The following is a rough translation of a very small part of a much larger essay about REIGI (etiquette) that was published in the July 2013 edition of Kendo Nippon. The author is Iwatate Saburo sensei. The translated section in particular caught my eye so I thought i’d share it here and use it as the basis of a longer discussion.

“In the kendo community we have the dan-i and shogo system. Its fair to say that achievement of these grades/titles is one of the main aims behind many peoples practice. Whatever age you may become, having something to aim for/challenge at is a way to keep growing (as a person). Kendo-wise, even though the body starts to loose its strength around about the 50s or 60s we can – if we keiko properly – still attempt gradings. People in their 60s and 70s still pass 6th and 7th dan, and even kendo’s highest grade of 8th dan.

But there is one thing that I’d like you to keep in mind – you shouldn’t equate grade with peoples nature. There are some people with low kendo grades who have a high social standing, and many people that have are good people. If you forget this and simply value people on their grades then you are committing a terrible crime.”

Ideally speaking, we all start kendo when we are young and our grade steadily climbs as we grow older (see The Kendo Lifecycle). Work-wise as well, we enter our companies or institutions as young men or women and, over the years, promotion generally follows. In other words age usually, in some manner, equates with both grade and work or social status (a sweeping statement I admit).

Japan in the Edo period was a place with a rigid vertical class hierarchy with almost no chance of upward social mobility: birth decided your place in society. Within classes themselves there would be different groups with perhaps ranking between them. Individuals identity was based on being a member of a group. Within the group, relationships were both vertical and horizontal and an individuals standing within the group was a lot more flexible than within society at large. Age and gender, however, impacted this flexibility or lack thereof. Since the 19th century, in the beginning at the behest of Western Imperialism, society has seen itself change rapidly, sometimes causing traditional structures to implode and sometimes forming often uncomfortable fusions with Western ideas. Modern Japan is one such a society.

Compared to where I grew up (the highlands of Scotland) modern Japanese society is one where respect for older people is still strong. I think that this is almost certainly a good thing but I’ve also seen many occasions where older people have acted incredibly high-handed and self-centered at the expense of those around them. With the potential double-authority giving power of age and grade, many of these experiences have happened in the dojo.

K ‘sensei’ (I must admit I really don’t want to use the term sensei here) is 7dan and in his mid-50’s. When I first came to Osaka he was there at every keiko session. Naturally I went up to practise with him. Watching the people in front of me fence I realised that he was quite rough and pushed people about quite a lot. When it came to my turn I bowed, sonkyo-ed, and stood up. He immediately went to move in at me and I just stepped in and attempted men. It hit. I’m not sure who was more surprised, him or me, but immediately he went wild: pushing, shoving, shouting etc. After 2 minutes of this (he cut it short) he ended it. When I bowed at him he looked away, not bowing back. ‘Thats done it’ I thought.

The next time I saw him I said ‘konbanwa’ and he simply ignored me. Attempting to right any wrong I might have done I lined up for him at keiko. After waiting 10 minutes in the line he simply waved me away with his hand and went on to continue to fence the person after me. This continued for about 6 months when I just gave up. Luckily the dojo had fifteen 7dans so it really wasn’t a loss for me.

After about a year or so in the dojo I plucked up the courage to ask one of my sempai about him. K-sensei was deeply unpopular. Most of the serious kendoka never went to him for keiko, and all the other sensei ignored him. In fact, he only used to keiko with people who were adult beginners or, I increasingly noticed, women. In other words, people who (he assumed) he could dominate. After a while, those beginners and the women would see through this and attempt to escape doing keiko with him, but he would actually grab them and make them fight him. I heard stories from other kendo friends that he attended a couple of other dojo and did exactly the same thing. Eventually, as the kendoka he had been ignoring for years started grading up to 4th, 5th, and 6th dan, he disappeared.

My interaction with K taught me one thing: that age and grade don’t tell you much about the man himself. I started to pay attention to not only the ability of the teachers around me, but how they treated others (and more importantly, how others treated them), and thought about the perception I was giving off about myself through my keiko manner.

