The spring grading examinations are looming and I am getting a number of requests to teach kata or to act as a kata training partner for candidates. I mentioned in an earlier post on the subject, that I share the guilt of many kendoka in not practising kata often enough. When I do make the effort, I realise that kata is a superb vehicle to demonstrate not just the whole range of kendo technique, but it also teaches seme, distance and timing.
Kata in the right frame of mind when you can truly harmonise with your partner, is a joy. I have had two experiences of kata that have had a profound effect on my understanding of kendo and the way I view the world. The first was quite a few years ago when I was preparing for the 5th dan grading in Japan. A sensei from Nishinomiya in Hyogo arranged for the two of us to perform kata privately in the local hachiman shrine as the dawn was breaking. The second, more recently, was again, a one on one session. This time with a friend who was practising for the opening kata at a taikai in Nara. We did this with mogito in Uegaki sensei’s edo period dojo in Yoshino, with Uegaki sensei correcting every move
Both these experiences were made special as much by the spirituality of the location as by the quality of my opponent. I was also fortunate to attend a kata seminar given by the late Ikeda sensei in Osaka who explained in detail the riai of kendo no kata; demonstrating the kodachi section at almost a running pace to show that the possessor of a short sword would do his utmost to close the distance with an opponent using a longer weapon. This riai (or the the theory or reason for each movement), is what makes kata meaningful.
To give an indication of the deeper meaning of kendo no kata, I quote from the paper submitted by Kensei Hiwaki of Tokyo International University entitled “A breakthrough in the dilemma of war or peace – The teachings of kendo”. The author borrows from the physical description of the kata from Hiroshi Ozawa in “Kendo the definitive guide” and the mental aspects from Yoshihiko Inoue in “Nippon kendo no kata no ichi kosatsu”.
In this section the author discusses the lesson taught by ippon me, the first technique of the kata – “The first kata begins with jodan no kamae. The person on the right assumes the role of teacher (uchidachi) and the one on the left the role of student (shidachi) in the training for kata. As the teacher executes a frontal attack with an indomitable fighting spirit, the student parries (sic) and delivers a frontal strike. In this kata exercise, both the teacher and the student attack each other from the “overhead” posture implying a clash of justice against justice. The first kata is meant to teach that one defeats the other with the difference of relative skill cultivation that corresponds to the laws of nature”.
The author goes on to explain that “The first lesson in kendo means training for the self acquirement of the physical movement and mental attitude, as well as the cultivation for the self-manifestation of justice. In addition to the self-manifestation, the first kata teaches the importance of repentance for the killing. In real combat, the loser dies and the winner who survives must have repentance. This mental attitude in part represents the assertion of zanshin.”
The author goes on to illustrate the meaning of the second and third kata in the same fashion. Of course this is a far more profound view of kata than we often take, but it certainly starts to give meaning to what are often meaningless actions based on “one two three, yah- toh”.