The following is an English translation of a Japanese article that I wrote and was published in the October edition of Kendo Jidai (on sale August 25th 2013). Its the story of my kendo student Kubota Suzunosuke who passed away in January of this year and that I introduced on this site back in March. The English version is of course slightly different than the original Japanese. Please note that I have his parents blessings to put this online.
About two weeks ago I had the rare chance to have a long private chat during lunch with my sensei after keiko (he’s in his mid-60s hanshi). We talked about lots of different things including our private lives, but its something kendo related (of course) that he said that inspired this current post.
Since around about April I’ve found my enthusiasm for kendo wavering a bit, This happens to everyone now and then of-course, but this time its lasted 5 months, which is pretty long even by my standards. Looking for some words of wisdom to help snap me out of my mood, I asked my sensei has he ever experienced something like this. He of course has practised kendo his entire life. He joined the police straight out of high school for the sole purpose of pursuing a kendo career. He’s taken part in almost any competition you care to name, placing in many of them (as a tokuren member or after that as a police kendo teacher). Lately he’s been busy travelling all over the place teaching seminars and what have you.
I assumed he would answer my question in the affirmative, which he did, but not in the manner I had guessed. As a young man in the tokuren squad he basically lived to compete. Shiai success was everything. Failure to perform in shiai meant being removed from the shiai lineup and, if things didn’t improve, threat of removal from the team entirely. This of course would mean having to work as a normal policeman (or quitting). This was (and still is) a very very competitive environment (remember you also have to vie with your teammates on a daily basis for selection and other people are waiting in the wings to join). It was during this time – when shiai success was not forthcoming – that his enthusiasm wavered and he sometimes lost his confidence. However, he managed to overcome these periods of doubt and went on to have a successful shiai career. This translated itself into a kendo teaching position when he was in this late 30s and set him up with not only a job for life, but is also directly related to his teaching duties nowadays (before and after retirement).
The doubts that my teacher had were then dispelled by constant shiai success in his youth, and since then he’s had none!!! But he then went out of the way to point out that his situation is only typical of those few people that actually make tokuren squads and survive the duration. School (and to a certain extent university) teachers – the next level ‘down’ from police kendo pros – have a much different experience.
Top level competitive kenshi almost always follow the exact same path until they leave university – start as a primary school kid and continue kendo through their junior and high school years, often going to renowned dojo or schools with a solid kendo tradition. Some will have have shiai success from the start (Uchimura) and others will be late bloomers (Teramoto); most will go onto to university before entering a kendo related career, and a few will go straight into the police after high school (Yamamoto Mariko). People are of course scouted. Those that graduate university and wish to pursue a kendo related career have basically 3 choices: enter the police, become a teacher, or join a company with a kendo team (non graduates can’t become teachers). Obviously which path a person chooses is based not only on their kendo skill, but also their personality and academic ability. That some people choose not to join the police is understandable – the harshly competitive environment and high failure rate must put most people off. Becoming a teacher is also something that isn’t for the light hearted, but in a much different way. Joining a company team is probably the easiest option of the 3, with its more casual kendo pace and ‘normal’ life style. Of course, the majority of people quit kendo after university (women more so), or continue only very casually.
When becoming a teacher your kendo career suddenly tips upside-down: from being on the receiving end of instruction, you are now on the giving end. Shiai becomes almost entirely something for your students, not for yourself, and your kendo pride and success is intertwined with that of your students. Your daily kendo practise is mainly aimed at your students improvement, not your own (although many younger teachers will continue to do kendo with their students; older teachers basically only shout at the kids and then do a bit of jigeiko!). The tokuren policeman/woman on the other hand is fighting for their survival.
Its this that explains why police kendo dominates in Japan: those that have success in the environment become not only highly skilled, but supremely confident. They have to be in order to survive (and to translate their tokuren years into a future career). Its this process that my sensei went through and explains his lack of wavering over the past 30 years (and I assume others in a similar situation). I envy this self belief!!
