10 years

July 27th 2003, exactly 10 years ago today, was when I stepped of the airplane in Tokyo and started my vague “move to Japan to study kendo and learn the language” experiment. That I’d still be here all this time later is… I don’t know, surprising? Stupid? Crazy? Probably all of the above! Like the vagueness of the initial experiment, I’ve no real plan for this post, so let me run with it and see where it goes.

Although now I’m in what many people assume to be an envious kendo situation, needless to say it hasn’t come without a lot of sacrifice and hard work (not to mention luck), and it continues to be both physically and mentally hard even now. I’ve thought seriously countless times about giving it up and heading back to Europe, but somehow here I still am. I’m not sure exactly how much longer I can keep it up!

I arrived in Japan about 2 weeks after taking part in the 12th World Kendo Championships, held in my home country of Scotland. I was sandan at the time and I knew what I was talking about (actually, I was clueless). One of the first keiko’s I was invited to was a combined primary and junior high school one. With my faltering Japanese I explained my background. I still remember the sensei looking at me and saying “World Kendo Championships? Where was that held? Last year wasn’t it? Who won?” Yeah, the most prestigious competition of the international kendo community meant nothing to your *average Japanese 7dan. Suddenly I was disarmed. The sensei then asked did I want to join the junior high schools kihon routine. Yes, I said, and joined in only to be removed after about 15 minutes into the practise – I couldn’t keep up with the kids pace, I couldn’t understand the Japanese instructions been given, and – frankly – I was so unskilled compared to the students that joining in ruined it for my partners. I’d just been force fed a dose of reality.

Over the next 10 years I’d be force fed on a number of occasions. Getting a hard beating I can take, but its the mental challenge of doing kendo over here that can be the hardest thing to overcome. The fact is, integration is nigh on impossible. This isn’t just in the dojo of course, but a larger barrier that exists at the core of Japanese society. This is assuming of course that you don’t want to stick out, that you want to be treated like your other Japanese kendo friends as much as possible, and that you don’t try to use your awkward non-Japanese ‘special’ status to get some sort of preferential treatment. Even if you manage to fit in pretty well, if you go to a new dojo, take part in a shiai, or join some sort of godo-geiko, many people who haven’t seen you before will assume that you a) have bad kendo; b) you can’t speak the language; and c) you don’t understand what kendo is really about. This is, even for people who do want to stick out (not me btw) a very frustrating experience. Ultimately, this is not something an individual or even a group of individuals can change, and – for me personally – it has been the most disappointing part of my kendo experience in Japan.

I receive emails on a semi-regular basis that start “I love kendo. I want to move to Japan and study it seriously. What should I do?” My advice is almost always the same – “if you are in your early/mid 20s then come over for a year or two, learn the language as much as you can, and enjoy/explore Japan… all while getting in as much keiko as you can. After that, get out of dodge and go back to wherever and focus on your job/career and friends.” The reason why I say this is not only because of my personal experiences, but of those around me: I’ve yet to see a single non-Japanese person balance a successful kendo life and career (of course I don’t know every non-Japanese kendoka in the country). I guess those that do come out the most successful are the people that manage to get professional jobs and still manage to get to the dojo twice or three times a week. Honestly speaking – if your mind is set on coming to Japan – this is probably your best bet…. just remember that you may only do kendo 2 or maybe 3 times a week and you’ll probably have to live in or around Tokyo.

When all is said and done, I speak Japanese pretty well and I’m doing kendo a lot. I study under really strong teachers, great kendo friends, nice dojo’s with beautiful floors, etc etc. Sounds great doesn’t it? I guess it is!!!!!!!!!

* this attitude has changed slightly since then, but not as much as you may imagine

Gekken Kogyo 撃剣興行

Sometime in the very early 1990s, Britain’s Channel 4 TV station started broadcasting Sumo on terrestrial TV. I don’t know why they took the chance of broadcasting such an exotic sport, nor did I care – it was on, it was Japanese, I must watch it.

I not only watched it, but I studied it: every Japanese sounding word I heard I wrote down on a piece of paper as well as the English translation. At that time I thought “Chiyonofuji” was Japanese for wolf, “Terao” = typhoon, and “Mitoizumi” = salt shaker… all pretty embarrassing mistakes to admit nowadays considering!

At this time, I hadn’t yet began kendo, I had played around with aikido and judo and thought that karate (what I currently practised) was the epitome of Japanese budo.

Fast-forward 20+ years on and now I live in central Osaka, under 10 minutes walk from the Prefectural Gymnasium where the spring Sumo tournament (basho) is held every March. Not only that, but one of my dojo (Yoseikai) is in the basement of the same building.

