Jeff Sensei Interview

To mark the 30th anniversary of Hizen Dojo, our Head Instructor Jeff Sensei has agreed to give a personal interview about his thoughts on kendo, his kendo career and teaching the largest dojo in the UK. Those of us who have been taught by Jeff sensei know that he is straight talking. Many of us have been told things about our kendo that we did not want to hear from this hard but fair kendoka. The interview started by asking Sensei

How do you manage to stay enthusiastic and motivated to teach all these years, given the numbers of people starting and stopping?

I’m happy that you feel that I still show motivation and enthusiasm when I teach. The numbers stopping never cover those starting, but it’s sad when people stop around shodan or higher as kendo has not really started and the interesting parts are only around the corner. But you have to step back and realise that people come to Kendo for many reasons and often to find something. The problem is, kendo often shows people things about themselves that they don’t wish to face or find out. So each new face is a personal challenge to see if I can find a way to express kendo that will keep the individual interested and motivated to stay with it, and this is what keeps me going.

Does it still excite you to teach today as much as it did on your first day?

I would not say teaching excites me, but I see it as my duty to give back and add my own learning to what I have been lucky to have learnt from the great teachers I have had and still have contact with.

Any regrets over teaching kendo or some people?

I don’t have any regrets. Teaching kendo has given me a great insight into my own kendo, and without it I would not have reached my current grade with such ease. Although with some people, I wish I had tried a different way of teaching, I have not regretted teaching anyone.

How do you think the kendo practices have evolved in UK over 30 years?

Has kendo evolved in the UK in this time frame? I can comfortably say that we now have more understanding and technical know-how than when I started in the early 70s. So there is a refinement that comes with greater understanding, which was not present back then, but sometimes I miss the rawness and passion that was around then. It has evolved to become closer to the standard form of kendo practised in Japan.  

Do you feel like kendo has become more popular and is attracting more people year-on-year?

I don’t think kendo has become more popular – just more well known; it will always be a minority activity simply by its nature. As kendo is not about self-defence, which is why most people start a martial art, and it’s too physical for those who are looking for personal development, in a way kendo falls between the two camps. It has grown but compared to other European countries, we have fallen behind.

How difficult is it to teach a Japanese martial art to occidental people who do not have the same way of thinking and are often more inclined on their ego?

Firstly, the ego is not exclusive to occidentals. Teaching the principles of kendo are the same – it’s only the learning methods that change culturally. Without explaining this in too much detail, generally in the West we follow an Aristotelian approach to learning, which is based on questioning information given to us. In the East, they follow the Confucianism way of learning, which involves receiving all information without question until you are full. These are simply different approaches to the same goal of learning. If you are aware of the differences, then the process of teaching is the same. Teaching people to deal with their ego is not my place – I leave it to kendo and the individual.  

It must have been a difficult decision to selflessly commit yourself to the art/club and there must have been a lot of personnel sacrifices you would have had to make over the years. If you were to do it again, would there be any changes and paths/decisions you would have done differently? More so as advice for anyone who may wish to open their own dojo.

It would be easy to say now looking back that I should have done this or that. Always in hindsight things can been seen clearly. As advice to those who wish to open a dojo, think long and hard before you make the step. Many years ago when there weren’t too many dojo around or you lived in an area where kendo did not exist, you could go out and start one up to practise. But now, in London there is a large choice and some clubs are now big enough to give 3rd/4th dans the role of coach as we do. Firstly I would question yourself; ask yourself why, when and where, and is it needed? As members of the B.K.A. we are lucky because we can practise at any dojo that is a member of the Association. Some teachers don’t inform their students about this, as they are concerned that they may lose them to another dojo.

I feel strongly that it’s important that we all work together to give anyone who wants to learn about kendo the biggest opportunity to do so. Having classes on the same day and at the same time, and clubs close to each other does not help this. Students must be and should be encouraged to make visits.  This will enable them to find what they are looking for from the teacher they feel they are best suited to. So if you feel that you can add to the array of teachers/coaches out there, you will enjoy the challenge, but it is important that you teach and not just run a class based on drills and formats of practice. As students are demanding, they want something for their time and money, so a lot of hopeful students leave because the teacher can’t or doesn’t teach. Some dojo are meeting places for people to show off, or, in a good vein, challenge their ability with others, but often this is just a place where young bucks let off stream. A kendo class should impart information based on skill-learning in a professional manner.

The final point is that when you have had the worst day of your life and you feel like shit, and then you get an offer to go out to a great party, are you the kind of person who would turn down the offer and go to the dojo instead? You have to turn up because (if you are lucky) 35 people will be waiting for you to be the font of all knowledge!  If the answer is yes, then you are ready to open a dojo!

I seem to remember once you said 5th dan was the point you were expected to have mastered kihon. So after that, how did you approach 6th and 7th dan, and how do you approach 8th dan when it’s no longer about just being better than someone else?

