Don’t become a Tengu 天狗にならないように

Last Sunday after keiko, I was lining up to say thank you to one of the older 7dan sensei (lets call him S-sensei). 77 years old now, I remember going to his 70th birthday celebration the highlight of which was him doing tachigiri keiko – he fenced a shodan, a nidan, a sandan, a yondan, a godan, a rokudan, and a nanadan consecutively… not bad for someone of that age (he won!). 7 years later and he’s still going strong. As often happens, I listened in to / overheard the sensei chat to the person in front of me in the line – someone actively attempting nanadan in their 30s. The conversation was why it was worthwhile attempting hachidan even if you think you have little chance of passing.

This year, as usual, the pass rate for the test in Kyoto was low: of 1,729 people attempting it, only 16 people passed… a 0.98% pass rate. “Too tough” is how most people describe it, so tough that some don’t even bother attempting even if they qualify. As the test involves travel, hotel, and food costs for most as well as the application fee itself, and as I am poor myself, I can understand peoples reticence to pay for and attempt something they have little chance of passing.

S-sensei first attempted 8dan back in the 1970s, but after a few attempts gave up as he realised he just didn’t have that extra ‘thing’ that hachidan often have. He told me this years ago, with no disappointment in his voice – this is just how it is. What he said to the person in front of me last Sunday, however, was very interesting: he said that one of the reasons people give up attempting hachidan is due to pride. Repeated failures injure the ego and – rather than continue to be embarrassed each year – its easier to just not go than to attempt and fail. That is, their perception of their own ability versus reality is not in sync. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t skilled at kendo of course, it just means that they are not as special as they may think they are (unlike S-sensei who knows the score). I have met some nanadan people like this myself – they tend to be overbearing in the dojo, batting strikes away and hitting their opponent at will. Sometimes these type of people don’t bother going to any hachidan sensei in order to improve their kendo…. they already ‘know’ it all and they will let you know so one way or another.

S-sensei continued and said that although there were many nanadans that refused or gave up attempting hachidan because of their pride, there were many (if not most) that continued to attempt the grading in spite of the extremely low pass rate and without a realistic chance of passing. These people did so because it kept their ego in line; it reminded them that they are not the best kendo person in the world. Presumably people who take this view are more humble in their practise of kendo, and are not as driven to prove themselves as the people described above.

Nowadays, the hachidan test occurs twice a year – in Kyoto (May) and Tokyo (October) – but it wasn’t always this way. For a long time the test occurred once a year in Kyoto around the time of the Kyoto-Taikai. One of the original purposes of the Kyoto taikai was to gather senior kendo people from around the country and to give them the opportunity to face each other. From year to year you could use your performance here as a barometer – are you improving? It wasn’t long before the then kendo authorities (Butokukai) started to issue awards/grades based on performance – starting with the precursor to renshi: SEIRENSHO. In other words, Kyoto was where senior people were promoted. Although nowadays you can attempt senior grades all over the country, hachidan is limited to only twice a year. The Kyoto taikai, however, is still regarded as the place to check if you have improved over the year. But I digress.

S-sensei’s words started the usual pondering mechanism in my head. One of the great things about living and practising in Japan is that until you get nanadan, you are basically just a nobody like everyone else. Even achieving nanadan, like I said above, is not the end of many peoples kendo shugyo – they continue to learn from hachidan(s), eventually attempting it themselves. Almost everyone that passes nanadan will not progress to hachidan, yet most continue to strive to improve. When I think about the purpose of gradings it seems apparent – to me – that its this recursive testing process that is one of the key factors in the process of shugyo in modern day kendo. I may even go as far as to say that repeatedly aiming for hachidan is the pinnacle of the kendo shugyo, not necessarily the passing of it.

I think it was 2001 or 2002, I’m not sure, but as I was having a beer with a British kendo nanadan, he told me stories of kendo in the good old days. One of the stories was the first time he attempted hachidan. Not only was he the first non-Japanese (non-Asian?) person do to so, but he tried it in nito. Very brave. I paraphrase, but he basically said that he knew there was no question of his passing, but he thought it important to try – not only because it was an integral part of his shugyo (so he had a obligation to attempt it) but also because of what he symbolised.

