During June last year I was invited to join an open keiko session at the dojo which probably has oldest (kendo-related) tradition in the Kansai region. During the break between the kihon and jigeiko parts of the session I was wandering around the dojo looking at the various pieces of calligraphy and what not that were displayed on the walls. One in particular caught my attention: a metre long piece with five tegata, or hand-prints. Inspecting it I saw that it was some sort of commemorative piece with the hand-prints and signatures of the kendo giants Takano Sasaburo, Mochida Seiji, Ogawa Kinnosuke, Saimura Goro, and one other name I couldn’t exactly make out. I didn’t have longer to study it as keiko began again and I mostly forgot about it.
A few months later I was again snooping around a dojo – this time in Nagoya – when I noticed the exact same piece tucked in behind some trophies out of sight. I managed to have it brought out and myself and the Japanese sensei started discussing it. I confirmed my initial suspicion that it was a list of the sensei who took part in the 1940 tenranjiai, with the five tegata being the most senior sensei. The names below this were those that took part in the specialist competition section and the demonstration matches. I realised that not only had I seen the piece at the dojo a few months earlier, but perhaps in a couple of other dojo in the past. However, there was still one niggling puzzle: the name in between Takano and Mochida. The Japanese sensei and myself stood pondering over it for a few moments before keiko began.
Roll on January 2016 and a few days ago, to my surprise, I received a package in the post. Unboxing it I was absolutely delighted to discover it was the piece that I had been looking at in both dojo: one of the sensei in Nagoya managed to somehow source one and have it sent to me!!!! Unfurling it and having a close look I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that it must have been a piece that was on sale (or given away perhaps) around about the time of the 1940 tenranjiai. I’m not sure if the original had red hand-prints or not but I’ve yet to see one. Mine, and the others I’ve seen, are all reproductions in black.
There was still one nagging problem however: the mystery name. Sitting in my quiet living room by myself, it took me less than 3 minutes to work it out. In 1940 who were the top sensei? Who could possibly be above Mochida yet below Takano? Whose name stood out because of it’s absence?
I decided that it could only be Nakayama Hakudo. But what was written there was not anything close to “Nakayama” but something like “Arinobu.” Then it clicked. Nakayama Hakudo inherited the dojo Yushinkan from Negishi Shingoro. The kanji for YU-SHIN is 有信 which, as a name, is read ARI-NOBU. The first kanji of the signature was obvious the HAKU or Hakudo, and the last kanji, when I checked online (it was written in an unfamiliar style), was of-course michi, or DO in Hakudo. In other words, it is unmistakably Nakayama. There are a few reasons why he may have signed his name like this, but I suspect it was just artistic flourish!
The following is a translation from a privately published 1928 book entitled “Noma dojo ki.” I assume that a set number of copies were printed and distributed to Noma dojo members only (it was finally re-published publicly in 1996).
The book is essentially split into two halves: the first discusses Kodansha founder Noma Seiji’s ideas about kendo and education, and the second is messages from the various kendo teachers there at the time to Noma dojo members. These included Nakyama Hakudo, Saimura Goro, Oshima Jikita, Hotta Sutejiro, Yamamoto Chujiro, and Nakayama Zendo (there is also a smaller section where the young Noma Hisashi and Masuda Shinsuke offer advice as well).
Note that this book was published just before kendo became immensely popular and Noma dojo itself a kendo mecca. Both happened due to the fallout of a single event: the 1929 Showa tenranjiai (a story for another day).
The small section I present today is by Oshima Jikita, a gentlemen I introduced on kenshi 24/7 recently. Again, like all my recent translations, this is perhaps more interpretive than literal. I hope you enjoy it.
Oshima Jikita’s advice for Noma dojo practioners (1928)
Like the saying “DAI-KYO-SOKU-KEI” (big, strong, fast, light) suggests, your strikes should incorporate all these elements: “DAI” means that your techniques should use large movements; “KYO” means that your strikes should be firm and accurate; “SOKU” means to attack smoothly without delay or doubt; and “KEI” refers to being able to move your body swiftly and lightly in any direction. If you attempt to strike with only strength your body will stiffen-up and you will be unable to move smoothly. To strike quickly, then, you must get rid of unneeded power.