Passing grades in kendo is not about being better than the people you take it with. It’s about showing what you are capable of doing in the context of the level you are aspiring to reach. Anyone can reach 5th dan if they work hard at perfecting the basic skills of kendo, but 6th dan was a leap for me. I passed first time when I was 30 and I had spent a month training with the Metropolitan Police in Tokyo who had kindly broke me into a thousand bits and rebuilt me. I had been totally immersed in the best kendo possible, and I had been in a world which very few are lucky enough to step into. 

If I look back now, my kendo was forced to become natural without thought or unnecessary action. That gave me a feeling of time within my practice to see many other things.

You are required to show conceptual qualities such as courage, dignity, integrity and the ability to instruct. So unless these attributes have been formed though your daily endeavours to improve, they must now be polished (along with, of course, the physical kendo) so that you are seen as a role model. I was told that if I did not see the opportunity, I would fail. I did not have to make a perfect strike, but I had to try. With 7th dan, which I tried once at 36, my teacher just laughed and said, “You can’t even stand correctly or cut properly’’.

I gave it a try and failed. On my return to the dojo my teacher said, “What did you expect? You have never experienced failure in study, so it’s good for your development. Also, you are too young – only the very best in Japan pass first time at your age’’. I returned to the UK and spent along time reflecting on this and finally passed after two more attempts at 46. Ten years of reflection… so 6-7th is about self-reflection, and on the day, seeing the chance and making the cut. The last part of your question about how do I approach 8th dan – hmm – I have not yet thought about it. I’m still getting used to being a 7th dan and what people think or don’t think of it. If it was any major sport, all those who hold it would be household names, but when you put it into the picture of kendo, you are just another paintbrush mark on a painting you can’t fully see.

The only advice I have got has been “Find your own way and remember what it was like to be a shodan’’. On a practical level, every cut must have the same content, physically and spiritually, and at the grading there will be no second chances, so you have to make a perfect cut.  I think it will be many years before I get close to that.  

How do you feel about kendo after 30 years?

Well, I still enjoy it I think! It’s hard to see my own kendo but I have learnt to see my reflection in the dojo and this has helped a lot. The frustration still remains of not being able to fully grasp all the concepts and be able to use what I understand to good effect at will. Kendo still has a captivating and compelling allure for me which has changed over the years, but now it has focused on being able to teach this art to whom ever walks into my dojo the best way I can, and even if it’s not for them, at least they will leave kendo with a better understanding of what it holds.

Do you think you have done everything you wanted to in kendo and the B.K.A. over the last 30 years, and how do you see the next 30 years in terms of not just other dojo members’ kendo, but more importantly, your own kendo?

No, there are two things that I would really like to do. One is finish the book I have been writing on-and-off over the past three years, and the other is to pass the necessary requirements to enable me to teach physically/mentally disabled people kendo.

How do I see the next 30 years? Well, at the end of them I’ll be 70 and if I’m still able to be in the dojo enjoying kendo and have achieved the two previous wishes, I’ll be happy.

What do you see in you own experience that was important for you to be able to still be here after all these years, have a drive to come every Tuesday and Thursday and to commit to it all?

That’s a hard question to answer! Well, being stubborn, determined and having old-fashion obligation and duty in my personality to things I believe in and have promised to do, has helped me maintain the commitment to the dojo and my own kendo.

Why did you start kendo?

I was captivated by seeing a demo at a summer fair and saw right away that I could do this for a long time. I was aware of my own age being a barrier to doing things at that time, and I had experience of not being able to take part in events due to my age and not my ability. Kendo seemed to have no restrictions in its practise.  

You had experience of other martial arts around you when you were young. Why do you think you took to kendo?

Being born into a Budo family, by the age of 14 I had tried most of the other arts. Also, looking at my bothers and father, I could see that the physical life (the practice) was short-lived, so I wanted to take up something that I could do until I got old. At 14 years of age, I thought of 50 as old.  Well, now I AM 50, and I’m still saying I want to do this until I get old!

What is kendo for you, what does it give you?

It’s a cliché I know, but it’s my life now, and I would not be who I am now and have had the opportunities I have had to travel the world meet people etc. without it. What does it give me now? A sense of purpose, comfort, enjoyment, social contact and an ability to express myself in a medium that I feel I’m comfortable with.

I’ve heard people say that kendo was a lot harder in the past – both generally (in all dojo) – and specifically (in Hizen).  Has the teaching got ‘softer’, the students weaker, or have the sensei become more subtle? 

