Recently I have received some questions in the Q&A area about bullying and other forms of violence in kendo.
And I happened to help Blake Bennett with his thesis on the very topic. I hope one day you can read his thesis somehow.
After reading the thesis and thinking about violence in kendō, I thought it is very important for every one of us to consider how kendō sould be trained and instructed without losing the core essence of kendō.
It is true that in kendō we still have "traditional methods" in training. These look vicious and really violent to its audience if they do not know what they are doing.
Of course, if practitioners do not know why they are receiving such hard and vicious training, most likely they will question the methods, quit or the worst case would be to sue their instructors.
I had a chance to talk to Blake in 2010 in Japan. We both agreed that if we applied Japanese traditional training methods in USA or NZ, we would be definitely sued.
What is vicious training?
In kendō, we push kakarite (striker) to their physical limitation in order for them to pull their inner strength out. It is believed that once we reach our physical limitation, there is only strength left to drive our body forwards, which is spirits or inner power known aski.
Also we must fight ourselves in such training. During 10-20 minutes, the hard training makes us want to stop training many times. We think that we cannot keep going anymore but we have to fight those thoughts that make us think it is impossible to move anymore.
These are not vicious just physically challenging.
Here comes vicious training (at least it seems vicious). While this hard training, motodachi will keep pushing kakarite in various ways; literally pushing kakarite forward with their shinai or hand, executing body crashes (taiatari) and mukae-zuki (thrust while kakarite striking men to stop kakarite coming forwards) many times.
The theory behind those actions of motocdachi is to make kakarite tired physically so kakarite can engage their mental strength and also to create a tougher situation for kakarite to overcome their "I want to quit now" kinds of thoughts.
After such vicious training, kakarite gains satisfaction of achievement and self-confidence. I am sure that you have felt this kind of satisfaction and gained self-confidence after you achieved something really hard or that you thought you could never achieved.
We can say that these vicious training methods create such tough situations for kakarite to gain self-confidence. Also kakarite must be very brave to strike while knowing that they will get a thrust when they are striking men.
These training methods were necessary especially in the old days. Kendō was a part of kenjutsu training. Back then, when people fought, someone had to die. They had to train hard to survive. So you can imagine how hard they trained in order for them to live.
I personally did not think these were vicious but after being outside of Japan for a long time, I can see why people think these training methods are not just hard but vicious.
These training methods are indeed hard and seemingly vicious, but are they violent? Probably it depends on how we look at the methods so let me define what violent is first.
Definition of Violent
A definition of violence from Cambridge dictionary online is: actions or words which are intended to hurt people.
Like taiatari, if we do it properly, we have to throw our body to our opponent because that's how taiatari is supposed to be performed.
If you do taiatari in a way that you know you can hurt your opponent, then what you do is violence, according to the definition above. You intend to hurt him/her. And it is not allowed under any circumstances.
This can be applied in the basics as well. As claimed in some Q&A, kakarite could hit motodachi really hard intentionally. They also could hit body parts that are not protected by bōgu (a set of armour).
Now these unnecessary actions should be considered to be violent. They are intentional and the aim of kakarite is no longer to improve theirkendō or characteristics but to hurt their training partners.
Some people think that kendō is martial arts so they should hit their opponents as hard as they can. So they just swing theirshinai down on their opponent as hard as they can. I am sure that they will lose their training partners because they hurt their training partners every time they practice.
Now we all know if we get struck by a bamboo stick, it should hurt. Many beginners think that because of the bōgu, it should not hurt as much. Well, it is also true but the pain won't become zero.
But it does not mean that we should strike as hard as we can. We do need certain amount of strength in strikes but we should not swing our shinai as if we were chopping a log in half. Kendō practitioners should know the difference between chopping a log andkendō strikes with a good tenouchi.
Misunderstandings in kendō must be addressed
Since we constantly hit each other (well that's what we do), we must be aware of the fact that there is a strong possibility for many people to think that others hit them hard intentionally, where it is not intentional.
A pain irritates and makes people uncomfortable. Constant pains on the same spot can make people very upset big time. If you are a kendō practitioner, you have probably experienced some guys hit constantly on your fist when they were supposed to strike your kote. Once or twice is OK but every time they strike your kote, they hit your fist. Didn't it make you very angry at the end? Like this…
Why do you hit my fist ALL THE TIME!?!?!?
Hey, YOU hit TOO HARD!! Are you trying to HURT me!?
