曲者 – Kusemono

In the Hagakure, a book written by the samurai official Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the 17th-century, the author writes about the different characteristics of people that make up society. He points out that the most valuable person is the “kusemono.”

Translators of the Hagakure point out that the modern meaning of that term is that of a “ruffian” or an eccentric. So why was the kusemono so valuable? According to the Hagakure, a kusemono is a person who avoids trouble, keeps to themselves, and only appears when needed. Not unlike the solitary hero of samurai movies in the 1960’s, a kusemono eschews high honors and recognition and prefers to keep to their own devices until duty calls. Then, when the job is completed, they return to their solitary ways.

In short, a kusemono is like a friend.

Waza & Sincerity (誠)

sincerity_kanji_by_bexikaSensei has been very consistent in his advice around jigeiko and the execution of any kind of waza. In effect, he says that less is more and that our attacks should be less in number but done with full commitment. With full commitment comes the requirement that we invest ourselves completely in that action, going through the stages of gamen, seme, and then sutemi when we engage with our partner.

Done this way, there is no chance that you will be able to do a series of meaningless attacks, exhausting yourself and putting yourself at risk of injury. Instead, you will funnel yourself into engaging in an authentic way with your opponent, training yourself in the deeper principles of individual combat as well as having a far more meaningful experience.

A recent article in The New Yorker covered the old concept of whether or not practice makes perfect. My takeaway from that article was that simply doing 10,000 hours of practice in itself does not equate to success. Genetics and environment play a key role and, while we can’t change genetics, we can certainly ensure that our environment is one that supports positive results.

This means that we should collaborate with each other, ensuring that we give the best of ourselves so that we get the best of each other in return. This kind of environment is the kind found in successful companies, musical bands, and artistic groups. It puts the “art” in the term “martial art.”

In Kenji Tokitsu’s book on Musashi, he talks about the transition of swordsmanship from pure combat into a more personally reflective practice as Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate entered a period of peace and order that lasted 250 years. “The way of the sword itself proposed a meaning to life, an existential direction…”

During that period and now, sword schools focused upon both the technical skills of swordplay as well as on the mental and spiritual training required to go beyond the physical element and to be prepared for actual combat.

Part of that process was engaging fully in what one was doing. This was actually quite common in all levels of life in Japan as in other countries of the time. Before the rise of technology and the myriad ways of quickly communicating using multiple channels and methods, people in that time were restricted to more simple and personal communication methods.

The quality and sincerity of a bow to a customer or verbal communication to a person of higher rank were important in the excellence of that simple action. Having less to use, people put more effort into what they had.

In that same way, kendo affords us the opportunity to step out of our complex and busy lives and engage in a way that is both simple and yet provides a much more in-depth experience.

Something to consider next time one is in the dojo.

Starting Your Engine At the Same Time

In kendo there is an emphasis on group unity in the warm-ups and initial drills. In my dojo (NW Kendo), our sensei is looking for us to have loud and powerful kiai in unison early on so that, by the time we are in jigeiko (individual bouts) our spirit is powerful and the kiai remain loud and sharp because that keeps one’s energy up so as to maintain performance and have a tactical edge over the opponent.

If that sounds esoteric or just not compelling enough, consider this lesson on group unity from Jocko Willink (@jockowillink). When his unit was deployed in Iraq and were going out on a patrol or assignment, they had a tradition of starting up their truck and jeeps at the same time. According to Willink, that sound created a powerful feeling and sent shivers down their spines; creating a sense of power over their enemy.

So start your engines!

Sumi Sensei instructing on kiai:


The Internationalization of Kendo

To what extant are concepts of honor, excellence, rhythm, and ethics,  cross-cultural? This question was prompted by Alex C. Bennett’s excellent book on the history of kendo. In it he talks about the internationalization of kendo and how the Japanese kendo leadership, sensitive to how judo was absorbed into the international community (and effectively taken away from them with the Japanese having their asses handed to them in tournaments).


That was due to the sportification of judo, where the emphasis shifted to victory in physical contests and not on the improvement of the self through vigorous practice. Judo’s founder, Jigero Kano, famously assimilated the various jujitsu techniques from several schools during the early 20th century into an exportable system designed for mass distribution in Japan’s rapidly modernizing society.