It’s an easy statement to make, as it can’t be proven, but often when there is a lack of knowledge it is covered by volume of practice. Also, there is an element of ‘the good old days’. I grow up in these times, and it was a bit like the Wild West compared to the Untied Nations we have now. So it may have seemed tougher then. As for Hizen, I returned from Japan at the age of 20 as a 3rd dan after practising three times a day, seven days a week for two years. I was a man with an image of how Kendo should be done, and if you did not fit into my image then you knew it. So this might have given the impression of being tough. I wanted to make a name for myself and for the dojo, like we see in new dojo today. As the sensei of any dojo controls the direction and style, it also reflects their personal development, so it generally follows this outline; keen and passionate, loud and brash, competitive and bold, size and pride, quality and stability. In addition, how people now use their free time has changed, so I feel the way we teach kendo has to take this into consideration. Kendo is kendo, and it does not change wherever it is practised. Only the way it’s taught varies, with understanding, application and culture.

I know you are keen to encourage younger kendoka –  hence setting up the Hizen Challenge.  So, could we expand the age range we accept in Hizen?  Does the current child protection regulatory environment put you off, or do you think having younger people would be hard to integrate in the dojo at present?

As I started as a child myself, I can understand first hand the problems and can still remember the loneliness of doing kihon by myself and having no armour to fit etc., but now at least this has changed with dojo like Mumeishi, Kodokan and Wakaba Dojo (which I started and ran for nine years before handing it over to Matsugaki San) now in place for the juniors. The real area is the 18–25 group. I played a big role in getting university kendo up and running when I opened the first UCL dojo in 1989–1999. Whilst there, I also travelled twice a week to Kent University in Canterbury to teach after getting in touch with Mr. Parker-Dod. We started up the University Taikai and made kendo a B.U.S.A.-recognised sporting activity. Now kendo is slowly growing in the university system. The problem here is that students leave in three-year cycles, and the university unions do not like non-students practising which, for kendo, is most important as we require more advanced kendoka to learn from. So trying to get crossover from university-based clubs to adult dojo is an area that needs looking at and dojo should be more open. So to come back to Hizen, the dojo and I have played a major role in giving opportunity to youth. The current protection regulatory environment is there for a good reason, and the reason I have not carried on teaching juniors is simple. I personally no longer have time to devote to this area, but once we find premises for our new dojo project, giving us and a full-time dojo in Central London, then of course it will have classes for juniors and much more.   

What do you think are the most important similarities and differences when teaching women kendo compared with men?

Well, women listen, think, then try, while men try, think, then listen. The best practice style for women is short periods of high-impact training followed by skill and theory. For men, it is slow build up to high-impact training. So if the class is mixed, the best training plan I have found is:

Task skill at low impact, standard kihon medium impact, task skill recap low impact, high impact short time scale, repeated. One of the great things about kendo is that we don’t have any gender separation and I hope it stays that way. It’s important that the energy bought by both genders into a dojo generates balance.

Is there a point at which one cannot progress further in Kendo unless you practice in Japan?  Will that change in the future? 

No, I don’t believe this is true. The technical level outside Japan is high, with many 7th dan teachers in European countries. There is a blindness with some Western students that makes them see a Western 7th dan differently. In fact, you are likely to learn more from a European 7th dan because they have gone though what you are facing and will face in future, whereas the Japanese haven’t. There are 7th dan in the UK and students should make an effort to meet them and be taught by them whenever you have the opportunity. It’s a grade that is not just given. Why kick a ball around with a Sunday league player when you can be in the Champion’s league? Seriously, I would not let it concern you. People think that there is a dojo on every corner in Japan and that they are all are full with 7/8th dan. Well I’m sorry to say it’s not like that and you would be lucky to find an adults’ practice. You can’t walk into and Police Station and ask to practise, and most high school/university clubs are run by the students.

So how does going to Japan help your kendo progress? It can show you that you are crap and this can spur you on. Or, as the Japanese are very polite, they will tell you that you are wonderful even though you’re not because you have made an effort to go there. So it can work in reverse. Things are changing again in Japan with budo being placed back on the education syllabus, so there is a need for good teachers now in school dojo. Give it a few years and the level will rise again and the ripples will find their way back over here.

How do you decide when someone should go into armour?  From the point of view of dojo management, and given 30 years’ experience at Hizen, do you think students should be kept waiting or moved into bogu quickly?

It’s an interesting call. I try to look for individual commitment – has the person bought there own shinai/hakama /gui? Do they turn up to every practice? But it also can push some students away as the fear strikes. It has to be down to the individual and how they develop, but once they have been in it, they should also be taught without it at other times. Wearing armour is not the goal – it’s a tool to learn kendo.

You were a successful manager of the UK squad – what advice would you give to the current squad leadership?

Each manager/coach has his or her own way of doing things, but I would say structure and framework. Take any national team sport, you have selections to pick, under 21s squad (the future), current squad elite (the present) and OB as coaches and assistants (the past). It’s easy to just think of the present team or taikai, but the role is to produce a rolling stock of possible members and not to be left with having to pick from what is available at anyone time.

The average age of the members of our National Team is 30–40; the same as it was twenty years ago in my time! If you look at the rest of Europe, their teams are in their early 20s. I have no idea what guidelines or restrictions if any the B.U. / B.K.A. gives to managers, but it’s only because we have a talented few kendoka that we manage to just keep from falling into the lower leagues of European Kendo.

