Posts Tagged ‘Shugyo’

Capture Olympic PollAt the time of writing this the Rio Olympics are coming to an end and the post that I wrote at the time of the London Olympics has had quite a few new visits.  This and the conversations I have had with kendo friends, make me think that kendo’s stance on the Olympic Games is still a hot topic for many people.

As part of that post, I included a poll which showed that the majority of readers were in favour of staying out with a vote of 62% to 38%. I would be interested in everyone’s thoughts this time round.

Perhaps I am softening with age, or am feeling my share of national pride at Britain’s medal haul in Rio, but I can now take a slightly more balanced view than I did four years ago. The pluses of kendo becoming an Olympic sport are that we would attract more players. With increased funding the level of kendo would improve globally, eroding the dominance of Japan and Korea.

In the minus column there is a very real probability that we would need to simplify our scoring system so that it was understandable to non-kenshi spectators. This could totally change the nature of kendo with the current values for yuko-datotsu being eroded. Without the insistence on valid strikes being based on the “Principles of the katana”, we would lose much of the spirit of kendo. Reiho would almost certainly suffer too as we develop a win-at-all-costs attitude.

One other change that is either good or bad depending on your point of view is that instructors and coaches might finally receive some payment for their efforts.

Along with many other people, I am confused about the amateur status of Olympic sport, particularly with the recent addition of professional golf and tennis to the games. Certainly the more successful competitors for many sports fall into the “paid to train” category and I am sure that kendo would soon see an increase in “professionalism” if admitted. Having said that it could be argued that police tokuren and dojang instructors fall into this category already.

Opinion is still polarised with The All Japan Kendo Federation staunchly refusing to join the Olympic movement for the reasons mentioned, but nevertheless taking Kendo into the Combat Games. The Korean Kendo Federation on the other hand continually lobbies for the inclusion of kendo, making impassioned speeches at FIK meetings and WKC referee meetings.

On balance I still come down in favour of staying out of the Olympics. Having spent almost 50 years treating kendo as a shugyo I would not like to see it devalued. I wonder though how much sentiment has changed over the past four years so I include a new poll and would appreciate you taking the time to tick a box.


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Musha-shugyoAldqueiroz made an interesting comment on my recent post on refereeing, “Article 12”. In essence he said that if a player dodges or moves the angle of his head to avoid a legitimate strike, then the strike should (at least in spirit) count as ippon. As I mentioned in my brief reply, I have heard this from senior sensei at various seminars, but never seen it applied in major shiai. Nor have I been instructed to take these unfair misses into account when refereeing. The rule that the correct part of the shinai should strike the correct part of the bogu invariably stands.

Dodging is just one element of the behaviour demonstrated by kenshi who are afraid to lose. Blocking strikes to the men with the shinai above the head or using more normal blocks without the intention of responding are other examples of the same behaviour.

I have frequently heard members of various dojo and kendo associations say that they practice “traditional kendo”  by which they mean that they face their opponent in the spirit of “life or death”, “kill or be killed”, with no compromise made to winning or losing shiai. I know some kenshi who will not take part in shiai because the feel that the focus beating their opponent will detract from their shugyo.

To turn this argument on its head, shiai is the nearest experience we can have in kendo to a life or death situation,  that is of course unless you are a psychopath. The challenge is having the strength of mind to face your opponent with the correct posture and attitude. This is often summed up in Japanese as “utte hansei utarete kanshya”, (reflection on hitting, gratitude on being hit).

That some people will try to bend the rules does not detract from the fact that the ZNKR constantly reinforces the message that “The concept of kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana”. This is evident through most of the official instruction material and some of the questions in the Japanese Kyoshi exam.

Kendo has gone through numerous changess, from the art of war, to a zen discipline to a form of entertainment and as it stands today an educational sport that is meant to aid physical, mental and moral development. Whether it was always viewed as wrong to duck, I couldn’t say, but if we were back in the sengoku period and someone was running at me with three foot of razor sharp sword, I might be tempted to move my head to the side.

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winter reflectionsYedsterday’s keiko at Mumeishi  dojo seemed to have a very  thoughtful reflective feel to it. We did nothing different from the usual kihon geiko and jigeiko routine, but as you might expect from the last session of the year, people were thinking about the improvements made over the last twelve months and starting to set objectives for 2016.

For some of our members this is going to be a momentous year. The UK Kendo squad are about to announce the selection of the athletes who will be going to Tokyo for the 16WKC and I can imagine that this process is happening, or has just happened in dojo throughout the kendo world, so there are a lot of proud kenshi with a big job and a tough training programme ahead of them. For others there is the equally big challenge in just making the changes required to continue on their upward path as they follow the sugyo of kendo.

Some of us who are at the senior end of the kendo age range will be putting thought into how we change our kendo to maximise on our experience and strength of mind whilst compensating for a weakening body. It is also the time of year when thought turn to kendo friends who are no longer able to train through illness or infirmity.

The Japanese term “keiko” implies that we train reflecting on the wisdom of past generations, so there is nothing unusual in this self-searching. The year-end however and for some, the increased time to sit quietly and think magnify the opportunity to reflect on our place in the kendo universe.

On a personal level I am doing all of the things that I mentioned. Looking forward to meeting kendo friends from around the world in Tokyo next May and planning how in the short time available to make sure that I am the best I can be both as a kendoka and a referee.

However before I become too thoughtful and introspective there is still the chance to do some more kendo before the New Year.  Sanshukan, my local dojo in Camberley will be open from 8.30 p.m. this coming Tuesday and the following Tuesday, so I can avoid the usual holiday kendo withdrawal. If you are within travelling distance and have  a spare evening come and join us. On the other hand if I don’t see you before, have a great Christmas.

