Tuesday, December 13, 2016
This year's Rio Olympics showed many athletes wearing headphones.
I'm not normally a fan of the pre-race/bout/match headphone wearing brigade. The best rationale I have heard is that wearing headphones is a way to get people not to bug you with chit-chat. You don't necessarily have any music playing, but the headphones buy you a quiet space. This I can understand. On the other hand, the athlete who needs to listen to death-metal or 2Pac in order to get into the 'zone' is not someone I admire.
Heijoshin is a concept in Japanese culture that says your performance frame of mind should be your ordinary frame of mind. It comes largely from the Zen idea that enlightenment is not a state that is separate from ordinary life, nor is it 'special' or on a higher plane.
The implication of this is that one shouldn't try to 'escape' from the present moment in order to best manage or understand it, one should penetrate deeply into the nature of its very 'ordinariness' (or its 'stress', 'fear', etc). I personally believe this is a very, very profound truth, one that requires ongoing study.
So on my path to 6th dan I knew I wasn't going to have a special playlist for the morning of my grading, or a playlist for suburi, or for the hours of cross-training on the bike. I believe this attenuates the experience of the journey towards the goal. Those bike rides I went on to build lower-body strength and the intervals I pedalled to improve my cardiovascular fitness were experiences of their own, as well as being experiences with a purpose. Those experiences I wanted to live fully, not have them take on the samey flavour of one of my dull playlists.
So when I found myself wanting to listen to something special the night before my grading I was in a bit of conflict. Was I submitting to the cultural norms of the day by having to 'soundtrack' my life? And yet I love movie soundtracks and how they can reveal an extra dimension to a particular moment.
So I chose a track which I have listened to in the past for relaxation. It wasn't a favourite. It was something that always just came on first when I chose my favourite album of this particular band. I chose it as an anchor, a summation, to try and wrap up and say good-bye to the years of preparation.
For this purpose, I found music, and this music in particular, was a perfect catalyst for this last stage of preparation.
As I listened to it I became able to let go of all the 'to do lists' of the last seven years. It helped me shed the weight of preparation and just 'be' in the state of readiness that I was in at that time. That state was far from perfect: damaged voice, sore Achilles, intermittent flu symptoms, lack of certainty about my new kamae. But it helped me to accept what was at that moment.
In looking for a video of this track to post, I realised I didn't want the official music video playing while people listened to it because that would cloud the meaning of the music. So I quickly pieced together a video using the small amount of footage I had from my trip; images that I hope will trigger a similar feeling in the viewer to the one I had in my hotel room in Tokyo where I finally understood what it means to "effortlessly release what we have learnt in training."
The title refers to Bishamon, the Buddhist deity and sometimes patron of warriors, and a small shrine dedicated to him outside the city of Kagoshima. It was the second time I had been taken there, and the promise by my friends to pray there for my success on the morning of my grading was very moving. Hence the video is dedicated to that experience.
Saturday, July 2, 2016
Recently I have noticed a lot of people with incorrect cutting action. Not just at Nanseikan but other clubs too. These people are all in their first few years of Kendo so it is understandable. But without extra effort and guidance, this incorrect technique could become a bad habit that is hard to break.
Broadly speaking there are two basic aspects that I'm referring to:
The action of the arms.
The action of the hands.
At the uppermost backswing, your elbows should be equally bent, the same as in jodan no kamae. Your arms should make the number "8" in Japanese, i.e. 八 with your fists at the apex. As you bring the sword down to the target, you bring your elbows together by rolling in your wrists, squeezing them together the same way we wring out the 'zokin' which we use to clean the floor before training. Rolling your wrists inwards allows you to straighten your arms as much as possible. This allows you to gain the maximum possible reach for your build.
It is crucial to make sure both arms are equally straight at the end of the cut. Most often, beginners have their left elbow bent at the moment of cutting because they are using predominantly their right arm to power the cut. If anything the left arm should provide more of the power.
Your elbows remain totally straight only momentarily. As important as it is to straighten them, it is equally important to relax as soon as the cut has been made. Your arms should retain the finishing position of the cut but without tension.
