Value 価値

The following is a rough translation of a very small part of a much larger essay about REIGI (etiquette) that was published in the July 2013 edition of Kendo Nippon. The author is Iwatate Saburo sensei. The translated section in particular caught my eye so I thought i’d share it here and use it as the basis of a longer discussion.

“In the kendo community we have the dan-i and shogo system. Its fair to say that achievement of these grades/titles is one of the main aims behind many peoples practice. Whatever age you may become, having something to aim for/challenge at is a way to keep growing (as a person). Kendo-wise, even though the body starts to loose its strength around about the 50s or 60s we can – if we keiko properly – still attempt gradings. People in their 60s and 70s still pass 6th and 7th dan, and even kendo’s highest grade of 8th dan.

But there is one thing that I’d like you to keep in mind – you shouldn’t equate grade with peoples nature. There are some people with low kendo grades who have a high social standing, and many people that have are good people. If you forget this and simply value people on their grades then you are committing a terrible crime.”

Ideally speaking, we all start kendo when we are young and our grade steadily climbs as we grow older (see The Kendo Lifecycle). Work-wise as well, we enter our companies or institutions as young men or women and, over the years, promotion generally follows. In other words age usually, in some manner, equates with both grade and work or social status (a sweeping statement I admit).

Japan in the Edo period was a place with a rigid vertical class hierarchy with almost no chance of upward social mobility: birth decided your place in society. Within classes themselves there would be different groups with perhaps ranking between them. Individuals identity was based on being a member of a group. Within the group, relationships were both vertical and horizontal and an individuals standing within the group was a lot more flexible than within society at large. Age and gender, however, impacted this flexibility or lack thereof. Since the 19th century, in the beginning at the behest of Western Imperialism, society has seen itself change rapidly, sometimes causing traditional structures to implode and sometimes forming often uncomfortable fusions with Western ideas. Modern Japan is one such a society.

Compared to where I grew up (the highlands of Scotland) modern Japanese society is one where respect for older people is still strong. I think that this is almost certainly a good thing but I’ve also seen many occasions where older people have acted incredibly high-handed and self-centered at the expense of those around them. With the potential double-authority giving power of age and grade, many of these experiences have happened in the dojo.

K ‘sensei’ (I must admit I really don’t want to use the term sensei here) is 7dan and in his mid-50’s. When I first came to Osaka he was there at every keiko session. Naturally I went up to practise with him. Watching the people in front of me fence I realised that he was quite rough and pushed people about quite a lot. When it came to my turn I bowed, sonkyo-ed, and stood up. He immediately went to move in at me and I just stepped in and attempted men. It hit. I’m not sure who was more surprised, him or me, but immediately he went wild: pushing, shoving, shouting etc. After 2 minutes of this (he cut it short) he ended it. When I bowed at him he looked away, not bowing back. ‘Thats done it’ I thought.

The next time I saw him I said ‘konbanwa’ and he simply ignored me. Attempting to right any wrong I might have done I lined up for him at keiko. After waiting 10 minutes in the line he simply waved me away with his hand and went on to continue to fence the person after me. This continued for about 6 months when I just gave up. Luckily the dojo had fifteen 7dans so it really wasn’t a loss for me.

After about a year or so in the dojo I plucked up the courage to ask one of my sempai about him. K-sensei was deeply unpopular. Most of the serious kendoka never went to him for keiko, and all the other sensei ignored him. In fact, he only used to keiko with people who were adult beginners or, I increasingly noticed, women. In other words, people who (he assumed) he could dominate. After a while, those beginners and the women would see through this and attempt to escape doing keiko with him, but he would actually grab them and make them fight him. I heard stories from other kendo friends that he attended a couple of other dojo and did exactly the same thing. Eventually, as the kendoka he had been ignoring for years started grading up to 4th, 5th, and 6th dan, he disappeared.

My interaction with K taught me one thing: that age and grade don’t tell you much about the man himself. I started to pay attention to not only the ability of the teachers around me, but how they treated others (and more importantly, how others treated them), and thought about the perception I was giving off about myself through my keiko manner.

