Tough kendo man

I can’t remember the first time I saw any pictures of kendo or any kendo on the TV (James Bond maybe?), but I do remember the first article I read that mentioned kendo… at least I remembered the content and which magazine it was in, but not the writer. This summer I returned to the U.K. for a holiday to see my family and friends, and was surprised to find the magazine hidden at the bottom of the box in a cupboard in my grandmothers bedroom. I was also surprised to see that the writer was none other than Dave Lowry*. Before discussing whats presented in the column, please check out an excerpt here.


Kendo-ka, the toughest individuals?

During an after-training ‘bull’ sessions years ago, my judo teammates were discussing the toughest individuals they had even encountered. One told of a Japanese judo champion who had thrown opponents so hard that, even using proper break-falls, they were knocked unconscious by the force of hitting the mat. Another recounted the abilities of a Chinese martial artist he’d met who could employ vicious foot sweeps that literally somersaulted his opponents. One guy said the toughest people he’d ever met were Special Forces personnel in Vietnam, while another insisted it was the British SAS teams.

Later, I asked my two karate teachers (editor: Japanese I assume?) about this, and unhesitatingly, they both gave the same answer. The toughest individuals they had ever encountered, they said, were elderly kendoka (sword practitioners). “A kendo man who’s in his mid-60’s and has been training for about 50 years,” one teacher told me, “can take an incredible amount of abuse.”

I have often reflected on my teachers’ words. Interesting, isn’t it, that their concept of toughness was not in how much one can dish out, but how much one can take.

[ the rest of the column goes on to talk specifically about karate ]


Although I probably disagree that kendo practitioners are tougher than SAS and Special Forces bit (see *), I do believe that some of my sensei have gone through a lot of ‘abuse’ – both physical and mental – in their (for some of them) 50+ years of training, and that they are very tough individuals.

Over beers or sitting in the dojo post-keiko I’ve heard stories of being sick in men’s, collapsing during keiko, broken arms (!), refusal of water, being forced to do kirikaeshi for hours a day everyday for a year, etc. etc. and written or video-d accounts of older sensei now passed away often tell tale of even more severe training regimes… some of which would not be tolerated by society nowadays. Theres also the fact that as you get older and gradually begin coaching/teaching, you are expected to allow yourself to be cut and tsuki-ed a lot. Compound this with the long active life-span of a serious kendo practitioner (I commonly see people in their 70s practising kendo, and the oldest person I’ve actually sparred was over 90. Theres even a ‘old-peoples kendo competition’ held every year in the Nippon Budokan, with an ‘over 100 years old’ section! I don’t think that this happens in other budo, at least to the degree that it does in kendo) and you can see what the people in the article above were perhaps getting at.

When I am teaching my students or go and visit another dojo and hear people complain that its too hot/cold and that the keiko is too hard/long, or when people moan when struck in an unarmoured place or that someone hit them too hard etc. etc., I often wonder how they would have managed practising kendo back in the day.

Serious long-term kendo practise should cultivate tough people with strong minds and bodies. If after a few years of practise you still complain when someone accidentally hits you in the wrong place, or you don’t want to go to the dojo because you are tired or its hot or whatever, then perhaps its time to reassess whether kendo is in-fact for you. Personally I believe that although I can’t go through the sometimes severe experiences that my sensei went through, I can at least position myself to do the hardest practises that I possibly can. I want to be a ‘tough kendo man’ at the end of the day!!


Sources

Traditions: The Art of Taking It, Dave Lowry. Fighting Arts International No.72, 1992

* Lowry is a popular martial arts writer whose work I gulped up as an immature martial artists. Even at that time, however, I realised that his writing was heavily over-romanticised… as it is a bit here. (That said, I hope that Mr Lowry doesn’t mind me using this excerpt… I probably have all his books he published until the mid-90s, so he’s already made his money on me!!)

2012 – UK trip

As followers of kenshi247 know, I just spent the last 3 weeks on holiday in the U.K. Mainly it was to see family and friends, and to do a bit of relaxing. The whole trip went something like this:

Osaka->London->Inverness->Orkney->Inverness->Edinburgh->London->Osaka…

In amongst all this I managed to fit some keiko in, as well as run a small kendo seminar:

1. Visited my old stomping ground of Edinburgh Kendo Club, run by Steve Bishop sensei;
2. Ran an Eikenkai-style kendo seminar in Edinburgh Scotland;
3. Visited Hizen dojo for the first time in maybe 10-12 years;
4. Popped in for a bash plus a few post-keiko beers at Tora dojo.

It was great to see old friends and to make new ones. Once the jet-lag clears and I get back to work again, I’ll start work on finishing my lastest publication before getting back to writing articles for kenshi247… your patience is appreciated!!

Cheers!

2012 – Eikenkai in Scotland

Exactly 2 years after the first Eikenkai in Scotland seminar I returned to Edinburgh and held another. In amongst the busy backdrop of the Olympic and Edinburgh festival mayhem around 30 people spent a couple of days together doing kendo, drinking beer, eating curry, and generally having a fun time.

The Saturday session ran for about five and 1/2 hours and the Sunday session was about two and 1/2. In between we went to a great Indian place and managed to spend over 500 pounds on curry and beer for 20 people!!!

Grade ranges went from ikkyu to rokudan, and we had visitors travel up from London and Manchester, as well as Belgium and Holland.

I’m looking forward to doing another in a couple of years time!!!

Hyoshi (拍子)

HYOSHI (拍子): musical time, tempo, beat, rhythm

When people use the term HYOSHI they usually use it when they talk about something that is ‘out of rhythm’ or ‘offbeat’ and the likes, but when you try to express the term precisely its often hard to do so, even for scholars.

When I consider what HYOSHI means in kendo terms I see it as the instant where striking distance in both the physical and time dimensions, plus the relation between you and your (often moving) partner come into unison; that is to say, the exact moment when you should strike. This HYOSHI has neither colour (i.e. there is no ‘telegraphing’) nor sound. If you think ‘my opponent is attacking’ then HYOSHI has already disappeared (i.e. you are too late).

If you are serious about pursuing the discipline of kendo then even children – in their own way – must attempt to acquire understanding of this HYOSHI; if you only do kendo where you strike as you like, then even if you become older you will not be able to comprehend kendo (i.e. understanding does not necessarily come with experience).

In itto-ryu there is a saying: ‘Make your sword as a brush and draw characters as if writing in water. No trace will remain.’

It is said that mastery of the laws of swordsmanship is acquired through polishing of technique, but what this refers to in the end, I think, is the study of cutting-HYOSHI.


About the author

SAKUMA SABURO sensei was born in 1912 in Fukushima prefecture. He started kendo at around 10/11 years old in Fukushima Butokuden. After graduating from what is now Fukushima University he started teaching kendo at various high schools. In 1939 he began to work in Mitsubushi’s mining operation and taught kendo throughout the country whilst visiting various mines. After the war, he became a student of Mochida Seiji hanshi and – while running his own kendo club – began working as a director in the Tokyo Kendo Renmei amongst other things.

He died at 84 in 1997. He was hanshi hachidan.


Source
平成・剣道 地木水火風空 読本(下)。佐久間三郎。平成9年発行。

The overall construction of modern kendo

The following is a presentation of a couple of charts found in the book ‘Nihon kendo no rekishi’ (The History of Japanese Kendo) that I found interesting and my commentary on them (apart from the charts themselves, this is not a translation).

To read more about whats discussed here in more detail, including the background of the discussion and the the original authors comments and insights (which are far better than mine!), please read the original book.


Chart 1: The overall construction of modern kendo (The reciprocal and complementary aspects of kendo)

The overall construction of modern kendo

CONCEPT OF KENDO and SHUGYO NO KOKOROGAMAE

Technical aim (objective) 1
SHIAI
* The contrary nature of the 5 minutes x 3 points match
* The unclearness of yuko-datotsu criteria
(+ problem of shiai-jo size)

Technical aim (objective) 2
SHINSA (grading)
* Correct posture, kamae, technical ability and the unclearness of evaluating the standard for this based on age

Technical aim (subjective) 3
KEIKO
* applying your own subjective standards/understandings, bring your shiai keiko and shinsa keiko together as one thing. As a result of this, the means and purpose of training will become more fluid and change towards the process of ‘shugyo.’

