Bowing to the “7”

Editors note:

The following is a guest post by NYC Ken-Zen dojo’s iaido instructor, Pam Parker. Last year Pam became one of only a small handful of American’s to pass the iaido nanadan exam in Japan (and probably the first American female) and as such I immediately asked her for her thoughts on the matter. She ruminated a little bit over it, but finally here they are!!

Note that the article is in two halves: an ‘omote’ part which describes how the testing process works, and an ‘ura’ part that is more personal in nature.

This is the omote (for people who are not familiar with Iaido).

The All Japan Kendo Federation holds high-level exams for Iaido, the sword-drawing art that is one of three arts under its aegis, twice a year, in November and in June-July. These are national-level tests, and are attended by candidates from all over the world. These twice-yearly tests are for 6th and 7th-degree black belt (called ‘dan’) ranks. The highest degree available nowadays is 8th-dan. The test for that rank is only held once a year, in Kyoto at the beginning of May. The November tests are in Tokyo, with more than 300 people testing. The summer tests are in two locations each year, one in the East of Japan, and the other in the West. These tests each have fewer candidates.

I went to Tokyo in November of 2013, trying for 7th-dan for the first time. I did not pass. This July (2014), I went to the Western part of Japan, to Okayama Prefecture, to try again. This test was scheduled for Friday, July 11.

All of my Japanese teachers have been from the Western part of Japan: Hiroshima, Okayama and Kobe. So I had some confidence based on that. Also, I had been working very hard to improve since November.

I went to Kobe (just west of Osaka) on Friday, July 4, for a week of preparation. Every day, sometimes once, sometimes twice, I practiced with my teacher, who holds 8th dan, in his private school.

The day before the test, we traveled to Ako City, for practice with some of my teacher’s other students. Thursday evening we continued on to Okayama City, checking into a hotel a short walk from the testing venue. Three of us who were testing walked over to the Momotaro Arena, which was open, to get a look at the place. The main arena is very big, with a nice floor.

Friday morning, we returned. We had some time to warm up (in a very hot secondary space), with our teacher. The 6th-dan candidates went first, signing in, and lining up. The whole group is divided by age, into a younger group on the left, and an older group on the right. There are two sets of judges, 6 per each age-group. The candidates go forward, four at a time, to perform the kata (prescribed sets of techniques) required. When all the 6th-dan candidates were finished (about 100 people), the judges retired; and the administrators sat down to calculate the results.

Meanwhile the 7th-dan candidates signed in, and prepared to line up. While we were waiting, the results were posted, and we saw that of the three 6-dan candidates from our group, one passed. This was his second attempt. (Jubilation all around!)

After 7th-degree candidates completed the sign-in process, we lined up and the judges came back out. I was in the 6th row, of the younger group, on the far left side. There were 7 rows, and a similar number on the older group’s side. There were 3 candidates from Italy (1 for 6th-dan and 2 for 7th-dan); together we made up the entire contingent of non-Japanese.

Each row stands up together, walks out, and waits for the head judge to give the order to begin. There is a 6-minute time limit. When all 4 candidates in the row are finished, the head judge dismisses the group, and calls in the next.

Afterwards I got a lot of handshakes, and did a lot of bowing and thanking. It turns out that I am the first non-Japanese 7th-dan from the US, to pass this test in Japan (Editor: see comments), and the first woman, also. For some perspective, while there are lots of Japanese 7th-dans (I attend a yearly seminar with 40-50 7th-dans), and a fair number of Japanese women who hold this rank, in the US there are a total of 4 7th-dans, three of whom are men, Japanese or Japanese-American. The passing percentage for this exam was 20%.

That was the omote.

Next is the ura: Bowing to the “7”

It’s started already…bows from students who only nodded to me before; bows from students who, before, only bowed if I specifically taught them. I need to remember that it’s the 7 they are bowing to, not me. I am no different than I was a week ago.

