Posts Tagged ‘Kendo’

Samurai3My recent kendo in or out of the Olympics poll produced an 80/20 vote in favour of out, against the 60/40 out at the time of the last Olympics. The poll and accompanying article also stimulated some well thought out comments which fell predominantly into the “out” camp.

On the evidence of this poll, and although as a former marketer I have learned never to trust surveys, I have leapt to the assumption that 80 per cent of us want to retain at least some of the traditions of kendo. I suspect though that there are many variations of understanding of what constitutes “traditional kendo”.

I have had a number of people tell me that “my dojo does traditional kendo”, explaining that they only practice big cuts, or that they avoid taking part in shiai. On the other hand I have been in many dojo in Japan,  including the Imperial Palace’s Sainekan and the old Noma Dojo, where  despite centuries of tradition, the kendo you see is effective modern competitive kendo.

Anyone who has read Alex Bennett’s excellent book, Kendo, Culture of the Sword can see how  kendo has adapted tradition through the ages, moving from the warriors art of medieval Japan to the reflection of samurai aesthetics in the Edo period, before becoming little more than street theatre when the samurai were dissolved. Kendo’s emergence into the early 20th Century was then blighted by being adopted by the ultra-nationalist cause.

Kendo as we know it has been in existence only since 1952, Under the stewardship of the AJKF kendo has been developed both as a sport and as a personal development methodology, utilising the techniques and ideals of traditional Japanese fencing. The Concept of Kendo is explained as “the way to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana.”

To me this means training to reach a level where you can make effective strikes without thinking and at the same time treating your opponents, seniors, juniors and teachers with courtesy and respect. Kendo’s traditional system of reigi seems to provide a perfect framework to achieve this objective.

There are many Japanese sword arts and I can see the value of learning Iai or trying tameshigiri as an added extra is a great idea, but to my mind trying kesa-giri in your kendo keiko, or practising to be the perfect kaishakunin is taking tradition a step too far.

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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.

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JapaneseA colleague who trains in Brazillian Jujutsu showed me an on-line video of the sport. I could not but notice the similarity to Judo, although I am told that the groundwork differs but that the throws are almost identical. Having done Judo in the past I know many of these techniques only by their Japanese names and my friend referred to them by their English tags. He did not go into detail but I presume the original language used is Portuguese and that the countries where it is practised use their own terms.

This made me reflect on the fact that in kendo we use Japanese on a scale that followers of other martial arts would find difficult to justify. Not only do we have imported labels for the techniques, but all dojo and shiai commands are in Japanese. The courtesies we observe before and after practice are in Japanese and many kenshi have a vocabulary that extends to social conversation.

There are obvious advantages to the use of a single language amongst an international population. We can travel to countries where we do not share a common language and still understand the instructions given in a training session. The downside is that as beginner as well as having to learn to make your body do things that it has never done before, you have to learn a new vocabulary.

The official languages of kendo are Japanese and English and when we attend Europe Zone Referee Seminars, translation is provided from the former to the latter, we then usually have numerous side conversations to ensure that whatever message is being delivered is understood by those who are not fluent in English. My guess however is that nearly as many people understand the Japanese instruction as the English translation.

I personally like the fact that we use Japanese for kendo. Initially I found it part of the attraction as it made kendo seem exotic. Then having spent time living in Japan and using the language I realised that the meanings of technique names and commands are fairly mundane – “mask, glove, trunk, stop, start, thank you very much”; they do not sound nearly as grand in English.

If we did revert to our own languages, international competition would be interesting.  In the shiai-jo with a Spanish opponent and a German referee, should you shout glove, or guante, or handschu  or all three when you make a kote attack?

Kakegoe too would become interesting. When we make these initial shouts before attacking, although without meaning, they are usually modelled on Japanese sounds. I have a fear that in moving to English these would become more like the “sledging” insults used in English cricket to put the opponent off his stroke.  Standing up from sonkyo to taunts about my body shape or my opponent’s relationship with my wife does not seem like an ideal start to a good kendo tachiai.

