Despite my occasional banter with practitioners of Kendo’s close relation Iaido, I do sometimes feel a pang of jealousy. The reason for my envy is that if Iaidoka fail to achieve their objectives the fault is theirs.
Whilst we talk about the “beating the inner opponent” in kendo, there is always someone at the other end of your shinai who might or might not behave the way you expect him or her to behave. This makes each and every keiko a one-off experience.
In most competitive sports and games the eventual outcome is decided not so much by each player’s level of skill and experience, but more by the way they react to each other. This is why we often see situations where player “A” regularly beats “B” who beats “C” but “C” always beats “A”. Of course there are numerous elements involved; height, weight, timing, speed of reaction, level of confidence and pure gamesmanship, but it is normally a subtle combination of all of these that dictates the eventual outcome.
In kendo it is not unusual to see friendly club shiai where a beginner gains a draw or even wins against a much more experience opponent. It would be good to think that this was for reasons related to the story of the tea master challenged to a duel by an unscrupulous ronin. He sought the advice of a kendo teacher on the best way to die. The swordsman asked him to make a final cup of tea and then told him to take the same mindless attitude when drawing his sword with the intention of achieving a glorious final ai-uchi. Instead of ending in death, the competition was abandoned when the ronin seeing the apparent mastery in the tea man’s quite confidence, begged to abandon the shiai.
In reality it is possible that a senior player will have more difficulty with a comparative beginner than against a sixth or seventh dan. This is not because novices are stronger kendoka, but because they do not react in the way you would expect them to. They have not yet learned how to deal with seme, so do not go in the direction that you would expect when you push in. Maybe it is because they are still cutting in the timing of two; shinai which should have gone up and come down again, are still blocking their men when you attempt oji-waza.
It could be argued that the new kendoka is hard to hit because he behaves naturally without thinking about technique; a state that we spend long kendo careers trying to get back to. So maybe the rookie can achieve mushin whilst his sempai thinks too hard about technique
Whatever the reason, we should take nothing for granted, and at the end of the session, whoever wins, you at least have someone to go for a drink with.