Objective

A month or so ago – I can’t quite remember – I was reading a piece in one of the local kendo mags about someone who had, after many years of kendo practice, decided to quit. Of the many reasons he gave for this, one stood out: that there was no special ‘polishing of the character’ to be had through kendo practise. That is, through kendo there is no sort of ‘bettering’ of the person. This topic is actually something i’ve struggled with for a long time, so it made me (as occasional I do!) re-examine my rationale for doing kendo.

Being in the environment I am in, I have the chance to do kendo with a large variety of people across all experience levels. Of-course, there are many reasons why people do kendo, and thats cool, but it struck me during a couple of instances lately that my partner and I’s goal of doing kendo were mutually incompatible. In both instances the level of my partner was low/middle (around 3rd and 4th dan) and their kendo was – for want of a better word – random. Attacks came suddenly, without buildup, and at odd distances, and they attempted to block almost all of my strikes… including pulling their hands down to stop a (men-kaeshi) dou. They also enjoyed showboating strikes that they deemed good… as if their partner (me) didn’t exist. ‘Maybe, at that level, its to be expected?’ some may think (not me btw).

‘Ippon shobu onegaishimasu’ I said, admittedly trying to hurry up and put to bed what was for me a tiring and – dare I say it – boring experience. In both cases the people started attacking aggressively (and randomly)… not such a dreadful thing, so I remained cool and aimed to practise my debana or maybe kaeshi waza. One of the guys scuffed the left side of my men and then – much to my chagrin – chuckled when he saw that I ignored it and was prepared to fight on. The other spent all his time blocking any attempt for me to strike and – when he did try to attack – he found himself running into the point of my shinai. I finished one of the ippon by resorting to an overly flashy waza and then promptly going into sonkyo, and the other by letting the person hit me and say ‘thank you’ … both unfortunate and unsatisfactory results of keiko for me at least, if not all concerned.

The above are just 2 simple examples of keiko I’ve had with people whose purpose for practising kendo I can’t fathom. There is no polishing of technique, there is no respect, they show no understanding of when to strike… their kendo seems like a childs to me. Of course, I assume that 8dan sensei think like this about my kendo, but I do hope that I can recognise these actions in myself and can at least re-aim myself in the right direction if and when needed.

I’ve seen yet other people, of much higher level, acting in ways that have nothing to do with the concept of kendo, so much so that I couldn’t write a list if I wanted to. The worst include grooming of girls in the dojo for nefarious purposes (yes, you read that right), outward racism, and bitter political struggles in organisations that end up in the courts… all extremely selfish acts and nothing to do with the spirit of kendo.

Despite these examples, I do believe that there is a spiritual worth in practising kendo, and that if you subject your body to hard discipline it can help you mature into a more moral adult. The caveat of this is that it is not automatic… it has to be something you want, and you have to surround yourself with people that have, if not the exact same aim, then something similar. This may or may not be easy depending on your particular situation.

To go back to the person in the first paragraph: I’m not sure, but I suspect that he had an unfortunate experience or/and was not in the right environment to aim at what he was seeking. I know from personal experience that it sometimes hard to continue the daily routine of practise, sometimes because of personal issues, sometimes because the people around you don’t live up to your ideals, and sometimes because you yourself don’t live up to your own ideal (probably the hardest to overcome). Kendo should be demanding, both physically and mentally, and to ensure that you have a healthy, long term kendo career, its best to re-examine your reasons for subjecting yourself to such training. If you don’t bother, have only a short term goal, or have none, its only natural for you to quit when things because a little harder than usual. If you think about quitting perhaps its better to take a break, re-assess, pick a good teacher, and surround yourself with like-minded kenshi. Don’t give up!!

Recently some of my articles have been of a more rambling, personal type… and thus probably of dubious value to the general kendo community. Apologies!!!!

16 comments

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  1. Steve Bishop · September 30, 2012

    George

    Thanks for putting into words some of the feelings we all (should) have yet cannot express so well.

    Steve

  2. alphonsmetselaar · September 30, 2012

    “Pick a good teacher, and surround yourself with like-minded kenshi. Don’t give up!!” Are the key words at least for me. Having had some issues lately which are similar as the experiences you just described. I just did that and I must concur that it’s a difference between day and night.
    Oh well you’re not the only one who’s capable of rambling about.

  3. Mark F · September 30, 2012

    This post hit the nail on the head for me! I’ve seen pretty much all of this (well, minus the “girl grooming” which sounds scary) and I have seen some of this in myself.

    The core issue, in my opinion, is that the people you describe don’t apply the rigorous, spiritual side of kendo to themselves. Instead they focus on the importance of winning a bout, a taikai,etc.; at any cost. Forgetting the deeper heritage of kendo they go for the sport and competition side of kendo, to the point that they engage in bullying at times on and off the piste.