So, maybe reading the above you can get a feeling about my opinion regarding the purpose of grades and their relative importance (or non-importance). This is probably why I often find myself perplexed at the overblown value of grades I often see expressed abroad: people opening their own dojo at nidan, facebook status updates boasting about grading success (despite the grade being low), and rumours about people passing grades then making their own t-shirt stating as much (or buying themselves a new hakama with boastful embroidery of their choosing), etc. Things like these, in my (considered) opinion, show a deep misunderstanding of the role/value of the grading process, the process of shugyo, and an overblown sense of the particular individuals place in the larger kendo community. Their perspective is skewed.

As I said above, its great over here in Japan because you get to be a small fish in very big pond for the majority, if not the entirety, of your kendo career – the reverse of the examples above (big fish/small pond status acquired relatively rapidly). Any ideas of greatness I’ve had are pretty much squashed on a regular basis by my sensei and sempai.

Going back to S-sensei. Although he never became hachidan and gave up attempting it early on, he has continued to practise kendo (focused on teaching children nowadays) for over 30 years. For his birthday keiko this year almost 100 people were in attendance, including a few hachidan. At the end of the day, the respect that people obviously have for him is nothing to do with this grade, but his perseverance and humility. That I have the chance to learn a sense of perspective from people like him is something that I am indeed thankful for.

The long-nosed goblin image at the top of this article is a picture of a TENGU. These mythical creatures are often said to be expert in swordsmanship, but the flip side is their often vain and conceited attitude. Get good at kendo by all means, but don’t become a Tengu.

Eikenkai April 2013

Yesterday morning around 25 kenshi gathered at Sumiyoshi Budokan (in central Osaka) for our usual fast-paced kihon keiko session. As always, the format was 45 minutes of basics, 30 minutes of waza practise, and 45 minutes of jigeiko. On top of that, we did some tachiai-geiko for members that are taking 6 and 7dan gradings this week.

After keiko we walked through the beautiful Sumiyoshi-Taisha, spotting a traditional wedding ceremony en-route, before going to our usual restaurant for beer/food.

Big congrats to one of our members, Akiko, who announced her engagement, and a big thanks to Rhett who – after a couple of years with us – is returning to Idaho this month.

Our next session is Sunday the 30th of June. If you are in town, please pop along!

Kendo Books

UPDATE: I’ve decided to renew this particular article every so often when new and interesting books become available. The original post was published in April 2013. Most recent updated January 2017.

As I write this post at work, I have dozens of kendo books standing in the shelf on my desk: ones about learning the basics, others about how to get better at winning shiai, some general kendo history books, the occasional philosophical treatise, and even a couple of kendo-specific conditioning and training manuals. At home I have out-of-print books that were published in the 20s and 30s, and loads of digital versions of books that were published in the 19th century are on my hard drive. These are all in Japanese of course.

As far as English language publications go, the amount, type, and quality of available books is far from optimal. I know, because I own or have read them all (at least, to my knowledge). I think the main reasons for this has been the writers lack of long term exposure to kendo in Japan, plus the reliance on hearsay and 3rd hand information when relaying anecdotes/facts. For the English speaking kendoka that hungers for kendo information this is a frustrating situation.

Presented below is a handful of small reviews of great kendo books that I recommend. If you find a book online and it’s not listed here, you should probably avoid it ….


Kendo: Culture of the Sword – Alex Bennett

University of California Press, July 2015.

Quote from a different article by myself:

I devoured Alex’s book pretty quickly because a lot of the information I knew and many of the conclusions reached were similar to mine, so it was a sort of affirmation in a way for me if you will. There were, however, parts of the book that tackled areas that I’m only very vaguely familiar with (in particular the workings of and connections between the government and the Butokukai during the war and the machinations of SCAP in regards to budo after the war) which was an eye-opener.

The best part of this book for me is that Alex puts kendo in its wider cultural context, something that is missing in most people’s comprehension of how modern kendo formed, what it is today, and where it might possibly go. A close second is that he dares to condemn (although gently) the accepted idea that kendo is some sort of ancient tradition that is possessed – and can only be understood by – Japanese people. This thorny subject is something I’ve touched on lightly here before (and in my publications) and everyone who lives and practises in Japan for a long time realises. Needless to say the book is highly recommended, so please check it out.

