On shinai length 竹刀の長短

Yamaoka Tesshu wrote this small piece in 1883, while kendo (then variously called gekkiken, kenjutsu, shinai uchikomi, etc) was nowhere near the shape it is now. Although the discussion of shinai length might not seem relavant to some nowadays, its a topic that comes up quite a lot if you read kendo commentary from the early-mid 1900’s, and not a few famous sensei experiment with shinai length/weight even today.

Tesshu’s Itto-shoden-muto-ryu uses a shinai of 3 shaku 2 sun in length (96cm’s) and are considerably heavier than standard shinai.

The length of the shinai was set for the first time to 3 shaku 8 sun (115cm’s) by the head kenjutsu instructor of the Shogunate’s Kobusho (military training center), Odani Nobutomo (jikishinkage-ryu) in the 1850-60s.

Sword length has been set to be 10 fist-lengths since a long time (Tesshu maybe be referring to the kobusho rule mentioned above). This size – about 1/2 of your body length – is said to make it easier for you to strike your enemy. Despite this rule, many schools have passed on the tendency to use shorter swords anyway, for example some schools advocate using a sword of about 8 fist-lengths. A shorter length sword requires you to make up the deficiency in length through your spirit.

During the Tenpo period (1830-1844) there was swordsman from Yanagigawa-han (Fukuoka) called Oishi Susumu. He prized victory above all things and used a shinai of over 5 shaku in length (modern day mens shinai are 3 shaku 9 sun or about 120cms; 5 shaku is around 150cms). He came to Edo and went around all the dojo challenging and winning most of his fights. Oishi was said to have fought even Chiba Shusaku (famous and highly influential Itto-ryu swordsman and shihan at Genbukan). Against Oishi’s massive 5 shaku+ shinai Chiba used a barrel lid as a tsuba. However this was just a “game” and not something that I would deign to call a kenjutsu shiai.

After this time kenshi from across various schools – in ignorance of their own tradition – have simply followed the fashion and believe that using a longer shinai is better. Their shallow learning and ignorance is deplorable: anybody who desires to study swordsmanship must not look only at the outer aspect of winning and losing in competition.

Nowadays various ronin proclaim themselves masters/teachers and riding on this boast are able to make a living. Their success depends on the fortunes of dojo challenges, and its from here that the popularity of the “longer is better” idea has sprung from.

If we look at how to restore kendo to its proper state, we should start first by returning the length of shinai to that of the older styles, and think about what it means to duel someone with a live sword.

  • Yamaoka Tesshu, Meiji 16 (1883), September.

山岡鉄舟:剣禅話 。徳間書店.高野 澄(翻訳)


As some people who read the kenshi247 Facebook page know, yours truly was in a traffic accident and and hospitalised (initially) for a month: cycling on the way home from work on the 8th of September I was hit from behind by a car, resulting in a compression fracture of the vertebrae, i.e. what’s sometimes referred to as a “broken back.”

Sounds terrible, I know, but I was relatively lucky: only a single bone was fractured and I suffered nothing else other than a few scrapes and bruises. I had a cast around my back-abdomen/chest area for 10 days, and am currently consigned to wearing a corset/brace for the next couple of months or so. I can walk fine and – given time – I’m expected to make a full recovery. The fact that I’m in pretty good shape due to kendo probably helps to speed this up. Not so bad, considering. I don’t want to think about what could have happened had the accident been worse.

It’s been exactly 3 weeks since the accident and it looks like I’ll be allowed to leave a couple of days short of a month. The first few days where painful and full of worry, I panicked that I may not be able to do kendo again. In fact one of the nurses said it would be impossible… which I admit scared the life out of me for a minute or so before I thought “I’ll show you!” At any rate, I plan to be back in the dojo asap, for kengaku at first, then with my men on and scrapping by the start of next year.

During the first 2 weeks so many people came to visit me that I was a bit overwhelmed: over 60. I got so much food that I had to refuse the hospital meals (thank god!) in an effort to eat what I was given. The fact that I am vegetarian (and have been for 20 years) threw the kitchen staff into turmoil resulting in random (almost always non-veggie) dishes. Had my friends not given me food I would have probably starved! If your vegetarian and living in Japan don’t get hit by a car.

Most of the people that came were kendo people of course, from my students to hachidan sensei. In fact, one of those sensei suddenly arrived to find me lying on top of my bed in only my cast and pants (I mean “pants” in the British sense)… it was hot after all!!!

Obviously I’ve had a lot of free time to contemplate the accident and to think about kendo. Up until now, kendo has just been another part of my life, something I take for granted. Occasionally I have pondered over the fact that I am lucky in my kendo situation/environment – usually when I a starry-eyed visitor from abroad comes – but I never *really* thought about about exactly how lucky I am just to be able to do kendo.

