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.
10 replies on “Slow horse, fast horse”
Excellent post, and yes it’s always good to read what’s on your ‘tenugui’. Even if it’s just a common one or something different, as you explained in this article, it’s a message that should be taken to heart because it’s the last thing you put on and read before jumping into keiko. It’s a reminder of why you’re doing it and should be part of your keiko “routine”.
Glad you enjoyed it!
Not everyone can read or has access to somehow who can read Japanese though.
Still, nowadays you can take a pic with your phone and have it read automatically…
Thanks again George. Nice and I think applicable to most of the people that I know who soldiered on all these times. A Sensei from Kyoto once told me: “Everytime you put on your men you’ll get better and better”. As long as you don’t stop going to the dojo you are bound to improve is what I got from this advice.
I suppose we al need a tenugui like this one.
This hit home and I greatly appreciate the wonderful read, with injuries that have popped up and starting a family I know I could have been a higher rank but the bumps in the road have shown me a different side and Its made me cherish each and every keiko and to put all I can in to each.
I’ve always have enjoyed your posts and thank you for all the great reads!
Glad you found it a good read, and thanks for your kind words!!
Thanks for this post because I feel exactly the same. I am not a great Kenshi, I am very (but very!) bad in Shiai. But I always feel like a winner when I go to train three times a week and put all my effort in Keiko. For me that is the real Kendo.
If you go to keiko three times a week then you are a great kenshi!!!!! Don’t worry about shiai and the other stuff. Keiko keiko keiko !
Having just come back to kendo after a long break, I can totally relate to this. I never was really good physically, and as I am now in the “mature” stage of my life, I finally understand that kendo is a path, and that a plodding horse might plod, but it still moves forward and is harder to stop.
As an aside, nice to read you George, I remember being sad when you went to Japan and therefore couldn’t see you in Wakaba anymore, and nit only for the beer keiko, whuch were sometimes legendary…
I’m glad you are back at kendo… don’t worry about the break, you’ll be stronger for it.
I loved going to the pub in the afternoon after Wakaba… you are making me thirsty!!