One should always be ready for snakes and demons 鬼が出るか蛇が出るか

“It is the certainty that they possess the truth that makes men cruel.”

– Anatole France

I can’t remember the exact year, but I think it was way back in 1995 or maybe 6 when I first created a kendo website. I was studying computer science in university and had access to the something “new” called the World Wide Web (unknowingly I’d actually been using it in its pre-browser state from computers in high school a few years earlier, though I didn’t really know what it was I was really using).

Anyway, that first website I created was for what was to become Edinburgh Kendo Club and was relatively short lived. At the time I could only find 2 other kendo websites: one in Japan and one in Canada (I think). I contacted the people that ran both sites and we emailed each other a few times. Which site was first online I have no idea, but years later I was to meet and befriend someone who claimed the title, and we have come to the conclusion that we may have emailed each other back in 1995!

My next serious effort was the renewal and running of the British Kendo Association website from 2000-2003, until I came to Japan. It was around that time (2002?) that Kendo World popped up, and I probably have the honour of asking the first question on the forums (“When were zekken first used?”). Online forums were fine in the beginning but soon disenchanted me for various reasons.

After coming to Japan I ran a small private blog from 2003-5 for friends detailing my Japan kendo experience. One thing led to another and kenshi 24/7 was finally born in 2008.

Over the years (to my shame!) I’ve been involved in the odd forum battle or harsh worded email exchange… I know better now though. Luckily this site has only ever seen a very minute amount of trolling, which I generally sort out straight away. In a community as small as kendo is it’s relatively simple to track someone down even if they post anonymously, and nowadays people are more aware of this than they were and (generally) think twice before commenting. Good times!

However, a couple of weeks ago I was subjected to a new experience, something I’ve never had to deal with in 20+ years of active internet use and 30 odd years of martial arts practise: I received multiple harshly worded messages via email and Facebook threatening legal action for something I put online. Yeah, you read that correctly. I’ve already wasted too much time on the matter so I won’t go into the details here, but after giving them a very minor concession I said “Go ahead.”

Why I gave a (very minor) concession when none was actually called for will hopefully become apparent below as I use this negative experience as the jump-off point to a larger discussion on kendo in particular and budo in general. Specifically, the whole situation made me realise one thing and reminded me of another.


Dealing with bullies and over-aggressiveness during keiko

In our daily-lives, whether it be in the office, commuting to work on the train or by car in the morning, or perhaps online, we may find ourselves confronted with bullies or over-aggressive people. I’m sure everyone has their own ways in dealing with the situation, but I’m going to take this opportunity and look at how we perhaps should deal with people we meet like this in the dojo. To be honest, everything I’m about to write here isn’t revelatory, and probably applies to daily-life situations as well.

Heijoshin (n.)

A disciplined state of mind which can respond to changes in a situation in a calm, normal manner, without becoming agitated.

– Japanese-English dictionary of kendo

To be continuously in a state of heijoshin, “normal mind,” is the holy grail of not only martial arts practitioners, but people in various fields of endeavour and walks of life. Teachers, lawyers, military personnel, parents, etc. etc., all seek to remain calm no matter what difficulty faces them, whether it is suddenly thrust upon them or is something that develops over time. The loss of this state of mind is described in kendo terms as a “sickness” and simply described comprises of four elements: surprise, fear, doubt, and hesitation (Kyo-Ku-Gi-Waku).

Surprise is when the opponent does something unexpected, throwing your concentration off for an instant and leading to the inability to act. Fear may occur when faced with a physically stronger or technically superior opponent, or perhaps when you are scared to lose a bout. When facing an opponent who you can’t read or whose kendo style you are unsure about you may start to doubt your ability to deal with them, causing indecisiveness. Lastly, hesitation occurs when you are confused mentally about what to do against your opponent, causing indecision and stiffness of action. Of course, there is some overlap within these descriptions.

Obviously, when faced with bullies or over-aggressive people in the dojo, we should do our best not to fall prey to any of these sicknesses, and keep our state of heijoshin. I have a couple of methods that I’ll share today.

1. Don’t step back

When people are super aggressive or attacking randomly with intent to somehow beat you up I find that stepping back makes it worse – they think that their strategy is winning and they go for it even more. In circumstances like this I often step in to a closer distance to inhibit their strikes. If this causes them to start pushing at tsubazeria, just move around them. Relax, take your time, and choose your strikes wisely.