I actually sat down and wrote this post soon after the discussion with my teacher. As I post it live (about 2 weeks later) I find myself sitting here with a beer in hand. Of my three keiko sessions planned for today I skipped both the morning and evening practise…. in fact, my evening practise is going on right now as I post this live! I know that my teacher did keiko this morning, and I highly suspect he’s currently doing keiko right now…… no good George!!
The following is a translation of a note that was sent to every prefectural kendo association in Japan recently and published on the ZNKR website today. It makes for interesting reading, so I thought I’d share it with kenshi 24/7 readers. It starts of harmless enough, then meanders into the …. well, I’ll let you decide. Anyway, please read it and comment if you wish!
Kendo shiai / those involved in refereeing
The following matters should be brought to the attention of all people concerned with running shiai.
1. Shinai compliance.
Please ensure again that everyone involved with shiai is complying with the shinai rules correctly.
2. About the calligraphy style on name tags.
At various shiai recently people have been spotted wearing name tags that are hard to read. Please teach people to use name tags that are legible.
3. Correct vocalisations on a strike.
Some competitors have been making illegible noises when executing strikes. Please teach people to kiai correctly, using “men, kote, do, tsuki” on their attacks.
4. Use of the correct kendo terminology.
The ZNKR has published its uniform terminology in the ‘Kendo shidoyoryo’ manual. Please re-check with this manual and teach the correct terms.
Correct: shiai-jo; incorrect: court
Correct: nafuda; incorrect: zekken, tare-namu
Correct: nakayui; incorrect: nakajime
Correct: kendogi; incorrect: keikogi
Correct: kendogu; incorrect: bogu (the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology may use the term ‘bogu’)
5. During a shiai, what to do when the tsuru is not facing upwards
As a general rule, when someone is spotted using their shinai with the tsuru isn’t facing upwards and cautioned on it, the shushin (chief referee) should not touch the shinai when cautioning the competitor (inform the competitor of their error by pointing towards the area of their tsuba and using gestures; if the competitor is young then its permitted to touch the tsuba or tsuka in order to teach them what the correct position is).
The original Japanese is here.
Today was the Osaka Shudokan’s 50th anniversary, which they celebrated with an embu-taikai. On display was kyudo, naginata, judo, karate, aikido, jodo, iaido, and kendo. I had keiko in the morning in a different prefecture so rolled up 1/2 way through, at around the karate mark. No worries, as I was there to see the kendo which was to go on last.
The kendo embu was done by 6 current members of the Osaka tokuren squad, 2 of which will take part in the All Japan Championships in November. The session consisted of kirikaeshi (3 kinds), some kihon, a bit of jigeiko, and uchikomi/kirikaeshi to finish.
I was taking pictures mainly, but managed to grab some iphone footage, which has been edited above and uploaded to youtube for kenshi 24/7 followers. Enjoy!!!
If I were to ask you, “who do you think are, or were, the most extraordinary kendo people in the world?” What would your answers be? Teramoto Shoji? Uchimura Ryoichi? Perhaps you believe that the last generation All Japan Championship winners were – such as the great Eiga Naoki or Miyazaki Masahiro? Chikamoto?
Maybe the current All Japan Hachidan Championship combatants are more impressive to you and you might answer “Higashi-sensei” or similar. Maybe the past era sensei and modern forefathers of kendo such as Nakayama-sensei or Takano-sensei will always be a cut above the rest?
Of course, these are all very subjective replies to what is an obviously loaded question with no real answer, only opinions, contextual opinions at that. Let’s be serious for a moment, though, and clarify what I mean by the “most extraordinary” in this context.
