Don’t be a Rex

I don’t do reverence, just as much as I don’t don’t self-abasement. I bow to a senior in the same way I bow to a junior or an equal : I bow to another human being in the hopes of a mutually beneficial exchange.

I don’t do “bow to your sensei” (hopefully you’ll get the reference).

Many flavours of martial arts are plagued with dominant/dominated dynamics in the way they are transmitted, and that I won’t perpetuate. I’m glad my teacher is a person who also sees the importance of humility and non-alienating benevolence in the act of transmission. Being listened to and being sought after is reward enough for the act of giving advice. It’s a two-way system that doesn’t warrant anything else. None of the neurotic mannerisms we see a lot of transmission wrapped into anyway.

Actually it is not surprising that I clicked with him so much as I believe I chose to follow him more than he chose to accompany me along the way.

But anyhow, here I am, a young dojo-leader kendoist with a measured but resolute statement about transmission and thus, a criticism of some parts of our martial art’s traditions.

But really, I’m pretty sure it’s for the better.

Screen Shot 2019-11-11 at 16.56.10.png

The pace of the trainings is coming down to once a week as my wife gets closer to her due date. I’m ready to go into kendo-hibernation for roughly the rest of the season.

I spoke to sensei and asked advice for the specific problems I’ve been facing lately and I’m amazed at how spot-on his description of what I’m going through was.

I won’t be able to work on it seriously any time soon but I’ll start small during our regular practice sessions.

Letting it sink in, growing into it.

I know all my posts since I’ve passed my 4th dan shinsa have been more or less about how different it feels compared to the times that followed the other successful exams, but here I am with another such post.

I believe what I experience is both motivation and a bit more clarity coupled with a desire to become more active in the community — not online, but within my federation.

Though questions start coming in too. Different kind of questions.

There’s something that is changing in the sensei I meet during practice also, more pressure. A lot more. I like it. It forces me to go back and forth with what I think I know, what I think I can apply. How well I think I can apply it.

The questions that I have right now? They’re broad and they’re about situations that I can’t really manage, at different levels, such as how to apply a threat to the centre line and mind/deal with a strong opponent’s kensen at the same time?

Another one would be : am I doing jigeiko right? Is my almost monomaniacal idea of trying to stick to some basic principles ultimately flawed?

I’ve had several encounters with people with whom I did gokaku-geiko that were difficult to deal with (they are usually in the 2-3rd dan ballpark). In contrast, the “harder” 4-5 and up don’t create these kind of situations that frustrate me because they’ll just search for their ippon strikes and for me, receiving those is not a source of frustration, rather the contrary.

While most encounters are usually satisfying, those few instances where we don’t understand each other with people of more or less similar level are a bit disappointing.

So I need help with all of that. Still need to find answers to gain more effectiveness against 4-5 and up, while at the same time finding a way to deal with 2-3s who just seem not willing to engage full force.

I’ll have to see sensei soon.
He’ll put me on the right track.

These are really interesting times.

Belgian Kendo by the numbers

Inspired in the middle of the night by a conversation with a friend about our monomaniacal tendencies and addictive hobbies led me to make the inevitable swerving into talking about kendo. After which I experienced an urge to get some numbers, inspired by this post by kenshijournal.
I came up with an approximate dan holder repartition graph for Belgium.

The total population I sampled was 321 people, it might be slightly off because I don’t know if the online registry of the EKF deletes people who give up practice or not, but since the site got a serious update a few months ago, I’m going to go ahead and assume this is pretty accurate.

At least it’s good enough to get an idea. It is much different from Japanese numbers, because we don’t have institutionalised school-practice, which explains Japan’s huge numbers in the 1-2 dan bracket.


blank-1.pngBelgium has this noticeable particularity of having a high concentration of K7s, at almost 4% of the total yudansha population. For a small federation like us it’s quite remarkable (12 out of 321)

Going through the numbers like this helps me visualise where I sit and where I’m going. I’ve passed 4th dan only last month and I haven’t relaxed one bit, I’m still going through every practice with the next shinsa firmly in mind. I believe it is because that contrary to when I was at the beginning of my 3rd dan — when the requirements for 4th were still vague to me — I feel like I’ve got a good grasp of what I need to work on for the next step.


Pedagogy 101

Applying a bit of pedagogy theory for better kendo instruction : giving purpose and using the deductive approach.