Actually, I often find that mean spirited over-aggressiveness comes from a lack of technical ability. Hopefully, if you bide your time and strike them at your own pace, they will eventually tire, give up, and – after a good strike – concede defeat.

Of course, I understand that this is actually very hard to do in reality, which leads me to number 2.

2. Let them “win”

As you may have guessed, I’ve found myself facing overly-aggressive people many times. Surprisingly quite a few of them have been visitors from abroad who have come to my dojo in Osaka and try to beat me up! But it’s not only aggressive visitors that I’ve had to deal with: when I take part in large godo-geiko sessions here in Osaka, Japanese high school and university students in particular quite often attempt to “have a go” at the only gaijin in the dojo.

Anyway, faced with these types of people I generally move it into “ippon-shobu” pretty quickly. What I tend to do is (of course I don’t step back or back down) go quickly for a decisive ippon. If they don’t concede I’ll do it again. Usually – because of pride and ego – these type of people find it hard to concede defeat so, in the end, after maybe 2 or 3 good strikes, I (subtly) allow them to strike me.

If it is someone I don’t know or barely know I end by saying “that was a great ippon, you are really good!” and bow. Visitors may go back to their home country and say “Yeah, I beat up that kenshi 24/7 guy good!” or students back to their school and say “I totally killed that gaijin!” but, meh, I don’t care!

3. Worst case scenario

Usually 2 will satisfy the ego of most people like this but if it doesn’t the only real option you have is to make up an excuse (“feel sick” … “shinai is broken”…), sonkyo, and end the bout.

Question 1: What if the over-aggressive bully is my sempai or sensei?

This is a tricky one. Here in Japan I can easily pick-and-choose the people that I keiko with. In places with a smaller kendo population or where people are relatively inexperienced technically (which can lead to aggressiveness and bullying to make up for their lack of ability), I think the only really thing you can do is to confront the person and have a frank discussion. If they don’t change their ways then, eventually, people will realise them for what they are and leave.

Remember the hubris of Satan: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.”

Question 2: What if it happens during shiai?

When it comes to shiai most people think (wrongly) that the gloves are off and decorum goes out the window. In this case you basically have to rely on the judgement of the shinpan. If the shinpan are inexperienced and can’t keep malicious aggressiveness in check, then they shouldn’t be on the floor. Nevertheless, if you do find yourself in such a situation just try to keep calm…

Of course there are many other ways you can get around bullies and overly-aggressive people, and many more questions you could ask, but these generally show how I approach the matter. I’d love to hear readers experiences and strategies when in situations like this – please comment here or on facebook!


Budo as an automatic means to character development

Have a look at this quote from Alex Bennet’s excellent new publication “Kendo: Culture of the sword” (I don’t think Alex would mind if you replaced “kendo” with “budo” for the sake of this discussion):

“… although I have been a devoted kendo practitioner for over two decades and truly believe in the potential kendo has for positive personal cultivation, I am enormously wary of the common attitude that one can become a “good person” just by taking up kendo…

Kendo certainly provides a technical and philosophical framework for physical, psychological, and even moral progression. However, whether or how closely the framework is interpreted and utilised depends entirely on the individual.”

– Kendo: Culture of the Sword (p192-3). Bennet.

Reading this on the way to Tokyo last month it struck me that Alex and I have come to pretty much exactly the same conclusion on the matter. I have attempted to tackle the subject a few times from various angles here on kenshi 24/7 before (see related articles below) as well as within my publications. Basically, the quote above says it all: budo can be used as a means to character development should an individual choose to use it as such.

As the discussion on bullying and aggression suggests above, and as this entire post implies, there are plenty of people who practise martial arts who are not necessarily friendly or the nicest of people. The point is of course that budo practise only helps makes you a “good person” should you choose to use it to do so. Like Alex, we should all be “enormously wary” about assuming budo practitioners are inherently good and – this is a related key point – that high grades or impressive titles are an indication of moral authority.


