I practice kendo, the art and sport of Japanese fencing. Currently, I’m a sandan, a "third degree." In about three weeks I’ll be testing for my yondan, the fourth degree. What’s the difference between a kendo sandan and a yondan? I’ll have three minutes to demonstrate it at the annual Michigan Open get-together.
Lemme tell you a little about kendo, since it’s probably very unfamiliar to many of you. You’ve seen Western-style fencing, right
Two combatants in white, with quilted jackets and steel mesh masks, trying to skewer each other with thin metal foils? Kendo is like that, except the combatants are dressed in baggy pants called hakama and armor called bogu that includes a helmet/face cage (the men), padded gauntlets (kote) and a lacquered breastplate (doh). Instead of trying to stab each other with metal swords, we are usually trying to slash each other with long pieces of bamboo called shinai.
Kendo is fought barefoot and there’s a lot of yelling going on. The combatants apply pressure through the tips of their shinai, playing it in small circles or bobbing motions, and slide their feet forward or back or side to side in an attempt to gain an advantageous position. Suddenly they explode forward, trying to cut their opponent’s head, wrists or belly. Stabbing to the throat – the tsuki – is also allowed. Afterwards, the bodies of the combatants often slam together and there is a struggle to disengage and cut the opponent while hurtling backwards.
In a competition, a match is usually three minutes long and the first person to score two ippon wins. Ippon is a point: a valid cut to the target areas. Three judges with colored flags determine on the spot if a point is valid or not with a raise of the flag representing either the red- or white-ribboned fighter. Ippon is determined not just by the shinai finding its target but also by the kendoist displaying control and intention during the execution of the cut. It’s difficult to follow for one not marginally versed in kendo, and the judges are usually kendoists of some advanced rank. I myself started judging kids’ and beginners’ matches when I became a sandan.
Kendoists do not wear colored belts like participants in other martial arts, so you can’t tell by looking at someone what their skill level will be and what to expect when fighting them. In competition, everyone is divided by level beforehand. But in everyday practice, the people you spar with either know you or it will become quickly evident what your skill level is. Which brings me to my test.
A kendo dan test is performed in front of a committee of teachers. You fight two matches, a minute and a half each, and from that performance the committee grades you and collaboratively decides whether you pass. If you pass that portion, you go on to perform pre-arranged motions called kata and submit a written exam. But the first part is the hardest part. The entire thing is decided in an uncontrolled environment against a randomly chosen opponent of your same skill level or better in three minutes. You either show you’ve got the stuff or you don’t.
I have failed this test once before. That’s the thing about kendo gradings. You can keep taking them until you pass. In fact, the Japanese have a saying from judo that applies: "Seven times down, eight times up." That means no matter how many times you fail, you keep trying.
I’ve been training hard since my last try at this exam, seeking a lot of advice from my teachers, but the question basically boils down to: what is the difference between a kendo sandan and a kendo yondan? And can you demonstrate that on any given day? The answers are probably a little esoteric but they involve being able to proactively cause your opponent to do things instead of reacting to the opponent’s attempts to control the timing of the fight. Using the subtle motions of your body and sword you can engage your opponent in a dialogue that results in them leaving themselves open so that you can take ippon the way a hawk takes a sparrow. I can usually do this against opponents of less experience than myself. On a good day, I can do it against my peers. Sometimes, I can do it against my teachers. Will I do it on my test this year? We’ll see.
Interestingly, neither competing and winning nor passing dan ranks is the most important part of kendo. The most important part of kendo is that thing I alluded to with "seven times down, eight times up." It’s the consistent discipline and activity of pursuing kendo that’s important. It affects you. If I pass my yondan exam this month, I’ll then have to work hard to be worthy of the rank, improving myself and the people I coach. If I fail, I’ll have the same obligation.
Charlie Kondek is Director of New Media Relations at MS&L Digital in Ann Arbor, MI. He practices kendo at Eastern Michigan University. The annual Michigan Open Kendo tournament will be held February 17, 2008 at Birmingham Seaholm High School.