It’s not a new idea, back in 2012, I had already noted in my dissertation towards my pedagogy degree, that the way Kendo is taught often fails to motivate learners for orthodoxy’s sake.

A sense of purpose is rarely given to beginners and they are simply expected to perform tasks and drills without knowing their goal in the long run. Not all dojos teach like that, of course, but I’d be willing to risk myself stating that it’s pretty much the rule out there.

In the minds of some western instructors, the ideas of training à la Japanese, including the harsh treatment and the philosophy of “出る釘は打たれる” (the nail that sticks out gets hammered down) inhabit most of western kenshis’ imaginations as exotic traits that are desired and sometimes almost romanticised.

But many things go wrong and get lost in the translation because we interpret another culture with our own frame of reference without really trying to understand what makes us different and therefore should warrant (at least slightly) different approaches.

For example, westerners’ concept of discipline is deeply militaristic, and with armies come stupidity, yelling orders, “If I ask you to jump, you say how high!” it also brings along its potential share of humiliations, hazings, etc.

Seen through that scope, one could mistake the Japanese tendency to withdraw the ego in favour of the group — a trait acquired from a very young age that has its base in learning respect for each other and for the places we live in — for our own western conception of obedience and discipline.

I bet every western federation has an iteration of that instructor who’s on a narcissistic ego trip that leads to abusive behaviours within their dojo but no one bats an eye because “IT’S JAPANESE DISCIPLINE”.

One might tell me “but the Imperial Guard and Police are like that” but since both of those are militaristic organisations, it kinda proves my point, not to mention the fact that we, as westerners tend to admire that kendo, maybe specifically, because it meets our collective subconscious’ expectations of strict discipline.

Anyway, you might have heard some fellow kenshi utter the phrase “let us not think that we are more Japanese than the Japanese themselves”. This is a sentence that aims at avoiding the problem by stating that one shouldn’t try to emulate everything mindlessly, without critical thinking.

In my opinion, this also has to apply to the teaching method.
(Because believe it or not, I wasn’t going to talk about abuse at all).


The importance of purpose.

Pedagogy theory tells us that adult learners, and probably voluntary learners in general, engage into a learning process, motivated by a goal, an outcome. There is a strong need from learners to know that what they are learning is useful. The relevance of learning a specific skill must be clear to them in relation to the general goal.

In kendo, the importance of this might be often overlooked, as the learning process is akin to the inductive approach, where from learning specific actions or skills, a learner is supposed to piece together by and for himself the general mechanics of kendo. In the context of a classroom, it is an approach that is usually preferred, because there is constant dialog and (co)building of the knowledge. But in the context of kendo and its solitary element, it is a pretty daunting task for most.

The deductive method, going from the general idea towards specific skills that are clearly seen as necessary by the learner is often times better suited to maintain the motivation of the beginner as well as (counter intuitively) giving them the tools to look after their own evolution.

This might seem a bit obscure, but I have an example for you, using the difficult-to-grasp notion of seme : 

The way I was first taught seme was simply through the instructions “step in, take the center, strike” without much else to go on. I understood the drill and could see how it could work in theory, but in practice, it isn’t easy to pull off, I had to figure out the general mechanics for myself and it took me quite a few years to understand the general idea behind seme.

That’s the inductive approach. “From separate drills and not much linking context, go and discover the secrets behind seme my young Padawan!”

The counter-example :

This season, with shinsa coming for many of my members, I’ve searched for ways to make the bigger principles as clear as possible in the least amount of words and after a few training sessions, I’m finding myself believing that Kizeme (threat through your “energy”), which we often see as most complicated, is actually the type of seme that contains the general principle and therefore could be most relevant as a starting point.

Make yourself tall, relax, don’t let aite impress you, don’t step backwards, show that you are there and willing, as if you were telling aite “I’m here, I’m not going anywhere, watchu gonna do about it”.

That would be complicated only if you were thinking about learning specific actions, but if you have a wider approach with a clear goal in mind, it is actually easy to make the learners understand how that plays out.

Then, knowing the purpose and the goal that is being aimed that, going into a specific drill like “take center, strike men” becomes so much more meaningful for the learners. It is not only learning the moves behind the technique, but learning the moves of a technique within its proper context.