    The other issue of politics and intrigue is sadly quite prevalent as well. It’s like the in-fighting among academics for a single teaching seat in a university. Despite the relative low-value (in terms of compensation), people fight tooth and nail.

    I think it will get worse as more and more people will seek to grow kendo as a competitive sport. I have heard American sensei talk about how they are disdained by their Japanese counterparts and how it is time to build a Western-style of kendo, divorced from what they see as obtuse and out-of-date philosophies that seek to exclude.

    Perhaps they have a point, but I think the result will be a cheapening of kendo and split between a “sport” kendo (for the masses) and a “traditional” kendo (for the few).

    Well, that is my rambling! :)

  4. George McCall · September 30, 2012

    Hey Mark,

    Glad theres another rambler in the house!

    Some interesting points there. Things getting worse as people increase is especially important I think…. as there isn’t enough ‘good’ sensei to go round and pass on the tradition. Not in physical aspects (as they are relatively easy) but with the correct knowledge and attitude. Knowledge is very important as if you dont speak Japanese then your access to kendos culture is severely limited. Unfortunately, this is the state of kendo in many places in the world… where even kodansha are relatively ignorant about what it is they are doing (this happens in Japan of course, but the kenshi here have access to material and experienced people so that they can study. Its often the case that people become serious about the cultural aspect once they get older, or hit 6dan). If you take the historical and cultural aspects out of kendo then you are left with nothing basically. Two guys bashing each other with sticks. I used to do that with my friend in the forest behind my house as a kid.

    I’ve heard of the American teachers complaints many-many times over the years, but its the first time I’ve heard of a ‘western-style’ of kendo… its probably inevitable that something like this will happen (Korea?), but at that point they better re-brand it to something else, as it won’t be kendo anymore.

    p.s. Koike sensei came to my post-WKC bash back held in Edinburgh, 2003!

  5. Ron · September 30, 2012

    McCall sensei,
    Thank you so much for this article. It resonates very strongly with what I have been thinking over the last decades about kendo and the direction it can g and the direction it is going.

    In the end it is easy to lose track of two things:

    1. Kenshi.. Even hanshi 8-dan are people too and by definition works in progress.
    2. While kendo can help us develop through hard training, it’s up to the kenshi to decide what that means.

    I think those of us responsible for teaching kendo have to keep these poits in mind and be willing to admit our imperfections to our students and, even more important, to ourselves. By our example we have to show how we have been and are using kendo to shape our own personal development…just as (and perhaps more so) our practice has shaped our kihon, our waza and the deeper aspects of the kendo we show in the dojo.

    We have to also keep in mind that if we treat kendo shiai as a sport, where winning is all that matters we will reap what we sow. People in our dojos for whom what matters is winning and what does not matter are the values of grace, compassion and humility.

  6. George McCall · September 30, 2012

    Ron, just George please…..

    I think that the problem is that there are already areas in the world where the pendulum has already swung so far in one direction its going to break off rather than come back (the western-style kendo that Mark mentioned above for example). I see it not only online, but in those that visit me in Japan. Its not any particular individuals fault, but its usually the infrastructure that they are brought up in… much like a how a child who is raised in a loving family has more chance to be a balanced individual. Of-course, there are those that are raised in awful home situations but still turn out to be great people when they are older.

    Thanks Ron!

  7. giantenemycrabthing · September 30, 2012

    You did good to mention this, I believe. However, you didn’t express the deeper causes: namely, that different people are looking for different things when they practice a martial art. Here are a few such goals: the list is not (even in the broadest sense) exhaustive, and the categories are not mutually exclusive, but I’m certain you’ll recognise numerous people that clearly belong to one of them.

    Firstly, there are the people who try to keep improving some aspect(s) of themselves through their martial art; the co-ordination of their body, their mind-set, their manners… any or all of those serve as aspects to help them improve themselves, and there’s great variation even among them. They tend to make steady but slow progress.

    Then there are the ones who see it as a physical activity. They want to improve their reflexes, or their stamina, or something to that extent; they choose to mould that thing into a martial art. They are the ones who usually appear the most talented, but tend to hit a plateau after a while, since there’s only so much you can do without delving deeper. The good thing is that they usually pose a good challenge to their opponents, and drive them to try harder.

    And then… then, there are those who just want to win. All they want is to engage in mock sword-fights, and any “loss” (even without counting score) is hurtful to them. Those are the ones who hit the longest and most obvious plateaus, if for no other reason, at least because they are not really trying to break them.