The action of the hands and wrists is even more important and subtle than the action of the arms. This doesn't mean you shouldn't work on understanding it at the beginner level. It just means that you will continue to understand new aspects of how to use your hands in Kendo for many years to come.
Basically your hands and wrists have to reach to the maximum extent. There is a moment of overextension at the point of impact, but, as with the elbows, this exertion only lasts for the moment of the cut, before the kensen rebounds off the target. The difference between the angle of the shinai at the moment of cutting and the moment of rebound is fairly well illustrated by the double-image of the shinai in the photo at top.
The shinai should never be extended at the exact same angle as the arms. Even at full extension, there should be a 5 to 10 degree difference between the arms and the shinai.
A good measure for both these aspects above is that the knuckle of the left thumb should briefly touch the muscle of the bottom of the right forearm (flexor carpi ulnaris) at the moment of cutting. This brief contact indicates not only that the angle of the sword is correct, but that the arms are working in unison.
Hashimoto Keiichi sensei demonstrates correct finishing position for men uchi.
Monday, March 7, 2016
When I wanted to describe the testing aspect of Kendo grading, the part that makes it difficult, I naturally thought of the term "crucible". A crucible is a special container designed to be heated to extreme temperatures. In English usage it is also used to describe a test or trial of extreme difficulty where the final result is something new. In the crucible, metals are melted together to form an alloy. The metals are transformed by melding together and the final result is something stronger than the original.
But what would the Japanese or Kendo metaphor be? Because of its connection to the process of making swords, in Kendo the metaphor used is forging, tanren 鍛錬. Metal is forged when it is beaten repeatedly with a hammer. The beating slowly changes the structure of the metal, strengthens it and forces out impurities in the form of sparks.
As a metaphor it has the same intention as the term crucible. Both are used to describe why it is important to push through situations that are difficult.
We don't understand when we are in the middle of it, but the important fact is that when the process is over we will be transformed. We will be an alloy that is stronger than the original metal. We will be shaped and strengthened with the 'impurities' forced out.
The process has a purpose. It will come to an end and it will be worth it.
It also points out to us that this is something that doesn't happen by itself. Iron ore in the ground doesn't transform itself into steel. It just stays lying in the ground. Some coal turns into diamond, but only when, by some geological fluke, it happens to come under extreme pressure. Most coal just stays there, being coal.
Unlike coal, people can choose to transform themselves by subjecting themselves to intense pressure. This is important. Because when you find yourself in the crucible, when you are the piece of metal being smashed between the hammer and the anvil, you can remember that you were the person that put yourself there.
What difference does this make? It makes all the difference! Being beaten up when it's not your choice is, by definition, punishment. Punishment is designed to weaken, not strengthen. So it has the exact opposite effect. By remembering that this process is something you chose for yourself puts you back in the driver's seat. Everything that then happens is part of a strengthening, learning, purifying process.
One of my favourite Zen priests, Shunryu Suzuki said, "Hell is not punishment. Hell is training." He was taking this idea even further. He meant that even things that many people think of as punishment, things we didn't consciously choose to happen to us we can transform into things that are part of our 'training' if we have the right mindset.
So the small process of a Kendo grading can have enormous implications for the rest of our lives if we choose to see it that way.
I have done many Kendo gradings and I came late to the crucible. My first grading I double-graded to 4th kyu. Thereafter I passed every grade on the first attempt. Sixth dan has been my first taste of this painful forging process. I have had to remind myself time and again that the process is worth it, that it will come to an end, that I chose this for myself and indeed that I am very lucky to be able to be a part of it. I have learnt that in failure there is a lot to be gained. Each time I've been able to discard bad habits and attain new skills. I have been strengthened and my Kendo (slightly) purified. Even after failing three times, I know I have learned more and improved more than had I just turned up to training with no purpose. That would have been the way to remain as just a piece of coal lying in the ground.
Sunday, October 25, 2015
The example on the right is the correct one. In Japan the maru ○ is used where we would use a tick.
Here at Shugo-Nanseikan, I've written about suburi more than a lot of other concepts or techniques. That's because over the last ten years, with all the work I've done on my own Kendo and with other kenshi of different ages, the thing I've found that makes the single biggest difference to a person's Kendo is their commitment to doing suburi everyday.
