Small things

Sometimes I come across people in the dojo that have a certain sense of ‘something.’ This is nothing to do with physical ability per se, but more to do with their manner, how they naturally move, and the way that they approach keiko. Often, its hard to say what exactly makes them look (feel?) good, but for the sake of this small article I will try and verbalise – from my perspective – what some of these things may be.

This list is of course completely arbitrary, and I don’t go into full explanations exactly…. allowing you to construct your own interpretations. Feel free to add to or discuss points raised here in the comments (on the site or facebook).


1. A respectful demeanor in the dojo

This generally means not being loud, noisy, or attempting to be the center of attention, but arriving and preparing for keiko quietly and without fuss.

2. Awareness of their place in the dojo

This ‘place’ is physical position and role, as well who you are in relation to others. People with the sense I speak of above know that anything below kyoshi is still ‘student’ and – even if they are hanshi, they never put on airs.

3. Appropriate instruction

Teaching happens infrequently and without overly verbose instruction. Although kendo has a certain mainstream ‘style’ nowadays, its traditionally a no-no to instruct people that aren’t your students.

4. Learning from the person in front of you

If you are in a sensei’s line, waiting to do keiko with him/her, are you actually watching their kendo or are you looking at other sensei on the left and right?

5. Wearing the dogi/bogu correctly

Some people simple look right wearing their dogi and bogu. This has nothing to do with the value of it or how fashionable it is, but the way it fits their body.

6. Attention paid to receiving

Stress on becoming a good motodachi is something that sets some kenshi apart from run-of-the-mill people.

7. Meaningful rei (Sonkyo)

Performing bows and going into sonkyo sincerely are important parts of the kendo tradition. Any contraction (or removal) of them is to negate an important part of kendo’s culture, and is the start of kendo’s relegation to mere ‘stick fighting.’

8. The shinai as a symbolic sword

The shinai is not actually a sword, but it does (or is meant to) symbolise one. The people I mention above often (not always) pay attention to some/a combination of the following items:

a. placement of the left thumb when in taito;
b. an emphasis on the importance of shotachi;
c. show awareness of the use of hasuji and shinogi during various waza.

9. Humility

There is no shame in being struck and admission of it is not a weakness. Instead, we should be happy for our opponent. Kendo – if it can teach us only a single thing – then hopefully it will be humility.

10. Mutual respect and gratitude

Theres nothing better than having a fierce keiko with someone and coming away smiling. Why would we want it any other way?


There’s a lot more I could potentially add to this list (I have some in mind right now), but I will leave it there.

Kendo is physically and mentally hard but most people, given time, can get over the initially awkwardness and get somewhat proficient. However (and this happens more often that we’d like to admit), no matter how skilled some become, their kendo still lacks ‘something.’ So you hit me, now what? In the dojo they may be strong, but outside it their skill counts for little. What a waste of effort for nothing.

The 10 items that I listed above are what I have recognised in others, its not about what I do. I admit that I do try to act in this manner, but I’m very much a work-in-progress. I hope something in this article has some resonance with you! Cheers.

Old geezer

A couple of weeks ago in the dojo a young kohai of mine, about 24 years old, attacked and knocked over one of the older sensei in his late 70s (needless to say, it wasn’t deliberate). The sensei fell backwards and knocked his head on the dojo floor. Keiko stopped and everyone rushed to him. He was a bit dazed but seemed alright. We took him to the edge of the dojo, removed all his bogu, gave him some water and generally made a fuss over him. The rest of the dojo resumed practise. In the end he was fine, just a bit embarrassed.

Over the years, I have come to believe that one of the most valuable benefits of kendo (budo) practise is that it allows me to mix with people over a wide age range. In my dojo alone, we have kids of 6 and below, all the way up to sensei in their late 70’s/early 80’s. Specifically, I am glad to have the chance to keiko with those whose age is far above mine.

Before I started serious practise of budo, I never sat around and talked to any older people – there was no chance to mix and, honestly, I never really had any interest. Even when I started kendo, I remember laughing at some older peoples kendo: “Look at that old guy…. he doesn’t deserve to be 6dan! I’m better than him and I’m only shodan!” etc. Back in the mid-90’s I was given a video of a 8dan tournament to watch but switched it off after 20 minutes; “boring” I thought. Its embarrassing to admit it now, but that’s how I thought.

Nowadays, I find myself surrounded by older sempai and sensei. I no longer feel the gulf in lifestyle nor disrespect for their physical abilities (I’m not yet 40 btw). I’ve come to realise that they to have been commuting to the dojo (as I do) for years and years, for a much longer span of time than me (50 or 60 years in some cases). I also realise that people do physically change for the worse over time, but that this doesn’t necessarily impact on their skill per-se… and even if it did, I am a lot more understanding of it and the frustration that can often accompany it.