It might not be ideal for everyone but I suggest that for the time being we keep the ZNKR’s dictionary of kendo terms in the bogu bag.

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kendo-3dMy second book comes out on September 2nd.  Its title is “Kendo, Inherited Wisdom and Personal Reflections”, ISBN 978-1-78133-058-6 and both Kindle and Paperback versions should be available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Unlike Kendo, a Comprehensive Guide, this is not an instruction manual, but a selection of 52 of the most popular posts from my blog www.kendoinfo.net. It takes a reflective look at a range of kendo topics with the aim of stimulating thought and discussion.

It covers kendo training methods and techniques, as well as the attitudes and philosophies that make kendo a lifetime’s pursuit for many of us. I have also highlighted some of the differences between kendo training in Japan and other parts of the globe and included some light-hearted commentary on the amusing elements of our sport.

As the title suggests, much of the content of this book has been inspired by some of the great Japanese teachers. In several cases I have used direct translations of their teachings.

Many of the articles were originally written for my own benefit and I have regularly referred to them to clarify my thoughts or to help me break through one of the many “walls” that we face in kendo . You can find out more on https://www.facebook.com/inheritedwisdom .

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5thLast Saturday was the 5th birthday of this blog. Over the last five years I have shared 273 posts, received over 1200 comments and seen monthly visits move from the low hundreds to regular totals of over 15,000.

I have learned that my readers are most interested in comment on major shiai, the thoughts of famous sensei and notes on technique and training. This feedback has very much influenced recent content and has given me the encouragement to write “Kendo, A Comprehensive Guide to Japanese Swordsmanship” which was published by Tuttle Publishing a few months ago.

Producing a detailed instruction guide is very different to the less restrained experience of blogging and I owe a debt of gratitude to Katsuya Masagaki for the numerous precise illustrations he produced for the book. Rather than leaving me to use ad-hoc photographs, he drew to reflect my words and in some cases I rewrote to reflect his drawings. It’s difficult to see past people’s politeness, but the few reviews we have had on-line and face-to-face comments I have heard, lead me to believe that the book has been fairly well received.

I am still highly enthusiastic about writing what has now become a regular weekly blog post. I find that my own keiko, teaching in the dojo and refereeing are enhanced by sitting down at a keyboard once a week and trying to structure my thoughts on some element of kendo. The subsequent response I get from reader’s comments then often gives me a new perspective to take back to the dojo.

I occasionally let my dubious sense of humour run away with me and have produced the occasional good natured rant about a variety of kendo connected topics such as the relationship between kendo and Iai, the misuse of Japanese names for dojo and choosing to call one’s-self sensei. I appreciate that the person most amused by these diatribes is me, so thank you all for humouring me.

Future plans are for more of the same. I intend to keep posting until I either run out of ideas or the stats page flat-lines. I am also planning to release another book in September. This will be more reflective than “Kendo, a Comprehensive Guide” and will be based on the most popular posts since www.kendoinfo.net was first started.

Thank you all for supporting me over the past five years.

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Book Cover tempHaving had some holiday down-time to reflect about my kendo year and to think about 2013 now seems a good time to tell readers about my book, which is due out at the beginning of April. Writing a detailed kendo instruction book is something that I have wanted to do for many years and thanks to Tuttle Publishing I have been given the opportunity to do this.

Although the book will appear in 2013, I actually wrote the first draft in 2011. The production process has been a long haul, and much debate has taken place with the publishers. Nevertheless, they have indulged me by printing the book exactly as I envisaged it. We made some compromise on title choice, but they are the marketing experts. The final cover design is still in the finishing stages but I have shown the “working cover”.