I realised, slowly at first, how people did or didn’t discriminate depending on the person in front of them. That is, some people did the same kendo against anyone that came along – i.e they judged the person solely on their ability, not on who they are or what type of person they may be – whereas others carefully changed the type of kendo they did to respond to the person in front of them. If kendo is a pursuit of knowledge and the dojo is a kind of microcosm of society, then it make sense that the latter approach is the more mature. Please note that I’m not talking about people ‘dumbing down’ their kendo, or somehow holding back, but more of a change in the ‘feeling’ of the keiko itself, rather than any physical modification (though with much older people, some physical modification is necessary).

To attempt to wind this rambling post up I’ll finish with an example. Within the kendo community police kendo teachers (preferably 8dan, but not necessary) are the top of the food chain – their position has the highest prestige and they are the most respected. But, when looking at Japanese society at a macro level, you realise that actually their job is not a particularly high status one… in fact, most people don’t even know that the profession exists. When compared with people their own age who entered a normal ‘salary man’ life, they are also not highly payed. Their technical preeminence, of course, is without question, but that doesn’t automatically equate with moral or some sort of spiritual authority.

What all this means to me personally is that while I apply a certain automatic respect to people older and more experienced than myself, I withhold the right to remove that if they have questionable characters, even if they are 8dan. In the same way, I try to not judge people with less experience than myself solely on their technical ability because many have better jobs and lead richer lives than I do. Obviously, I also hope that people respond to me based on who I am as a person and not only on my technical (non-)ability or grade. Since kendo is a large part of my life – and hence identity – I hope that years of hard keiko can help develop my character and make me into a better person. However, as the example of K-sensei above demonstrates, this isn’t necessarily a given.

DIY#6: Heel supporter

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted any DIY articles, so I thought it was high time I made the effort. This quick post is to help you to easily and quickly save some money (at least those of us that use heel supporters).

For most of my kendo career I never used a heel supporter during keiko. Maybe it was due to ramping up my kendo schedule, but about 4 years ago the heel of my right foot started to become painful during practise. Not a little bit, but a lot… so much so that I couldn’t fumikomi. Some people say that this happens because you don’t stamp properly, but I tend to think its more likely simply a matter of wear and tear just taking its toll (at least in my case). At any rate, since that time I’ve been unable to go back to not using a heel supporter (I tried unsuccessfully).

Due to my keiko schedule I find that a usual kendo heel supporter has a maybe 3 month lifespan before the bottom spongy portion gets so flat that it affords no protection. For a long time I’d simply throw away the supporter and buy another one. Eventually I realised that this was costing me a lot of money, so I started doubling up on supporters, which allowed older supporters to be used for a much longer duration. Eventually, however, they too inevitably had to be discarded.

At some point I realised that all the old supporters were weakening at the same point – a hole would open up at the same place on every one (pictured). Once I discovered this I mulled over a couple of solutions before hitting on a very simple and cost effective one: heel cushions.

What you need

– an old heel supporter
– a heel cushion (I can buy 2 for 100 yen)
– glue
– scissors

What to do

1. Turn the heel supporter inside out.
2. Cut an opening big enough to insert the heel cushion at the worn part.
3. Apply glue to the edges of the heel supporter.
4. Insert and leave to dry.

Thats it!! There are a few different types of heel cushions available, please experiment until you find one that’s comfortable for you.

I hope this short post was useful!!

Update July 2014

Here are another 2 experimental versions of the above. The one on the left glues a heel cushion straight onto the inside of the worn supporter, whereas the one on the right was created by inserting a heel cushion from the outside. Giving them both a try this week.


Budo in schools in the early Meiji period – pros and cons

About two weeks back I was looking through a friends small book collection and noticed a budo book in English that I hadn’t heard nor see of before: “Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan – An innovative response to modernisation” (produced by the Kodokan and translated by Alex Bennet). Not being a judo/jujutsu person, I must confess to not knowing too much of the early history of judo. I have, however, always been aware that Kano’s influence was very wide, and that his personal philosophy (of budo et al) impacted many a kendoka back in the day (not in the least, Takano Sasaburo). So I borrowed the book from my friend and had a good read.

