Archive for the ‘Reigi’ Category

1909_kendoA number of people have asked me where fighting spirit ends and good manners, or concern for the welfare of your fellow kenshi begins.

In keiko your objective is to break your opponent’s kamae and strike a target as soon as you have created an opportunity. There are many ways to do this you can make him start an attack and strike as he begins his movement. You can use kaeshi  waza, suriage waza or nuki waza to counter the attacks that you encourage him to make. You can take his centre by stepping  in and making a strong tobikomi attack, or you can use your shinai to knock your opponent’s weapon up, down or to the side, even to twist it out of his hands. All of these are permissible with the rules and spirit of kendo and you should do them as energetically as your stamina will allow

It is equally permissible to move your opponent by striking with your body, but only in the form of correct tai-atari where the contact should be tsuka on tsuka with the hands at waist height and the power coming from the lower body. Pushing to the chin or face, using your feet to sweep or trip, trapping your opponent’s shinai or using your own to push any part of his body constitutes an infringement. Taiatari should be one quick body check followed by an attack rather than a long concerted pushing match.

Tsuki is a valuable kendo technique but must be done correctly as a sharp on-off attack.  Mukaetsuki, with your arms locked as your opponent makes a forward movement against you is considered the height of bad manners. Even a good attacking tsuki against a teacher or senior in poor taste, if it is done when they make an opening for you to hit men.

Most of these are obvious violations of the rulesa of kendo and would be penalised in shiai. There are other less obvious breaches of etiquette that are undesirable in keiko. Using your shinai to block without countering is wrong and spoils the flow of the tachiai, as does starting and stopping an attack mid flow to prevent your opponent from hitting you. Hitting your partner off-target in order to create an opening is equally bad, as is showing contempt by celebrating or walking away after striking.

Some of the rules invariably get bent in shiai, but there are 3 referees in the court to stop you from transgressing too much. In keiko it is up to you to train as hard as you can whilst still showing respect for your dojo mates.

Read Full Post »

Kendo Ritual

1312_sumo_mainThere 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.

Read Full Post »

NanbanI am off to Japan next week for the 16th WKC. As a warm-up I am traveling a week ahead of the competition and spending time revisiting some of my old haunts in Kansai. I am going with a kendo friend and as a reminder to him and to myself I have put together a list of things to do and not do when visiting dojo or enjoying hospitality with Japanese kendo friends. As there will be many kendo visitors in Japan over the next few weeks, I thought that this might be worth sharing.


  • Only go to dojo where you are invited by members or teachers, or if you have an introduction. Do not walk in off the street.
  • Keep quiet and follow what other people do.
  • Wait to be told where to sit. If no information is forthcoming sit in the lowest position.
  • Unless you know the grade of your training partners always defer the higher side the dojo to them.
  • If you are queuing for senior sensei, stand correctly while you wait your turn and don’t expect more than 3 or 4 keiko in a session.
  • Always cross the dojo after keiko to bow to teachers.
  • If you exchange sitting bows with someone from your own side of the dojo, do it in a way so that you are diagonally further away from kamiza than the other person.
  • Take some small gifts and ideally name cards to give to teachers who spend time with you.
  • Make sure that your chakuso is correct and that you carry your men and kote correctly.
  • Check out the dojo’s tenegui etiquette and follow it.
  • Respect other people’s personal space.

Do not:

  • Hug, fondle, pat, stroke or generally man-handle Japanese kenshi. (This rule does not apply only in the case of a famous sensei who spends time in Belgium)
  • Give advice to anyone, particularly those with higher grades than yourself.
  • If you receive constructive (or destructive) advice on your failings, do not offer excuses. “Yes I understand”, “Thank you” and “I will try harder” are all much better answers.
  • Talk too loud.
  • Slouch in the dojo.
  • Get into communal dojo baths before sensei, wait until you are asked.
  • If you are invited for a drink or meal after keiko, don’t start on your beer until someone has said kampai and don’t start eating until you hear or say itadakimasu.

And once you have remembered all that, please don’t forget to enjoy the experience.

Read Full Post »

ritsureiDespite my regular attempts to grab attention with ironic references to kendo as “stick fighting” or as a sport, I firmly believe that it is a shugyo, a Zen martial art based on Taoist and Confucian philosophy, developed with the aim of developing the human character. As such reiho , the physical display of courtesy is an integral element.

