As many long-term readers of kenshi 24/7 know, I’m in a super rare kendo position here in Japan. This is something that I am keenly aware of myself, and am extremely thankful for. Because of this, I get a lot of people emailing/messaging me asking various questions. Some questions are easily answered, while others take some research. One common enquiry I get is about teaching beginners, specifically how I approach it, what type of exercises I do, and how long it takes. I’ve also had people asking for advice about starting up kids and university level clubs.
As teaching is something I am quite experienced in, I give advice as best I can, but always with an important caveat: teaching and rearing beginner kenshi in a Japanese high school environment is quite different to the situations they are in.
Now and again I’ve pondered about whether people would actually be interested in hearing about how I teach beginners, even if the situation I am is completely different from theirs, and so here today I have decided to take some time and briefly explain my process. I hope it’s interesting!
Assumptions about beginners who come to me
Age: 15 at starting time (all beginners are the same age).
Length of time under my instruction: about 2.5 years (until they “retire” to study for university exams).
Goal: nidan; participation in shiai.
Gender: both male and female.
Prior athletic experience: possibly none.
Reigi: probably have to teach from zero.
Keiko/week: 5 to 6.
Attendance: mandatory (absence must be explained).
Cost: after the usual cost of bogu/dogi, and shinai when needed, almost zero.
I’m pretty sure that you’ve noticed where the large differences between the situation I am in as a high school kendo teacher in Japan and the one you may be in. These differences, however, don’t mean that how and what I teach is not applicable to your situation, it just means that it probably takes more time and a little bit of ingenuity.
btw, It’s also important to note that as a professional educator, my relationship with my students is quite different than those between people who teach and practise at a general kendo club.
Note: When to put the students into bogu?
Due to the 2.5 years restriction in time I have with the students, I put them into bogu much earlier than I would actually like to: after about 6 weeks. This is mainly so that the beginners can have enough experience in armour before taking part in our summer gasshuku, held in late July or the beginning of August. In an ideal world (with 5-6 keiko’s/week) I’d prefer to wait until the 3 month mark.
Ok, so here we go. Remember that this run-down is brief.
At this time in beginners development I keep things super simple:
- Reigi: how and when to bow, how to sit in seiza, terminology, etc. And yes, this Scotsman does have to teach Japanese kids how to sit in seiza and Japanese words!
- Kamae: I implant from day one the importance of having a beautiful as well as a strong kamae (including ashi-gamae of course). I constantly check and have the students check their own kamae, sometimes using a mirror.
- Ashi-sabaki: I start with ayumi-ashi before moving on to okuri-ashi. After about three weeks I start going for a light stamp, but the emphasis is on the fumi-kiri on the back leg, not on the fumi-komi of the front foot.
- Suburi: shomen-uchi, sayumen-uchi, and choyaku-suburi (slow but correct).
After the students have somewhat managed to get all this information in their heads I move on to actually striking. I do this in four steps:
- Striking each others shinai (one person holds above their heads, the other strikes).
- Striking me, or one of their sempai in the men. Focus on doing this carefully and accurately before moving on.
- Striking kote.
- Striking kote-men.
These steps are split into two stages:
- Striking in a single step.
- Striking and then using footwork to go through.
The very final thing I teach before putting the students in to bogu is, of course, kirikaeshi:
- Kirikashi by themselves (to learn the pattern).
- Kirikaeshi with me or a sempai in bogu (non-blocking).
- Kirikaeshi with each other (blocking).
Note that I don’t teach taiatari until much later. Instead, I have the students perform the initial cut and move forward two steps while the motodachi moves back before beginning kirikaeshi.
It’s important to note here that it’s when the students start striking things that you should teach them to look at their shinai for splinters often, and how to deal with them when they occur.
I aim to get this far in about 5-6 weeks of daily training. Whew!
Bogu: first steps (5-6 weeks after beginning)
So, generally speaking, here in Japan beginners buy introductory kendo sets, which includes bogu, dogi, shinai, zekken, bags, and sometimes bokuto. So, once the ordered sets are arrived the very first thing I have to do is to teach them how to wear their dogi. Well, I don’t do that myself, but have other students teach them — and then I strictly check to ensure that the beginners are able to wear their uniform correctly.
