Tough kendo man

I can’t remember the first time I saw any pictures of kendo or any kendo on the TV (James Bond maybe?), but I do remember the first article I read that mentioned kendo… at least I remembered the content and which magazine it was in, but not the writer. This summer I returned to the U.K. for a holiday to see my family and friends, and was surprised to find the magazine hidden at the bottom of the box in a cupboard in my grandmothers bedroom. I was also surprised to see that the writer was none other than Dave Lowry*. Before discussing whats presented in the column, please check out an excerpt here.

Kendo-ka, the toughest individuals?

During an after-training ‘bull’ sessions years ago, my judo teammates were discussing the toughest individuals they had even encountered. One told of a Japanese judo champion who had thrown opponents so hard that, even using proper break-falls, they were knocked unconscious by the force of hitting the mat. Another recounted the abilities of a Chinese martial artist he’d met who could employ vicious foot sweeps that literally somersaulted his opponents. One guy said the toughest people he’d ever met were Special Forces personnel in Vietnam, while another insisted it was the British SAS teams.

Later, I asked my two karate teachers (editor: Japanese I assume?) about this, and unhesitatingly, they both gave the same answer. The toughest individuals they had ever encountered, they said, were elderly kendoka (sword practitioners). “A kendo man who’s in his mid-60’s and has been training for about 50 years,” one teacher told me, “can take an incredible amount of abuse.”

I have often reflected on my teachers’ words. Interesting, isn’t it, that their concept of toughness was not in how much one can dish out, but how much one can take.

[ the rest of the column goes on to talk specifically about karate ]

Although I probably disagree that kendo practitioners are tougher than SAS and Special Forces bit (see *), I do believe that some of my sensei have gone through a lot of ‘abuse’ – both physical and mental – in their (for some of them) 50+ years of training, and that they are very tough individuals.

Over beers or sitting in the dojo post-keiko I’ve heard stories of being sick in men’s, collapsing during keiko, broken arms (!), refusal of water, being forced to do kirikaeshi for hours a day everyday for a year, etc. etc. and written or video-d accounts of older sensei now passed away often tell tale of even more severe training regimes… some of which would not be tolerated by society nowadays. Theres also the fact that as you get older and gradually begin coaching/teaching, you are expected to allow yourself to be cut and tsuki-ed a lot. Compound this with the long active life-span of a serious kendo practitioner (I commonly see people in their 70s practising kendo, and the oldest person I’ve actually sparred was over 90. Theres even a ‘old-peoples kendo competition’ held every year in the Nippon Budokan, with an ‘over 100 years old’ section! I don’t think that this happens in other budo, at least to the degree that it does in kendo) and you can see what the people in the article above were perhaps getting at.

When I am teaching my students or go and visit another dojo and hear people complain that its too hot/cold and that the keiko is too hard/long, or when people moan when struck in an unarmoured place or that someone hit them too hard etc. etc., I often wonder how they would have managed practising kendo back in the day.

Serious long-term kendo practise should cultivate tough people with strong minds and bodies. If after a few years of practise you still complain when someone accidentally hits you in the wrong place, or you don’t want to go to the dojo because you are tired or its hot or whatever, then perhaps its time to reassess whether kendo is in-fact for you. Personally I believe that although I can’t go through the sometimes severe experiences that my sensei went through, I can at least position myself to do the hardest practises that I possibly can. I want to be a ‘tough kendo man’ at the end of the day!!


Traditions: The Art of Taking It, Dave Lowry. Fighting Arts International No.72, 1992

* Lowry is a popular martial arts writer whose work I gulped up as an immature martial artists. Even at that time, however, I realised that his writing was heavily over-romanticised… as it is a bit here. (That said, I hope that Mr Lowry doesn’t mind me using this excerpt… I probably have all his books he published until the mid-90s, so he’s already made his money on me!!)

