Aggression, violence, and catharsis

I think it was at last years European Kendo Championships some footage emerged online of a kendo competitor flipping his opponent over and behind him mid-shiai. My initial reaction was that – despite it not being something we do in kendo shiai – it was a well timed and executed technique (informing my opinion was that there was no injury caused*). However, the comments online were a lot more critical. Most people were vocal about the dangerous nature of the technique whilst others complained that the shinpan should have disqualified the competitor. At the time I remember thinking that – for me – the question about what to do would depend on whether there was intent behind the action or not.

For the last 10+ years I’ve been working as a full-time educator – both in the classroom and (at first casually but in the last 6 years pretty seriously) in the dojo. Over the years I’ve poured over kendo teaching manuals, watched other kendo teachers coach, payed close attention to how my sensei teach, and even published my own kendo coaching methodology. I’ve also read a few non-kendo specific books on sport psychology and methodology – a very wide and complex subject. One area that immediately stuck out to me as a kendo person was that of aggression.

There are a few theories of aggression, some say that it is learned while others say that:

“… aggression is an inherent and sought-after element of physical contact sports…”

Aggression can be defined as:

“An aggressive act is a behaviour, not an attitude or emotion. An aggressive act involves harming or injuring another living thing who does not want to be harmed. Importantly, an aggressive act must include intent on the part of the aggressor. “

With the caveat:

“Accidentally injuring an opponent is not considered an act of aggression if the key ingredient of intent is missing. The integral element of intent has, understandably, made research into aggression in sport somewhat challenging because it is difficult to determine intent through observing behaviour.”

(emphasis mine)

At most shiai I attend here in Japan (and I’ve been to literally hundreds) you can often see what seems like highly aggressive behaviour – shoving, pushing, overly forceful taiatari or tsuki. I’ve experienced firsthand people acting borderline violent to me during keiko, and – I’m ashamed to admit – I’ve actually gone AWOL a couple of times during keiko over the years and lost control. Because of what I’ve seen and experienced, and because I am involved in teaching on a day-to-day basis, I think this is why the topic of aggression struck me as it did.

Aggression in sport has been categorised into 2 main types:

1. Hostile aggression: “the primary intent is to injure someone or something”
2. Instrumental aggression: “the primary intent is to achieve a competitive goal by harming or injuring someone”

There are a few theories of sport aggression but I’ll just briefly discuss/quote a couple here which I think are potentially relevant to kendo people. (For more details please research online or check out the source.)

Revised Frustration-Aggression Theory

“… athletes are more likely to be aggressive when frustration increases arousal and anger, and they have learned that aggressive acts are deemed appropriate. In our society, it is seen as more appropriate to act aggressively during sport than in other contexts (e.g. in the supermarket or classroom), and in some sports but not in others (e.g. in rugby but not in snooker).”

In other words, context is important. As we are doing a martial art, I think that there is definitely a strong stream of thinking that says behaving aggressively should be the normal approach to kendo (at least in shiai anyway).

This description I think fits some of the aggressive behaviour I’ve seen in shiai and experienced during keiko – frustration with being unable to hit a good ippon or perhaps landing a strike you think is good get you are not awarded it by the shinpan.

In other words, because we are doing kendo (i.e. due to subculture of kendo) we can sometimes feel it’s ok to act (more) aggressively.

Game Reasoning Theory

This is an interesting theory that posits that people “suspend reality” while engaging in sport and “view aggression differently from how we view it in other areas of life.” This then leads to the conclusion that our “moral reasoning differs between sport and everyday life” – quite a large sweeping statement.

Although tackling subjects much broader than the simple over-aggressiveness we sometimes see in kendo (e.g. cheating, strategic fouls, verbal intimidation, physical violence, intentional rule breaking) it is food for thought.

Reversal Theory

By far the most kendo-applicable theory it says:

“for some athletes… the physical contact and aggression involved are the key reason why they play the sport. Being aggressive adds to the excitement, enjoyment, and positive experience they derive from their involvement.”