Final comments

Reading this you may think that I’m somehow often targeted by bullies and overly-aggressive people… actually, nothing can be further from the truth. 99.999% of the people I deal with in my life, inside and outside of the dojo, online and offline, are awesome people. I have a great budo life here in Japan! It’s just that – every now and again – the odd character comes along to spoil the party. Unfortunately that’s just life. However, there is one thing that I thank these people for: they help me realise how NOT to act!

Related kenshi 24/7 articles

The following articles are related (in someway or another) to the discussion here.

Don’t forget to support kenshi 24/7 by picking up one of our publications or sharing our dedicated publication website.

I hope you found something of worth in this article. Cheers!

keiko, keiko, keiko

As far as the pursuit of kendo goes (shugyo), the most important thing is keiko, the second most important thing is keiko, and the third most important thing is keiko. You must not put academic learning of the principles of kendo before actual practice. If you do manage to become technically proficient then you will naturally come to understand the theory that lies behind the practice. This is real kendo.

If you start by trying to understand the principles then attempt to apply them to your keiko, well, you will look a bit silly. Deep understanding comes only by forging skill through hard training.

Nowadays (unlike when the writer was young) there are plenty of good kendo books available. However, attempting to apply research from books to actual keiko (without doing lots of training) cannot lead to great success. Kendo is, more than anything else, the pursuit of JI-RI-ITCHI (the unison of technique and principle).

First do the hard practice then, later, understanding of the principles will come.”

– Sato Sadao, hanshi kyudan.

“Keiko, keiko, keiko” – the importance of doing lots of keiko has been repeated to me many times over the years. Also, in pretty much every kendo book I have read by (or about) a renowned kenshi there is always talk about long intense periods of kendo training, and explicit statements that without such a period the kenshi would never have come to be as strong in kendo as they did nor achieve as much in their kendo careers as they have. The result of this hard daily practise over years for these kenshi led not merely to an increase in skill, but also the development of a strong body and mind. These factors allowed the kenshi to acquire what Sato sensei spells out above – deeper understanding of the principles of kendo – and, finally, to ji-ri-itchi.

A caveat to Sato sensei’s quote above (and one that a particular 8dan sensei gave me a few years back) is that any intense kendo period you go through should be done under guidance (of course, the stronger/stricter the sensei the better!). Sato sensei doesn’t explicitly mention it above, but while going through the long, intense part of your shugyo you should simply DO what your sensei tells you… without hesitation or thought (SHU). Eventually you will begin to experiment or discover things for yourself (HA), and finally you will come to your own, personal, understanding (RI).

This road towards deep understanding is a long one, both physically and mentally demanding, even exhausting at times. What’s needed at this time is expressed in Sato sensei’s own hand on the tenugui pictured below: extremes of patience and endurance.

By the way, 2 related terms on this subject you may have heard are HYAKU-REN-JITOKU (百練自得) and HYAKU-TAN SEN-REN (百鍛千練): multiple repetitions (“one hundred times… one thousand times”) pave the way to self realisation.

The calligraphy on this tenugui is by Sato sensei and reads 克堪克忍 (yoku-tae, yoku-shinobu). Taken from Mencius, it means to overcome extreme patience and endurance in order to cultivate the self.

A short timeline of Sato Sadao hanshi

– 1904: Born Meiji 37
– 1913: Started kendo at age 9 (including Jikishinkage-ryu)
– 1921: enter Meishinkan at 17 years old and studied under Takano Sasaburo (studies Ono-ha itto-ryu)
– 1927: Enter the Imperial Guards as policeman/kendo specialist
– 1931: becomes imperial guards kendo assistant (promoted 1935 and 1944)
– 1954: becomes imperial guards kendo shihan
– 1960: hanshi
– 1964: retires from imperial police guards (remains as honourary shihan)
– 1972: kendo kyudan
– 1985: died (81 years old)

The difficult years

When I was a wee bit younger than I am today (I’m 39) I wanted to be good at kendo NOW. Not tomorrow. Not in 1 or 2 years time. Now. Immediately. I practised (and still practise -> more on that later) like a madman, feverishly awaiting the point where I’d make the switch over from mediocre to good (or even better, amazing!). Frustration over lack of (self perceived) progress only worsened with time, especially as people started to praise my improvement (lies!) and more so when I’d meet the odd Japanese person who’s kendo was technically sound but who barely practised (i.e. they had practised hard from the age of 6 through university but only casually continued after entering the work force).