What do you understand by the term ‘sport kendo’, and does it help or hinder long-term development?

Sports kendo is when scoring a point becomes the main focus and purpose of practice. It is only a small part of kendo and it is a shame that some kendoka get lost on this path and find it difficult to get back. Some stop or are left with bad habits, which makes it hard continue.

Did you enjoy the kata when you were young, or is that something that has grown over the years?

I was strongly encouraged to do kata as I had too much time on my hands in Japan, so I entered a world of people who fell between kendoka and iaido students. I wish that I had paid more attention, because what I was being shown and saw was much more than the normal ten forms. So now I have time, so to speak, I find it more interesting but ryu ha studies are full of problems.

Do you have a role model, or someone you simply admire, in kendo?  If so, what is it about their kendo, or themselves, that has inspired this feeling?

I have never had a role model as such, although I have been very lucky to have practised with and trained under some of the great kendoka. I have admired these people for their personal effort and dedication to the pursuit of perfection.

My first teacher in Japan was always the first in the dojo at 5.30am regardless of if anyone came apart from me. I watched 8th dan doing uchikomi and being pushed over and told that it was not right and seeing them still trying at that level to improve.

A captain of a team going out to fight after his team had lost every fight, and wining with such grace and skill, then return to the team without a trace of bitterness.

These moments have been inspiring.

What was the most challenging part of your kendo career?

Probably now on many levels, but what I still find the most challenging is being the only one left of a generation of kendoka. There have been some great kendoka in the past who have now stopped  I have spent time travelling, sweating with and laughing so hard that it hurt. Now they no longer around for whatever their reasons are, but I often wonder what kendo in the UK would be like now if these men were still standing in a dojo and what our conversations would be. These names will not mean anything to most of you, but I feel it is appropriate I mention them here as I feel they deserve respect for their kendo ability. Yates, Hale, Townsend, Wright, Wells, Povey, Hepburn and King.

I would also list three other kendoka who were students of this dojo that I would have liked to have shared these times ahead with. McCurdy, Scott and Bradley.

So the most challenging part is to carry on.

In UK we have a limited amount of high dan grades, and if there were a senior grade practice (6th dan and above) would this be beneficial for all the senseis (if ego, attitude and grudges/differences were put aside).

I have answered some of your question earlier on, but to address the last part of your question, I don’t feel that ego, attitude and grudges keep us from practising together. We all have our own ways and this is what makes kendo so interesting. The problems are often distance, family commitments and work. I once suggested in Japan that the EKF should hold a gathering for 6th/7th dan where we could practise and be taught as one group not connected to a grading or taikai, somewhere nice in the sun (as many are old and it would be pleasant) but we shall have to see, Who knows in what direction Kendo will go in. 

Sensei, a few years ago I became an art teacher and it was only then I realised all the complex skills and subtleties involved in teaching something. The way you teach kendo embraces the techniques school teachers are taught during their training, such as differentiation (tailoring a lesson to suit the learning needs of less or more able students, boys or girls, old or young, etc.). You always seem to be doing this differentiation effortlessly and at times I have noticed that you change on the spot the initial ‘plan’ for our practice when you observe how things are going. I have often wondered if you had teacher training at any point in your life or have these skills just developed gradually and organically?

Thank you. I have had no formal training as a teacher, so these skills you mention must have developed naturally. A few years ago now I researched and made a paper for my MSc on the improvement of multicultural pedagogical inclusion in traditional martial arts at Middlesex University. This was the first time I really did any study as such at an academic level. The information I gained from undertaking the masters degree has widened my approach to teaching and given me a better insight into how to teach people from various cultures.

From speaking to individuals and general observation, most people have a “favourite” technique or a particular technique they seem to rely on. It is often the case that if the technique doesn’t work, they don’t know what to do (i.e. they do the same thing over and over again until either it works or they give up). Did you have a “favourite” technique or one that you had relied on in your early kendo career? If so, how did you manage to break out of this habit/dependency?

I think everyone has a ‘’favourite’’ technique. In the beginning I did too, and for some years I seemed to do well with one or two waza that gave me the point I wanted when I wanted it, or so I believed, but it’s all in the mind and a stage in learning. The problem is that of habit and dependency, as you mentioned. If you don’t break it as soon as you feel it start, your kendo will stagnate and it’s very apparent in those who do too much free practise or shiai and not enough kihon. The problem is that people forget that it might work a few times on individuals that don’t know them, but once the pattern is seen, they can be picked off very easily. So to break it, limit your use to the same technique/approach to once per bout, and force yourself to try variations on the same theme. This will give depth in skill and a much greater ability in the future to deal with whatever you may face in a dojo or on a shiai court.

I find it very scary and nerve-wracking when asked to teach beginners. I know the “textbook” answer and ways to do things, but I don’t always pass on all the information in a logical manner (e.g. I might forget to tell them about footwork, or I might back track) and demonstrating this is even more difficult because I don’t know whether I’m doing it correctly or well enough for them to mimic from. So how did you know you were ready to teach others and what made you decide to teach kendo?