Aggression (termed violence in this theory) is divided into 4 types, 2 of which I believe are common in kendo:

Power violence“occurs when we experience the serious and mastery states. Our aim is to dominate our opponent to achieve a competitive goal. Power violence is typically a calculated act”

Play violence“occurs when we experience the playful and mastery states: we enjoy the feeling of dominating our opponents, but… we have no intention of causing harm”

The states mentioned above are:

Serious“In this state we want to achieve a meaningful goal… are are concerned with the future consequences of our behaviour.”

Mastery“In this state we focus on competition, toughness, strength, being dominant and in control”

Playful“In this state we… want to enjoy the moment, be spontaneous and have no concern for long-term consequences”

This seems to be to accurately describe the type of kendo I do during keiko with friends or kohai. Of course, the term “violence” is probably not exactly how you or I would define it, but I do understand why non-kendo people might !!

When are people aggressive?

From the table “Situations when athletes may be more likely to act aggressively or believe aggressive behaviour is acceptable” :

– When less sporting and self-determined in their motivation
– When they are older, are male, or participate in contact or collision sports.
– When competing at higher levels in contact sport.
– When high in ego orientation.

Research also shows:

“Athletes who play sport for more intrinsic reasons (such as pleasure) report more positive sporting attitudes (e.g. respect for the rules and fair play) and are more likely to use instrumental aggression, but are less likely to use hostile aggression.”

“numerous studies have examined the links between goal orientation (task or ego) and aggression in sport, consistently demonstrating that high levels of ego orientation (e,g, valuing winning above all else) are related to aggression and antisocial behaviour.”

“in sport, males are more aggressive or report more aggressive tendencies than females”

“athletes in contact sports perceive aggression as more legitimate than athletes in non-contact sports”

Managing aggression

As a coach, I have to be careful that my students don’t become overly aggressive and, also, that I am not aggressive with them. To minimise the former coaches should ensure:

“that they don’t foster overly performance-orientated motivational climates and attempt to develop mastery climates.”

You can do this by:

“praising effort and not just achievement, and encouraging players to focus on improving their mastery of skills rather than trying to outperform others.”

Of course, the culture of kendo already has some safeguards built in that helps reduce aggression:

“by emphasising sportsmanship, such as having respect for opponents and match officials.”

As kendoka I assume you always bow to your opponent, treat the shinpans judgements with respect, and thank your opponent – win or lose – after your match.

Another thing that we kendoka do (or should be doing) that helps stop over-aggressiveness is to be a role-model to students and kohai, and to:

“positively reinforce non-aggressive responses we observe in others.”

I think this is harder to do as kendoka tend to be impressed with strong aggressive kendo full of seme and spirit. Nevertheless, perhaps it’s important not to hold in such high esteem those that act in an overly-aggressive or violent behaviour.

Summary

Kendo being what it is (a martial art), I think it’s worthwhile sitting down and considering where the line should be drawn when it comes to aggressive behaviour (once the line is crossed it’s then violence). It’s also important to remember that this line is somewhat arbitrary and therefore other people may not share your opinion.

Also – especially if you are a teacher or coach – it’s worth ensuring that you work to develop the right type of positive behaviour in your students, especially if they are young. A student acting over-aggressively or violently in a shiai is the teachers responsibility.

There is no real summary or conclusion to this article – it’s simply just some quotes on a subject matter I find interesting and have to tackle in my kendo career. I hope it’s been food for thought.

btw, the “catharsis” in the title is taken from another theory of aggression, that of Instinct Theory. It suggests that aggressiveness is an innate drive or instinct of humans and as such we need to release it (catharsis). Sport – or in our case kendo – is a socially acceptable way to reach this release.

* Eventually it came to be known that the flipped guy was concussed. Had I know this at the time perhaps I would have viewed the technique differently – itself a telling factor.


