Judging the outcome of shiai and handing down a decision may at first appear a simple task but, in fact, it is far from it. It would be more accurate to say that it is one of the most difficult of tasks. Perfect refereeing can be achieved only by the Gods alone – it is unnatural for one man to pass judgement upon another; thus, we cannot hope for faultless and perfect refereeing.
– Noma Hisashi, The Kendo Reader (1939)
A couple of weekends ago – for the first time in years and years – I attended a kendo seminar. Unlike seminars abroad, here in Japan they tend to be really small scale affairs, perhaps of only a few hours length, dedicated to a single area of kendo (i.e. shinpan, kata, teaching methodology, or grading). In fact, the whole (enjoyable!) “seminar” scene outside Japan simply doesn’t exist here (of course people get together for kendo weekends, but it’s a different experience you have in, say, America or Europe).
Anyway, the seminar I attended was a shinpan one and was taught by three local 8th dan teachers. The top teacher lectured us for an hour then, during the practical shinpan part, berated people constantly for their poor shinpan skills. Luckily – being a confident judge with lots of past experience – I evaded any criticism… but I must admit I was sweating it a little during my judging session!!
Today I’d quickly like to introduce (actually, reiterate) something important that was said to us repeatedly during the lecture as well as discuss a couple of points that were mentioned or came-up during the day.
The importance of a good shinpan (a.k.a. The effect bad shinpan have on kendo in general)
Let me start, if I may, with a quote from myself:
Kendo’s vicious circle circle, unfortunately already at play in various places where an established kendo infrastructure does not exist, looks something like this:
- shiai too early + bad shinpan = bad points awarded;
- bad points awarded = reinforcement of bad kendo;
- reinforcement of bad kendo = a drop in the physical (technical) overall standards of kendo (yuko-datotsu);
- a drop in the physical (technical) overall standards of kendo = a drop in the overall standard of grades;
- a drop in the overall standard of grades = immature teachers (naturally bad shinpan);
- immature teachers = students not taught correctly and put into shiai too early.
– George McCall, Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills (2012)
Perhaps I’d re-word it slightly now, but the point remains: there is a very real connection between shinpan skill and technical level of competitors. This influence, I posit, is often hard to see because it can take time to manifest itself in an observable manner. In larger kendo populations with a good infrastructure the change might even take generations. Most places outside of Japan have (through no fault of their own) a poor kendo infrastructure so the influence of shinpan over competitors (and, in extension, the general kendo populous) is both larger and more easily detectable.
The solution to this, according to the sensei at the seminar, is of course that people who shinpan must be active kendoka. It’s not that they should simply be doing kendo, but they must pursue it. Shinpan have a duty to understand what makes a yuko-datotsu, knowledge of which can only be gained through hard training over the course of years under the tutelage of good teachers. The ability to read (as well as execute) a good yuko-datotsu comes through this experience alone.
Above and beyond the physical and technical ability of the shinpan are of course a few other factors: shinpan must make decisions fairly, not based on personal bias; they must not favour one technique over the next; they cannot fail to award what seems like a good strike because they claim they have never seen the technique before; they should be well versed in the rules of shiai and how to act as a shinpan (how to move around the court, the calls); and so on.
Understanding how to referee is one of the technical aspects of kendo that you have to become used to and is therefore an important skill to acquire. What follows below are some of the most important points to be careful about:
- Use correct etiquette.
- Become one with the competitors.
- Make clear calls.
- Respect the regulations.
– Ogawa Kinnosuke, The Kendo Textbook of Imperial Japan (1932, revised 37)
(note, all bullet points in this quote are abbreviated for this post)
Of course, it’s impossible to wait until people have mastered the (often mysterious and always difficult) inner secrets of kendo before they attempt to judge competitions…. not only because most of us will never reach that level, but because there are often aren’t enough experienced shinpan going around to judge competitions (this goes for larger competitions inside Japan as well).
There are many ways you could possibly tackle this problem, but i’d rather explore that in a different article. Today I think it’s sufficient to point out that the problem is a very real one.
A couple of interesting points
There’s a few things I picked up at the seminar that I could mention here but for the sake of keeping things short I’ll just mention two things: one interesting and one minor. Also, at the end, I’ll add in something I read in one of this months kendo magazines which came up by chance as I was writing this piece.
1. Change in positioning for a jodan competitor
One of the most interesting things that was said during the day was in reference to shinpan positioning when one of the competitors was a jodan competitor. Interesting because not only have I never heard this said before, I’m pretty sure it’s not in the rule book either! It goes like this:
In ai-chudan the three shinpan are organised in a triangular fashion. When one competitor is using jodan, however, both the chushin and the fukushin nearest the jodan competitor should move into a position where they can clearly see the competitors tsuki-dare. This is because tsuki is a common technique against jodan and it’s difficult to see if has struck properly. The triangle in this situation becomes slightly skewed.
Check out this wonderful sketch by yours truly:
2. Red flag over white
When calling hikiwake we are taught that the red flag should be placed over/in front of the white one. We also wrap the red flag round the white one when we are finished using them. Interestingly, at the seminar we were told when cancelling a point the red flag should be above the white flag as well. If you pause for a second you’ll realise the position of your hands thus changes when you are chushin (red flag in right hand) and fukushin (red flag in left hand).
It’s a really minor point (and not that important I think) but it shows to illustrate just how particular some sensei are about shinpan methods!
3. Not allowing a jodan kenshi to take kamae
In one of the kendo magazines this month there was a shinpan question I thought interesting: “Is it illegal to stop a jodan kenshi from taking their kamae?” By this I mean the chudan competitor keeps going in to a close distance and smothering the jodan competitor so they cannot assume their preferred kamae.
There were two scenarios mentioned but it basically comes down to this:
“Is the chudan competitors actions a tactic used to proactively attack, lure, and/or forestall the jodan competitor? Or is he simply moving in close to stop the jodan competitor from attacking him (due to fear or lack of skill perhaps) and wasting time?”
If it is the first scenario then this is basically one of the strategies that can be used against jodan and is valid. The second scenario is, of course, illegal and should be penalised for not attacking and/or wasting time.
Bonus: All Japan Kendo Championships 2015 Shinpan opinion piece
My sensei was one of the shinpan at this years All Japan Kendo Championships (held yesterday). At keiko today he (as he usually does when he comes back from large shiai or events) chatted a little bit about what happened and gave us his own insight into the event. Tonight he mentioned specifically about Katsumi Yosuke, the runner-up in the competition. Despite losing in the final, my sensei said that he watched his kendo style carefully and felt that he was a kenshi that does good kendo. Check out this super slow-mo clip courtesy of the ZNKR (more here):