The following is a slightly revised and renewed essay from kenshi 24/7’s now unavailable mini-publication “Kenkyu and Kufu” originally published in 2014. Current publications can be viewed at kendo-book.com.
If you watched the final of the All Japan Kendo Championships last November (2013) you might have watched the two finalists put on their bogu and stand up prior to the match. Did you notice that – soon to be 3rd time winner – Uchimura Ryoichi picked up his shinai with his right hand first before switching it to his left as he stood? Years ago I was told that the Tokyo Metropolitan (Keishicho) police kendo squad did this to deliberately differentiate themselves from others, sort of like saying “we are special, better than you.” Of course, this is not the reason at all.
In almost every kendo club you attend, whether that be here in Japan or abroad, everyone places their men and kote on their right hand side when sitting in seiza, and their shinai on the left. The direction the kote point differ depending on the dojo, but in general things are orientated in this manner. There is nothing explicitly said about which way the tsuru on the shinai should be facing, but most people tend to point it down.
As some may have already realised, this is completely different to the way we are taught to handle bokuto (or kata-yo katana) in kata training: in seiza, bokuto are placed on our right hand side with the blade facing inwards. The reason often given for this is that it’s a non-threatening posture and, indeed, seemingly it was common that samurai did this with their weapons when sitting.
If the shinai is meant to represent a conceptual sword, why then do the majority of kendo practitioners sit in the way they do? Why don’t we place the shinai on the right (with the tsuru facing outwards) and our bogu on the left?
I’ve read two anecdotes about how this situation occurred. The first is that the Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei (ZNKR) first made it standard to place the shinai on the left hand side and the bogu on the right after World War 2. It was deemed less difficult for young kids to master, which of course may be true (confusingly, the child-orientated Bokuto Ni Yoru Kihon Keiko-ho that was introduced in the 2000s uses the standard bokuto-on-the-right arrangement). Another story is that it became an issue during the 3rd World Kendo Championships. When the Japanese team lined up 2 members were from Keishicho, the other 3 were teachers. Naturally the 2 Keishicho kenshi placed their shinai on the right whereas the teachers placed it on their left. “Shouldn’t we all be doing it the same way?” one Japanese competitor asked the manager. “Well, just for now place the shinai on your left.” After the competition was over the issue was raised back home and the ZNKR sensei took a vote. It was decided – by a margin of a single vote – that the shinai should be placed on the left.
I’m not sure of the extent of the truth behind either anecdote, but the fact of the matter is that we seem to have different reigi depending if you are holding a shinai or a bokuto. I think it would not only be less confusing (for all involved) but also in line with the shinai-as-a-sword concept if we handled our shinai as we do our bokuto, assuming of course that this concept is indeed important.
This time last summer I gathered a group of friends together for an Eikenkai session at the beautiful Nara Butokuden. A lovely little dojo with over 100 years of history, I was delighted to be able to do kendo in such a place. I felt even more happy in the knowledge that the dojo was being safely being kept for posterity and was looking forward to doing keiko there again someday. That was, until a friend told me recently that – despite it holding a special cultural status due to its architectural worth – it was going to be knocked down. The reason: it’s too expensive to earthquake-proof it to modern standards (translation: “It doesn’t make us money”). This is also the excuse given in regards to another Butokuden in the Kansai region, the Shiga Butokuden.
Built in 1937, the Shiga Butokuden was closed sometime between December 2008 and January 2009 for the exact same reasons mentioned above: worries about its ability to stand up to a large earthquake. It has been dormant since then and now the word is that the decision has been made to dismantle it, again, because the cost to bring it up to modern safety standards is too restrictive. The pessimist in me wonders whether the fact that the building is located in a large piece of prime real estate directly opposite the Shiga prefectural government building has something to do with it.
Note that it has been hard to find out accurate information about the building as well as find pictures of keiko, so if you have any information or any pictures you are willing to share, please get in touch. Cheers!