This book is written to appeal equally to the kendo curious and experienced players. It covers most aspects of kendo from choosing equipment, to reigi and terminology. Most importantly, I have tried to demonstrate techniques and training methods in detail. What makes this book unusual, is that rather than explaining theory and philosophy in separate sections and dealing with waza on a purely physical level, I have described the “why and how” of techniques at the same time. I was inspired to do it this way by the instruction I received from Matsumoto Toshio hanshi whose motto was “Kenri” referring to the combination of the theory and the physical action of kendo.

The other key feature is the detail of illustration. I was fortunate to enlist the help of Katsuya Massagaki, who as well as holding 5th Dan in kendo, has a Master’s degree from St Martins School of Art. Katsuya has used a mixture of hand drawings and computer aided design to show each technique frame by frame. We also included quite a few figure drawings to demonstrate details of balance and posture. Tuttle allowed us to set the illustrations within the text, so there is no need to flick from page to page comparing words and pictures.

“Kendo, The Comprehensive Guide to Japanese Swordsmanship” (ISBN-10: 4805312319) is already available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and a number of other online booksellers. It will hit the shops in April. So if you are contemplating buying your favourite kendoka an Easter present. Please take a look.

As this is my last post of 2012, may I thank everyone who has followed and supported this blog and wish you all a very happy and successful 2013.

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The 2012 London Olympics have reached their end and like many of my fellow Britons, I have been caught up in Olympic fever. From the opening ceremony (give or take a slightly wobbly Sir Paul McCartney), to the final days competition, the whole thing has been truly inspirational.

I have been delighted that London has managed the event so well and that we have seen so many exceptional performances from athletes from around the globe. On a patriotic level, to know that Great Britain with a population of less than 60 million is third in the medal count, behind only the USA and China makes me swell with pride and whilst tickets were hard to get, I was glued to the TV for many of the events.

Whilst I writing this before the closing ceremony, many of the analysts and pundits have been giving their view on why Team GB has achieved relative success this time round and the answer has emphatically been the £260 plus million of lottery funding spent on athlete development. It is good to know that although I have never won so much as ten pounds, that my pound a week (and that of a few other people) has gone to such a good cause.

I have to confess to slightly mixed feelings on this going back to the 12th World Kendo Championships, when both Sport England and Sport Scotland refused to make any contribution to a World class event. It is of course obvious that the Olympic Games is the most prestigious sporting occasion in the world today, so one can see why funding works the way it does. With that in mind and with the adrenalin of the event still running high, it is easy to ask the question “Why is kendo not an Olympic sport?”

Coming back to the games themselves, there were as I mentioned some amazing performances from many athletes, not least from female competitors in the combat sports.  Nicola Adams won an amazing boxing gold for Britain in the women’s flyweight class and Jade Jones took gold in the women’s 57kg taekwondo competition, This in itself was a superhuman feat, a nineteen year old from a small town in North Wales beating the World’s best.

What I am going to say next in no way detracts from my admiration of Jade’s achievement; but I was disappointed to see that at the end of her final match instead of thanking her opponent, her first reaction was to throw her headgear on the floor and break into a victory dance routine.

If kendo were to become an Olympic sport would we lose the strict reiho that now seems unique to kendo and perhaps sumo? If we did, would the sacrifice be worth it when weighed against the gains in public interest and financial support?

For once, I would like to keep my opinion to myself and to ask yours with the following simple questionnaire.

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The recent anniversary of the passing of one of my kendo mentors made me reflect on how much we owe our sempai. A much used expression in kendo is “you can see the faults of the teacher in the keiko of the student”. Conversely the good qualities in a student’s kendo are a positive reflection of their teachers efforts.

In some cases, particularly in the west; our kendo is the result of a hodgepodge of influences from many different teachers. Often these teachings come to us diluted to the extent that their original owners would not recognise them. Whereas the people who had direct access to great teachers have their instructions imprinted in their minds, those who relied on the same information being cascaded down through a succession of sempai, receive a pale shadow of the original.

Still for those willing to make the effort, you do not have to live in Japan to  “sit at the feet of a master”. In this age of jet travel and electronic communications, many of the strongest kendo teachers travel throughout the world giving classes and seminars and there is always the opportunity to watch them on Youtube.