However, Kano was concerned about the use of judo in a competitive sports environment, fearing that the emphasis on victory would outweigh the focus on physical and mental improvement (like a lot of new sports programs in the late 19th and early 20th century in Japan, European and the US, those systems were designed to improve the strength and moral character of the individual so that they could be useful and productive citizens).

Ag School KendoIn the case of kendo, the concern runs deeper as kendo is related to the sword which the Japanese retain as something unique and special to their identity. Kendo is practiced with a bamboo waster that is used to replicate the katana. Practitioners wear padded armor and a helmet so hits can be done at full speed and intensity without a lot of physical risk.

Kendo also includes the practice of sword kata with bokken (solid wood swords) but without contact. Combined, these two practices enable one to improve their physical skills and explore the deeper concepts of kendo such as timing and distance with an opponent, poise, balance, and rhythm. There is also a deeper component to kendo and that is the focus on etiquette and form. In both the wearing of the uniform and armor as well as how practitioners engage with each other; whether in a class, a tournament, or a rank test.

It is the last point that is of concern to the Japanese kendo leadership as kendo becomes more popular, practiced diligently almost anywhere now in the world. Clubs and teams in Canada, the US, Europe, and Asia, maintain their federations, engage in tournaments, and participate in international tournaments. The US and South Korea have challenged Japanese dominance in kendo, causing fears that kendo is slipping out of Japanese hands.

Kendo Athlete LineupAccording to Alex Bennett and others, some Japanese kendo officials are retreating into a defensive position, claiming that while foreigners can certainly grasp the physical concepts of kendo, they will never truly understand the deeper, more cultural and spiritual aspects of this art.

I take exception to that as a student of history, where the record of mankind has shown that ideas and people have intermingled far more than governments would like to admit. Countries that hold tightly to their alleged uniqueness in the world very often do so from a position of weakness or defensiveness.

In the case of kendo, the concepts unique to kendo as a martial art are not unique to one society. Look deeply enough and you will find a rich record of sword arts, heritages, and philosophical teachings, that have their home in Japan, as well as Asia and Europe. In the case of Asia, specifically China, Japan benefited directly from imports such as sword making as well as religion, language, and the arts; assimilating them into their culture.

Furthermore, the system of modern kendo has its roots in the physical education systems of northern Europe (e.g., the introduction of formal exercise and warm up routines for students in the new school systems). Ironically, one can see that kendo has international roots mixed in with the old sword school systems of Tokugawa Japan. And that has been why kendo has become exportable to a world audience.

It is a shared culture of physical effort and personal introspection, designed to improve the person and widen their understanding of the world around them. It allows one to connect with the heritage of the sword, feeling something of what our ancestors may have felt.

Efforts to restrict that and to “nationalize” kendo would do no good and would not be true to the heart of what is kendo.

The Language of Fighting

Bruce LeeI was talking with a friend of mine about kendo and how difficult it is to train the right moves and ideas so that they translate into useful actions appropriate to kendo as a martial art.

This comment by him really distills the challenge of being successful in kendo: ” jigeiko is like asking people to have conversation in a foreign language when they can’t even form a sentence.” (the term “jigeiko” means free-practice or sparring, somewhat).

As much as one receives all manner of advice and instruction in kendo (or in any art, martial or otherwise), success comes from being able to understand the real language of that art and distill that into one’s physical performance.

Everyone learns through trial and error, pushing their limits, and refining that experience into knowledge. Very much like learning a language, it is an active learning experience. In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle cites numerous examples of people learning music and athletics through the 3 stages of learning: Deep Practice, Ignition, and Master Coaching.

In kendo, everything happens on multiple levels. For instance, stepping into an opponents space, close enough to strike them, is obvious. However, if one just steps in passively with no energy or focus on actually striking, is completely useless and will lead one being struck instead. Yet we practice that step all of the time but only after a lot of practice (Deep Practice) does one get that ah-ha moment (Ignition) that will lead to that “stepping in” to be a meaningful part of one’s kendo tactics. With Master Coaching does one get the ability to see the big picture and tie together all of the pieces.

Bruce Lee talked about taking the best of everything and tying it together into an effect fighting system. He understood both how to train as well as was able to practice and fight effectively; and he built a system (Jeet Kun-Do) that led to a modern resurgence of the fighting arts. He created his martial arts language.

While not trying to create a new kendo system, I am trying to understand the language of this martial art.

Conducting Class

The ThinkerIn my kendo club we have been re-organizing our lesson plans and asking others to step forward and lead classes. It’s been an overall positive experience in that we are questioning everything that we do and starting to hold everyone accountable for their part in making the club a positive and successful place to train.

