Kenshi Journal

kendo musings

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Shu, Ha, Ri ( 守破離) ~Follow, break, leave

Shu, Ha, Ri ( 守破離) ~Follow, break, leave

The essence of Shu Ha Ri is, in the beginning, one focuses on learning the basics through imitation (Shu), next, the focus shifts to understanding principles, philosophy, meaning, and applying that to oneself (Ha), focus finally shifts to self-directed teaching and innovation (Ri).

Shu refers to the stage of the beginner. This is the stage where everything is new to the incoming student. He is bombarded with large amounts of new information and may feel overwhelmed by it all. At this stage, the would-be practitioner must discard all that they believe they know. Most beginners think they know a great deal already about what is kendo is. They have watched many instructional videos, read books, visited you-tube daily, and have even bought a shinai and perhaps swung it around in the backyards. But in truth, they are bringing nothing of use to the dojo when they do this. In the Shu stage, one should be a blank slate, ready to absorb all that the teacher is giving. Instruction is mainly demonstration with the expectation that one will attempt to duplicate what was shown. Duplication of what the sensei does is the essence of the Shu stage. It is a vital stage, for it is now that kihon or fundamentals will be learned. This is when the muscles will remember from those endless repetitions that you think the sensei is not paying attention to. It is not the time or place to elaborate on your theories of how this or that waza could be improved. These wazas have survived because they worked in order to save a swordsman life at one point. The fact that he was alive to teach is was proof of its efficiency. I would venture to say the teaching method adopted in this stage of practice has its root in the apprenticeship.

The Ha stage begins to take form when the budoka has spent at least a decade of serious practice. At this point, the basics should have been learned and the muscles will have formed the necessary memory connections. If the instructor is a good one, along the way she would have begun to transfer more than just the bare essence of physical instruction. Instruction with your teacher is still necessary as she continues to provide the example for your progress, but the kata/waza starts to become your own. As such, one may start to look carefully at the timing and rhythm of the kata, or begin to think about the real concerns of distancing. More important, some of your identity may begin to surface in your budo. Slight adjustments may start to be made to fit the kata/waza to your speed or strengths as you begin to internalize the kata. For most budoka this is the hardest stage. The beginning was full of excitement, a new technique was always waiting in the next trip to the dojo. And once you showed the sensei you had a grasp of this new waza, maybe she would teach you another. Thus, the motivation to continue was high. Practice is rather different as one progress through the long path of the Ha stage. The introduction of new katas are technique are rare, indeed the instructor may not acknowledge you for some time, occasionally stopping you mid kata to correct the smallest detail that you are still wondering how he noticed. This is when your kendo begins to assume a personality. This is where the balance of the individual character and the teachings of the sensei is hard to maintain. With the kihon understood, one now starts to learn the underlying principles and theory behind the technique. Now more than ever it is important to start to delve into the deeper meaning of the movements and techniques under the continued guidance of a teacher. The student might start to branch out and seek instruction from others and incorporate this into his budo.

The Ri stage is when one leaves the umbrella of their instructor behind, but also realizes the spiral staircase of keiko leads back to the self-directed refinement of the basics, as one has learned that the true mastery lies in the mastery of those core teachings.




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Kendo by the numbers part 2

The eligibility date for promotional testing is approaching and that has inspired me to reflect on a few things.  I have maintained a steadfast method of how I approach regular  practice and shinsa preparation that has been forged under the guidance of my sensei and instructors. Those in the kendo community often speak about, some boast, about the difficulty of kendo examinations as one ascends in rank, and about the “grueling” 8th dan test. Quite a bit of it comes from the National Geographic documentary some time ago. Miyamoto Musashi said “the way in training.” Endo sensei told me a few times “the answers will be found in keiko.” Nevertheless, my analytical side peeked out and asked “what do the pass percentages look like?”  The All Japan Kendo Federation has since 2012 it seems, adopted the practice of posting the shinsa results online for Kodansha tests. I wondered as to the trends in attempts and pass rate percentages, and also would differing ranks display different trends. I assumed that the trends would be differ between iaido and kendo but have learned many times not make assumptions, especially when there is data.