This may not be the case where you are, if you are not a Nanseikan student and you have different opportunities to train. If for instance, you train more than four times per week, your Kendo will improve without suburi. But for my students, given our timetable and other factors such as age, fitness level and motivation, suburi is the thing that makes the most difference. It helps both the new beginner who is not very strong as well as the experienced kenshi building up to shiai. It helps each in different ways but it helps equally, and it never becomes obsolete.
But it needs to be practiced every day, or at least most days.
diagram showing where your suburi should finish, for straight suburi (left) and diagonal suburi (right)
How much is enough suburi?
The short answer is: any amount that you can do every day without injury.
The basic premise of all kinds of training is that as you get stronger, you should increase either the load or frequency, depending on what kind of results you want. However, the first hurdle to conquer in this instance is not physical weakness but mental weakness.
You have to train yourself to make the time to do the suburi.
So in the beginning, a short and simple program that you stick to is better than an ambitious and complex program that you soon give up.
Fifty, double-time, sho-men suburi take less than one minute!
When you start to look forward to doing the suburi, or alternatively if you start to feel like something's wrong if you haven't done your daily suburi, then you have overcome the first hurdle. The next step is to increase the load or frequency.
from Oyakata Mamoru san's blog
How do I know what suburi to do?
In the beginning stick with straight, two-handed men*. This is the most fundamental technique in Kendo and helps to ingrain straightness as well as requiring tenouchi. If you can do it outside or you have high ceilings it's best to do it standing with footwork. If not, you can get a lot of benefit from doing suburi while sitting in seiza.
When you want to increase variety the next suburi to practice is, like the kids above, left-hand only suburi (katate-men). Keep the cuts very straight and clench your right fist on your hip, like the boy on the right. If you are not strong in the arm or wrist, start by gripping the tsuka (handle) closer to the tsuba (hilt). As you get stronger your aim is to be able to do straight cuts with your left hand down the very end of the tsuka. Never do right-hand-only suburi, at least not until your second decade of Kendo.
After that you can introduce all kinds of variation: using bokuto, using suburito, kote-uchi, do-uchi, nidan-uchi (e.g. kote-men), vary the footwork pattern (e.g. ten forward, ten back; five forward, five back), diagonal cuts, hiraki-ashi, lunges, kabuto-wari, hayasuburi, etc.
No matter what suburi you do, you must keep the following things uppermost in your mind:
- gaze: look straight ahead, not down or up
- posture: the straightest possible with very erect spine and relaxed (i.e. not hunched) shoulders
- tenouchi: 'freeze' for a moment at the end of each cut. Relax, squeeze, relax...
- sharpness: move briskly with both upper and lower body in unison
- accuracy: aim for a certain point and hit that point with regularity
- hasuji: be aware of the angle of the blade matching the angle of the blade's path without wobbling
There's an oft-quoted urban myth of the swordsman who could never get to the dojo but instead did 1000 suburi every day and thus became great. It sounds simplistic but there's more to it than at first appears. That's because the difficulty lies not in the actual suburi (1000 suburi is not as hard as it sounds, takes 20-30 mins) but in the making time for them and then sticking to it. If you have that willpower, you have already distinguished yourself amongst your fellows. Amongst most people who do Kendo, I would guess an average of only 20% do suburi regularly and only 10% everyday. But I would also guess that above a certain level—let's say 4th dan—that this percentage increases dramatically. I'd be willing to bet that more than 50% of experienced kenshi have a solo practice they commit to every day. And my hunch is that above 6th dan that figure would rise to more like 90%.
a visual representation of how suburi connects to the core (tanden)
The ethos of insight
Bruce Lee once said that he didn't fear the man who had practiced 10,000 kicks, but he did fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times. What he was talking about was depth of insight into not only the movement but also oneself. Related to the point above, the attitude of commitment enables one to reap rewards that remain out of reach otherwise. There is a level of understanding that is not conceptual or nameable, it is simply demonstrated by how well one can perform a technique when required and with consistency.