Obviously the book is judo-centric, with not much explicitly said about kendo, but for people interested in the era (also a new one for kendo), it makes for a informative read. One thing that did catch my eye – something that directly involved kendo – was the very early lobbying to include more Japanese arts into the physical education system, i.e. kendo and judo specifically.


– in 1889 a government backed physical education institute was charged with researching into the pros and cons of teaching kenjutsu and jujutsu (i.e. the modern kendo and judo) in schools.

– the kenjutsu schools that were examined were Shinkage-ryu, Tenshinden Muteki-ryu, Hokushin Itto-ryu, and Tamiya-ryu.

– The results of the research were sent to the Ministry of Education in 1894.

Results of the 1894 investigation

The merits of the study of martial arts was cited as follows:

1. Contributes to children’s growth.
2. Enhances physical endurance.
3. Augments enthusiasm and mental health.
4. Encourages valour and expunge cowardly behaviour.
5. Provides a basis for self-defence in the case of unexpected danger.

But they concluded that the demerits outweighed the positive aspects:

1. It might adversely affect the body during the child’s growth period.
2. Injuries may occur during training.
3. It is difficult to determine the appropriate level of training for children of different physical strength.
4. Children may become easily excited and develop violent tendencies.
5. Students may become overly competitive and persist in their efforts to win at all costs.
6. Children with an overly competitive spirit may become involved in improper competitions and fights.
7. It would be difficult for one teacher to supervise a large number of students at once.
8. Ample space is required.
9. Jujutsu practise only requires training clothes, but kenjutsu needs more equipment, which is expensive and difficult to keep hygienic.

(excerpt from ‘Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan’)

The cons outweighed the pros and so neither kenjutsu nor jujutsu were introduced into the mandatory school curriculum. However, many schools started their own independent kendo and judo clubs anyway, and eventually both were accepted into the official school curriculum in 1911 (resulting in the need for a standardised kendo kata to be created).

Reading it now – almost 120 years later – it struck me that many of the merits and demerits of budo (kendo) practise remain the same. Demerit number 5 in particular is something that is continually echoed in kendo circles, specifically about high school and university kendo. It may be possible to add that not a few adult kendo clubs outside of Japan seem to practise for the sake of competition as well.

One of the major differences between the evolution of kendo and judo over the past 120 years is the fact that Kano pushed the internationalisation of judo from the very start. Judo practitioners were soon found abroad in droves, whereas kendo tended to be restricted to Japanese people who emigrated and their descendants. This is probably one of the greatest factors in the speed of change in the judo community over the time we are talking about. Due to kendo remaining Japan(ese)-centric, I’d posit, it has managed to keep its roots better, and hasn’t descended into a purely sportive activity… yet. I hope that non-Japanese kendoka continue to look to the roots of kendo and resist the urge to do kendo as purely a point-getting activity (judo seems to have lost both to a certain degree).

For people who are who find this topic interesting, I’d suggest having a read of the book quoted above to discover Kano’s original philosophy and, considering this, have another look at how judo is currently practised and portrayed. After this its time to reflect on kendo.


Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan: an innovative response to modernisation. Kodokan Judo Institute. March 2009.

Eikenkai July 2013

Yesterday morning it was absolutely boiling in central Osaka. As people that have been to Japan in summer know, its not just the heat thats a problem, but the exceptionally humidity. Steeling myself for a sweaty keiko, I ate a large breakfast, drank buckets of water, and headed to the dojo. In the judojo next to the kendojo there was a childrens karate practise session going on and due to that the air conditioning was switched on!! I’m glad it was because we did our normal hard session of 40 minutes kihon, 30 minutes waza practise, and 40 minutes of jigeiko. In spite of the air conditioning, it turned out to be a sweaty practise after all.

