The following is a loose translation of a short essay from a book entitled “Kendo: the route to promotion.” There are two books in the same series, each containing about 60 short essays by people who have passed hachidan. In the essays the sensei discuss their mindset and approach to the exam.
Of course, the vast majority of people who pass hachidan do kendo as part of their job (i.e. policemen or teachers) so their experience might not seem immediately relevant to your average kendoka. However, I do think there are some things to be learned from other peoples journey, whether some circumstances are different or not.
From the 120 or so essays over the two books, I picked a sensei who I personally know and have studied under for a while.
Yano Nobuhiro sensei
Short bio: Yano sensei was born in Miyazaki prefecture in 1962. After graduating from kendo-powerhouse Takachiho high school he started working at Osaka police department. He passed hachidan in 2008 and is currently a professional police kendo instructor in Osaka.
Use video to improve your technique
From 2001 until 2006 I taught kendo at the Osaka police academy. These five years were a chance for me to re-examine my kendo. In fact, it was from this time that my kendo life completely changed. Between teaching kendo classes to police recruits, I was luckily able to do lots of kihon and jigeiko with the (more senior) sensei that were working there. More importantly, for me, was the chance to do lots of kakarigeiko and to learn under good instructors.
During this time I realised that my kendo had still some way to go, so in order to tackle this I started to video myself.
For example, during breaks when I was working night duty (even police kendo pros sometimes have to do other work), I’d tape markers on the wall then video my kamae, posture, basic cutting shapes, etc, and then check my form with the markers.
I also recorded kihon and jigeiko sessions and studied things like: my posture when I was struck, what type of seme I used when I struck successfully, my posture when I struck, my posture after I struck, etc.
At this time it wasn’t that I was aiming for hachidan per se, rather I worked hard to become a good model for the police recruits at the academy.
After doing this day-in-and-day-out, I started to feel my kendo slowly change.
Learn from other sensei’s experience
While I was working at the police academy one of the sensei there passed hachidan, so I was able to see up-close how he approached the test. Another already-hachidan sensei who was working there started to tell me how he modified his keiko when he was aiming at the exam, and also how he approached solo practise. The current vice-head kendo instructor academy at that time also spent a long time teaching me the finer points of tenouchi, how to kamae, how to strike, etc, and it was he that first said “you must aim for hachidan” to me.
It was studying under sensei like this that made me seriously start to consider aiming towards hachidan.
Go to the dojo early and do kihon
In 2006 I moved from the police academy to a local police station and my keiko volume decreased suddenly (police budo teachers main job is rotating around police stations teaching normal police men and women kendo, judo, and taihojutsu). At the police station I couldn’t really do kakarigeiko anymore (as he was the main instructor) so I started to go to Shudokan where there were a lot of hachidan sensei.
The head instructor at Shudokan at that time introduced me to a dojo that he ran, and there, under his and another sensei’s tuition, I would go to the dojo early and work on my basics, and do jigeiko practise specifically aiming towards the hachidan exam.
Consciously pull up your left foot while walking
However, I felt that this wasn’t enough. When I was commuting between home and work I’d sometimes get off the train a stop earlier and walk, or even run to my destination.
While walking I’d pay attention to where my center of balance was located as well as pulling up my left leg/foot (hikitsuke). When I was running I’d jog for a bit then sprint towards the next electricity pole or building. I’d do this repeatedly until I reached my destination.
After work hours I’d do sit-ups and weight training, use a mirror to check my kamae and posture, do suburi whilst focusing on an imaginary opponent, or use an uchikomidai for striking practise, etc.
At home I’d even corral my then-teenage son into running outside with me!
Technique execution is part of pressure
During keiko itself I concentrated on somehow forcing the opponent to move, even if only a little bit. I’d pressure their spirit, their center line, from below, and from above, all with the intent of connecting this seme to an ippon.
It’s thought that people with good athletic ability have an advantage when striking in a 1-2 pattern (think “yaaa, men!”). However, even if you aren’t particularly gifted athletically, if you manage to somehow force your opponent to react to you, if even for an instant, then your chance of striking first will be greatly increased.
However, I see a lot of people successfully forcing a reaction in their opponent only to be late in executing a technique – that is, their seme and waza are not connected. One of the sensei mentioned above said to me: “You don’t pressure your opponent and THEN strike, the strike should be executed AS PART OF the pressure” (emphasis mine). This teaching I have tried to meet face on.
However, whether your pressure works or not is something you cannot know until the very instant you attempt it. In order not to execute a half-baked attack then, I worked on pressuring in a way where my body posture did not break and where I stepped in with full intent. When striking, I tried to strike straight, and tried not to break my posture, either before, during, or after the attack. I worked hard on ensuring that I kept a posture whereby I could execute a strike at anytime.
I also considered how to make my strikes strong. To do this I payed attention to not letting my hands (fists) travel quickly away from my body when executing a technique. Instead, I worked on moving my body out first, and having the power generated by the action move into the shinai. In other words, I worked hard on not striking with my arms and hands only.
Countdown to the test
As the test was coming closer I attended a few keiko’s and received advice from various hachidan sensei. I did some practise hachidan gradings and was able to watch and learn from other people’s practise gradings as well, which was a good experience for me.
I kept a keiko journal from my normal keiko sessions where I wrote down the advice from various sensei as well as my own thoughts and ideas about my own kendo. As the test got closer I reviewed these notes.
There was a calendar in the journal, so I numbered the days from six-months before the test date in order to constantly keep the grading in mind.
By doing these things I managed to heighten my senses for the coming test, for example by doing more image training and working harder on solo practise. This helped me improve both my psychological state and my technical kendo.
During solo practise I imagined the real test. I’d then try it out in real keiko. When it didn’t seem to go well, I’d re-imagine from a different angle, then try again in the next keiko. When keiko went as I imagined I kept this image in my head and tried it out again and again. I went through this process many many times.
Finally, I’d like to say thank you to all the teachers that taught me, and to my family that supported me over the years. From now on, I hope to work hard and improve my kendo even more.
(Yano sensei passed hachidan on his first attempt at the age of 46.)
Super Special Bonus: Yano sensei’s pointers for high school students
Late last December, Yano sensei came to my school and taught my students for an afternoon. There was a lot of instruction given, but let me boil it all down to a few easily digestible points:
- Men cuts should be firm, so don’t do small pokey ones, move the shinai in slightly larger manner to generate more power
- Should be straight, not diagonal
- If you cut kote in kote-men in a nice straight manner why, when you cut only kote, does it become diagonal?
- Tsuki is also an “uchi” a strike, and should be done in the same manner as kote (from above to below)
- Look at the area you strike or in the general area
- Don’t swing your shinai up after the strike – this shows bad hasuji
- Rather than strike and move back, first break the opponents posture in some way then strike
- Don’t always move directly back, but diagonal as well
- If your pressure is too strong then no one will attack you (nobody experience anyway). Instead, lure your opponent into the attack by opening up areas that can be hit or relax your kamae
- Never wait to be attacked
Utsu-mae no shigoto
- What you do before striking is very important