The kendo practitioner and rei (etiquette)

The true meaning of rei is found in the midst of seriousness

The following article was originally published in April 2011 and is by Ota Tadanori hanshi (see author bio below). I placed this article on my ‘to-do’ list a while back and picked it up randomly a few days back. With the 15th World Kendo Championships happening this weekend, I thought a timely re-visit of an aspect of modern kendo that many sensei complain about: lack of manners. Especially during shiai, this seems to be the first thing that goes out the window.

The word ‘REI’ in Japanese refers to the physical act of bowing as well as ‘good manners’ in general. The term in Japanese can have a far deeper and wider meaning that simply ‘manners’ in English and brings a kind of (at least to me) sophistication and refinement/dignity with it. Due to this I have mainly left ‘rei’ in the original text as ‘rei’ in the translation.

Keiko itself is rei

As far as good etiquette in kendo goes, you either do it or you don’t. Respect, consideration, and a feeling of gratitude for your partner is where the essence of rei lies. If this is lost then kendo is nothing but an activity where you hit each other with sticks. This short essay is about how an understanding of rei can be used to improve your kendo.

When I was learning kendo from Fukuoka Akira sensei we didn’t have a dojo, but practised in his garden. Keiko only began after I cleaned the garden with a bamboo broom. Of course there was no Kamidana (small Shinto shrines found in many dojo) but I was taught that cleaning the area itself was an act of purity and that the place was sacred. After that I performed ritsurei (standing bow) to my sensei. This was the first form of etiquette I was taught.

Eventually, someone in the locality volunteered their storehouse and we remodeled it into a dojo. The finished structure had a kamidana and I learned the correct etiquette to perform in this type of environment. I feel that in a child’s mind, when you have a kamidana, understands that the place is different to others, that it is sacred.

When I first became a member of Keishicho (Tokyo metropolitan police force) we used to practise in the Keishicho gym, which didn’t have a kamidana. Instead there hung a large, solemn, picture of Mt. Fuji by the painter Yokoyama.

When I was a member of the physical-education division I was lucky to be taught by Masuda Shinsuke sensei for a year. During this time the kendo members were doing their warmup stretches in the dojo and Masuda sensei got angry and taught is a valuable lesson: ‘Do your warmup outside of the dojo. Don’t come to the dojo until you are ready for keiko!’ Also, when I entered the Tokuren (special kendo training division) we were told: ‘When you enter the dojo you mustn’t laugh nor smile.’ We were taught that a dojo was a place for serious and strict training (shugyo).

When top sensei like Ono Jusei and Horiguchi sensei stepped into the dojo immediately the atmosphere would change and without thinking your resolve would harden. It was such a powerful feeling that those people that came for degeiko (i.e. visitors) would often feel oppressed by this atmosphere. It was my good fortune that my day to day training happened in such an environment.

The sensei didn’t teach through words, but by demonstration – you had to watch how they acted and copy it. These sensei trained like their lives depended on it, so there were many many points that had to be studied. Individually we thought ‘I want to be like X-sensei’ and proceeded to practise with that sensei in mind, trying somehow to catch their kendo essence. Of course, this included all their mannerisms, including their etiquette.

‘Rei ni hajimari, rei ni owari’ (keiko begins and ends with rei) – I was taught that it was very important what happens in the time between those first and last bows. First you should bow with the feeling of ‘onegaishimasu’ (please, thank you, a sincere feeling), then keiko with all your energy, finally finishing with the feeling of ‘thank you.’ That is to say: ‘everything in keiko is rei.’ If you practise daily with this feeling, and go to your teacher for instruction, then in the midst of your strict training you will naturally pick up the correct etiquette manner. My experience tells me that its BECAUSE of the severe nature of training that real etiquette can be learned.

If you can’t express yourself physically, then your true intentions cannot be read

I think that the ‘shape’ (kata) of etiquette is very important. Its because it helps express the correct essence of your feeling (the feeling of ‘thanks’) to your partner.

Of course, simply going through the motions without the feeling behind them is unbelievable but, looking at many competitions nowadays, I see many many cases where indeed participants are bowing at their own pace without taking into account their partner (i.e. they are doing the shape only). This gives me a chill.

One of the things that changed kendo from a ‘method of taking life’ to a ‘method for the perfection of the character’ is, I believe, this ‘rei.’ Without this kendo can only be an activity where you simply hit each other with sticks, just another sport. If we support something where people just jump around smacking each other randomly then kendo will change into something that resembles (some) other sports, where there is no sympathy nor feelings of thanks between you and your partner. I think that this rei is the difference between Budo and Sport.

So, teachers must reduce telling their students that ‘shiai is a part of kendo’ and place more emphasis on the ‘everything in keiko is about rei’ aspect. It is essential that teachers themselves ensure that they have the correct etiquette ‘shape’ and show (display) that they understand the feeling behind the movements.

The correct feeling is important, then the shape of expressing it. Kendo no kata is an important tool for this. Everything needed to understand rei is embodied in it. Starting from your bow to the flag (depends on the dojo), how you bow to your partner, how you walk, how you stand, how you sit, how you use your hands… all this must be done in unison with your partner and with the feeling of ‘onegaishimasu’ at the start and ‘arigato gozaimashita’ at the end. We tend to concentrate on how to do the kata themselves (i.e. what we are doing with bokuto, how many steps we take in and out, etc) but in reality its the rei that is permeated throughout that is important.

