Due to an injury, I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting down and watching keiko a lot recently. This is usually termed KENGAKU (見学) or MITORI-GEIKO (見取り稽古) in Japanese. The former uses the kanji 見 for “look” and 学 for “study” thus means “study through observation.” The latter has a slightly different literal translation but in effect the meaning is identical. Basically, through watching people do kendo you yourself can perceive something or reach some sort of (sometimes new) understanding.
Even when I am not sidelined due to injury, I routinely find myself queueing up to face senior sensei. At this time I find myself watching the pair in front of me, not just the teacher him or herself, but their opponent as well. This is a chance not just to learn the mechanics of kendo, but the strategies that come into play between two opponents. A pet peeve of mine is when people line up for a sensei but don’t study their kendo… they are looking elsewhere or even, god forbid, chatting. But I digress.
I also routinely instruct my students to watch other students shiai: I think it is vitally important that they have a strong image of the type of kendo that can be done at their own age and gender… an image that a nearly-40-year-old bearded Scotsman can’t project!!!
Thinking about this over the last few days I remembered something I read a few years ago in regard to copying the kendo of those whose who went before you, that is, your sempai and sensei. I present a translation of this piece below. It was originally written by Sakuma Saburo hanshi, and was published in 1997, the year of his death.
When people call themselves “unskilled” or “clumsy” we can say as a general rule the problem is not lack of skill, but inability to copy or mimic others. As long as a someone is normal bodied (head, neck, chest, arms and legs) then they should really have no problem doing this. The practise of budo, sport, the arts, and academic study all begin by copying those that went before you (sempai/sensei). A person who can’t copy or mimic others often fall into these categories:
- they are self-important and can't find the value in others: bias and preconception; - they imagine that they are not good enough to mimic whats being done: timidity; - they don't even want to try to copy others: laziness; - they think copying others is somehow bad: misunderstanding.
Of course there are people who are good and bad (at some things), but most people can expect to become generally decent at most things outside of their particular strong areas.
Kendo shugyo is pursued with the aid of a shinai and falls within a defined range. Thus, depending on the methodology used, we can expect anyone to become proficient in its practise. If you watch a skilled sempai in front of you and constantly strive to do your best, you will definitely be able to arrive at or even surpass their ability. Improvement after this is down to your own research. Try your best.
If you think that you are already skilfull, then you are a Tengu, and a way forward for you does not exist.
– Sakuma Saburo (1997)
Thus, kendo is learned essentially through the copying of models and mitorigeiko is the conscientious process whereby you choose what to (or not to) mimic. Depending on your current kendo goals, there’s almost certainly some filtering going on as well.
Recently I’ve seen the odd blatantly commercial website selling lots of learning-kendo dvd’s (for a pretty-penny I might add). It strikes me that if there was one thing that you couldn’t learn from a dvd then it would be kendo. Sure, it’s possible a dvd could give rise to new ideas about training to those already experienced, but theres zero chance a dvd can replace a teacher or a dojo – who, after all, is there to watch and copy? A 2D image on a screen? I have a strong feeling that those that buy these expensive dvd sets live in areas where these is no kendo infrastructure. I feel sorry for people in this situation who pay a lot of money for these essentially useless dvd’s.
My message to those of you reading this that don’t have someone in front of you to model yourself on is simple: rather than waste your time with dvd’s and backyard-budo fantasy, consider doing a different martial art – one where you have access to a proper teacher. At the end of the day, whether you study kendo or judo, shorinji-kempo or aikido, the end goal is the same… and the guide towards that goal is a teacher.
平成・剣道 地木水火風空 読本（下）。佐久間三郎。平成9年発行。