I can’t remember the first time I saw any pictures of kendo or any kendo on the TV (James Bond maybe?), but I do remember the first article I read that mentioned kendo… at least I remembered the content and which magazine it was in, but not the writer. This summer I returned to the U.K. for a holiday to see my family and friends, and was surprised to find the magazine hidden at the bottom of the box in a cupboard in my grandmothers bedroom. I was also surprised to see that the writer was none other than Dave Lowry*. Before discussing whats presented in the column, please check out an excerpt here.
Kendo-ka, the toughest individuals?
During an after-training ‘bull’ sessions years ago, my judo teammates were discussing the toughest individuals they had even encountered. One told of a Japanese judo champion who had thrown opponents so hard that, even using proper break-falls, they were knocked unconscious by the force of hitting the mat. Another recounted the abilities of a Chinese martial artist he’d met who could employ vicious foot sweeps that literally somersaulted his opponents. One guy said the toughest people he’d ever met were Special Forces personnel in Vietnam, while another insisted it was the British SAS teams.
Later, I asked my two karate teachers (editor: Japanese I assume?) about this, and unhesitatingly, they both gave the same answer. The toughest individuals they had ever encountered, they said, were elderly kendoka (sword practitioners). “A kendo man who’s in his mid-60’s and has been training for about 50 years,” one teacher told me, “can take an incredible amount of abuse.”
I have often reflected on my teachers’ words. Interesting, isn’t it, that their concept of toughness was not in how much one can dish out, but how much one can take.
[ the rest of the column goes on to talk specifically about karate ]
Although I probably disagree that kendo practitioners are tougher than SAS and Special Forces bit (see *), I do believe that some of my sensei have gone through a lot of ‘abuse’ – both physical and mental – in their (for some of them) 50+ years of training, and that they are very tough individuals.
Over beers or sitting in the dojo post-keiko I’ve heard stories of being sick in men’s, collapsing during keiko, broken arms (!), refusal of water, being forced to do kirikaeshi for hours a day everyday for a year, etc. etc. and written or video-d accounts of older sensei now passed away often tell tale of even more severe training regimes… some of which would not be tolerated by society nowadays. Theres also the fact that as you get older and gradually begin coaching/teaching, you are expected to allow yourself to be cut and tsuki-ed a lot. Compound this with the long active life-span of a serious kendo practitioner (I commonly see people in their 70s practising kendo, and the oldest person I’ve actually sparred was over 90. Theres even a ‘old-peoples kendo competition’ held every year in the Nippon Budokan, with an ‘over 100 years old’ section! I don’t think that this happens in other budo, at least to the degree that it does in kendo) and you can see what the people in the article above were perhaps getting at.
When I am teaching my students or go and visit another dojo and hear people complain that its too hot/cold and that the keiko is too hard/long, or when people moan when struck in an unarmoured place or that someone hit them too hard etc. etc., I often wonder how they would have managed practising kendo back in the day.
Serious long-term kendo practise should cultivate tough people with strong minds and bodies. If after a few years of practise you still complain when someone accidentally hits you in the wrong place, or you don’t want to go to the dojo because you are tired or its hot or whatever, then perhaps its time to reassess whether kendo is in-fact for you. Personally I believe that although I can’t go through the sometimes severe experiences that my sensei went through, I can at least position myself to do the hardest practises that I possibly can. I want to be a ‘tough kendo man’ at the end of the day!!
Traditions: The Art of Taking It, Dave Lowry. Fighting Arts International No.72, 1992
* Lowry is a popular martial arts writer whose work I gulped up as an immature martial artists. Even at that time, however, I realised that his writing was heavily over-romanticised… as it is a bit here. (That said, I hope that Mr Lowry doesn’t mind me using this excerpt… I probably have all his books he published until the mid-90s, so he’s already made his money on me!!)