Serious kendo study requires that you are in pretty good health (especially if your keiko volume is high), are relatively well-off, and have the time to spare… things that maybe some of us take for granted. I know I did. Had I been born under different circumstances perhaps kendo would have been impossible or just some sort of silly fantasy. Something to ponder.

The sheer amount of kendo friends, sempai, and sensei that visited me has reinforced what I’ve long believed to be one of the main outcomes of a successful pursuit of kendo: the forging of trusted relationships, the creation of an extended social circle, and a feeling of belonging. In that way I gained a lot of confidence in my kendo life just lying on my hospital bed.

Apologies for the chatty, attention-grabbing over-sentimental blog-like post: I’ll shut up now and hopefully start work on some real content for the site soon.

The Myth of Chiburi?

In many iaido ryuha, chiburi is a fundamental part of kata. Chiburi, usually written 血振 in Japanese, literally means “shaking off blood,” and the image presented is that of flinging the blood of a defeated enemy off the blade with a deft movement before resheathing. Perhaps mainly due to the prevalence of Muso Shinden-ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, some people believe that chiburi is a universal aspect of iai. However, many ryuha do not practice chiburi, and there is the opinion – which has become more widespread recently, thanks to the sharing of knowledge via the internet – that shaking off blood in this way is in fact impossible. If this is the case, then what purpose does chiburi serve? Is it pointless? Why do some ryuha practice it? And was it really ever intended to remove blood from a blade?

Chiburi is a modern reading of a word that appears in the densho of Eishin-ryu as either 血振 or 血震. The original pronunciation is most likely chiburui, which is the reading you find if you look the word up in a Japanese dictionary such as Iwanami Shoten’s Kojien. In his book Koryu Iai no Hondo, the late Iwata Norikazu quotes another Eishin-ryu teacher, Morita Tadahiko, as being correct in his assertion that “chiburui” is the accurate term and that “chiburi” is in fact a mistaken reading (the word “chiburi” that appears in the dictionary actually refers a method of preparing fish). Iwata sensei also notes that both Oe Masamichi and his own teacher, Mori Shigeki, referred to the motion as “chiburui.” However, for the purposes of this article I will use the term “chiburi” as that is what most people are familiar with, and for better or worse it has become common parlance in most iai circles.

Most beginners learning iaido will be taught that the motion of chiburi is intended to fling the blood from the tip of the sword after cutting. In most books on iaido too, chiburi is described as serving this purpose. Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu also contain chinugui (wiping the blood from the blade with a cloth, paper or the fingers) in a small number of techniques in the first teaching level of Omori-ryu (Shoden/Seiza no bu). In Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu at least, this is technically done by putting one hand inside one’s hakama and using that to wipe the blade. In practice however, the shape is performed but the blade is not really wiped on the hakama. According to Mori Shigeki, this is because this because the oil used on swords in Oe sensei’s day would soil the clothes.

Despite more people becoming aware of it recently, the idea that chiburi isn’t really a practical method of removing blood from the blade is not recent – it has been expressed by teachers in Japan for a long time. Kono Hyakuren, 20th soke of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, wrote in his book Iaido Shintei:

“Chiburui: this takes the form of shaking blood off your sword and onto the ground. However in my experience, when cutting with a sword very little blood actually gets stuck to the blade. Nevertheless, placing emphasis on zanshin and spirit through the form of chiburui makes it a useful tool for development.”

Kono sensei was not alone in his understanding of chiburi primarily as a method of developing zanshin. Nakayama Hakudo wrote:

“In batto, chiburi is always performed in each kata before sheathing the sword. This motion cannot clean blood from the blade completely, but it should be thought of as a purifying action. The period between chiburi and noto is very important in battojutsu, as it is a manifestation of zanshin in the kata. Every school of iaido has a different set method of performing this action. A few peculiar methods are as follows:

“In Kanshin-ryu, a piece of paper kept inside the kimono (kaishi, 懐紙) is used to wipe the blade clean.

“In [Shindo] Munen-ryu, the sword is pointed downwards so the blood drips off the tip. The sword is then brought around in an arc to the left side of the body, thus flicking the blood off the blade.

“In Hazama-ryu, the sword is rested on the left shoulder, and the blood wiped off onto the shoulder.

“In Fuchishin-ryu, the sword is pinched between thumb and forefinger, which are drawn from the base of the blade to the tip to wipe off the blood.

“In Hayashizaki Hon-ryu, the sword is held in the right hand and first brought in a small motion to the left, then in a large motion to the right before sheathing.

