The overall construction of modern kendo

Eikenkai

The following is a presentation of a couple of charts found in the book ‘Nihon kendo no rekishi’ (The History of Japanese Kendo) that I found interesting and my commentary on them (apart from the charts themselves, this is not a translation).

To read more about whats discussed here in more detail, including the background of the discussion and the the original authors comments and insights (which are far better than mine!), please read the original book.


Chart 1: The overall construction of modern kendo (The reciprocal and complementary aspects of kendo)

The overall construction of modern kendo

CONCEPT OF KENDO and SHUGYO NO KOKOROGAMAE

Technical aim (objective) 1
SHIAI
* The contrary nature of the 5 minutes x 3 points match
* The unclearness of yuko-datotsu criteria
(+ problem of shiai-jo size)

Technical aim (objective) 2
SHINSA (grading)
* Correct posture, kamae, technical ability and the unclearness of evaluating the standard for this based on age

Technical aim (subjective) 3
KEIKO
* applying your own subjective standards/understandings, bring your shiai keiko and shinsa keiko together as one thing. As a result of this, the means and purpose of training will become more fluid and change towards the process of ‘shugyo.’

I think that this will be the first time for most kenshi247 readers to see this chart, but I imagine that most people can understand most of whats being alluded to here: the problem that we as kendo practitioners have in combing two of the main aspects of kendo – competition and gradings – into a single process of ‘shugyo’, the expressed aim of which is set out in the Concept of Kendo (see below). ‘Shugyo’ is a term almost all budo practitioners learn quickly and refers to the pursuit of a sometimes nebulous ‘knowledge’ gained through hard physical and mental discipline.

In both the Shiai and Shinsa boxes you you see the terms ‘contrary,’ ‘unclearness,’ and ‘problem’ which need further explanation. First, let me tackle the ‘unclearness’ points as every experienced kendoka knows what the problems are.

The ZNKR publishes the criteria for grading at different levels. This criteria is worded ambiguously and due to this the understanding of the criteria is highly subjective, especially as you go towards kodansha grades (6dan+). Passing 8dan is so ambiguous it almost seems mysterious at times, and I’ve even heard people hint that sometimes passes are preordained. Everybody has experienced puzzle at gradings, be it at a pass or at a fail, and knows what I am talking about.

The unclearness of the criteria of awarding yuko-datotsu (a valid ippon) is found in the wording of the rules: that strikes must be done in ‘sufficient’ spirit, with a ‘correct’ posture, and must ‘express zanshin.’ Not to mention that you must hit the right spot of your opponents bogu with the correct part of your shinai at the right angle (at top level competition this is often too fast to see). If you need evidence at the difficulty of judging valid strikes (objectively that is) all you need to is check you-tube for the mens-team final of the 2012 World Kendo Championships between Japan and Korea.

The ‘contrary nature of the 5 minutes x 3 points match’ may be new to some people (this has started to be address at top level shiai here in Japan – the 8dan invitational and from the 1/4 finals of the All-Japans). Basically, if you look at the top shiai in Japan (the males All-Japan championships) from the 1950s until today, you can see that the number of shiai decided by ippon in encho has sky rocketed (see the original evidence in the source). The number of points scored has plummeted and the average shiai time has increased. In other words the style of kendo favoured nowadays by elite competition-orientated people (in Japan) is such that getting 2 ippon in a 5 minute match is rare. Of-course, this is partially due to the yuko-datotsu problem mentioned above.

Many people might think that the ‘contrary’ problem above doesn’t really affect them, but the kendo community across the world (including, of course, Japan) looks to the All-Japans as a source of inspiration and young people aim to copy those kenshi’s style, and obviously their style of kendo has changed dramatically over the years.

(I will leave the chat about shiai-jo size for a further article)

What a minute!

‘Hey, my sensei told me to do shinsa like my shiai and shiai like my shinsa!’

Fair point. I don’t think, however, many people actually do this. When shiai-mode is on posture often goes out the door in favour of hitting your opponent in any way possible; during a grading many people are often overly-concerned with being in the correct shape that they miss opportunities to strike or stand still and unmoving. I personally know of many people on both sides of the fence – those that disfavour shiai and aim to have beautiful kendo (in reality some end up with a kind of spiritless, ‘empty’ kendo) and those that think kendo is simply about hitting the other person with the shinai in anyway possible (some end up attacking randomly, like rabid monkeys!).

A good example of this subjective difficulty between shiai and shinsa kendo can be seen in 6-time All-Japan champion Miyazaki Masahiro sensei’s 8dan grading video (this also ties in nicely with the grading unclearness described above). Did he pass because his kendo was brilliant on the day, because who he was, or because he deserved it based on his shiai results?

At any rate, what we have here are 2 aspects of kendo that have their own specific problem areas, and most people tend to keep these aspects somewhat separate. Both of these aspects are objective, i.e. our performance is judged by a third person or persons. Whether we think we have made a good strike in shiai, or whether we think we have shown our best kendo in a shinsa is irrelevant.

This brings us to the box in the center: technical aim 3 (subjective).

