Having finished up with kangeiko in mid-February, the powers-that-be made sure that any cobwebs accumulated during the brief time off were well and truly blown out with the spring training camp. Truth be told, from a technical point of view, it makes a lot of sense to pack two gasshuku together in this way, considering the nature/menu of each event.
For example, kangeiko is aimed at wrecking you with ridiculously early starts and an awful lot of hard yakka. The spring gasshuku on the other hand, is aimed at capitalizing on aforementioned yakka, and perfecting the footwork, body movements and shinai control in order to fine tune techniques – all while the body is (theoretically) in top condition after kangeiko.

Each of the 5 days started at the reasonable hour of 9am, and went through ‘til 5:30pm. Mornings were dedicated to suburi, some kihon (basics) and a great deal waza (techniques). The afternoon in contrast was shiai (competitions) and jigeiko (sparring)….oh, and similar to the evenings during kangeiko, there were drinks and shabu-shabu to attend every night! Are we making kendo bums here, or alcoholics?! I don’t recall…*slurs speech*

Without going in to too much detail, I must say I found myself struggling to successfully pick up a lot of the waza. At the end of the day, and after losing a lot of shiai and pride, I have started to realize that over thinking waza can really slow the learning process down. I think there is a lot to be said for letting the body to sort it out…without becoming bogged down with thought around timing, footwork and all the rest of it…

Moving on.

I went to a kendo grading a short time ago in Osaka, to watch and support a fellow university club-mate sit his 4th dan. The grading was set up to accommodate 1st dan through to 5th dan, and although the day started with a few hundred people, the gym was significantly fewer in people by 5pm. You see, gradings in Japan are structured in such a way that the jigeiko part is conducted first. Looking at technique with the shinai, zanshin, kikentai-itchi, and points scored, the sporty side of kendo is considered by most (it seems) as the most important part of the day.
This outlandish statement that “jigeiko is the most important part of the grading” is plain to see when you consider remarks such as “if you pass the jigeiko, you’ve pretty much sealed the deal/passed your grading”. But I will go into more detail on this a little later…If your number is not written up on the whiteboard post-fight, your 1 week of kata (set forms) cramming was wasted and you can go home to watch Sunday arvo TV.

The kata portion of the grading follows after a lunch break, and assuming you pass this you will sit the written exam.

Gob smacked, it was watching the kata segment that I found myself considering the effects of the current content order in kendo gradings to the future of kendo. That is to say, I see a real need to swap the jigeiko around with the kata. Hear me out…

We are regularly reminded by visiting sensei that kata are a tremendously important part of our kendo training. Agreed. After all, the 10 Nihon Kendo Kata are a culmination of styles and techniques from various ryuha (old sword schools), and serve the purpose of developing our “sword handling skills”. Also, from my experience as an instructor back home, kata provides a vehicle for some to learn the correct movements of kendo when the fast-paced training with shinai isn’t working out. And finally, it is the kata in kendo that helps to distinguish kendo, even slightly, from sport…another conversation for another blog, but when you consider all the competitions we do, competitive kendo is very much a sport and consideration to the origins of kata as a “sword art” help to give balance to that potentially heated discussion.
Although I am not qualified to talk about the in-depth benefits of kata in the kendo journey, I can say with confidence that inclusion of kata in gradings is a tribute to the fact that it is an important aspect of our overall practice.

But the reality is that kendo-ists seldom practice it. Especially young Japanese kendo-ists. This was clearly evident when witnessing the…err…disastrous displays of 4th and 5th dan applicants confusing their roles in the 4th kata, and dropping there kodachi (short sword) mid swing. Is one week of prep really enough?! Obviously not.

But who can blame them? After all, and I have to be careful here, watching the general demeanor of the judges during the kata segment of the grading, I was hardly convinced that even they really deemed it to be a significant part of the day. Slumped back in their chairs, they were certainly not in a good position to notice the pair at the far end of the group muddle their way through the 1st kata. Thus, how can we expect the up-and-coming of world-class kendo (competition or otherwise) to regard kata highly, when even the judges don’t afford it much gravity. As very few people seemed to fail the kata (despite the obvious lack in knowledge or commitment to it’s practice), I am lead to believe, as the rest of them, that kata is a seen as a second class citizen to the shinai training that culls the majority of unprepared graders.

My suggestion is therefore as such: change the order around.

If we are to practice what we preach as instructors, kata and shinai techniques should be equally considered. Reordering the two segments in a grading situation will require each applicant to spend an increased amount of time practicing kata in preparation – as the possibility of failing at the start of the day is increased even more due to one’s overall lack of kata proficiency. And as each person pays their grading fee whether they pass or fail, there is no income to be lost either!

There is certainly an expected level of proficiency for the sparring segment. 1st dan = can do this and that, 2nd dan = capable of these things, 3rd dan….etc etc., however the expected level for kata at each grade appears cloudy at best.

Indeed, we could expect a firmer stance to be taken on kata whilst maintaining the current order – failing more people to get some kind of message across. But if attitudes of young kendoka are to really change, I believe kata should be positioned first in gradings, with judges moving around the floor to really take note of each person’s technical skills, posture and attitude in kata. That is of course if kata really is as important as we are lead to believe…

In sum, this change about will serve to shift the focus of the important aspects in kendo back in line with what we are taught by our sensei. For those who consider kendo to be something other than a sport, and/or for those who understand the important role of kata in kendo technique, surely the current attitude towards grading of “if I just get past the jigeiko in the first round” and “crap! I have to learn the last 2 kata before my 4th dan next week” just doesn’t sit right.

If kata is as important as we are taught and teach on, why do we accept the relaxed attitude towards kata in gradings? Increasing the possibility of unsuccessful gradings can not only be achieved by the judges saying “study kata properly”. A real change needs to take place whereby the consequences of luck-luster kata training are nipped in the bud from the start and the important balance of shinai keiko and kata is established.

That’s my two yen, but I would love to open the floor up one this one…