“Other schools such as Omori-ryu, Kikusui-ryu, Kaishi-ryu, Tamiya-ryu, Shingan-ryu, Tetchu-ryu, Hasegawa-ryu and so on also all perform chiburi differently. In addition, there are schools that do not perform chiburi at all. Some schools will discard the saya behind them after drawing the sword, showing the determination of the swordsman as he instills his entire being into the sword. Discarding the saya expresses the swordsman’s preparedness to die in combat (sutemi, 捨身) – once the sword is drawn, it will not be returned to the sheath. In Kyoto, I saw a man perform this kind of chiburi under the title of ‘Takayama-ryu.’ However, I look upon this as an exception to the general rule.”

Tatsumi ryu does not perform chiburi, but brings the sword to chudan, expressing zanshin before noto.
Here Nakayama sensei asserts that while not all schools practice what we would today term chiburi, all seem to have an emphasis on zanshin before resheathing, which in many schools is manifested in the simulated or actual cleaning of the blade. Schools of iai that perform chiburi largely seem to be from the Hayashizaki family of ryuha, such as Tamiya-ryu, Mugai-ryu, Suio-ryu and Shinmuso Hayashizaki-ryu. In schools that are not descended from Hayashizaki we often find other forms of cleaning the blade. A form that does not seem to appear in Hayashizaki-derived schools is kaiten chiburi, where the sword is spun in the hand and the tsuka struck. This can be seen in venerable ryuha such as Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, Kashima Shinto-ryu and some lines of Takenouchi-ryu. Other non-Hayashizaki schools, such as Seigo-ryu/Shinkage-ryu, Hoki-ryu, Sosuishi-ryu, Tatsumi-ryu and so on may completely omit chiburi, opting instead for chinugui or, to an outside observer such as myself, apparently nothing at all. Of course third-party observation can only take us so far – for example, discussions with an experienced practitioner of Hoki-ryu revealed that while the school may seem not to have any blade-cleaning portions of its kata, chinugui motions are actually concealed in the noto itself. Despite the numerous differences between ryuha, however, I have yet to encounter a school that does not display clear zanshin – whether expressed during the act of cleaning the sword or otherwise – before sheathing the weapon.

It should also be noted that in the quotation above, Nakayama Hakudo uses the word chiburi to refer to methods of cleaning that technically fall under chinugui, and even terms the act of discarding the saya in Takayama-ryu a kind of chiburi (albeit a rare and unusual one). This suggests that perhaps chiburi has in the past been used as something of a blanket term covering all kinds of sword cleaning, ritual purification or other acts expressing zanshin prior to resheathing. If so, this may have contributed to the myth of chiburi being ubiquitous.

To return to the ryuha with which I am a little more familiar, I would like to examine chiburi in Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu. In these very closely-related schools, chiburi takes two basic forms (with some variations). The first type that students will encounter is the signature chiburi of Omori-ryu. This is commonly referred to as o-chiburi (大血振), meaning ‘large chiburi,’ and is performed by bringing the sword’s tsuka to the right temple and swinging the tip in an arc as if cutting down the migi kesa line. Depending on the teacher, the exact path of the blade and the point where it finishes its swing varies, but fundamentally the motion is the same. The other form of chiburi is commonly called yoko-chiburi (横血振) or kochiburi (小血振), and is done by moving the sword to one’s right with the blade parallel to the floor, edge pointing to the right. This motion is usually done sharply, although again it does depend on teacher and lineage. Despite a sharpness of motion however, it should be apparent that yoko-chiburi is not practical for removing blood. O-chiburi, according to the quotations above, is also impractical; but it is less of a stretch to imagine it working to some extent. Yoko-chiburi on the other hand is quite clearly never going to remove blood from the blade.

Masaoka sensei
So why is this motion called chiburi? The truth is that the large swing done in Omori-ryu has been called chiburi for a considerable length of time. Consulting the Omori-ryu sections of Edo-period densho from both Shimomura-ha and Tanimura-ha Eishin-ryu proves this. However when we move on to Hasegawa Eishin-ryu (Chuden and Okuiai) itself, the word suddenly vanishes from the densho. In descriptions of both Omori-ryu (where it appears twice) and Hasegawa Eishin-ryu (where it appears in every waza), what is commonly referred to today as yoko-chiburi is called “opening” (開き) or “opening to the right” (右に開き). It is not once referred to as chiburi. The idea of this motion as “shaking blood off the blade” may have originated later, perhaps as a conflation of the two. Masaoka Katsutane, 18th generation Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu Kongen no Maki (Menkyo Kaiden), wrote about this in his book Muso Jikiden Eishin ryu Iaiheiho Chi no Maki:

“In Omori-ryu, before noto chiburi is performed in the form of a large sweep of the sword from over the head. In Eishin-ryu however, before noto you ‘open to the right,’ as in the Omori-ryu waza Yaegaki.