Available in both print and digital.


Teikoku Kendo Kyohon (The Kendo Textbook of Imperial Japan) – Ogawa Kinnosuke

Self published, July 2015. Available print and digital.
Specified aim: Introducing an important historical kendo texbook to the modern English speaking kendo community.

Witten by one of the foremost kenshi of the 20th century Ogawa Kinnosuke sensei, the Teikoku Kendo Kyohon (The Kendo Textbook of Imperial Japan) was originally published in 1932, then revised and re-published in 1937. Here, for the first time in any language other than Japanese, we are proud to present a complete translation of the revised version.

This is an amazing book…. the only kendo book that comes anywhere near it is the Kendo Tokuhon listed below. Get it!

Recommended for: Experienced kendo practitioners and those who wish to dig deeper into the culture of kendo.

AVAILABLE ONLINE IN BOTH PRINT AND DIGITAL EDITIONS.
FOR MORE INFORMATION VISIT THIS SITE.


Kendo Tokukon (The Kendo Reader) – Noma Hisashi

Self published, October 2013. Available print and digital.
Specified aim: Introducing a kendo classic to the modern English speaking kendo community.

Witten by the celebrated kenshi Noma Hisashi and published posthumously in 1939, The Kendo Reader is a true kendo classic. Although the shape of kendo has evolved in the 75 years since the initial publication, the book’s content has barely aged and is still highly relevant to kendo practitioners today. Not only kendoka, however, the book will prove interesting to martial arts practitioners across various disciplines and to those interested in Japanese martial arts history and theory.

Recommended for: Experienced kendo practitioners and those who wish to dig deeper into the culture of kendo.

AVAILABLE ONLINE IN BOTH PRINT AND DIGITAL EDITIONS.
FOR MORE INFORMATION VISIT THIS SITE.

Kendo: a comprehensive guide to Japanese swordsmanship – Geoff Salmon

Tuttle, April 2013. Available print and kindle.
Specified aim: “written expressly with the objective of helping you make your kendo training more effective.”

The cover of the book is a heavily edited picture of Geoff that I took at the Kyoto Taikai a few years back, so obviously I like it! The book itself is designed and printed by an established publisher, so its easy to read and it’s layout is nice. The substance of the book itself is basically a brief run down of the A-Z of physical kendo training, including such varied content as warmup routines, shinai styles, kamae, refereeing, and gradings, as well as descriptions of all the basic cuts, thrusts, and a handful of techniques. Descriptions are to the point and work well with the illustrations.

Pros: Excellent illustrations; easy to understand.
Cons: Lacks any historical background; it’s not really comprehensive.
Recommended for: People who have just started kendo.

Available on Amazon in print or kindle edition.

Kendo: approaches for all levels – Honda Sotaro

Bunkasha International, August 2012. Available print and kindle.
Specified aim: to discuss and offer advice on how to practise kendo in a non-Japanese setting

This book starts with a completely different premise that any other kendo book I have read and is based on Honda’s sensei’s many years of training abroad (mainly in the UK). It covers a wide-range of topics but in a technically brief manner, meaning that the book is not meant for beginners or people with only a few years of experience. For the more advanced practitioner this is in no way a negative point, but allows them to concentrate on the more academic points that Honda sensei is putting across. I found myself highlighting not a few sections as I read the book. Different from Geoff’s book above, Honda sensei’s book is basically completely text based with few diagrams.

Pros: Covers a wide range of topics.
Cons: No illustrations at all; brief descriptions.
Recommended for: mainly those with a mid-level experience level who are actually involved in teaching or coaching of some sort, and for experienced practitioners looking for some advanced perspective.

Note: although I’ve picked up and flicked through the print version, this review is based mainly on reading the digital version.

Available on Amazon in print or kindle edition.

Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills – George McCall

Self published, September 2012. Available print and digital.
Specified aim: a coaching manual for new/mid-level instructors and guide of what to aim for those with less experience

Pros: The only kendo coaching book written in English by an experienced coach.
Cons: None!
Recommended for: new/mid-level instructors and those with less experience that want to learn more.