*** Update ***

This post has generated lots of discussion in the comments section below and on our facebook page, so I thought I’d add quote to serve as an afterthought (actually, this quote I first introduced on kenshi 24/7 back in 2009):

As it is said that ‘the eyes can speak as well as the mouth,’ it must follow that the language of the eyes is delicate and subtle. French philosopher Georges-Luis Leclerc de Buffon stated that ‘words’ express the character of man; an insightful remark. The sword is also considered to reveal the character of the person wielding it and as such, each person has their own individual kendo style. Courageous people, cowardly people, honest people; everyone’s character is reflected in their swordplay. The character of instructors will be passed onto their students as well. It is important to learn under a good teacher of virtuous character, for even the simple act of exchanging blows with a shinai can influence students in many ways. Among the lessons of kendo, there is a teaching that ‘if the soul is just, the sword is also just.’ This teaching is deeply connected to the path of discipline and is a kind of warning against unjust thought and skills.”

– Horigome Keizo, hanshi 9dan.

film-watching


Source

For this article I used quotations from a single book just to keep things simple. There are lots more information that can be researched online or in other publications.

Sport Psychology. David Tod, Joanne Thatcher, and Rachel Rahman. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Published by

George

I'm the founder and chief editor of kenshi247.net. Amongst other things I am a high school kendo club coach, an avid practitioner of classical swordsmanship, a history student, and a vegetarian.

40 thoughts on “Aggression, violence, and catharsis”

  1. Using the “body throw” example at the EKC, my concern was not the aggression but the unexpected aggression and the subsequent failure of the shimpan to address that (i.e., disqualify the player). This was a surprise move outside of what any player in kendo trains and plans for which is why it was such a dangerous move.

    If both parties consent to a bout where something like this is allowed then I have no problem with it because every competitor will take that into account. This was not the case at the EKC and I think it is the type of aggression that is inconsistent with modern kendo.

  2. I would concur with Mark. Mutual agreement is critical in this case. If people are willing to “go the tonk” and it is generally safe to do so, then I have no issue. However, if you are expecting kendo to be an expression of yuko datotsu and zanshin, there really is not much excuse for rough house play that is actually against the spirit (and infact works counter to the possibility of) good/beautiful kendo. I teach both kendo and jujutsu in a University environment here in Australia. It is not as if I would recoil from the physicality. But what arises from such encounters is completely conterproductive and stunts a kendoka’s technical development, particularly where the competitor can’t beat an oponent on skill and reaches into mindless physicality to try and make up the shortfall.

  3. Great comments…. more food for thought !!!

    At the time of the example given in the body of the text I remember thinking that it was more dangerous than aggressive…. any injury that resulted may have been unintended — I think this is where the difficulty comes in judging kendo aggressiveness sometimes.

    Shinpan have a larger than they think impact on how kendo develops and they probably should have (in hindsight) at least given him a hansoku for it to at least show their displeasure. I’m sure, however, in this case they were simply surprised. If it happens again I’m sure their reaction will be swifter.

    Michael – I have found myself acting too aggressive with students sometimes, and I’ve realised it’s because I don’t have the technical proficiency to deal with them in a cleaner kendo manner. I am, however, consciously working on that!!

  4. This flip event was a guy from Hungary team? It was not Novara WKC?

    Why should we close our eyes and do not talk directly about this?
    To understand what that person was thinking about in that moment?

    Images of this event were removed from Internet, for example.
    If this just disappear and we don’t talk about, nothing changes.

    Years ago a friend did go to hospital after a Shinai in National Kendo Taikai, because the opponent did a punch him in Tsuki and this affected my friend’s spine. Nobody did talk about this after the event, and a member from national team told him… “Kendo is a fight, first you need to protect your self”. So… Shinpan knows the true limit? Like police Taikai in Japan.

  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-IoU3roksQ

    Something lacks… control. The most experienced you become in any martial art, the more control you are supposed to display. Imagine if it was karate practitioners : “I hit him gyaku-hiraken in the throat instead of gyaku-zuki in the abdomen, but come on, cut me some slack, it was done in the heat of the moment!”

    After so many years of self-discipline and strenuous training “losing of control” is totally unacceptable and the lamest excuse one could hide behind. Not to mention the recklessness and dangerous nature of this particular move.