During keiko it’s important that you not over emphasise trying to strike your opponent in a skilful manner. Don’t be overly concerned with victory or defeat, simply attack with abandon (sutemi). However, you should realise that in the instant of victory there also lies an opportunity for defeat, and in the instant of defeat there is a chance of victory. That is, defeating your opponent is not due to your skill but, rather, it’s their fault for allowing an opening to appear. In defeat too, it’s not because your opponent was strong, but because you allowed an opening to appear.
A note to Hisashi (Noma Seiji’s son, the future owner of the company):
In order to use maai in a skilful manner you should make a distance where you feel far to your opponent yet he feels close to you. For your kendo, I think you should fight from a far distance (about the distance where you and your partners shinai tips are touching) and strike men from there. Remember and put power in to your left leg in particular.
I think the most important thing in kendo is the battle to take and act on the initiative (debana). If you feel that you haven’t quite caught the instant correctly, you should prepare to defend yourself.
Sometimes when seeking to strike a debana technique we find ourselves moving seemingly without reason towards the opponent and striking. Hitting them we may feel in a way that it’s more of an accident or luck than anything else, but you shouldn’t think like that. Often it’s simply “inspiration.”
When it comes to shiai the following are important: power of observation, judgement, strategy, bravery, and composure. You should know how strong/skilful your opponent is before the shiai, though you could observe it during as well. Generally, however, all five of the elements mentioned above should be at work during a shiai without conscious effort. Please pay attention to this.
Also, like the phrase “attacking is proof of victory” suggests, it’s important to attack with abandon (sutemi). However, attacking blindly is foolish: it’s important to attack with abandon only at the right time.
One day, one waza
I think it’s good that you keiko with a goal in mind. It’s hard to practise every technique every time, so it’s better to be selective: “today I’m going to practise attacking from a far distance,” “I’m going to practise oji-waza today,” “I’m not very good at dou cuts, so let me work on them today” etc. etc., I think it’s good if you pick something and work on it. If you focus your daily practises like this and not worry too much about striking or being struck, then I think it’s a great way of improving rapidly. However, “I’m only going to practise techniques today” or “I’m only going to practise training my spirit today” is not thought a good method of quick development.
This are only my ideas. Although I think it’s important to listen to advice, I also believe it’s important to use your eyes and watch what people do and how they move. I believe that this type of research is essential to your improvement.
Shouting (kiai) and spiritual power
Unless your entire body is filled with spiritual power you will be unable to shout effectively. It is only when your spiritual power has travelled through your entire body and has reached it’s peak can you shout effectively.
For example, when labourers or sailors are tired and someone leads them in a sing-song, their tiredness disappears. The use of shouting in kendo can have the same effect.
You have to shout from the very bottom of your stomach so that when you strike your opponent they believe they have been cut down.
– debana men: when the opponent attempts to strike your men strike their men while going past them to the right or left.
– Debana kote: when the opponent steps in to strike you strike their kote.
– Debana dou (nuki-dou): the instant your opponent steps in to strike you cut their dou.
– Debana tsuki: the instant your opponent moves forward tsuki them (*editors note: not a popular waza nowadays because it’s dangerous)
In basic technique practise like this the attacks and counter-attacks are pre-arranged. Despite this, you should strike with full intent and only after you are in synch with your partner.
During dou strikes you shouldn’t just hit and stand there as it will become ai-uchi. Instead, after striking you should release the grip on your left hand and go past the partner in a smooth action.
There are various ways in which to execute techniques, how you do so depends on the situation.
Kirikaeshi and katate-uchi
For kirikaeshi start from a far distance and step in and strike men before doing sayu-men. Keep striking sayu-men until you are exhausted, then step back to a far distance and start again. Each set must be done in a single breath only.
Attacking from a far distance not only will improve your footwork but you will become more familiar from attacking from afar. Once your men attack from a far distance has improved somewhat you can add in tai-atari.
Executing a one-handed (katate) strike when there is no opportunity to attack is meaningless. If there is an opening and you have practised so much that you are able to execute one-handed techniques effectively, then it’s fine to use them. However, you must be good at using two-handed techniques first.