The plots in the left panel below shows the number of people that attempted the shinsa as a function of  year. The population that attempted the test for 6th, 7th, and 8th dan, are given as the solid blue, red, and black curves, respectively. The right panel displays the pass percentage as a function of year. The curves for 6th, 7th, and 8th follow the same designation as the left panel.

The population of iaido practitioners that attempted the 7th dan in each year is roughly 40-50% of the 6th dan that attempted, whereas in kendo, the fall off is around 25%. The population that show up at the iaido promotional exams pale in comparison to kendo, comprising up only about 6%, 3.5%, and  4% of the kendo populations that attempted the 6th, 7th, and 8th test annually.

The data revealed that the 6th and 7th dan pass rates for iaido have been similar and hovered around 20-22% for the last five years aside from the increase in 2015 for 6th dan. However, for kendo, 6th and 7th dan pass rates display remarkably corresponding trends with a overall slight growth, yet preserving a clear separation of 3-4%.


Lastly, I compared the trends of 8th dan iaido and kendo pass rate percentages. The plots below presents the pass rate percentage for the 8th dan promotional exam for iaido and kendo as the black and red curves respectively. For the 8th dan promotional exams, as expected, the pass rate percentage for kendo has remained consistently below 1% peaking in 2013, where it came dangerously close to breaking through the event horizon, and as if in response to the affront fell the next year. This trend is not seen for iaido were the pass percentage has varied from 4-6%  and does not display an equivalency with that of the kendo curve.


I make no conclusions about the results presented, but found the brief study as source of motivation to continue to refine myself through the daunting and rewarding way of the sword.


Kendo by the numbers



Fig.1. Population of registered dan holders in Japan (2014)

The data for these plots below was acquired from Kendo Culture of the Sword by Dr. Alex Bennett. As usual, his books a small masterpieces chocked full of knowledge. I have assumed that being the trusted scholar that he is, that the data is correct. He presented this data in a table but I decided to present it graphically to illustrated a few things. It is my impression that a lot of kendoka outside of Japan thinks everyone in Japan does kendo, they don’t. What I would like to bring the focus on are the large number of dan holders for 1dan and 2dan. They account for roughly about 75% of the registered dan holders as shown in the second figure. The numbers fall of at 3dan then rapidly drop for 4th and 5th. I would argue that the reduction in population for 3dan might have to do with students graduating from universities and then having limited time to continue their practice. The data presents us with a clearer image of the number of practitioners that are in the beginners ranks (1-3), that progress to that middle ranks (4-5), and ever make it up to the higher ranks (6 and above).  A recent post on kendo ranks in the terms of academic ranking can help.  Below is the population percentage of dan holders in Japan by rank.


Fig. 2. Percentage by rank of registered dan holders in Japan (2014)



Fig. 3 Percentage by gender of registered dan holder in Japan (2014)

For the most part, those involved in kendo have an idea of the sparseness of female partitioners at higher ranks, here we can clearly see the rapid decline of representation after 3dan. If we consider that there are probably more female kendoka in Japan that in the US, I would venture that the decline happens after 2dan in the US in contrast to after 3dan in Japan.

After spending the time to compile these results it got me really thinking about performing something similar but expanded for the AUSKF. Most kendoka in the US have a vague idea of what the population of the US kendo community is, but no one knows for sure. I would like to remedy that. I am interested in conducting a longitudinal study on the AUSKF registered membership that includes:

  1. The population of kyu/dan holders
  2. The gender population of kyu/dan holders
  3. The population of kyu/dan holders by age
  4. The population of kyu/dan holders by rank
  5. The population of kyu/dan holders by geographic region (i.e. local federation/state)

This could of course be extended to shogo title holders, but I think the data set would be so small it would be hard to draw any statistical conclusions.

