Posts Tagged ‘Kendo attitude’

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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After the rigours of kihon geiko at the beginning of each kendo session, I see quite a few people breathe a sigh of relief as they enter jigeiko. I am of course not a mind reader, but my guess is that their thought process runs along the lines of – “right that’s the hard part out of the way”. “Now it is me time – the chance to do what I enjoy by using my favourite techniques to beat the other guys”.

I stress that I am not trying to replace David Blaine. My insight is not based on the supernatural ability to read other people’s thoughts; it is based on observation of their keiko. Although I do sometimes feel guilt at playing a cross between the stern dad and a bad tempered puritan. In this situation, I feel that it is my duty to remind backsliders that keiko is for improvement rather than enjoyment.

The term keiko has the connotation of thinking about tradition and infers that when we train, we should be mindful of all that has gone before. Other terms for training include renma and tanren which describe forging the body through hard physical activity and shuren or shugyo which have the nuance of religious or ascetic training. None of these labels refers to the idea that kendo should be fun.

It is worth further clarifying exactly “what is jigeiko?” Collectively it describes gokakugeiko (keiko on a 50:50 basis, conducted as if you are equals), or hikitate geiko (between instructor and student, where some opportunities may be offered and correct waza allowed to score). In both cases there is a need to stretch yourself –  by creating chances to attack and ensuring that techniques are correct and in line with basic principles.

It is also important that you do not just use the opportunity to work on your favourite, tokui waza, but that you try to use all the techniques that you have learned. Of course winning and losing is important, which is why we put such emphasis on shodachi, or the first point. What we should not do however, is to sacrifice our kamae and posture by blocking strikes without the intention of responding with oji waza, or fail to follow through once we have started a technique, because we fear being hit by your opponent. We learn equally by hitting or being hit.

My next post may be slightly delayed as I will be in Tokyo all this week  to take the Kyoshi examination. While I am there , I will try to cram in as much keiko as possible into the short time available. Hopefully I can bring the right attitude to each practice; and maybe after the final rei there will be the opportunity to crack a few smiles in a nearby bar.

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