918.)
Noma DOJO (Noma Seiji. Built 1925.)

Modern kendo/iaido/etc schools and spaces (I’ve used those that I am involved in):

yoseiKAI (Osaka)
eikenKAI (Osaka)
sumiyoshi budoKAN (Osaka)
nippon budoKAN (Tokyo)
edinburgh kendo CLUB (Edinburgh)

Suffixes are split into two types, depending on your relationship to your physical structure/keiko space:

    1. Physical structures

KAN

The kanji 館 (kan) refers to a hall or building, usually of large size. Originally it referred to a guesthouse/eatery. KAN is used in everyday Japanese in words like bujitsuKAN/hakubutsuKAN (art/history museum), toshoKAN (library), bunkaKAN (cultural centre), etc etc.

Budo-wise, if you are using KAN then you should be referring to a solid, unmoving building, probably – but not necessarily – large. Inside this structure you could have a single keiko space, or many; multiple groups (with different names) could be using it.

IN

The kanji 院 originally designated a larged fenced structure but has over time come to means something that is connected with the state (including schools and hospitals), and includes religion. In everyday Japanese you can see this in byoIN (hospital), daigakuIN (graduate university), and the names of scores of temples, e.g. byodoIN in Kyoto.

Budo-wise its similar to KAN above but has a more spiritual or educational sounding quality to it. Perhaps it is connected to a religious facility or/and also offers education classes of some sort.

DEN / TO

Den 殿 and TO(DO) 堂 also refer to specific halls or structures, but nowhere as large as KAN or IN above. TO has basically no other meaning than “hall” but DEN can refer to military barracks.

Budo-wise these suffixes are the least used, especially nowadays.

DOJO

The meaning of dojo 道場 has a few connotations in the English language now and has its own usage that is different from Japanese, which makes explanation here difficult. Let me try and explain it from an ex-pat living in Japans view.

The original term is said to have come from Buddhist terminology (translated from Sanskrit to Chinese), and refers to the location where Shakyamuni reached enlightenment. After that it was used in China for a period to refer to temples and from there eventually came into Japan via Buddhism.

The use of the term in the budo community is said to have started only in the Meiji period (1868+), before then places to keiko were simply called keiko-BA (場) or keiko-location/spot. There was no mysterious or psychological connotations in the BA usage, so whomever decided to first use the term DOJO probably had a more esoteric goal in sight. Its important to note that the JO in doJO and the BA in keiko-BA are the same kanji.

In Japan nowadays, a dojo is used to refer to a place where some sort of study is taking part. Like using the verb KEIKO (稽古 practise of something that requires a ‘more’ ascetic training) instead of RENSHU (練習 physical or mental practise of something), saying your are going to do “yoga KEIKO at the DOJO” sounds more esoteric and cool… almost like you are putting in more effort. There are even English conversation dojo’s nowadays.

So, budo-wise, a dojo has come to mean a physical location where you practise (keiko) your art (or follow your “way”). However, almost no group calls themselves “X-DOJO” unless its a physically location privately owned by an individual or a family, e.g. Noma Dojo or the nickname for Chiba Shusaku’s Genbukan, Chiba dojo.

A large structure (i.e. a KAN or an IN) may have multiple dojo inside it with different names. Large sports centres in Japan (and many schools/universities) often have 1 or 2 dojo built in, usually called “Number 1 dojo” and “Number 2 dojo” (or “big” and “small”) or sometimes “kendo-JO,” “judo-JO,” or “budo-JO” (the only difference usually being if tatami is down or not).

As you can see here, there are 2 things happening here: a) a ‘dojo’ as a physical unmoving space, and b) a ‘dojo’ as some sort of conceptual place to practise a ‘way.’ Its my believe that the latter is a very modern construct, perhaps born out of the fact that many groups no longer own their own space now.

Anyway, even if you don’t own your practise space, its still common to call it a dojo but you wouldn’t call your group that.

    2. Groups

Unless you practise kendo in a privately owned physically location then you fall into this category.

KAI (club)

Almost every group who practices a martial art in Japan but that doesn’t own their practise space calls their group x-KAI (会). Its by far and away the most common suffix in use for not only budo clubs, but many many other types of association or even one-of assemblies (e.g. taiKAI). Its also relatively common in Japan to use the term クラブ (club) to refer to a group. There is absolutely no difference in the terms KAI and CLUB.

KAI’s often practise in physical keiko spaces as described above, but also school or sport centre kendo-JO’s, gymnasiums etc.

Popular variations on KAI are x-KEN-YU-KAI (x剣友会) and x-KEIKO-KAI (x稽古会). KEN is obviously, the YU portion is the kanji for friend. Keikokai have a more friendly, relaxed feel to it… like a group of friends who get together without for a bash (with no instruction).

If you have a group (KAI/CLUB) that teaches, for example, both kendo and iaido then you may have an umbrella KAI-name for your group, and then a kendo-BU and iaido-BU under that (see below).

BU

The kanji 部 simply means “department” or “club/team” and is almost always used to refer to groups in schools, universities, and business. e.g. Panasonic kendo-BU or Tokyo University kendo-BU. They may or may not practise in a fixed physical location. e.g. The Imperial guards kendo-BU in Tokyo practise in SaineiKAN, but the Sogo-keibi-kendo-BU (a well known security guards team) in Osaka rotate around different sports centres, some dojo called “Number 1” and others with names.

KYOSHITSU / JUKU

Kyoshitsu (教室) is a basic term that means “class(room).” Although not as popular as KAI you do see x-kendo-kyoshitsu now and then, and it usual infers teaching children.

Juku (塾) is another seldom used term that insinuates some sort of coaching going on. In daily Japanese it simply refers to the cram schools that students commonly go to after school.


Suffix done, what about the rest?

Ok, so thats the easy bit done: you’ve decided on x-KAI or whatever, but what do you put before that? When thinking of a name, many groups naturally want to use Japanese. Thats great but it can be fraught with difficulties. The best bet is to ask an experienced Japanese teacher for some naming possibilities or ask someone who is fluent in Japanese to do some research. Remember individual kanji can have multiple meanings as well as readings, and its always best to check that the meaning in Japanese AND Chinese is ok, as they don’t always match. What you pick is ultimately your decision, so choose wisely.

The first situation where I was involved in name-choosing was when I (suddenly and unexpectedly) inherited what was to become Edinburgh Kendo Club. The current name of the club was a nice Japanese one, but after searching on the internet I found quite a few places (across different martial arts) with the same name. So – after some research and chatting to my Japanese kendo friends – I renamed the club simply to “Edinburgh Kendo Club.” In Japanese I simply changed the CLUB to KAI… which I probably didn’t need to! The club name now did exactly what it says on the tin. Another group I named is Eikenkai (the 英 taking the double meaning of me being British and also that many members speak English). Over the years I’ve helped in the naming of a few groups, and I almost always suggest something plain, easily understandable, and vetted for accuracy.


Please note that these are guidelines – what you choose to call your group is up to you, but if you use Japanese please take some time to research the ‘correctness’ of it. There are also exceptions to these guidelines even in Japan itself. Anyway, I hope this article was of use!