  6. We have to think about the future of shiai kendo. If shimpan don’t act decisively when witnessing dangerous behaviour like at Novarra, then these body flips and what not will become more frequent. In the absence of hansoku or disqualification, kenshi will think it’s ok and in a few years, as these events multiply, the risk of serious injury will increase and the beauty of kendo will decrease.

  7. Wasn’t the evolution of bogu motivated by the need for safety in practice? We know the bogu protects the human body in some ways, and does not do so in other ways. It follows that the strikes we employ in kendo are based on what the bogu can protect. For example, strikes to the elbow do not score, and strikes to the back of the head are a no-no. In view of this, the back flip should have been penalized in my opinion; regardless of whether aggression was the cause or not.

  8. Because of the litigation prospect and in my home state of Washington there is a law regarding concussions we have become particularly aware of such techniques. At the taikai in Denver area last week one of the adults was concussed after striking his head on the floor from a strong shove. We actively encourage the part about control of the match to the shipan and come down hard on spearing and clotheslining of the opponent. If you even suspect a concussion the individual must be given clearance to return to the match and if a minor the parents must be give permission to return. We have a training program for parents and coaches that is required by law if the venue is a public school.
    When I started kendo we did punches and throws as a regular part of practice, someone comes in high – clothesline them. I personally do not do any of it anymore and was glad to see the rule changes. Shinpan must control the match.

  9. One thing is being strong & being aggressive due to the “martial art” context, another thing is stupid aggressive and or irresponsible aggressive. We all got extremely lucky that there was not a serious injury. When you look at the video of that Shiai we fear for the worst, he could have serious damage his neck and spine cord. If this did take place then what would be the ramifications of that action ?
    More over we were stunt by the lack of response from the Shimpan and Shimpan cho.
    If you allow a precedent like this to take place without any severe penalty, the door is open for this kind of action to happen again, and next time we might be not so lucky and a serious injury might take place

  10. Wow, what a great article. I’ve always enjoyed contact sports and have been in them all of my life from football to rugby to kumdo. Aggression is important when performing a contact sport because it keeps you and your opponent safe but there has to be a line where the aggression is mutually understood. That being said, any aggression outside of the bounds of rules or mutually agreed upon aggression is dangerous and has no place in competition. When you compete you are competing with the tools, skills and knowledge that you and your opponent have and when they are ignorant of an attack or method of force being delivered to them they (or you) can be seriously hurt. That’s why we have professional and amateur leagues and competitions, weight classes, equipment, rules and codes.
    I watched the video the article refers to and it was a deliberate act. I don’t know whether or not the move was ‘legal’ per se but my guess is that even at the highest level of kendo competition in the world that 99% of competitors would not be expecting nor defending against that move even if it was legal.
    If there is an obscure rule that allows for this, then it was the responsibility of the competitor to inform his opponent and judges that it may be a move that will be deployed during the match versus a “gotcha” moment where I know something that you don’t. Doesn’t fly and I think even with any technicalities in place should have been grounds for a point deduction or even disqualification.

  11. Strong and well argued post. I remember being shocked, first time I saw the video. After throwing his opponent on the ground, this kenshi quietly joined his place, even hesitating to pick up the shinai of the other kenshi… Rei ni hajimari, rei ni owari…(If my memory serves, you can read about on Kenshi247 🙂 )…
    With respect.
    Michael

  12. My opinion hasn’t changed :

    I don’t know if he was aggressive or violent. He is just dangerous.
    The competitor should have been expelled from the EKC. Once and for all.

    Kendo inherits, but differs from the samuraï way of fighting. It is not a real fight, when our lives depend on it.

  13. Great article! I think we often find it difficult to draw the line between strong kendo and agressive kendo. Its good to have this debate, because the line is ultimately drawn by the kendo culture we create.

    Thanks so much George for this article

  14. This post has generated a lot more comments here and on facebook than I was expecting, I guess showing that people have strong opinions on the matter. But what do we do about it, where/how do we set the line, and do we discriminate between aggressiveness in keiko and shiai? Has FIK or the EKF even discussed the matter?