With suburi, one of the things we are doing is maintaining muscle-memory with regard to manipulating the sword. The sword is a tool that works only when used precisely, even though this cutting movement is a simple one. The human body is always failing in its ability to re-create this precision movement, because the sword and the human body are fundamentally different. With suburi, one is engaged in maintaining the discipline and precision of co-ordinated muscle use necessary for a successful cut, as well as learning new things about how the body and this linear object interact.
On the one hand there is the action of the hands, arms and shoulders in relation to the cutting action itself. Then there is the action of the lower body, the mechanism that delivers the cutting action to the opponent. These need to work together, which is why suburi usually has a footwork element even if it is only forwards and backwards on the spot.
Through repetition, a kenshi gains insight not only in how to perform these upper and lower body actions efficiently, but also begins to understand the connection between them. She or he realises it's not just about arms and legs but also about the spine, the muscles of the core, the hip flexors and buttocks, and how all of these effect posture, weight transfer and stabilisation.
Given this importance, it might seem a little strange that I have all but eliminated suburi from our regular training routine. However this is not because I don't believe suburi is important.
It is because I believe that most current members see suburi as a dojo-only form of training. It is my aim to put the onus squarely on the individual to do suburi themselves outside of training, by removing it from training as much as possible. I hope that those who do not do it at home will start to see their Kendo deteriorate, and will realise for themselves why it is important.
Of course if their Kendo does not deteriorate without suburi then it was a waste of time all along!
* When you read this phrase and it doesn't even occur to you to snicker, you know you're a Kendo tragic.
Saturday, October 3, 2015
Nagae Sumitaka sensei, Kendo Kyoshi 7th dan (1921-2011)
Many of you know that recently we held the third annual kendo gasshuku for high school students at the Kenshikan. The aim is to improve the quality of Australian kendo through building the number of young people who love kendo.
At the gasshuku, some of the young kenshi trained harder than they had ever trained before. A few of them reached the point where they felt they couldn't go on. Tears, wanting to vomit, being unable to breathe, they experienced the full range of physical and psychological symptoms of going beyond their limits.
In kendo culture this is a sign of the best training you could hope for!
Everyone who has been there knows that it's really an unpleasant place to be. For a young person who has not experienced anything like it before, and who doesn't know that it is temporary, it is even more frightening. It can feel like the end of everything, like a near-death experience.
Of course the important thing about these kind of experiences is not that they are fun or some kind of 'macho' badge of toughness, but that we come to learn that we can survive them. At the end of the training session where some had reached their limit I felt that it was important to let them know this.
The best way to explain something is to embed it in a story, and fortunately Nagae sensei had told me a story of when he had survived similar experiences and what that had done for him. He told me that in 1933 when he was only 12 years old his father sent him to train at the dojo of Kokushikan Senmon Gakko (later Kokushikan University). Kokushikan has always been regarded as one of the strongest universities for kendo. Nagae sensei, as a quite frail, asthmatic boy was up against young men who had no concern for his safety or well-being. This was the pre-War era when the ethos of kendo training was preparing for actual combat. Nagae sensei found out later that some of the Kokushikan team would put lead weights inside their shinai near the tip to give them more weight and a louder sound when striking.* This meant they would be more likely to score the winning point in matches that, at that time, were adjudicated by a single shinpan solely on whether a strike would have been a decisive, killing blow.
He told me that he cried before training, he cried during training and he cried after training. The blows of the university students were so hard he was in a lot of pain during and after training, and of course there was the fear in anticipation of going back. One can only imagine what it must have been like!
But he said that this experience came to his aid many times in his life, not least of which when he was sent to Europe after the war to research new industrial techniques for his employer Snow Brand. As a Japanese amongst war-scarred Europeans, Nagae sensei was the target not just of racism but open hatred and threats. He told me it was quite common for Japanese businessmen in such circumstances (and there was a number of them it seems) to commit suicide rather than ask to return home. It was against this extreme stress, fear and isolation that his tough experiences at Kokushikan came back to protect him. He was able to put his present troubles in context, knowing he just needed to keep going and he would be OK. If his early experiences had not been so terrible, if they had been merely unpleasant, he might not have found them so helpful later on. I would suggest that the protective factor about his time at Kokushikan was that those experiences threatened his very survival. It was a near-death experience over and over again, if not in the physical sense then at least in the psychological sense.
