“It is the certainty that they possess the truth that makes men cruel.”
– Anatole France
I can’t remember the exact year, but I think it was way back in 1995 or maybe 6 when I first created a kendo website. I was studying computer science in university and had access to the something “new” called the World Wide Web (unknowingly I’d actually been using it in its pre-browser state from computers in high school a few years earlier, though I didn’t really know what it was I was really using).
Anyway, that first website I created was for what was to become Edinburgh Kendo Club and was relatively short lived. At the time I could only find 2 other kendo websites: one in Japan and one in Canada (I think). I contacted the people that ran both sites and we emailed each other a few times. Which site was first online I have no idea, but years later I was to meet and befriend someone who claimed the title, and we have come to the conclusion that we may have emailed each other back in 1995!
My next serious effort was the renewal and running of the British Kendo Association website from 2000-2003, until I came to Japan. It was around that time (2002?) that Kendo World popped up, and I probably have the honour of asking the first question on the forums (“When were zekken first used?”). Online forums were fine in the beginning but soon disenchanted me for various reasons.
After coming to Japan I ran a small private blog from 2003-5 for friends detailing my Japan kendo experience. One thing led to another and kenshi 24/7 was finally born in 2008.
Over the years (to my shame!) I’ve been involved in the odd forum battle or harsh worded email exchange… I know better now though. Luckily this site has only ever seen a very minute amount of trolling, which I generally sort out straight away. In a community as small as kendo is it’s relatively simple to track someone down even if they post anonymously, and nowadays people are more aware of this than they were and (generally) think twice before commenting. Good times!
However, a couple of weeks ago I was subjected to a new experience, something I’ve never had to deal with in 20+ years of active internet use and 30 odd years of martial arts practise: I received multiple harshly worded messages via email and Facebook threatening legal action for something I put online. Yeah, you read that correctly. I’ve already wasted too much time on the matter so I won’t go into the details here, but after giving them a very minor concession I said “Go ahead.”
Why I gave a (very minor) concession when none was actually called for will hopefully become apparent below as I use this negative experience as the jump-off point to a larger discussion on kendo in particular and budo in general. Specifically, the whole situation made me realise one thing and reminded me of another.
Dealing with bullies and over-aggressiveness during keiko
In our daily-lives, whether it be in the office, commuting to work on the train or by car in the morning, or perhaps online, we may find ourselves confronted with bullies or over-aggressive people. I’m sure everyone has their own ways in dealing with the situation, but I’m going to take this opportunity and look at how we perhaps should deal with people we meet like this in the dojo. To be honest, everything I’m about to write here isn’t revelatory, and probably applies to daily-life situations as well.
A disciplined state of mind which can respond to changes in a situation in a calm, normal manner, without becoming agitated.
– Japanese-English dictionary of kendo
To be continuously in a state of heijoshin, “normal mind,” is the holy grail of not only martial arts practitioners, but people in various fields of endeavour and walks of life. Teachers, lawyers, military personnel, parents, etc. etc., all seek to remain calm no matter what difficulty faces them, whether it is suddenly thrust upon them or is something that develops over time. The loss of this state of mind is described in kendo terms as a “sickness” and simply described comprises of four elements: surprise, fear, doubt, and hesitation (Kyo-Ku-Gi-Waku).
Surprise is when the opponent does something unexpected, throwing your concentration off for an instant and leading to the inability to act. Fear may occur when faced with a physically stronger or technically superior opponent, or perhaps when you are scared to lose a bout. When facing an opponent who you can’t read or whose kendo style you are unsure about you may start to doubt your ability to deal with them, causing indecisiveness. Lastly, hesitation occurs when you are confused mentally about what to do against your opponent, causing indecision and stiffness of action. Of course, there is some overlap within these descriptions.
Obviously, when faced with bullies or over-aggressive people in the dojo, we should do our best not to fall prey to any of these sicknesses, and keep our state of heijoshin. I have a couple of methods that I’ll share today.
1. Don’t step back
When people are super aggressive or attacking randomly with intent to somehow beat you up I find that stepping back makes it worse – they think that their strategy is winning and they go for it even more. In circumstances like this I often step in to a closer distance to inhibit their strikes. If this causes them to start pushing at tsubazeria, just move around them. Relax, take your time, and choose your strikes wisely.
Actually, I often find that mean spirited over-aggressiveness comes from a lack of technical ability. Hopefully, if you bide your time and strike them at your own pace, they will eventually tire, give up, and – after a good strike – concede defeat.
