Originally printed Kendo World 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.
‘Sen’ and ‘Rinki-ohen’- Taking the initiative and the ability to react to any situation (Sen= When the opponent sees a weakness and initiates an attack, you win by striking in turn before the opponent’s strike is successful.)
The legendary Mochida Seiji sensei always did kendo setting his sights on taking sen, the initiative. This is the most important concept in kendo. The subtlety in kendo lies in the battle to take sen, and this is what examiners are looking for. As long as you have sen, you should be able to react to every move your opponent makes. Conversely, if you are unable to deal with your opponent’s movements, this is proof that you have not got control of sen, and you need to train more.
The secret to understand and be able to take sen is firstly training, and secondly, more training. To this purpose, I take every opportunity to train at any dojo I could with the attitude that ‘everybody is my teacher’. I also always strive to make the first successful cut. Beginners and children always make unremitting attacks without thinking about what they are doing. They are impervious to the subtleties of kendo, so this makes it exceedingly difficult to take sen. This in turn means that it is very meaningful to learn how to cope with this. When faced with such opponents, I tried to recall what it was like when I first started doing kendo and train accordingly. When training with children, I try not to demolish them, but pull my strikes and tap them lightly. This will encourage them to try harder.
Even though I am in a teaching position, I firmly believe that the instructor should learn and study together with the students. I realised the importance of this through my teacher, Yokoyama sensei, when I was at junior high school in Iwate. Unless something important came up, he would always try to be in the dojo every day. I didn’t realise how hard this was until I became an instructor myself, but it is important for the students.
When I went to study at the Tokyo College of Physical Education, I came under the instruction of Mihashi sensei. He was also a training addict.
“Getting one strike in when you can’t even muster enough strength to move any more is what you have to strive for.”
In the final analysis, a real ippon, or point, is one that is scored when in a state of no mind, unconscious to your actions. The ability to do this or what I have gained from it is one of my greatest assets.
Moving back to the topic of sen, to be able to capitalise on taking sen and react appropriately, correct positioning of your left hand and use of your left foot in seme is of vital importance. This is another thing I take notice of when sitting on a grading panel.
When I failed my 8th dan test the second time, I was at a loss for what to do. I received advice from three great teachers, and although their wording was different, they were essentially telling me the same thing.
“Your left shoulder is up too high.”
“Your left foot is pointing outwards, and your left elbow is too high.”
“Your left hand is too high, and your left foot is ineffective.”
It was all to do with the positioning of my left hand and the use of my left foot. In other words, my left hand was not positioned in front of my seika-tanden (lower abdominal region), and I wasn’t using my left foot as the pivotal point for my seme and movement.
I immediately set about applying this advice in my training, but it was not easy. Eventually I decided to just let go and not worry about whether I got hit or not. I found that I was gradually able to loosen up, and consequently was able to execute successful strikes at will with no wasted movement.
It is often stressed that the left hand and left foot play a crucial role in kendo, and it was a great opportunity for me to reassess my kihon. In a grading, candidates who have this aspect of their kendo under control stand out as their movement is powerful and crisp. In regards to taking sen, this also has applications in every day life. In other words, taking sen in life refers to a positive outlook on things. Having a positive disposition is the key to creating your own path. Grading examinations are the same.
Taking your opponent’s ‘ki’ and strike harmoniously
Kendo is a clash of ki. It is important to make use of your opponent’s ki. After reaching the age of 40, a sensei once told me to do kendo as if I was sucking the breath (ki) out of my opponent. Since then I have been striving to achieve this, but it took over 10 years of hard effort before I was able to move harmoniously with the flow of my opponent rather than moving against them. I was able to finally achieve this thanks to some timely advice from Ogawa sensei.
“Don’t breathe in and hold your breath in your lower abdomen. Let it pass through the abdomen and down through you feet. It will then flow back up your body, and this is what you should evenly hold onto in your tanden. This is real ki.”
I interpreted this as the same as “shinjin no iki” taught by Takano Sasaburo. This does not mean to suppress the ki in the tanden, but let it float and mingle with the ki from your opponent. Sucking your opponent’s ki is not meant in the literal sense, but getting a feel for their every move, which will in turn guide you in your moves.
Finally, the best advice I can give is to train with a correct frame of mind. Ogawa sensei once told me “kendo is keiko.” That has stuck with me and I train as hard as I can as often as I can.