Archive for the ‘Kendo refereeing’ Category

I got a new blazer as a Christmas present, shortly after hearing of my selection as a referee for the 15WKC. I had lost a little weight since buying my last blazer, so decided on one with a smart tailored fit. I decided to break it in before the event and wore it to the Paris Taikai.

So feeling that I was looking as sharp as any kendo shinpan can look. I took my place in the sports hall some thirty minutes before the beginning of the event and thought that whilst the competitors were warming up, I should do a few stretches of my own. I started by throwing my arms out to loosen my shoulders and the top button of my two button blazer took off.

Fortunately I had some time before the first shiai, so I persuaded the nearby bogu seller to sew the offending button back in place; I then moved to my court for the first match. All went to plan for the first few contests, but later as I took my position as shushin, disaster struck. As one of the competitors exited the shiaijo, I raised both flags to call yame, as I did so; the top button again took flight and hit the timekeeper. Fortunately he was using a whistle rather than a bell; otherwise it may have been the first and only example of a shushin calling yame and ringing “time” simultaneously.

Working on the premise that the best way to continue was with the minimum of fuss, I fastened the remaining bottom button before awarding hansoku and restarted the match. Within a few seconds red scored a decisive men ari and I and my two colleagues raised our flags for ippon. As my flag went up I felt a draught against my shirtfront. The shushin in the next court then stopped his match, picked up my second button and returned it to me. Now of my two buttons, one was on the timekeepers desk and the other in my inside pocket. Fortunately red scored again and as this was the taisho match, the replacement referee team took over.

After a hurried group rei, I collected my remaining button and considered ways of getting through the day without looking a total slob. Luckily the emergency services were on hand. The Paris Ambulance Service very kindly went through their medical kit and found me two big safety pins which held my buttons in place for the rest of the day.

I have now reverted to plan “d”. On returning home I went to the sewing supplies shop and bough a reel of elastic thread. After making a total mess of sewing on the buttons, I enlisted my wife’s help and now have the springiest blazer buttons in kendo. I will of course take my blazer for another test drive, otherwise it is back to the old model for the 15WKC.

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Following the 15WKC referee’s seminar in Japan and the Paris Taikai and in preparation for the WKC, I am in the process of crystallising my thoughts on what is and what isn’t ippon.

As with any other element of high level kendo, be it scoring the point yourself or validating the successful strike made by another, there is a large amount of “mushin” involved. Whilst there are clear objective criteria for what makes a point, the action happens at a speed where an instantaneous, subjective reaction is required from the referees. The only question that there is time to answer is – Is it ippon?

Of course the elements required to make a point are documented in the rule book. To achieve ippon a player must have the intention to hit the point. He must strike the correct target area with full spirit and correct posture, the strike must have sae or snap and zanshin must be shown after the attack. From a referee’s perspective these points are law; however in the time it takes an athlete to reach the target, the referee has no time to go through the check-list. He must make an instant decision.

A referee’s evolution is similar to a child’s. He starts copying mum and dad and his flags dutifully go up with those of the other referees. He then moves into the rebellious teenage period, where his decisions are most likely the opposite of his two peers and finally on maturity, he aims to harmonise with his team mates, (but not at the expense of truth as he sees it).

With experience he learns to move so that he is better situated to see the competitor’s movements and the reactions of his colleagues, even to anticipate the player’s actions. Nevertheless when an attack is made, an instant decision is required, and it is what fills your eyes and ears at the time that dictates whether the flag is raised.

With that in mind, waza needs to be sharp, accurate and delivered with purpose. Zanshin should be full of spirit without celebration, otherwise you risk withdrawal of the point with torikeshi. Above all ippon should be delivered with 100 per cent commitment. If the player does not believe in his actions, it is unlikely that he can convince the referees to do so.

So, referees and shiaisha gambatte.

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I have reached an age where I am starting to get “kicked upstairs” to the role of shinpancho. Having just fulfilled that position at last weekend’s Bowden and Premier Cup competitions, it was interesting to take a “bird’s eye view of the refereeing on several courts and to realise what a difficult and thankless job kendo referees have.

I have written about refereeing before, but to sum it up – As a referee, it is unlikely that you will receive praise or recognition, however good you are. Very few people come away from a taikai with the impression “wow! What a great shushin”. On the other hand, make the slightest error and you will be blamed for unfairly distorting the outcome of a shiai and potentially the kendo career records of individual players.

In my view, the referees at the weekend’s events did a good job. As ever, they were too few to have sufficient rest time, but in all everybody maintained their concentration and were pretty accurate in judging yuko-datotsu. The biggest difficulties were on issues of multitasking. For instance, when a competitor is close to the shiai-jo boundary line, referees are drawn to focus on his or her feet to see whether a foot crosses the line and earns a jogai hansoku. Unfortunately by concentrating on this one potential issue, there is a chance that eyes are looking down when ippon is scored and the point is missed.

