Originally printed Kendo World Issue 2.2, 2003. Translated from the Kendo Jidai Series by Alex Bennett.
Born in Iwate prefecture in 1925, Harada sensei began his study of kendo upon entering junior high school. In 1943, he entered the Tokyo College of Physical Education (Tsukuba Univ.) Graduating 4 years later, he became a high school teacher in Kanagawa prefecture, and later back in his prefecture of birth. He retired from teaching in 1985. He coached his students to great success in the high school championships, and was also a very successful competitor himself making numerous appearances in the All Japan Championships, National Sports Meet, Tozai Taiko, Meijimura 8th dan Tournament and so on. He currently holds administrative positions in the AJKF, All Japan School Kendo Federation, and local federations.
How well can you sacrifice yourself into the attack?
As you progress with your training you gradually improve your strength and level of skill. A grading examination is a test of that skill to see if you are suitable for that particular dan grade. When sitting on a panel, I pay particular attention as to whether the candidate is able to make use of all they possess. This also has various levels. For example, a shodan candidate must be able to attack relentlessly. A nidan candidate should be able to do the same with more intention based on a rudimentary understanding of seme. The common denominator for all is to have the ability to completely sacrifice oneself into the attack once it is initiated. This is called ‘sutemi’. The higher the grade, a higher level of ‘ri’ (reason, principles) is required. In other words, if your opponent has a strong kensen and you ignore this and make a sacrificial attack, this is not considered a sutemi attack based on reason. An attack, especially at high levels, should be made with the spirit of sacrifice, but it should only be unleashed if all the criteria are met in accordance with ri. In other words, it should never be random. Dignity and quality of kendo-style can only be attained through this kind of training.
In the Kyoto Taikai (annual kendo tournament held in May) of 1974, I have a memory of the match (above) between Hanshi Ogawa Chutaro and Hanshi Kurozumi sensei firmly etched in my mind. It was one of the most amazing matches I have ever seen. I was able to watch it from the front row, and I still remember shuddering with excitement as the match progressed. They faced off at an interval a little more than issoku-itto-no-ma (one step one strike distance). The pressure they applied onto each other was intense. After a while, Ogawa sensei, in his characteristically laid-back kamae, lowered his kensen and shuffled three small steps into Kurozumi sensei’s interval and then executed a perfect textbook attack to men. It landed plop on his head and almost looked as if it were in slow motion. Kurozumi sensei lowered his head in deference, and they both moved slowly back to the start line. The gallery of spectators all gasped in awe and then exploded into a round of applause in appreciation of the wonderful spectacle we had all been privileged to witness. To be honest I wasn’t exactly sure of the significance of what I had just seen, but I sensed that I had just been shown one of kendo’s deep mysteries.
The following year, I met Ogawa sensei at a seminar in Morioka, and took the opportunity to ask him about the match in Kyoto.
“Oh that? Yes, I wasn’t even conscious of my actions. It was as if I wasn’t even there.”
I wasn’t too sure of what he meant, but reflected on his answer for many years. I finally came to the conclusion that before the attack, during the attack, and after the attack he had completely sacrificed his body and soul. The ultimate ‘sutemi’.
I also had an opportunity ask Kurozumi sensei about the match.
“I couldn’t do anything against that men. It wasn’t a destructive blow that smashed into my head, but a gracious and caring strike.”
I was moved by how these two great sensei respected each other so much. I passed his comments onto Ogawa sensei, and he nodded in silence.
Giving your all is always a difficult task, especially at a grading examination where you are inevitably nervous with all those prying eyes watching your every move. If you can perform your best kendo under these circumstances, this has to be of value to you in your everyday life. Ogawa sensei once said “giving your all in kendo is everyday life.” Never a truer word was said. However, trying to defeat your opponent with cheap tricks will never lead to this kind of spiritual growth.
We are often told to do “good kendo”. However, there is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ kendo per se. Kendo is intrinsically a good thing. What makes it appear good or bad depends on the mental disposition of the people doing it. The mind is always developing, and this is why great emphasis is put on the state of mind more and more as we progress up the ranks in kendo. ‘Sutemi’ lies at the basis of this mental development, and it is something which must be pursued right through to the end.