Just the other week a friend was visiting from Tokyo. She popped into the dojo for a couple of keiko, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. To my surprise she also brought with her a gift from my 2022 Kyoto Taikai partner: a tenugui. I of course knew that they were friends, but I never expected a gift.
I was totally unfamiliar with the phrase written on the tenugui, so I immediately (of course!) went into study mode. The kanji read:
駑馬十駕 (どばじゅうが / DOBA-JUGA)
A phrase attributed to the Chinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi who lived during the late Warring States period, it refers to how a slow horse (駑馬 DOBA) will – if they continue to plod on relentlessly – eventually travel the same distance as a fast horse (十駕 JUGA, literally a horse worth 10 times more than others). In other words, even if you are unskilled or have no real talent in something per se (or you are a beginner, have a long break, etc.), if you work hard and stick with it as best you can, eventually you will catch up to those that have progressed at a faster pace than you.
I had never heard or seen this phrase before and it immediately resonated with me.
The last few times I’ve posted something grading related on this site it has produced a fair bit of commentary on social media. I understand why people aim for gradings, but to be completely honest, I don’t get the obsession with it. I guess this is because I am the proverbially “slow horse,” the “DOBA” mentioned above.
I was never athletic, and always struggled to acquire kendo movements (I still struggle today). Shiai and gradings were/are not a source of joy. However, with over two decades of practice here in Japan, and about three decades in total, I can say for sure that, in the end – at least to a certain degree – it all evens out. Everybody, and I really do mean everybody (unless they run out of time for some reason, or give up), becomes nanadan (if they want to). Male, female, Japanese nationals, non-Japanese, teachers, policemen/women, dentists, gardeners, accountants, etc, etc….. everybody. Whether you get it quickly or whether it takes some time, it all evens out. 99%+ of those people will stay nanadan for the rest of their lives. So… what?
(hachidan is a different beast, so let’s skip that today)
The stated goal of kendo is to “refine the human character.” That is, kendo should be, in theory, a method to discipline you yourself, the “inside” if you will. The “outside” stuff like *shiai, gradings, YouTube channels, books, and so on, are actually just periphery… a bit of floating fluff stuck to your jumper. All are fine at certain points, but they shouldn’t be the all encompassing focus of your kendo.
(*I strongly believe that a shiai-centric period is essential in everyone’s early-mid kendo caereer, however)
Way back in 2012, before social media complete overtook our lives, I wrote a then-popular post called Small Things. In it I listed 10 things that, I believe, make someone a “quality” kendoka. It still ranks as one of my favourite posts on this site. Recently, I have been thinking of expanding it, in particular the part about humility: If it all evens out in the end, what is there to obsess, or even show-off (as some people are want to do), about?
As I noted above, I am the DOBA, the slow unskilled horse. This fact has almost certainly coloured my perception and concept of kendo over these three decades, and it is why my articles have the content that they do. Had I been the JUGA – the “fast horse” – and had something better to work with (physically, situationally, etc.), then my kendo experience would have been perhaps far more fun, and certainly less stressful. Perhaps the content of this site would be 100% technical or filled with shiai reports and loads of waza instructional videos. Who knows.
At times during my kendo career, I am shamed to admit, I have felt jealously towards people who acquired a decent level of kendo without too much effort (at least, this is how I have subjectively felt). I would’ve loved to have been in more World Kendo Championships, or maybe won a shiai now and then. It used to bother me a lot… but not now (well, not as much….).
Nowadays, in a way, I feel kind of happy I was and am the unskilled type. It has made me work harder, taught me humility (although I am still lacking in this area), and forced me to look beyond the surface of kendo (for example, studying its history or practising multiple koryu). Motivation is something that comes from inside me, not from some external source. Had I banked everything on winning shiai, passing exams, or likes/comments on social media sites, I would’ve almost probably quit a long time ago. Instead, plodding away slowly as I have done, I’ve been able to enjoy kendo despite (even after hundreds and thousands of keiko sessions) not being particularly good at it… which is kind of weird now that I think about it!
Anyway, I am sure many people reading this today have lots of tenugui they have bought or been given, but do you know what is written on them? If not, why don’t you try to find out? You might, as I have done, learn something new.