The Dai-Nippon Butokukai was founded in 1895 and the original Butokuden was completed in Kyoto in 1899. Shiga prefectures Butokukai membership rose quickly, so in 1901 a request was made to build a branch dojo. The branch dojo was completed in October of that year and is pictured above. However, due to the increasing popularity of kendo over the following decades, the dojo was deemed to be too small, and plans were made to collect money and construct a more fitting building. A new, two storied building, much larger and more impressive than the original, was built in 1937, and it become the official Shiga prefecture branch Butokuden. It is this building that I visited for this article.
As a side note, my research into who were the teachers at the dojo during it’s early years are still ongoing, but I did discover that Busen graduate Shimizu Seiichiro was awarded the head teaching position in 1929. All I know about him is that he went to Busen in 1915, became a school kendo teacher in 1923, and was awarded kyoshi in 1932. Who were the teachers before him and whether he taught in the new, larger building featured in this article is still a mystery.
The new building
Rare for this type of building, it was constructed mainly in concrete and steel, with the more traditional wood being used only in parts. Despite using more Western design elements, it still looks Japanese in construction. It is also two-storied: 1st floor, changing rooms, reception area, office; 2nd floor, dojo space (usually split between kendo and a tatami-area for judo).
Directly after the war budo was banned by the occupying American forces so the building was renamed a “culture centre” and used for non-budo purposes. It didn’t take long for it to revert to it’s original purpose: it was used for judo as early as 1946, and by 1953 Shiga police department was practising kendo there. Three years later in 1956 the entire building was taken over for use by the police and again renamed, this time as a “physical eduction and cultural centre.” In 1964 money was collected to re-contruct the original kyudo-jo as well, though were it was originally located and where it went in the meantime is a mystery.
At some point over the years (in the 1960s I think), although still the property of the police department, the building was opened for use to the general public, with a local kendo club using it regularly. Various shiai (kendo, judo, karate, etc.) were held there over the years as well.
I have no idea what the schedule is for demolition, or whether there will be some last ditch effort to save it (looking at the state it is in at the moment I reckon there has been no serious effort made), but I hope that something can be done somehow. It would be such a waste to see yet another Butokuden disappear.
BTW, as I mentioned at the end of the introduction, I don’t really have many concrete details. I intend to do some more research and update this post with any more information as I get it. I am also planning to ask for permission to go inside and take photographs. I’ll let you know of any updates if/when I post them.
I couldn’t get inside the grounds or the building itself as it was fenced off and locked… actually, I probably could’ve easily climbed over the fence and roamed around inside the grounds, and perhaps even managed to get into the dojo itself, but it was broad daylight and I value my job! Anyway, here are some pictures I took from my visit for you to check out. The last three pictures are not mine, one shows a small ariel picture from 1963, and the other two are from an online pamphlet about the building. Enjoy.
Shiga Butokuden, August 2016
Shiga Butokuden, August 2016
Shiga Butokuden, August 2016
Shiga Butokuden, August 2016
Shiga Butokuden, August 2016
Shiga Butokuden, August 2016
Shiga Butokuden, August 2016
Shiga Butokuden, August 2016
Shiga Butokuden, August 2016
Message regarding the building
Ariel shot from 1963
The original design
I took some rough video of the outside with my iPhone and uploaded to YouTube:
Here is some footage (not by me) from 2011 showing the inside and the floor:
During June last year I was invited to join an open keiko session at the dojo which probably has oldest (kendo-related) tradition in the Kansai region. During the break between the kihon and jigeiko parts of the session I was wandering around the dojo looking at the various pieces of calligraphy and what not that were displayed on the walls. One in particular caught my attention: a metre long piece with five tegata, or hand-prints. Inspecting it I saw that it was some sort of commemorative piece with the hand-prints and signatures of the kendo giants Takano Sasaburo, Mochida Seiji, Ogawa Kinnosuke, Saimura Goro, and one other name I couldn’t exactly make out. I didn’t have longer to study it as keiko began again and I mostly forgot about it.
A few months later I was again snooping around a dojo – this time in Nagoya – when I noticed the exact same piece tucked in behind some trophies out of sight. I managed to have it brought out and myself and the Japanese sensei started discussing it. I confirmed my initial suspicion that it was a list of the sensei who took part in the 1940 tenranjiai, with the five tegata being the most senior sensei. The names below this were those that took part in the specialist competition section and the demonstration matches. I realised that not only had I seen the piece at the dojo a few months earlier, but perhaps in a couple of other dojo in the past. However, there was still one niggling puzzle: the name in between Takano and Mochida. The Japanese sensei and myself stood pondering over it for a few moments before keiko began.