You know what? Most of the time, they don't know how hard they are hitting you. And in that matter neither do we.
I never know how hard I hit because I cannot hit myself. I can decrease the amount of speed and strength in my strikes but I don't know how hard/soft I am hitting. I only know by reaction of my motodachi.
My sensei used to tell me when I was a child, "it is because of you I am getting bald!" I hit his men softly now when he lets me strike. Of course, with certain amount of "sae (sharpness)" but try to control the strength in my tenouchi.
Because we never know how hard/softly we strike, it is very important for motodachi to tell kakarite (strikers) how hard/softly they strike. They must know so they can work on their tenouchi.
Also motodachi must know that kakarite is not hitting on the same spot on purpose. That's how they strike. So ifkakarite are not striking properly i.e. striking fist instead of kote, they have to know that. Instead of yelling at them, we have to tell them what they are doing and possible solution for the proper way of striking.
Also I would like to remind you one more thing. Let's say one person is hurting you. So you ask others if this guy hits others hard too. And they say, NO. Now you think this guy is hurting you on purpose. I must tell you that is not the case.
As I mentioned, many people don't know how hard they strike. On top of it, they do not change how they strike when their motodachi changes. For example, you should change how you strike depending on the height of your motodachi.
As the height of your target changes, you should change how you strike. Make sense? But many people do not even realize that they should change how they strike when their training partner changes.
If your motodachi is shorter than you, you have a lot more distance and time to reach a target, i.e. increase of the force of your strikes. So your motodachi who is shorter than you will receive more powerful kote cuts from you than others.
So please keep that in mind.
As a kendō practitioner
Some say kendō is martial arts so its practitioners should be prepared to get hurt. It is true that we must be prepared for anything that would happen during kendō practice. We hit each other with bamboo sticks so of course there is a strong possibility to get hurt.
However, we do not "harm" others intentionally. Let's say you get frustrated because you cannot strike your opponent in a way you want. Your opponent perfectly blocks your strikes.
You start pushing your opponent when you get close to him/her so you think you can hit him/her better. You try to make an open. But still you cannot get any points on your opponent. Your frustration level intensifies.
Your strikes become harder and you push your opponent more aggressively so you can hit your opponent better. You start pushing your opponent by their neck with the tsuka (handle) of your shinai.
This only gets uglier. If your opponent reacts to your action, this fight will be really ugly. Your frustration turns into anger and now your opponent is not happy with you.
You see how it is? Doesn't it sound familiar?
This starts from you being frustrated because YOU cannot hit your opponent, which has nothing to do with your opponent. It is your frustration against a lack of your ability. Right?
I have felt this frustration a lot and I still do. Then I always tell myself, "It is your fault. You should improve your kendō". As we all know that kendō is not about hitting others but to improve ourselves.
Violence in kendō is very hard to spot because of its nature (originated in samurai swordsmanship). However, we should not let our emotions to take over our mind and hurt the other kendō mates.
If your kendō mates are hurting you and they don't know about that, you should tell them. Also you have to change the way you receive their strikes if they hurt you in kihon (the basics) training.
Remember we have to improve receiving as well as striking. Many complain about others but they do not review their skills. If we don't do that, we won't improve at all.
If you are an instructor, you should change your approach to show your students what really kendō is considering their level ofkendō. Even if you are not an instructor, you may teach new comers. So basically we all must consider ways to deliver our messages properly through keiko (training).
In the thesis of Blake Bennett, it is mentioned that trust between instructors and students are very important. I could not agree more. When I look back my childhood, my sensei did indeed gave me and other kids hard time. But none of us complained about that.
We liked them a lot. We knew that they gave us hard time because they cared about us. They really did take a good care of us not only in thedōjō but also outside of the dōjō. We knew they would not hurt us for any reasons.
Besides, they did not get emotional during keiko. Of course, they told us off during keiko but they never ever became violent.
This is a very important fact we must remember when we instruct. We have to grow trust and good relationship among the group first. We should talk about what kendō is.
We must understand the nature of diversities in our group as well. In many cases, we have different age groups. The purposes of doing kendō are different. Some people do kendō to maintain their health. Some just do it as their hobby. Some want to seek the "way" through kendō.
It is very important for us to remember these facts and change the way to train with each member. After all, we must think about the growth of the others as well as our own.
kendō can be ugly if we become ugly. kendō be comes very valuable if we ourselves become valuable and earn respect through kendō. The future of kendō depends on us.