    The shinpan issue for shiai, for example, is fraught with difficulties. For example, many shinpan we see in the WKC and EKC never competed to anything like the level of the competitors they judge, which is the root cause of some shiai-flow problems (lack of authority and trust). This will eventually sort itself out, but it might take another generation or even two. Unless we want to cause major offence to the sensei that came before us (who deserve our respect for spreading kendo) we will basically have to lump it.

    Kendo itself is much bigger than merely shiai (remember here in Japan shiai is mainly a childrens/students activity) so I think we need to look beyond the more obvious kendo-as-competition aspect and address how kendo is taught and – more pertinently – by whom. If we have 2dan opening and running dojo, or people are awarded grades beyond their level, then how can we expect kendo to be taught correctly? This, I believe, is one of the root problems of the issue at hand, and one that – unless addressed strongly – will lead to a different kind of kendo in the future.

    Again, thanks for everyone’s comments…. I’m learning a lot here!!!!

    p.s. I also re-watched the video of the incident I mentioned at the start of the article and noticed that a hansoku was actually given despite me thinking otherwise.

  15. I can only guess that when some fundamental values are missing from your kendo and it becomes into “kendo-for-competition-only”, we are bound to have this and eventually some sort of Kendo MMA.

  16. Santiago – it won’t happen in Japan because there is an extensive infrastructure in place, with generations of teachers and models to learn from. Outside of Japan…. well, thats not in my hands!!

  17. You can’t ban people without investigation, is it a one off, or is there history. Does he think his actions are acceptable? only by determining his intention can a process of change be made.
    Then if it is determined the individual is dangerous , actions to prevent him injuring people can be taken along with measures to ensure his teacher /teachers are policed too.

  18. I just want to point out to everyone that the article is about aggression (and violence) in general, not that particular case. Nor was that the impetus for writing this article.

  19. There is no room for violence in kendo… some aggression, yes, but not violence. Sometimes the line is fine, and it is of course arbitrary. If you feel someone has crossed your line then – as an adult – you should confront them about it.

    Good luck, I hope it works out !!!

  20. My teacher does not allow his school-age students to participate in shiai, largely for this reason, and discourages his adult students from doing so either. “Shiai do little but encourage the inflation of the ego, or else lead to discouragement and demotivation;” he says, “proper keiko is training enough.” Of course, this is a somewhat unusual sentiment among kendoka, but I have come to largely agree with him.

  21. As a coach and educator myself, I’d say that the comment “I Iost control” is a copout. I have always pulled a player (soccer/football) if they are “losing control”. The level of aggression allowed by a referee is generally where players will go. Some players take aggression to different levels. Sensei Marsten (my sensei) is correct that here in Washington the new laws have changed how we have addressed issues like these – ANY suspicion of a concussion and the player is out, although not all coaches are consistent. In response to the comment about the preparedness for the contact, if the sport has specific types of contact or moves, one is prepared for it. I can’t imagine getting flipped in Kendo, I wouldn’t be prepared for it. I’d be mad as hell…

  22. Thanks for your comment. I’d agree that it’s a copout too.

    Note that the article is addressing kendo in general, not shiai specifically (but that’s where it’s easiest to control).

  23. I found all of the comments very interesting. I used to compete in kendo and I agree with the general Thinking here. 1. If two combatants agree beforehand that these techniques are ok or if the venue sanctions them,that is fine. 2. Rules are in place for a reason and once you open the door to (dirty fighting) you can rest assured more will follow.3. Combatants are like children and they need proper discipline from their instructors until they can exercise good judgement on their own. 4. Accidents and injuries do happen in all contact sports,however,minimizing the risk of injury where it is avoidable will help keep it from becoming a variant of fight club.

  24. Lamentable… The hungarian kenshi should have received a hansoku, since it was clearly a foul.

    That is not an allowed move in kendo, so, it should have been punished not only with a hansoku, but with total disqualification to the hungarian kenshi.

    Clearly, the shiai should be interrupted, since the swiss kenshi is dizzy, due to the impact that his head had on the floor, later proven by a X-Ray showing a concussion.

