Archive for the ‘Kendo attitude’ Category

Matsumoto sensei copyI practice regularly with people who are training to achieve 4th, 5th and 6th dan and I am often asked for my opinion on what they need to change to effectively make the step up. Most of these students can demonstrate good technique and footwork and given clear opportunities can make effective waza. Often though the element they need to work-on is more internal than external.

Nearly all kenshi are familiar with the term kamae, meaning posture. Fewer of us are aware of ki-gamae, which the ZNKR’s kendo dictionary describes as “the state where one’s whole body is alert and ready to react to the moves of the opponent’s body and mind that precede a strike”.  Whilst this may sound unnecessarily complicated as a concept, in reality it is simple. A cat looking for the best opportunity to pounce on a mouse does not intellectualize the process; she just strains every sense to find the perfect opportunity to attack.

Ki-gamae is a state of being both calm and settled and having a heightened perception of your opponent’s intention, and being in a position where you can strike in an instant. We can’t achieve this by strength of mind alone. We need to have good footwork, constantly bringing the left foot up to the correct position as we move forward, and even more importantly we should have the ability to control our breathing so that we are able to exhale at the point of attack.

We have discussed this before, but the general outline is that we breathe in through the nose and hold our breath by tensing the abdomen. We then expel part of the air as kakegoe and then use the remainder of that breath to explode on making the strike. If the opportunity to attack is not instant we need to retain the breath until we see the chance to strike (tame).

Obviously ki-gamae is not reserved for grading examinations and shiai, we should be in this state of awareness every time we visit the dojo and in each keiko from the opening to the closing rei. By keiko I also mean kihon-geiko, so every drill should be undertaken with full spirit. In this way we make strong ki-gamae an integral part of our kendo. Given enough practice ki-gamae and ki-zeme move from being terms in the kendo dictionary and become as natural to us as they would to the cat looking for dinner.

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Courtesy of Eurokendo

Courtesy of Eurokendo

I was asked for my thoughts on how best to influence the future development of British kendo and came to one simple conclusion – ensure that our dojo leaders are equipped to pass on practical and theoretical knowledge to their students.

Traditionally the transmission of kendo knowledge is from teacher to disciple. A novice would seek out a master and place himself completely in his care. Usually no outside influence would cloud the relationship until the student had grown into a capable swordsman; in effect completing the shu stage of shu-ha-ri.

Such an important relationship was based on mutual trust and kendo history is peppered with stories of would be deshi waiting for days outside dojo doors or being made to undertake months of menial tasks before picking up a sword. In return the teacher was expected to know all there was to know about the practice and philosophy of kendo.

Today’s reality is very different. Newbies can join “taster” classes at their local sports centre or sign up for kendo amongst a list of other activities at “freshers” when they start at university. The chances are that the leader of these classes may also be at a relatively early stage in his or her kendo career, so it is a matter of learning together. Come to think of it, some of the great Hanshi confess that “teaching is learning”, but back to the point, it is not unusual for dojo leaders outside Japan to need occasional help in filling gaps in their own knowledge to enable them to give the best to their students.

The syllabus for the ZNKR’s Kyoshi examination concentrates on transmitting correct basic technique information through shinai keiko, kata and the bokken ni yoru keikoho. It also focuses on correct reiho and attitude and most importantly talks about the instructor as a role model. I have been particularly privileged to have studied with several senior teachers who have influenced not just my kendo but how I want to live my life, but very few of us can even hope to emulate such positive influencers. Instead we have to do our best with what we have.

It is said that you can identify an instructor through his student’s mistakes, so it is important that as instructors we continue to seek knowledge and develop our own kendo. Of course we can brush up on theory with books and on-line resources, but to improve technically and to really understand how the philosophical elements of kendo connect with the physical we need to find our own teacher. Few of us can put our lives on hold while we travel “to sit at the feet of a master”, but we can attend seminars or invite teachers to visit our dojo.

For students and teachers alike kendo is nothing without continual learning.

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downloadI occasionally hear complaints that kendo’s character has been diluted where it is practised outside Japan. Now obviously I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but by and large the export version seems remarkably similar to the Japanese domestic product.

