Attack from a far distance – be energetic and lively – attack with abandon

I posted this advice from the kendo legend Saimura Goro sensei (斎村五郎) on the kenshi 24/7 facebook page yesterday. As it got so many likes and shares I thought I’d better put it on the main site as well! Here is is:

「剣道の稽古は遠間より飛び込んで大きく伸び伸びと打つ。それが上品な男性的な、そして将来ますます上達する打ち方である。飛び込む、伸びる、思い切る。」

“During keiko you should attack energetically from a far distance with large strikes. This style of kendo is not only elegant and manly, but it will lead to improvement in your kendo over time. Attack from a far distance – be energetic and lively – attack with abandon.”

The advice above, I think, applies for all kenshi irregardless of age or gender, but Saimura sensei goes on to qualify it for young people in particular:

「それは若い者のみに与えられた特権である。この特権を忘れた人は花の香りをなくし、塩の甘味を失ったと同様、すでに青年の青年たるゆえんを持たぬもので、退歩があっても進歩がないと言わねばならない。」

“Being able to do kendo in this manner is the privilege of the young. Young people who don’t do kendo in this manner are like flowers that have lost their scent, or salt that has no flavour – they are not doing kendo as a youth should, and will never improve no matter how hard they try.”

To read a bio of Saimura sensei please check out this kenshi 24/7 article.

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The difficult years

When I was a wee bit younger than I am today (I’m 39) I wanted to be good at kendo NOW. Not tomorrow. Not in 1 or 2 years time. Now. Immediately. I practised (and still practise -> more on that later) like a madman, feverishly awaiting the point where I’d make the switch over from mediocre to good (or even better, amazing!). Frustration over lack of (self perceived) progress only worsened with time, especially as people started to praise my improvement (lies!) and more so when I’d meet the odd Japanese person who’s kendo was technically sound but who barely practised (i.e. they had practised hard from the age of 6 through university but only casually continued after entering the work force).

If you note a sense of jealousy here you would be right. I’d grimace and brood while watching the folk mentioned above, comparing them to children who were forced into learning another language (or musical instrument) by their parents from childhood. That is, their kendo was/is, as far as I was concerned, a ‘freebie’ from their parents… not something they particularly desired, loved, or tried seriously at acquiring themselves. Their current casual manner was my proof = their attitude was the opposite of mine. Obviously, it’s not healthy to think like this, nor fair on the people involved (they don’t share my obsessiveness after all!).

The next logical step was then to analyse my keiko to see if there was someway I could change it to become more efficient (a shortcut). I read quite a bit about coaching athletes, sport psychology, and pondered on the quantity vs quality debate and the myth of talent. However, the ‘sport’ paradigm never really sat well with kendo: sport is (for the serious or elite player) a relatively short term activity (careers often finish with people in their 30s or younger) with the goal being competitive success and (often but not exclusively) financial reward – I’m sure you see the problems here.

If you want to get the gist of this article (if there is one!) then it is important to realise that that on top of all this reading was a continual research into the history of kendo itself. Specifically, I was (and am still) intensely interested in the biographical aspects (stories) of our kendo forebears. This interest has fundamentally changed my perception of and long term goals for kendo.

(Note that in particular I am talking about descriptions about how kendo was done pre-WW2, that is, how kendo was done, by whom, and why. There is also a lot of written information from kendoka after the war commentating on the seismic change in kendo’s culture and execution.)

Through my reading I started to realise:

1 – Competitions used to be rare – i.e. people practised to strengthen their mind and body. Therefore competitive success had only a limited impact on stature, repute, or status;

2 – People expended years of effort in obscurity honing their already strong basics before achieving technical mastery;

3 – Mastery and repute were based not on technical skill alone, but on a more composite basis, including teaching ability, work experience, and conduct.

Although the kendo has shifted the manner in which it judges mastery and awards status over the years, I do believe believe that the kernel of kendo pre-sportification (pre shinai-kyogi) remains somewhat intact, in particular point 2. I mention sportification here because the first point is now no longer true which has had an irrevocable influence on point three.

This has been something I’ve pondered and considered for some time now, but I am only just posting my ideas on kenshi 24/7 now because of a couple of videos and a blog article that appeared on my facebook wall at the same time a couple of days ago. Of course, they are not kendo related, but they do say something pretty insightful about acquiring skill and mastery of a subject. In particular, this documentary (split over 2 videos) is of interest:


Summary

I’m still waiting to become good/amazing, of course, but it’s now not important whether I actually achieve technical mastery or not – it’s the process, the journey if you will, the shugyo aspect that is important. As such, the quality over quantity debate has become a moot point for me (quantity please), and my jealously of the technically-superior casual kenshi has dissipated (I see them now as simply lazy).

I do believe, of course, that if I continue to work hard and practise as often as I do now (8-10 times/week), that my technical ability will increase, and I suspect that I will overtake casual kenshi around the same age as myself easily in the future (perhaps in our mid 40s/early 50s), it’s just that I’m not obsessed about immediacy as I once was: I am playing the long game.

Patience.

