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Kendo Journey: A "Travel Guide" from Shodan to Godan-and-a-Half

Waikato Kendo Association Grading (2009) 

Kendo Journey: A Travel Guide from Shodan to Godan-and-a-Half (中文
by Sam Tsai
December 27, 2017

Those that know me should know that back in 1998, Marleen and I moved to Hamilton, New Zealand and ended up being the only two people that practiced kendo within the 100 kilometers radius. In the following year, the stars were aligned as we formed the Waikato Kendo Association and I found myself shouldering the responsibility of being a kendo instructor.

Practicing kendo myself and teaching others how to do kendo are totally different things!

About half a year after we established the dojo, Hsu Heng-Hsiung sensei, coach of Team Taiwan, led a delegation of more than 20 kenshi to come visit us in New Zealand. About a year after their visit, I was in Taiwan visiting sensei. The first thing he said to me was, “Tell me, what are you having trouble teaching?”

I could not help myself but laugh out loud as I replied, “Coach you are wise and all knowing!”

Beyond the instruction of kendo techniques, how to help student prepare and pass rank examinations is the first problem that I ran into. The sense of accomplishment you feel when you see your students starting from “ichi-ni, ichi-ni” become yudansha is amazing. I still remember the time when I wrote in our dojo blog on Yahoo about how we generated 17-dan in our first seven years of operation (in 2006).

Thus, I would like to share the narrative about shinsa examinations that I give to the beginners in my dojo. This narrative is the synthesis of my personal experience from working with the New Zealand Kendo Federation Ranking Examinations, my personal conversations with various Japanese sensei, and my own teaching experience. My goal is to have this be like a travel guide so my beginners can have a sense of direction in their kendo journey. I hope you get something out of it as well.

To put it simply:

In the “kyu” stages, the main focus of practice should being able to execute a correct strike physically with “ki-ken-tai-itchi”. In practice, when the motodachi indicates an opening, the more coordinated the beginner is in performing the strike, the higher the kyu rank should be. By this standard, an ikkyu should be able to demonstrate ki-ken-tai-itchi in their basic strikes against a motodachi.

The basic elements of a ranking test, in order of increasing difficulty includes: chudan no kamae, ashi-sabaki, suburi (men, do, kote, joge-buri, naname-buri, haya-suburi, and etc.). In terms of the datotsu, with the assumption of having a motodachi, they should be able to execute these five basic strikes of: men, kote, do, kote-men, and kote-do.

Above is the focus of our beginner’s class.

The standards for a shodan is that two ikkyu-level kenshi should able to make “yuko-datotsu” on their peer within 1 to 2 minutes of ji-geiko time. What is the difference between the shodan then the ikkyu then you ask? The difference is that with an ikkyu, the motodachi gives the kakari-te the striking opportunity. With a shodan, they have to be able to determine the proper striking opportunity against their peer and make a yuko-datotsu.

The emphasis for a nidan is renzoku-waza. In other words, it is the demonstration of zanshin after the strike. If their first strike is successful, they should demonstrate zanshin. If their first strike is not successful, they need to maintain their mental and physical posture and follow up with a second or third strike to achieve a valid strike. This could be demonstrated in techniques such a kote-kara-no-men or men-tai-atari-hiki-men.

To use romance as an analogy, shodan means you are able to find a significant other.

For nidan, it means you are able to handle rejection after initial failure and find another significant other. Whether you salvage the initial relation (follow thru the original attack) or find another relationship (regroup and go again) is not the point. Instead, not getting over or not learning from your mistake is an indication that you are not ready for nidan.

Sandan is when we start talking about seme. We all know that seme is a very abstract concept that is hard to discuss, especially to a beginner. As there are many levels and depth to this, I like to use the relationship analogy again to explain this to my beginners.

It’s like going on a date having prepared both chocolate and roses. If you think the flowers won’t work, try the chocolate or vice versa. So, how do you know if your seme is successful? Well, when you try to kiss the other person, whether you get slapped or not should answer that question nicely!

With this in mind, the emphasis for shodan and nidan is more about self-control in terms of what you can execute and whether you can maintain composure. Sandan is where you focus on the interactive aspects of kendo with your opponent where strategy and mental game comes into play.

The standard for yondan is that you should have basic leadership skills. All-Japan Kendo Federation suggests that the minimum instruction rank should be at least 4-dan, except for areas where kendo is nascent.

In other words, a yondan kenshi should be equipped to instruct and lead others. My advice for my own students are as follows:
  1. Your own basics must be correct; otherwise you cannot be a good example for your students.
  2. You need to develop two or three tokui-waza of your own; such as debana-kote, debana-men, or men-kaeshi-do.
  3. You need to have an understanding of riai, reigi, and basic kendo philosophy. For example, how do you do kirikaeshi? Why do you do kirikaeshi? What are the things to look out for while doing kirikaeshi? What are common mistakes to avoid for beginners just learning how to do kirikaeshi? What is issoku-itto-no-ma? What is shikai? What is kokenchiai?