Roll on January 2016 and a few days ago, to my surprise, I received a package in the post. Unboxing it I was absolutely delighted to discover it was the piece that I had been looking at in both dojo: one of the sensei in Nagoya managed to somehow source one and have it sent to me!!!! Unfurling it and having a close look I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that it must have been a piece that was on sale (or given away perhaps) around about the time of the 1940 tenranjiai. I’m not sure if the original had red hand-prints or not but I’ve yet to see one. Mine, and the others I’ve seen, are all reproductions in black.
There was still one nagging problem however: the mystery name. Sitting in my quiet living room by myself, it took me less than 3 minutes to work it out. In 1940 who were the top sensei? Who could possibly be above Mochida yet below Takano? Whose name stood out because of it’s absence?
I decided that it could only be Nakayama Hakudo. But what was written there was not anything close to “Nakayama” but something like “Arinobu.” Then it clicked. Nakayama Hakudo inherited the dojo Yushinkan from Negishi Shingoro. The kanji for YU-SHIN is 有信 which, as a name, is read ARI-NOBU. The first kanji of the signature was obvious the HAKU or Hakudo, and the last kanji, when I checked online (it was written in an unfamiliar style), was of-course michi, or DO in Hakudo. In other words, it is unmistakably Nakayama. There are a few reasons why he may have signed his name like this, but I suspect it was just artistic flourish!
The following is a translation from a privately published 1928 book entitled “Noma dojo ki.” I assume that a set number of copies were printed and distributed to Noma dojo members only (it was finally re-published publicly in 1996).
The book is essentially split into two halves: the first discusses Kodansha founder Noma Seiji’s ideas about kendo and education, and the second is messages from the various kendo teachers there at the time to Noma dojo members. These included Nakyama Hakudo, Saimura Goro, Oshima Jikita, Hotta Sutejiro, Yamamoto Chujiro, and Nakayama Zendo (there is also a smaller section where the young Noma Hisashi and Masuda Shinsuke offer advice as well).
Note that this book was published just before kendo became immensely popular and Noma dojo itself a kendo mecca. Both happened due to the fallout of a single event: the 1929 Showa tenranjiai (a story for another day).
The small section I present today is by Oshima Jikita, a gentlemen I introduced on kenshi 24/7 recently. Again, like all my recent translations, this is perhaps more interpretive than literal. I hope you enjoy it.
Oshima Jikita’s advice for Noma dojo practioners (1928)
Like the saying “DAI-KYO-SOKU-KEI” (big, strong, fast, light) suggests, your strikes should incorporate all these elements: “DAI” means that your techniques should use large movements; “KYO” means that your strikes should be firm and accurate; “SOKU” means to attack smoothly without delay or doubt; and “KEI” refers to being able to move your body swiftly and lightly in any direction. If you attempt to strike with only strength your body will stiffen-up and you will be unable to move smoothly. To strike quickly, then, you must get rid of unneeded power.
During keiko it’s important that you not over emphasise trying to strike your opponent in a skilful manner. Don’t be overly concerned with victory or defeat, simply attack with abandon (sutemi). However, you should realise that in the instant of victory there also lies an opportunity for defeat, and in the instant of defeat there is a chance of victory. That is, defeating your opponent is not due to your skill but, rather, it’s their fault for allowing an opening to appear. In defeat too, it’s not because your opponent was strong, but because you allowed an opening to appear.
A note to Hisashi (Noma Seiji’s son, the future owner of the company):
In order to use maai in a skilful manner you should make a distance where you feel far to your opponent yet he feels close to you. For your kendo, I think you should fight from a far distance (about the distance where you and your partners shinai tips are touching) and strike men from there. Remember and put power in to your left leg in particular.
I think the most important thing in kendo is the battle to take and act on the initiative (debana). If you feel that you haven’t quite caught the instant correctly, you should prepare to defend yourself.