One of my main sensei is in his mid 70s. During keiko I attack him as best as I can but he still hits me and pushes me back. My heart rate rises quickly and I feel myself on the back foot at all times. He just keeps coming… like a Terminator! He’s in the dojo almost every time and he pushes everyone to do their best kendo. He has my utmost respect. Recently, however, during post-keiko beers, some of my sempai have been wondering exactly how long he has left at this pace. I had never thought about that until it was mentioned.

Kendo (budo) are physical ‘arts’ that are passed down from generation to generation by physical contact. Its only natural that the guard changes, like the seasons do only at a slower pace. When the conversation turned to that above I felt anxious. If he wasn’t in the dojo I think i’d feel uneasy, almost groundless. But its bound to happen someday. I realised anew that its important to spend time with your elders, to listen to their stories and learn from their experience. After all, one day you will be one of those ‘old geezers / grandmas’ as well !!!!

While I was pondering the above, I got an invite to a facebook group celebrating the life of Takeshi Walter Yamaguchi sensei from California. I never had the chance to meet him (so perhaps it wasn’t my place) but I spent time looking at the pictures and reading peoples stories about him, his kendo past, and his teaching. I realised that he was someone that had many admirers and was deeply respected by his students and kendo colleagues. “Something to aspire to” I thought.


As an added bonus – with reference to the above – here is an excerpt from Honda Sotaro sensei’s Attitudes to Ji-geiko article available on the British Kendo Association website:

4. Ji-geiko with the Elderly

Here, difference in age is considered rather than the difference in grade. This section is about attitudes to Ji-geiko with someone elderly. It is strictly prohibited to do powerful Tai-atari and Tsuki to an elderly person in Ji-geiko. However there may be some elderly people who are bigger and have more power than you. In that case then, it might be okay, to some extent, to use your power and weight against them. If that is not the case, then, direct physical contact using Seme and Waza that rely too much on strength should be restrained. This does not mean cutting corners in the Ji-geiko. It is still important to try to complete your strike and to strike again in response to your opponent when their first strike is inadequate [but without Tai-atari or relying on physical power]. It is up to you to decide whether you can have a worthwhile Ji-geiko with an elderly person despite the age difference

Elderly Kendo-ka who have great experience may not be able to use many types of Waza and their speed and power may be inferior, but they have a brilliant ability to read the situation (their opponents intention, movement, Waza and so on) Elderly Kendo-ka are models of lifelong participation in Kendo. By observing in particular elderly high grade Kendo-ka doing Ji-geiko and by having Ji-geiko with them, we will receive many suggestions on how we should tackle Kendo, just like them, we will be able to enjoy it throughout our lives.

Uchikomi

This year lets, with the goal of polishing our kihon, endeavour to spend a lot of time doing ‘uchikomi.’

Kyoto Budo Senmon Gakko’s (Busen) head instructor, Naito Takahuru, emphasised ‘uchikomi’ (what we now call ‘kakari’) – as transmitted by Hokushin Itto-ryu in Mito (Tobukan, where Naito started kendo) – as an important part of training. All five of the Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei (ZNKR) awarded 10-dan’s were students of Naito at Busen. That is, Ogawa Kinnosuke, Saimura Goro, Mochida Moriji, Nakano Sosuke, and Oasa Yuji.

The content of the ‘uchikomi’ itself could be repetitiously attacking the motodachi’s men (left or right) using small cuts, or could be doing large shomen cuts, or even cutting the left and right dou, etc etc. At this time, the motodachi’s job is not simply to stand and receive but, if he sees and opening, he should strike men or kote, and should endeavour to receive with the same feeling as the kakarite attacks (the person doing the uchikomi).

You must be careful never allow the connection between the kakarite and motodachi disappear after a single strike (i.e. it must be continuous). You must grasp the correct spatial distance (see prior article on HYOSHI), strike small and fast without large swinging motions.

It takes a lot of training to be able to grasp the others (both sides) hyoshi.


