There seems to be a division of opinion between kendoka who are attracted by the ritual involved in kendo and those who feel that some of the ceremony is out of place in a modern martial art. Sonkyo is used only in sumo and kendo and whilst we don’t engage in salt throwing or have our referees dress in Heian period hakama and signal with gunbai, we are asked to pay a lot more attention to etiquette than our friends in judo or karate. I am aware that Kumdo in Korea does not use sonkyo, but as my only experience with Korean kenshi has been within the context of FIK kendo where they are gracious enough to use the Japanese system, I am not in a position to comment.
Personally, I like the ritual aspect of kendo. I believe that the reiho of bowing correctly to the dojo, to kamiza, to sensei and to your opponent help prepare your mind for the intensely serious business of keiko. Mokuso before and after each practice is the time to change your mind-set from that of the working day. Sonkyo particularly aids the transition from not fighting to fighting. We start with an empty mind as we make the initial bow and make three steps forward. As we draw our shinai and drop into a squat we engage with our opponent. This is where we make mind contact.
As a referee I can see when two shiasha have locked on to each other and are ready to start. This is the time to call hajime. From my very limited knowledge of sumo, this also is what the referee is looking for, but it is even more evident amongst the salt throwing and false starts.
The down side of a complex etiquette framework is that we have to devote much of our training to learning not just when and where to bow but how to bow correctly. I mentioned in an earlier post that last year I had the privilege of a private kata lesson in Yoshino with Uegaki sensei, who has just gained Hanshi. Three quarters of the lesson were devoted to the correct way to enter the enbu-jo , take seiza and bow.
Watching newer kenshi, it is easy to judge the length of their experience by their command of reiho. We all start with dropped chins and sticky-out bottoms when we bow and I defy anyone who has not done a considerable amount of keiko to produce anything other than wobbly sonkyo. The bad news is that when we get to the tail end of our kendo careers and knees wear out, sonkyo starts to get wobbly once more.