AVAILABLE ONLINE IN BOTH PRINT AND DIGITAL EDITIONS.
FOR MORE INFORMATION VISIT THIS SITE.

Kendo, Inherited Wisdom and Personal Reflections – Geoff Salmon

Self published, August 2013. Available print and digital.
Specified aim: a collection of blog posts from kendoinfo.net

Geoff sent me a pdf review copy 179 pages in length and was – as he said in his email to me – “following in your footsteps” in reference to the fact that the books contents are mainly based on blog posts, like my Kenshi247: selected articles 2008-2011 book which came out 2 years ago. Anyway, back to Geoff’s book.

The introduction states what is contained in the book very well, so I’ll just reproduce it here:

“This collection of the most popular posts from www.kendoinfo.net contains 52 articles on various aspects of kendo technique and attitude…. This is not an instruction manual. It is offered with the intention of entertaining and stimulating those interested in the art of kendo.”

The book is basically a collection of mainly bite-sized (around 2 pages in length) personal kendo-related anecdotes. Geoff writes in a friendly, easily understood manner often with comedy, which makes for light reading.

Available on Amazon in print or kindle edition.

Pros: Easy to read.
Cons: Slightly haphazard.
Recommended for: The general kendo practitioner.


Other books

I stated in the opening section that there are few book in the English language that are actually any good. Along with the books reviewed above, the following listed books are widely available and I do personally recommended.

The first list are those that I highly suggest you buy/steal/borrow:

Japanese-English Dictionary of Kendo (revised 2011): everyone should own this.
Kendo Kata: essence and application – Inoue (2003): the only kata book you’ll ever need.
This is kendo – Sasamori/Warner (1968): dated but still relevant.

If you have some spare cash and are looking to expand your kendo library, then the following may make some relaxed Sunday afternoon reading:

A Bilingual Guide to the History of Kendo – Sakai (2010) : a very brief/easy synopsis of the history of kendo aimed at foreign kenshi.
Kendo: The Definitive Guide – Ozawa (1997) : a good book, but only for complete beginners.

Note that the All Japan Kendo Federation publish books that are technically accurate, but they are so dry, boring to read, and don’t say very much, so that if I had to mention them, then i’d probably put them into this category.

Thats it. Not many eh?

If a book is not mentioned above, its not probably because I haven’t read/seen it*, but that I don’t endorse it for whatever reason. Don’t let that stop you from leafing through the various books out there and deciding yourself of-course.

*The only exception to this would be ‘Kendo: Elements, Rules, and Philosophy’ (Tokeshi, 2003) which I’ve only ever briefly looked at so cannot fairly comment on. It did seem to be pretty comprehensive though.

Shinai grip 竹刀の握り

Yesterday I popped into my sempai’s kendo shop in central Osaka to buy a shinai. Almost all my shinai have round handles, but sometimes I do use koban (oval-handled) shinai, so I picked one up. I took a snap and posted it on facebook to quickly see if kenshi247 readers also try koban shinai. Of course the answer was in the affermative.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am really picky about shinai. This has led me, over the years, to experiment with different types of shinai, be that lengths, weights, brands, balance, handle length, and even handle shapes. I think only the last one will raise an experienced kenshi’s eyebrows. Even then, for most people a change in handle shape means the decision to use a normal round handled shinai, or the oval, more sword-like, koban handled shinai. Thats it. But the reality is that there are various types of shinai handle shapes out there. Although rare, I’ve tried SQUARE and OCTAGONAL handles, and I’ve heard of triangular and hexagonal.