The next idea would be to perform a survey of all registered AUSKF members to gather data for a broader study. Particularly, I am interested in the following:

  1. Racial/ethic heritage of AUSKF members
  2. Population of kyu/dan holders by racial/ethic heritage
  3. Occupation of registered AUSKF members
  4. The number of attempts at each rank
  5. Reason(s) for beginning the practice of Kendo
  6. Reason(s) for continuing/not continuing practice
  7. Number of practice sessions per week regularly attended
  8. Number of tournaments/seminar attended annually
  9. Number of family members involved in kendo practice
  10. Other budo previously/currently practiced
  11. Injuries suffered

The results of this study could possibly be utilized to inform the AUSKF, EKF, FIK, and AJK communities of the current US kendo population and its evolution over time, with special attention to the increased internationalization of Kendo worldwide. It could provide evidence to support AUSKF’s policy for truncated training periods between rank eligibility for members over 60 years of age. Also, it may support the federations outlook of 5th dan as the starting rank for kodansha. Moreover, it believe it would provide a method of comparison to AJKF, FIK, and EKF populations and hopefully incite further global discussions.

This is all but a thought. Lets see I can actually ever make this happen. In the meantime buck up and enjoy your time in the dojo.


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Kendo rank in terms of academic ranking

Most of my time has been spent in academia and as a result I began question what kendo ranks might equate to in terms of the academic ranking system. Below is a chart that is the result of that exploration. As I put this together I also thought about what I perceive as a difference between the AUSKF and AJKF in regards to where the sensei ranks begin. The AUSKF defines kodansha ranks as 5dan or above, whereas AJKF defines it as 6dan or above. It the framework I have designed, it means the difference between being a sensei with master’s or doctorate. I fully acknowledge that the relations I have outlined may not be agreed upon but it does get you thinking. rank-academia.002.jpg



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Nihon Kendo Kata

The is a quick summarization and development of a previous post of a lesson from Kendo Hanshi 8 dan, Inoue Yoshihiko Sensei. I strongly suggest that readers pick up Inoue sensei’s book Kendo Kata: Essence and Application edited by Dr. Alex Bennett.

Ipponme: The first kata of the Nihon Kendo kata has opponents facing each other with swords drawn in which both adopt a jodan kamae with the swords held above the heads. The waza of the kata involves men-nuki-men. The uchidachi attacks with a fully committed cut that is avoided by the shidachi by stepping backwards just enough to escape the maai, who then returns with a cut to the uchidachi’s men. This kata demonstrates the concepts of kenjutsu, the killing techniques with a sword. In this kata one works on acquiring the skills to smite an enemy with one blow.

Nihonme: The second kata demonstrates concepts in between kenjutsu and kendo, killing techniques with a sword and the way of the sword. The waza under study in nihonme is kote-nuki-kote, which involves a cut to the wrist by the uchidachi that is avoided and is followed by a cut to the uchidachi’s wrist executed by the shidachi. In the second kata, one develops the techniques to disarm the opponent without taking their life.

Sambonme: The third kata in the series illustrates the underlying concept of  kendo. Here the shidachi parries a thrust by the uchidachi and responds with a thrust, and then continues to advance with a resolute spirit until the uchidachi concedes. The third kata exemplifies the joy of life. The shidachi controls the enemy with a superior presence, but does not injure them in the process. Finally, by sensing the importance of life, both return unharmed.

Inoue sensei is known for stating the following about modern kendo. “Kendo is a way of life as opposed to techniques of death.”



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The desire NOT to kill

Thoughts on Nihon Kendo Kata by Inoue Yoshihiko Sensei, 8th dan
(日本剣道形 by 井上先生範士八段)
Japan has become so used to peace nowadays, that few take the time to reflect on their mortality. I hope people learn to recognize the finality of death though the Kendo Kata. Once the practitioner grasps this, their Kata will become ‘alive’. Ippon-me is essentially kenjutsu (killing techniques of the sword). Sanbon-me represents kendo (the Way of the sword). Nihon-me falls between the two extremes.
“Chi-jin-yu” is the fundamental philosophy in kendo. “Chi” refers to the wisdom or to judge things correctly. “Jin” means benevolence, kindness or consideration to other humans. “Yu” refers to the valour needed to action things.
Ippon-me: Acquiring the skill to smite an enemy with one blow; Nihon-me: ‘Disarming’ the enemy without actually killing him; Sanbon-me: Recognising the joy of living. Controlling the enemy with superior presence, but not spilling a drop of blood in the process. Then, sensing the joy of living, both return unharmed. This is the ultimate objective in kendo.