In Kendo, a Comprehensive Guide I devoted much of the book to the description of reiho and chakuso and still only scratched the surface, Your remarks on my last post prompted this attempt to describe some of the aspects of reiho in slightly more detail.

Reiho can be easily categorised into the obvious and the kendo specific. The obvious includes the things that we would consider polite behaviour in most societies. For instance don’t chat when an instructor is talking”, or “don’t slouch or lean on on walls in class” are instructions given to school children around the world.

As a child, I was told to ask permission when I wanted to leave the dinner table. In the same way you should do so when you need to leave the dojo, not just for the sake of politeness, but so that those running the session can keep track of you, if for instance you became unwell.

I could continue with this list but there is little value in describing the obvious. Instead I have tried to list some of  the points that are specific to kendo or budo.

  • Rei – This used to be a lot more complicated, as anyone who has watched elderly Japanese ladies striving to hit the correct angle for the exact social circumstance might realise. Now in kendo we bow to each other at an angle of 15 degrees from the waist keeping the back straight. The key thing is to make eye contact and then continue it throughout the bow. At the dojo entrance and to our instructors we bow to 30 degrees. For zarei we form a triangle between our two hands and lower our forehead directly above it keeping the back street. You should exhale as you bow.
  • Sonkyo – This salutation is unique to kendo and sumo. Ensure that after rei you come to correct distance and then bring your shinai over and down to chudan using the most direct path as you drop into sonkyo. When you finish your keiko or tachiai you reverse the process, ensuring that you put your right hand on your right thigh as you return the shinai to your hip. This signifies that you have no further intention of drawing your sword, but that you are able to do so if your opponent breaks the peace.
  • Entering shiai jo – you can take as many steps as you like before you bow, but bow correctly and take only three steps to the kaeshi sen and sonkyo.
  • Shinai – Kendo is “The way of the sword” and the shinai symbolises the razor sharp katana. We should not walk over other people’s shinai or touch the jinbu of their or our weapons. We should not use the shinai as a walking stick nor drag the point across the floor and we should not bang it on the floor to signal yame.
  • Hakama – After my last post someone commented on one of the Facebook groups that he has seen hundreds of ways of wearing hakama. I personally believe that there are only two ways – right and wrong. The hakama invokes the spirit of budo with pleats representing the Confucian values “gin,gi,rei, chi, shin – makoto” (benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom, faith and sincerity). The left leg goes in first and comes out last. The waistband should be level with the navel. The ties should cross under the tanden. The koshiita should sit above the ties at the back. The hem of the hakama should clear the toes and slant upwards from front to rear.
  • Kote – like the legs of the hakama, these go on left right and come off right left. Reasons given are that it left the right hand free to draw the sword or to draw a bow string when under attack.
  • Tenegui – folded inside or draped outside the men for rei, customs vary from dojo to dojo, but however you do it, keep them freshly laundered and contemplate their meaning before you put them on.
  • Kiai and kakegoe – should be short and sharp; it should not sound as if you are bragging about the point you just made.
  • Sempai and kohai – Unless we are part of the Japanese system, we will never fully understand the structure and obligation of these relationships. Dojo etiquette however should however be based on mutual respect. Feel free to cross the dojo to make zarei to your teacher, or even to tidy and pack his or her bogu, but only do so as a genuine token of respect.

These are just a few examples of the way we should behave in the dojo. To make a comprehensive list would be a major undertaking.

I hoped to give more explanations of “why” we do things and over the years have asked a number of sensei about some of background to kendo reigi.In most cases the answer is “because that is what we do”. Perhaps one more point of reigi is that we should show the tact and politeness to accept the “sonno mama” (way it is) of kendo.

Read Full Post »

Another rant about reigi

ReiI thought that I had written enough about reigi over the time I have been writing this blog, but a mixture of recent circumstances have drawn me back to the subject.

A number of kendo teachers have mentioned to me that they felt the standard of reigi is slipping in the UK as it is in many other countries. I also officiated at the weekend at a taikai where quite a few of the shiaisha were unsure of the correct method to enter and leave the shiai-jo. This could be explained by the fact that they are comparatively new to kendo, but I think that if someone is qualified to enter a kendo competition, then their dojo instructor owes them a lesson in the way to behave in a shiai.