    Why am I mentioning all that? Because you need to understand the mind-set of those two people you mentioned. At the moment of sparring with you, they were mainly pre-occupied with not losing; therefore, _of course_ they’d sacrifice form and efficiency to block your strikes. Also, _of course_ their attacks were inefficient: why try to improve them when you can go out there and attack people instead?

    Now, I don’t think that those people can’t benefit from practicing within the same school. However, the teacher will need to be careful to make subtle adjustments if s/he is going to maximise each student’s satisfaction. I’ve read rumours on the ‘net about instructors that teach kata as “a useless bit of tradition that’s required for examinations”; such a philosophy would really alienate the people who need to be eased into physical training. On the other hand, an instructor who focuses on form too much would probably end up leading a very boring class.

    One last thing: If I’m not mistaken in the definitions of these categories, then the split between “traditional” and “sporty” kendo, is not only existent right now, but it has always been present in times of peace. The tricky part will be to provide both kinds of training under the same roof… no idea how.

    At the end of the day, I’m… I’m… not sure why I said all that. I think I just needed to get it out of my chest… but it does sound relevant to your article.

    PS: …grooming… for nefarious… purposes?! Do we even want to know what that refers to?

  8. George McCall · September 30, 2012

    Thanks for your comment. If you didn’t post anonymously you’d get more of a reply out of me.

    p.s. probably not.

  9. Patrick · September 30, 2012

    Thank you George.

  10. George McCall · September 30, 2012

    My pleasure Patrick!

  11. Bob S · September 30, 2012

    George – again, a wonderful post which requires self-examination on several levels.
    This all sounds very familiar. Back in the early 70′s, Karate was done primarily for hard training, along with self-enlightenment through the Japanese teachings. But soon, the ego thing got hold of many people and the philosophical side went out the window and SPORT karate became the “big” draw. Rank amateurs started, not only their own schools, but also their own styles without any historical reference except to say – “I am a black belt”. Pity, they never realized they just stepped out of pre-school into kindergarten when they made “Black Belt”
    Individual struggles aside, Kendo [along with other true martial arts] requires an extreme dedication on one’s part to do it, to do it well [and to the best of their ability] and grow spiritually through true practice.
    I hope I am able to continue to do Kendo and to do it well.

    Your articles are excellent and thought provoking.
    Sorry for rambling.

    Bob S.

  12. George McCall · September 30, 2012

    Bob, I’m a fellow rambler, so you get nothing but respect from me… ramble away!

  13. Nancy · September 30, 2012

    It’s a shame that guy quit, but I definitely beg to differ about what he said. There’s plenty to learn and grow from in kendo, but only of you are open to it. I’ve had a lot of time to reexamine my purpose of doing kendo here in Tokyo, and to me kendo is much deeper and subtle than some people give it credit for. This is speaking from personal experience , but i felt that as ive matured as a person and as a kendoka. Everything from my goals and even my form changed from being exposed to a wealth of knowledge from different senseis /sempais , and naturally I grew a lot as a result, but I went I out of my way to look for these senseis/sempais. I find that a lot of what I do in kendo is a reflection of how I live my life, and maybe I’m assuming too much about that person, but I don’t think he was making much of an effort to really improve himself Inside and outside of the dojo. There’s so much left to improve from both aspects regardless of age, but only if we really strive to. Anyway, just my two cents.

  14. Russell Robinson · September 30, 2012

    Thank you for your articles, I’m really enjoying reading them.

    Apart from the physical fitness it imparts, Kendo has “no practical application”, as my sensei says. By this I think he means you can’t use it to defend yourself, unlike Karate-do, Aikido, etc.

    If this is so, one must ask oneself “why do I practice Kendo?”.

    My sensei has said “Kendo reaches into you, shows you things about yourself, and gives you the opportunity to improve those things”.

    In the seven years since I started Kendo (I’m now over 50) it has done just this many times.

    Even when I think I’ve dealt with a personality flaw, Kendo has later shown me it hasn’t yet gone: I still have to deal with it.

    This is one of the main reasons I practice Kendo, and hope to do so well into old age.

  15. George McCall · September 30, 2012

    Hey Nancy, and a good two cents they were too!!

    Russell -> keep at it !!

  16. Scott H · September 30, 2012

    With surgical precision, you’ve touched upon something that has longed irked me with Kendo.

    Now, I’m pretty certain it’s not something beholden to Kendo alone, but is seen across all other martial arts, and that is simply the chasm that exists between two different kinds of practitioners.

    On one hand you have people like those described above – their endeavors reflect the purely physical.

    And on the other hand you have those that strive to bridge the physical with the mental/spiritual.

    If Kendo was merely a physical act, I would have given up long ago. It is this combination of the two planes of existence that have always drawn me to martial arts.

    I too, lament the kind of behavior you describe, and yet, remain puzzled by it.