The Thirty Years War
At the end of January 2021 I will have been practising kendo for thirty years, so I’m going to bore you all with some reminiscences, stories, observations, and points of view.
I first became aware of kendo at the age of 15 when it was featured on the venerable BBC show “Blue Peter” in about 1970. I’ve no idea who the two British kendoka were but it captured my imagination. Couldn’t do much about it at the time for various reasons but I filed it for future reference.
Forward to age 18 and at the height of Bruce Lee fever I started Shotokan karate at Sheffield United’s Bramall lane ground under John Bojum 1st dan. It turned out that the dojo was under the wing of 5th dan Shiro Asano sensei based in Nottingham. Asano sensei became a 6th dan while I was a member and I see he is 9th dan Hanshi now. Anyway I had to give up the karate to focus on studying for my job.
In my 20’s I took up archery and had a great time particularly in field archery. I helped the archery club beginners course and really enjoyed seeing people learn and improve. From this I became a GNAS coach at Notts team level and at this time I moved to the village of Ollerton. One winter night I went to the local fish and chip shop and saw a poster on the wall advertising a kendo course at the Ollerton comprehensive school. The Blue Peter memory kicked in and so off I went and here I am.
I think there was 10 of us beginners in the cold gym being inducted by Trevor Chapman and Keith Henson, both 1st dans. I can’t recall how long the course was but the 10 gradually dwindled to 3 before the end. The other two had more ability for kendo than me but before long they had to quit because of work in one case and a back injury in the other. Just me then. Floundering, despite Trevor’s best efforts and patience. But we both stuck at it. I think Trevor and Keith knew each other before Trevor founded the dojo in1987 but they had a very different approach to kendo. Trevor was dogged, methodical and tried to learn the authentic Japanese way to practise kendo. Keith was more extroverted and focused on being faster than anyone else in a somewhat competitive (show off) way. The value of this difference to me was that I quickly decided which camp I wanted to be in.
Like everyone I started kendo by wearing a T shirt and jogging bottoms (unused for jogging), but my first practise jacket (keiko-gi) was white with a black diagonal embroidered pattern teamed with a black hakama. This was the norm back then and indicated your beginner status in the absence of coloured belts. You switched to blue hakama and keiko-gi when you passed 1st dan. I learned much later that it is reserved for children in Japan so us BKA members must have looked a bit strange to visiting Japanese kendoka, but they were too polite to mention it. The white/black combination is never seen in the UK these days, and I can’t recall seeing children wearing it in Japan.
About 18 months in I applied to grade to 1st kyu at the Bowden taikai held at the Nenriki dojo
Elephant & Castle London. So there I was wearing my white and black kit probably looking some-what awkward. I can’t remember the outcome of the grading but after there was a general Jigeiko with various experienced senior grades lined up for us beginners to practise with. I came to “fence” a person wearing, unusually, all black. Kind of like the “black knight” films of my childhood. And just like the Black Knight he turned out to be an arsehole, and a Metropolitan police officer. He slammed me up against the wall and then, deliberately, hit me in the face with his men-gane in the manner of what is known as a Glasgow kiss. I launched back at him mostly in anger and what ensued was in no way related to kendo.
Having extracted myself from this debacle I faced another senior, and to this day well respected, person. This time I was allowed a couple of my primitive men attacks but on the next one he scooped me under the arms with his shinai and launched me across the room. My men came flying off and I landed in a heap in a corner. End of.
On the journey home, and often since, I reflected on the piss poor treatment of beginners in the BKA and resolved not to become associated with the kind of attitude shown to me. I was a 37 year old man being treated in this way. How did the BKA expect to attract members if this was the pre-vailing ethos? I guess you can sense my pain across the decades.
Over the years I attended BKA seminars. They were typically boot camps with sometimes contra-dictory teaching sessions. One highlight, as a beginner, was the first Kodokan seminar I went on hosted by Paul Budden and Kazuyo Matsuda and led by Sumi sensei (8th dan, Hanshi). There was a programme of events, starting about 6 am. The place was packed and at the end of the afternoon the was a general practise with sensei, however we beginners were at the far end of the dojo from Sumi sensei and so couldn’t get our kit on quick enough to get in the queue to fence him. When he heard about this Sumi sensei organised a beginners-only session in the evening. That’s how to do it.