    That kind of behaviour should not be expected from a martial artist, and surely not from a kenshi.

  25. I wonder if there was any action taken after the matter, either back in Hungary or at shinpan seminars. The guy is in the Hungarian team for the wkc.

    Part of the problem is of
    course the lack of shinpan ability. This has been an issue for years and years now though. There are bad shinpan in Japan too of course, but they don’t get sent to large and important shiai.

  26. George, I do not think that it was just a problem of lack of ability from Shinpan…

    The Shinpan just “contributed” to the “horror show”… It is clearly a technique that is not allowed in kendo, so, there is no doubt about that it was foul play, and thus, just a hansoku is not enough…

    If a kenshi gets so angry that he does something like that, instead of refrain from this behaviour, he is not better than the stray dog that lurks around the city sewers.

    A kenshi, above all other martial artists and humans alike, is the one who has not only the ability, but has the DUTY to refrain from this kind of behaviour.

    That kenshi, his sensei (in some sort) and the shinpans are guilty.

    The kendo equipment ant techniques are designed to AVOID major injuries, such as concussions, bone fractures, and and punctures (in the throat region).

    There is a rule that prohibits any kind of blows in areas that has not protection, why would shinpans have any doubt about if it is a foul, and in that case, enough for a total disqualification?

    A shame, really…

    Something like that should never be seen in kendo again…

  27. I think we need to be careful with statements like “there is no place for violence in kendo” – martial arts are formalized and well-structured yet inherently violent disciplines. By rooting out every bit of violence (real or perceived) we are risking the ‘devolvement’ of the art the way it happened to judo. We have already lost a whole bunch of wazas. Kendo we practice is a bleak facsimile of the pre-WW2 kendo and has become very far removed from the original art derived from the traditional swordsmanship.
    I watched that video too. Did the Hungarian player go too far. Possibly. I think he could have achieved the same result (i.e. having his opponent fall backwards) with lesser force and less arm extension with considerably less lacrimony about it. If you come in too hot and get too close that what sometimes happens in taiatari. Both players made errors. I think that’s how shinpan saw it too.

  28. Well, for starters, this statement is highly dubious:

    “Kendo we practice is a bleak facsimile of the pre-WW2 kendo”

    As someone who has done a lot of research in to the matter, I’d say that you are almost certainly misinformed. But, I am willing to listen, learn, and reassess: what leads you to believe that kendo was somehow more “violent” or “aggressive” than it is today? Do you have video evidence (please link) or access to documentation (please provide sources)? Or is you statement based on – as I suspect – hearsay?

    The next question is how you came to the conclusion that kendo has…

    “… become very far removed from the original art derived from the traditional swordsmanship.”

    What exactly do you know about “traditional” swordsmanship? How was it practised? How did it evolve? And I’m wondering — are you aware of the extent to which shinai kendo has influenced what we think of “traditional” swordsmanship today? I’m betting that you haven’t even considered that kendo is not only a primary reason why koryu exist today, but that many of the transmitters of these arts were kendo people.

  29. In reply to the above article, there is a rule in rugby which states that it is impossible for a referee to accurately judge intent. This means that if a player is taken out in the air then it’s a yellow/red card offence, regardless of whether it was malicious, careless or an accident (the severity of the offence depends on the way in which the tackled player falls).

    I think the same idea could be applied here i.e. making it an offence, for example, to push someone in the neck, regardless of what the intent was. Because it knocked the player out then the culprit should face a severe sanction.

    In the few times I have been coached in the shinpan job, no one has ever spoken of possible sanctions for foul play, which makes me wonder if a. we’re too obsessed by the right way to unroll a flag, and b. if such statutes exist in the rule books.

  30. Thought provoking comment there Matt. I’m of the opinion that we don’t need more rules, but less of them. Shinpan should be able to act using their common sense.

    Japan in general has a thing about “kata” or, the right-way-to-do-things. This is largely to the detriment of the meaning behind the actions. So, I agree with you 100% here.

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