Sunday, February 26, 2012


Progress in Kendo is a funny thing.

People often worry about whether they are getting better, usually they are worried that they are not progressing "fast enough".

This is a difficult thing to measure.

Most people's yardstick for improvement is by comparing themselves to the people around them. This is wrong. Some people progress or improve faster than others at various times. Some rare people become very good very quickly. However these people, in my experience, nearly always give up Kendo after only a few years. Exactly why I don't know. Maybe it's too easy for them.

I've learned to disregard "talent" in my students.

More often it is the ones who struggle with Kendo who are the best students. They are the ones who really progress to the higher levels. So I keep a closer eye on the uncoordinated ones, the unphysical ones. As a teacher I know I am more likely to get a bigger return on my investment of time and instruction.

The other reason that comparing yourself to the others around you is wrong is that they are improving too. So at best, you're not going to look like you're progressing at all, because for every improvement in your Kendo, they make a similar improvement in theirs.

It's like cars on a freeway. If you and the car next to you are both doing 110 km/h, then relative to each other, you are both travelling at 0 km/h.

So if you ask me about progress I will answer I don't care about progress. I only care if you come to training.

If you train regularly, that's progress. That is the journey.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Image and reflection: thinking your way out of a rut

Following on from the post on Stages of Kihon, there are two steps in your mental training that are very important for your improvement. One is the mental picture you have of what you are about to do, and the second is the ability to reflect on what you have done.

These things are more important the further you go in Kendo. If you are a kyu grade, then the main thing is turning up to training as often as possible and doing your best. If you don't think too much about these things that's OK.

But as you progress you might find you keep making the same mistakes over and over, or you might get stuck in a rut — like you're not improving and everyone one else around you is. In this situation, being able to analyse your Kendo clearly is an important part of improving.

Image training is where you imagine yourself doing your best Kendo. This is all well and good, but what I used to find was I wound up imagining lots of losing scenarios as well. It is very difficult for most people to think of themselves as 100% hero in their own minds. Doubts, low confidence, remembering past failures, all these things can come crowding in when you stop to imagine yourself doing Kendo.

So the first thing you need is a positive image to aspire to: a positive, realistic image.

The easiest and best thing to do is imagine the Kendo of someone you admire and copy their style. Aim to be like them. As the old teachers would say, "Steal my technique!" If you love Chiba sensei's Kendo, copy his Kendo, his movements, his habits. Copy everything about him, or whomever it is you chose.

When we do this we put into operation things we haven't consciously understood, things we couldn't describe in words, but nevertheless things we can clearly see and copy. If there is something about another's Kendo that makes you go "wow!", then be that person. "Wow" is you understanding the core of what that person's Kendo is. It's not an undertstanding that operates in words. It might not even be "thinking" in the usual sense. Perhaps it is thinking-feeling-intuition all happening at once. The new theory of mirror neurons in the brain could be a possible explanation of how this works.

When I was a kid there were really only two sports to choose from, footy and cricket (only rich kids played tennis! hehe). We played both of course. Often we would muck around imitating famous players and their styles. You only needed a Ted Whitten footy card to be able to copy his unique way of kicking the football. We would have fun bowling like Max Walker (his bowling action earned him the nickname "Tangles") or Dennis Lillee with his long run-up,  the great Indian spinner Bishin Bedi with elbows held high, or trickiest of all, Jeff Thompson. It was fun because it was a way of getting into the skin of these famous players. Some of us would secretly try to keep some of these aspects as part of our technique because they really worked for us (except for Thommo's action, that was impossible!). But we didn't want anyone to think we were copying anyone. We wanted our own style.

In Japanese culture, imitation is not only "the sincerest form of flattery", it is the expected way a student will learn from their teacher.

This is the other half of the process. Think about how it went. Did I do that men cut how I wanted to? Was it accurate? Did it 'stick'? How was my tenouchi? How was my posture? Were all my movements in unison? Would it have scored ippon?

This process doesn't have to take long. Don't beat yourself up, a moment is all you need to answer the question, yes or no. Then move on and try again.

If you have trouble working out how you went then ask me or another experienced partner. Don't ask during the exercise but maybe at the end before you bow and move to the next person.

Focus on just one thing at a time. Make a plan to work on a single aspect of your Kendo. If you're not sure what that should be then ask me (or for non-Nanseikaners, your own sensei). Sensei are always watching their students and know their progress well. Sometimes you may think the problem is due to something you are doing with, for instance, your hands. But your sensei may tell you to concentrate on your footwork, which leaves your hands free to act by themselves, so to speak. This is why it is important to have people to instruct you who have been there before you.

Video is another excellent way of reflecting on how your Kendo is right now It is objective and very direct.