So, the dogi is on nicely, and the beginners have learned some basic movements. What’s next? Donning the bogu? Not quite yet…
Next, I teach them what the correct fit of the bogu should be. Where their chin goes in the men, and how tight the kote should be. Their first job is, once they understand the basic fit, the cutting and fixing of their men and kote-himo. I can’t stand dangly kote-himo, and men-himo must be cut so that they is not too long and flying everywhere. Oh, I forgot to mention: tying the tenugui. This is much more difficult than it seems, and many people struggle with it at first.
So, finally, it’s time to put bogu on! The first thing I do is demonstrate myself how the tenugui is tied and the bogu worn (I use none of the experienced students as I want the beginners to do it super-correctly). After that, I spend the start of the first few sessions having the students do two things repeatedly:
- tie and re-tie their tenugui and men.
- check each others knots – are the men-himo twisted? are they looking out of the monomi? is the tenugui flapping out of the back? etc.
I literally have the students do this over-and-over again until they somewhat master the process.
Bogu: it’s finally on! (6-7 weeks after beginning)
At this point I still teach the students in a group separate from the other experienced students. I wear my bogu and practise with them with the aim of being their model for not only reigi, but also so they can start to learn how to be struck by someone with decent tenouchi. I tend to:
- have the students move around in a circle when swapping partners; I remain in a fixed position.
- be strict with reigi and perform sonkyo before and after every rotation.
- emphasis kiai.
- have the students check each others knots after every 10 minutes.
From now on things accelerate quickly:
Day 1-3: for the first couple of days I use the kirikaeshi pattern but make all strikes shomen, and no blocking. There should be fumikomi on the first, middle, and last men, followed by a follow through. At this point the beginners are still struggling to tie their men and get used to being struck.
Day 4-5: move on to sayu-men strikes on kirikaeshi, but still no blocking. I start to add men cutting and going through.
Day 6-7: start teaching blocking on kirikaeshi.
Joining the other students (7-8 weeks after beginning)
After a week of being in bogu in their own group, I then add the beginners to the main group. The beginners will do the basic kirikaeshi exercises as everyone else: three sets of non-blocking kirikaeshi followed by three normal kirikaeshi. Of course the beginners will be slower than everyone else, and unfamiliar with how to move around etc, but they soon get it. After kirikaeshi, the experienced students move on to men, kote, kote-men, dou, tsuki, hiki-waza, etc., but I make the beginners – and whomever is partnered with them – practise men cutting. Partners with experience are told that they must demonstrate their best kendo so that the beginners can learn properly.
I continue this pattern – six kirikaeshi followed by nothing but men – for about one week〜10 days. Only once I am happy that the students can tie their men securely, know the reigi, are able to rotate correctly, and can endure up to an hour of wearing bogu without break, will I start adding kote and big kote-men strikes.
Throw them in at the deep end: sink or swim
So, this brings us almost up to the summer where I begin to have three-hour keiko sessions per day, so start to introduce new techniques quickly and in succession: small men, small kote-men, tai-atari, tsuki, and hiki-waza. Dou is the final technique I teach but it is not a down-the-centre attack. It is also this point where I force the beginners to do uchikomigeiko (easy) and oikomigeiko (very hard).
What about jigeiko and Kata?
The entire first three months is completely kihon-based. Only after the students get this far are they allowed to do jigeiko, and at first that can only be with me or senior students. It is at our summer gasshuku where they will first be allowed to jigeiko freely, and also do a little bit of shiai practise. It is also at the gasshuku where they will start to learn the bokuto ni yoru kihon keiko-ho (as someone who is a firm fan of kata, and practises kata more than most, this might seem surprising).
From beginning kendo in mid-April, I expect the students to get their shodan the following January or March, and their nidan the year after that. Those that make an effort never fail in reaching this goal.
This article was just a brief explanation of how I teach beginners here at my high school kendo club. To summarise the steps simply:
- Pre-bogu: basic movement, kamae, reigi, kiai, fumikiri/fumikomi, kirikaeshi.
- Bogu phase 1: tying the tenugui, bogu fit, wearing the bogu, rotating in a group.
- Bogu phase 2: join the other students, practise only kirikaeshi and big men.
- Bogu phase 3: start to learn other waza, uchikomi, oikomi, etc.
- Bogu phase 4: start jigeiko.
Even though I assume that my situation is completely different and environment than pretty much everybody who will ever read this post, I hope that there might be something useful in this article for you somewhere.
Feel free to share your ideas and experiences on this subject in the comments below. Cheers!
Remember that I have a kendo instruction manual available in both digital and print formats. If you haven’t picked it up already, please have a look: