The following is a slightly revised and renewed essay from kenshi 24/7’s now unavailable mini-publication “Kenkyu and Kufu” originally published in 2014. Current publications can be viewed at kendo-book.com.
If you watched the final of the All Japan Kendo Championships last November (2013) you might have watched the two finalists put on their bogu and stand up prior to the match. Did you notice that – soon to be 3rd time winner – Uchimura Ryoichi picked up his shinai with his right hand first before switching it to his left as he stood? Years ago I was told that the Tokyo Metropolitan (Keishicho) police kendo squad did this to deliberately differentiate themselves from others, sort of like saying “we are special, better than you.” Of course, this is not the reason at all.
In almost every kendo club you attend, whether that be here in Japan or abroad, everyone places their men and kote on their right hand side when sitting in seiza, and their shinai on the left. The direction the kote point differ depending on the dojo, but in general things are orientated in this manner. There is nothing explicitly said about which way the tsuru on the shinai should be facing, but most people tend to point it down.
As some may have already realised, this is completely different to the way we are taught to handle bokuto (or kata-yo katana) in kata training: in seiza, bokuto are placed on our right hand side with the blade facing inwards. The reason often given for this is that it’s a non-threatening posture and, indeed, seemingly it was common that samurai did this with their weapons when sitting.
If the shinai is meant to represent a conceptual sword, why then do the majority of kendo practitioners sit in the way they do? Why don’t we place the shinai on the right (with the tsuru facing outwards) and our bogu on the left?
I’ve read two anecdotes about how this situation occurred. The first is that the Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei (ZNKR) first made it standard to place the shinai on the left hand side and the bogu on the right after World War 2. It was deemed less difficult for young kids to master, which of course may be true (confusingly, the child-orientated Bokuto Ni Yoru Kihon Keiko-ho that was introduced in the 2000s uses the standard bokuto-on-the-right arrangement). Another story is that it became an issue during the 3rd World Kendo Championships. When the Japanese team lined up 2 members were from Keishicho, the other 3 were teachers. Naturally the 2 Keishicho kenshi placed their shinai on the right whereas the teachers placed it on their left. “Shouldn’t we all be doing it the same way?” one Japanese competitor asked the manager. “Well, just for now place the shinai on your left.” After the competition was over the issue was raised back home and the ZNKR sensei took a vote. It was decided – by a margin of a single vote – that the shinai should be placed on the left.
I’m not sure of the extent of the truth behind either anecdote, but the fact of the matter is that we seem to have different reigi depending if you are holding a shinai or a bokuto. I think it would not only be less confusing (for all involved) but also in line with the shinai-as-a-sword concept if we handled our shinai as we do our bokuto, assuming of course that this concept is indeed important.