If you don’t follow this process, that is to become good at two-handed techniques before attempting one-handed ones, then you will be sorry in the end. I suspect that people who ignore this have some sort of spiritual or emotional problems.
Examples of good one-handed waza include katate-men against someone who has just finished executing a technique; katate-yoko-men against a small men or kote attack; threaten to attack kote and then strike katate-yoko-men; etc.
Tenouchi and tsuki
Regarding tenouchi, as soon as you have made a strike return to your kamae. Like the shrine maidens of Ise shrine who shake bells while dancing, when you think something is out of your hand it’s actually in it, and when when you think it’s in your hand it’s actually loose. This way of gripping is important.
Within the different techniques that we do in kendo, tsuki waza are amongst the most feared. If you are good at tsuki then your opponent will be scared of you. Conversely, if you are facing an opponent whom you know to have a strong tsuki then you may find yourself cowering uselessly in fear before them.
Takano Hiromasa (1900-1987), kendo hanshi and headmaster of Itto-ryu*, was the the second son of kendo legend Takano Sasaburo.
A brief bio:
Hiromasa began studying the sword when he was 6 years old in his fathers dojo, Meishinkan. He graduated from Tokyo Shihan Gakko in 1923 and, in 1927, took over the day-to-day running of Meishinkan. At the same time he started teaching kendo at various universities (Waseda, Tokyo Institute of Technology, etc). Between 1936-41 he lived in America and taught kendo at California State University. After returning to Japan he started becoming involved in kendo publications, first by producing a magazine called “Shin-budo” before authoring his own titles. After the war he continued writing kendo books, eventually writing a kenshi-inspired novel. This led to him becoming a budo (swordsmanship) advisor for various plays and movies.
Today, similar to what I did in an earlier article of his fathers writings, I present a sort of mostly-translation plus semi-interpretation of a chapter from Hiromasa’s 1973 “Kendo Dokuhon” (Kendo Reader) entitled “Jotatsu no hiketsu” (the secret to improvement). I hope you enjoy it !
* Itto-ryu that was passed down through the Takano family is refereed to “Nakanishi-ha itto-ryu” nowadays, but it was never referred to this prior to the 1960s: it was always called “Ono-ha itto-ryu.” The change in nomenclature was done, presumably, to establish it as something different from the Ono-ha itto-ryu of Sasamori Junzo who, in 1960, copyrighted the name.
Key’s to improvement in kendo
1. Concentrate on developing willpower
The spiritual power of humans:
Horie Kenichi, a young 23 year old yachtsman, crossed the pacific on his own, from Nishinomiya to San Francisco, in 1963. It took him 94 days. Since his success there have been many other people attempting to copy him, however, it’s like tapping a stone bridge before crossing it (i.e. looking before leaping) their caution makes what they are doing valueless. Horie, on the other hand, dared to do what nobody had ever attempted before, and thus can be said to have great spiritual strength.
On January the 24th 1972 Yokoi Shoichi was captured on the island of Guam after spending 24 years living in a cave. People were struck with admiration at his will power.
Both of these people are good examples of humans spiritual capability.
The first and most essential thing you must develop to improve your kendo is your emotional strength, that is, to have an indomitable spirit.
If the first most important thing for improving your kendo is development of the spirit, then the second is to continually endure the hardships of repeated keiko sessions day-in-and-day-out in the dojo. This of course not limited to kendo, but various things in life: without practise you cannot improve.
As kendo is a physical art, simply thinking about it doesn’t help much – you can only learn by doing. It’s best to do this without debating this and that and chatting endlessly on kendo topics, but by getting your head down and working hard.
Adapt to the location:
In a large dojo you should spar from a far distance. In a small dojo you should spar from a close distance. In kendo we must learn to fight from both far and close distances, so practising in different dojo and learning to adapt to any dojo size constraints is essential.
In other words, don’t let yourself be constrained to a single distance, but practise in and acquire techniques to use in various situations.
Practise with difficult or awkward opponents:
It’s only natural that everybody has opponents that they find more or less easier or difficult than others. If you think “this guy is really awkward to fight with” and avoid him, it’s the same as choosing only those you can beat. Obviously, this is a sad state of affairs, and you will never truly grasp the essence of kendo.