When your sensei told you to do ‘shiai like your shinsa, and shinsa like your shiai’ he or she was of course telling you shouldn’t split your kendo into compartments. The 3rd box describes this by saying that by finally merging these aspects together and approaching ‘kendo’ as simply ‘shugyo’ then you will finally be going in the right direction. Concentration on shiai without attempting to acquire ‘correct’ kendo’ (that is, manifesting it in shiai) or emphasis on ‘correct’ kendo without actually fighting like you mean it (to much emphasis on shape) leads to an imbalance. This merging/balancing of these 2 aspects is of course purely subjective; this subjectivity is partly based on your understandings and experienced of the objective arena of the shiai-jo and the opinions of the grading panel (as well as your sensei and sempai). This subjective understanding is acquired through – and for the ultimate benefit of – the process of shugyo. At the end of the day, however, you can only do kendo for yourself and must find a balance that satisfies yourself.

What I have attempted (badly as always!!!) to verbalise here is only for the dedicated kenshi: those that strive hard in their training over years and seek both spiritual as well as physical improvement (and grade advancement). It doesn’t apply to those that don’t care about gradings, who have no competitive interest (even among dojo-mates), nor those that do kendo as a hobby on the weekends or for their health. That isn’t to say that those people shouldn’t do kendo or aren’t real kendoka (I’d like to think kendo is large enough to accept many types of practitioner), only that the expressed purpose (and thus end point) of the more dedicated kenshi is necessarily different.

* Please note: by ‘competition’ or ‘shiai’ above, I don’t necessarily mean official competitions, it could just as much be serious ippon-shobu between dojo mates, students, etc. The competitive nature of kendo is in-built: having a weak, or even no competitive inklings at all probably doesn’t bode well for the progress of your kendo. In my own case I barely compete in official competition anymore. I don’t actually have so much interest in those, but I do go all out in the dojo with my sempai and kohai on a regular basis. When writing the above, however, I did notice that I am imbalanced in my practise of kendo.


The following chart show the general flow of what is a valid strike, from the past to the potential future, and is an adjunct to the above section.

Chart 2: The yuko-datotsu criteria axis

The yuko-datotsu evaluation criteria

4 – Realistic/Combat: what we call kendo now evolved out of real fighting with weapons. Using a sword to attack someone would obviously cause injury and/or death and the results was immediate and apparent.

1 – Kata – over time, weapon practice changed into a more abstract form using wooden or blunted weaponry and techniques were practised in set forms. Original warrior skills were passed down from generation to generation, changing over time (potentially drastically), and the expression of technique became more artistic, even beautiful (e.g. iaido, koryu). Any ‘results’ are purely subjective (as far as judging is concerned, iaido/kendo-no-kata competition differs little from synchronized swimming or ice-skating).

2 – Grading/current sportive kendo – the ‘katana’ in kendo nowadays exists only abstractly, and shiai and shinsa have quite a few unclear aspects and contradictions. Due to this results are somewhat subjective and can even cause controversy.

3 – Bunka (‘cultural’)- a potential future of kendo whereby shiai and shinsa rules are revised to be concrete and unified, while respecting kendo’s long historical tradition and the Japanese culture that is embedded therein.


Summary / personal comment

This is just a short piece based on the charts above and the book they came from. Recently there has been a lot of chat about shinpan problems relating to the last World Kendo Championships. I don’t think any problem is with the judges, but with the subjectivity that is mentioned above (and perhaps some competitors lack of the kendo ‘balance’). Personally, I don’t mind subjectivity: as long as enough people are on more or less the right track then there are no problems. Its part of what makes kendo interesting.

If we occasionally lose a shiai due to (what you subjectively perceive as) a less than accurate call – who cares? You didn’t die. Any feeling of wrong-doing is surely just pride. Many people on this planet live in war zones, receive no education, or don’t have enough food to eat on a daily basis… the fact that we can afford to buy expensive equipment, pay dojo fees, and go for post-keiko beers afterwards shouldn’t be forgotten.


Source

日本剣道の歴史(p249-254)。大塚忠義。株式会社窓社。1995発行


Appendix

The Concept of Kendo

The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Katana (sword).

The purpose of practicing Kendo is:

To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.

This will make one be able:

To love his/her country and society,
To contribute to the development of culture
And to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples.

(The Concept of Kendo was established by All Japan Kendo Federation in 1975.)

7 thoughts on “The overall construction of modern kendo

  1. JMartin Lussier

    Nice piece for meditation. Thanks

  2. Thanks JMartin, I hope it wasn’t too much of a ramble!!!

  3. Hi George,

    I would think most of us readers are united in that we gain alot from your (self-perceived) ramblings!

    Thanks again for this article if it’s ok I might print off these diagrams to show sensei? Maybe he is well familiar with this type of diagram (as I know he still studies and gets alot from budo literature, even in his late 60’s), but it may be a useful tool for him to illustrate these concepts and discuss with the rest of us.

    Cheers!

  4. At least someone was brave to tell me it was a ramble!

    You dont need my permission to print this stuff out… thats why its there!

    Cheers!
    – George

  5. Thanks for this interesting article… And definitely not a rambling imho!
    Am currently at a seminar with Okada sensei, where several of the students are discussing how to bring the things we learn in kihon and integrate them better in our keiko…
    Once we start in ji-keiko, all the cerefully focussed mindfullness and attention seems to go out of the window. I think this article also relates to that issue…
    Cheers!

  6. Riccardo Cerabolini

    Thanks George! Your articles are always amazing.

    May I ask you something?
    Can you expand/explain (a bit more) the “bunka kendo” part?
    I would not mind an article about it, actually.

    Cheers!

  7. Nice work! I never seperated Shinsa from normal Keiko and Shiai. For me it is all the same except that I try new things in normal Keiko in order to improve, while in Shinsa and Shiai I rely on things I can do.

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