Over the course of preparing for 7th dan (which began the day after my 6th dan examination), I have written a great deal, in training notebooks, in compilations of notes from seminars and gasshuku. Mostly on the order of ‘KenZen solo; Seitei Mae.’ Every once in a while, something more abstract, or wafty, depending on your point of view, like ‘what am I doing? I’m doing THIS.’ All the writing was in service of practice, correction and intensification. Not elucidation.

Senior student jokes that I have become ‘a destination;’ buys a guestbook. Visitors sign it.

But, what am I doing? I do feel some increase in my sense of responsibility. Also I am experiencing an increase in the clarity of my feeling of the relationship between my responsibilities (to teach, to model good Budo behavior) and my practice. This is not to claim an increase in understanding, more like an increase in density.

I wish I understood this better.

My students want to receive their menjo from my hands; they will wait if I am not available. I manage to figure this out with only a little assistance.

In Merida, Mexico, at the CLAK (Latin American Kendo Championships) I am given the use of a separate gym, to teach Iaido while the Kendo taikai goes on. I think to myself, “Wow, they are trusting me to take these folks.” A bit later, I think, “But, I’m a 7th dan, so that’s just fine.”

In the ‘sensei’ bus, a recently promoted 8th dan Kendo Sensei asked me if I had changed because of the 7th dan. He said he had certainly experienced changes because of his 8th-dan.

We are planning a big party to celebrate the 7th dan. Certainly we never did this before. Two of (the 3) local 7th dans told me we should have a party. No-one ever suggested such a thing (to celebrate a new rank of mine) before. The party is a smashing success. It perfectly conveys my conviction that this 7th-dan is good for all of us.

Not even two weeks later I get told, quite clearly, that I have to act like a 7th dan: show stronger leadership. But it’s OK; I’m a 7th dan, I can do it.


Sotaku-doji: the chicken and the egg, the zen master and the disciple 啐啄同時

There is a Japanese phrase from zen teachings that reads:

啐啄同時 – Sotaku-doji

The image it suggests is this:

Imagine a chicken and her egg. When the chick is about to hatch it makes a scratching noise inside the shell. Hearing it, the mother chicken comes along and gently taps on the outside of the shell, aiding the chick to step out into the world.

In zen this refers to the relationship between the master and disciple. After years of strict shugyo the disciple reaches the cusp of enlightenment. Sensing this, the master says the right word or does the right thing just at the right time, leading the student to comprehend, to finally perceive Truth, to reach enlightenment.

Long time kenshi 24/7 readers probably already realised that I spend a lot of time reflecting on not only how to teach (kendo), but watching how it is taught by others. Over the years my initial approach to teaching has changed massively and, although I hope I still remain quite a flexible person in this regard, I have come to develop/realise my own preferred style of both teaching and learning. In particular, I don’t like overly verbose instruction and will only rarely (and to direct students or kohai) give advice. Even then, any advice given is always done with a caveat, allowing the advised to reflect and decide what – if any – change or response is needed, and in what manner. After all, even 15 year old beginning students are independent individuals who must take control of their own progress.

Living in Japan and thinking like this can be difficult sometimes. First is the expected role of the teacher in Japanese society, in both the classroom and the dojo: instruction occurs in a single direction with generally no option for discussion. Dojo in school environments are usually highly regimented and strongly hierarchical. Teachers can sometimes seem like overlords of sort, shouting and barking orders (sometimes even on the shiaijo). Any success of school teams is often attributed to the teacher’s instruction rather than the students hard work (remember that students stream in and out whereas some teachers can stay decades in the same school). Outside of the school environment things tend to be much less one-way but, still, the hierarchy exists. If a hachidan says that water is wine, there may be little you can do but agree.

Modern kendo (as well as Japans education system) was, of course, developed in a highly militarised period of Japanese history and, after the war, many teachers (again, in the classroom and in the dojo) had a background of military training and/or service. This, I suspect at least in part, helps to explain the current situation.

Anyway – somehow I’ve drifted in a different direction – the reason I am thinking about this now is that the other day someone gave me unasked for advice. Of course there was no ill-will involved, but I couldn’t help thinking that the person wasn’t taking into account the possibility that I might be busy working on other things. His advice was actually quite useful but – and this is the key message of this article – I didn’t actually need nor want it at just that time. (Please don’t think me ungrateful … I was actually busy working on something else at that time.)

