Posts Tagged ‘Kendo Etiquette’

Repetitive Reiho

ritsureiI have touched on the subject of reigi numerous times in this blog and I am prompted to make it my topic again after a conversation that I had last week with a student who helps teach a regular beginners’ lesson. One of his colleague instructors defers to him when it comes to teaching the rules of kendo etiquette on the basis that “he likes reigi”. As he explained to me, he has no particular like or dislike of the subject, but having originally been taught by Japanese instructors and regularly nagged by me on the subject, he sees reigi as an integral part of kendo.

In my view the level to which reigi is displayed in the dojo is not open to discussion. It is a fundamental expression of our regard for others and without it kendo turns into a brawl with sticks. The rules of reigi, or more correctly reigi saho (the outward expression of etiquette) are not negotiable and are either correct or not.

From day one beginners should be taught how to behave in the dojo, how to bow correctly, how to treat the shinai as a sword and how and when to speak in the dojo. The latter point is best summed up by “as little as possible”. The instruction of etiquette should be delivered as a basic part of kendo teaching. The physical elements of reigi saho should be absorbed by the student from day one. If someone is capable of delivering a great men attack but cannot bow correctly, what they are producing is not kendo but a pale imitation.

I regularly hear the argument that kendoists outside Japan should not have to be part of a behaviour system that was formulated in the Japanese feudal period. I believe that the answer is that kendo is above all, a vehicle for personal development and that by physically observing and perfecting its courtesies, the practitioner develops an understanding that will have a long-term effect on his or her relationships with others, both in and outside the dojo.

The way you bow and stand in the dojo, the way you put on and take off your bogu and the way you thank people before and after keiko should be repeatedly polished. When these are correct and become a natural part of your behaviour they automatically improve your kendo technique and maybe make you a nicer person.

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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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Following on from my last post, it’s worth looking at what we should and should not do when visiting other dojo. The best option is to go with a regular member who can explain the system and tell you who’s who. If you do visit alone, then here are a few tips on how not to make the wrong impression. The key however is to watch what others do and to follow their example.

Start by getting there on time or slightly early. Bow correctly when you enter and if you can introduce yourself to the shihan or dojo leader and ask if you may practice. The instructor will usually ask your grade and help direct you to the right place in the line. If you are left to your own devices sit in the lowest position.  Being asked to move up is flattering; being asked to move down is less impressive. Pay particular attention to the “gorei” commands at the beginning and end of the session. If everyone bows to showmen make sure you are facing the right direction.

If the dojo practices motodachi- geiko, then queue for the most senior person and work your way down the line. It goes without saying that in any kendo practice you should give it your all. This is particularly true if you are training in a new environment. In jigeiko, unless you know for sure that you are the senior grade, always defer to your opponent over who takes the kamiza position. Most people will put up a show of resistance and go through a “no please, after you” discussion. Politely refuse and make sure that you stay on the lower side. I have been in situations where I have had to physically push my opponent across the dojo. During keiko if you are given advice, acknowledge the it with a quick yes or “thank you”. Do not ask questions or get into a discussion.

After practise, quickly cross the dojo to thank all the instructors that you have trained with, starting with the most senior and working your way down the line. Then repeat the process with opponents on the shimoza side. If advice is offered, accept it gratefully, but again, do not ask for a critique or make excuses. If you can, take some tenugui from your dojo and present them, ideally with a business card, to the senior dojo members.

Pay attention to the after practice showering or bathing routine, in some dojo it is the custom for sensei to go first, always defer to seniors. Finally if you are invited to go for a drink after practice, say yes; you have probably made some great new kendo friends.

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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.

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Most kendoka have heard the phrase “Kendo starts and finishes with rei”. We all go through the physical process of rei and sonkyo before and after keiko, but it is easy to forget why we should show respect to our kendo colleagues and to the traditions of Kendo.

Even before entering the dojo we should get into the mood for practice, by putting our keikogi and hakama on correctly, (left leg first), also to think about the meaning of the seven pleats, five front, two back. There are several interpretations, but the most common is:-

  • Jin: benevolence
  • Gi: honor or justice
  • Rei: courtesy and etiquette
  • Chi: wisdom, intellligence
  • Shin: sincerity
  • Chu: loyalty
  • Koh: piety

Tare and dou should be put on whilst sitting seiza and men and kote lined up with the rest of the class; only going on when given the command, and of course left kote goes on first. Dogi and bogu should be folded and/or tied correctly before putting away or taking home. Even if you intend to wash your hakama that day, you should fold it neatly and not roll it up in a ball.

In keiko, if your opponent makes a successful attack, acknowledge the point with good grace; however if he or she is much more senior and choses to hit you many times in succession, hold back or you risk looking like a nodding dog. Under these circumstance the best thing may be to ask to do kakarigeiko.

We should also show respect to the dojo itself, by bowing to shomen when we enter, by making sure the floor is clean, by not leaning against walls or sitting incorrectly. This is easily done in a purpose built dojo, but more difficult in a sports centre creche or a scout hut, where you are inadvertanly bowing to an image of Minnie Mouse or Baden Powell.

Reigi, however accurate, is useless unless it is sincere. When you bow to an opponent or sensei or kamiza, do it because you mean it. Your attitude in the dojo should be one of quite, confident dignity. No highs or lows, no punching air or grumbling to yourself, but accepting your successes and challenges with an even mind. Reigi is not a one way street. We should show equal respect to seniors and juniors because we learn from our practice with both.

Kendo is as much about cultivating the spirit as the body, so most importantly, reigi should not stop after you leave the dojo, Treating others with respect should be part of your daily life.

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