As I told the story, I knew that it was giving some tired and stressed young kenshi the chance to regroup internally. There was silence in the dojo, the kind where you know people are listening. Some of the more experienced kenshi who knew Japanese kendo but not the story were nodding in agreement, marvelling at the idea of a 12 year old training with the powerhouse Kokushikan.
It was not long before I saw smiles on the faces that were earlier crying and stressed. And it felt appropriate that at the Kenshikan, his old dojo, Nagae sensei was teaching a new generation of kenshi the meaning of kendo.
On reading back this article, it occurred to me that some might misconstrue my main contention, and believe that I was condoning abusive training as a positive value of benefit to young people. This is a fraught area and I have written about it before here:
(indeed I had forgotten I had wrote it, I thought George had! I was genuinely surprised to find my name at the bottom!)
Nagae sensei's childhood occurred in a much different world to the one I live in. Few parents would submit their children to exactly the kind of training that Nagae sensei told me about. But then, how hard was it really? His 12 year old self, recalled at a distance of more 70 years, remembered the university students as mountains, ruthless and cold. Would their treatment of him if observed by an adult be still considered extreme? And which adult? A contemporary Australian one or an early Showa-era, Japanese one? Male or female? Kenshi or non-kenshi? Most importantly, was I guilty of driving the students at the gasshuku to such abusive extremes?
All I can say is that their training at the gasshuku was less than one tenth as hard as what I would consider 'hard'. Perhaps if and when these students reach my age and stage of Kendo they will think about this first gasshuku and wonder at two things: a) how hard it seemed, and b) how easy it actually was!
*Almost as confirmation of this, the current Regulations for Kendo Shiai state:
Article 2: The specifications of Shinai referred to in article 3 of the Regulations shall be as follows:
1. Shinai shall consist of four slats and shall not include therein other objects than the core inside Sakigawa and Chigiri inlaid at the end of the Tsuka...
The Regulations of Kendo Shiai and Shinpan, International Kendo Federation (revised 1996)
Friday, September 18, 2015
Last weekend I was on a grading panel for the first time in a long time. It was a real reminder for me of the way the levels progress in Kendo.
In Japan, kyu grades are designed for children and dan grades for adults. In Australia, where the majority of people start Kendo as adults, kyu grades are a necessity for all. It is possible to double-grade and this is important, allowing those who can pick up the basic skills of Kendo quickly for whatever reason to move ahead more quickly than the norm. This is as much for the protection of the 'average' Kenshi (is there such a thing?) as it is for recognising excellence. How? Well it allows the grading panel to advance a stand-out candidate, rather than grade down (or 'moderate') his or her fellows in comparison.
In other words, if you're just an average Joe going for 3rd kyu, and you're grading next to some guy who grew up doing Kendo in Japan as a kid but who never graded until now, he's going to make you look bad, right? Wrong. Gradings are not competitions. All the grading panel is looking for is whether or not you can perform the requirements to a set of quality criteria. If you can, great, you pass. If you perform really, really well, then you pass and may get to come back and try for the level above.
This is the first grade in Kendo in Australia and therefore is the easiest. The focus is on demonstrating correct attire (chakuso) and correct basics from standing to bowing to sonkyo, kamae and so on. It is difficult only because you will be nervous. Everything you're being asked to do should have been mastered weeks or months before. You wear do and tare. Almost impossible to fail.
TIP: even though you might feel like your job is done, stay and watch closely those who come after so you know what to expect at 5th kyu.
is almost as easy as 6th even though for most it comes six months down the track. Six months extra training and the confidence of knowing what the grading will feel like makes 5th kyu probably even easier than 6th, because there's not a lot extra required. Still only wearing do and tare, the only extra is kirikaeshi against a motodachi in full bogu. Simple. Still close to impossible to fail.
TIP: train hard in the months between 6th and 5th kyu and aim to double-grade here by absolutely smashing it with perfect basics. Just make sure you have your men and kote handy...