People who have been reading my blog for a while will appreciate that my own outlook on kendo is very conservative. I suppose it is only to be expected as I spent much of the 1970’s training in Japan with a number of old-school sensei who continually stressed the importance of correct kendo etiquette.  One of the proudest moments in my kendo career was when I was chosen to wash Matsumoto Toshio sensei’s back in the dojo bathhouse. Obviously the world is changing but I still believe that reigi and reiho (the way of demonstrating reigi) are what makes kendo a shugyo and not just a violent sport.

I don’t believe that a lack of knowledge about kendo etiquette it is a purely western issue; I have met a number of young Japanese kenshi who have not learned to bow correctly and who do not know which leg goes first when they put on or take off a hakama. Like their British counterparts they are all nice people. They get on well with their friends in the dojo, they are thoughtful and courteous, but have not been taught all the elements of reiho.

Reiho is something that instructors should stress as an integral part of kendo. New kendoka need to repeatedly practise bowing and sonkyo in the same way as correct cutting and footwork. They need to be taught the ways in which we show respect to our peers, juniors, seniors and those that went before them. In the same way that we learn good manners from our parents, we need to learn good kendo manners from our teachers. I appreciate that some dojo leaders have responsibility thrust upon them and do not necessarily know all the answers, but if they don’t there are books to consult and other sensei to ask.

Read Full Post »

I briefly mentioned in my last post that a friend who recently returned to Japan was surprised at having to wait for 45 minutes of a one hour practice for keiko with a hachidan sensei in the Osaka Shudokan. George who witnessed and commented on the scene, will I am sure, back me up when I say this is not an unusual situation.

At the shudokan, or any of the big civic dojo in Japan, you have to be quick and determined to practise with any of the senior sensei. The rule of thumb when I was regularly training there, was that you could have 2 keiko with hachidan , 4 with nanadan,  or up to 8 at peer level in the allotted hour.

Getting face time with senior sensei is an acquired skill. You need to put your men on faster than any of your rivals and be prepared to run to position whilst pulling your kote on. Some kendoka train themselves to tie their men in record time, others develop ingenious ways to pre-tie their men so that it can be slipped on instantly.

These skills are equally useful for the monthly godokeiko sessions at the Nippon Budokan or asa-geiko at the Kyoto Taikai. Even though there may be 200+ hachidan in attendance, the chance of getting to your favourite hanshi is close to nil. On one occasion in Kyoto I made it my goal to be first in line with Sumi sensei.  I  got up at 4.30 a.m. , arrived almost an hour before practice started and placed myself approximately in front of the spot where he would be sitting. Fortunately for him, not so for me, he had been awarded hanshi the previous day, so whilst he initially sat facing the spot where I was waiting; he was pushed up the line by the longer time served, but still kyoshi sensei. I had to run an extra 20 metres to beat the queue and finished 5th in line. Nevertheless I got my keiko.

Keiko with senior teachers offers two opportunities, one to practise with them and benefit from their advice; plus the chance to watch them with other students whilst you wait. The watching or mitorigeiko part becomes more interesting if sensei’s opponents are other kodansha. The downside is that usually they have the right to queue jump.  This is a sensible arrangement as it allows them to get back to acting as motodachi with a minimum of delay. If however you are last in line and there is five minutes of keiko time left and someone steps in front of you, you may not see it that way.

Returning to the challenges of making the most of your time in the dojo, the Japanese system for adult kendoka is essentially, well, adult. You can invest your time in waiting to train with the top teachers, or if you think it is needed, you can stay at the shimoseki end of the dojo and practice kihon geiko with a buddy of your own grade. As long as you take your keiko seriously no-one will mind.

Read Full Post »

At Saineikan with Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis

In this age of social media most of us are easy to identify and contact online. It’s easy to make Facebook friends or to use online business networks, which means that you can go from zero to having conversations with former strangers within minutes. I find this ease of communication very useful, particularly in my job as a head-hunter. Another advantage of social media is that it makes geography irrelevant. I can talk to friends in the USA and Japan as easily as I can my next door neighbours.

This blog too acts as a two way conduit and I enjoy the feedback and contact from people whom I may or may not know.  Sometimes in my posts I talk about specific dojo in Japan and as a result receive messages asking for their locations and practice times and I am afraid to say that I am always a little guarded in responding. If anyone wants to practice in a club that I have mentioned, I ask for their contact details so that I can put them in touch with someone at the other end. Very few kendo groups allow people to “walk in off the street” into a keiko session.  They don’t know you or your level and the practice may be totally unsuitable for you.