I realised, slowly at first, how people did or didn’t discriminate depending on the person in front of them. That is, some people did the same kendo against anyone that came along – i.e they judged the person solely on their ability, not on who they are or what type of person they may be – whereas others carefully changed the type of kendo they did to respond to the person in front of them. If kendo is a pursuit of knowledge and the dojo is a kind of microcosm of society, then it make sense that the latter approach is the more mature. Please note that I’m not talking about people ‘dumbing down’ their kendo, or somehow holding back, but more of a change in the ‘feeling’ of the keiko itself, rather than any physical modification (though with much older people, some physical modification is necessary).

To attempt to wind this rambling post up I’ll finish with an example. Within the kendo community police kendo teachers (preferably 8dan, but not necessary) are the top of the food chain – their position has the highest prestige and they are the most respected. But, when looking at Japanese society at a macro level, you realise that actually their job is not a particularly high status one… in fact, most people don’t even know that the profession exists. When compared with people their own age who entered a normal ‘salary man’ life, they are also not highly payed. Their technical preeminence, of course, is without question, but that doesn’t automatically equate with moral or some sort of spiritual authority.

What all this means to me personally is that while I apply a certain automatic respect to people older and more experienced than myself, I withhold the right to remove that if they have questionable characters, even if they are 8dan. In the same way, I try to not judge people with less experience than myself solely on their technical ability because many have better jobs and lead richer lives than I do. Obviously, I also hope that people respond to me based on who I am as a person and not only on my technical (non-)ability or grade. Since kendo is a large part of my life – and hence identity – I hope that years of hard keiko can help develop my character and make me into a better person. However, as the example of K-sensei above demonstrates, this isn’t necessarily a given.

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
For more information check out the About page.

12 replies on “Value”

Excellent post.

I also had similar experiences in Japan, also one that was very recent from another K-sensei 7-dan in Tokyo. That behavior was outside of practice but it made me reconsider a lot of things. Although I have met exceptional people both young and old in Kendo, judging people based on their Kendo skill is extremely dangerous. Although Kendo hopes to focus the personal endeavors of a human that desires to grow out of himself, irrespective of Kendo, it can also act as a focusing tool towards a desire for inward collapse and self gratification.

Luckily, I also met a Japanese 7-dan last spring, who was the complete opposite of the previously mentioned K-sensei.

I had the same experience as you, when i first began kendo my first “sensei” was exactly the same as the “K” dude only difference is that he had a much lower grade and when we started to grading up and offer some resistance in keiko (luckly for us) he ran away and disappeared.

Once i read and interview with and hanshi sensei he stated that when he was young he had a very bad sensei and that experience made him promise himself to never be like that with anyone in dojo, he keep that in mind for all his life and said this helped him understand kendo and becoming a hanshi. I always thought that even though this kind of experiences are terrible for us in the end something good can be extract from it, it’s like learning inverse kendo you learn the right think witnessing the bad ones.

It reminds me an old saying “The real leader is one who can strongly inspire others to action, without the use of force or fear, only admiration “

Great, great post. Unfortunately, it seems that some kenshi – from beginners to ‘sensei’ – miss the humility lesson, or forget it at some point of their kendo career… When I first came across a ‘sensei’ like that, I was quite shocked, because in the dojo I practice I had never seen a single demonstration of such behavior.
But in the end, even then these ‘sensei’ teach us: they teach us what we should not do in order to grow spiritually.

Many of us have gone through something like this in kendo and in other endeavors. We find or meet persons who may be quite knowledgeable about a profession, topic or activity. They may be even top notch at what they do, in terms of either their physical ability or the know how. However, they lack in maturity or in proper conduct for reflecting that appropriate professionalism or attitude we otherwise call mastery. This may be one of the reasons for which certain titles or ranks are reserved for individuals after they have reached and reflect more integral humanity (exceptions occur.)

“The purpose of practicing Kendo is:
To mold the mind and body, To cultivate a vigorous spirit, To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor, To associate with others with sincerity, To forever pursue the cultivation of one’s self, And through correct and rigid training, to strive for improvement in the art of Kendo.”

A first rate post man. Seriously. The unfortunate truth is that every dojo, and every workplace, and every classroom, will always have someone like “K Sensei”.

I too, experienced something similar to you in the dojo. I was anxious that I had somehow offended a higher ranking member who behaved very oddly towards me after I first met/had keiko with them, and was quite upset by it. And then, I plucked up the courage to speak to other dojo mates about this person.

I was relieved to find that everyone found him to be an insufferable ass.