When I did Judo many years ago, in the days before koka and yuko were introduced. Even then I felt that it had moved on from the original concept. Japanese terminology and its English equivalent were interchangeable and ogoshi and ippon seoinage often became “hip throw” and “one point shoulder throw”. Although training was conducted in a disciplined and respectful fashion, bows had become quick nods before pulling open the judogi to make it harder to hold. So to me at the time, the “Japaneseness” of kendo was part of its attraction.

I found then, as I do now, that by comparison most overseas kenshi do a pretty good job of using Japanese technique names and although I have heard the occasional reference to “kiri crash” and “jogai buri”, these have typically come from new converts who have yet to learn the correct words.

Reigi too is followed more or less as it is in Japan, although we may not be totally sure about the correct direction of kamiza. Techniques seem consistent wherever you go, with allowances for peoples respective level of experience or technical ability. If someone who had never seen kendo before, witnessed keiko sessions in Chicago, London, Paris, Sao Paulo and Singapore on different days of the week, he would have no problem in telling you that he saw the same thing in each place.

Kendo seems to have a different ethos to some martial arts that have obvious self-defence value.  Several times when I’ve spoken to other martial artists and mentioned my length of time in kendo, they have asked me incredulously why I have not set up my own school or system. The honest answer is that I have never even thought about doing so. If I had, then I would still take the view that it is better to be part of a global group of like-minded friends with the same objectives and ambitions, than to go-it-alone for the sake of selling lessons to beginners.

Is it the mental, character building element of kendo, or the fact that, thanks to the efforts of FIK, most countries around the world get regular exposure to senior Japanese teachers that helps keep kendo in such an undiluted form? There is also the fact that kendo is addictive to the extent that many foreign practitioners find their way to Japan to deepen their exposure and spend varying amounts of time, whole lives in some cases, studying kendo at the source and evangelising on its values and etiquette to the rest of the World.

I apologise to practitioners of Korean kumdo if my blog continually focuses on Japan. It is simply that my experience has come from the Japanese kendo tradition and I have little knowledge of the Korean equivalent. Having said that, I strongly suspect that there are numerous shared values between the two. I have also seen kendo in organisations that fall outside the aegis of FIK and felt that there were more similarities than differences.

There has long been talk about making changes to the kendo scoring system to make it more understandable and interesting to spectators, but I personally hope that this does not happen. Whilst kendo becoming more popular would benefit the sport financially, I believe that we would become emotionally poorer by losing kendo’s aspect of shugyo. I for one would not want to start each keiko by touching gloves before going for a “head strike”.

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Most kendoka have heard the term sutemi. Whilst usually translated as sacrifice, the literal meaning is “throw away the seed”. The concept refers to a poem describing a horse chestnut in a fast moving stream. If left whole, it would sink. If the kernel is abandoned, the husk would float with the current. In kendo, sutemi means committing yourself one hundred per cent to an attack without fearing the consequences.

Shishin on the other hand is the state where the mind is preoccupied or dwells on a particular aspect of your or your opponent’s kendo, which makes it impossible for the body to move freely. No prizes for guessing that sutemi is regarded as a desirable element in kendo and shishin is not.

Correct tobikomi men is a practical illustration of sutemi. We enter our opponent’s distance and launch ourselves forward with full spirit and no thought other than hitting men. If our opponent moves away or counters, it doesn’t matter. Once you start a technique you should complete it with all your energy.

In uchikomi-geiko or kakari-geiko it is easy to take this do or die attitude, in shiai or jigeiko  it is more difficult. Very often we worry about our opponent’s reaction to our attack. For some people this causes a general fear of attacking. For others, it results in them stopping mid-technique rather than giving away the point. This “stopping” is my pet hate in keiko. Not only does it strangle many potentially successful shikake waza at birth, but it also robs the stoppers opponent of the opportunity to practise oji-waza.

Many people take the view that shiai is about not losing, but surely the reason for taking part is to win. It could be argued that both equate to the same thing, but the mind-set of winning is about courageously exploiting any opportunity with all your mental and physical power.

In keiko we talk about utte-hansei, utarete-kansya (reflection on how we made a successful strike and gratitude for being hit). This does not mean that we are masochists, but that we learn as much from our opponent’s success as we do from our own.