Lets go back to the beginning: had the mother chicken broken the shell too early then the chick may have hatched underdeveloped and died or lived a short life. If she hadn’t heard the noise of the chicks scratching, and had it not been strong enough, then the chick would’ve never hatched. In the same way, the true zen master would only give the right advice at the right time.


Things to perhaps consider when teaching

* Asking questions vs giving advice

Sometimes it’s better to wait for the student to ask a question before dishing out random advice, this way you can respond to what the student is seeking/working on, rather than deciding by yourself what you think they should do. If they don’t ask questions then leave them be.

* Giving advice vs sharing perspective

I often embed advice in stories of past experience or discussion about what I am personally working on. Although it might seem a roundabout way, I think that some students are more engaged and interested in these informal chats.

* Causing reflection rather than giving orders

Of course, how you teach depends a lot on the personality of the individual students under you but, in general, I think reflection and self-realisation/decision is one of the keys to not only progress in general, but the students long-term shugyo strategy.

* Having a spirit of empathy and understanding

Teaching requires that you are in-tune with your students and you understand their needs. Don’t attempt to force the students to do exactly as you do…. because they are not you.

For more info about Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills, please click here.

Even if you are wearing steel sandals, find a good teacher 良い師匠は鉄の草鞋をはいてでも探せ

The first half of this article is a short translation. Enjoy!

Up until I was a third year junior high school student (14/15yrs old) I lived in Tottori prefecture. I started kendo in first year but was very weak and lost many competitions. I was so weak that sometimes people would even taiatari me out of the shiai area.

After graduating junior high school I moved to Osaka and naturally joined the kendo club of the senior high school I started going to. However, of course, as I was so weak at kendo, I was treated as nothing more than a burden, and my sempai often got angry at me.

In my second year of high school (16/17yrs) I started attending keiko at Shudokan, the dojo inside Osaka castle park (pictured top). One day a small statured gentlemen walked into the dojo and it was obvious that he was someone of importance by the way he was treated. When keiko started all the Shudokan teachers – those of 6dan and 7dan level – lined up to keiko with the small statured sensei and I was amazed to see that none of them could even touch him. He destroyed them all.

Steeling myself, I joined the sensei’s line for keiko. When it was my turn I stood up from sonkyo and, all of a sudden, I froze: “What should I do?” My breathing became laboured and I felt as if my legs and feet were bound, as if I were paralysed. The atmosphere had suddenly turned severe, making me both scared to strike or be struck. The pressure was intense.

This is kendo!”

I remember feeling both physically paralysis and mental fear in that instant. “From today I’m going to make kendo my life” I thought, and spent that entire night sleeplessly thinking about nothing other than kendo. This was the first time I met Ikeda Yuji sensei.

From that day on I started attending those dojo that Ikeda sensei taught at: “Strike large with a vigorous spirit!” – this is what Ikeda sensei told me every-time I had a chance to keiko with him. The majority of the instruction I received from Ikeda sensei was uchikomi and kirikaeshi, on which he forged my kendo.

Fast forward to 3rd of November 1984: I was standing calmly in the middle of the Nippon Budokan – it was the final of the All Japan Kendo Championships. “Hajime!” I stood up and almost immediately – and unconsciously – struck a large men. I fought at my own pace and managed to win the competition. After the award ceremony was over, with the certificate in one hand and the Emperor’s cup in the other, I sought out Ikeda sensei to say thank you. He said in a quiet tone: “Harada-kun, congratulations!” At that time I recalled clearly that first keiko I had with Ikeda sensei in Shudokan all those years ago …..

– Harada Tetsuo, Kyoto Police Dept., 1993.