This is a bit of a shock now because from here until 8th dan you'll be wearing full bogu for every grading. But still, you will usually have at least 18 months Kendo under your belt by now, so you should be able to do this one in your sleep. They're still looking at how you wear everything, how you stand and bow, straightness of posture and so on, but now there are more cuts required and you also have to receive cuts. There will be multiple cuts as well and finally uchikomigeiko, which is difficult if you're nervous. People often start to use too much energy here: too much kiai and too much stiffness in their arms and shoulders, perhaps because perhaps they feel like there's a trick somewhere. "This stuff is easy isn't it? But look at all those judges! That must mean this is really hard. Must put in extra!" Well don't. Just do it nice and easy, big and correct, loud and relaxed. Difficult to fail but sometimes happens, mainly because a candidate shows they don't know the basics at all. This is more their instructor's fault for letting them grade when they weren't ready.
TIP: Keep you left heel up like you know you're supposed to!
Third kyu is a long list of things to do. Everything from 4th kyu and now also sandanwaza (three cuts in a row). Sometimes, depending on who's head judge, you might have to do kakarigeiko. But hopefully not. Could be tiring if you're not prepared for it. Remember you expend about three times the energy to do in a grading what you can do easily in training*. Double-grading here is tricky, because what comes after this is very different. And yet one person did it last weekend so it's far from impossible. Failure is starting to be a possibility, particularly on the quality of you performance, not so much just on whether you got the movements correct.
TIP: Enjoy it. This is the last drill-oriented, rote-learned, kihon-based grading you'll ever do in Kendo.
Now failure is a real possibility, and the criteria have a subjective element, as you enter the realm of jitsugi. Jitsugi is similar to shiai. The reiho is the same, but there are no shinpan. The Dojo Steward calls hajime! and yame! He or she will also call sore made! which means "it ends here" and that's when you do sonkyo. The big difference between jitsugi and shiai is that jitsugi is not competitive. You do fight of course but there is no winner and no loser. Both candidates can pass any given jitsugi. It is not an 'either-or' situation. So you should not worry about your opponent's attacks and whether they land or score. Don't try to block or dodge. Focus only on your own attacks and being as effective and correct as possible, because this is where it's different. Up until now every grading you've done has been about whether your Kendo is beautiful and correct. Now it also has to be effective. You have to score a winning ippon. You're starting to see what sho-dan looks like from here.
TIP: Train hard and regularly for this one, and against as many different people as you can. Visit other dojos and do extra training. Suburi every day. Watch great Kendo on Youtube and great Sensei in real life.
A knowledgeable kenshi once told me that the gap between 7th dan and 8th dan is wider than the gap between 1st dan and 7th dan. This thinking applies to the kyu grades as well. The higher you go, the more is expected of you. For 6th kyu to 4th kyu you have to perform everything you performed last time and more. For 3rd kyu and up you have to also perform it better than last time.
*(not a scientific measurement)
Monday, August 3, 2015
Well whaddya know? I was browsing eBay with the keyword "Kendo" and came across this, publishing date of 31 July 2015.
Kendo: Culture of the Sword is the new book by Alex Bennett, founder of Kendo World, NZ team coach and the go-to guy if you want to know anything about Budo culture but can't speak or read Japanese very well (just ask Anthony Bourdain and Terry Schappert), or even if you can but you need to have an expert on hand (ask Nicholas Pettas and even the national broadcaster NHK).
But Alex is much more than a TV tarento (celebrity), he is a bona fide academic in the area of Kendo and related martial arts. After doing a year as a high school exchange student in the late 80s, at some point he must have thought, "How do I stay in Japan to keep doing Kendo?" It's a question most kendo tragics ask themselves in their early 20s. In Alex's case he decided he wasn't just going to teach English at GEOS for 12 months and then go home. Like another well known Kendo über-tragic, George McCall, Alex dug deep and must have said to himself "Bugger it! I'm gonna stay here and do Kendo whatever it takes!" Fast forward twenty years and, hey presto, he's living the dream.
Kendo: Culture of the Sword is really the book he has been building up to writing for a long time. I've been aware of Alex and his work in this area since I first signed up to Kendo World forum in 2002. I think at that stage he had only just submitted his PhD thesis titled "Towards a Definition of Budo"; and in Japanese no less. Since then he has worked tirelessly in both academia and as a high-level translator. Along the way he has achieved his 7th dan in Kendo. He was even kind enough to help yours truly via email when I needed some inside info for a Masters' assignment on contemporary Japanese culture. Not that that last one was a life highlight for him, it just makes me slightly relevant.