There are numerous situations like this that can affect referees, particularly the shushin who has responsibility for listening for the time signal, watching the scoreboard and remembering the correct senkoku commands.  It is all too easy to get caught up in procedural issues, constantly stopping a shiai because contestants are in tsubazeriai, or shinai are twisted, or equipment needs adjusting. In reality the key function of the shinpan is to facilitate the smooth running of the shiai, whilst accurately judging yuko datotsu.

As I mentioned in earlier posts, refereeing is an intrinsic part of our kendo development and should be regarded as any other aspect of our keiko. Not seeing the whole picture means we are looking too narrowly at one element of a match in the same way that we are unlikely to successfully strike men or kote if we look only at the target. Both shiaisha and referees should be using “enzan no metsuke”.

The problem of fixation on one element of a match can be described as shishin or stopped mind, which is the opposite condition to hoshin; the condition that lets your mind wander freely through the flow of the shiai whether you are a fighter or a referee.

Like keiko, refereeing can be frustrating and painful, but in the same way when you achieve a breakthrough it is very satisfying and lessons learned in keiko build your ability as a referee and vice versa.

If any points were missed over the weekend, I apologise but at the same time would remind competitors that they and the shinpan are all following the same path.

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I spent last weekend in Brussels for the European Referees Seminar. This event is always a good opportunity to catch-up with old kendo friends from across the European Zone and to practise refereeing in a more analytical way than is possible at “live” events.

This year the seminar was led by Matsunaga sensei supported by Nishide and Nakata sensei. Nishide sensei was responsible for our group and watched the initial matches with a critical eye, stopping the shiai regularly to point out errors. As the two day session progressed, the whistle was blown less often allowing everyone to gain as many practise opportunities as possible. I felt however that the real value came from the question and answer sessions. I personally came away with three completely new pieces of information on the interpretation of shiai rules. It seemed that they were not just news to me, but to most of my peers, so I thought it worth sharing them with other referees and competitors.

1.       Hasuji for tsuki – Most people know the rule about referees telling competitors once if their shinai is turned so that the tsuru is not correctly on top, then ignoring any potential points made with the shinai in that position. This does not apply to tsuki. The shinai can be turned to any from 1 degree to full circle, as long as the kisaki strikes the tsukidate correctly, it is ippon. There was also a misconception amongst some people that there needs to be backward movement from the person being struck with tsuki. This should not influence the decision.

2.       Competitors position on the white line – Every shiajo is marked in the centre with a cross and two white lines. It is an infringement for a player to start the shiai if his or her toes are over the front of the line, but not for a player to take sonkyo from a position behind the line, (unless it is a ridiculously long distance). The rationale is that a small individual may be at a disadvantage against a tall opponent who can reach him in one step from the starting position. He has the option to place himself in a distance that is not immediately vulnerable when hajime is called. It was also pointed out that an attack made from sonkyo is not valid. The competitors must stand and settle before an attack.

3.       Referee positioning – On several occasions during the weekend, the three referees failed to maintain the triangular position around the fighters, leaving all three on one side and one side of the action “blind”. We all know that this is incorrect and the judges need to move back to correct position quickly. This should be done by fukushin moving up to replace shushin and then shushin moving to the other side of the competitors. There is nothing new here, but the instruction that I received for the first time, was that if the positioning cannot be resolved quickly, then shushin should stop the match and return referees and fighters to the original positions before continuing.

So although it is never comfortable to be under sensei’s scrutiny, it was a valuable opportunity to train with people of a similar level and to get a great insight into how the rules are currently implemented in major taikai in Japan.

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At one of the sports centres where I practice kendo there is a poster in the changing rooms pointing out that thousands of soccer referees quit every year due to abuse and physical violence from players and the parents of junior players.

Being in the process of packing for my departure to Hungary to act as a referee for the European Championships, this made me reflect on the difference between the status of kendo referees to that of the guys who officiate for more mainstream sports.

Of course every sport is different and certainly there are different levels of respect afforded to say, rugby referees versus their soccer counterparts. I imagine that it is quite challenging for a compact sized individual to give firm, critical instructions to a hyped-up front row, particularly when you are miked up for national TV, however these brave souls emerge comparatively unscathed.  I suppose that part of the soccer scenario is that after taking the relevant training, it is possible to referee without having played. There is also the question of being paid for turning up.  I am not sure though, that the level of payment is sufficient to justify the abuse. You may get fewer insults per pound earned as a part time parking attendant or doing the open mike spot at your local comedy club.

Kendo referees are by contrast, treated with a degree of goodwill and tolerance. I suppose that this is for a number of reasons:

  • We all actively practice kendo.
  • There are three of us with equal responsibility for judging yuko datotsu.
  • Many of us still actively participate in shiai.

Now it may be that many shiaisha are just too polite to say to our faces what is said about us to other team members, but so far I have not been punched-out by an angry dad.

More importantly, I hope I can treat people with the level of fairness that I expect when I take part in next month’s Kyoto Taikai.

