Posts Tagged ‘Reigi’

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.

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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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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.

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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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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.

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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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Presenting Fighting Spirit Prize to Mukhtar Hussain.

Presenting Fighting Spirit Prize to Mukhtar Hussain.

This year’s Sir Frank Bowden Taikai took place on Saturday. As shinpan-shunin  one of my duties was to work with the refereeing team to select candidates for the fighting spirit prizes.

Of course different referees have different opinions on who to choose, but this is not surprising as we all probably have different views as to what “fighting spirit” actually means. This is a subject that is seldom discussed and I can’t remember ever seeing objective guidelines as to what constitutes fighting spirit. Having asked colleagues the reasons for their choices over many years’ competitions, I get the feeling that definitions include the following.

  • Being one of the most aggressive fighters.
  • Overcoming the odds – small person beats much bigger person or low grade beats higher graded opponent or opponents.
  • Turning things around – being in situations where you come from being a point behind to evening the score and taking one more point to win, or pulling out the stops in the captain’s match to take an evenly drawn team score to victory.
  • Having the best technical kendo.
  • Keeping calm under pressure.
  • Not giving up.
  • Someone who in spite giving it their all in every fight still shows courtesy and fairness to their opponents.

I believe that all of these are valid in their way, but I feel, and this is as subjective as it sounds, that true fighting spirit is a combination of all of these.

Of course aggression is important, but it must be controlled and shown within a spirit of fair-play. The smaller or less experience player or the individual who overcomes the odds and snatches victory from the jaws of defeat will most likely, only be a contender if he or she uses correct technique.

On the other hand correct technique will probably be admired, but not if you do not have the strength of mind and will to win to overcome your opponent.

If you can do all this and at the same time show correct reiho and generosity of spirit to your opponents, it should do even more to enhance your chances of getting a fighting spirit prize.

On a practical level, it is unlikely that you will get the first place medal and a fighting spirit award. It is generally thought that being the winner or being in the winning team is reward enough in itself.

Despite the subjectivity, I was very confident that on Saturday we picked three worthy winners – Jenny Wilding, Mukhtar Hussain and Sarfraz Aziz.  All fought consistently well throughout the day and displayed the true spirit of kendo.

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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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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.

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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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