An eighth dan recently asked me about my plans for retirement and I explained that as a self-employed consultant I aim to stop sometime before I die. Unfortunately I mistakenly used the Japanese word for “give-up” rather than the one meaning “cease”, so we had a lengthy conversation about “never giving up”. We finished on the positive note that in life and in kendo, throwing in the towel is something that you should never do.
Whilst most sports talk about not giving up and “no surrender”, kendo takes this idea to a new level by applying it to the whole of your life; not just the remainder of your sporting life, but the whole of your naturally life. We all know, or know of kenshi in their seventies and eighties who continue to train as hard now as they did in their twenties and thirties.
I received a text this morning from a sensei who is well into his seventies explaining that as he has a heavy cold he needed to miss a single session. In most sports, if someone of that age were able to turn up to train, he would be met by the national media and a marching band. The difference is obvious, most kenshi expect to continue throughout their active (and not so active) lives whereas in sport, you usually stop once you pass your physical peak.
The reason for our refusal to give up is simple. Kendo is a shugyo, a path to self- improvement. To give up would be tantamount to admittance that you had achieved perfection and that there is nothing left to strive for. None of the late 10th dans ever felt that they had attained kendo enlightenment. Mochida sensei famously talked about the immovable spirit taking over once the legs and body weakened, but admitted that his mind still strayed from time to time.
There is always a special display of affection for the final senseis’ enbu at the Kyoto Taikai and the last candidates in court eight of the 8th dan grading exams in Kyoto and Tokyo. Other kendoka respect the determination and persistence of these senior role models as much as they admire the technical ability of younger, fitter All Japan Champions; in fact in many cases the two are the same, at different stages of their kendo lives.
So next time my knees ache or I have the sniffles, I will think of the words of Winston Churchill (and Thomas the Tank Engine), when they said ”never, ever give-up”.