You have to be able to face squarely and respond to (defeat) a variety or different types of opponent. Everybody has their own shape, style, and thinking. Learn from them to improve your kendo.
3. Don’t put too much importance on winning or losing
The main point of beginners shugyo (pursuit of kendo):
It’s important that beginners throw out any thoughts about winning and losing. They should simply aim to execute the basic shape of kendo as they have been taught it.
For example during uchikomi-geiko, if a beginners partner opens up his or her men to be struck, rather than attempting to hit it as fast as possible without concern for form, the beginner should take their time and aim to strike as correct as they can. This is important. Through practising this way repeatedly, even if the beginner still uses too much power, their form will improve.
Be struck to develop:
Even though in kendo we often say “Don’t worry about being struck” everybody does. Although it’s almost impossible to not worry about it, it’s important to try not to worry about it as much as you can. Like the well known phrase “turn a failure into a success” suggests, being struck is a chance to learn: “why was I strike then?”
In this way you can not only learn your own weaknesses and work on improving them, but you can also learn new techniques from your opponent.
4. Study under a teacher
Practise with your teacher and seniors:
It’s important that you learn under a good teacher(s) and good sempai. By practising hard with them and listening to their advice and direction, you cannot fail to improve. If you cannot patiently listen to their advice or endure hard keiko with them, then you will simply stop progressing.
This is all well and fine assuming that the the people you are studying under are actually good, however. If you are not lucky enough to have access to good teachers you will develop bad habits that are difficult to fix: “It’s faster to knock down and old house and rebuild than reform one that has been built slipshod.”
An old kendo saying goes: “rather than start three years earlier, it’s better to wait three years until you find a good teacher.” In other words, because a bad teacher can potentially – and irreparably – damage your kendo, you are better doing nothing than wasting your time studying under one.
There are different opinions as to how to study kendo in the beginning. Some people believe it’s important to learn the theory first, whilst other believe physical practise is more important. Either way, both have the aim of Jiri-itchi (the unison of physical practise and theory, a term popularised by the famous kenshi Yamaoka Tesshu).
Like I mentioned before, I believe that discussion about theory is useless unless you have advanced technically enough to put words into practise. Therefore it is essential that a decent amount of technical ability is acquired before research into the theoretical aspects of kendo should begin.
Research like “if I seme like this and my opponent does that, then I’ll strike there” or “when I am in this distance if step in like this and move my shinai like that then I can get into striking distance” etc. etc., can be very productive.
However, this unison of physical practise and theory is not the end state of kendo, but a beginning one. The final state of kendo is one where, without forethought or realisation of any kind, the body moves naturally in response to an opponents opening and a strike is made. Achieving this ultimate state is, indeed, a difficult path.
kenshi 24/7 publications can be found at kendo-book.com, please check it out!
It was a relaxing Sunday autumn morning in Kyoto when the school dormitory’s door was flung open:
“Everyone! Nakayama Hakudo and Kawasaki Zenzaburo are practising at the Gojo police station!!!!”
The Butokukai’s bujutsu kyoin yoseijo (martial arts training school) was established in 1905 and was the direct forerunner to the legendary Busen. All five of the future kendo 10th dans came from the initial bunch of students who trained here directly under the father of modern kendo, the very strict but gentlemanly Naito Takaharu sensei. In these early days there was no keiko on Sundays, so the students had free time.
Hearing the news, a young 19 year old student immediately sprung to his feet. Quickly changing into his keikogi and hakama, he stuffed his bogu into a bag and grabbed a shinai:
“I’m off!” he declared.
Nakayama needs no introduction here. Kawasaki, however, is less well known in kendo circles today. Born to a kenjutsu instructor of the Tosa domain in 1860, Kawasaki was a highly skilled swordsman 12 years senior to Nakayama (slightly older than both Naito Takaharu and Takano Sasaburo).
When the out of breath student arrived at the dojo he was out of luck: keiko was already over. Both sensei had removed their bogu and were sitting down relaxing with a cup of tea. This didn’t stop the zealous young man! Sitting in seiza in front of Nakayama he bowed deeply:
Nakayama eyed the youngster carefully.
“Keiko is already finished. Maybe some other time.”