If you are making a first visit to a Japanese dojo you normally need to go there with someone already known to them or with an introduction from someone they know who also knows you. Unless I know someone well, I would find it difficult to make a formal introduction to a dojo or teacher in Japan. The reason quite simply, is that by making an introduction I am in effect vouching for the character and behaviour of the person whom I am introducing. So if something goes wrong the introducer’s neck is on the line.

This may make it sound as if kendo in Japan is one big secret society; this is far from the case. Most kendo teachers and dojo leaders are open to helping new people, and the fact that you are a fellow kendoka automatically makes you a good person. Many of the teachers who travel abroad leave open invitations for the people they have met to visit them in Japan, but then they have met you and gained the chance to form an impression of you.

Being a foreigner can sometimes work to your advantage. I have had the privilege of training at a number of exclusive dojo in Japan, including Saineikan, the dojo of the Imperial Palace, this would have been unimaginable for most Japanese kendoka and was only possible because of the kindness of Takatera sensei and the indulgence of Kato sensei.

So my advice to first timers or visitors to Japan is look up someone you already know and get them to introduce you.

Read Full Post »

We have had an influx of hanshi; with Sueno sensei visiting us two weeks ago and Sumi sensei here on a stopover last week.  Everyone was keen to treat them with the respect that they are due and to demonstrate the level of reigi that high ranking teachers would expect in Japan.  I received a number of questions on the subject and a request to put some thoughts into a blog piece explaining the correct approach to etiquette in this and other situations.

Just to clarify the terminology, reigi is the concept of etiquette and reiho is its physical manifestation.  Some aspects of reiho are technical and unique to kendo or Japan. The angles to which you bow to your teachers and kamiza and to your opponent are prescribed and have to be learned. There are rules to govern the location of joseki or kamiza in a dojo and the correct places for students and teachers to sit. The gorei commands at the beginning and end of each practice are with one or two variations a set standard that we invariably follow. However if you think about it logically, the demonstration of etiquette in kendo is based on common sense and common courtesy that would be second nature in most cultures.

It is however probably fair to say that some people are better at it than others.  Those with ethnic roots in Eastern Europe or the Middle East tend to grasp the concept of respect for teachers and elders more easily than do their peers from Western Europe, but everyone would probably agree with the logic of many of kendo’s standard rules.

In the dojo we do not chat amongst ourselves, so that we can hear the instructor. We ask permission before taking off our men and leaving the dojo, so that someone is aware in case of medical emergencies. We do not step over people’s shinai, as a shinai represents the sword and the sword is “The soul of the samurai”. We do not lean against the wall or slump, as the dojo is a place of physical and spiritual training and we need to maintain a spirit of readiness and awareness.

Translating this common sense approach to the way we treat senior visitors, we should aim to give our best in keiko. When we cross the dojo to thank sensei, we should do so immediately after rei.  Remember start with the most senior teacher and work your way down the line. Don’t ask questions. If sensei has some advice for you, he will give it automatically.

It is accepted practice to take care of senior visitor’s bogu and deliver it packed with his folded hakama and keikogi to the exit. Decide beforehand who is going to do this.

If sensei would prefer to take care of his own equipment, then allow him to do so. Of course this may be politeness on his part, so insist once or twice before you give in. In this case don’t be surprised if other junior teachers also refuse your kind offer of help. Whilst I am usually grateful for this sort of attention, I would not dream of taking advantage of it if my senior teacher has said no. To do so would be discourteous.

So although many aspects of kendo etiquette can be learned from text books or by asking your instructor, it is difficult to go wrong if you follow the basic rules of human courtesy.

Read Full Post »

On my occasional visits to one or other of the kendo message boards, I often see requests for advice or clarification, to which someone invariably posts the response – “ask your sensei”.  This seems to me to be the most logical and accessible way to have questions answered, but obviously many people find it a more daunting option than referring to wiki style resources or asking their peers online. Surely not all kendo instructors are ”grumpy old men”, (no personal comments please), who fill students with fear.