Learning the ‘Authority of the Kensen’ through Kendo Kata

The most important thing in kendo is probing and applying pressure (seme) on the opponent using the kensen. Without using the kensen to pressurise the opponent, kendo would gradually disintegrate into merely hitting people with sticks. Applying seme with the kensen also enables the practitioner to gauge correct maai.
Learning Correct Keiko Attitude through Kendo Kata 

Most of the time these days, winning and losing is the focus of keiko. How replete one’s spiritual energy or power is has become almost irrelevant. People compete in shiai to determine winners and losers, whereas keiko is for the improvement of both sides. It is important that both sides engage in keiko with full spirit. If you can achieve this, one bout of 2 or 3 minutes will be exhausting, just like it was in the old days. Nowadays, unless told to stop, most people do keikowith each other for 10~15 minutes a time. They practice to beat each other, and give little consideration to the objective of mutual improvement. This is precisely the kind of keiko attitude that can be nurtured through the practice of Kendo Kata.

Important Points for Enbu and Keiko – Differences According to Level

Against beginners the instructor (Uchidachi) in the Itto-ryu “makes it seem as though he will strike, but ensures that it misses”. Against mid-level adepts, he “makes it seem as though he will strike, but just stops short”. Against advanced practitioners, he “makes it seem as though he will strike, and does.”

In Kendo Kata, most Uchidachi do not have sufficient zanshin. When they have yelled “yaa!” this is where it finishes for them. However, even when a person is cut, he does not die immediately. When I worked as a prison guard [in the gallows], even though the executed prisoner lost consciousness, his body would still move for a while. There is nothing scarier as this. This aspect of zanshin which facilitates an understanding of dying is missing.
Kendo Kata that Connects Prewar and Postwar Kendo

Even though postwar kendo was recreated after a period of forced cessation as something completely new, old kendo can still be found in the Kendo Kata. If Kendo Kata is neglected, then there is the distinct possibility that kendo will devolve into act of playing tit-for-tat hitting with ashinai [completely forgetting its origins and theoretical basis]. In Sanbon-me, the target is a thrust to the solar-plexus, which is not a valid target area in modern kendo. However, Sanbon-me represents true kendo. The sword does not contact the body of the opponent and draw any blood. Both Shidachi and Uchidachi come out of the encounter unscathed. Ultimately, Shidachi overcomes Uchidachi with the highest form of assailment called “kurai-zeme” in which the opponent is subdued through force of spirit and presence. The vanquished acknowledges defeat and feels joy at being allowed to live. To not die, but carry on living – the importance of life becomes clear here. This is the biggest reason why “kenjutsu” was changed in name to “kendo” – A Way of life as opposed to techniques of death.

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Emptiness with emptiness, real with real

In regards to the use of the sword, the right hand is the jitsu, (実) real, the left hand is kyo,(虚) emptiness. They are both needed and exhibit the dichotic nature when expressed in balance. But when facing an opponent meet kyo, emptiness, with emptiness. If your foe strikes into the emptiness, become jitsu. Become real. The stance of emptiness can only be met with emptiness. Both opponents, neither moving nor moved. No temptation. But the real demands the real. Reality, striking into emptiness. When unequal opponents battle, that decides the victor. The powerful sees through his opponent’s emptiness and finds the opening. When both are evenly matched it cannot be, no opening to be found for either. And thus, both strike the stance of emptiness. Wait. Patience. Tempt. He who is tempted…dies. Harmonize with the opponent. Meet emptiness with emptiness, the real with the real. 虚虚実実.
-LW&C Vol.23