“This ‘opening the right’ has today come to be referred to as a ‘small chiburi.’ One day after the war I was teaching iai to children in Kochi when one child asked, in the direct way children do: ‘sensei, would that really shake the blood off the blade?’ I thought about it a great deal, and re-read all the densho I had in my possession, and found that nowhere in any densho is this motion referred to as chiburi. Instead it is called ‘opening to the right.’ Therefore I came to the conclusion that Omori-ryu chiburi is a combination of shaking blood from the blade, expressing zanshin and preparing for noto, and from Eishin-ryu onwards the motion is for zanshin and noto preparation only.”

Further examination of the surviving pre-modern densho of Tosa Eishin ryu reveals that while there is a distinct lack of references to chiburi, there are some parts in high level documents that describe special methods for quickly cleaning a sword when it needs to be resheathed swiftly. Significantly, these methods are variants of chinugui. This stands out in contrast against the form taken in kata, where in almost all cases the sword is immediately returned to the saya following chiburi or “opening to the right.” Chinugui, as mentioned above, is seen by many as a practical way of cleaning the sword, and it seems that practitioners of Eishin-ryu in the Edo period were under no illusions otherwise. It is quite plausible that in Eishin-ryu chinugui was advocated for blade cleaning in real situations, but was simply omitted from the majority of kata. The major cultural shift away from carrying swords in everyday life, and the subsequent change to the modern structure and teaching approaches of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu could easily have led to this knowledge becoming lost to most practitioners.

Looking at this evidence, we can conclude that what we today term chiburi was probably not originally intended to be a practical cleaning method. As the sensei I have quoted from above all seem to agree, it is far more likely that the form of chiburi that appears in most iai waza was developed in order to cultivate zanshin. This is also supported by available historical evidence. In some cases perhaps chiburi is also a kind of ceremonial purification, or perhaps it also acts as a placeholder for chinugui in the context of formal waza. This is of course not a surprising conclusion – I am sure most people realise this already. However I hope that by providing some historical context, we can come a little closer to understanding the true purpose behind the actions we are learning.

『古流居合の本道』 岩田憲一著 スキージャーナル株式会社発行 2002年
『居合道真諦』 河野百錬著 1962年
『中山博道剣道口述集』 中山博道著 堂本昭彦編 スキージャーナル株式会社発行 2007年
『無雙直傳英信流居合兵法地之巻』 政岡壹實著 無双直伝英信流居合兵法大江派湖刀会本部発行 1974年

DIY#5: Take Dou – A Labor of Love

When I heard that my friend Eric Aerts had actually hand made a dou from nothing I had to get an article out of him! He kindly wrote the following and supplied pictures. Check out the link at the end of the article to see more pictures of the various steps. Enjoy!

I can recall my father waking me on Saturday mornings to do maintenance work on his old wooden sailboat and how I would groan and roll my eyes at the prospect of a day spent (wasted) sanding and varnishing in what is the on-going battle for all wooden boat owners against time and the elements. Although it was a truly beautiful vessel, and this a labor of love for my father, it is difficult to explain how much I hated the seemingly endless hours of detailed woodworking and finishing. Despite my childhood aversion to this type of chore, those force-fed lessons would eventually serve me well as I came to relish working and creating with my own hands – certainly, there are few tasks more gratifying. Eventually, I began to combine my love of craftsmanship with another passion – kendo.

Initially, I started by making shinai tsuba – hand-carved from exotic hardwoods to resemble the iron designs of nihonto tsuba. These broke too easily so I made them for bokuto (kendo no kata) instead. Next, I designed and made daisho stands using sambar dear antlers (the first of these as a gift for my sensei).

What I really wanted to tackle, but was honestly a bit intimidated to take-on, was a true take (bamboo) dou; produced using all the traditional techniques. I also knew that I wanted it to have a same (shark) skin finish, which I’ve always been partial to.

Where to start? As you might imagine, there are no (to my knowledge) manuals on how to construct your own bamboo dou and, short of an apprenticeship in Japan, the best I could come up with was a video on Youtube with a 5 minute section on dou manufacturing. I watched this many times – pausing and actually trying to take measurements off my computer screen – and even though it left me with a lot of questions, I at least had a fundamental sense of the construction techniques.

My first challenge was to source the materials – quality bamboo in a 3 ½ – 4 inch diameter and large, tanned shark pelts are not exactly standard New Jersey Home Depot fare. I was extremely lucky in that not far from my home is a family-run company that has been importing bamboo and rattan from around the globe for 130 years. They allowed me roam their enormous warehouse and pick what I wanted – a real treat. When the time came, I also found a very accommodating exotic-pelt importer/distributor who was able to supply me with the same (pronounced “samei”) skin to my exact specifications.