Reflecting on this situation it is worth thinking about the roots of kendo pedagogy. As an essentially Zen martial art, traditionally the onus has been on the student to find his or her own path to enlightenment. Stories of potential disciples sitting for days outside the dojo door begging for admittance are common as are accounts of the uchi-deshi (in-house student) spending months or years just occupied with cleaning and cooking, before being allowed to pick up a weapon. Even post war, there are numerous accounts of beginners spending up to a year on their own practicing suburi before being allowed to join the class.

Certainly during my experience in Japan in the 70s, many high graded teachers were reluctant to hand out advice. Whilst their intentions were obviously benign, their approach to teaching was to act as motodachi for kakarigeiko; allowing correct technique to connect and punishing poor attacks by breaking kakarite’s posture. Some were more approachable than others and were prepared to pass on a few words of encouragement when I waited to thank them personally after the final rei. Others were polite but less outgoing.

The world and kendo with it, has however changed. Kendo is no longer one of two choices for compulsory physical education in Japanese schools, although reintroduction is being discussed. Globally it competes not only with other martial arts, but with a whole range of sports and pastimes. In parallel we have seen a new breed of super-hanshi, people like Chiba sensei and Sumi sensei who are not only superb kendoka, but also great teachers who are happy to explain and coach as well as acting as training partners. Those of us lucky enough to spend time with them are likely to receive a quick, accurate analysis of our kendo strengths and weaknesses and tips on ways to improve.

It is however important that this openness is not abused. Remember that their time is limited; and if they have some advice for you they will tell you. When you cross the dojo to thank them, “arrigatou gozaimashita”, is sufficient. When you are part of a queue to bow your thanks, the last thing you should do is confront them with a list of questions; and never, never stop to ask a question during keiko. If sensei wants to tell you something he will; and you may be lucky enough to be part of a longer discussion later in the pub.

Read Full Post »

Of the Japanese martial sports, kendo has been exported in the most unadulterated form and retains an etiquette system based on traditional courtesies. Importance is still placed on the correct angle of bow whereas in say judo, standard practice in shiai is to give the slightest of nods before pulling open the judogi to make it difficult for the opponent to grip. I have seen an opposite example in one form of karate, where before performing a very athletic, showy kata, the demonstrator almost jack-knifed, with his head in line with his knees in the opening bow.

I have posted before about etiquette and whilst I bundle it all together under the term reigi, I touched on reiho, or the manifestation of physical actions that show courtesy. As with all my posts, this is not meant to be a scholarly examination of an aspect of kendo, but more hard practical advice. This one is particularly so, because whilst reiho and reigi are complex subjects, not knowing how to show the courtesies correctly, can significantly harm your progress in kendo.

I was discussing the recent grading failure of a candidate for a senior dan and I remarked that his jitsugi on the day had been reasonably impressive, and that I was personally surprised that he had failed. It was then pointed out by my friend who had witnessed his earlier keiko with several of the hachidan on the panel, that he had committed a number of etiquette sins in hitting and dropping his shinai, turning his back and walking away and making an incorrect bow. OK, that was not part of the examination, you might say, but the sensei may have taken the view that a candidate for a senior grade should be able to demonstrate basic etiquette and consciously or unconsciously taken that into consideration in their decision.

Harking back to the 4th and 5th dan panel in Brussels and my own previous experience as a grading panellist, someone starting the exam by bowing incorrectly or demonstrating wobbly sonkyo, needs to do a lot to atone for the shaky start. So whilst I suggest that you should spend some time researching reiho, here is a quick survival guide for grading reigi:-

  • Walk into the shinsa jo in a straight line as directed.
  • Walk in to a distance where you can comfortably reach the starting line in three steps.
  • Bow to your opponent to exactly 15 degrees, keep a straight back and bend from the hips, keep your eyes on his.
  • Do not bow to the judges.
  • Bring you shinai up to the hip with your thumb on the tsuba.
  • Take three steps forward stopping just behind the line.
  • Extend your shinai into the chudan position on the third step as you go down into sonkyo. Do not draw it like a sword, but simply bring it up and over, taking the shortest path.
  • Ensure that your sonkyo is wide and balanced. Take a minute to build your composure and fighting spirit.
  • Either make sonkyo with your feet in a kendo stance so you can stand up in position, or if you prefer to have your feet level in sonkyo, move your right foot forward, as you stand. Never go back or to the side!

All you have to do now is two 2 minute sessions that look as good as the opening rei.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »