Takano Hiromasa’s keys to improvement in kendo 高野弘正先生の「上達の秘訣」

Takano Hiromasa (1900-1987), kendo hanshi and headmaster of Itto-ryu*, was the the second son of kendo legend Takano Sasaburo.

A brief bio:

Hiromasa began studying the sword when he was 6 years old in his fathers dojo, Meishinkan. He graduated from Tokyo Shihan Gakko in 1923 and, in 1927, took over the day-to-day running of Meishinkan. At the same time he started teaching kendo at various universities (Waseda, Tokyo Institute of Technology, etc). Between 1936-41 he lived in America and taught kendo at California State University. After returning to Japan he started becoming involved in kendo publications, first by producing a magazine called “Shin-budo” before authoring his own titles. After the war he continued writing kendo books, eventually writing a kenshi-inspired novel. This led to him becoming a budo (swordsmanship) advisor for various plays and movies.

Today, similar to what I did in an earlier article of his fathers writings, I present a sort of mostly-translation plus semi-interpretation of a chapter from Hiromasa’s 1973 “Kendo Dokuhon” (Kendo Reader) entitled “Jotatsu no hiketsu” (the secret to improvement). I hope you enjoy it !

* Itto-ryu that was passed down through the Takano family is refereed to “Nakanishi-ha itto-ryu” nowadays, but it was never referred to this prior to the 1960s: it was always called “Ono-ha itto-ryu.” The change in nomenclature was done, presumably, to establish it as something different from the Ono-ha itto-ryu of Sasamori Junzo who, in 1960, copyrighted the name.

Keiko (2012)

Key’s to improvement in kendo

1. Concentrate on developing willpower

The spiritual power of humans:

Horie Kenichi, a young 23 year old yachtsman, crossed the pacific on his own, from Nishinomiya to San Francisco, in 1963. It took him 94 days. Since his success there have been many other people attempting to copy him, however, it’s like tapping a stone bridge before crossing it (i.e. looking before leaping) their caution makes what they are doing valueless. Horie, on the other hand, dared to do what nobody had ever attempted before, and thus can be said to have great spiritual strength.

On January the 24th 1972 Yokoi Shoichi was captured on the island of Guam after spending 24 years living in a cave. People were struck with admiration at his will power.

Both of these people are good examples of humans spiritual capability.

The first and most essential thing you must develop to improve your kendo is your emotional strength, that is, to have an indomitable spirit.

2. Keiko, keiko, keiko

Shut up and train:

If the first most important thing for improving your kendo is development of the spirit, then the second is to continually endure the hardships of repeated keiko sessions day-in-and-day-out in the dojo. This of course not limited to kendo, but various things in life: without practise you cannot improve.

As kendo is a physical art, simply thinking about it doesn’t help much – you can only learn by doing. It’s best to do this without debating this and that and chatting endlessly on kendo topics, but by getting your head down and working hard.

Adapt to the location:

In a large dojo you should spar from a far distance. In a small dojo you should spar from a close distance. In kendo we must learn to fight from both far and close distances, so practising in different dojo and learning to adapt to any dojo size constraints is essential.

In other words, don’t let yourself be constrained to a single distance, but practise in and acquire techniques to use in various situations.

Practise with difficult or awkward opponents:

It’s only natural that everybody has opponents that they find more or less easier or difficult than others. If you think “this guy is really awkward to fight with” and avoid him, it’s the same as choosing only those you can beat. Obviously, this is a sad state of affairs, and you will never truly grasp the essence of kendo.

You have to be able to face squarely and respond to (defeat) a variety or different types of opponent. Everybody has their own shape, style, and thinking. Learn from them to improve your kendo.

3. Don’t put too much importance on winning or losing

The main point of beginners shugyo (pursuit of kendo):

It’s important that beginners throw out any thoughts about winning and losing. They should simply aim to execute the basic shape of kendo as they have been taught it.

For example during uchikomi-geiko, if a beginners partner opens up his or her men to be struck, rather than attempting to hit it as fast as possible without concern for form, the beginner should take their time and aim to strike as correct as they can. This is important. Through practising this way repeatedly, even if the beginner still uses too much power, their form will improve.