In the end, regular training is the best way to improve. But if you can't get to the dojo regularly, or if you are in a rut, feeling like you keep repeating mistakes, image and reflection can help you find your way out.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

修証一等 Practice and enlightenment are one.

This calligraphy reads from right to left in the traditional manner. It says Shu Sho Itto and means "Practice and enlightenment are essentially the same". 

Shu means to study something with complete dedication. Sho means 'proof' or 'attainment'. You could think of shu as being the journey and sho as the goal.

The saying is from the founder of the Soto Zen sect Dogen Zenji. Soto Zen focuses on sitting meditation and a 'gradual' approach to Enlightenment rather than the 'sudden' approach of the Rinzai Sect. 

Rinzai Zen uses sitting meditation and also Koan practice where the student meditates on a kind of nonsensical riddle such as, "Two hands together make a clapping sound. What is the sound of one hand?" There are a lot of historical stories about Rinzai Zen students having a sudden realisation or awakening — satori or kensho —where they became enlightened to the nature of life, birth, death and everything.

Dogen believed that this approach was flawed and that such awakening moments were all well-and-good, but what do you do afterwards? For him, and for Soto Zen students still, the most important thing is to keep practicing, keep sitting in meditation. He believed that enlightenment was not separate from practice itself. That way you wouldn't accidentally become attached to the fact that you may have had an enlightenment experience and get a big head about it. 

He also believed that enlightenment was not something you had to search for and sweat over, or rather, searching and sweating were no guarantee of enlightenment. He taught that this right here is enlightenment, whatever you are doing or experiencing right now. But the only way most of us can ever perceive this is to sit in meditation. So just sit and don't worry about becoming enlightened. Eventually you will experience some benefits from meditation. Is it enlightenment? It doesn't matter, just keep practicing.

This is very like the way we should think of our kendo practice. We may win competitions or achieve high grades. Or we may not. Doesn't matter. The main thing is to keep practicing. Practice will help us to improve. Even when we think we are hopeless and want to give up, we don't need to worry about it if we keep training. Training itself is success. This is a very profound teaching. This is what "Shu sho itto" means.

The calligraphy

This tenugui is written in reisho, 隷書 or scribe script, one of the oldest styles of calligraphy. Reisho was developed in the Qin Dynasty (221 - 207 BC) for use by Chinese Government officials.  Reisho  characters are written slightly wider than normal script, and horizontal strokes have a characteristic bowed shape, with often an exaggerated tail on the right hand side. Also, all boxes must meet cleanly on each corner, with no obvious strokes sticking out like is usual for the more cursive styles of gyosho and sosho. The other big difference is that each stroke is started with a reverse movement, creating a small knob or serif. For example a vertical stroke, which are always made going top to bottom, should in the case of reisho always start with a short upwards movement.


The article was originally published on Dojo News, but I have moved it here as it fits better the purpose of this blog.

This calligraphy is (c) Ben Sheppard, all rights reserved. Please contact me if you wish to reproduce it in any way. ichibyoshi at gmail. So long as it is not for commercial purposes or is altered in any way, I can't see a problem. But I would like to know before it gets reposted anywhere. Thanks.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Stages of kihon

Kihon (基本) means the basic or fundamental practice of Kendo.  It is the ideal, perfect movement for each particular technique: the ideal men-uchi, kote-uchi, do-uchi, tsuki, suriage-men, etc, etc.

In Kendo we learn the fundamental way of doing things first. We don't say to people, "jump in, have a go and just see what the hell works." Kendo sensei are very careful to teach people what they see as the right way, which in the beginning is only one way. Later on as you get more experienced, you learn for yourself that there is more than one right way, but for beginners this is too confusing. So we stick to one correct way. Experience tells us that this is the fastest way to mastering Kendo.

But there are different levels of kihon practice. They range from practice by yourself, to practice against an attacking partner wearing armour with many stages in between.

All of these levels have slightly different roles to play and different levels of difficulty. What can be easily achieved in one will be more difficult in another. This article will look at the main ones.

Idealism versus realism

The basic principle behind these different levels is that the more you have interference from outside, the more difficult and "real" the practice becomes, but also the further your practice moves from the ideal or perfect movement. All the different stages advance in difficulty. They presume the student has to some extent perfected the previous stage. So there is the sense of progress, or advancing through stages of difficulty.

However it is important to remember that the student, in order to really improve, needs to keep returning to the most basic stages of practice regularly. So progress here does not imply moving forward and doing away with the old. It is not a straight line of progression but more like a spiral: improving by returning to the beginning.

Practice by yourself

This is the most fundamental practice. Doing suburi, with nothing but the air interfering with your technique, you can concentrate on how your body moves with the shinai. You could even include "image training" here, where you are simply imagining yourself practicing. That would be the most ideal of all! It is not as silly as it sounds, and has been proven to be very helpful. But it is certainly the least "realistic" kind of training.

