I mentioned in last week’s post that we have two new seventh dans. One of them is my old friend John O’Sullivan whose success is richly deserved. John passed the examination at his 15th attempt, a feat that deserves praise for sheer grit and determination, but what impressed me more was that at the age of 70 he was able to completely change his approach to kendo.
John is a kendo veteran with 40 or so years of kendo behind him. He had previously practised aikido and played rugby. As you can imagine, he is immensely competitive and this will to win sometimes resulted in a defensive approach to kendo. He is also a big, strong individual and has tended to sometimes rely on his physical strength in keiko.
As most of you know, there are no honorary grades in kendo. No concessions are made for age, infirmity or services to kendo. You either demonstrate that you meet the standard against your opponents on the day or you stay where you are.
John has obviously been reflecting on past grading exams and thinking about the changes he needed to make. A few months ago he attended Ozawa sensei’s seminar and was given the advice that he needed to continue forward after striking men rather than hitting and stopping. With that in mind he has been using me for target practice as part of our weekly keiko.
We were regularly working on men drills and although most of what we were doing was correct, something was not working properly. After a few sessions I noticed that as he stepped in to make seme, he was dropping the point of his shinai. This not only gave a clear indication that he intended to attack, but also resulted in his balance being on the front foot as he attacked, which meant that he was leaning forward after the strike. Like many things in kendo you can argue which was cause and which was effect. Lack of hikitsuke could result in the point dipping or vice versa but from John’s perspective the road to Damascus lay in the realisation that he was dropping the point.
At the examination he started pretty much the same way as he has done in previous gradings, the then pushed off to take an immaculate debana men followed by three steps forward and a turn back to engage with his partner. He then did the same again before the call of yame. With his second opponent he pretty much repeated the process.
Although a panellist for the 4th and 5th dan examination which happened at the same time, I was fortunate enough to finish in time to see both his tachiai. I also had to walk past the table where the results were collated and could see that he was not only one of the 4 successful candidates out of 22, but that he had pass marks from all six judges. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Well done mate!