Its important for teachers to study this aspect, feel it for themselves, and finally for them to show it to those around them.

Train children though correct etiquette

Especially nowadays, people act as if they are blind to children’s discourteous behavior. Its because they are not disciplined properly at home I guess. But surely the essence of childhood isn’t different nowadays than what it was in the past? If you teach children properly, then any child can learn to be polite.

I help to teach the children’s kendo class at Nippon Budokan and nowadays I see that many kids can’t act as part of a group: they suddenly disappear from where they are meant to be, and don’t bother saying hello or goodbye to the teachers or their friends, etc. Of-course, its part of the teachers job to persevere and try to teach the children these things properly. At this time you must not think “how do I teach this kid?” but “how can I communicate my feelings towards this kid?” This is whats important. Thats is to say, whats important is to consider how can you build up a feeling of trust between yourself and that child.

When I am teaching children, sometimes I lightly tap them on the behind with a shinai. Do you call this punishment or teaching? Which side of the border line you lie on depends on whether you are attempting to build up the trust I mentioned earlier. If you honestly desire to ‘teach’ the child something then – if you manage to communicate your feelings to them – trust will be born and the child will begin to change.

Rei is the basis of your daily life in society. ‘Rei = the bonds forged between individuals.’ The base of of this rei is discipline. If you don’t have discipline then rei cannot be learned and will fade. I want people (children) to be disciplined in manners in their homes first, then above and beyond this through kendo.

Of course, that children are becoming ill-mannered is a symptom of Japanese society in general. A while back an American person said this shocking thing to me: “Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese all look kind of similar but its the Japanese that are the most discourteous.” The reason for this is that the modern society has taken to referring to any selfish action as “freedom” thus forgiving it.

The only way to fix this is through rei taught in budo! Our chance to enact this is when budo begins to be taught as part of the national curriculum in junior high schools around the country (this started April 2012).

The best place to teach rei is in the dojo

Its sad to say, but recently many local dojo have been closing and more and more kendo clubs are doing their keiko in public sports gyms. In the ‘All Japan (ken) dojo renmei’ (a group set up for the promotion of kendo for primary and junior high school ages) actually only 1/4 of groups have their own dojo. The rest are probably training in sports gyms or maybe even – like me when I was a child – in gardens. But, obviously, a place that is sacred and pure has a special meaning to it (i.e. a dojo with a kamidana).

First, make sure your appearance is tidy and neat, line up your footwear correctly, then enter the dojo. As you enter collect your thoughts and bow towards the kamidana. The kamidana is not a religious thing, but embodies the spirit of budo. ‘Today I hope to do keiko without being injured’ or ‘I want to do keiko with a pure heart’ etc etc its perfectly fine for people to decide their own individual goal for the days keiko. This is what Fukuoka sensei taught me.

You can only perform such initial salutations in a dojo environment. Why? Because a dojo is a space where everyone from children to adults are under the same roof and – as adults are teaching the children – they are training themselves at the same time. While adults are teaching children they themselves must always heed their own manners, all the while studying from their own sensei. This type of ‘living teaching environment’ is the best attraction of a dojo. Thus I believe dojo are the optimum environment for learning manners.

At any rate, you can’t do kendo without a partner. If you keiko with compassion and gratitude at all times then once keiko is finished you will natural say ‘thank you.’ I believe that this type of satisfaction is kind of ‘beautiful.’ So, everyone, won’t you consider reevaluating your manners again, even just one more time?

This article was published in the April 2011 edition of Kendo Jidai.

About the author

Ota Tadanori, kendo hanshi 8dan. Born in 1941, Chiba prefecture. After graduating high school he entered Keishicho directly. He has won the all japan police championships and taken part in the tozai-taiko, Meiji-mura taikai, etc. He taught as the top kendo teacher at keishicho until his retirement in 2000. He currently has posts in the ZNKR and teaches kendo at various locations.



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10 replies on “The kendo practitioner and rei (etiquette)”

“At any rate, you can’t do kendo without a partner. If you keiko with compassion and gratitude at all times then once keiko is finished you will natural say ‘thank you.’ I believe that this type of satisfaction is kind of ‘beautiful.’ So, everyone, won’t you consider reevaluating your manners again, even just one more time?”

Always good to return to this sentiment as it can so easily be forgotten.

Everything begins, ends, and continues with rei. Whether it is called rei, manners, etiquette, thanks, or respect, we should have it for our partner[s]. As stated by the author and re-iterated by Scott; “…you can’t do kendo without a partner.” If you intentionally hurt, insult, or disrespect your partner, you will not have a partner very long. And, word will get around and no one will want to be your partner.
Sorry to ramble, but this topic conjures many thoughts, too long for this forum, but suffice to say, without respect [for partner or place] too much is lost

Very timely article. Quite prescient of you given the 15th WKC debacle.

A really excellent article, thank you. Sadly, I do think that we will see a separation of kendo into sport and budo. With that, the sport side will get more attention (and money) and grow in size while the “budo kendo” will become a home for “purists.”

very nice to read this as an western kendoka. would like to have it with the warmup like the japanese. there is so less keiko time and very much of it gets wasted.

thank you for your work!

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