This session saw a few of our normal members absent, but a good collection of kenshi took part, representing 6 countries, from Argentina to Canada, Vietnam to Scotland. After keiko we showered and headed to the usual restaurant for okonomiyaki and beer.

Our next session is on September 29th. Please have a read of the Eikenkai section of the website and consider popping along if you are in town.

10 years

July 27th 2003, exactly 10 years ago today, was when I stepped of the airplane in Tokyo and started my vague “move to Japan to study kendo and learn the language” experiment. That I’d still be here all this time later is… I don’t know, surprising? Stupid? Crazy? Probably all of the above! Like the vagueness of the initial experiment, I’ve no real plan for this post, so let me run with it and see where it goes.

Although now I’m in what many people assume to be an envious kendo situation, needless to say it hasn’t come without a lot of sacrifice and hard work (not to mention luck), and it continues to be both physically and mentally hard even now. I’ve thought seriously countless times about giving it up and heading back to Europe, but somehow here I still am. I’m not sure exactly how much longer I can keep it up!

I arrived in Japan about 2 weeks after taking part in the 12th World Kendo Championships, held in my home country of Scotland. I was sandan at the time and I knew what I was talking about (actually, I was clueless). One of the first keiko’s I was invited to was a combined primary and junior high school one. With my faltering Japanese I explained my background. I still remember the sensei looking at me and saying “World Kendo Championships? Where was that held? Last year wasn’t it? Who won?” Yeah, the most prestigious competition of the international kendo community meant nothing to your *average Japanese 7dan. Suddenly I was disarmed. The sensei then asked did I want to join the junior high schools kihon routine. Yes, I said, and joined in only to be removed after about 15 minutes into the practise – I couldn’t keep up with the kids pace, I couldn’t understand the Japanese instructions been given, and – frankly – I was so unskilled compared to the students that joining in ruined it for my partners. I’d just been force fed a dose of reality.

Over the next 10 years I’d be force fed on a number of occasions. Getting a hard beating I can take, but its the mental challenge of doing kendo over here that can be the hardest thing to overcome. The fact is, integration is nigh on impossible. This isn’t just in the dojo of course, but a larger barrier that exists at the core of Japanese society. This is assuming of course that you don’t want to stick out, that you want to be treated like your other Japanese kendo friends as much as possible, and that you don’t try to use your awkward non-Japanese ‘special’ status to get some sort of preferential treatment. Even if you manage to fit in pretty well, if you go to a new dojo, take part in a shiai, or join some sort of godo-geiko, many people who haven’t seen you before will assume that you a) have bad kendo; b) you can’t speak the language; and c) you don’t understand what kendo is really about. This is, even for people who do want to stick out (not me btw) a very frustrating experience. Ultimately, this is not something an individual or even a group of individuals can change, and – for me personally – it has been the most disappointing part of my kendo experience in Japan.

I receive emails on a semi-regular basis that start “I love kendo. I want to move to Japan and study it seriously. What should I do?” My advice is almost always the same – “if you are in your early/mid 20s then come over for a year or two, learn the language as much as you can, and enjoy/explore Japan… all while getting in as much keiko as you can. After that, get out of dodge and go back to wherever and focus on your job/career and friends.” The reason why I say this is not only because of my personal experiences, but of those around me: I’ve yet to see a single non-Japanese person balance a successful kendo life and career (of course I don’t know every non-Japanese kendoka in the country). I guess those that do come out the most successful are the people that manage to get professional jobs and still manage to get to the dojo twice or three times a week. Honestly speaking – if your mind is set on coming to Japan – this is probably your best bet…. just remember that you may only do kendo 2 or maybe 3 times a week and you’ll probably have to live in or around Tokyo.

When all is said and done, I speak Japanese pretty well and I’m doing kendo a lot. I study under really strong teachers, great kendo friends, nice dojo’s with beautiful floors, etc etc. Sounds great doesn’t it? I guess it is!!!!!!!!!

* this attitude has changed slightly since then, but not as much as you may imagine