kendo shiai

Is kendo faster than the human eye?

Take a look at the video below. This is the winning point of this years Zen nippon senshuken taikai (All Japan championships), held in the Tokyo Budokan on the 3rd of November 2010.

This is the shiai that determines/determined who is the strongest competitor (young/male) in the country (and by extension, the world), and is the most prestigious of all kendo competitions. At such a high level you would expect the shinpan to be able to discriminate between a hit that’s on and one that’s not. But – as you can see – the men-strike does not actually connect.

Watching it in full speed (9 minutes in) you must admit its hard to tell if it hasn’t hit, if not impossible. Adding to that, the three shinpan are all hanshi level… so are really beyond criticism from wet-behind-the-ears-kenshi like you and I. So can we say this is simply “human error” and leave it as is, or do we demand that some action is taken to “remedy” the situation? Are we – like Michel Platini warns about in reference to goal line technology – ready to enter the realm of “Playstation kendo” or do we accept that kendo is – like humans – not perfect?

Whether you’ve checked it out already or not, please look at my earlier article on Yuko Datotsu. It might be a little controversial, I don’t know, but I would suggest that actually striking the target is only part of what makes a yuko datotsu and, if everything but that is counted for, well, maybe its enough.

In my personal experience I would say that by the time it comes to judging very good high school students, most shinpan have a tough job on their hands. Mistakes are made and graciously accepting defeat – despite not being struck sometimes – is part of the culture of kendo. For lower age/level competitions there is sometimes no actual chance of a true yuko-datotsu being made, so decisions are arrived based more on the other criteria anyway… timing, kiai, taking advantage of an opening etc. Shinpan tire over the course of the day, and sometimes encho last for a very long time…. but, finally, a decision has to be made.

In answer to my initial question, I would say that for top level competitors (including high school and university level kenshi) I think the answer is: sometimes. However, I think that actually hitting the target is more important for lower level and lower aged kenshi than it is for those with a vast amount of experience and those that are at high level. For those people “defeat” is something more than simply being hit.

In my personal opinion, I think there is value in accepting defeat even if you haven’t been struck… and this is what sets kendo apart – and above – mere sport.

For more slow-mo vids of high level competition check out the Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei’s youtube channel.

By George

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14 replies on “Is kendo faster than the human eye?”

If kendo was a one sided and goal-oriented sport, then I would say that yes, video replay is necessary.

However, kendo is much more broad than that. Errors do occur and it is a part of kendo that lessons can be learned. If we adopt video replay, we will lose an integral part of the full view that kendo is and how it integrates with all facets of our life.

For me, to lose a match by an error doesn’t mean I quit. By forcing me to accept the decision of the judges, I have to look forward to the next match and improve to the degree where such an error cannot be made.

If there was an opportunity to argue with the judges, then the match degrades into a pit between egos and a real fight would then ensue (as we can see in other sports).

And I’m not in the least interested in that.

Your point about the other essential, if not less important, facets of yuko-datotsu (e.g. kiai, shisei, zanshin etc.) being just as important as actually hitting are clearly reflected in all three hanshi initially giving Nakamura the point, and then changing their decision in favor of Takanabe because of his excellent zanshin after glancing Nakamura’s men.

@deant1984: the other kendoka is called Uchimura (not Nakamura). I believe that the judges holding up the wrong flag at the beginning is not an indication that they thought Uchimura’s strike was in, rather it was simply a mistake. You can see the chushin checking the tasuki on the back of Takanabe before changing colour. These things happen!

That was a beautiful men by Takanabe, everything was there. If it were a real sword, the Uchimura’s kote would have been cut on the way to his men. I think it was a great call.

This article brings up two issues in my mind. The first one is that it can be so easy to be one of those “armchair shinpan” and criticize points given or not given, after the fact. With advanced video technology, we can easily go back to these large tournaments and start questioning why was a point given to someone and not the other and whatnot. Of course, it is easy to forget that judging is harder than it looks, especially considering these high-profile tournaments where the shinai and people tend to move at seemingly lightning speeds. And, of course, we are human and we sometimes misjudge things…even hachidan hanshi people. However, I do feel that this fact is what makes Kendo matches very unique and fun. It’s less about tagging and more about making your attempts at hitting targets believable enough for others to consider it a valid strike.

