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