Of course, I’ve been to see the spring basho a few times, and have marvelled at the size of the rikishi (they are massive… much bigger than on a tv screen) as well as the spectacle of the event as well.

As you can see, I’ve had an interest in Sumo for a long time. Coming to Japan, learning the language, and studying more about the lifestyle of individual rikishi has engendered an even greater respect in me for them. Of course, Sumo has been marred in recent times by match fixing scandals and (to a lesser extent) bullying… but in all honestly, neither has dampened my enthusiasm much.

So, its of no wonder that I am intrigued by the fact that there was a point in time where kendo nearly took the same route as modern Sumo… that is, there was a possibility that kendo may have ended up as a professional sport with payed/salaried athletes. This possibility was perhaps slight (and since it never happened, academic), but it existed nevertheless.

When the Tokugawa-Bakufu was dismantled in 1867/68 budo education was thrown into turmoil: gone were the domain schools as well as the short-lived Kobusho, and with that budo instructors suddenly lost their profession. Many (now ex-) samurai were suddenly jobless and facing destitution. One person that stepped up to help these people was the ex-samurai, Kobusho kenjutsu instructor, and Jikishinkage-ryu kenshi Sakakibara Kenkichi. He instituted what was called “Gekken-kogyo” – the highly popular public budo shows. “Gekken” (alternatively “Gekiken”) refers to the nascent form of what we now call kendo (“kenjutsu” was another common term for sparring in bogu with shinai). Although mainly sword-based shows, bouts with other weapons also occurred, and women and even foreigners are also recorded to have taken part.

Sakakibara used the already established Sumo-kogyo (now called O-Zumo) as the basis for this new sword-based show as we can see by the use of banzuke, dohyo, yobidashi, gyoji, shinpan, colourful clothes, and so on, as well as splitting the competitors into East and West camps. A comparison between the wood block prints of Sumo and Kendo at the time reveals an amazing similarity.

These shows gathered ex-budo instructors up and they took part in bouts in front of a paying audience. The swordsmen themselves were ranked and payed. I'm not sure if their rank and compensation was based on their performance, but it wouldn't be hard to imagine that even if they hadn’t at this time, that it soon would evolve in that manner.

The shows almost instantly became popular and more sprung up in different parts of the country, mostly connected with Sakakibara and his jikishinkage-ryu students, but some not. Due to its popularity, a larger, specialised arena was built in Asakusa to deal with bigger events.

At this point you can imagine it wouldn’t have been a large step for Gekken to have become more formalised and professional, especially since it was following an already tried-and-tested model (Sumo-kogyo), but it didn’t.

There was a couple of problems that followed the success of the shows:

  1. There was a sudden flood of competitors, most of whom were unskilled. This led to messy/scrappy fights where it became difficult to choose a winner;

  2. The new Meiji government was sensitive to groups of people gathering and discussing political matters under cover of the shows (the same had happened in dojo in Edo during the Bakamatsu period).

Due to number 2 above, Gekken Kogyo eventually were banned and – even when the ban was lifted – its popularity never returned. The main reason for this is almost certainly that skilled competitors ended up being hired as policemen in the newly created Keishicho (Gekken became mandatory in part due to the arguments put forth by Kawaji Toshiyoshi in the Gekken Saikoron). At the end of the day, as you can see, Sakakibara’s wish of helping destitute budo teachers was in fact realised. This system continues in a modified form to this day.

Although it never happened, the professionalism of kendo into something akin to Sumo is an intriguing thought. Had it been realised, what would the kendo community and organisations look like today? Physically, would it be more or less athletic? Would it even have spread outside of Japan? Would you or I even be practising it?

Next time you are watching a sumo bout (or even better, when you go to see one), its worth thinking over.


Please check out the small gallery of pictures below, showing Ukiyo-e prints of both Gekken and Sumo, as well as Banzuke from both. For more information about the first picture in the gallery please read this article. 

Eikenkai June 2013

On a hot and sticky day at the end of June, 24 kenshi got together at Sumiyoshi Budokan in central Osaka for the usual kihon keiko bash. Keiko was especially interesting as we had a lot of first-timers, 8 in total. Hopefully some will become repeat members!!

The menu was as usual split into three – kihon, waza, and jigeiko – split into 40, 35, and 40 minutes respectively. After keiko we went to the nearby okonomiyaki restaurant for food, beer, and kendo chat.

Our next session is only a month away, on Sunday the 28th of July. If you are in town, please pop along!