Frankly I just wanted to share the information and skills that I had learned with others as I thought I had been very lucky and fortunate to have been able to study the way I had and with the people I had. I did not “decide” to teach  it was something that just happened. I had seen ways of training that changed my own kendo and also how important it is in a dojo that everyone as a role in helping each other to improve.

The function of motodachi in a dojo is the first stage in the process of learning to be a good sempei and also it makes you think about how you are doing the techniques your being asked to demonstrate. We are lucky in Hizen that there are some 20 people holding 3rd dan and above so there are possibilities for many to learn and start the process of reflection though being asked to help in the running of the classes.

In my time, it was not unknown for shodan to start up a dojo and teach as best they could with the information and passion they had, but now it’s not needed. Dojo with 30 plus members should use the senior members to coach; otherwise there is no study advantage or opportunity for them. You should never turn up to a dojo just for a bash. A dojo is a place of learning and every teacher should teach to all the levels in the dojo.

Sensei, have you ever felt that you wanted to stop practising kendo, and if so, how did you overcome it? I think most people want to stop when it gets hard or they do not like the reflection of themselves in terms of perceived strengths and weaknesses. Did you ever get to that stage, or were you besotted from the moment you started until now?

Yes of course I’ve wanted to stop many times and I have speculated on numerous occasions, “Why am I still involved in kendo?”. Now at least the thought of all of you waiting in the dojo for me to turn up generally gets me over the days when its been difficult a work. On a personal note in terms of my own kendo, to give in now after 36 years would be such a waste of the time and effort that I have put in up until now. Life changes and so do the reasons you do Kendo as time passes, so you need to change with it. The initial rush of excitement changes to a challenge to learn and understand in more detail. Then you acquire goals and targets that you may or may not reach and all the time you are facing your fears and trying to resolve them. During this, you have moments when you think and feel that you have cracked it and have a period when everything is going great. These highs and lows carry on throughout your study but slowly become like an undulating line, so you seek distractions or revisit the basics and start looking for perfection. Having said this, Kendo is also a very personal journey and life changes with family commitments and work can and will play a part in your practise.

Carrying on along the lines of what’s next for the coming 30 years. Can you envisage an increase in the number of people practicing kendo, or is the ballpark figure of 1000 the natural/magic number? Even during the Last Samurai/Kill Bill movie phase, I think this was the best chance we had to increase the numbers (which it did for a while) but the numbers eventually dropped down again.

I would hope so but I’m doubtful – even the figure of a thousand people I find hard to believe, as you only have to look at those who turn up at events held by the B.K.A. and you see the same faces all the time. I don’t think these numbers are false but it has always puzzled me because it would suggest that more than two thirds of the membership did not want to have anything to do with the Association. Some people keep up their membership and don’t practise, some forget to cancel standing orders etc., but I would take a guess that there are around 500 active members that would be able to say they entered a dojo once a week to do kendo. Retaining people has always been a big problem – even many years ago when I was Vice Chairman of the B.K.A. it was an issue that concerned me. If you take the current B.K.A. membership number which I think is around the 12,000 mark, I started 36 years ago and my number is the later part of the 700s. You can see the growth and what numbers we could be at if people carried on practising.  

Also with the increase of health and safety and conforming to political correctness, do you think this will have an impact on kendo? Even over the short period I have been practising I have seen the controls around “samurai swords” being sold and needing special permission for practicing iaido etc?

Not really, I think Kendo is very safe and these health and safety points are there for good reason. As long as anyone taking part in kendo knows the risks then there is no problem.

Do you see the kendo club landscape changing much, i.e. new clubs popping up and old big clubs closing as the old sensei retire without a successor?

I would hope new dojo would pop up in areas where there is no kendo at present, as there is no point in having dojo to close to each other and practising on the same days  it does not help the growth of kendo in any way. The future will see dojo close for many reasons. The appointment of a successor when a sensei dies is very much up to each individual and I personally have not even thought of this point. If something should happen to me out of the blue, I would hope that there would be one hell of a party, the dojo affairs cleared and then my kendo would live on in those who I have taught up to that point. What any of you would do would be on your own merit with my best wishes.  

As a martial art, kendo is one of the few that explicitly makes “character development” a primary goal. What is your view on this aspect of kendo?

Yes it’s seen as a primary goal but sometimes you look around and think that some people have been sick when some important lessons have been given.

Kendo as a skill is not that hard to master but its application and ability to show you your own failings as a person are huge. Once you have managed to gain some basic skills and are in armour, the journey I believe begins; the constant challenge to improve and test yourself and face head on your emotions or personal conflict – this is when self-refection starts. How you handle these times depends on the people around you and who is leading you.