Be struck to develop:

Even though in kendo we often say “Don’t worry about being struck” everybody does. Although it’s almost impossible to not worry about it, it’s important to try not to worry about it as much as you can. Like the well known phrase “turn a failure into a success” suggests, being struck is a chance to learn: “why was I strike then?”

In this way you can not only learn your own weaknesses and work on improving them, but you can also learn new techniques from your opponent.

4. Study under a teacher

Practise with your teacher and seniors:

It’s important that you learn under a good teacher(s) and good sempai. By practising hard with them and listening to their advice and direction, you cannot fail to improve. If you cannot patiently listen to their advice or endure hard keiko with them, then you will simply stop progressing.

This is all well and fine assuming that the the people you are studying under are actually good, however. If you are not lucky enough to have access to good teachers you will develop bad habits that are difficult to fix: “It’s faster to knock down and old house and rebuild than reform one that has been built slipshod.”

An old kendo saying goes: “rather than start three years earlier, it’s better to wait three years until you find a good teacher.” In other words, because a bad teacher can potentially – and irreparably – damage your kendo, you are better doing nothing than wasting your time studying under one.

5. Research (Kenkyu and kufu)

There are different opinions as to how to study kendo in the beginning. Some people believe it’s important to learn the theory first, whilst other believe physical practise is more important. Either way, both have the aim of Jiri-itchi (the unison of physical practise and theory, a term popularised by the famous kenshi Yamaoka Tesshu).

Like I mentioned before, I believe that discussion about theory is useless unless you have advanced technically enough to put words into practise. Therefore it is essential that a decent amount of technical ability is acquired before research into the theoretical aspects of kendo should begin.

Research like “if I seme like this and my opponent does that, then I’ll strike there” or “when I am in this distance if step in like this and move my shinai like that then I can get into striking distance” etc. etc., can be very productive.

However, this unison of physical practise and theory is not the end state of kendo, but a beginning one. The final state of kendo is one where, without forethought or realisation of any kind, the body moves naturally in response to an opponents opening and a strike is made. Achieving this ultimate state is, indeed, a difficult path.

Takano Hiromasa (left) advising Mifune Toshiro on swordplay on set
Takano Hiromasa (left) advising Mifune Toshiro (right) on swordplay on set



kenshi 24/7 publications can be found at kendo-book.com, please check it out!

Mei-shobu: Oshima Jikita vs Nakayama Hakudo 名勝負:大島治喜太対中山博道

It was a relaxing Sunday autumn morning in Kyoto when the school dormitory’s door was flung open:

“Everyone! Nakayama Hakudo and Kawasaki Zenzaburo are practising at the Gojo police station!!!!”

The Butokukai’s bujutsu kyoin yoseijo (martial arts training school) was established in 1905 and was the direct forerunner to the legendary Busen. All five of the future kendo 10th dans came from the initial bunch of students who trained here directly under the father of modern kendo, the very strict but gentlemanly Naito Takaharu sensei. In these early days there was no keiko on Sundays, so the students had free time.

Hearing the news, a young 19 year old student immediately sprung to his feet. Quickly changing into his keikogi and hakama, he stuffed his bogu into a bag and grabbed a shinai:

“I’m off!” he declared.

Nakayama needs no introduction here. Kawasaki, however, is less well known in kendo circles today. Born to a kenjutsu instructor of the Tosa domain in 1860, Kawasaki was a highly skilled swordsman 12 years senior to Nakayama (slightly older than both Naito Takaharu and Takano Sasaburo).

When the out of breath student arrived at the dojo he was out of luck: keiko was already over. Both sensei had removed their bogu and were sitting down relaxing with a cup of tea. This didn’t stop the zealous young man! Sitting in seiza in front of Nakayama he bowed deeply:

“Sensei, onegaishimasu!”

Nakayama eyed the youngster carefully.

“Keiko is already finished. Maybe some other time.”

“Sensei! My name is Oshima Jikita and I’m a kendo student at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo. I heard that you were here and came running. Please, even if it’s only for one ippon, please, keiko onegaishimasu!”