A godan should be an experienced instructor; essentially an enhanced version of yondan. My advice to my students are:

Firstly, beyond having your tokui-waza, you have to step out of your comfort zone and work on rounding out your basics. For example, let’s say you are good with striking men and kote, but never felt at ease executing do strikes. It is time to explore what it is you are doing so that your do strikes do not feel right. Is it your grip? Is it your stance? Are you using too much shoulder? 

In theory, if you have enough good basics, you should be able to execute any technique properly. So, if there are any strike you cannot do or do smoothly, that is a part of your basic you need to examine and fix. As Morioka sensei of Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences likes to say, “What changes your fate is not great effort, but small habits.”

Secondly, when instructing, it is not enough to parrot by rote. You should understand the reason behind their blind spot and plateau and help them overcome it. When you do this, you are not just helping others, you are helping yourself as well. In striving to help others overcome their difficulties, you will find yourself growing in kendo riai and philosophy. 

That said, I must caution you to not be overeager in your instruction or create your own kendo. Confucius says, “To acknowledge what is known as known, and what is not known as not known is knowledge and wisdom.” When you don’t know the answer, you must be honest to yourself and be willing to admit it. Otherwise, you will not seek the opportunity to ask your seniors and grow. 

In terms of not creating your own kendo, I am referring to the tendency for people to overemphasize ri of the shu-ha-ri cycle. While shu-ha-ri sounds simple in principal, it is hard to follow. Often we know about something, but do not truly understand it. Nowadays, there’s a lot of emphasis on creativity and destructive innovation in society, especially in the high-tech industries. Personally, I prefer to take a more conservative approach because there are lot of deep and exquisite connotation in kendo that requires time and quiet contemplation to truly understand and appreciate. This is also the meaning of “sanma no gurai” (三磨の位), which came from the secret teachings of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu: shu (習), ren (練), ko (工).

I want to emphasize two more points. First, just because the ranks are a progression does not mean your kendo development is linear. Instead, learning happens more like osmosis. In other words, when you face a kenshi that is about shodan to nidan, while their emphasis should be on the application of renzoku waza as an expression of zanshin, they should also be exposed to seme and other waza even though that’s not their main focus. With this continual exposure to high concepts, not only will this help them understand the things they should work on that are stage appropriate, it would also raise their level of kendo literacy. On the flip side, for someone who is sandan, yondan, or higher, it doesn’t mean they can forget working on their basics like kamae, ashi-sabaki, or suburi. That is the meaning of “onko chishin” (温故知新): to learn new things from the old.

Second, the above narrative is for my students and me. In no way am I suggesting that this is the standard answer or outlook for official ranking examinations. In your kendo journey, if you have any questions, you should always ask your own sensei. It is merely my hope that my thoughts may be of some help and consideration. That is enough.

What then, is the standards for rokudan?

The clearest narrative I heard on that was from about ten years ago when a sensei told me, the standards of a rokudan is that you should keiko "like a sensei".

How do you make your kendo more like a sensei? This is a question that has been on my mind for about ten years. Truth be told, while I have a lot of thoughts on the matter, I have even more questions on the matter.

In 2002, I attended the Kitamoto Foreign Kendo Leaders Summer Camp. I was sandan at the time. I was very thankful for the opportunity to reexamine my own basics and kendo concepts. Moreover, the experience gave me a clear direction for my kendo journey in the 15 years that followed. Not only was I fortunate enough to meet many more senpai, sensei, and shihan that were willing to share their thoughts with me, I had the fortune to come back to the Kitamoto Summer Camp 15 years later in 2017. For three weeks, I did not have to concern myself with anything besides kendo. In the morning three days before I was to return to New Zealand during the unofficial keiko before asa-geiko, I was watching Kato sensei keiko with another student. In that moment, I think I had a glimpse of understanding on what “kendo like a sensei” should be!

In that moment of epiphany, it was like my whole kendo life flashed before my eyes, the teachings of all the sensei and senpai, the things in my daily life, it all poured into my mind. I can only describe this as epiphany through gradual study. The way I felt at the moment was simply:
Yes! That is the direction I was to take for my kendo from now on!

Forgive me for not being able to put into words what the standards of a rokudan should be. For me to say more would be like “teaching grandmother to suck eggs”. If we have to fortune to cross paths in the future, I would be happy to share all I know without any reservations.

Lastly, as to how to “do kendo like a sensei”? All I can say is watch, imitate, and learn from those sensei that inspires you.


The appreciation goes to David Pan from 
for the effort of translating the original post in Chinese.


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