“Sensei! My name is Oshima Jikita and I’m a kendo student at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo. I heard that you were here and came running. Please, even if it’s only for one ippon, please, keiko onegaishimasu!”
Oshima’s ardour was apparent on his face.
“Ha ha ha, ok! Your youthful zeal has beaten me! C’mon then, let’s do 5-hon shobu!”
The year was Meiji 41 (1908), and the 36 year old Nakayama was at his physical peak.
Both kenshi put their bogu on, picked up their shinai and faced each other in the middle of the dojo. The people that participated in the earlier keiko session sat down in a line and watched with anticipation.
Standing up from sonkyo both kenshi immediately let out a loud kiai. Slowly and carefully the distance was closed. Ai-seigan. Nakayama’s kensaki moved just a little and suddenly Oshima flew in…
“Oh!” said one of the spectators, “Nakayama sensei has been struck!”
Everyone was surprised. In the earlier keiko session nobody had managed to strike Nakayama anywhere, and yet here was this young lad who managed to do so without much fuss. And it didn’t stop there: Oshima next delivered a strong thrust and then a kote. Oshima beat Nakayama 3-0.
“Eh…. ?!?! Nobody can hit Nakayama sensei three times!?”
“It’s a miracle!”
The spectators were shocked.
Kawasaki stood up from where he had been watching the bout, and moved towards where his bogu was lying. Starting to put on his tare and dou he suddenly said:
“How about me next then? 3-bon shobu.”
“Sensei, onegaishimasu!” replied Oshima.
The result was the same: Oshima struck men, then delivered another thrust to win the bout.
Taking off his men, Kawasaki turned to Nakayama:
“This one has got something.”
Even if it’s highly probable that both sensei were humouring the enthusiastic youngster by only lightly sparring with him, the fact is that Oshima was skilled enough to land strikes and thrusts on them, a difficult task for even the most seasoned of kenshi. A month earlier, in what was one of the first country-wide competitions for youths (under 25s / kachinuki style), Oshima defeated 23 people in a row taking his team to victory. He was still only 19 years old at the time.
A brief bio
Oshima Jikita (kendo hanshi, iaijutsu and jukenjutsu kyoshi) is one of the early giants of the kendo community. His untimely death at the early age of 51 is probably why he is mostly forgotten today. Had he lived through the war, however, it is probably that he would have been awarded 10th dan at the same time as his long-time kendo friends and fellow bujutsu kyoin yoseijo students: Saimura, Mochida, Nakano, and Ogawa (and later, Oasa).
Along with his teaching duties at bujutsu kyoin yoseijo/Busen he also taught kendo at various places around the country, e.g. Kokushikan, Keishicho, the imperial guards, Toyama military school, etc etc.
He practised keiko right up until the day of his untimely death.
1889: Born in Saga prefecture.
1906: Graduated school.
1907: Attends the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo and studies directly under Naito Takaharu. Other students there at the time include Saimura Goro, Mochida Moriji, Nakano Sosuke, Hori Shohei, Miyazaki Mosaburo and Ogawa Kinnosuke.
1908: Graduates bujutsu kyoin yoseijo (November).
1909: Appointed an assistant at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo.
1913: Awarded seirensho
1916: Becomes an assistant instructor at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo.
1919: Awarded kendo kyoshi and becomes a full instructor at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo.
1925: Awarded jukendo kyoshi.
1929: Takes part in the first of the Showa tenran-jiai. He was defeated by Mochida in the preliminary matches. Mochida goes on to win the competition. Awarded iaijutsu kyoshi.
1932: Awarded kendo hanshi.
1934: Faced Ueda Heitaro at a demonstration match of the tenran budo taikai (pictured above).
1939: Died of a cerebral apoplexy (51 years old).
Yesterday (Nov. 29th) was our 6th and last Eikenkai session of the year.
Twenty-two people rolled up at Sumiyoshi Budokan for a spirited 3 hour kihon-based keiko session. Participating kenshi came from Europe, north and south America, as well as Japan (of-course). After keiko we popped into our usual restaurant to have some of Osaka speciality food (okonomiyaki) and the odd beer or two.
The schedule for next year can be found on the Eikenkai information page. If you are around on one of the days and fancy joining please read the “Points to note before joining a session” before getting in touch. Cheers!