Next, there were a number of tools which I would either need to fabricate entirely, or at least modify from existing tools. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this project was conceiving of ways to resolve the many novel technical challenges – either with the dou itself, or the tools needed to produce it. I must have passed as many hours daydreaming about how to create a certain tool, or to hold something in place, etc., as I did at the worktable actually putting my ideas into play. Although there were times that I ended up having to scrap what I initially thought were genius breakthroughs, I am certain that all that pondering saved me many painful mistakes. Remember, it’s always harder to go backwards.

Bamboo is an amazing material to work with and my appreciation for it grows the more time I spend with it in my hands (both in the dojo and in my workshop). In certain aspects it resembles wood (a species that would have to be extremely dense, long-grained, and impossibly light-weight); however, it reacts differently in different situations and there are important tricks to working with it. It also produces the most horrific splinters you will ever suffer. The best thing to remember when working with bamboo is to soak it thoroughly before splitting, shaving, sawing, or bending/shaping; this will produce better results, more easily, and will save your tools. I learned this lesson the hard way and it was my Japanese wife (with the carpentry skills of a kindergartner), who saw me straining to force a strip of bamboo through a die and said “why don’t you soak it first? That will make it easy – everybody knows that.” Yeah, well, not “everybody” in Jersey.

Now, looking at a doudai (the shell), one might think that this is not such a technical marvel, and certainly, pressing fiberglass resin into a bowl-shaped mold (as with a factory-produced dou) is not. However, try to take a 6-foot section of bamboo and turn it into 60 half-inch curved and hand-tapered strips (that are themselves convex and concave on 2 sides) that fit together in a seamless, symmetrical shape, devoid of a single straight line and that is expected to weather a lifetime of bashing and perspiration, and you will begin to understand why a quality hand-made bamboo dou can run thousands of dollars. Think Swiss watch meets Sherman tank.

This is not meant to be a tutorial on how to make your own dou – that would easily fill a book and to be honest, as I am now beginning to produce my dou for others, there are a few hard-fought proprietary methods I’d like to hold onto (not to worry, if you’re committed, you’ll conquer your own hurdles), but here are the basics:

– You will need roughly 6 feet of 3.5 to 4 inches-in-diameter, good-quality bamboo (get more the 1st time – you will make mistakes); there should be 12 to 14 inches between the nodules and it should not be scarred or too green.
– Remove the skin by sanding or planing (if dry, only sanding will work) and cut just inside the nodules to approximately 11-inch cylinders.
– At this point, you have to make a decision on how to proceed; the raw strips, which must be an exact width and depth, can be produced in one of two ways (both requiring customized tools). In short, you can either use a piston-driven die to split the strips, or a double-bladed saw to cut them.
– Once you have the raw strips, you will need to file and sand the adjoining sides to be sure they fit together without gaps. Then, the ends must be tapered so that when the strips are pulled together, the thinner tops and bottoms will draw together into a convex shape. This will require practice and is part of the art.
– Lay the strips out in the order you plan to use them (I numbered them to keep track) and draw the eventual pattern you will use for your doudai (keeping room on top and bottom for the eventual trimming. The strips will be laced together with 3 nylon strings (2 of these run the full length and one holds the center 20 or so strips at the top portion); draw the lines where these will be placed.
– Soak the strips overnight.
– You are going to be heating and bending the strips into the proper curve, so you will need to construct a frame to hold the bent strips in place as they dry. Heat the strips over an open flame (I used an old BBQ grill) until pliable, bend the strips (I made a half-moon shaped wooden form for this) and place them in the frame. Obviously, you want the outside (or convex side) of the bamboo to be on the inside (or concave) of the curve – this is what gives the inside of the doudai the scalloped lines.
– Once the strips have dried, use the lines you previously drew to drill holes in order to thread the nylon strings as well as the bamboo pins that will hold the strings in place. These will all have to be at exactly the same depth, or the strips will not line up properly.
– Thread all three of the strings; however, you have to tighten, clamp, and pin the center 20 strips with the uppermost string first, as these pins will be covered by the other strips (you will have to recess these strings so the strips on either side can lay flat against each other). Then, clamp all 60 strips as tightly as possible and pin the other two strings.
– Place the doudai over a form with the curve/diameter you want for your finished shape and sand the outside as smooth as possible.
– Now you will need to adhere to the outside of the doudai, an adhesive and cloth combination. Some takezo dou makers use bondo (as in auto body repair bondo) and a type of canvas. Personally, I think this is too brittle and would recommend some type of 2-part marine epoxy and medium weight fiberglass cloth (better strength and flexibility). Only use one cloth layer and one finishing layer – remember, you want this to be as lightweight as possible. Sand smooth.
– I finish my dou with sharkskin, which must be soaked, stretched, dried and glued to the doudai (using the correct glue will be crucial for longevity). Then, I lacquer the inside with a tough marine varnish (why cover that beautiful bamboo with black or red?).
– Cut to pattern, and add the mune, border, and himo loops.