The above was written by Sakuma Saburo sensei (see the ‘About the author’ information below). When translating this very short piece I realised immedietly that it could possibly be a cause of confusion – which is it, uchikomi or kakari that he is describing? Basically, the title of the piece is UCHIKOMI, but he goes on to describe KAKARI(geiko). In it, he states quite clearly that what we call ‘kakarigeiko’ nowadays, was actually called ‘uchikomigeiko’ back in the Busen days (I don’t know if this is actually true, or just hearsay). This is very illuminating because, over the years of living in Japan, I’ve met sensei that (at least to me!) seem to be confusing the two. The official ZNKR definition (and the one I have in the Kendo Coaching manual) is simple. These are my descriptions:

  • Uchikomigeiko – the motodachi opens an area to attack, the then kakarite attacks it. Motodachi leads the pace and cuts are generally large.
  • Kakarigeiko – the kakarite attacks at will, making openings by various ways (kuzushi). Strikes are small, fast, and repetitious. The motodachi may allow strikes to land or may strike back or perform oji-waza.

However, it isn’t always as clear cut as this here in Japan. For example, in both these (great) videos below, you can see the high school students performing uchikomigeiko, yet both are called kakarigeiko, and in the second video there is a slight mixing of both (again, something I mention in the Kendo Coaching manual).

It probably still seems confusing, but its not actually. The safest bet for the non-Japanese-speaking kendoka is that they should stick to the above (ZNKR approved) definitions in general, but be aware that particular sensei or dojo may have their own understanding of the term. At least now – with the aid of Sakuma sensei – we might understand a little bit where the confusion sprung from!


About the author

SAKUMA SABURO sensei was born in 1912 in Fukushima prefecture. He started kendo at around 10/11 years old in Fukushima Butokuden. After graduating from what is now Fukushima University he started teaching kendo at various high schools. In 1939 he began to work in Mitsubushi’s mining operation and taught kendo throughout the country whilst visiting various mines. After the war, he became a student of Mochida Seiji hanshi and – while running his own kendo club – began working as a director in the Tokyo Kendo Renmei amongst other things.

He died at 84 in 1997. He was hanshi hachidan.


Source
平成・剣道 地木水火風空 読本(下)。佐久間三郎。平成9年発行。

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!!!!

Ladder drills

This is an abbreviated/casual version of a chapter that was originally in my just-published Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills book, but which I removed in the final version as it didn’t really fit in the way that I wanted it to (and also because I am terrible at making attractive visual charts… which is why you only get a scanned version here!). Some small footage of my ladder drills can be seen in the Kendo Coaching vid at the very end.

Basically, the brunt of a good kendo training regime is built solely on the repetitive business of practising basics: kirikaeshi, uchikomi, more kirikaeshi, more uchikomi etc etc… with the odd shiai thrown in for fun. At least, this is how it is for me, and what I (and all orthodox kendo teachers) make their students do. Theres a bit more to it than that of-course, but as the years pass by, you start to see how simple the kendo pedagogy actually is. I’m older and somewhat experienced, so am ready and accept the repetition, but younger people sometimes don’t. To make things more interesting, one of the things I like to throw in the mix every so often is some pattern ladder training. (of course, this training isn’t just limited to younger people!)

Theres nothing really new or innovative here, but let me indulge myself and tell you why I think ladder training can be a useful adjunct to a normal regime, and what I do to make the practise slightly more kendo-centric. First of all, what I do to make it more kendo-y is:

  1. The students start in their normal kendo ashigamae;
  2. I require students to stamp (fumikomi) when they come to the end of the ladder. You can add a kiai here as well;
  3. Heavy emphasis on the working of the achilles/lower leg in regards to fumikiri action (bending of knees and keeping the heels up);
  4. The end-point of the drill set – single leg drills – is my goal and its all built around achieving a strong left leg push-of (fumikiri). I don’t necessarily tell the students that this is my aim though.

Benefits of ladder training (in general + my extras) include:

  • A great warm up – you can find your heart rate increasing rapidly;
  • Helps stability – keeping the body ‘grounded’ whilst moving quickly;
  • The ability to empirically measure [improvement] – time students on different drills and record;
  • Left-right balance practise – the kendo kamae favours one side of the body to the other, this is bad. You can easily invert drill training;
  • Strengthening of the fumikiri action – one-leg exercises are great for helping strengthen fumikiri;
  • Concentration on the fumikiri action – removing everything else other than your leg actions, concentration on a single action becomes easier;
  • Its fun!

Theres probably more I could add here, but that will do for now.

To see/download the actual patterns that I use, please click the image below. Note that the numbers with a circle around them denote the RIGHT foot. Note that I sometimes change the legs around, as well as replace a single person running a ladder to two people: one walking on their hands and the other holding their legs, wheel-barrow style.

This file is for your reference only, feel free to do with it what you will.

I hope this was useful. If you have any ideas how to improve on this, please comment here or on facebook. Cheers!