Of course, I understand that this is actually very hard to do in reality, which leads me to number 2.
2. Let them “win”
As you may have guessed, I’ve found myself facing overly-aggressive people many times. Surprisingly quite a few of them have been visitors from abroad who have come to my dojo in Osaka and try to beat me up! But it’s not only aggressive visitors that I’ve had to deal with: when I take part in large godo-geiko sessions here in Osaka, Japanese high school and university students in particular quite often attempt to “have a go” at the only gaijin in the dojo.
Anyway, faced with these types of people I generally move it into “ippon-shobu” pretty quickly. What I tend to do is (of course I don’t step back or back down) go quickly for a decisive ippon. If they don’t concede I’ll do it again. Usually – because of pride and ego – these type of people find it hard to concede defeat so, in the end, after maybe 2 or 3 good strikes, I (subtly) allow them to strike me.
If it is someone I don’t know or barely know I end by saying “that was a great ippon, you are really good!” and bow. Visitors may go back to their home country and say “Yeah, I beat up that kenshi 24/7 guy good!” or students back to their school and say “I totally killed that gaijin!” but, meh, I don’t care!
3. Worst case scenario
Usually 2 will satisfy the ego of most people like this but if it doesn’t the only real option you have is to make up an excuse (“feel sick” … “shinai is broken”…), sonkyo, and end the bout.
Question 1: What if the over-aggressive bully is my sempai or sensei?
This is a tricky one. Here in Japan I can easily pick-and-choose the people that I keiko with. In places with a smaller kendo population or where people are relatively inexperienced technically (which can lead to aggressiveness and bullying to make up for their lack of ability), I think the only really thing you can do is to confront the person and have a frank discussion. If they don’t change their ways then, eventually, people will realise them for what they are and leave.
Remember the hubris of Satan: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.”
Question 2: What if it happens during shiai?
When it comes to shiai most people think (wrongly) that the gloves are off and decorum goes out the window. In this case you basically have to rely on the judgement of the shinpan. If the shinpan are inexperienced and can’t keep malicious aggressiveness in check, then they shouldn’t be on the floor. Nevertheless, if you do find yourself in such a situation just try to keep calm…
Of course there are many other ways you can get around bullies and overly-aggressive people, and many more questions you could ask, but these generally show how I approach the matter. I’d love to hear readers experiences and strategies when in situations like this – please comment here or on facebook!
Budo as an automatic means to character development
Have a look at this quote from Alex Bennet’s excellent new publication “Kendo: Culture of the sword” (I don’t think Alex would mind if you replaced “kendo” with “budo” for the sake of this discussion):
“… although I have been a devoted kendo practitioner for over two decades and truly believe in the potential kendo has for positive personal cultivation, I am enormously wary of the common attitude that one can become a “good person” just by taking up kendo…
Kendo certainly provides a technical and philosophical framework for physical, psychological, and even moral progression. However, whether or how closely the framework is interpreted and utilised depends entirely on the individual.”
– Kendo: Culture of the Sword (p192-3). Bennet.
Reading this on the way to Tokyo last month it struck me that Alex and I have come to pretty much exactly the same conclusion on the matter. I have attempted to tackle the subject a few times from various angles here on kenshi 24/7 before (see related articles below) as well as within my publications. Basically, the quote above says it all: budo can be used as a means to character development should an individual choose to use it as such.
As the discussion on bullying and aggression suggests above, and as this entire post implies, there are plenty of people who practise martial arts who are not necessarily friendly or the nicest of people. The point is of course that budo practise only helps makes you a “good person” should you choose to use it to do so. Like Alex, we should all be “enormously wary” about assuming budo practitioners are inherently good and – this is a related key point – that high grades or impressive titles are an indication of moral authority.
Reading this you may think that I’m somehow often targeted by bullies and overly-aggressive people… actually, nothing can be further from the truth. 99.999% of the people I deal with in my life, inside and outside of the dojo, online and offline, are awesome people. I have a great budo life here in Japan! It’s just that – every now and again – the odd character comes along to spoil the party. Unfortunately that’s just life. However, there is one thing that I thank these people for: they help me realise how NOT to act!
Related kenshi 24/7 articles
The following articles are related (in someway or another) to the discussion here.
Don’t forget to support kenshi 24/7 by picking up one of our publications or sharing our dedicated publication website.