If I were to mean the most technically complete and skilful opponent, I might be prone to answer my own question, were I asked, with “Teramoto Shoji!” But if I had meant the hardest to overcome in shiai, not that I could even comprehend how hard it would be, I might answer with “Miyazaki Masahiro.” The fastest and most amazing footwork award would perhaps go to “Chikamoto”; mentally toughest and sharpest might be “Higashi-sensei” and so on and so forth…
But by “extraordinary” kendo people, I actually mean those who embody (or embodied) all out grit and determination to see things properly through. To do one’s level best, despite enduring immense hardship, through each opportunity – as if it they had only one chance to get it right…
So often, we make excuses about our kendo, I have definitely been guilty of this on many occasions… “I had an injury”, “I’m recovering from the flu”, “I’ve been too busy”, “The shimpan didn’t see” and yet, and yet… variations of those same excuses spill over into our personal lives, too – or maybe it’s vice-versa.
Back to extraordinary kendo people though, I do indeed marvel at the fitness, speed, power and finesse of the current crop All Japan Senshuken combatants, and I am in awe of the technical brilliance and displays of mental and physical power that I see in the All Japan Hachidan Taikai every year. I cannot even begin to comprehend the fortitude and complex mindsets of our modern kendo forefathers. There are no doubts that you can apply the adjective “extraordinary” to any one of the earlier-mentioned, exemplified individuals.
But there are a few more individuals out there that I am ever more deeply impressed by; their names you have probably never heard before.
These kenshi are sometimes never really noticed in the first place; you might even practice with some of them and not even realize it. Oftentimes, they are the ones that have laid or maintained the foundations for our own kendo but sometimes receive little to no credit for doing so. Sometimes, they may add a dynamic to your own kendo group/s that is intangible until it’s gone. During jigeiko, some of these people are easy to hit. So why would I see these people as “extraordinary” if they are so easy to hit?
Like many things “kendo”, it’s complicated, in part you would have to revert to the “Concept of Kendo” and what kendo, at its core, was/is envisaged it to be:
The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Katana (sword).
Further, you would need to refresh yourself on “The Purpose of Practicing Kendo”.
The purpose of practicing Kendo is:
To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.
This will make one be able:
To love his/her country and society,
To contribute to the development of culture,
And to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples.
In these “cloak-and-dagger” times that we live in, it’s refreshing to see that somewhere, somehow, people are still associating with each other with courtesy, sincerity and honesty. Not only cultivating themselves and their own culture, but also helping to cultivate others’ through the practice of Japanese swordsmanship.
It’s even more impressive to me that some of these individuals give so much of themselves while facing great adversities – extraordinary, in fact! On to the point:
I suspect I couldn’t walk for even one mile in the shoes of someone who can simultaneously manage a professional career, raise a beautiful and healthy young family and still help others to practice and learn about budo – all while enduring a terminal illness.
I don’t think I could come back after a long battle with cancer to help kids at my local dojo to be the best they can be, all at an advanced age.
I don’t think I will ever be passing nanadan in my 70’s, if at all, especially if I were female, frail and facing much younger, stronger (hungry!) male opponents during the exam.
I don’t believe that, knowing my days were numbered, I could continue to inspire a whole Renmei from my wheelchair and see to affairs right up until the very last weeks.
These people are not always elderly too; just take a look at George’s late student and friend, Suzunosuke, if you want a recent example of an “extraordinary” and young kendo person who was able to achieve something seemingly impossible, and inspire countless individuals in all corners of the globe and society.
These individuals contain in inner strength and resolve that I don’t believe I could ever muster. Not only that but a steadfastness in their own moral capacity towards others, that, as we know, even some championship winning, and senior, budo people do not have.
So, while I am always amazed by the “Miyazaki’s” and the “Teramoto’s” of the world, they are not yet on my personal list of “most extraordinary”, though through no fault of their own. This may be simply because I am not aware of their respective hardships and contributions to kendo as I know it. It’s all relative.
Everyone has a “kendo story” in the making and their own personal kendo journey. In time to come, will people be inspired by yours?
Perhaps you would like to share someone’s story in the comments section here?