Kamae is one of the first things that we learn in kendo. It is the beginning of a lifelong journey. It’s understandable that everyone wants to know when they’ll be ‘good’ at kendo. We look at our sensei and think about their many years of training. Then we remember that our sensei usually has a sensei too, with many more years of training. The path seems immeasurable. The answer to the question is that you can be good at kendo from the day that you begin.
The real question is, what makes someone good at kendo? Obvious indicators are things like grades achieved, competitions won and technical ability including the beauty of their kendo. These are only markers on the map, they are not the places themselves. If we relied on grades, no one would be able to respect our kendo for many years. If we relied on competition results, we might never be considered good. If we relied on technical ability, we might be missing the point because it’s a long way from beginner to hachi dan (8th dan). How would you decide at what point your technical ability is good?
I must disclose that I am san dan (3rd dan) with about twenty years of training. I have taken a crooked path over a long period to achieve only small gains in relation to my kendo grade. Many people have passed me along the way. In time, I may pass some of them again, while others also pass me. Everyone is on their own expedition. Our experience colours the way we think about kendo. My achievements, that have not been focussed on high grades or winning competitions, reveal a side of kendo that provides an opportunity for everyone, regardless of their aspirations or their circumstances. (Please understand that I do hope to achieve the highest grade that I can.)
Good kendo is measured by how you approach your training. Kendo is not simply a physical skill, it’s a mindset. The practice of kendo enhances our discipline, our focus and our character. (See ‘The purpose of practising kendo’ written by the All Japan Kendo Federation, copied below.)
Discipline is not determined by years of practice but rather by whether or not you practised today. If you did practice today, did you apply yourself 100 percent? Did you aim to achieve your best in everything that you did from getting dressed through to jigeiko? Did you listen attentively and thoughtfully when sensei spoke? Did you prevent bad thoughts or feelings from spoiling your practice?
Focus begins when you start to pack your bags to go to keiko and ends when everything is put away with proper care taken for all of your equipment. It is in every act of etiquette, the remembrance to bow as you enter and leave the dojo and the courtesy you show to everyone. It is in your chakusou, the way that you wear you gear and perform reiho. It is in the attention to every aspect of each cut from kamae through to zanshin that brings you back to kamae to start the cycle again.
Character appears in the respect and humility that you show to others, the way that you support their training as well as your own. It is in the deference that you show to your seniors. It is in the way that you support the functioning of the dojo by cleaning and tidying, by helping visitors, by assisting in the setting up and the packing down of dojo equipment (especially the packing down). Broadly speaking, character resides in the way that you relate with others and the respect that you show for yourself.
In my experience, these are the sorts of things that senior senseis look for when judging kendoka. If you demonstrate each of these things, your kendo will be deemed good. Peripheral things like grades and competition results will likely follow. But remember, grades and competition results are not the goal, they are part of the path.
All of these things are possible from day one of your training. You can be good at kendo right from the start. However, you probably won’t be able to sustain all of these things all of the time. Your discipline will fail, your focus will be broken and sometimes your behaviour will not be the best. You should expect to fail. But, your ability in these areas will improve as your practice continues.
Kendo is tough, it produces strong people. These qualities are the anvil on which we forge ourselves. We are capable of all of these things right from the get-go. When will your kendo be good? It could be today.
One final word. Does your dojo, like many, finish training with kirikaeshi? If so, this is the time to re-emphasise all these qualities. You’re tired from training, you’re looking forward to a post-training meal or a drink, the end of the hard work is in sight. This is the time to double down and really bring it. Discipline, focus and character must all be applied at this point because this is when you can build these the most. Kirikaeshi is not finished until you display that final zanshin.
The purpose of practising kendo
The purpose of practising kendo is:
- to mold the mind and body,
- to cultivate a vigorous spirit,
- and through correct and rigid training,
- to strive for improvement in the art of Kendo,
- to hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
- to associate with others with sincerity, and
- to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.
This will make one be able:
- to love his/her country and society,
- to contribute to the development of culture, and
- to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples.
(The Concept of Kendo was established by All Japan Kendo Federation in 1975.)
Source: The All Japan Kendo Federation, kendo-fik.org/english-page/english-page2/concept-of-Kendo.htm