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Presentation to Safraz Aziz

I was lucky enough to be invited as shinpan-cho for the British Universities Kendo Championship in Edinburgh at the weekend. In the past, the British Kendo Association has shipped in senior kendoka to act as referees for major takai. Now in these more austere times, they are rationing the number of people that they will provide, leaving the hosting club and the coaches and OBs from attending clubs to fill the organising and refereeing void.

I expected that the organisation would be up to scratch, as the very competent members of Edinburgh University Kendo Club were being supported by the group from Tora dojo that ran the highly successful London cup. So it was evident that everything would be under control with the draw and the court management, but knowing that we were short of experienced referees was an initial concern.

We had 3 godan and 4 yondan to spread between two courts, supplemented by another 5 or 6 sandan. As it turned out it all went brilliantly. After a slightly nervous start, both refereeing teams found their confidence and took control. Their were a couple of minor procedural glitches, but everyone did a great job of seeing the yuko datotsu real time and making sound judgments.

The whole thing ran to time, letting us all get some keiko at the end of each day and most importantly, the referees let the shiai flow smoothly, giving the competitors the chance to do their best kendo. The high spot was the home team, Edinburgh “A” , winning the  team match and I was quietly pleased when Safraz Aziz of Queen Mary College, who practices with me regularly, won the men’s dan individual competition.

The sayonara party was boisterous and fun and playing doubles with Young Park,  I even got to win a couple of games of pool. The biggest lesson for me however, was that given the space and confidence to do it, our younger kendoka had no problem doing everything to the highest standard to make a very successful taikai. The good news being that I and my contempories are a lot less indispensible than we thought we were. Well done guys! 

Thanks to Young Park of Eurokendo for the pic.


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My last Saturday was spent as a referee at the increasingly popular Mumeishi 3’s tournament. This friendly competition attracted 84 teams from numerous countries and kept the referees occupied for a long hard day. However as a good-will event made up of mixed kyu / dan teams and with separate children’s and ladies events, the standard of competitor behaviour is pretty high and the number of hansoku fouls handed out is limited.

However the conversation in the referees room did get round to how to manage overly long tsubazeriai. This was especially topical in view of the piece in George McCall’s excellent blog about the changes being brought in for high-school kendo in Japan. As suggested in George’s blog, it is a good indication that this will bubble upwards to adult kendo and will therefore be eventually adopted internationally.

Putting aside the other tsubazeriai infringements such as touching the opponent’s jinbu with your fist or attempting to trap the shinai by hooking it with your own, the referee’s biggest concern is whether extended tsubazeriai is a deliberate ploy to waste time. This is particularly true when it can be used to tactical advantage, i.e. one point ahead in a shiai, or if a draw will get you by in a team match.

My own formula is fairly simple – wakare in the first instance, maybe a second wakare if there is an element of doubt and then come the hansoku, one each if the time wasting is mutual but if the  shinpan team can detect that the hold-up is  caused by either individual  player: then the culprit alone is penalised. Hopefully the offenders get the message whilst there is only one hansoku on the board, but a repeat can lead to ippon-ari and potentially the loss of the match.

As I understand the new rule, it gives a defined 10 second period after which the competitors must separate to correct distance.  The only real change is that everyone knows when the axe will fall and the poor old referee will not get blamed for making an arbitrary decision. Still I am sure we can find something else to blame him for.

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It is arguably much harder to become a good referee than a good kendoka. Having watched people trying to get to grips with refereeing at last weekends seminar, it is obvious that the combination of correctly judging yuko datotsu, moving as a team and confidently coordinating flags and voice commands is a massive task. It is also obvious that for Kendo to flourish, we need a pipeline of capable young referees for the future.

Fortunately, in Kendo, there is a requirement for referees to be active kendoka. Unlike some sports where individuals who do not actually play, can qualify as a referee, there is not the level of contempt for referees that exists in say, soccer. Still, being the man with the flag is not the most glamorous job in the shiai-jo, which is why many kendoka prefer to continue their own shiai career rather than referee. This leads to increased pressure on the few people who do regularly referee. In an ideal world there should be nine referees per shiai-jo, to ensure everyone has sufficient rest time, whereas I regularly referee as one of a team of four.

Everyone has their own view of what constitutes Ippon. Most would buy into the concept that the correct part of the shinai must strike the correct part of the target. The attacker must show ki-ken-tai-ichi and correct posture and zanshin. The cut must have sufficient force and finish and the sword cutting angle must be accurate. Using the evidence of their eyes and ears, referees need to compute all this information in a split second.

To be able to do this, you need be in the right place at the right time. You need to move as a tight triangle with a constant view of both sides of both contestants. You also need to keep in sight of the other two referees, so that you can respond to their calls. Now clearly, if you spend your time in the shiai-jo worrying about the correct pronounciation of your next command, or thinking about where your flags should be if you need to make such and such a signal; you will be too busy to judge the next point correctly.

So, you need to ensure that your position in the court, the commands and flag handling become second nature. Then you can concenrate on judging correct yuko datotsu. How do you do this? To quote the old New York joke, the same way you get to Carnegie Hall- practise.

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