I think kendo is a very personal journey and you need other like-minded people to develop your own perception of self and your role within the dojo. So if this prepares you to be a better person outside then, it’s a plus. Of course there are the normal benefits such as the release of stress, aggression and frustration though the practise, but self-discipline and personal refection come late and many don’t manage to reach this level before giving up.

I’ve found kendo to be rewarding in many ways and this has enhanced my life, giving me opportunities that I might not otherwise have had, such as travel and meeting various people. For example, I would not have learnt to speak Japanese and used this skill in my working life if it had not been for kendo. So has my character developed by doing kendo for the last 35 years? I can’t say that, as it would be arrogant, but I can say kendo has given me challenges that I have learnt from, and kendo has given me many chances to be a better person. Have I taken them? That’s for others to judge.

You mentioned wanting to teach disabled people kendo. As far as physical (dis)ability goes, what do you think is the point (assuming there is one) at which someone lacks the physical capability to practise kendo?

The will to want to try I think comes first, then the ability to adapt kendo to suit the individual’s needs. I have in the past had a student who only had the use of one arm and this caused no problems at all he only stopped because he left the country. Personal I have practised in the same dojo at the 9WKC as Henry Small, a kendoka who had no legs and moved himself by using his left arm while cutting with his right.

He was amazing and he had such a persona and his seme was something to see. I think he was a yondan at that time.  So as long as there is mobility in some form and the use of one arm or the ability of swing an upper limb then I think it’s possible. The only issue would be how to practise together. There would have to be some adaptation in target areas in some cases. I think it just has to be made available and the issue is the law requiring teachers to be trained to teach individuals with lack of physical ability – but if someone turned up at the dojo, I would not say no to them.

Gender integration is at a higher level in kendo than in most other martial arts. However, in many taikai there are separate women’s competitions and sometimes restrictions about using tsuki against a female opponent. What is your view on this situation? I think encouraging women to participate in a martial art is a good thing, but couldn’t this sort of practice be seen as discrimination or degrading to female kendoka?

Well let’s turn the first part of this around  why do men have their own taikai when we practise together in the dojo and why is tsuki not used more in taikai and the dojo.

For me it’s simple – Western men use far too much physical power in cutting and it’s safer to keep them separated. The use of tsuki can be very dangerous and is often practised badly with excess force.

I feel one of the most important points in our art is that we can and do practise together and I’m not keen on separate taikai or female-only practices, but it’s better to have them than not right now. I have received tsuki, knock down and total thrash by female kendoka in Japan and believe me it was not nice. It gave me a sense of what it must be like on the other end. The only difference was that I wasn’t covered with bruises and didn’t have a head covered with bumps from heavy hitting, which female kendoka frequently keep to themselves as they don’t want to seem soft and not able to manage the knocks. That did happen in the dojo, but I never got hurt in this way in Japan.

So I have great respect for female kendoka and feel that they can bring a lot to the art – it’s just that they are few in number and there are not many at a high grade level. Also, once the males practising kendo realise that kendo is about brains and not brawn, then there will be a leap in levels of kendo, and also speed will increase. If you take the physical stature of the Asian male, it is not dissimilar to a European male on average, so, as in other martial arts, brawn has replaced skill. But as we use a weapon, this weapon is the equalising factor and will hopefully remain so.

To answer the last part of your question, yes it is, but women are accustomed to this kind of behaviour as they deal with this imbalance every moment of the day and it’s only recently men have been made aware of it. “Girl Power” is great, and on the plus side, the dojo also smells nicer!

You mentioned that 7th dan took a few attempts to achieve, whereas prior to this you managed to pass all of your kendo gradings on the first try. What flashed in your mind the moment you finally saw your number appear on the 7th dan pass list, or perhaps just as relevant, what flashed across your mind when you didn’t see your number?

I failed twice and in a way I’m glad I did. Having spent four weeks training with the best in Japan I though it would be enough to pass, but what I didn’t realise was the width and depth of the grade band. I remember standing in the Budokan in Tokyo with 2000 plus 6th dans under the age of 45 and knowing that the same number would be there in the afternoon for the over 45 group and this was only one of four national gradings in Japan at this level.

So the number of people trying to pass 7th dan was more than I could contemplate at that time. Looking at the others taking their grading, I could not see the passes and failures – everyone looked good enough to pass. I was in the youngest group and it seemed like a police reunion party. I was receiving two sets of feelings from these guys  one was interest and inquisitiveness, and the other that I was something on the bottom of someone’s shoe that had been brought into the dojo. It was all over in less than three minutes.

Then I spent the next four hours sitting around waiting. When my number did not appear on the banner rolled down from the viewing gallery, I felt empty and just gathered my things together and returned back to Keishicho dojo to say thank you for looking after me and helping me. It was only after I returned to my hotel that I spend time dwelling on the day. I was not disappointed, just reconciled, and what was more of a concern was the disappointment that I thought my students would feel in me as everyone thought that I would pass. I spent the flight back thinking of the best way to apologise for not passing. I can’t remember now what I said to everyone, but it made me start this process of self-reflection.