As a quick comparison, please take a look at these snaps of square, octagonal, and oval handles on these shinai that I own:

But why bother with using a non-round handled shinai anyway? Here are a selection of comments from the original image I posted on facebook:

“I use one pretty regularly. What I like about it (aside from how it fits in the hands) is that it is a more realistic representation of how an actual sword would feel when gripping.”
– Scott

“I use koban only. I feel my grip is more over the top of the Shinai. It helps my seme, tenuchi and feels more like a katana.”
– Simon

“My definitive preference is koban shinais. Considering the shape of a half-closed human hand is that of an oval, I would consider koban to be more anatomically correct, comfortable, and a better representation of a katana grip.”
– Leo

“I did for a while when I had a lot of trouble keeping my hasuji accurate. It also helped strengthen my tenouchi.”
– David

“It helps me with Do(u).”
– Israel

“I love the oval grip. I do notice it tends to make me lazy when using a normal shinai and tend to let the shinai drift from left to right in my grip.”
– Wes

“I prefer koban… I think they’re easier to use than the round grips.”
– Joe

“I started Iaido and Kendo at the same time it only felt natural to have a koban styled shinai.”
– Lance

“After many years of battodo, iaido and taijutsu I couldn’t get used to a standard tsuka, koban gata feels more natural for me and helps with correct hasuji.”
– Graeme

“I started kendo after several years of iaido practice. Koban tsuka was a natural choice.”
– Raymond

I don’t really have too much to add on top of what everyone wrote, but if I try to summarise everything it would go something like this: basically, koban are easier to use because they fit into the hand better, they promote a better awareness of the ‘blade’ part of the shinai (thus leading to better, more correct hasuji), and they fit more into the shinai-as-a-sword part of kendo’s culture. I think the other handle shapes also promote the same things to a degree (though the square shaped handle can bite into the hands a bit).

What I do want to add is this: I think its worth exploring different handle shapes in order to explore how you use your hands, not only in the action of striking, but how the shinai sits in your hands in static kamae, and how this changes during the actions of osae, harai, etc. For me personally it took a long time (over 15 years?) to begin to become aware the subtleties of finger use and to wake up to the fact that my grip was constantly changing during an encounter (and that this is normal). Also – and this is an important point for me in particular – deeper understanding of shinogi use and concomitant change in how the wrists work – is very hard if not impossible to come by while using only a round handle.

At any rate, although you can do all this with a normal, round-handled shinai anyway, I do think its a good exercise to use an oval (or whatever) handled shinai now and then in order to explore what your hands and fingers are doing during keiko. Try it!

I’m super busy at the moment, so this article was a little bit rushed… I hope it actually makes sense! Feel free to comment on facebook or below. Cheers!

Bunburyodo 文武両道

Bunburyodo is a term that I’m sure many if not all budo practitioners are familiar with. It’s a term used to describe someone who has become or is trying their best to become ‘accomplished in the both military and literary arts’ (martial arts and arts/sciences). The first recorded use of a similar term (「文事ある者は必ず武備あり」) is found in the ‘Records of the Grand Historian’ (史記), written in Han-era China around about BCE 109-91. When the Records came to Japan and how and when the term was was changed to ‘bunburyodo’ seems to be unknown, but various other synonymous kanji combinations have been used for a very long time.

During the classical, feudal, and Tokugawa periods of Japanese history, the term is said to have referred to the importance of understanding both academic and warrior arts in order to be able to govern effectively. That is, an effective ruler (and subordinates) would ideally have a balance of both. The need for this balance was promoted by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and became increasingly looked at as an ideal situation for the ruling class in general by the 19th century. However, nowadays in Japan (a country with a far less hierarchical class system that existed before), this ideal has been reworked to simply refer to those that try hard in both their study and some sort of physical activity (e.g. baseball), and it seems to be used almost exclusively in reference to students.

… which brings me neatly round to the point of this article – the reason for the slow down of written content over the last while (or, at least, why I’m not writing as much as I want to!). Basically, the study for my 2nd degree is literally taking up all my free time, which I didn’t have enough of anyway! Between an agressive keiko schedule (8 times on a slow week), a full time job, and my private life, its been hard to fit in time for translations and article writing. I also had to suspend work on the next kenshi247 publication… which is about 65% done as we speak.

Not to fear, however, as I intend to start work on the above publication in May with hopefully a summer release, and will be back to work with some kendo articles around the same time. In the meantime, I will continue to post updates on facebook, and I also seem to be addicted to instagram at the moment (#kenshi247)… so check out both those channels for continual kendo-related updates and pictures. Cheers!!!!!

* In case you are interested, I’m currently studying History. My first degree was in the completely unrelated area of Computer Science…