A Way of Life

Photo (c)2006 annmerry

A Way of Life

by Ben Sheppard

(Author's note: This article was written to promote the 32nd Australian Kendo Championships, Melbourne 2007).

I was delighted to read Dr Jeremy Moss’ article on fencing in a previous edition of A2 (The Age, Melbourne). As a bit of a martial arts geek, I enjoy reading about almost any martial art, especially when the article appears in the mainstream media and is written by someone so erudite (most martial arts magazines I see have articles but I suspect they are there mainly to keep the Protein Supplement adverts apart). Fencing is not my art, but it shares a lot of similarities with the one I practice: kendo, the Japanese “Way of the Sword.”

When considering the martial arts, especially the Eastern ones such as kung fu, karate, tae kwon do, etc, many people mistakenly conflate the two concepts of self-defence and martial arts. I am often challenged with the philosophical chestnut of, “but it’s no good for self-defence because you don’t always carry a stick around with you.” Aside from the fact that I could relate many stories of incidences averted by the quick-thinking, humility, or self-confidence gained from kendo, the shortest reply is that kendo is not a form of self-defence. Kendo presupposes that you are deliberately engaged in a duel with someone who understands as you do the rules and consequences of what you are about to do. The kendoka, or kendo student (most don’t like the term ‘player’) is encouraged to approach the duel with a do-or-die attitude which in Japanese is called sutemi, or willingness to sacrifice everything, including one’s life.

Unlike modern fencing, where the right-of-way rule encourages a gentlemanly conversation of parry and riposte, in kendo, attacks are made to be devastatingly effective in a single blow.
"One cut, one life", as the Japanese saying goes. In former times it was not unusual for both duellists to be killed as a result of aiuchi, or a mutual strike. The mindset that has evolved as a result is every bit as gentlemanly and chivalrous as European fencing, with one difference: a Japanese swordsman had no exit strategy. Their only wish was to die having done their absolute best, without having held anything back. To survive was considered a bonus, not an outcome to be sought. "Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it." This was not a symbolic text for the samurai, it was practical advice.

And so every training encounter in kendo has inherited this mindfulness. Do everything as if it was your last act on Earth, from the way you bow at the start of training to the way you fold your hakama (culottes) afterwards. Indeed this way of thinking handed down from the samurai has famously permeated nearly every aspect of Japanese life: from the way a service station attendant remains bowing until your car passes out of sight, to the shop assistant who patiently and immaculately wraps your $7.99 imitation rice-straw thongs in the midst of a busy department store. The result is that they can make you feel like you are the only person in the world who matters.

From its origins on the battlefield of the 13th Century, the Way of the Sword became more codified as the Tokugawa military Government enforced 250 years of peace. Members of the samurai caste who were now experiencing their longest ever period of under-employment focused more and more on refining sword and other combat techniques within their own ryuha (schools). These schools established the practice of kata (pre-arranged sequences of techniques) and the tradition of passing their techniques down through the generations with little or no innovation. In the 17th Century, armour and swords that allowed the samurai full-contact practice without injury were developed. This is largely the same equipment used in modern kendo: the bamboo sword, breastplate, gauntlets, apron and the distinctive, metal-grilled helmet.

The reinvention of Japan that occurred in the 19th Century threw the country into turmoil—anyone who has seen the Last Samurai knows the basic story. The samurai were now truly unemployed, and had to get creative about finding new careers. Many went into education, creating the conditions for the martial arts or budo to become pathways to physical and spiritual development. At the same time as the first VFL footy clubs were being incorporated, kendo was making its debut as a part of the Japanese high school curriculum, a place it still holds today.

In the 1930s, the martial rather than the educational aspect of kendo was emphasised to help bolster Japan’s imperialist ambitions. Kendo played a part in the creation of a culture of ruthlessness and cruelty in the Imperial Japanese army, an army that would commit war-crimes against the peoples of Korea, China, Taiwan, and of course our own servicemen and women.

And yet this was also a golden age of mastery in the art of kendo: a handful of kendoka reached heights of technique that we may never see again. The last of these kengo (giants of the sword) was Seiji Mochida who was ranked 10th dan, a rank that no longer exists in kendo. Mochida-sensei trained constantly until his death in 1974 aged 89. Imagine if it were possible for Bradman to have done the same, always learning, always improving.

The resonances of war meant that Australian government recognition for kendo came slowly. As recently as the 1980s, the Australian Sports Commission would not recognise an art where the Japanese sword was the focus. But in the space of a single generation there has been a massive change in the way we see Japanese culture. The nori roll is the chiko roll of the 21st century, and Australia now boasts some of the finest kendo talent outside of Japan.

But what, after all this time, is the true value of kendo? How can an art-form that has lost its raison d’etre, to kill, have anything to offer a peaceful and humane society? The short answer is this. As Dr Moss said of fencing, so it is true of kendo. There is no sledging. In fact in kendo even the thought of sledging doesn’t exist. Posture, appearance and deportment as they reflect a swordsman's sincerity are so important that you can fail a grading exam based on those factors alone, even before you’ve demonstrated any technique. And perhaps something to do with the fact that you bow dozens of times every training to your various opponents also mitigates against pettiness and name-calling.

Sports which place great store in aggressive, in-your-face conflict and high levels of physicality seem to use sledging as an audible trope of their combative nature. Whether this is supposed to be seen as a sign of these sports’ intensity, or whether the players simply reserve the right to engage in tactical mind-games, it interesting that martial arts such a kendo and fencing that are truly descended from fatal violence rather than its pretence are much more protective of the sanctity of good manners. It reminds me on the one hand of the idealistic and puffed-up enthusiasm of young men who go to war, and on the other of their insights into the futility of it when they return.

This is the true value and paradox of the martial arts, and especially for me, of kendo. From trying to destroy another human being we realise, amongst many other things: the preciousness of the present moment, the importance of respect in human relations, and the stark emptiness of our own incorrigible hubris. Somehow, what began as a way of death has been transformed into a way of life.

June 2007


Caleb said…
That's a brilliant article, Ben. You're such a good writer.

I've been keeping a fairly low profile myself simply because I haven't been training for kendo, so I can't really share my experiences training here in Taiwan. I really miss it, but I have a really bad thumb/wrist tendonitis that makes many everyday activities fairly inconvenient, and kendo impossible. I've seen several doctors, as well as had acupuncture and a form of Chinese manipulative therapy. My most recent doctor also got me onto some physiotherapy which was working (I think/hope) until I had my two week vacation. I start back at physio tonight. I'm really hoping this will sort itself out. Otherwise, I may have to go the surgical route... :(

Having said that, at least I'm keeping myself fit. I've decided that if nothing else, I will do a triathlon next year, so I kept myself fairly active on my vacation (surfing, hiking, running), and I was up to 60km rides prior to that. Back on the bike tomorrow. If/when I get back to kendo, I should hit the ground running, so to speak.

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