Beginners Instruction Guidance

by Roald Knutsen and several senior Yudansha 

One of the most troublesome of subjects in the proper martial arts is the best way to teach complete novices from their very first experience in their chosen dojo. The problem is not the new student but the method of teaching him or her and ensuring that those doing the teaching know what they are about. In other words, are these ‘seniors’ aware of what is required and how to go about it? It is of the greatest importance to the whole dojo membership that mistakes and errors don’t become established. Shakespeare put it quite clearly when he wrote: ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions’ – and he was absolutely right. Mistakes not corrected from Day One will plague the student even thirty or forty years in the future – and will always be a handicap to progress. All the masters of Kendo and Iai-jutsu that I and my fellow seniors have had the good fortune to  their instruction, have followed one set of principles throughout their own careers: basicsbasicsbasics – and when fed up with them – yet more basics!

These Arts are very complex in many ways. Kendo is said to be quite simple and straightforward, technically, compared to Iai-jutsu, the former is often said to require just one cut – the shomen-uchi – and a few variations, but,  at the same time the statement is qualified by this simple technique requiring fifty years to get right!

Cynical? Not really . . . to perfect this plain cut delivered from an interval of just ‘one step to cut’ requires excellent posture, footwork, correct gripping of the sword, intention to cut (i.e. determination and full spirit), and last, but not least, a powerful kiai. Simple? To do this to the standard required means sound training right from the beginning.

But if it requires so many years to master this one basic technique, such repetitive practice will inevitably be boring since progress is so long term. To get past this very real block it is important that the seniors make the training interesting so that, despite the length of time required, the student has many other things to demand his attention and, with care, will progress steadily towards intuitive understanding.[1] The instruction in these necessary basics must establish the proper foundation but at the same time make the somewhat boring repetitions interesting; the teaching must ‘fire the imagination’ but never lose sight of the basic aims and prevent the many mistakes from taking root. If these apparently minor errors are not addressed right from the outset, they will become established and in a very short time ruin the whole of that unfortunate student’s future abilities. This point cannot be overlooked to be addressed in a year or two, and unfortunately, it is at its most prevalent in many groups outside Japan.

One of the problems we have to face is the difference between the teaching philosophies between East and West. In the former ‘Chinese’ traditions, a great emphasis is placed on repetitive study, whereas in the West we tend to progress in shorter increments (to maintain interest, possibly) with periodic but short revising sessions. The former method is clearly displayed in the classical martial arts but markedly less in the Budo of the present day.

In Kendo and all the traditional weaponed arts, you have to start at the bottom and work up. Everyone faces the same hard ‘graft’, even in the best dojo. There can be no half-measures. It is up to the dojo leaders – all of them – to ensure that the teaching meets the highest standards. It is also a prerequisite of the art of teaching.

As already pointed out all practice in these arts returns again and again to the first principles but while the ‘master’ knows this very well, or should do so, the novice doesn’t realise what this means and, possibly feels that progress isn’t being made. How can he evaluate this? There is no answer to this, one suspects, hence to contrasting ‘soft/hard‘ method of training that characterises Kendo in particular. By ‘soft‘ we mean applying thought and mind to the type of practice required; by ‘hard‘ we revert to demanding physical effort where there is little or no time for the students to think but only act. Suburi, for example, can use both methods, always under the eagle eye of the sempai or sensei; uchi-komi can also be both but kakari-geiko is always severe and sustained over several partner changes. The beginner/novice hasn’t yet reached any of these in his initial period in the dojo. If you think he has, then you are quite wrong.