Oshima’s ardour was apparent on his face.

“Ha ha ha, ok! Your youthful zeal has beaten me! C’mon then, let’s do 5-hon shobu!”

The year was Meiji 41 (1908), and the 36 year old Nakayama was at his physical peak.

Both kenshi put their bogu on, picked up their shinai and faced each other in the middle of the dojo. The people that participated in the earlier keiko session sat down in a line and watched with anticipation.



Standing up from sonkyo both kenshi immediately let out a loud kiai. Slowly and carefully the distance was closed. Ai-seigan. Nakayama’s kensaki moved just a little and suddenly Oshima flew in…


“Oh!” said one of the spectators, “Nakayama sensei has been struck!”

Everyone was surprised. In the earlier keiko session nobody had managed to strike Nakayama anywhere, and yet here was this young lad who managed to do so without much fuss. And it didn’t stop there: Oshima next delivered a strong thrust and then a kote. Oshima beat Nakayama 3-0.

“Eh…. ?!?! Nobody can hit Nakayama sensei three times!?”

“It’s a miracle!”

The spectators were shocked.

Kawasaki stood up from where he had been watching the bout, and moved towards where his bogu was lying. Starting to put on his tare and dou he suddenly said:

“How about me next then? 3-bon shobu.”

“Sensei, onegaishimasu!” replied Oshima.

The result was the same: Oshima struck men, then delivered another thrust to win the bout.

Taking off his men, Kawasaki turned to Nakayama:

“This one has got something.”

Even if it’s highly probable that both sensei were humouring the enthusiastic youngster by only lightly sparring with him, the fact is that Oshima was skilled enough to land strikes and thrusts on them, a difficult task for even the most seasoned of kenshi. A month earlier, in what was one of the first country-wide competitions for youths (under 25s / kachinuki style), Oshima defeated 23 people in a row taking his team to victory. He was still only 19 years old at the time.

Oshima (white) vs Ueda Heitaro in 1934
Oshima (white) vs Ueda Heitaro in 1934

A brief bio

Oshima Jikita (kendo hanshi, iaijutsu and jukenjutsu kyoshi) is one of the early giants of the kendo community. His untimely death at the early age of 51 is probably why he is mostly forgotten today. Had he lived through the war, however, it is probably that he would have been awarded 10th dan at the same time as his long-time kendo friends and fellow bujutsu kyoin yoseijo students: Saimura, Mochida, Nakano, and Ogawa (and later, Oasa).

Along with his teaching duties at bujutsu kyoin yoseijo/Busen he also taught kendo at various places around the country, e.g. Kokushikan, Keishicho, the imperial guards, Toyama military school, etc etc.

He practised keiko right up until the day of his untimely death.



1889: Born in Saga prefecture.
1906: Graduated school.
1907: Attends the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo and studies directly under Naito Takaharu. Other students there at the time include Saimura Goro, Mochida Moriji, Nakano Sosuke, Hori Shohei, Miyazaki Mosaburo and Ogawa Kinnosuke.
1908: Graduates bujutsu kyoin yoseijo (November).
1909: Appointed an assistant at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo.
1913: Awarded seirensho
1916: Becomes an assistant instructor at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo.
1919: Awarded kendo kyoshi and becomes a full instructor at the bujutsu kyoin yoseijo.
1925: Awarded jukendo kyoshi.
1929: Takes part in the first of the Showa tenran-jiai. He was defeated by Mochida in the preliminary matches. Mochida goes on to win the competition. Awarded iaijutsu kyoshi.
1932: Awarded kendo hanshi.
1934: Faced Ueda Heitaro at a demonstration match of the tenran budo taikai (pictured above).
1939: Died of a cerebral apoplexy (51 years old).



Eikenkai November 2015 英剣会

Yesterday (Nov. 29th) was our 6th and last Eikenkai session of the year.

Twenty-two people rolled up at Sumiyoshi Budokan for a spirited 3 hour kihon-based keiko session. Participating kenshi came from Europe, north and south America, as well as Japan (of-course). After keiko we popped into our usual restaurant to have some of Osaka speciality food (okonomiyaki) and the odd beer or two.