In 1984, at the age of 29, Harada sensei won the All Japan Championships and was a member of the winning Japanese team at the World Kendo Championships. He is now kyoshi 8dan. Check out his tachiai at the 2011 Kyoto Taikai. It starts 3 minutes into this video, Harada sensei is facing the camera:

Ikeda sensei mini gallery


Ikeda sensei died in 1991, before I even started kendo, so of course I never had the chance to meet him, but – in a way – I could be described as what’s termed his mago-deshi, that is, his “grand-student” (the same grand as in grandchild). Although a seemingly vague relationship, it exists because I have spent over 10 years practising at the dojo he was mostly associated with in Osaka – Yoseikai – and have studied kendo under some of his direct students. It’s impossible to know how much of Ikeda sensei’s kendo exists within mine (perhaps/probably little) but I’d like to think that it might, if even a little.

For a more complete bio on Ikeda sensei please read this article.

btw, the article’s title – Even if you are wearing steel sandals, find a good teacher – emphasises the importance of studying under a good teacher. No matter how long you walk, no matter how long you search, if your sandals are made from steel (rather than straw or cloth) they won’t wear out. Keep going and going until you arrive at the thing you seek… which is, in our situation here, a good sensei.



追想生涯一剣士 池田勇治先生。勇剣会。1993発行。非売品。

Year end, year start 年越し、元旦

Happy new year !!!! I hope all kenshi 24/7 readers had a great xmas and Hogmanay/new-year period.

Japan, being a non-Christian country, basically doesn’t stop for a holiday break until December the 29th or 30th depending, and even then many shops will remain open throughout the whole period, perhaps closing only on January the 1st. Although this is depressing work-wise, it does mean that kendo doesn’t stop! In fact, with the combination of school holidays (i.e. lots of kendo renshu-jiai and godo-geiko) and year-end kendo drinking parties, it often feels like one of the busiest kendo times of the year. Yay!

Here I’d like to introduce a couple of special types of keiko that regularly occur in Japan during this time, both of which I attended this year: toshigoshi-geiko and gantan-geiko.

Toshigoshi-geiko (年越し稽古)

“Toshigoshi” basically means “year end” and refers to keiko that happens on December the 31st. There are many different variations of the style of keiko, some happen during the day of the 31st itself, some start in the evening and end just before midnight, whilst others start at 11pm and go through midnight into the new-year.

I’ve been attending toshigoshi-geiko on and off for about 10 or 11 years now. The style of the dojo I mainly go to for this type of keiko is relatively simple: we generally roll-up around 9 or 930pm, warm-up with some kata practice, then get our men’s on at 10pm. Shinai kendo then continues until 1140-50pm, whereafter we take our men’s off and go into mokuso. When mokuso is finished it’s already the new year!! We bow, thank our sensei and friends, and – after perhaps a small cup of sake or a beer, head home for bed.

btw, check out the third picture in the gallery below: this is this years dojo motto written/painted (complete with Chinese zodiac inspired picture) by one of my favourite sensei and hung up on the dojo wall in time for toshigoshi-geiko. It reads 「一年の心 勝る 一年の心」which I take to mean something like “exceed yourself this year more than the last” and refers to the onward shugyo of working continually to become a better person. 頑張ります!

Gantan-geiko (元旦稽古)

“Gantan” is simply the “first day of the year” and refers to keiko that happens on January the 1st. Even though some shops are closed on the 1st, public transport continues unabated… such is the beauty of Japan!! Gantan-geiko sessions are quite common in Japan, and are generally just free jigeiko sessions.

This year I attended a large, open gantan-geiko practice held in the north part of Kyoto. On the way it was a little bit chilly and there were flakes of snow to be seen… however, while we were doing warmup stretches and suburi a full-blown snowstorm erupted!!! By the time we left the dojo everywhere was covered in 3-5 inches of snow and I could barely feel my feet due to the bitter cold.

Feeling happy and motivated!

It at time’s like these where I feel lucky/privileged to be in a situation where I am able to do so much kendo. I guess back home in the UK I’d simply have spent the time boozing and eating, which was fine when I was in my 20s but not so fine in my old age! At least this year I spent the holiday period relatively healthily!

Wishing everyone a successful, and most importantly healthy and injury-free, 2015. Cheers!