I hope you found something of worth in this article. Cheers!
20 replies on “One should always be ready for snakes and demons”
Always an interesting read. Particularly liked the thoughts concerning the personal choice and its relation to Kendo’s positive potential. Thanks!
very good reflection , delicate and inspiring
@Jack and Andrea: thanks for taking the time to read this (long) post and your kind comments!!!
Thanks, i agree with you. I think that specally in kendo, the scenario of a safety combat is so real, that you can face the best and worst part of you, and the others. In others scenarios allways are concerned about your phisical response, because is you body and your racional decisiones who lead the progess, even in combat sports, your mind is worried on take care of your body, but in kendo you just have to worry about your mind and feelings; tahts is really amazin and i think is one of the reasons because the experience aloud you to develop yourself. Anyway, you must undestand that for practice and grow up, as a person, but if you dont, you will be in the side of the bullys and agressive people allways.
Kendo is a great metaphor, and i think thats the reason because you can learn how to live well, and how to be usefull to society, because teach you as a child, and you learn as a child learn, a mixture between body, respect, trust, fellings, etc.
I really enjoy to reade you and you publicationes.
Greetings from Chile, and please do forgive my wrong english.
Lautaro, thank you for your well thought out comment. Lots to think about.
Your English is great… believe it or not I also struggle with English, because I’m from Scotland !!!
Unfortunately, i had to deal with this kind of situation in the past, i’ve already comment in the “Value” post about my first “sensei” some years ago in my dojo we received a guest from a far away dojo who said he had “+5 years in kendo” since we had commom acquientecies i decided to accept him in keiko…bad decision! When he showed up he presented a full class of how not to behave his kendo was very, very poor, hitting people hard with his right hand, mocking beginners (IMO he was one too) yelling, hurting people, being arrogant about this “+5 years”, giving orders and trying to act like a badass sensei even though he was only a ikkyu! (In my dojo almost everybody but me was an ikkuy or lower at the time) the last drop was when he hit and tookdown one of the recently-put-in-bogu beginners to the point tears appeared in his eyes. I got so angry wanting to kick him out of dojo but i couldn’t because there was some families watching the “show” i tried to stay calm but in fact i was really lost mainly because i couldn’t believed people like this could even exist in kendo. Well, after practice luckily for us the guy noticed the angry looks and never even bother talking to any of us ever again even in the taikais. Later on talking to other members of his dojo the told me he was always scolded by his sempais but never did any effort to get better.
Well, it was very unpleasant but i try to take this as a lesson learned: Even in kendo where almost everybody are nice and polite there are always some bad weeds growing =/
Holy cow, that’s crazy !! I’m not sure what I would have done… maybe walked out….
Great and very insightful article George!
Not sure if it’s either Jim, but thanks for the comment !
Dear George, unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to keiko when I was in Osaka last year but I always enjoy reading your blog. For me, when situations occur as you have described, I will take it as a chance for me to improve my kendo and kendo ‘mind’ by not falling to one of the 4 sickness of kendo. What I have a harder time doing is remaining calm when I see someone abusing a beginner by being a bully either physically or emotionally ( of course I don’t mean just hard training, but actual abuse and demeaning language). Your article I think is a good chance for kenshi to read and reflect on their own habits and not only remain calm but also to look in a mirror to make sure they do not fall into poor reiho and abusive behavior themselves. Keep the articles coming !
Mike, please get in touch the next time you are here!
Good thing i’m a very patient person do not get easily angry and was able to keept my manners and reiho but i’m a human and i will not lie for a brief moment i really felt like punching the bastard in the face…
“budo can be used as a means to character development should an individual choose to use it as such. ”
So true. Unfortunately, some choose to use it as a mean to gain undue power over others.
Over many years of playing Judo, Aikido and Kendo, I’ve met all kinds of people, from deluded idealists persuaded it is all about “being Zen” and bringing peace, joy and harmony to the World, to Cro-Magnon types who enjoy hurting their (usually smaller and weaker) opponents “because it’s about being a warrior and there’s no place for crybabies”, and every sorts inbetween.
As an experienced practitionner, standing your ground to bullies, giving them the illusion of winning, redirecting agression, avoidance, are relatively easy.
It isn’t so for a beginner, who will not know what is or isn’t abusive and will therefore not dare confront his tormentor, what is or isn’t appropriate in order to defend himself, and will not have the necessary self-confidence and the self-control. Add to it the indifference of the other players, sensei and sempai (and sometimes referees), and there goes another beginner fleeing the dojo.