The schedule for next year can be found on the Eikenkai information page. If you are around on one of the days and fancy joining please read the “Points to note before joining a session” before getting in touch. Cheers!

Sensei 先生

One of my main sensei is in his mid 70s. During keiko I attack him as best as I can but he still hits me and pushes me back. My heart rate rises quickly and I feel myself on the back foot at all times. He just keeps coming… like a Terminator! He’s in the dojo almost every time and he pushes everyone to do their best kendo. He has my utmost respect. Recently, however, during post-keiko beers, some of my sempai have been wondering exactly how long he has left at this pace. I had never thought about that until it was mentioned.

Old Geezer, October 2012

A man of little words, the sensei in question above quietly stopped coming to the dojo sometime in 2014. It happened without any notice – he simply didn’t show up. After a week or so my sempai contacted his house to inquire after him only to find out he was diagnosed with cancer and had already been operated on. Not wanting to intrude, we left him to his privacy. Hopefully he’d come to the dojo when he was feeling better.

Earlier this year he had seemingly recovered enough to pop in to the dojo and watch a godogeiko. I couldn’t attend that particular keiko due to a work kendo event, and only found out later that he had come to watch. “I should call him” I thought, but I never did. Last Saturday morning I heard that he had passed away five days earlier on the 3rd of November.

When I first landed in Osaka in 2005 I had been through a torturous two years in Hiroshima. My work experience there was a truly miserable one which was only magnified by the difficulties I faced kendo-wise. I practised at a central police station with police teachers and people from the nearby naval base. I think in those two years nobody allowed me to strike their men, they just beat me up constantly. Unbelievably, I remember standing in the dojo sniffling in my men with sheer frustration (at least twice). I made no kendo friends, mainly because I couldn’t speak Japanese, but also because there was nobody of my age in the dojo. Many times I thought about quitting and going home but, somehow (I still don’t know how I managed it), I scrambled through and escaped to civilisation: Osaka! There my kendo life was about to start proper, partly due to the efforts of one man.

Before arriving in Osaka I had already managed to get an introduction to Yoseikai, a dojo in the city centre. The shihan of Yoseikai was hanshi hachidan and Busen graduate Furuya Fukunosuke sensei. Below him was club president and a long time member of the dojo and student of Ikeda Yuju sensei: T-sensei.

(I haven’t mentioned his name here because he very much kept to himself. If you can read Japanese or have visited the dojo in the last few years I’m sure you can work out who I am talking about.)

I don’t know what it was about T-sensei and me, but somehow he started looking after my kendo relatively soon after I arrived. I think it may have been because I did something that people in Japan don’t bother with nowadays: I asked him for permission to take my next grading. Shaking his head and waving his hand, his answer was pretty curt:

“You can if you want, but you’ll fail.”

And fail I did.

For the next nine years I’d put my men on quickly and line up to do kirikaeshi with him at the start of practise. At the end of keiko, even if I’d already done a final kirikaeshi with someone else, I’d go up to him again and do one more kirikaeshi. During jigeiko it was no holds barred. I think I was the only person who even attempted to tsuki him, which he seemed to enjoy! On the very rare occasion that we managed to socialise together I’d pour his beers. After a few his taciturn nature disappeared and he’d say what he thought about people’s kendo or their attitude in the dojo… being a strict man, his opinion was often strongly put, much to the chagrin of those listening! Luckily I always got a pat on the back and a beer refill. Randomly, he once gave me some razors because he thought I needed a shave, and on another occasion some cabbage that he’d grown in his garden because he knew I was vegetarian. Due partly to T-sensei’s tutelage, I pretty much forgot my first horrible two years in Hiroshima.

Despite all this, sadly, I’m not sure that I can say that I actually knew him as a person. Kendo-wise there was some sort of unstated and mutual understanding between us… when and why it started I’m not sure, but whatever it was that initiated it, and why it continued is a mystery to me still. This seemingly vague relationship has, however, affected my outlook in kendo in many areas, for example: I can’t stand overly verbose instruction; I respect hard workers; and I try not to shy away from telling people things (in the dojo) that they don’t like to hear.