If you note a sense of jealousy here you would be right. I’d grimace and brood while watching the folk mentioned above, comparing them to children who were forced into learning another language (or musical instrument) by their parents from childhood. That is, their kendo was/is, as far as I was concerned, a ‘freebie’ from their parents… not something they particularly desired, loved, or tried seriously at acquiring themselves. Their current casual manner was my proof = their attitude was the opposite of mine. Obviously, it’s not healthy to think like this, nor fair on the people involved (they don’t share my obsessiveness after all!).

The next logical step was then to analyse my keiko to see if there was someway I could change it to become more efficient (a shortcut). I read quite a bit about coaching athletes, sport psychology, and pondered on the quantity vs quality debate and the myth of talent. However, the ‘sport’ paradigm never really sat well with kendo: sport is (for the serious or elite player) a relatively short term activity (careers often finish with people in their 30s or younger) with the goal being competitive success and (often but not exclusively) financial reward – I’m sure you see the problems here.

If you want to get the gist of this article (if there is one!) then it is important to realise that that on top of all this reading was a continual research into the history of kendo itself. Specifically, I was (and am still) intensely interested in the biographical aspects (stories) of our kendo forebears. This interest has fundamentally changed my perception of and long term goals for kendo.

(Note that in particular I am talking about descriptions about how kendo was done pre-WW2, that is, how kendo was done, by whom, and why. There is also a lot of written information from kendoka after the war commentating on the seismic change in kendo’s culture and execution.)

Through my reading I started to realise:

1 – Competitions used to be rare – i.e. people practised to strengthen their mind and body. Therefore competitive success had only a limited impact on stature, repute, or status;

2 – People expended years of effort in obscurity honing their already strong basics before achieving technical mastery;

3 – Mastery and repute were based not on technical skill alone, but on a more composite basis, including teaching ability, work experience, and conduct.

Although the kendo has shifted the manner in which it judges mastery and awards status over the years, I do believe believe that the kernel of kendo pre-sportification (pre shinai-kyogi) remains somewhat intact, in particular point 2. I mention sportification here because the first point is now no longer true which has had an irrevocable influence on point three.

This has been something I’ve pondered and considered for some time now, but I am only just posting my ideas on kenshi 24/7 now because of a couple of videos and a blog article that appeared on my facebook wall at the same time a couple of days ago. Of course, they are not kendo related, but they do say something pretty insightful about acquiring skill and mastery of a subject. In particular, this documentary (split over 2 videos) is of interest:


I’m still waiting to become good/amazing, of course, but it’s now not important whether I actually achieve technical mastery or not – it’s the process, the journey if you will, the shugyo aspect that is important. As such, the quality over quantity debate has become a moot point for me (quantity please), and my jealously of the technically-superior casual kenshi has dissipated (I see them now as simply lazy).

I do believe, of course, that if I continue to work hard and practise as often as I do now (8-10 times/week), that my technical ability will increase, and I suspect that I will overtake casual kenshi around the same age as myself easily in the future (perhaps in our mid 40s/early 50s), it’s just that I’m not obsessed about immediacy as I once was: I am playing the long game.


Applied theory

In the last post on the site I discussed about what the term ji-ri-itchi means to me personally on a more macro level, and now I want to discuss a particular example of a theory applied to physical practise.

Ken-chu-tai, tai-chu-ken

AFAIK the first reference to the teaching of Ken-Tai appears in Yagyu-shinkage ryu’s Hyoho Kadensho, written by Yagyu Munenori in 1632 (it also appears in Hozo-in ryu and Itto-ryu documents, and probably more traditions as well). Ken-tai and variants of it (e.g. Kobo-fuki, Do-sei-ichinyo, etc) are usually rendered into English as “defense within attack, attack within defense” or more simply as “attack and defense as one. A description from the Hyoho Kandensho reads:

“Ken means to attack single-mindedly, to strike fiercely in order to be the first to strike a blow.

Tai means resisting making the initial technique while awaiting the opponent’s first move. It must be understood that tai is a position of utmost watchfulness.

Ken and tai mean to attack and wait.