By George

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19 replies on “Tough kendo man”

I will say this I was in Marine Recon and Marine Force Recon for many years of my life I specifically worked with Army and other nations Special Operations Forces as they are now referred to as. I will say this Kendo just like the military, specifically special operations “attracts” the individual that WANTS to be there, wants change in his or her LIFE. Thats change in their life will affect their environment around them, thus eventually change the world. Toughness, I think alot of the toughness in mental in life. You can sometimes take it in all at once, sometimes one step at a time. To me it depends on how you mentally approach it. It is rare that people just “physically quit” any one of the worlds Special Forces demanding tests. Thye quit mentally, they are done, they have had it, enough is enough. Even though I have been through alot of special training in my life there are those time in KENDO that I do that, in my mind only. I could be in tremendous pain but I move on. Ironically as I write this I must think of how I made it though last year as I have recently been recovering from serious abdominal/intestinal surgery. Half of last year and this year I suffered during training and was always in alot of pain because of the condition I had, hopefully surgery correct this. I personally can’t wait to get back into the full swing of KENDO training, I miss it. I would go to the dojo and help and my Sensei would have me help out. Watching my kids (yes both my kids are studing KENDO as well) was killing me. But I did take alot of cool photos and video. The toughness for KENDO I very much beleive is mental, because like the Special military training KENDO take s you places you never thought you would go and back, and then back again. All I can say is KENDO is not easy, for me it will be a lifes journey and I don’t plan on stopping.

CHEERS everyone !

Hello George,
Very nice article. I know for myself that sometimes I complain too much, but what is one supposed to do when hit over the elbow so hard that can’t move the arm anymore or hit in the head so hard that gets a concussion? Even worse than a concussion is a repeat concussion. That will definitely shorten one’s carrier, he won’t even know his name when he is 70, forget about about competing at 100.
And what is one supposed to do when he feels that Achile’s tendon tightening up more and more? Keep doing 100s of hayasuburis? If that thing snaps you’re out of business for 1 year and even after that you are never the same. I am trying to push myself but I’ve been know to not know the limits of my body and that is why I torn my acls in my knees playing football. I used to play semi-professionally now I can’t anymore. Sometimes I am more afraid of not being able to keep doing kendo than of pain.
What do you think?

Kendo does not lead to concussion like American Football… nowhere near it, not even close. If you are getting concussed during kendo then there is a problem (perhaps your earlier American football career….).

As for the other things, the point is to do as much as you physically and mentally can. I guess it depends on your psychology/physiology and the understanding of your teacher. Its possible than not many teachers in America know the limits of what can or can’t be done (I of-course don’t know if this is true or not). America also has an extreme litigation culture, which doesn’t help things either. Err on the side of caution, etc.

My achilles is 1/2 torn.. could go any moment. I control my keiko (yes, I am [stupidly?] still practising) to minimise damage, and I’m going to the hospital next week. I think I know how much my body can take. If I want to stop, I stop. I’m an adult. Also, last year I was hit by a car and broke my back. ‘its over’ I thought …. but almost exactly 1-year later here I am. I don’t mention this to say how cool or tough I am, simply that I can’t imagine my life without kendo and I have to adjust to what happens.

I have a sempai who – after a wayward tsuki by yours truly – stopped me and said: ‘you just hit me in the pacemaker….’ Needless to say I was taken aback. He actually collapsed and his heart stopped during keiko (before my time at the dojo). It took him about 3 years to get back to the shape where he could manage a 10-minute bash. Now, finally, he can do about 40 mins. Thats a tough kendo man right there.

Hello George,

I meant European football. And no, I was never concussed before doing kendo. Not sure why you say you can’t be concussed in kendo. If a Sempai does big men in kihon on you with all his might and while you are not defending yourself, it can easily happen. Or if someone that is so out of control that going for yoko men actually hits completely horizontally and hits you on the chin button and spins your head 90 degrees, it can also do some damage . I guess what I am saying is that yes, we are tough, but if we are not smart we will be forced to stop just like the weaklings that stop because they got blisters.


It sounds like you are doing kendo with people that have little control. In that situation the only advice I have is to get out of it.

Part of my point above is that as an adult you can choose to step out or away from dangerous practise… I am not advocating stepping into it.

