Takano Hiromasa (1900-1987), kendo hanshi and headmaster of Itto-ryu*, was the the second son of kendo legend Takano Sasaburo.
A brief bio:
Hiromasa began studying the sword when he was 6 years old in his fathers dojo, Meishinkan. He graduated from Tokyo Shihan Gakko in 1923 and, in 1927, took over the day-to-day running of Meishinkan. At the same time he started teaching kendo at various universities (Waseda, Tokyo Institute of Technology, etc). Between 1936-41 he lived in America and taught kendo at California State University. After returning to Japan he started becoming involved in kendo publications, first by producing a magazine called “Shin-budo” before authoring his own titles. After the war he continued writing kendo books, eventually writing a kenshi-inspired novel. This led to him becoming a budo (swordsmanship) advisor for various plays and movies.
Today, similar to what I did in an earlier article of his fathers writings, I present a sort of mostly-translation plus semi-interpretation of a chapter from Hiromasa’s 1973 “Kendo Dokuhon” (Kendo Reader) entitled “Jotatsu no hiketsu” (the secret to improvement). I hope you enjoy it !
* Itto-ryu that was passed down through the Takano family is refereed to “Nakanishi-ha itto-ryu” nowadays, but it was never referred to this prior to the 1960s: it was always called “Ono-ha itto-ryu.” The change in nomenclature was done, presumably, to establish it as something different from the Ono-ha itto-ryu of Sasamori Junzo who, in 1960, copyrighted the name.
Key’s to improvement in kendo
1. Concentrate on developing willpower
The spiritual power of humans:
Horie Kenichi, a young 23 year old yachtsman, crossed the pacific on his own, from Nishinomiya to San Francisco, in 1963. It took him 94 days. Since his success there have been many other people attempting to copy him, however, it’s like tapping a stone bridge before crossing it (i.e. looking before leaping) their caution makes what they are doing valueless. Horie, on the other hand, dared to do what nobody had ever attempted before, and thus can be said to have great spiritual strength.
On January the 24th 1972 Yokoi Shoichi was captured on the island of Guam after spending 24 years living in a cave. People were struck with admiration at his will power.
Both of these people are good examples of humans spiritual capability.
The first and most essential thing you must develop to improve your kendo is your emotional strength, that is, to have an indomitable spirit.
Shut up and train:
If the first most important thing for improving your kendo is development of the spirit, then the second is to continually endure the hardships of repeated keiko sessions day-in-and-day-out in the dojo. This of course not limited to kendo, but various things in life: without practise you cannot improve.
As kendo is a physical art, simply thinking about it doesn’t help much – you can only learn by doing. It’s best to do this without debating this and that and chatting endlessly on kendo topics, but by getting your head down and working hard.
Adapt to the location:
In a large dojo you should spar from a far distance. In a small dojo you should spar from a close distance. In kendo we must learn to fight from both far and close distances, so practising in different dojo and learning to adapt to any dojo size constraints is essential.
In other words, don’t let yourself be constrained to a single distance, but practise in and acquire techniques to use in various situations.
Practise with difficult or awkward opponents:
It’s only natural that everybody has opponents that they find more or less easier or difficult than others. If you think “this guy is really awkward to fight with” and avoid him, it’s the same as choosing only those you can beat. Obviously, this is a sad state of affairs, and you will never truly grasp the essence of kendo.
You have to be able to face squarely and respond to (defeat) a variety or different types of opponent. Everybody has their own shape, style, and thinking. Learn from them to improve your kendo.
3. Don’t put too much importance on winning or losing
The main point of beginners shugyo (pursuit of kendo):
It’s important that beginners throw out any thoughts about winning and losing. They should simply aim to execute the basic shape of kendo as they have been taught it.
For example during uchikomi-geiko, if a beginners partner opens up his or her men to be struck, rather than attempting to hit it as fast as possible without concern for form, the beginner should take their time and aim to strike as correct as they can. This is important. Through practising this way repeatedly, even if the beginner still uses too much power, their form will improve.
Be struck to develop:
Even though in kendo we often say “Don’t worry about being struck” everybody does. Although it’s almost impossible to not worry about it, it’s important to try not to worry about it as much as you can. Like the well known phrase “turn a failure into a success” suggests, being struck is a chance to learn: “why was I strike then?”
In this way you can not only learn your own weaknesses and work on improving them, but you can also learn new techniques from your opponent.
4. Study under a teacher
Practise with your teacher and seniors:
It’s important that you learn under a good teacher(s) and good sempai. By practising hard with them and listening to their advice and direction, you cannot fail to improve. If you cannot patiently listen to their advice or endure hard keiko with them, then you will simply stop progressing.
This is all well and fine assuming that the the people you are studying under are actually good, however. If you are not lucky enough to have access to good teachers you will develop bad habits that are difficult to fix: “It’s faster to knock down and old house and rebuild than reform one that has been built slipshod.”
An old kendo saying goes: “rather than start three years earlier, it’s better to wait three years until you find a good teacher.” In other words, because a bad teacher can potentially – and irreparably – damage your kendo, you are better doing nothing than wasting your time studying under one.
5. Research (Kenkyu and kufu)
There are different opinions as to how to study kendo in the beginning. Some people believe it’s important to learn the theory first, whilst other believe physical practise is more important. Either way, both have the aim of Jiri-itchi (the unison of physical practise and theory, a term popularised by the famous kenshi Yamaoka Tesshu).
Like I mentioned before, I believe that discussion about theory is useless unless you have advanced technically enough to put words into practise. Therefore it is essential that a decent amount of technical ability is acquired before research into the theoretical aspects of kendo should begin.
Research like “if I seme like this and my opponent does that, then I’ll strike there” or “when I am in this distance if step in like this and move my shinai like that then I can get into striking distance” etc. etc., can be very productive.
However, this unison of physical practise and theory is not the end state of kendo, but a beginning one. The final state of kendo is one where, without forethought or realisation of any kind, the body moves naturally in response to an opponents opening and a strike is made. Achieving this ultimate state is, indeed, a difficult path.
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