T-sensei never became hachidan. He never, at least to my knowledge, won any shiai, major or minor. You won’t see any documentaries about his kendo life on YouTube or read any books filled with his pithy kendo sayings. He was just a normal kendo person like the rest of us… except, for me at least, he wasn’t.

The passing away of the person who I considered my main teacher at relatively young age of 75 has caused me to stop and think. The first and most obvious thing is, of course, that I should be especially thankful for (and respectful to) the older kendoka that I practise with. The most senior (grade-wise) teacher I study under is about 63. Another teacher that looks after me turned 74 recently. The oldest, however, will be 90 in December (as a very young soldier at the end of WW2 based in Hiroshima prefecture he saw the mushroom plume of Little Boy). Also, as you can imagine living at the opposite end of the earth from my own family, I started thinking about my own parents as well.

The second thing is something I believe to be absolutely fundamental (but not limited) to kendo, is that I have an obligation to pass on what was taught to me. Exactly how I do this I’m not yet sure, but whatever shape it takes you can bet T-sensei’s teachings are to be found, somewhere, therein.

The only picture I have with me doing kendo with T-sensei
The only picture I have with me doing kendo with T-sensei

Duty of care 注意義務

Judging the outcome of shiai and handing down a decision may at first appear a simple task but, in fact, it is far from it. It would be more accurate to say that it is one of the most difficult of tasks. Perfect refereeing can be achieved only by the Gods alone – it is unnatural for one man to pass judgement upon another; thus, we cannot hope for faultless and perfect refereeing.

– Noma Hisashi, The Kendo Reader (1939)

A couple of weekends ago – for the first time in years and years – I attended a kendo seminar. Unlike seminars abroad, here in Japan they tend to be really small scale affairs, perhaps of only a few hours length, dedicated to a single area of kendo (i.e. shinpan, kata, teaching methodology, or grading). In fact, the whole (enjoyable!) “seminar” scene outside Japan simply doesn’t exist here (of course people get together for kendo weekends, but it’s a different experience you have in, say, America or Europe).

Anyway, the seminar I attended was a shinpan one and was taught by three local 8th dan teachers. The top teacher lectured us for an hour then, during the practical shinpan part, berated people constantly for their poor shinpan skills. Luckily – being a confident judge with lots of past experience – I evaded any criticism… but I must admit I was sweating it a little during my judging session!!

Today I’d quickly like to introduce (actually, reiterate) something important that was said to us repeatedly during the lecture as well as discuss a couple of points that were mentioned or came-up during the day.

The importance of a good shinpan (a.k.a. The effect bad shinpan have on kendo in general)

Let me start, if I may, with a quote from myself:

Kendo’s vicious circle circle, unfortunately already at play in various places where an established kendo infrastructure does not exist, looks something like this:

  • shiai too early + bad shinpan = bad points awarded;
  • bad points awarded = reinforcement of bad kendo;
  • reinforcement of bad kendo = a drop in the physical (technical) overall standards of kendo (yuko-datotsu);
  • a drop in the physical (technical) overall standards of kendo = a drop in the overall standard of grades;
  • a drop in the overall standard of grades = immature teachers (naturally bad shinpan);
  • immature teachers = students not taught correctly and put into shiai too early.

– George McCall, Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills (2012)

Perhaps I’d re-word it slightly now, but the point remains: there is a very real connection between shinpan skill and technical level of competitors. This influence, I posit, is often hard to see because it can take time to manifest itself in an observable manner. In larger kendo populations with a good infrastructure the change might even take generations. Most places outside of Japan have (through no fault of their own) a poor kendo infrastructure so the influence of shinpan over competitors (and, in extension, the general kendo populous) is both larger and more easily detectable.

The solution to this, according to the sensei at the seminar, is of course that people who shinpan must be active kendoka. It’s not that they should simply be doing kendo, but they must pursue it. Shinpan have a duty to understand what makes a yuko-datotsu, knowledge of which can only be gained through hard training over the course of years under the tutelage of good teachers. The ability to read (as well as execute) a good yuko-datotsu comes through this experience alone.

