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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Laverick

On Kendo and Philosophy - by Ozawa Hiroshi (Kendo 8 dan)

Hiroshi Ozawa, Eishin Gijuku Kōbukan Tokyo, January 2017. Translated & edited by Jan Rod, Hayami Aboutaleb and Tyler Rothmar


View of life equals view of kendo


When I was in my 50s, I had the following conversation with one of my colleagues, professor S., who is a philosopher. I asked him, “Can you explain philosophy to me in a way that I can understand?” Professor S. replied: “What are you talking about? You practice philosophy every day when you think about kendō.” I replied: “I only think about how I can do kendō better today than yesterday, tomorrow better than today, in a month, in a year…” “That itself is philosophy”, said professor S. “Which means that I am a philosopher?” I asked. On Kendō and Philosophy Hiroshi Ozawa “Yes, you are a philosopher. A philosopher is not just someone who writes and lectures about Kant and Heidegger to introduce their teachings into daily life. Some people around me call me a philosopher, but to my embarrassment, I have to admit, I would not call myself that. What you are doing in kendō is philosophy in practice. A dedicated practice that guides a proper approach to everyday life”, said professor S.


In introductory classes to philosophy taught in universities, philosophy is usually described as a dedicated practice one immerses oneself in and continues to pursue without hesitation.


Main Thesis


In the beginning, when first starting kendō practice, it is very important to choose a good teacher. Then, when attending high school or university, one can make a conscious decision, using reason and experience, about what kind of kendō to do and why. Furthermore, one of the most effective ways to explore kendō is to look into its history through reading books on kendō and thinking about the problems discussed by the author. Think about these problems and how you would attempt to solve them. It is bringing this knowledge and thinking into the practice of kendō that improves training. This approach also appears in the “secret techniques” of Yagyū Shinkage-ryū called Sanma-no-Kurai (三磨之 位).


When I was graduating high school, we had to write a few words on ourselves for a school magazine called “Chū-Un”. I wrote only five words: “My only aspiration is kendō” . I remember that moment 50 years ago very clearly today. At that time I decided my only aspiration is kendō and today, I am deeply impressed that I am still doing it with the same dedication. What does it mean then, to do kendō every day? During my tenure at Tokyo University of Science, I was in charge of kendō for general physical education. I encountered a problem of “understanding and [putting that knowledge into] practice” or 認識と実践 (Ninshiki and Jissen). Though I tried hard to teach the students and explain things correctly, they understood what I was teaching in their head, but they were not improving at all. It left me wondering what should I do.


To put it differently, understanding and practice are not the same thing. Simply said, explaining to someone, “This is how you cut with a shinai”, or “This is how you strike men” does not mean they will be able to do it – on the contrary. Through this I understood that to learn kendō it is necessary to endure hard and often painful practice as a beginner.


This makes kendō really difficult! One’s kendō is born through personal determination, individual style of handling the sword, intrinsic motivation, ideals, worldview, personal values and view of life. However, if one practices for a while, and one’s values start to form around the practice itself, it is impossible to look accurately and objectively on oneself. This is because the feeling of attachment to kendō and one’s motivation become too strong. Once the heart is lost to something, one becomes blind, as in love, or, on the contrary, the seed of dislike often leads to a rejection of everything, as in hate.


My opinion is that one’s view of life equals one’s view of kendō. Kendō is based on and comes out of one’s view of life. The deeper one’s understanding of their view of life, the clearer they see kendō. In kendō the “desire to win” is necessary. One has to attack and to actually win. Despite this, once the motivation to “hit” and “win” becomes too strong, the shoulder muscles stiffen, the arms and elbows become too open, and the tip of the sword weakens.


In other words, it is a paradox that if the determination and passion are too strong, it becomes impossible to demonstrate one’s ability. The mind and heart must be calm as still water and the body must be relaxed and free of excess tension in the shoulders. While burning passion is important, it does not combine well with the feeling of calmness. Kendō contains contradictions. Training to understand these contradictions is one of the intriguing things about kendō. It is said that a problem with technique is a problem with one’s heart, because the unity of heart, skill and body is necessary to execute technique. In kendō, we fight with another person even as we fight with ourselves. The Chinese philosopher Laozi said around 2,500 years ago in his famous book “Tao Te Ching”: “He who overcomes others is strong; he who overcomes himself is mighty”. This is one of the famous thoughts that deeply represents the fundamental spirit of kendō.


“Under the raised sword, it is hell. If you go one step forward, it is paradise.”


The question is whether a balance between desire to win and a calm, silent heart can be achieved. It is very difficult to think about the opponent, what is he thinking, what kind of strategy is he employing, while at the same time thinking about one’s own goals. “Know your enemy and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles,” said the famous general Sun Tzu in his book “Art of War”. However, one must understand the opponent to be able to challenge him. It is important to observe what kind of habits the opponent has, where and how they strike. The more insight one has, the better one can respond to the opponent. This is one of the deep and interesting things about kendō. One can often see the aura of strength and charm when they face someone who is at a very high skill level.


The core of kendō is the problem of the heart. It is finding unity in the contradiction, reconciling two conflicting passions through the endless training of one’s heart to balance this contradiction. That being said, it is nothing but an effort to overcome a narrow ego. Kendō, therefore, is essentially a philosophy of life.