To sum it up : for maximised motivation and efficiency, learners should always know the following points and the instructor should make it clear for them in this order :

  • This is the goal (i.e. “we are working on becoming proficient at seme”)
  • This is the canvas (i.e. “seme is about the pressure on the other and putting ourselves in a favourable spot for attacks that will lead to ippon” — the importance of the general principle should be made clear)
  • These are the drills to achieve the goal within the canvas (i.e. from the simple “step-in to take center and strike immediately” to the more subtle hikidasu, all depend on the learner’s ability to have a strong presence and a mind geared towards meeting/attacking the opponent)

Then all an instructor would have to do is keeping learners motivated and putting on them the responsibility of keeping these aspects in mind while going through the drills.

Once the method is correctly implemented (and why not, explained) learners can become their own day-to-day instructors and more efficiently identify their flaws, the areas that need their attention as well as purposefully setting goals for themselves.

That’s how I’ve been going about my own training anyway, but through experimentation and lots of trials and errors. As a dojo-leader, I’m happy to be able to put my formal pedagogy training to good use in helping others go over obstacles faster than I did.

Remember : it’s a dialog

This season we’ll be working on preparing the various shinsa, and in my humble opinion, the yudansha of my dojo should be able to pass if they show their best kendo, the one I know they can do.

The danger lies within the fact that in certain situations, it all falls apart, and if not addressed, “falling-apart” can become the habit. So for the next 6 months we’ll work on developing the correct attitude, through kihon, kihon and kihon.

It seems to me that the biggest challenge for my dojo’s yudansha is mainly to not let aite fool them into twisting their own kendo to match aite’s style. Kendo is a dialog and as such, one should not worry about what someone who’s not willing to participate in the discussion does or does not do.

If someone never attacks and blocks all the time while you apply correct seme and try to initiate strong, big cuts, then you are not at fault, you are in front of a sparring partner who’s more concerned about protecting their ego than doing what it takes to improve their kendo (they should be applying seme as well and seek shikake-waza opportunities!).

There are also the cases when there is an obvious skill difference, with aite being more skilled than you are but only wants to dominate you and won’t engage in a balanced dialog with you. That would be, to remain within the idea of dialog, as if an adult used elevated language to speak to a toddler. Each participant in jigeiko must seek to “talk” to the other in “words” that they can understand. (Kendo is not a fight to the death in which winning is paramount).

We should not let such encounters make us deviate from the correct path : reiho, posture, attitude, resolve, energy, correct distance, seme, tame, strong and resolute shikake-waza that are clear cuts, zanshin, rinse and repeat.

We cannot let ourselves be taken off the road to improvement to enter ego-matches in which hitting and not being hit become more important than the dialog. Because it is not. We must strive to apply the basics and be fully present in what we do.

But If you feel nothing is working as it should, just remember :

You are not responsible for aite’s unwillingness to participate in the kendo discussion, and you should definitely not let it bother you! Stick to trying to build a dialog. Don’t let their incorrect attitude screw both of your kendo’s progress over.

“Let’s go that way”

In the last few weeks I’ve been exposed a lot to questions and discussions about teaching kendo, online, with friends, different sensei… Seen my history as a low-rank dojo-leader, it is indeed, a subject that never fails to pique my interest.

My favourite idea is that especially as westerners, we should always strive to remain students, and should never really see ourselves as “teachers” — as in “the one who has knowledge and dispenses it to a (dependant) crowd” with all the bad ego dynamics that it can entail.

According to a particular K7 sensei’s point of view, if you know more, your concern should be to put people in the right tracks and give them tools or hints that will help them become self-sufficient in their learning process. (Give a fish to a man, he’ll eat for one day, teach him to fish, etc.)

By getting rid of the stereotypical teacher-student relationship and by stopping to want to emulate the classical Japanese student-teacher dynamics — which can lead to nasty ego-trips in westerners — an instructor can just feel like they’re giving beginners a hand, a nudge in the right direction, which allows them to never negate the student in themselves ; for while they are showing the ropes to beginners, they themselves still can learn and polish their kendo.

Since I heard that viewpoint, the way I should try to be a dojo leader has become much clearer and gotten easier to implement and live with : my role is mainly to keep the group together, to find ways to motivate the different individuals within it, but the road to knowledge?

That’s something we are on together.