The second issue that this brings up is that it’s making me evaluate what really makes a point. We all talk about ki-ken-tai-icchi and actually hitting the target that we intend to in the right manner. Obviously, serious effort needs to be taken to take advantage of seme and go for clear targets. But then, maybe switching the focus from time to time training yourself to make all your attempts believable would be in order. That way, whether or not we hit the target, the attempt is always sincere.

Thanks Kenshi247 for a great video and raising a very interesting topic and one that causes great divides among Kenshi. After training at Sydney Kendo this topic comes up usually over beers. 
There have plenty of times after shiai that a defeated competitor loudly complains that “I shouldn’t have lost becos the shinai hit my tsuba/mengane/elbow etc” and to some of us this might say more about the character of the person than the “mistake” of the Shimpan. I’ve been beaten like this before and hell, it is disappointing but I try to take it on the chin because i’ve won matches when the ippon wasn’t spot on.  Also, during the beer discussion we agreed that if you got hit on the elbow and all else was good, the point SHOULD be awarded because you allowed yourself to be exposed ie defeated.
Now you raised a true point about character-building defeat when the point was dubious and I agree that technology should not be introduced. That said, when talking of character, the perhaps controversial question I have for all kenshi is this:
“if you win on a point you KNOW is wrong, can you or should you have the opportunity to request the match be continued?”
Thanks again!     

Takanabe sensei is faster than human eye, there is no doubt. But kendo is more than eye. Hearing and the almost esoteric feeling is part of the judjement. iMHO, anyway.

Oh, I read now the yuko-datotsu article and it calls feeling as experience. Less exotic that way, isn’t it?

@Nick — I have read some anecdotal evidence that that suggested that competitors not only used to sometimes overrule shipan back in the day (pre-war), but that it was fairly common (i.e. refusing to accept a point awarded to you). Which book its in I am not sure, but if I find it I will post it.

Also, looking at shiai from the 1930s you could come to the conclusion that ippon could be awarded by not only the shinpan (omote and ura at that time) calling it, but by mutual consent from the competitors. Of course, I don’t have the rules for those particular shiai, so its just personal conjecture.

Thanks George. Wild times back in the 30s! So what is your opinion on it? Should this be something to be introduced? It would take a huge set of…character to decline a point awarded to you – especially in a huge comp like the All Japan.

I think that one of the most important point is the reality of each moment during the shiai. Have a replay or give us the chance of the discussion regarding an ippon is something away from the valor which kendo try to inculcate on each of us.

Hey Nick,

Sorry for the delay in replying… I actually wrote a very lengthy reply a couple of times but stopped myself from posting as I felt it was overly complicated. Let me see if I can v.v.v.v.briefly sum up a reply based on my experiences here in Japan.

– I think that its impossible to allow children->university level people mutually decide ippon in official competition. It would be nice if they could but, they I wouldn’t trust them to make correct (even honest) decisions.

– apart from a very very small minority of adults (here in Japan), competition is relegated to something that is “fun” once in adulthood. The vast majority of people do not train in order to compete, and they only compete now-and-again at best. The majority of adult kenshi are already more-or-less following the mutual-ippon method in their day-to-day keiko.

– as far as adults who seriously compete (a v.small fraction of the entire kendo population) I believe allowing mutual ippon decisions is feasible, though I can’t see it happening for various reasons.

Hope this adds something to the discussion, and apologies for the overly-late reply.

@alessionicolini -> great point!!!

Cheers George. Sounds reasonable and agree that if it was ever to apply, it could ever be for senior players who have a decent grasp on what qualifies as a yuko datotsu. Thanks again for a thought provoking piece!

I think that it´s a very hard call to be shinpan of such competition.

In the particular case of this year´s all japan final, I can´t say if uchimura´s men was hit from any video I´ve seen of it. In the video posted above, we can see that the kote was hit, but the men is not visible from that angle due to the position of the kote at that moment, which could have been well used to cover the men as a desperate measure… as in this video (around the 0:52 mark):

seen that way it´s quite clear that it´s a legitimate ippon, me thinks.

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