As someone who has been lucky enough to spend some time with some of the current generation of hanshi and their predecessors, I am perpetually reminded of the fact that there is very little variation in the kendo taught today. Instruction styles vary from teacher to teacher, but the end product changes very little. As Sueno sensei recently said “There are many paths to reach the top of the mountain”.

Many of the old kenjutsu ryuha are still flourishing and nurture unique styles and techniques. A number of kenshi combine practise of one or more of these styles with modern kendo. In my experience, their keiko changes very little from that of the rest of us. Given that kendo now relies on a linear attacking style and fumikomi ashi, it would difficult to do anything radically different.

I suppose one of the reasons for the homogeneity of kendo, is that in its present form it is less than a hundred years old, and even younger if you count back to post-war reintroduction. When you talk to the current great kendo teachers they refer to the influence of sensei such as Nakakura, Nishiyama, Onuma, Matsumoto, Murayama, Nishi and others. These in turn, would I am sure, direct you to the teachings of Ogawa, Mochida and Saimura sensei.

In much the same way as horse racing enthusiasts will tell you that all of today’s thoroughbred racehorses are descended from the Godolphin Arab, kendo as we practise it now has come to us pretty much intact from the pre-war tenth dans.

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Kendo for non kendoka

Thinking back to my distant days as a student, I remember wading through a book entitled “Finance for non Accountants”. Picking up on the perceptions of kendo amongst people who have not tried it themselves, a similar “Kendo for non Kendoka” might be of value. Strangely enough, practitioners of other martial arts often have the most distorted view of kendo. A friend who was fairly advanced in one of the “harder” schools of karate told me, “you guys are nuts, the way you beat the living cr-p out of each other with sticks”.  Another kick boxing, MMA competitor in his twenties, explained that kendo looked “far too fast for me”.

It is only on probing deeper into what they have seen of kendo, that I realise they have witnessed demonstrations of what you or I would not class as real kendo. Although now with youtube, anyone can see the real thing, but it is easier to find if you know what you are looking for.

What many people have seen, are demonstrations at non kendo events, where folk who do not know the basics thrash away at each other; typically wearing kendo equipment in their own unique way. Often the demonstrators are very able martial artists, but unfortunately, kendo is not their major. This is also true of some of the film and TV portrayals of the art. There is a great scene from one of the James Bond films, (I can’t remember which one), where a would be assassin, bundled up in kendogu smashes up a range of inanimate objects. This is nearly as funny as the old Inspector Clueseau film scene, featuring Kato (pronounced Kayto),who shows a similar level of wanton vandalism. 

Ther are of course exceptions in the film industry. One that comes to mind is Kataoka sensei of New York, who is both an accomplished actor and an excellent nanadan kendoka. Unfortunately he never seems to play the kendo part, he was the non kendoka son, of kendo playing policeman, Takakura Ken in Black Rain.

So suggestions would be welcome on how we educate the general public on what is kendo. We could emulate the beer lovers CAMRA, (Campaign for Real Ale), with a Campaign for Real Kendo; but the acronym does not work. We could go with my book idea, or we could get some of the better looking kendoka to try for a career in Hollywood. Maybe we should just work on the basis that ignorance is bliss, and admit only those that wait for a few days outside the dojo door. Come to think of it though, I have still got a soft spot for Kendo Nagasaki.


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Mutual Respect!

As the kendo versus Iai debate has continued, I have given way to popoular demand by posting the two image polls below. The output from these should help sociologists, anthropologists and sports scientists reach a definitive understanding of how practitioners of the two arts regards each other.

The polls have been scientifically designed by Kendoinfo’s crack team of behavioural scientists and statisticians and  meet the standards  of objectivity and rigour insisted upon by national governments.

Please think carefully before choosing an option, whilst the purpose of these polls is to understand what you truly think. The future harmonious relationship of these kindred martial arts depends on the choice you make today.


Thank you for your valued opinion

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