When Keith left the area Trevor asked me to become senpai which I was delighted to be for over 20 years. The plan was to continue with him as leader and me as senpai forever. But it was not to be and we lost Trevor Chapman 6th dan Renshi in 2017.
I’m known for being self controlled and patient. My kendo footwork has never been any good and it took me a long time to get it where it is now. Trevor was coaching me one evening and I was get-ting increasingly frustrated with my inability to get it. Trevor kept pushing me hard, but never aggressively. My self disgust rose until a red mist descended on me and I stomped off to the other end of the gym near the wall bars. Momentarily I was close to shoving my shinai vertically into the wall bars and snapping it in two before going home forever. Trevor watched from the other end of the gym until I regained self control and returned to the practise. To my amusement Trevor often told beginners how I almost snapped my shinai in the wall bars due to frustration with kendo, but I came through it so they could as well.
Trevor was a consummate networker and invited many Japanese teachers to practise with us at Kashi No Ki. Without exception they were intelligent, tolerant and keen to develop our skills. From these contacts I learned more and more about the inter personal and spiritual aspects of kendo.
As you will see from Ozawa sensei’s blog, Trevor met sensei in Nottingham which began a long friendship between the two and led to the annual “Ozawa” seminar in Ollerton. Over the years Ozawa sensei (8th dan, Kyoshi) brought many friends and students with him. I’m not keen on name checking as I’ll miss someone and cause offence, and it might look like I’m ranking them which I’m not, so, in no particular order (©️SCD) Ninomiya sensei, Takatera sensei, Iino sensei, Meguro sensei, and Iishi sensei have all made immeasurable contributions to our insights of kendo with a lifetime of immersion in kendo. Because I genuinely appreciate their friendship, talents and support for our dojo notable Brits include Denis Smith sensei, Paul Budden sensei, Kazuyo Matsuda sensei (honorary Brit), and Gary O’Donnell sensei.
As you will see elsewhere on this website Ozawa sensei is a philosopher, and his interests range across European history to the Beatles. He once gave us his view of the world and the place of kendo in it. “The Hapsburg empire” he said “was based on the love of power. The mafia family is based on the love of money, but the kendo family is based on love.” It’s a tough love admittedly but we know which is the most enduring.
I am terrible at gradings; I passed 3rd dan in 2003 and failed many attempts at 4th dan since. At my present age I am reconciled that it is not possible to pass but I’m often asked “what do I need to do to pass my next grading?” And my unhelpful answer is “I have no idea” as I have tried to put into practise what the grading examiners tell me to no avail.
Advice from Ozawa sensei on how to take your kendo to the next level: “go to the zoo and watch the tigers” and “more kakari geiko”.
Speaking of kakari geiko I used to hate it, because it was me thrashing away aimlessly and
getting exhausted at the same time. From somewhere a light bulb came on and I learned to relax and give myself over to it. In time, as kakaratei, I could dictate the pace, accuracy and most importantly the intensity. Now it’s one of my favourite practises.
Paul and Kazuyo are friends of Tashiro sensei (8th dan, Kyoshi) and put together a British isles tour where he spent a few days in various places in the UK and Ireland. Tashiro sensei is professional armour maker and restorer and has worked on the Kurasawa film “Ran”. He plays golf to a high standard and once said to me “I love golf, but hate kendo because in kendo I’m fighting with myself”. For me this summarises the reason to practise kendo: to identify and overcome your own inadequacies.
I often tell kendoka that no one is born knowing this stuff; it only comes with practise, but with an open mind and an ability to self criticise. So how often do I practise kendo? Everyday in my head.
Right now COVID 19 has stopped all kendo, but I’m proud to be the dojo leader for Kashi No Ki Ken Yu Kai and to have such a wonderful eccentric and bizarre group of members who bring so many things to the kendo party.