Anyway, a great post. I often wished that reigi was mentioned more in the dojo nowadays. It’s but a whisper at times…..

That’s interesting.

Perhaps these rude and brutish people serve a purpose in the dojo then as they serve as a reminder to the rest of us what not to be, or become.

“The real leader is one who can strongly inspire others to action, without the use of force or fear, only admiration “

Dear George,

When I’ve been visiting you at Yoseikan in 2006 I had the arguable honor to practice with a sensei that wasn’t particular gently or very kind to me, and when I told you afterwards I remembered that you’ve been saying that almost everyone had issues with him and you stopped sparing with him. I wonder if that was the guy.

Actually when I read your 天狗にならないように I thought that the teacher giving advice after practice was talking about the attitude described here, rather than people who believe that their kendo is stronger than it actually is, thus being tengu.

Kendo no Rinen mentions that the primary purpose of kendo is to shape the personality and make us better people. Some people actually believe this happens through crossing swords itself, but I think the biggest part is to have good people as role models that shine with good example inside and outside the dojo. Naturally all kenshi are just a reflection of society with good and bad personalities representing it. That may be why not everyone practicing kendo actually does have an outstanding personality.
It’s important to have a system in place that supports kindness and showing respect towards everyone, not only to those above in hierarchy (this might be still a problem in kendo and Japanese society generally). That last part is what I first thought not becoming tengu was about. Giving incentive to people solely based on their kendo skill or grade on the other hand would nurture arrogant behavior and ultimately discord.

Also I wanted to let you know that I moved back to Europe from China last year. This means I won’t be having many business trips to Japan anymore, even we didn’t manage to meet the last 100 times I’ve been to Osaka anyway (sincere apology!). Anyway, I’m sure we will have another chance to meet some time in the future and cross bamboo. Everything else is good, but for the fact I can keiko only once or twice per week. Work and offspring (will have his first b-day in one week) is keeping me quite busy.

So long

Thanks for the long comment Jan! Good luck with the work and offspring !!!!

Yeah, it was probably that guy.

In a fairly long kendo career I have run into one or two people like that, (maybe even “K” sensei).Overall though, the good guys seem to outnumber the unpleasant by hundreds if not thousands to one. I would say that the ethos of kendo still encourages the development of the human character and if you look at the study material prescribed for the kyoshi exam, the ZNKR are trying very hard to reinforce the understanding of correct reigi in instructors.

Hmmm, I agree in general but I know of the odd extremely high graded instructors (who are also in positions on the ZNKR) who are not particularly nice people. Mean even. Some of them travel abroad and are nice by all accounts, but when you hear their true thoughts on international kendo its pretty shocking (and these are conversations I bet you don’t hear). If even the odd person at the top of the pyramid is like this, it doesn’t engender hope in me that kendo necessarily leads to some sort of enlightened state.

As for kendo exams, if you look at the Japanese education system in general you can see exactly what the purpose of the exams are: an attempt (and a poor one at that) at doctrination into a particular way of thought. At least until your renshi all you need do is copy and paste the given material, and any deviation of the stated answer is cause for fail. I assume that its mostly the same for even the highest levels (perhaps deviation is allowed, but not too much..). This is in the Japanese test of course, and is how all Japanese tests are done across the education system.

If the ZNKR wanted to truly award its highest grades to the most enlightened amongst us, then maybe they should place less emphasis on the physical aspect of kendo, and consider looking at individuals themselves: perhaps looking at not only their kendo background, but require references from non-kendo people attesting to their character, look at their history of volunteer activities, asses their teaching style and methodology, have a face to face interview, etc etc.

For me personally, I know many many many many many (many!) great people who do kendo, they just aren’t all kodansha. And many of these people are nice not because of kendo, but because their characters. Good parents perhaps?

If the ZNKR want to stand by the concept of kendo and truly show kendo as benefit to people and to the community, then why don’t they attempt to develop kendo in areas that have high crime or prevalent violence? Why don’t they open dojo in troubled communities or do more outreach programs? Its not as if the ZNKR isn’t wealthy enough to try some of these things. Of course, use of the ZNKRs money like this means less pocket lining for those at the top of the pyramid.

So you can see where I stand – I don’t believe the ZNKR are trying hard at all to reinforce the understanding of reigi in instructors (or anyone).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.