What is spiritual attitude and 'single-mindedness'


In 1972, when I was 22 years old, Eiji Ando, professor of economics at Seikei University, joined my father’s dōjō. He was around 50 and had slight problems with his right leg and at that time had 4th dan. I, then, had 5th dan and so he was approaching me in training from a junior position. We became friends and when I had time outside of practice I often spent it talking with him about economics, philosophy and, of course, kendō. I was teaching him about kendō, but I was learning from him about everything else.


Some 25 years into our friendship, professor Ando brought me a book: “This will definitely be useful to Hiroshi Sensei”, he said. It was Eckermann’s “Conversations with Goëthe” (1836). That book is still at the corner of my desk and I sometimes pick it up and look through it and nostalgically think about professor Ando.


I also wrote about the professor in one of my books, “Essays - Bamboo Echoes - Born in the House of Conquering Swords” (1999, Shimazu Shobo) in a chapter called “Putting your heart into one thing”. I honestly feel that real scholars’ research skills are amazing. Let’s start by introducing professor Ando’s essay “Foolish Passion”. It started, “A long time ago I read one article…” this essay uniquely and with a great sense explains in an extremely interesting way the passion of experts in antique swords and master swordsmen including the story of Sadaharu Oh.


Here I will talk about two points related to that essay: Let’s start with the antique sword expert, who, when asked about how he gets better at his job, said: “There is no special training method, we watch the most beautiful and treasured swords every day, and once you do that for a year or so, you will have fine judgment. Even if you are not trained by another person, your judgment will naturally get better by the exposure to the highest class of swords.” If we bring this to the world of swordsmanship, a complete beginner who just entered the house of the master to study the art will not learn anything from the master right away. They have to spend years doing the everyday work, making food, preparing a bath, cutting wood. And then, after a few years of observing the master, they slowly start to learn. While I have myself obviously trained that way, this style of instruction is possible only in training the art in the traditional Japanese family system.


Another surprising and pleasing example is Ukichi Sato Sensei finding the fundamental spirit of kendō training in Max Weber’s work “Science as a Vocation”. At the beginning of Sato Sensei’s book “Eternal Kendō” (永遠なる剣 道 Kodansha, 1975) he quotes Weber: “And whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders, so to speak, and to come up to the idea that the fate of his soul depends upon whether or not he makes the correct conjecture at this passage of this manuscript may as well stay away from science.”


In the case of kendō, as Sato Sensei says, “These words are exactly the attitude the kendō masters should have to practice”. Genuinely focusing on practicing kendō in its purity means focusing on its foundational principles while training with sincere effort. For example, focusing on the purest cut while practicing suburi: “In that act [of cutting] we discover our own raison d'être, we put all of our being into that single moment of passion”. This is the type of passion that underlies ongoing practice. From the viewpoint of contemporary simplistic lifestyle trends, this might seem laughable. On the other hand, if such effort becomes boastful, then that kind of passion creates a ridiculous situation.


One of my teachers, Yamauchi Tomio Sensei, Hanshi, suddenly realized this after he turned 60, and, to study and understand the deepest principles of the sword, decided to do one million suburi cuts - a goal that took him two-and-half years to reach:


“I understood how to hold the sword properly after around 300 thousand strikes. I comprehended how to swing it after around 700 or 800 thousands cuts and once I reached one million, there would be an indescribable feeling in the palm of my hand while swinging and hitting.”


After Yamauchi Sensei finished doing one million strikes, contrary to what I expected, I realized that he achieved a kind of “enlightenment” and really discovered a “secret technique” (gokui). When I faced him in practice afterwards, he was suddenly able to see through all my movements and I was unable to successfully carry out any technique against him.


If one focuses with all their devotion on this single-mindedness, there is no space left for regret. The achievement of this consistency does not lie in gaining reputation or earning money. One must be prepared for that, while practicing the art. Such is the nature of today’s “floating world”, that to perceive 12 the art, one needs a spirit that is not longing for any compensation. It is to focus all one’s passion on the action without expecting anything in return.


When I look at kendō these days, there is a great focus on the result itself and very little discussion of the process. However, I think this is, in contemporary society, also true beyond kendō. We can see these tendencies in contemporary Japan as well, where the result is the only important measure of everyday life. We live in a society of consumerism which shifts focus towards pursuing profit, and profit itself became a result and a goal. The focus of the heart moves towards success, towards outcome, and profit is becoming the ultimate measure of our lives. Once we apply this mentality to sports, our attitude will shift to an exclusive focus on results. We only measure the number of gold, silver and bronze medals. As this mentality permeates everything, a bad result means one is seen as worthless. However, I think the true and original purpose is training itself. That’s what I especially understand as the raison d'être of Kendō, because it is something that has been passed on over a thousand years from generation to generation by people who devoted their whole lives to it.


The motto of “faithfulness”


Finally, let me talk about “faithfulness”. The word “faithfulness” (seijitsu - 誠実) can be explained in various ways. It is also relevant to contemporary society. Being faithful to another person is a known concept from interpersonal relationships. Being faithful to yourself means focusing on one thing with all one’s effort. This is easier said than done. I believe that this is the true meaning of being an “independent person”. If we were to replace “faithfulness” with another word, it would be “nobility”. An independent spirit based on personal responsibility, that is the faithful way of life and a person who lives that way we can be called “a noble human”. This, expressed in simple words that everyone can understand, is the concept of faithfulness. If we bring this concept into the world of kendō, we can say that “a person and a sword will have become one”. Professor Ando also said the following:


“If one finds a meaning in life, they will try with all their heart, even if others think it is pointless. And that’s what makes life interesting.”

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