Above and beyond the physical and technical ability of the shinpan are of course a few other factors: shinpan must make decisions fairly, not based on personal bias; they must not favour one technique over the next; they cannot fail to award what seems like a good strike because they claim they have never seen the technique before; they should be well versed in the rules of shiai and how to act as a shinpan (how to move around the court, the calls); and so on.

Understanding how to referee is one of the technical aspects of kendo that you have to become used to and is therefore an important skill to acquire. What follows below are some of the most important points to be careful about:

  • Impartiality.
  • Use correct etiquette.
  • Become one with the competitors.
  • Make clear calls.
  • Respect the regulations.

– Ogawa Kinnosuke, The Kendo Textbook of Imperial Japan (1932, revised 37)

(note, all bullet points in this quote are abbreviated for this post)

Of course, it’s impossible to wait until people have mastered the (often mysterious and always difficult) inner secrets of kendo before they attempt to judge competitions…. not only because most of us will never reach that level, but because there are often aren’t enough experienced shinpan going around to judge competitions (this goes for larger competitions inside Japan as well).

There are many ways you could possibly tackle this problem, but i’d rather explore that in a different article. Today I think it’s sufficient to point out that the problem is a very real one.

Yukodatotsu - click to enlargen

A couple of interesting points

There’s a few things I picked up at the seminar that I could mention here but for the sake of keeping things short I’ll just mention two things: one interesting and one minor. Also, at the end, I’ll add in something I read in one of this months kendo magazines which came up by chance as I was writing this piece.

1. Change in positioning for a jodan competitor

One of the most interesting things that was said during the day was in reference to shinpan positioning when one of the competitors was a jodan competitor. Interesting because not only have I never heard this said before, I’m pretty sure it’s not in the rule book either! It goes like this:

In ai-chudan the three shinpan are organised in a triangular fashion. When one competitor is using jodan, however, both the chushin and the fukushin nearest the jodan competitor should move into a position where they can clearly see the competitors tsuki-dare. This is because tsuki is a common technique against jodan and it’s difficult to see if has struck properly. The triangle in this situation becomes slightly skewed.

Check out this wonderful sketch by yours truly:


2. Red flag over white

When calling hikiwake we are taught that the red flag should be placed over/in front of the white one. We also wrap the red flag round the white one when we are finished using them. Interestingly, at the seminar we were told when cancelling a point the red flag should be above the white flag as well. If you pause for a second you’ll realise the position of your hands thus changes when you are chushin (red flag in right hand) and fukushin (red flag in left hand).

It’s a really minor point (and not that important I think) but it shows to illustrate just how particular some sensei are about shinpan methods!

3. Not allowing a jodan kenshi to take kamae

In one of the kendo magazines this month there was a shinpan question I thought interesting: “Is it illegal to stop a jodan kenshi from taking their kamae?” By this I mean the chudan competitor keeps going in to a close distance and smothering the jodan competitor so they cannot assume their preferred kamae.

There were two scenarios mentioned but it basically comes down to this:

“Is the chudan competitors actions a tactic used to proactively attack, lure, and/or forestall the jodan competitor? Or is he simply moving in close to stop the jodan competitor from attacking him (due to fear or lack of skill perhaps) and wasting time?”

If it is the first scenario then this is basically one of the strategies that can be used against jodan and is valid. The second scenario is, of course, illegal and should be penalised for not attacking and/or wasting time.

Shinpan gallery

Bonus: All Japan Kendo Championships 2015 Shinpan opinion piece

My sensei was one of the shinpan at this years All Japan Kendo Championships (held yesterday). At keiko today he (as he usually does when he comes back from large shiai or events) chatted a little bit about what happened and gave us his own insight into the event. Tonight he mentioned specifically about Katsumi Yosuke, the runner-up in the competition. Despite losing in the final, my sensei said that he watched his kendo style carefully and felt that he was a kenshi that does good kendo. Check out this super slow-mo clip courtesy of the ZNKR (more here):