The second time about 8 years later was very different. I could only go for ten days, so I tried to condition myself before I went to no avail, as you can never be fit enough to train with the police. I knew what I had to do and how I should approach the two practices, and the years in between had given some depth to my kendo. But I had been told that this year the Japanese had decided to up the level, so it would be hard for anyone to pass. There was a list of ten points that you had to show, and if you only got nine, you would not pass – so you had to receive a full mark from five of the seven sensei on your panel. It went well and I simply made the classic mistake of doing too much. I thought it was ok and so did many of the others in my year band. To everyone’s surprise only a handful of people passed that day and my number was not one of them. I was not down or disappointed, just bemused. I was told later “too much too soon”. I decided not to leave it too long before I tried it again, and as I was going to attend the referee’s seminar in Belgium that coming February I would try again.

When I passed that time I only felt relief that it was all over and done and I could now carry on with the other things that I wanted to achieve in my dojo.

I have a question about international refereeing, and your views on clear good ippon and good examples of ippons. As many of us will have watched the AJKC videos on youtube, you will notice that some of the posture and cutting actions are not always straight. (Please note: Their kendo is much more advance to mine and I am in no position to make any judgement due to my lack of knowledge). I would like to understand a little about the teachings you received as an international ref and views of refs at that level?

Firstly, the view of the spectator is one of a fixed position at any one time, and from one pair of eyes. The referees on the other hand are moving with the match and there are three pairs of eyes, generally two or more grades above the grade they are judging. In addition, the level of tangible feeling of pressure and intent is less the further away you are from the shiai area, and not present at all when you watch a DVD or film clip of a bout.

The requirements for ippon are clearly stated and these are always followed. I can’t comment on what you watch and how you perceive it, but if you are looking at something you don’t understand, you can only see it from your level of understanding. So it is best to try first to make good cuts in your own kendo and not judge others, as we are often told at the referee seminar “If you can’t be a good ippon, you can’t judge one”.

Being an international referee is hard work and not a nice jolly  the selection is based on merit and made by the delegation that come from Japan and the E.K.F. technique director.

You spent two days judging matches and being corrected, and listening to the corrections of others. Often it’s a good idea to go as a fighter – then you get more shiai practice and the opportunity to listen to what the referees are being told. 

Practice, practice and more practice is the only way to become a good referee. What I said earlier about kendo applies to refereeing; the skill is easy but the application is hard.

A good referee is one who still judges his or her self when cutting each cut in free practice, and is constantly looking for perfection in themselves. This is because you are not judging the fighters; you are judging the strikes and waza they are using in front of you. I find it a lot easier to referee at international level than national level, as the standard of kendo is high and more elements are present to make a good judgement without having to consider the overall level of the participants taking part.

For finding a direction in which I need to take my kendo, I have you, my sempai, my peers and also the wealth of media now available. Where do you look for guidance on your kendo and/or the path you want it to take?

Well I still have my own sensei who I can contact and ask for advice, but I mostly think about how I want my own kendo to progress and how I would like it to be seen.

Only being 50 and a 7th dan, I’m still considered to be young for this rank in Japan, so this is often a point that my sensei reminds me of each time we meet, meaning that I should train harder and be involved in as much kendo as possible while my body can handle it.

This is easier said then done, particularly as I value the dojo and its members more than my own kendo advancement right now. But it’s time that I joined in with the kihon and keiko more often than I do at present. This will let the large number of 3rd dan we have in the dojo take more responsibility for the beginners or ikkyu to shodan group – that is why there will be a restructure shortly.

I no longer have any interest in any posts, positions or roles other than being a good teacher within my own dojo, and from this I receive great comfort and satisfaction. The members are my direction, as they reflect the good and the poor elements of my own kendo, so it’s a constant task to refine and develop each member and hopefully in doing so I will also gain what I’m seeking within myself.

The Bowden at the weekend has got me thinking about competitions. You’ve said that normal kendo and shiai kendo should be the same  why do you think some people see them as separate?

Perhaps you could tell us a bit about your own competition days, and your time competing with (then managing) the GB squad?

Something I’ve always struggled with is finding the right mental state for a competition. How did you go about doing this?

With regards to kendo and shiai, even in Japan it’s a problem because the competition element shiai has been given, places a large focus on bringing in the younger generation. If you consider the largest proportion of participants are under 23 in Japan, and kendo clubs in schools and universities are pushing sport into winning so that the school can make a name. Often these clubs don’t have high-level instructors to take charge. As a result, budo has now been placed back into the education system after being taken out in the 70s. The hope is that it will be taught in the correct way and the values that underpin the art will once again start to show though in all aspects of practice including competition.