It is then up to the more experienced players to make sure beginners get the support and instructions they need, and to rein bullies in. As the saying goes, “all it takes for evil to succeed is the silence of good Sempai”.
Really good article concerning the bully type.
Bullies will come in droves because the emphasis is more and more about ego satisfying choices in life
Recently I had to contend with a bully in our club.
Injuries and humiliations were sustained by younger or weaker members.
Older practitioners were not respected and strong rivalry developped between unqualified teachers as well.
Cultish behaviour developped with this not very knowledgeable man demanding and expecting everyone to say “hai” after every affirmation whether right or wrong.
I decided to back my young and clever president who was a little shy about dealing with his “sempai” turned bully.
My idea was firstly to avoid personal and brash reproach and take a slow but moral approach.
This consisted in asking students to write up the technical content of courses conducted by visiting japanese sensei and posting the script to the whole club.
This met with great success.
Firstly bully boy had to admit there was superior knowledge and experience and that was recognised by all members.
Then during board meetings violence issues were worded by the women members and the mothers concerning injury.
Also bully boy had tried to benefit from club finances to travel to japan, that was pointed out by the female treasurer.
If you are candidate to a bully status in a club keep away from women because they are not afraid to skin you when the moment has come!!!!
So we never tried to put this guy down but got him to realise that he was a poor teacher with in fact very little shiai results for the club.
After a while he changed and now sees things differently
The secret in my opinion is not to deal with individuals but with values.
If my president has something to say he will justify with the concepts of fairness, equality…etc…when refusing bully boy his way.
This is how we must firmly train people to respect one another.
I am over sixty and my president is under fourty.
When he hesitates I encourage him strongly if his choices are morally sustainable.
And he contains me also because my generation was educated differently and I might sometimes be “onaji”.
Now concerning education and martial arts….good and evil?
I would like to give the response Okada Morihiro Sensei gave his french deshi at Shodokan when fourty years ago they asked him whether kendo was an educational tool fit to improve men.
This hachidan hanshi was the only police instructor to survive WwII because he taught in Tokyo throughout the war.
His reply was that kendo makes men only stronger.
If they are well educated they will be good strong men and fencers.
If they are evil men kendo can make them powerfully evil.
Bullies are the scourge of kendo and all efforts and measures should be implemented to turn their brutal passion into a gentler accomplishment, there is no weakness there.
True power and authority rest there if I may stress as a total amateur.
European fencing schools of old were led by a president.
This president had four captains assisting him.
This is good reason for bully types to think twice when indulging….
Thank you George for bringing this matter forward.
In our european fencing halls a president would have four captains
I woke up this morning to these two great comments – thanks Christopher and Florence for sharing your stories.
This posts seems to have hit a note with quite a few people ….. !!
Thank you for the great article, luckily I had not that experience in the Dojo (maybe since I am tall and heavy I can sustain a certain amount of bully anyway) , but in business life I had the experience several times. Staying calm and concentrated is really difficult for me but as you mentioned budo is a way to learn this and these situations show how you can transfer from kendo to other parts of the life.
Georg from Austria
Hi George, thank you for sharing your thoughts, i can’t but agree with the points you made, in my humble opinion, as human beings we choose how we percieve and use things consciously or unconsciously.
Kendo or any martial art that has the Do element will be subject to our perception and our will, even if the utlimate purpose of said martial art is clearly stated and maybe even if the sensei enforces that purpose in his/her teaching.
As far as kendo is concerned, the affair of sexual abuse that involved that nanadan top competitor kenshi a couple of years ago is proof enough that Kendo won’t make you a better person just because you practice it.
More great comments, thanks Georg and Hishaam for adding to the discussion!
Hi George, thanks for the post.
I had a difficult situation when I began kendo. One of my senpais fall under the bully type, always using excessive use of power to hurt the students bellow him. One of my best friends gave up kendo after his first shiai against this senpai, who almost broke my friend’s hand. It’s sad to say but I faced this situation for 2 years, and tried to be calm. With time, I faced my demons and in my last shiai against this Senpai, he bowed and conceded victory to me. This was the last time that I saw him. I hope that something may have changed in his heart, and he now understands that kendo is all about self development, and that his conduct doesn’t fit in there.
Thank you sensei for such a wonderful article.