When I was heading to the UK last year I popped into the airport bookshop to see what reading I could pickup for the flight. I quickly selected about 4 books that seemed interesting and looked forward to reading them on the long flight. As usually happens on marathon plane journeys (I assume this isn’t just me?) I ended up watching films back-to-back and drinking beer and got almost no reading done! I finally picked up one of the books last week – Matthew Syed’sBounce: the myth of talent and the power of practise.

As someone who has no natural athletic ability whatsoever, my eyebrow was firmly raised by what the subtitle was suggesting. Talent is a myth? Interested if I could apply anything learned in the book to my study of kendo (and hoping that my lack of talent wasn’t actually a handicap after all!) I dived in.

I’m pretty sure many k247 readers will have read the book, so I won’t attempt to summarize it fully here – I will focus briefly on some aspects discussed mainly in part 1 of the book. If you want an actual review of the book, please look online.

1. Practise

‘it is practice, not talent that holds the key to success.’

In order to get better at something – according to the book – you need to practise it… a lot. The book says a good 10 years, about 10,000 hours of repeated practise is required to become excellent at something. Thats quite a startling premise, and I immediately started my own calculations.

For example, yesterday I did 3 keiko sessions: in the morning (45 minutes of kihon), at work (80 minutes of kihon), and in the evening (25 minutes of kihon and 45 of jigeiko), thats a total of 195 minutes (3 hours 25 minutes). If I did this (hard) schedule 6 days a week I’d clock up 1,170 minutes/week x 52 (# of weeks in most years) = 60,840 minutes/year = about 1,014 hours. So – in order to reach the 10,000 hours marked needed for excellence – I’d basically need to continue this schedule for the required 10 years.

Holy cow. Needless to say that the above schedule isn’t easy physically (or mentally) and I don’t (can’t!) do it every day…. in fact, as much as I love kendo I’m not even sure I’d want to.

* Out of yesterdays 195 minutes of practise 150 minutes was kihon (79%) … this begs the question ‘what am I getting good at? …. kihon or jigeiko?’

Caveat – the practise must be Purposeful / deliberate

‘in most sports, its is possible to clock up endless hours without improving at all.’

‘it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.’

The book states that the time put into practise has to be deliberate – you must be working to improve at all times and always switched on, otherwise the time is – if its excellence you seek – wasted.

I’m pretty sure that I spend the majority of my keiko time (especially during kihon) consciously thinking about what I’m doing, but its nowhere near 100% of the time.

If, lets just say for arguments sake, 70% of yesterdays keiko time was ‘deliberate’ then 30% was wasted – meaning that the time to reach excellence would be increased by that time lost… so rather than 10 years at the 3 keiko/day-6 days/week formula, I’d actually need something between 13 and 14 years.

2. Start young

‘prodigies are made not born.’

Some of my police friends who are the same age as me (38) are already nanadan. Their kendo is nothing short of amazing, and I often find myself watching them with envy, or facing them with frustration. Like many people who began kendo at a late age (19) I have quite a strong complex when it comes to comparing myself with serious kendoka my own age, as they are exponentially better. The excuse* is always – “Well, they started when they were six after all….”

The benefits of starting kendo, or anything for that matter, at a young age is obvious. 16 year old high school students who started when they were 6 years old often have very good at kendo (even though they may not have notched up 10,000 hours they are generally well on the way). Many if not most do not have extraordinary skill, however, so its easy to say that the difference between two students like this comes down to natural talent or innate athletic ability alone. But perhaps the difference lies not so much with these factors as to their external environment, including good teachers, facilities, and – most important of all – motivation, all of which would theoretically help increase the ‘deliberateness’ of their keiko.

I’ve taken many students from 15/16 year olds with no experience to 18 year old nidan’s (training 6 days/week over 2.5 years) but, despite them achieving a pretty good kendo shape, they simply can’t compare to those that have already wracked up 10 years of deliberate experience. The best of this bunch invariably tend to have some sort of athletic background.

I spent sometime thinking about people around me that became good quickly without starting at 6 years old, and I could only think of one person: he started when he was 13 years old and, after being spotted for his ability, went to a high school specialising in kendo from the age of 15. By 20 he had 4dan and will attempt his 5dan this year (and probably pass) at the age of 24. Looking at him you may think that he has god given talent, but thats without realising he was in a tremendous environment to learn kendo from the start and – especially his high school years – went through hours of daily kendo sessions.

The book states that child prodigies to not simply appear out of thin air, they are shaped. It also says that starting as young as possible is a benefit. I would have to agree to these points with for the most part.

(*Note: I didn’t start drinking when I was 6, but being Scottish I started much earlier than my same-age Japanese nanadan friends … which has its own kendo benefits!)