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Wu Chin-puAn eighth dan   recently asked me about my plans for retirement and I explained that as a self-employed consultant I aim to stop sometime before I die. Unfortunately I mistakenly used the Japanese word for “give-up” rather than the one meaning “cease”, so we had a lengthy conversation about “never giving up”. We finished on the positive note that in life and in kendo, throwing in the towel is something that you should never do.

Whilst most sports talk about not giving up and “no surrender”, kendo takes this idea to a new level by applying it to the whole of your life; not just the remainder of your sporting life, but the whole of your naturally life. We all know, or know of kenshi in their seventies and eighties who continue to train as hard now as they did in their twenties and thirties.

I received a text this morning from a sensei who is well into his seventies explaining that as he has a heavy cold he needed to miss a single session. In most sports, if someone of that age were able to turn up to train, he would be met by the national media and a marching band. The difference is obvious, most kenshi expect to continue throughout their active (and not so active) lives whereas in sport, you usually stop once you pass your physical peak.

The reason for our refusal to give up is simple. Kendo is a shugyo, a path to self- improvement. To give up would be tantamount to admittance that you had achieved perfection and that there is nothing left to strive for. None of the late 10th dans ever felt that they had attained kendo enlightenment. Mochida sensei famously talked about the immovable spirit taking over once the legs and body weakened, but admitted that his mind still strayed from time to time.

There is always a special display of affection for the final senseis’ enbu at the Kyoto Taikai and the last candidates in court eight of the 8th dan grading exams in Kyoto and Tokyo. Other kendoka respect the determination and persistence of these senior role models as much as they admire the technical ability of younger, fitter All Japan Champions; in fact in many cases the two are the same, at different stages of their kendo lives.

So next time my knees ache or I have the sniffles, I will think of the words of Winston Churchill (and Thomas the Tank Engine), when they said ”never, ever give-up”.

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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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Mochida SenseiThank you all for the many well thought-out comments on last week’s post. In spite of me breaking the first law of blogging, (never post anything ironic without including a smiley face or lol), you gave me some deep personal insights into what we really gain from our kendo practice.

The qualities you mentioned or described included, courage, perseverance, perception, the ability to stay calm under pressure and perhaps the most interesting from my perspective, durability and stamina; keeping our kendo practice moving forward into our old age.

In comparison to my teachers and seniors I am a mere child at the age of 64 and yet I look forward to each keiko session as much as I did when I started aged 17. I can’t remember what it is like not to do kendo but I am fairly certain that I feel better than many of my peers who lead more sedentary lives.  OK, so the knees do ache a bit the morning after practice, but apart from that, fingers crossed, my capacity to enjoy kendo and life in general is undiminished.

Kendo has a way of making allowances for the changes brought about by aging that many other sports and pastimes do not. I have heard stories about heart-attacks in the squash courts, whereas in kendo if you learn to breathe correctly and keep going, kizeme takes over from physical power and you can continue to train with younger, fitter partners.

What was also obvious is that most people embraced the fact the kendo really is a lifelong route to self-improvement and not just a competitive sport. You also gave me some great examples of how you put the benefits of your keiko into action. Eric’s coolness in avoiding being hit with a 300kg piece of metal and Steven’s resilience in the face of life threatening cancer and its painful treatment are 2 very different, but equally valid examples.

I am writing this in advance of its Monday morning post, as I am spending the weekend at the European Referees’ Seminar in Brussels. As well as brushing up refereeing skills it is a great opportunity to catch-up with old kendo friends. Getting together with other kendoka, be it in person or through this blog, reminds me of my other reason for continuing kendo. It’s great to be part of an international community of like-minded people.

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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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My daughter on the golf course

Whereas I was drawn instantly and obsessively to kendo from the first time I saw it, none of my family feel the same. That’s not because they are not sporty. My wife spends as much time in fitness and dance classes as I spend in the dojo. My daughter works for a well known golf club and my grandson fits school work in between football, golf, tennis and swimming, but none of them show the slightest interest towards kendo. Fortunately they all treat my addiction to kendo with a level of good natured tolerance.

I have always been intrigued by the motivation of my fellow kendoka, particularly by those like me, who chose kendo when it is obviously not part of our own cultural heritage. Over time I have run a number of polls from this blog site, including a survey on “Why did you start to learn kendo?”  To be honest, the answers were not particularly illuminating, but this may be more a function of my lack of skill as a pollster. The three most common answers were:

  1. An interest in Japanese culture
  2. A good way to keep fit
  3. As an addition to other budo study.

Numbers 1 and 3 make sense to me, but the second answer could apply to any other form of exercise. It interests me more to understand what keeps people coming back to kendo week after week for many years; in some cases for a lifetime. Of course there are some elements that would be common to other sports or pastimes such as the support and friendship of a social group, but I believe that the long-term motivation to continue kendo is often based on a desire for personal growth that is to my mind, unique to kendo.

Kendo is “shugyo” – a long path that leads to self improvement and self fulfilment.  Now after 40 or so years of keiko, I feel that I am starting to get some of the basics established, but the current challenge is in adapting my own technique to an ageing body. At the same time I want to be the best motodachi I can be, whilst continuing to stretch myself.  So inspired by the advice of Mochida sensei, I am trying to strengthen my “ki” to make up for physical decline.

Kendo’s other attraction for me is that it requires us to suspend conscious thought and commit ourselves on a purely physical level.

Whilst it is interesting to analyse how and why we do things, reflecting on kendo, reading and comparing ideas with others needs to be done outside the dojo. The formula making the most of our keiko time is simple – turn up, listen to sempai and sensei, do your best to practice energetically and correctly and try to encourage others.

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