The finished dou. Click to enlarge:

Keep in mind that the above is an extremely paired-down explanation of what is involved in producing a quality bamboo dou and should you wish to finish yours in the traditional urushi lacquer, this is itself an entirely separate art form. That being said, as a fan of things of beauty, which combine form and function, it is a very rewarding craft and one that you will appreciate every time you enter the dojo. For me, the perfect exclamation point on this project was seeing my sensei showing off my dou to another visiting sensei – a better testimonial, I couldn’t have asked for.

If you have any questions, please leave them on the comment section below, or, if you wish to see pictures of my dou and the process of making them, please visit the following Picasa photo album.

Lifetime kenshi: Ikeda Yuji sensei

Situated in the second most populous area of Japan, and the heart of the Kansai region lies Osaka. Not as over-the-top busy and stuffed full of people like Tokyo, the city is easily navigable (even by bicycle) and its population friendly. The two main areas in the city – Umeda and Namba – are known to the locals respectively as “Kita” (north) and “Minami” (south). In the center of Minami you can find the Osaka Prefectural Sports Gymnasium. Its here every March where the O-zumo Haru-basho (Sumo spring competition) takes places. Its also the home of Yoseikai.

I have written an article about the 2nd shihan of Yoseikai, Furuya hanshi before, this time I want to introduce his sempai and the first shihan of the dojo: Ikeda Yuji hanshi.

Furuya sensei talks about meeting Ikeda sensei for the first time

“About 5 or 6 years after the war ended (1950/51) I received a letter from a Busen sempai of mine who I had never met, Ikeda Yuji (at that time Ikeda sensei was 38 and Furuya sensei was 25). It simply read: “I’d like to start a Busen alumni association and I would like you to help.” I turned up at the agreed time and place (an Izakaya in Namba) to find Ikeda sensei and 21 other Busen graduates. Ikeda sensei’s frame was so slight that at first you had to wonder if he had actually graduated such a tough school. He didn’t look it, but he was also a big drinker as well.

The stories that Ikeda sensei told about his Busen experiences at that first meeting really excited and motivated me, and I was so taken by Ikeda sensei’s personality, that I started calling him “uncle.”

At the time I met Ikeda sensei kendo was still banned in public. We were unable to contain ourselves and re-started keiko anyway in a dojo beneath a Nankai railway line. There were 7 of us and we were called the “seven samurai” with Ikeda sensei being the leader. It wasn’t before long that we were joined by many more kenshi, with some people even coming to visit from Tokyo. If was a time when people were poor and could hardly eat or drink, so keiko was fierce, like we had a fire in our bellies.”

19 kakarigeikos in 90 minutes

Ikeda Yuji was a member of the 23rd group to graduate Busen (1937). However, he initially failed the preliminary entrance course. Following this failure he did keiko in the morning and afternoon continuously for an entire year before he finally resat and passed the exams (the next year), thus gaining entrance to Busen proper. After passing the exams one of the lecturers – Sato Chuzo – said the following to Ikeda:

“You are so small/weak that we have no expectations for you at all. I wanted to tell you to just give up and go home but you came to us crying and begging for another year that I missed my chance (to tell you to go). Wakabashi sensei et al were so worried about this situation you created that they got sore heads. Anyway, you did well to pass.”

At 49kg’s in weight, Ikeda was too light and small in stature. His academic score on the test was 2nd from the bottom.

He was also reckless in keiko. During practise between teachers and students at the Butokuden, he would be busy putting on his men whilst everyone else was lining up and bowing. He would already be standing first in line for the top sensei with his kote tucked under his arms while the rest of the students and sensei had yet to tie their men. After kakarigeiko with a sensei it was normal to go to the back of the next sensei’s line and wait for your turn. Not for Ikeda. He wouldn’t wait, but lined up at the side of the person at the front of the next line. If he was told to get back, he wouldn’t budge. As soon as the student in front of him finished he would step right in front of the sensei pushing other students out of the way. Before they could do anything he was already doing kakarigeiko. In the end his transgressions silently became to be accepted.

One year during kangeiko Ikeda managed to do 19 consecutive kakarigeiko’s in a 90 minute keiko session. The other senior students were annoyed by his actions and tried to kick him around, but Ikeda was unmoved. After 90 minutes of kakarigeiko he couldn’t stand and was crawling in the Butokuden.

