Posts Tagged ‘Kendo in Japan’

In the light of the original curiosity about my early kendo experiences and the subsequent comments on my last post, I thought that I should complete the story with a brief account of my time in Japan.

After arriving it became apparent that my ability to improve at work and in the dojo was being severely handicapped by my lack of Japanese language skill. As a remedy, my evenings were divided between the Shudokan dojo in Osaka and the Kobe YMCA language school. I was spending my days with Japanese colleagues and clients and 3 evenings a week in an all-Japanese kendo environment, so I started to reach a get-by level, quite quickly. I benefited (or suffered), from being one of very few foreigners practising kendo at the time in Osaka. There was an Iranian kendoka named Sadat who I infrequently met at practice and Mark Grivas from the US was also around at the time. Mark however did the day-shift with Osaka fukei and I did nights at the Shudokan, so we only met occasionally.

3rd dan grading in Osaka

Keiko in the Shudokan attracted most of the senior sensei in the region and took the form of an hour’s session based on one-on-one motodachi geiko. For some reason, the rule of thumb seemed to be, that in an hour you could practise with 4 hanshi or 6 kyoshi, or you could settle for eight to ten lower level partners. I invariably went for the former. This meant queuing for ten minutes or so for Nishi sensei or Ikeda sensei and other high ranking teachers. Keiko was always stretching, to put it mildly and consisted of sensei taking shodachi followed by me doing kakarigeiko for what seemed like an eternity.   

The younger seventh dan professionals such as Onno and Ohta sensei were a little more inclined to give advice and encouragement and some of the 5th dans took me under their wing, (and to various drinking  establishments for a post training debrief). Feeling mildly encouraged at my progress, I passed the Osaka 3rd dan grading at first try.

Shortly after this, I was invited to stay in Kyoto for the duration of the Kyoto Taikai. I was so impressed by the atmosphere and the quality of the kendo, that I made myself a promise that I would take part as soon as I got renshi. I managed to keep that promise and have now participated in the tachiai on four occasions.

I was visiting some other clubs on an infrequent basis and was occasionally invited to the dojo of the Hankyu department store company. On one notable occasion I waited for 45 minutes to practice with their then ninth dan president, only to be told that he reserved keiko for 7th dan and above. I was however, invited to bow to his departing limousine. I also started to add regular Sunday visits to Kobe’s Oji dojo to my schedule. Keiko was held in an old wooden building (now replaced) that overlooked Oji zoo. There was no inside changing facility, so we got ready outside, under the watchful eye of the giraffe.

Matsumoto sensei’s keiko kai members

Whilst training here I made friends with some of the senior members of Nishinomiya Kendo Renmei, who invited me to join the monthly keiko kai at which Matsumoto Toshio sensei, hanshi, 9th dan regularly taught. This was probably the most important development in my kendo career, as unusually for the time, Matsumoto sensei would explain the technical aspects and riai of each waza in detail. A typical practice would entail him spending 3 or 4 minutes physically shaping me like a bendy toy before inviting me to strike men. This was the one real “deshi” relationship I formed during my stay in Japan and I took my turn carrying his bogu, and as backwasher in the dojo ofuro.

As I lived outside of the UK I was not available for selection for the 1979 4WKC in Sapporo, but I was fortunate enough to join the scratch team of ten put together by Oji dojo for a friendly match against the visiting French national squad. I am relieved to say that we won all ten matches.

Farewell party with Matsumoto senseiJust before the end of my stay, I had the opportunity to take 4th dan in Kobe. All went well until the “paper test” exam. Being incapable of making any written sense in Japanese, I was offered the opportunity to be grilled by the ferocious Murayama Keisuke sensei who headed the grading panel. This was less intimidating than I expected, as he simply asked me why I did kendo. For some reason, I blurted out “because I like it”, at which he grunted assent and signed the pass slip.

Although I moved back to the UK shortly after, I have continued to stay close to Japan, returning regularly for seminars, grading exams, the Kyoto Taikai and on several occasions just for keiko with old friends.

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Thank you for completing my poll. As the graphs show, we are quite a conscientous bunch,most of us practising suburi and kirikaeshi at every session. We are less enthusiastic about kakarigeiko and oji waza drills, but overall we like kihon-geiko and want to do more. My supposition that there were lots of fat cats out there who only turned up in time for jigeiko was entirely wrong. What made the results even more interesting is that the bulk of my respondents have at least 5 years experience.

As always, you made some interesting and valid comments. I was particularly interested in Dillon’s thoughts from a “training in Japan perspective”. From my own experience of living and training in Japan, and of still visiting quite frequently, I agree that the onus for adult kendoka is on organising your own kihongeiko if you feel you need it. In the majority of town or city machi dojo that is the case and often the only way to get basic training is by joining the kid’s class.