Sometimes when seeking to strike a debana technique we find ourselves moving seemingly without reason towards the opponent and striking. Hitting them we may feel in a way that it’s more of an accident or luck than anything else, but you shouldn’t think like that. Often it’s simply “inspiration.”
When it comes to shiai the following are important: power of observation, judgement, strategy, bravery, and composure. You should know how strong/skilful your opponent is before the shiai, though you could observe it during as well. Generally, however, all five of the elements mentioned above should be at work during a shiai without conscious effort. Please pay attention to this.
Also, like the phrase “attacking is proof of victory” suggests, it’s important to attack with abandon (sutemi). However, attacking blindly is foolish: it’s important to attack with abandon only at the right time.
One day, one waza
I think it’s good that you keiko with a goal in mind. It’s hard to practise every technique every time, so it’s better to be selective: “today I’m going to practise attacking from a far distance,” “I’m going to practise oji-waza today,” “I’m not very good at dou cuts, so let me work on them today” etc. etc., I think it’s good if you pick something and work on it. If you focus your daily practises like this and not worry too much about striking or being struck, then I think it’s a great way of improving rapidly. However, “I’m only going to practise techniques today” or “I’m only going to practise training my spirit today” is not thought a good method of quick development.
This are only my ideas. Although I think it’s important to listen to advice, I also believe it’s important to use your eyes and watch what people do and how they move. I believe that this type of research is essential to your improvement.
Shouting (kiai) and spiritual power
Unless your entire body is filled with spiritual power you will be unable to shout effectively. It is only when your spiritual power has travelled through your entire body and has reached it’s peak can you shout effectively.
For example, when labourers or sailors are tired and someone leads them in a sing-song, their tiredness disappears. The use of shouting in kendo can have the same effect.
You have to shout from the very bottom of your stomach so that when you strike your opponent they believe they have been cut down.
– debana men: when the opponent attempts to strike your men strike their men while going past them to the right or left.
– Debana kote: when the opponent steps in to strike you strike their kote.
– Debana dou (nuki-dou): the instant your opponent steps in to strike you cut their dou.
– Debana tsuki: the instant your opponent moves forward tsuki them (*editors note: not a popular waza nowadays because it’s dangerous)
In basic technique practise like this the attacks and counter-attacks are pre-arranged. Despite this, you should strike with full intent and only after you are in synch with your partner.
During dou strikes you shouldn’t just hit and stand there as it will become ai-uchi. Instead, after striking you should release the grip on your left hand and go past the partner in a smooth action.
There are various ways in which to execute techniques, how you do so depends on the situation.
Kirikaeshi and katate-uchi
For kirikaeshi start from a far distance and step in and strike men before doing sayu-men. Keep striking sayu-men until you are exhausted, then step back to a far distance and start again. Each set must be done in a single breath only.
Attacking from a far distance not only will improve your footwork but you will become more familiar from attacking from afar. Once your men attack from a far distance has improved somewhat you can add in tai-atari.
Executing a one-handed (katate) strike when there is no opportunity to attack is meaningless. If there is an opening and you have practised so much that you are able to execute one-handed techniques effectively, then it’s fine to use them. However, you must be good at using two-handed techniques first.
If you don’t follow this process, that is to become good at two-handed techniques before attempting one-handed ones, then you will be sorry in the end. I suspect that people who ignore this have some sort of spiritual or emotional problems.
Examples of good one-handed waza include katate-men against someone who has just finished executing a technique; katate-yoko-men against a small men or kote attack; threaten to attack kote and then strike katate-yoko-men; etc.
Tenouchi and tsuki
Regarding tenouchi, as soon as you have made a strike return to your kamae. Like the shrine maidens of Ise shrine who shake bells while dancing, when you think something is out of your hand it’s actually in it, and when when you think it’s in your hand it’s actually loose. This way of gripping is important.
Within the different techniques that we do in kendo, tsuki waza are amongst the most feared. If you are good at tsuki then your opponent will be scared of you. Conversely, if you are facing an opponent whom you know to have a strong tsuki then you may find yourself cowering uselessly in fear before them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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