When his eyes opened he found him self in a restaurant on Yoshida street. The miso soup in this shop was tasty and favoured by Busen students. For eat-and-drink-all-that-you-can the price was 15 zeni in the morning, and 25 in the afternoon and evening (i.e. cheap). Busen students (including Ikeda) were apt to drink 5 bowls of miso soup and 15 bowls of rice in one sitting with east. The restaurant ran in deficit.

Kihongeiko and kendo no kata

In 1938 Ikeda was called up for one of two stints of military service. At the wars end he was in Manchuria and was interned in a Siberian labour camp for 4 years. After being released in 1949 he returned to Osaka and managed to get a job in a fabric wholesale company. It was a little bit after this time that Ikeda sensei and the 7-samurai mentioned at the beginning of the article re-started kendo in the city at the Nankai-dentetsu dojo. In 1952 a kendo competition was held in Nishinomiya city (Hyogo) and the Osaka team (with Ikeda as a member) got 2nd place.

Eventually Ikeda sensei went on to teach kendo at main places in Osaka (see timeline below) including becoming the shihan of Yoseikai. At that time keiko would be every day bar Sundays, and Ikeda sensei would come 3 or 4 times per week.

Ikeda sensei would stress the importance of kihon and recommended practising by yourself. He also spent a lot of time on kata.

At Yoseikai, after the main practise would finish he would do extra keiko with selected kenshi, perhaps 5 or 6 people for 30 minutes. He would bring the fight to these students and the keiko was very intense. His tsuki would never miss, and his kote from jodan (despite being small statured he sometimes fought jodan) was very fast.

One of Ikeda sensei’s favourite sayings was 「稽古一本酒三本」: “keiko ippon sake sanbon.” After keiko he would go to the izakaya and would lose track of time while talking about kendo things. As a man who devoted his lifetime to kendo he never broke his pursuit of kendo knowledge, and even at the end of keiko would tidy up his own bogu.

With success comes reflection

As told by Furuya sensei:

“Ikeda sensei’s tenouchi was outstanding. Because of this, sensei’s favoured technique was ‘kote kaeshi kote.’ His forward attacking men was brilliant as well, but his ability to receive and immediately turn the opponents power back on them using kaeshi waza was great. At the same time as receiving his opponents power he would strike their men or kote. Different from suriage waza, unless your tenouchi has been tempered finely you couldn’t copy his style.

But even Ikeda sensei had call to reflect on his use of the waza. One time when I asked Ikeda sensei to reminisce on his own teacher he told me the following story. Ikeda sensei met his teacher at Busen and was from the same prefecture – the aforementioned Sato Chuzo sensei. In 1954 – when Ikeda sensei was 40 years old – he won the Kokutai individual championships held in Hokkaido (Kokutai is a large and prestigious national sports competition that entails many sports and budo). After he won the title Sato Chuzo – who was a shinpan at the time – called over Ikeda sensei.

Ikeda, don’t dare show your kote and invite your opponent to strike it. Your favourite technique is kote-kaeshi-kote right? Don’t be stupid and blatantly open your kote to invite attack… you’d better stop that type of kendo right now. Kendo must be done honestly.

In this instant Ikeda sensei changed the way he viewed kendo. With the success of winning such a big shiai there also came reflection.”

Don’t be embarrassed about being hit

Again, told by Furuya sensei:

“It happened in Shudokan. Ikeda sensei was one of the teachers there, and one day he went to ask for keiko from another of the teachers, Hasegawa sensei. Hasegawa sensei was also a Busen graduate, but 7 years Ikeda sensei’s senior. At this time Ikeda sensei was in his early 50’s. When the two shihan began keiko everyone around them stopped to watch. Its rare that two shihan would keiko like this so the atmosphere was tense.

The first to move was Ikeda sensei, who launched into a morote-tsuki attack. Hasegawa sensei managed to use his shinai just in time to avoid the thrust from landing. The pair of sensei went back to chudan and the keiko commenced. Just as Ikeda sensei was about to launch another attack Hasegawa sensei sprung forward and tsuki’ed Ikeda sensei so strongly that he flew back and into the waiting line of kenshi, of which I was top of the line. Straight away Hasegawa sensei thrust again and Ikeda sensei’s body flew into mine.

Its very rare for senior sensei to go to more-senior sensei for keiko in front of so many students. Ikeda sensei toppled over in front of me. On a different day I again saw Ikeda sensei go to Hasegawa sensei for keiko. Ikeda sensei was not embarrassed about being struck, rather he admitted his inexperience and thanked Hasegawa sensei for teaching him (remember Ikeda sensei was at least 8dan at this time).