I think that this will be the first time for most kenshi247 readers to see this chart, but I imagine that most people can understand most of whats being alluded to here: the problem that we as kendo practitioners have in combing two of the main aspects of kendo – competition and gradings – into a single process of ‘shugyo’, the expressed aim of which is set out in the Concept of Kendo (see below). ‘Shugyo’ is a term almost all budo practitioners learn quickly and refers to the pursuit of a sometimes nebulous ‘knowledge’ gained through hard physical and mental discipline.

In both the Shiai and Shinsa boxes you you see the terms ‘contrary,’ ‘unclearness,’ and ‘problem’ which need further explanation. First, let me tackle the ‘unclearness’ points as every experienced kendoka knows what the problems are.

The ZNKR publishes the criteria for grading at different levels. This criteria is worded ambiguously and due to this the understanding of the criteria is highly subjective, especially as you go towards kodansha grades (6dan+). Passing 8dan is so ambiguous it almost seems mysterious at times, and I’ve even heard people hint that sometimes passes are preordained. Everybody has experienced puzzle at gradings, be it at a pass or at a fail, and knows what I am talking about.

The unclearness of the criteria of awarding yuko-datotsu (a valid ippon) is found in the wording of the rules: that strikes must be done in ‘sufficient’ spirit, with a ‘correct’ posture, and must ‘express zanshin.’ Not to mention that you must hit the right spot of your opponents bogu with the correct part of your shinai at the right angle (at top level competition this is often too fast to see). If you need evidence at the difficulty of judging valid strikes (objectively that is) all you need to is check you-tube for the mens-team final of the 2012 World Kendo Championships between Japan and Korea.

The ‘contrary nature of the 5 minutes x 3 points match’ may be new to some people (this has started to be address at top level shiai here in Japan – the 8dan invitational and from the 1/4 finals of the All-Japans). Basically, if you look at the top shiai in Japan (the males All-Japan championships) from the 1950s until today, you can see that the number of shiai decided by ippon in encho has sky rocketed (see the original evidence in the source). The number of points scored has plummeted and the average shiai time has increased. In other words the style of kendo favoured nowadays by elite competition-orientated people (in Japan) is such that getting 2 ippon in a 5 minute match is rare. Of-course, this is partially due to the yuko-datotsu problem mentioned above.

Many people might think that the ‘contrary’ problem above doesn’t really affect them, but the kendo community across the world (including, of course, Japan) looks to the All-Japans as a source of inspiration and young people aim to copy those kenshi’s style, and obviously their style of kendo has changed dramatically over the years.

(I will leave the chat about shiai-jo size for a further article)

What a minute!

‘Hey, my sensei told me to do shinsa like my shiai and shiai like my shinsa!’

Fair point. I don’t think, however, many people actually do this. When shiai-mode is on posture often goes out the door in favour of hitting your opponent in any way possible; during a grading many people are often overly-concerned with being in the correct shape that they miss opportunities to strike or stand still and unmoving. I personally know of many people on both sides of the fence – those that disfavour shiai and aim to have beautiful kendo (in reality some end up with a kind of spiritless, ’empty’ kendo) and those that think kendo is simply about hitting the other person with the shinai in anyway possible (some end up attacking randomly, like rabid monkeys!).

A good example of this subjective difficulty between shiai and shinsa kendo can be seen in 6-time All-Japan champion Miyazaki Masahiro sensei’s 8dan grading video (this also ties in nicely with the grading unclearness described above). Did he pass because his kendo was brilliant on the day, because who he was, or because he deserved it based on his shiai results?

At any rate, what we have here are 2 aspects of kendo that have their own specific problem areas, and most people tend to keep these aspects somewhat separate. Both of these aspects are objective, i.e. our performance is judged by a third person or persons. Whether we think we have made a good strike in shiai, or whether we think we have shown our best kendo in a shinsa is irrelevant.

This brings us to the box in the center: technical aim 3 (subjective).