One of my biggest concerns is the concept of quantity over quality in the training experience. In a two-hour class, an hour of mind-numbing warmups and drills reduces the energy of the next hour of class, jigeiko (free-sparring). A better use of our time would be a quick warmup, a short set of drills to set the energy level, and then, jigeiko. An hour of spirited, high-energy practice is way better than two hours of drudgery.

The most important factor in an energetic practice is the tone of the instructor. An instructor is like an actor on stage or a conductor before the orchestra. He or she is using voice and body to communicate on the verbal and non-verbal level, bring out the very best from everyone.

A conductor has to be “present” and focused on making sure that the “music of class” is full of energy and commitment. This takes some planning beforehand (in terms of the drills to be done as well as consideration of the various skill levels of the students) but the most important part is the execution.

A class led by someone who looks like they want to be somewhere else or who does not seem to have a game plan is a useless class. I’ll close with a set of comments that I made to some friends and this great TED Talk by Itay Talgam:

“..conducting a class is like conducting an orchestra. The music rises and falls nicely, according to the natural ebb and flow of the orchestra and the music. The conductor sets the tone from the very beginning and the tone will vary, all with the goal of creating beautiful music and a harmonious connection. Showing passion and humor along with setting expectations.”


Bhagavad Heat

Bhagavad GitaWhen I am not slaving away for my corporate masters or my family, I find quiet moments in kendo training. Well, quiet in the sense that I seek moments of clarity and peace in bouts of sweaty and loud sports combat (kendo). The Bhagavad Gita has a beautiful and true quote about just that and have inscribed it upon my heart, seeking it in many places and times of my life.

The current heat wave in Seattle has contributed an additional layer of intensity to everything, especially kendo where, once you don the face mask; you are transported to a very uncomfortable place. It is a sweaty Gita!


Using the lesson plan from GymJones (no equipment) I’m starting to feel more strength and energy as I did when I was doing CrossFit. I’m also incorporating a basic breathing exercise, adopted from by free divers, called Kapalabhati (it is a system with 50 different exercises but exploration would require a qualified instructor).

On Friday I did my lesson plan and then went to kendo which really pushed me to the edge. By the end of class I felt as if I was walking submerged in water. I felt depleted physically but, on a deeper level, I felt good.

Saturday was a rest day and then Sunday was, Hotengahara. If you’re not sure what that means, Hotengahara is an arid plain that, in Eiji Yoshikawa‘s fictionalized story of the Japanese sword master Miyamoto Musashi, in which the famous swordsman spent two years working as a farmer, trying to master the land as part of his physical and spiritual training. Historically, Musashi, did work the land for two years but no one knows anything beyond that.

So my Hotengahara was spending all day Sunday clearing my yard, digging up the soil, planting, and breaking down old furniture. All under the sun and without proper hydration.

By the end of the day I was done and done. Tired, muscles aching, dried out, and mentally fuzzy. I drank water, had a great curry chicken and went to bed early.

Today I woke up and felt great. Physical development requires breaking mental barriers. You need to both feel and *know* that you have broken through and progressed, even in a small way. For that, I have my own little Hotengahara to thank for that.

UW Taikai – Post Report

I had a blast being with my friends from NW Kendo and everyone from the club was in great form. We fought well and the NW Team defeated Sno-King and had a tough and exciting set with the Vancouver team. In all, I was pleased.

From my own perspective, I found that I strike far too close to my opponent and that I need to be thrusting forward and not upwards. Valuable data for me to absorb!

My favorite picture of me from the event!

Armpit of Steel

Taikai Prep (or lack thereof)

With the UW Taikai coming up this weekend, I’m in no way ready for it. I’ve been traveling on business and haven’t touched a shinai in over a week. It would be great if that led to some kind of “sword-of-no-sword” epiphany in which I become a master athlete by Saturday but somehow I doubt it. I have a higher chance of winning the lottery…

In an earlier post I did outline my program for my sandan test in 2015 and really that is the long game that I am focusing on. For the taikai, my best steps are to be aggressive and single-minded, not thinking about victory. Beyond that, being there to support my fellow team-members and assist at the event will be part of my day there.

This even sounds like a cop-out to me but it would be presumptuous to expect anything better, given my other commitments and poor time-management.

That’s all for now.