The image of that tsuki and Ikeda sensei collapsing into me is burnt into my mind.”

Sayings by Ikeda Yuji sensei

Do correct kendo, do kendo so that whoever looks at you thinks it is beautiful.

Small, shrunken kendo like a bonsai is bad, do kendo like a big tree with strong roots.

Kendo isn’t about theory. Its about seeking yourself through intense keiko. If you do this you will come to understand.

If you accept that something is impossible then it always will be. If you always avoid your opponents sword tip then you will never be able to defeat them.

Self-centered kendo is bad. There is an partner in front of you after all. If you do self-centered kendo then those watching will think “thats unpleasant” and you will be thought of as someone who does bad kendo. You must do kendo that is pleasant. Striking your opponents heart/spirit, or having your heart/spirit struck by your opponent is what kendo’s about, isn’t it?

They say “do kendo with abandon.” If you do your daily kendo like this, and if even 1/2 of this comes out during a shiai, you will win.

Even though you are swinging the shinai you don’t need power. Even though you are lifting the shinai up you don’t need power. Physical power is unnecessary. If you simply bring the shinai down it will cut.

In kirikaeshi its bad to just bash your opponents shinai recklessly. You have to tense your hands and – feeling the weight of your own shinai – immediately pivot the shinai round and strike the opposite side.

It doesn’t matter who you are, every person raises their hands before striking. Strike there. You have to be patient and wait until that moment.

Kendo is a lifetime activity. Its not just about striking and being struck, kendo isn’t as small as that.

Kendo is about harmony. You have a partner after all. You must consider your opponents feeling. Kendo isn’t something you can do on your own after all.

Simply learning the theory of kendo is no good. Kendo is only understood through physical experience. If you see the opponents kote come and you think “I’m going to evade it!” well, there simply isn’t enough time. Your opponent is also a living being. They don’t want to be hit. Thinking then attempting to strike is no good. You have to abandon oneself. Throw away everything and strike.

In your youth you must physically exert yourself to the utmost. During this period you will start to understand things like the correct opportunity to strike, and the theory behind actions. Keiko without exertion leads to nothing but small and hard kendo.

When you are doing keiko with senior people, even if you feel their strong pressure, you should attempt to strike. Even if it wasn’t the correct time to strike, aim to throw yourself into the cut and make your opponent move by doing so. If you do this over and over your emotional spirit, that is to say, your “heart” will come out. Eventually you will be able to cause your opponent to strike when agitated. He will end up simply blocking your attacks and your attacks/techniques will come out one after another.

When you think “Wow, thats a great technique, I want to learn it” you should steal it. Whether you are asleep or awake you should draw a picture of it in your mind. Naturally/eventually you will become to be able to do the technique.

“Shu-ha-ri” is something you repeat over and over. Whatever grade you become “shu,” whatever grade you became “ha,” its not “once you get to x-dan” then you are now in the “ri” stage, at least this is what I believe. It doesn’t matter what grade you are, you must always return to basics.

Do your keiko like your kata and do your kata like keiko.

Watching someone’s kata you can understand their kendo ability. How to grip the sword, how to move the body, kamae, presence… everything comes out in kata.

Timeline: Ikeda Yuji, hanshi hachidan

1914: born in Yamagata prefecture on the 13th of March.
1923: began kendo at 3rd year in primary school.
1932/1933: Entered into the Busen pre-training group in 1932 and – finally passing the exams a year later – enrolled in Busen proper in 1933. Sato Chuzo – also from Yamagata – became his main teacher.
1937: graduated Busen but stayed on in its research division.
1940: entered tenran shiai.
1942: he served as the kendo teacher for Sakai kogyo high school, and taught kendo and jukendo at Osaka prefectural university.
1945-1949: After the war he was interned in a Siberian labour camp for 4 years. After release he worked at a fabric wholesale company in central Osaka.
1950/51: helps create Busen alumni association and re-starts kendo at Nankai dentetsu dojo.
1954: he won Kokutai kendo individual championships aged 40.
1959 or 1963: becomes first shihan of Yoseikai.
1964: passes hachidan.
1969: receives hanshi
1971: Tozai-taiko west-team captain.
1976: all Japan kendo championships shinpan-cho. Served on the board to revise kendo no kata.
1991: passes away at 76.

Posts held: ZNKR director and public awareness committee member, Osaka kendo renmei permanent director, Kansai university kendo shihan, Osaka university kendo shihan, Asahi shinbun Osaka kendo shihan, Shudokan lecturer, Asahi culture center Senri kendo kyoshitsu lecturer, Yoseikai shihan, Yukenkai shihan, Juso kenyukai shihan.