In university clubs and in police kendo academies such as Tokyo kesicho or Osaka fukei, training consists predominantly of kihon drills, but in many dojo where there kihon training is less formalised, adults still do it either with motodachi, or in the case of some senior kendoka with each other on a “one-on-one” basis”. I have quite frequently been to open keiko sessions and had 15 or 20 minutes of kihon with a friend before joining the jigeiko.

The other option is to seek out sessions taught by sensei who are known to teach basics. Uegaki sensei in Yoshino, although in his mid 60s, survives on a regime of kirikaeshi, kakarigeiko and semegeiko, as of course do his students. I went with him to an asageiko session in Sakai where his teacher, the late Furuya sensei was in charge. The average age of kendoka there must have been over 60 and the average grade 7th dan, with several 8th dans taking turns as kakarite. We did kakarigeiko for an hour!

In Japan, you have access to the best kendo in the World, but that does not mean that everyone there trains to the highest level. There are many dojo where you can turn up once a week and enjoy your jigeiko, relying on the basics you developed in junior high school. There is clearly nothing wrong with this. Kendoka who make an appearance as and when they can, and enjoy their training, are the backbone of Japanese kendo.

Those that make it to the kodansha ranks however, particularly those who reach 8th dan, seldom do so without repeatedly reviewing and polishing their basic technique. And the only way to do this is through repeated kihon practice.

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Osaka Shudokan

Osaka Shudokan

It seems like half the current and recent former members of the British Kendo Squad are either in, planning to be, or have just returned from Japan. Cheap air travel and more frequent chances to make friends with Japanese kendoka before you go, make training in Japan an easier option than it used to be, but you still have to be resourceful enough to arrange a job or scholarship, or simply stash the funds to facilitate an extended stay.

Having done it in the past, I am frequently asked for advice, although things move on and kendoka currently in Japan can give a much more up to the minute picture than I can. Nevertheless here are some general thoughts on kendo training in Japan, (I assume you have already worked out how you are going to live whilst you are there.)

Firstly find a dojo where the training is in line with your kendo objectives. There is no point in training with elite police tokuren, (even if they would let you), if you are a middle aged beginner. Equally it would be a waste of opportunity for a high potential, national team member to train exclusively in a local kinpen dojo. Think about how hard you are prepared to train and how far you have to progress to be able to train on an equal footing to other members. The options are:

  • High school / Junior high school dojo – fine if you are a pupil or teacher, but adults need to get some senior practice as well, or you become a professional motodachi.
  • Local police station dojo – good place for beginners to practice from scratch with the kids. Do not get confused with other big police dojo like Sonezaki in Osaka.
  • Local area kinpen dojo – Again often good for beginners, but all depends on the sensei who can range from 4th dan to hachidan.
  • University dojo – Vary in kendo reputation, but most have strong sensei and are very good places to develop good kihon habits and stamina, ideal if you are in roughly the same age bracket as the student population. Also a good place for senior OBs to practice oji waza.
  • Company dojo – there are some really strong company dojo like Mitsubishi, Hankyu etc. and some that are more like social clubs.
  • Private dojo – No two are alike and again the level of instruction varies enormously, but be ready for some serious one-on-one obligation with the shihan. Amongst these private dojo you sometimes come across those that have a particular interest in teaching kendo to non-japanese and go as far as actively recruiting gaijin from other dojo. I see the advantage for people for whom the language is still a mystery, but they do not always have the highest level of instruction. Personally I take a “Groucho Club”, (would not join any club that wants me as a member), attitude to these establishments.
  • Machi dojo – my favourite! Normally public financed central town dojo. Usually they have a good mix of grades and depending on your level, you can normally find someone to take you under their wing. I spent three happy years in Osaka Shudokan.
  • Central Police Dojo, like Keshicho or Osaka Fukei – Great if you are advanced, young, fit and capable, or like me, old enough to be allowed to sit with a cold drink and watch the tokuren sweat for the first two hours and join in at the end for a leisurely keiko.

This is a not exhaustive but fairly daunting list of options. In my view the best way to select a dojo is to get in touch either directly, or through introduction, to any senior sensei you know in the area and trust their judgement in helping you find the right dojo. Once you are known, all sorts of other practice opportunities will present themselves.

Although the days of sitting on the dojo steps for three days before they let you in have passed. It is still not advisable to walk in off the street just because you hear kiai.

Here is the exterior of Osaka Shudokan which its in the shadow of Osaka Castle

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