Of course we do not start any keiko with the intention of being hit. Our objective is to strike first or to break our opponents attack with a successful counter attack, but we can only do this if we have an attacking spirit from the outset

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Now with the excitement of the 15 WKC behind us, I have returned to the routine of keiko in my regular dojo. Unfortunately until Sueno sensei arrives in two weeks time, I am back on the motodachi side.

As the saying goes “it is better to give than to receive”. I very much enjoy practising with senior kendoka, be they more experience nanadan, or better still, hachidan sensei. Having spent much of my kendo life on the junior side of the dojo, I am comfortable with my obligation as kakarite. In short, I know that I need to constantly attack any target that I see, be it hard fought for or gratuitously given to me. The old kendo adage “see it, hit it” is crucial to being a good student.

If you see sensei’s men you should strike with 100% of your energy in the feeling of sutemi (throwing away the seeds). If he takes away your opportunity and returns your strike with kaeshi dou it doesn’t matter. The point is that you saw the chance and made a concerted, sincere attack.

Most kendoka understand this, but there are a few, who regardless of opponent treat every keiko like a shiai, where not losing points is more important than making them. This attitude encourages blocking the opponents technique with the shinai without the intention to counter. More bizarrely, I see people who drop their elbows to their sides to avoid having their dou hit. Perhaps the worst habit engendered by this approach is that of always holding back. By this I mean starting an attack but being prepared to stop it mid flow if the receiver tries a counter technique.

I believe that training in this way does not allow anyone’s kendo to develop. Unless we are able to attack wholeheartedly when we see an opportunity, we will never achieve the “holy grail” of mushin. As for motodachi, he or she is there to help you. In hikitate-geiko, which is by and large the most common form of keiko between senior and junior, the objective is for motodachi to stay just slightly ahead of kakarite.

After fighting for shodachi, or first point, the teacher will normally create a number of subtle opportunities for his opponent to attack. This can be particularly useful if these openings stimulate techniques that kakarite do not normally use. For instance if he or she tends to rely on counter techniques, then stepping back as you create an opening will encourage the use of hikibana waza and a more forward going approach.

Of course motodachi deserves some fun from the process, so a positive, fearless kakarite who is not constantly worrying about being countered, allows him or her the chance to crack in the odd kaeshi dou or suriage men. Above all, both partners should remember that the purpose of keiko is for all of us to grow and develop.

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The AJKF states that “The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana”. One of the virtues that we aim for in this process is humility. This is not easy to attain as success and growth in kendo calls for confidence and self belief, and in the eyes of many people these qualities do not sit easily with modesty.

Through blogs like this and through comments on social media, it is easy to instantly express feelings about our kendo.  I often read posts from friends returning from a good practice, which read along the lines of: “I was on fire”, I aced it”, I smashed it” etc.  I know from personal experience that when keiko goes well, particularly if you have just “broken through the wall” after a period of frustration, you want to tell the World, but I am still not sure how to do it without sounding boastful.

Blowing your own trumpet is worse when it is done by more experienced kenshi.  If after 30 or 40 years of “shugyo” we are still showing obvious basic character flaws, something is not working. Last year at the Kyoto Taikai, I was asked by a senior sensei what I thought of my performance after losing my tachiai, I stupidly mentioned that I was satisfied with my performance. I meant that I had tried my hardest, but having said it the way I did, I realised immediately how conceited it sounded.

There is a Japanese proverb that says “Minoru hodo kobe no sagaru inaho ka na”  実るほど頭のさがる稲穂かな “The bough that bears most (fruit) hangs lowest”.  This seems to be illustrated continuously by the really great kendo players, who let their actions speak for themselves. Kenkyo  (modesty or humility) is of course central to Japanese culture, so people from countries where more direct communication is the norm may be forgiven the odd inadvertent boast. Nevertheless kendo values come from Buddhist / Confucian roots where humility and obedience are prized.

Like most things, humility can be overstated. There are certainly cases where false modesty can be as annoying as boastfulness. “Oh no I am only a beginner” sounds a bit trite after you have just won a major international Taikai.

Modesty is of course not just a Japanese trait. In the paraphrased words of Rudyard Kipling’s poem” If”: 

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:

you’ll be a Man, my son! “

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