When it comes to shiai time, most of us would prefer to fight than to referee, and why not? Kendo is all about improving your technique and trying it against others. What better opportunity to test yourself than in shiai, where we get as close as it is possible to be to kendo’s life or death roots. At the same time everyone is conscious of the fact that without referees there is no competition.
In countries with large kendo populations there are lots of competitions which are limited to specific age groups and classes. So it is possible to continue as a shia-sha at your own level whilst refereeing younger or lower graded groups. In Japan there are taikai for 7th and 8th dan competitors who will regularly be called upon to referee at other competitions. This is important because one of the conditions of being a referee is that you should also actively train and compete yourself.
Unfortunately for smaller kendo nations, most kendo competitions are open, so that people have to choose between being a competitor or a referee, and the easy option is the first one. Let’s face it as well as being less fun than fighting, refereeing is difficult. The objective is simply to judge what is and what is not ippon, but the challenges of remembering all the commands, using flags to signal correctly and thinking about maintaining the correct position on court make the simple act of judgement very difficult.
Unfortunately all of this stuff is important. If you give the wrong command or indicate incorrectly with the flags the fighters become confused and lose confidence. If you are unable to maintain a correct triangle between the three referees as the fighters change direction, then it is possible that you will miss points.
Like every aspect of kendo, the only way to overcome these challenges is to practise. Once the commands and flag signals become instinctive they no longer cause you to break your concentration while you think about how to move the flag or what you should say. Once you learn to read the fighters movement you will be in the correct position to see and judge each attack. To help us get to this position, it is important that kendo federations run regular referee seminars. These give us the opportunity to learn from more experienced referees, and more importantly to practice to a level where we have the confidence to try in the shiai-jo. Even if it is just taking a turn after you have been knocked out of the competition