Aggression, violence, and catharsis

I think it was at last years European Kendo Championships some footage emerged online of a kendo competitor flipping his opponent over and behind him mid-shiai. My initial reaction was that – despite it not being something we do in kendo shiai – it was a well timed and executed technique (informing my opinion was that there was no injury caused*). However, the comments online were a lot more critical. Most people were vocal about the dangerous nature of the technique whilst others complained that the shinpan should have disqualified the competitor. At the time I remember thinking that – for me – the question about what to do would depend on whether there was intent behind the action or not.

For the last 10+ years I’ve been working as a full-time educator – both in the classroom and (at first casually but in the last 6 years pretty seriously) in the dojo. Over the years I’ve poured over kendo teaching manuals, watched other kendo teachers coach, payed close attention to how my sensei teach, and even published my own kendo coaching methodology. I’ve also read a few non-kendo specific books on sport psychology and methodology – a very wide and complex subject. One area that immediately stuck out to me as a kendo person was that of aggression.

There are a few theories of aggression, some say that it is learned while others say that:

“… aggression is an inherent and sought-after element of physical contact sports…”

Aggression can be defined as:

“An aggressive act is a behaviour, not an attitude or emotion. An aggressive act involves harming or injuring another living thing who does not want to be harmed. Importantly, an aggressive act must include intent on the part of the aggressor. “

With the caveat:

“Accidentally injuring an opponent is not considered an act of aggression if the key ingredient of intent is missing. The integral element of intent has, understandably, made research into aggression in sport somewhat challenging because it is difficult to determine intent through observing behaviour.”

(emphasis mine)

At most shiai I attend here in Japan (and I’ve been to literally hundreds) you can often see what seems like highly aggressive behaviour – shoving, pushing, overly forceful taiatari or tsuki. I’ve experienced firsthand people acting borderline violent to me during keiko, and – I’m ashamed to admit – I’ve actually gone AWOL a couple of times during keiko over the years and lost control. Because of what I’ve seen and experienced, and because I am involved in teaching on a day-to-day basis, I think this is why the topic of aggression struck me as it did.

Aggression in sport has been categorised into 2 main types:

1. Hostile aggression: “the primary intent is to injure someone or something”
2. Instrumental aggression: “the primary intent is to achieve a competitive goal by harming or injuring someone”

There are a few theories of sport aggression but I’ll just briefly discuss/quote a couple here which I think are potentially relevant to kendo people. (For more details please research online or check out the source.)

Revised Frustration-Aggression Theory

“… athletes are more likely to be aggressive when frustration increases arousal and anger, and they have learned that aggressive acts are deemed appropriate. In our society, it is seen as more appropriate to act aggressively during sport than in other contexts (e.g. in the supermarket or classroom), and in some sports but not in others (e.g. in rugby but not in snooker).”

In other words, context is important. As we are doing a martial art, I think that there is definitely a strong stream of thinking that says behaving aggressively should be the normal approach to kendo (at least in shiai anyway).

This description I think fits some of the aggressive behaviour I’ve seen in shiai and experienced during keiko – frustration with being unable to hit a good ippon or perhaps landing a strike you think is good get you are not awarded it by the shinpan.

In other words, because we are doing kendo (i.e. due to subculture of kendo) we can sometimes feel it’s ok to act (more) aggressively.

Game Reasoning Theory

This is an interesting theory that posits that people “suspend reality” while engaging in sport and “view aggression differently from how we view it in other areas of life.” This then leads to the conclusion that our “moral reasoning differs between sport and everyday life” – quite a large sweeping statement.

Although tackling subjects much broader than the simple over-aggressiveness we sometimes see in kendo (e.g. cheating, strategic fouls, verbal intimidation, physical violence, intentional rule breaking) it is food for thought.

Reversal Theory

By far the most kendo-applicable theory it says:

“for some athletes… the physical contact and aggression involved are the key reason why they play the sport. Being aggressive adds to the excitement, enjoyment, and positive experience they derive from their involvement.”

Aggression (termed violence in this theory) is divided into 4 types, 2 of which I believe are common in kendo:

Power violence“occurs when we experience the serious and mastery states. Our aim is to dominate our opponent to achieve a competitive goal. Power violence is typically a calculated act”

Play violence“occurs when we experience the playful and mastery states: we enjoy the feeling of dominating our opponents, but… we have no intention of causing harm”

The states mentioned above are:

Serious“In this state we want to achieve a meaningful goal… are are concerned with the future consequences of our behaviour.”

Mastery“In this state we focus on competition, toughness, strength, being dominant and in control”

Playful“In this state we… want to enjoy the moment, be spontaneous and have no concern for long-term consequences”

This seems to be to accurately describe the type of kendo I do during keiko with friends or kohai. Of course, the term “violence” is probably not exactly how you or I would define it, but I do understand why non-kendo people might !!

When are people aggressive?

From the table “Situations when athletes may be more likely to act aggressively or believe aggressive behaviour is acceptable” :

– When less sporting and self-determined in their motivation
– When they are older, are male, or participate in contact or collision sports.
– When competing at higher levels in contact sport.
– When high in ego orientation.