Concerning the principles of ken-tai pertaining to the body and the sword, advance upon the opponent with an attacking posture and hold the sword in a position of waiting, making efforts to entice the opponent to make an attack and counter it. In this way ones posture is in an attitude of ken and the sword one of tai. The ken posture is used to induce the opponent to initiate the attack.

Ken-tai pertaining to the mind and body. The mind should retain an attitude of tai and the body an attitude of ken; this is because if the mind retains an attitude of ken it races and this is not good; thus have the mind wait in tai, and with the body in ken induce the opponent to make the first move and defeat him.

Again there is the principle whereby the mind takes an attitude of ken and the body in one of tai; the reason for this is that with the mind in ken it is put upon its guard and with the sword in tai the opponent is induced into making the first attack. One should think of the body as being the hand that holds the sword. Thus the mind takes the attitude of ken and the body one of tai.

Ultimately both methods are the same, the aim is to induce the opponent to make the first move and defeat him.”

Kendo Tokuhon (The Kendo Reader),, October 2013

I don’t think the theory of Ken-Tai is particularly difficult to understand cerebrally, but utilising it effectively within keiko is another matter. Specifically, I’d like to talk about it in reference to executing oji-waza.

I’ve sometimes seen oji-waza described as “reactive” techniques in English but I posit that this is – for advanced practitioners anyway – a misnomer. I mention this in my Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills under the “Oji-waza is not a guessing game” section. To be clear (under this definition): oji-waza are techniques executed with prior knowledge to what your opponent is going to do. The reason you have this foresight is that you have setup the situation: that is, you are in control of not only the area being struck, but also the timing.

A specific example: men-kaeshi-dou

To setup the situation you need to do two things:

1. Open up your men for attack;
2. Seem to be unaware of the impending attack.

There are many ways to open your men up, but the easiest one is done simply by dropping the point of your shinai down diagonally to the right (preferably subtly) and, at the same time, moving your right foot out diagonally (body in ken). By doing this all you need do is raise up your arms to catch your opponents men strike and move smoothly into the dou strike. Needless to say, you should be calmly watching your opponent and calculating while doing this (mind in tai).

However, we still have a problem. If your fighting spirit is obvious and/or your look like you are setting things up, then your opponent will not attack you (unless they are inexperienced): you have to fool them into actually believing that you are actually open. If you are overtly obvious in your setup or desire to strike then experienced people will not strike.

In this situation it’s often best to make your attacking spirit obvious immediately prior to the setup described above… then slightly relax the pressure. The switch from overt pressure to a relaxing of it is often enough for someone to launch an attack… inexperienced people will attack at this point even when there are no openings. This, of course, is Ken-tai in application.

Do I need to know the theory behind the action?

The answer to this is “no” if you are doing kendo casually, and “yes” if you are not. To some extent, “knowledge” of kendo will come naturally through doing it… in fact, I suspect that the best and most naturally way of understanding kendo is simply through constant daily practise without too much thinking. At some point, however, especially if you want to become a teacher, then it’s probably better if you spend time on the whys and wherefores.

Many people might say “I can describe my experience without relation to the more traditional kendo terms” which I think is a fair comment. I guess it’s up to the individual to choose how they teach and describe kendo. For me personally, I prefer to pepper the description with classical terminology…. kendo is after all, for me anyway, also a study of the past.

There are a number of overlapping theories used to describe the physical and mental process of executing kendo techniques, for example the different kinds of sen, discussion of kyojitsu (a term almost unknown in the English kendo community and disappearing in the Japanese one), and various other teachings from classical swordsmanship schools that have found their way into kendo theory. On top of this there is also the more modern boxing of waza into shikake and oji techniques, the odd sports-science explanation, and of course personal theories (sometimes eccentric) from various teachers. Some of these complement each other (for example, my use of ken-tai to describe oji-waza), and some don’t (the various types of sen and the shikake/oji waza definition).

I guess the point here is that for every action you do in kendo has, theoretically, some sort of rationale behind it, and if you want to be a good kendo teacher then you should spend time not only in research of these theories, but in actually application of them. At least, this is my aim.

“An important teaching, comprehension is difficult to come by without hard training.”

For a longer discussion on Ken-Tai, please see p84-6 of the kenshi 24/7 published Kendo Tokuhon (The Kendo Reader). Also, don’t forget to check out Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills for discussion and description of oji-waza.