When your sensei told you to do ‘shiai like your shinsa, and shinsa like your shiai’ he or she was of course telling you shouldn’t split your kendo into compartments. The 3rd box describes this by saying that by finally merging these aspects together and approaching ‘kendo’ as simply ‘shugyo’ then you will finally be going in the right direction. Concentration on shiai without attempting to acquire ‘correct’ kendo’ (that is, manifesting it in shiai) or emphasis on ‘correct’ kendo without actually fighting like you mean it (to much emphasis on shape) leads to an imbalance. This merging/balancing of these 2 aspects is of course purely subjective; this subjectivity is partly based on your understandings and experienced of the objective arena of the shiai-jo and the opinions of the grading panel (as well as your sensei and sempai). This subjective understanding is acquired through – and for the ultimate benefit of – the process of shugyo. At the end of the day, however, you can only do kendo for yourself and must find a balance that satisfies yourself.

What I have attempted (badly as always!!!) to verbalise here is only for the dedicated kenshi: those that strive hard in their training over years and seek both spiritual as well as physical improvement (and grade advancement). It doesn’t apply to those that don’t care about gradings, who have no competitive interest (even among dojo-mates), nor those that do kendo as a hobby on the weekends or for their health. That isn’t to say that those people shouldn’t do kendo or aren’t real kendoka (I’d like to think kendo is large enough to accept many types of practitioner), only that the expressed purpose (and thus end point) of the more dedicated kenshi is necessarily different.

* Please note: by ‘competition’ or ‘shiai’ above, I don’t necessarily mean official competitions, it could just as much be serious ippon-shobu between dojo mates, students, etc. The competitive nature of kendo is in-built: having a weak, or even no competitive inklings at all probably doesn’t bode well for the progress of your kendo. In my own case I barely compete in official competition anymore. I don’t actually have so much interest in those, but I do go all out in the dojo with my sempai and kohai on a regular basis. When writing the above, however, I did notice that I am imbalanced in my practise of kendo.


The following chart show the general flow of what is a valid strike, from the past to the potential future, and is an adjunct to the above section.

Chart 2: The yuko-datotsu criteria axis

The yuko-datotsu evaluation criteria

4 – Realistic/Combat: what we call kendo now evolved out of real fighting with weapons. Using a sword to attack someone would obviously cause injury and/or death and the results was immediate and apparent.

1 – Kata – over time, weapon practice changed into a more abstract form using wooden or blunted weaponry and techniques were practised in set forms. Original warrior skills were passed down from generation to generation, changing over time (potentially drastically), and the expression of technique became more artistic, even beautiful (e.g. iaido, koryu). Any ‘results’ are purely subjective (as far as judging is concerned, iaido/kendo-no-kata competition differs little from synchronized swimming or ice-skating).

2 – Grading/current sportive kendo – the ‘katana’ in kendo nowadays exists only abstractly, and shiai and shinsa have quite a few unclear aspects and contradictions. Due to this results are somewhat subjective and can even cause controversy.

3 – Bunka (‘cultural’)- a potential future of kendo whereby shiai and shinsa rules are revised to be concrete and unified, while respecting kendo’s long historical tradition and the Japanese culture that is embedded therein.


Summary / personal comment

This is just a short piece based on the charts above and the book they came from. Recently there has been a lot of chat about shinpan problems relating to the last World Kendo Championships. I don’t think any problem is with the judges, but with the subjectivity that is mentioned above (and perhaps some competitors lack of the kendo ‘balance’). Personally, I don’t mind subjectivity: as long as enough people are on more or less the right track then there are no problems. Its part of what makes kendo interesting.

If we occasionally lose a shiai due to (what you subjectively perceive as) a less than accurate call – who cares? You didn’t die. Any feeling of wrong-doing is surely just pride. Many people on this planet live in war zones, receive no education, or don’t have enough food to eat on a daily basis… the fact that we can afford to buy expensive equipment, pay dojo fees, and go for post-keiko beers afterwards shouldn’t be forgotten.


Source

日本剣道の歴史(p249-254)。大塚忠義。株式会社窓社。1995発行


Appendix

The Concept of Kendo

The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Katana (sword).

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.

(The Concept of Kendo was established by All Japan Kendo Federation in 1975.)