In the West I would lay the blame on the teachers who spent most of the time in a free practice format rather than teaching good skill levels though kihon and the correct behaviour in the dojo. If there is a tangible difference between dojo kendo and shiai, then I would say that it would be the level of focus required while undertaking the bout. Those who perceive a difference only see it from their own kendo horizon so by taking part in shiai with this perception, they are in fact doing sports kendo, whereas those who are practising kendo and trying to follow the concept stated by the I.K.F. and Z.N.K.F. are practising kendo which, as a part of it, has bouts and matches to test one’s skill and personal endeavours. 

My time with the national team was very productive not only as a fighting member but as coach and lastly manager. We won medals at each taikai we entered and it was the beginning of a change in direction. We became more professional in our approach, and I think I was lucky to be in the team at that time with some of the best kendoka the UK had produced (some of the names I mentioned earlier). It was great fun, and at one point, going away and the laughs we had became the reason for going. I stayed for eight years and could have stayed longer, but my kendo and what I was looking for in kendo had changed. So, I stepped down and let someone one take my place, which was the right thing to do. You know when you should go, but by then we had a good system were OB would come to squad training and practise with the new members. We would also act as scouts for the manager and bring along hopefuls to the practice.

A few years later, I was asked to coach the squad and this too was interesting. We had a lot of success and we were a very tight group of dedicated members who never missed training, and I believe those who are still practising have benefited from the time we spent together. The manger’s role gave me chance to put into place a system which would produce the next generations of national team members with an under 21s, main squad and OB/OG as support, and four national squad sections each year. But, like many things in this life, when there is a change of leadership, the new person has different ideas and things change. The only thing that remains which I instigated is the gold lion on the gui, but even that has now become a badge and the original specification that only those who had taken part in a E.K.C. or W.K.C. could wear it has gone. 

I learnt a lot over this period – more about what I didn’t want to become, along with the realisation that shiai is not the object of kendo  this point has stayed with me and may be the reason I’m still involved in kendo unlike my peers.

You asked about the right mental state for mind for shiai  be without fear, doubt, surprise or confusion. Focus, and if you attack, do it with your whole body and heart.

Finally, you should think only of now, and not what could be or was before, and if you walk off the shiai court thinking you could not have done any more than you have, then you have only lost the bout and you have had a chance to be a better kendoka from the experience. How did I do it? You have to find what works for you, as your kendo is your personal study.

I would like to ask you one last questions if I may. We are often asked when we take part in events “What does Humm Sensei think of this and what is his opinion on that?”.

You make a point in the dojo of not to talking about politics and how the association is run. Would you mind talking about it now? If you don’t mind, what are your thoughts on the new structure of the B.K.A. and the direction it seems to be going in, and you seem to have stepped away from taking apart in B.K.A. events when you used to always be involved. Why is this? 

I don’t mind answering any questions, but there is a place and time here is fine. Firstly I don’t know why individuals don’t just ask me directly. I have nothing to hide, and anyway, what is one mans opinion worth? I have never forced my views or even spoken of them to any of you. Each of us has to make their own choices in life and it’s the same in kendo. Is this sensei a good one that I can learn from, and so on. The problem is that we have a structure that is democratic in terms of running affairs, but martial arts are based in a hierarchical system and this is often where the problems start.

I have always be in favour of the smallest number of people required to run a group  a small number of people will always have a much better understanding of the problem the group faces and can react much faster and with a more personal touch.

I can see why we have gone in the direction we have in terms of all the checks and measures, and the importance of transparency being the focus, but we are only the size of a small company, not a multinational. Most of us just want to do our thing and have no interest in this multilayered system that runs only the administration. The average member just needs insurance to be provided and the ability to be graded, along with a high level of technical knowledge to learn from. Beyond this, they simply want to learn their chosen art.

I don’t know if there is a direction that the association is presently going in. I see individual members and dojo working hard to promote their art, but all I know is that we are losing our standing in Europe and we have lost our voice there already. It may return one day if we work hard enough.

In the near future, some of our association’s most knowledgeable and respected members will no longer be with us. As the years pass, we will not have the high level of technical support that is available to us now and this seems to be being overlooked. Yes, we have to give the new and up-and-coming members a chance to shine, but we should also not be disrespectful to those who have carried this association with their personal efforts for so many years.

My attendance as been selective. I have had personal problems over the last few years with my mother who has serious dementia, and this has been the main reason that I have not been involved as much as in the past. With this, your name gets removed from the lists and then you become the person they call when no one else is able to make it. Well that’s maybe one way on looking at it, but my lack of attendance has given me a chance to see from the outside how the average dojo and their leaders are treated.

Having time on your side in terms of age is always an advantage, and I would rather be spending time now doing my best to improve the level of kendo in my dojo. I personally have no wish to be involved in running the administration in any way, but I will do my utmost to teach the best kendo I possible can to those who wish to learn, so that kendo has some future in this country in the years to come.

Thank you for answering the questions posted by the members. We have found your insight and openness very refreshing and we have enjoyed the chance to be able to ask you these questions.

We hope others enjoy reading this article.