Yuko-datotsu vs Ippon

I am going to start today’s article with an anecdote and some self-reflection before getting into the main topic. In a roundabout way (as is my style) the intro anecdote is relevant to the theme, but feel free to skip it if you wish.

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Earlier this year I took part in a keikokai run by a friend in the Butokuden. About 50 or so people took part I think, I am not sure. Lots of the attendees I knew well or was acquaintances with, but there were a few friends-of-friends who were attending for the first time. Anyway, I was having a good session and looked around for a someone (a friend-of-a-friend) I had never practiced with before. This can sometimes be a bit risky, but that is part of the challenge!

I saw an older gentlemen with Mie prefecture on his zekken, so I approached and asked him for keiko. He acquiesced and we got down to it. He was very competent, and we were having a good time, both striking and being struck (or, at least, that’s how it felt to me). It was quite rewarding. Eventually he held up his thumb and said “ippon.” After a few encounters there was a moment where I went for men and he kote. Both strikes landed. He looked over his shoulder at me and said “kote-ariiiiiiiii” and looked back at him and said (whilst smiling) “men-ariiiiii” – a situation that has happened a million times in my kendo career, and will likely happen a million times more.  What was different this time, however, is that he suddenly said (in a loud voice):

“You have no idea do you?”

It’s hard to get the nuance in print, but his manner and words were very dismissive. Now, I wasn’t angry or anything, I calmly looked at him squarely in the face. I paused for a second then – to his surprise (and mine!) – I did something that I have never done in my kendo life before: I went into sonkyo, put the shinai away, stood up, bowed, and walked off. I left him still standing there in shock. 

Like I said, I wasn’t angry or anything. I found another partner and continued with keiko. The guy must have thought about what happened and, after watching me for a bit, he approached me and said:

“McCall, one more?” 

(I immediately noted that he didn’t add at least “-san” to my name)

I calmly replied: “You said I ‘have no idea.’ If that’s the case, what’s the point of us doing keiko together?”

He said nothing so I went off and practised with someone else. 

I was hoping he was going to be around after the session finished as I planned to ask him why he felt the need to put his partner down like that (especially when he didn’t know me). Isn’t kendo about character building? Weren’t we having a constructive keiko? 

But he was gone. 

Looking back, of course, I should just have let him “win” rather than compromise myself. What I did was rude, I realise that (while I was doing it I knew). Just because he was disrespectful towards me didn’t really justify my action. I’ve dealt with many many difficult kendo situations over the years, some much more direct and far worse than this, but that day I just thought: “I don’t need this.”

I was chatting to a friend about it afterwards and mentioned offhandedly: “I can’t remember his name.” My friend said pointedly: “Well, he’ll certainly remember yours.”

Over the past while, maybe three or four years, I’ve made it my habit to do “ippon shobu twice” at the end of (most) jigeiko sessions (with my students or friends). One will be in chudan, the other in jodan. I started doing this to improve my jodan, which i’d say it has managed to do (studying jodan has also improved my chudan considerably, but that is a different article). Doing jigeiko in jodan was a complete nightmare at first, but I’ve mostly gotten used to it now. 

During ippon shobu – even if my partner is a complete 15 year old beginner – I never “claim” an ippon without their consent. What I mean is that if I hit something and I think it was good, I’ll ask: “How was that?” Of course, as I am their teacher most will say “it was good” and just agree with me. At least for the first while. As their skill and experience increases (or once they get to know me better) however, many of my students stop easily accepting my strikes, which forces me to work harder. If they do what they think is a good strike and I ignore it they will sometimes confront me (nicely of course!) about it. Sometimes I accept their appeal, sometimes I don’t.

(In the past, it was the norm for people to continue to spar until once side   said “maiita” or “I’m defeated.” This type of kendo was more to test the physical and psychological kendo limits of an individual rather than technical expertise. btw, I said in the past above, but I still do keiko with a few people who continue until one side (theirs or mine) acknowledges defeat. Anyway, I digress.)

So over the past couple of years or so I’ve experienced a change in my perception of my idea of what makes “ippon” and what is a “Yuko-Datotsu.” This comes from my imagination and experience, and I am sure many readers will find it odd or disagree with me, that’s ok: YMMV. 

First of all is my long-term held opinion that shiaiin theory, don’t actually need shinpan. Of course, humans are not perfect and are subject to  various somewhat difficult feelings such as vainglory, anger, shame, prejudice, and what not, which is exactly why practically we need judges in place*. However, in our day-to-day keiko, when practising with senior and peers, I guess that people do manage to judge themselves mostly honestly (fairly) without the need of shinpan, so, it’s not impossible. 

(* The history of olympic fencing shows that even with judges in place the judges themselves would often display strong bias. The sport was electrified to combat this.)

Anyway, my point is that nowadays I have begun to see an “ippon” as something that is judged by someone external to the actual bout itself, someone who hears and sees, but does not feel. A “yuko datotsu,” by comparison, is something  that both kenshi consider to have been “successful” (the “yuko” part). This contains the very important internal (psychological) elements that cannot possible be read or seen by a judge. This could lead to a strike being considered “yuko” if the psychological interplay was enough to “defeat”someone, even if the strike itself never hit accurately. 

As such, during keiko lately I will either say “ippon shobu twice” or “let’s go for a quality yuko-datotsu” depending on who my partner is. Perhaps this is just me being weird…

I am sure many of your reading this think my idea is odd, or maybe you think it should be the other way round. In fact, when I was writing this article I did a quick search and found something – by total chance – on YouTube (which I had never seen before) that does indeed address the same topic but uses the terms in reverse. I am not and never will be hanshi nor hachidan, of course, but it seems like the gentlemen in the video and I have come to similar conclusions, even if the terminology is swapped. I may be onto something!

(BONUS: Thinking about it a bit more, the actually terminology used isn’t as nearly important as the realisation that most people forget that the “success” of a strike or thrust lies on a spectrum… )


So yeah, the situation in the Butokuden described above happened because of the dissonance between our concepts of what constitutes a “Yuko-datotsu” (or an “ippon” as you prefer), that is: I consider that it must be decided mutually, whereas my opponent didn’t. Hmmm….

Photo by Juan Rumimpunu on Unsplash

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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