An excellent article man. I too have often thought that there is a wee bit too much complaining amongst kenshi today. I’ve been to some tough practice sessions (Hello Nagoya University Kendo Club, I’m looking at you) and I simply can’t bring myself to moan. Part of me appreciates an extremely vigorous keiko. I mean, for pete’s sakes, we ain’t made of sugar.

good article george.
“just like the weaklings that stop because they got blisters.”
i’m not sure saying ‘weakling’ is quite right about someone who chooses not to do something.

i think something important to consider is you never know what someones condition is.
they might look spritely and rush around seemingly not in pain..however they might be dealing with a lot of pain.
i have chronic pain and problems..i often have to pace myself. there’s no other way to practice unless it ‘take a short break’
its not so much for comfort..its for safety of myself and those around me.

its smart practice.
only you know how much you can truly push yourself. pushing yourself is your own business. if you are really honest you push yourself well.
if youre not an honest person then you give up before long before you had a chance to hit your edge.
i feel sad when i see someone say, blah blah is for weaklings.

To many good tangents to follow, great article and excellent discussion following. Everyone has “Grueling Kendo” stories and each is better than the next. I’d heard in a speech once(a military man gave it) where the speaker made an excellent point. That the reason why everything was so difficult in everyone else’s past is because they don’t remember how horrible they were at whatever it was they were doing. This is two-fold, it also gives the veterans leeway to see how horrible all the new initiates are without seeing themselves in the same light. Hence the difficulty of it all is relative to your own personal capabilities at the time, and the key to happiness could possibly be a selective memory(this last part is my addition)…

On injuries; many don’t realize when a serious injury occurs because they don’t know about it until the individual has recovered, returned to practice, and starts telling people about it.

Flipping to the other side of the equation; there’s a ‘sense’ that allows one to negotiate and practice an art(kendo) safely with or around one’s own or another’s injuries, but it’s a difficult thing to cultivate, not everyone is attuned to it inherently and it requires great attentiveness. Over compensating to other area’s can lead to new injuries as well, so it’s a great responsibility to undertake upon oneself. Some can do it, I’ve seen them do it, I’ve done it both successfully and regretfully(practice through injury), but it’s more likely to be successful with the whole dojo being aware of the individual’s injury or if everyone you train with is controllable by your comparative level.

You have to hit with power to be successful in State or National level events, but when does that power become dangerous for local level or everyday practice? When you break your partners elbow tip off? Break a wrist striking Kote? Permanent neck trauma? Concussions? These are a few very rare or less-common injuries that I know for a fact happened. Many practitioners may not think seriously about these things until they are unable to practice for a time or have students of their own to worry about.

I’m in complete agreement on one final point; doing kendo into your later years is a beautiful thing. Its one of those few things in the world like it. The only path to get there is by doing Kendo, and you have to control your steps while not being afraid to take them, and the longer your on the path the better the result.

I apologize for jumping all over the spectrum.

Totally agree George! The real “tough” men (and women)are the older people who don’t question, whine etc but just DO – keiko after keiko, year after year.And also firmly in that category, the guys/gals that train around and through, injury/hardship/handicaps/depressing times and situations, yet still have the frame of mind to say onegaishimasu/arigato… and really, truly mean it! These are the guys I look up to, like all the sensei who never seeks recognition or praise, just shows up and put’s his/her heart into teaching and helping others, every session.

Sure I’m wowed by all the famous senshu etc, but I’m floored by watching some guys that I have become close to trying to do their best at kendo despite being terminally ill, or recently having beaten cancer (elderly), just so he can re-find the meaning in his life and to create as many good memroies as possible for his Granskids before his time is through.

They are the Tough Kendo People in my POV, not these self-absorbed muscle-bound guys. I don’t care how many guys they can kill in a knife-fight, they still only think of themselves, and that is why their mind is still weak.

A very good article.
To me it seems like almost every M.A becomes more and more soft, to appeal more people and their for get more students. I can’t say I miss the old days where every class was a danger to my health, but the hard training gave good strong Martial Artists.

The toughest individuals I know are ones that can last more than ten years in a proper iaido dojo. I find most folks find staying longer than three months challenging. 🙂

Will admit to calling off training recently when it got to 38°C, and did stop and ice an arm when I could no longer feel or use it properly. Recovered well.
Taking it a little easy has helped prevent getting the same shocking injuries I see in other martial artists I know. Do want to be still around doing kendo many decades from now.

I have read about pushing beyond one’s reserves into a new greater state, but if strength is really failing and dehydration is setting in, is it so wrong to stop? Taking some breaks has still led to my endurance increasing over time.

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