Research also shows:

“Athletes who play sport for more intrinsic reasons (such as pleasure) report more positive sporting attitudes (e.g. respect for the rules and fair play) and are more likely to use instrumental aggression, but are less likely to use hostile aggression.”

“numerous studies have examined the links between goal orientation (task or ego) and aggression in sport, consistently demonstrating that high levels of ego orientation (e,g, valuing winning above all else) are related to aggression and antisocial behaviour.”

“in sport, males are more aggressive or report more aggressive tendencies than females”

“athletes in contact sports perceive aggression as more legitimate than athletes in non-contact sports”

Managing aggression

As a coach, I have to be careful that my students don’t become overly aggressive and, also, that I am not aggressive with them. To minimise the former coaches should ensure:

“that they don’t foster overly performance-orientated motivational climates and attempt to develop mastery climates.”

You can do this by:

“praising effort and not just achievement, and encouraging players to focus on improving their mastery of skills rather than trying to outperform others.”

Of course, the culture of kendo already has some safeguards built in that helps reduce aggression:

“by emphasising sportsmanship, such as having respect for opponents and match officials.”

As kendoka I assume you always bow to your opponent, treat the shinpans judgements with respect, and thank your opponent – win or lose – after your match.

Another thing that we kendoka do (or should be doing) that helps stop over-aggressiveness is to be a role-model to students and kohai, and to:

“positively reinforce non-aggressive responses we observe in others.”

I think this is harder to do as kendoka tend to be impressed with strong aggressive kendo full of seme and spirit. Nevertheless, perhaps it’s important not to hold in such high esteem those that act in an overly-aggressive or violent behaviour.

Summary

Kendo being what it is (a martial art), I think it’s worthwhile sitting down and considering where the line should be drawn when it comes to aggressive behaviour (once the line is crossed it’s then violence). It’s also important to remember that this line is somewhat arbitrary and therefore other people may not share your opinion.

Also – especially if you are a teacher or coach – it’s worth ensuring that you work to develop the right type of positive behaviour in your students, especially if they are young. A student acting over-aggressively or violently in a shiai is the teachers responsibility.

There is no real summary or conclusion to this article – it’s simply just some quotes on a subject matter I find interesting and have to tackle in my kendo career. I hope it’s been food for thought.

btw, the “catharsis” in the title is taken from another theory of aggression, that of Instinct Theory. It suggests that aggressiveness is an innate drive or instinct of humans and as such we need to release it (catharsis). Sport – or in our case kendo – is a socially acceptable way to reach this release.

* Eventually it came to be known that the flipped guy was concussed. Had I know this at the time perhaps I would have viewed the technique differently – itself a telling factor.


*** Update ***

This post has generated lots of discussion in the comments section below and on our facebook page, so I thought I’d add quote to serve as an afterthought (actually, this quote I first introduced on kenshi 24/7 back in 2009):

As it is said that ‘the eyes can speak as well as the mouth,’ it must follow that the language of the eyes is delicate and subtle. French philosopher Georges-Luis Leclerc de Buffon stated that ‘words’ express the character of man; an insightful remark. The sword is also considered to reveal the character of the person wielding it and as such, each person has their own individual kendo style. Courageous people, cowardly people, honest people; everyone’s character is reflected in their swordplay. The character of instructors will be passed onto their students as well. It is important to learn under a good teacher of virtuous character, for even the simple act of exchanging blows with a shinai can influence students in many ways. Among the lessons of kendo, there is a teaching that ‘if the soul is just, the sword is also just.’ This teaching is deeply connected to the path of discipline and is a kind of warning against unjust thought and skills.”

– Horigome Keizo, hanshi 9dan.

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Source

For this article I used quotations from a single book just to keep things simple. There are lots more information that can be researched online or in other publications.

Sport Psychology. David Tod, Joanne Thatcher, and Rachel Rahman. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Kyoto Taikai 2014 京都大会 (第110回全日本剣道演武大会)

Following on from on from a couple of posts ago, here are some pictures from this years Kyoto Taikai held this year – as usual – between May 2nd-5th in the Butokuden, Kyoto.

I was there on the 3rd and 5th, but due to the heavy rain on the 5th everyone stayed inside the hall = it was almost impossible to get a good position to take pictures… which was a shame as I was planning on capturing some video as well. Next year!!!!

You can get a feel for the atmosphere of the taikai by checkout out this video:

Eikenkai April 2014

Eikenkai is a kenshi 24/7 led kihon-heavy keiko session that takes place usually every couple of months in central Osaka.

Due to the unavailability of our usual venue (Sumiyoshi Budokan) we used one of our member’s work dojo for this months session. Numbers were kept deliberately small in order to try a slightly different structure and also because a couple of members were attempting 6 and 7dan this week.

After keiko – since it was a beautiful day in Osaka – we grabbed some bento and beer from a nearby convenience story and had a small picnic in Osaka castle park.

Check out this link for more information about Eikenkai, what you need to know before joining us, and to see this years schedule. More Eikenkai pics and news can be found here.