Everything must be explained simply at first but progressively, with frequent encouragement, so that the novice gains confidence. This is not an introduction such as one might expect in a military environment, it aims at growing understanding in the long term, twenty or thirty years ahead – but you rarely say this, only with a sort of humour, by giving praise in the short term. An example of error is the simple act of showing how to ‘draw’ the bamboo shinai. In all too many dojo this is cursively performed. Just a couple of times is enough practice, it is thought. Well, NO. This ‘isn’t important’ movement from ‘sheathed’ to ‘drawn’ is not a mere hangover from the past but has deep ramifications to all forms of swordsmanship. Think about it . . . The shinai is a practice sword, it is true, but nonetheless it is a sword just as much as a bokuto or a katanawithin Kendo.  Surely, it isn’t necessary to spell it out further? Having ‘drawn’ the shinai we come to kamae, a whole new ballgame. The entire expanse of Kendo stretches out before us and the student has to be trained so that he begins to function and, hopefully, to understand. With sound instruction in the first five or six weeks, this student can begin to join in with group practice with a degree of confidence. Now the encouragement is palpable; he will only need to be taken ‘out of the line’ when the training is too difficult for him and this stage will soon be over; one hopes. The student will advance rapidly to the wearing armour stage within the year –  and without the bad habits warned about here.

First the eyes, then the feet; next the sword and finally the spirit‘.

This is the proper progression of all teaching instruction.

  1. Much closer attention must be paid to establishing the correct basic footwork- Not just offer a brief mention and press merrily on. Here, we turn again to Shakespeare when he wrote: ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions’.
  2. Constant reminders must be made to correct left foot positions. Drum in ‘THINK FEET‘  – all the time. Encourage so that the novice realises that he must ‘train the body’, because his body doesn’t yet understand why it must remember.
  3. Sitting in seiza:  This must be explained through demonstration. This includes practice in controlling the hakama in assuming seiza, the correct placing of the shinai, the correct body posture and the proper making of the seiza-rei, the direction of the gaze, not allowing the hips and buttocks to rise – i.e. press the belly to the floor. A host of details – remembering that there are good (and interesting) reasons for observing these customs. Don’t forget correct standing rei posture, timing, and execution.
  4. The correct way to grasp the tsuka of the ‘drawn’ shinai or bokuto and introducing right from this point the concept of te-no-uchi. These hand and finger grips are really important and all-too-often overlooked and neglected. Early exercise with the bokuto has a significant merit in understanding the handgrips and should be formally encouraged.
  5. In okuri-ashi movement forwards, backwards, and sideways, pay attention to smooth ‘gliding’ steps gradually eliminating ‘body bounce’ caused by inattention to overlong right steps and forgetting the movement of the left leg (in Kendo). Attention to these points leads to the proper timing of the whole body movement in delivering the cut. Additionally, constantly encourage the elimination of ‘bounce’ but establish a smooth gliding motion, at first slowly and later at speed. This process is important throughout the first two years or so of training.
  6. Cutting training:  The shomen-uchi must be carefully taught to beginners and the lower/middle yudansha, alike. Otherwise, we often see correction having to be given even after as much as thirty years or more. All cuts depend on this basic form.
    • Attention to the left foot and left hip rotating forwards correctly to establish the te-no-uchi.
    • The position at shoulder height of the right hand at the moment of impact on completion of the cut. Encourage from the start the adage in Kendo to ‘think six steps beyond the strike‘ so that the attack doesn’t end ineffectively. Your ‘movement’ supporting your attack ‘defies gravity’ and is irresistible. You must establish this correct posture and movement from the outset.

Remember, a good sempai never misses anything. He trains himself to have his eyes everywhere – including places not to be mentioned. He owes correctness in the dojo upwards to his sensei. No early  skimping, but to remember in teaching to temper strict attention to detail with softness, where required, not hardness. He must guide the newcomer towards a deepening awareness  and a growing love for his chosen art, to improve mentally, physically, and spiritually. In all these very traditional arts we should heed the oft-quoted Japanese maxim: ‘The little bird builds his nest slowly and with care.’ These entities are NOT sports, they derive in whole or a significant part from the legacy of the Art of War – hence the use of the term, the Bugei.

Do not be pedantic – it is boring and will only discourage. Just encourage – and guide.

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