3. Feedback

‘Feedback is, in effect, the rocket fuel that propels the acquisition of knowledge, and without it no amount of practise will get you there.’

Every year I get a new batch of 15/16 year olds join my kendo club. Some of them already have nidan and have been practising since they were 6, others have shodan and started at 13. What I’ve discovered is that these facts alone don’t tell me much about their actual kendo ability, as sometimes the nidan students have very bad habits and a messy style. Whats more revealing (without fail) is the environment that they learned kendo, specifically the teacher(s) or lack thereof.

Without a good teacher to tell us what to do, and to monitor our improvement (or lack of) its very hard to get (specific) feedback. Its this constant monitoring-explaining-fixing-trying-monitoring loop that increases development growth, says the book.

4. Are Blacks Superior Runners? i.e. Are Japanese people Superior Kendoka?

‘Why spend time and energy seeking to improve if success is only available to people with the right genes?’

Probably the best known 8dan brothers are the Miyazaki’s and the Eiga’s, but there are more. I can think of at least 3 sets of 8dan brothers in Osaka right of the bat. Combined with the fact that there are no non-Japanese hachidan (awarded in Japan by Japanese people of course), the Japanese teams record in the World Kendo Championships (male and female), the the numerous shiai wins by Japanese people in local competition throughout the world, you would be forgiven to thinking that there was somehow a genetic edge to things. Thats not how I see it at all.

The book itself destroys the myth that all black people are naturally gifted runners and we could easily use the same framework of thought to do the same for Japanese people and kendo. The reality is that Japans domination of the art is simply one of ‘cultural legacy.’ Kendo has been done for longer in Japan, is controlled by a Japanese organisation, and no other country can come close to Japans kendo infrastructure.

If you want your child to be good at kendo its simple: move to Japan, find a strong kendo area, and place your kid in the correct schools (as young as possible). If all things are equal, your child has about as much chance at becoming strong at kendo as any other Japanese child (assuming they are motivated). Translating that into a successful kendo career over here is a different story though… but this relates not to genetics, but to less savoury factors.

If Teramoto Shoji had been born in Kenya, there would have been little chance for him to start kendo at 6, enter into the international budo university, become an Osaka police tokuren member, or win the all-japan and world championships. He would have had a much higher chance of entering the olympics as a runner.

Summary / opinion

‘expert knowledge simply cannot be taught in the classroom over the course of a rainy afternoon’

I would definitely agree with the basic premises of the book – that improvement comes with continual and long-term repetition of deliberate practise. Starting young and practising in a good environment with a great teacher is also a no-brainer. Being in the correct situation/environment to do this from a young age is often down to opportunity, chance, and luck is again something I think is obvious. That anyone could seriously suggest that its the genetics of the Japanese rather than the infrastructure that gives them their kendo advantage is laughable.

But what of God-given, natural raw talent? Does it exist?

Theres no denying that there are many advantages to having a strong/athletic physique, and being tall is – unquestionably – the largest physical advantage a kendoka could hope for. But even people like this cannot simply become good at kendo instantly. They still need years of practise, the must do lots and lots of kirikaeshi and uchikomi: there is no shortcut.

That some adult beginners advance quicker than others is obviously, at least to me, a fact. Whether this is down to ‘talent’ or simply due to their background to date is open to debate. Personally, I think those that have some sort of sporty experience (not ‘talent’) behind them do tend to fair better kendo-wise, at least in the beginning.

What I took from the book is this: reaching excellence in something is the result of deliberate hard work and repetitive practise over years. Although some of us many never master the highly polished skills that others have (for a variety of reasons), conscientious practise can’t fail to help us improve. Although this conclusion is rather obvious, I do think its worth keeping it in mind when watching those that seem to be naturally ‘talented’ – remember that almost certainly their ability didn’t suddenly spring forth suddenly from nothing, rather it is an end product of sustained experience. If you think like this and are prepared to work hard, then any envy you may feel towards others and any limits (or excuses) you artificially set yourself will be removed. All you need to do now is get back to the dojo and practise.

Selected quotes

‘the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long persistence of deliberate effort to improve performance.’

‘Once the opportunity for practice is in place, the prospects of high achievement take if. And if practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent is going to get you there.’

‘Why would any individual or parent spend time and energy seeking opportunities to improve if success is ultimately about talent rather than practice? Why would we make sacrifices if the gains are, at best, uncertain?’

‘The paradox of excellence is that it is built upon the foundations of necessary failure.’


Bounce. Matthew Syed. Fourth Estate. Published 2010.

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.