Alex's academic background is strongly in evidence in this book. It is written as a reference work, containing scrupulous footnotes and referencing that acknowledges and builds on scholarship in the areas of Japanese history and cultural theory. In the internet age of bloggers, trolls and keyboard warriors, this kind of informed and disciplined writing is more valuable than ever. Not surprisingly it comes in a book. A hardcover one. Published by the University of California Press.
Part of this discipline is starting from the beginning. Alex explains what Kendo is in basics and then goes all the way back to explain its history in detail. Maybe it was my own impatience, but I got the sense that it wasn't until about half way through that Alex finished with his set-up and started getting into the meat of his thesis, that is, with those parts which are his unique contribution to the area.
To my mind it is his examination of the role Kendo has played in Japanese identity from the Meiji era onwards that is the strength of this book. Very few scholars have had access to the sort of primary sources Alex has used. Hence he is able to shine new light on how Kendo has been continually 'repackaged' to suit the prevailing political needs of each era: Meiji, Taisho, Showa and Heisei.
Admirably, Alex keeps a sternly critical focus on these aspects, never letting his own love of Kendo, nor his 'insider' status lead him to making sweeping generalisations of difficult counter-arguments or gloss over legitimate criticisms of Kendo culture. For instance he questions the often nebulous and rarely (within Japan) criticised pronouncements on Kendo's 'character building' qualities. He also analyses the assumption held by most kenshi that Kendo is not a sport, and elaborates on the patently politico-cultural reasons for this belief. He also examines the notion of Kendo as a uniquely Japanese cultural product and the tension between Japanese desire for international promulgation of Kendo on the one hand and the fear of 'internationalisation' (read: dilution, misinterpretation) of Kendo on the other.
Indeed so new are these discussions, in both English and Japanese I would warrant, that many kenshi are bound to have difficulty accommodating them given the assumptions they have been taught about Kendo since day one of their beginners' courses. It is clear from the Epilogue that Alex has had trouble with this himself, and his answer is this book. For this reason alone I would recommend this book to anyone who loves Kendo.
Alex finishes with a wonderful observation from the late Yoshihiko Inoue sensei, a man for whom he has obvious respect. It is as if to calm the doubts that he must have been having about Kendo's legitimacy and purpose as a result of the long months of research and cogitation. I will leave to those who purchase the book to find out what that observation was. But as a result of some Google-jutsu after reading the book I came across a similar, very affirming observation of Inoue sensei's regarding the nature of Kendo:
The main objective of Kendo became (in the Taisho era) the development of the human character... meaning that through disciplined practice we develop the right mental attitude... one can contribute towards peace and prosperity for all humanity across the world, thus reflecting our own humanity. This is what it means to develop the human character in Kendo. Therefore something that cannot contribute towards peace and prosperity in the world cannot be called Kendo.
There are many reasons for enjoying this book: the clear and rigorous history that takes into account new ideas about 'invented tradition' and 'aestheticised swordsmanship'. There are many photos that I've never seen before, especially of shinai kyogi, the short-lived, post-War replacement for Kendo. As a school teacher, one of my favourites bits is Alex's translation of the Japanese Ministry of Education's Three Pillars of Kendo Education (2006), a curriculum framework document that simplifies Kendo's benefits into the kind of Powerpoint-friendly bullet points only an Education bureaucrat could love.
On a pedantic note, I was chuffed to read that Alex disagrees with the common English translation of the Concept of Kendo, which uses the term katana (刀). I have long felt that since the Japanese original uses the term ken/tsurugi (剣) it should be translated as: "...via the application of the principles of the Sword." Katana refers to a physical sword, whereas ken is the conceptual or metaphorical Sword. What English accomplishes with capitalisation and definite or indefinite articles, Japanese accomplishes with synonyms of approximate equivalence but quite different historical meaning. A minor quibble perhaps...
Alex is already the most lettered historian and theorist of Kendo in English. I think if and when he comes out with a Japanese-language version of this book, he will become one of the most important scholars of Budo in any language.