With suburi, the shinai and your own body provide some interference, some challenge so that your movement is not perfect. This is what helps you to research and refine what is the best way for your body.

Practice against a partner holding a shinai, or against an uchikomi-dai

This kind of practice introduces a new element, a solid target. This in turn means you have to now practice your distance or ma-ai. A partner will allow you a realistic follow through, whereas an uchikomi-dai (hitting dummy of some kind) usually forces your follow through to be a bit shortened.

Against a shinai the action of striking is pretty uncomplicated, as the target area is large and generally held flat. Different opponents will offer slightly different heights and distance, which also introduces some interference to your ideal movement and forces you to research and adapt. But this practice is still fairly easy and not that much different to solo suburi.

Practice against a partner wearing bogu

The next kind of kihon training is against someone wearing bogu. Whether you are wearing bogu as well also has a big impact.

If you are not wearing bogu, the action of striking a non-moving opponent wearing bogu introduces a new factor to your kihon, the importance of tenouchi. Knowing how hard to strike, how to make the strike 'stick' to the target area without sliding off, keeping correct hasuji (flight path and angle of blade), all these things become essential. It is now that beginners often find their men cuts are not landing properly, or that they cannot accurately strike the datotsubui (target area) of the kote or do. Problems with kote cuts include hitting the opponent's tsuba (sword guard) or hitting their kobushi (fist). Problems with do include cutting the front of the do instead of the side, cuts sliding off the do, cutting the tare, and not judging ma-ai properly leading to reaching forwards.

Tenouchi allows your cuts to stick. Correct orientation of the whole body, especially the feet, allows you to cut the actual target area and not just parts of the bogu near to the target area. Regular practice of the other, more basic forms of kihon allows you to be able to launch your cuts without hesitation or pausing at the top of the backswing, cutting in one movement (ichibyoshi), and with confidence your cuts will reach their target.

Practicing kihon against an opponent in bogu provides huge interference to your ability to perform fundamental movements, and so forces you to examine and hone what you have learned.

Practice whilst wearing bogu

Beginners are placed in bogu progressively, which means in do and tare first. Then after some time in kote as well, then finally in men.

This seems to run against the wisdom of Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) which would assume that beginners are more in need of all-over protection. Indeed, legal advice to the Victorian Kendo Renmei has suggested that in a hypothetical damages claim for an injury sustained by a beginner in normal training, a judge would be unable to be convinced of any reason why a beginner should not wear full bogu from the first day, and therefore would find against the defendant (the Kendo instructor or association) in this instance.

However the prevailing wisdom from the point of view of Kendo instruction is that full bogu presents too much interference with the learning of basic, correct movement, in other words, kihon. Therefore do and tare are worn first because they present the least interference, adding only weight to the student's body but not hampering their movement. They also allow the beginner for the first time to receive cuts to the body and be struck on the do.

Next, the wearing of kote challenges the student's ability to handle the shinai properly and to keep a straight and accurate hasuji.

Finally, wearing men deprives the student of much of their peripheral vision and hearing, adds weight to the head which affects balance of the whole body, and finally may also be uncomfortable, hot or even claustrophobia-inducing. It is the ultimate test of a beginning student's grasp of kihon. Indeed the extent to which a student regresses after wearing men can usually be a measure of the steadiness of their training to that point. Those who are well-prepared through sufficient practice regress least.

So all of the 'interferences' of the preceding stages return with a vengeance, made worse by the disorientation provided by wearing the men. The good news is that in the majority of cases, this disorientation is temporary. Usually only a couple of training sessions. For any student who has more prolonged trouble, I would suggest their instructor needs to look at other factors: lack of preparation, a physical or psychological problem, or perhaps ill-fitting bogu.

Practice against a moving opponent

This is getting close to true ji-geiko (free sparring) in difficulty. A moving opponent might be a motodachi for uchikomigeiko showing the opening for basic cuts, or may be performing a simple attack so that the student can perform a counter-attacking technique (oji-waza).

A moving opponent in bogu closes off the opportunities for easy success in judging distance and accuracy. Opportunities are by definition momentary. They come and they go. The student has to begin to read his/her opponent's body movement and rhythm. Even in drills such as uchkomigeiko, where the motodachi's aim is to lead the student to success, the timing of the cut (hyoshi) becomes a factor. Practice against different opponents always presents new difficulties even when doing the one sequence of cuts, as all people move differently and have different body geometries.


This article has looked at the natural progression of difficulty in the practice of kihon, or fundamental techniques in Kendo. It has tried to show the logic behind this progression, both for the student and for the teacher of Kendo. The important thing to learn from this 'logic' is that one should try and always keep the feeling of the most ideal practice, even when in the midst of the most difficult and 'real' situations.