Simplicity

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Among the great many smart and interesting people that I met over the fifteen years of being an investment banker was Edward. At the time when we met we were doing a deal together in Lithuania, Edward was the Head of Equity Sales in a well-known international investment bank. He was perhaps some fifteen years my senior, meaning that he had probably worked as an equity salesman for about three decades. One night when we were relaxing in a restaurant somewhere in the old town of Vilnius, Edward told me a story.

When we come out of the business school, said Edward to me, we all think we are kings of the world. We’ve got all that knowledge and training, often the best that the money can buy, meant to prepare us for everything and anything that might come our way – and the world is our oyster. Everything is really simple to us. And so we roll up our sleeves and get into the business.

However, pretty soon we will discover that everything is nowhere near as simple as we thought – in fact it seems that world is quite complex. Nonetheless, we have this expensive MBA under our belt, so we figure that we can manage. A couple of years forward it dawns upon us that the world is really incredibly complex and there is no way that we could possibly manage it all. We realize that any success we’ve had is probably due to simple luck rather than us having been any good. In fact we then often feel that we can barely keep our noses above the water. Having no way out, we just carry on, fully knowing that we are at the whim of the fate.

But then eventually, beaten, broken and battered by years of experience, we slowly come to realize that the world is, after all, really quite simple.

I remembered this story today when Haga sensei (who has been taking care of me for the last couple of days) took me to a small private dojo here in Mishima. My arrival was apparently announced well ahead, as everyone already knew to expect me – and this was probably also the reason why we had today four hachidan senseis in attendence. One of them, Koyama sensei, was very young for hachidan, being just 51 years old, but other three were in their seventies. I had keiko with all of them and, as could be expected, was soundly beaten. This in itself is of course nothing surprising. However, what is interesting and important is the way how they beat me. They did not do it with tricks or sophisticated technique, they beat me with the most basic fundamentals.

Kendo is probably as simple as a martial art can be – in fact I personally find it difficult to concieve how it could be any simpler than that. When I am teaching beginners course (which usually takes place over the weekend), I tell people that by Sunday afternoon they know all about kendo, from that point on there is nothing new. Of course, one could argue about that and point out that there are in fact different so-called “applied techniques” with all sorts of complications and subtleties, but fundamentally those are too just a way to execute one of the four basic waza of kendo: men, kote, do or tsuki. And this is it, beyond those four there is nothing else, and even those four fundamentally come down to a single principle of kiri-otoshi (i.e. a “downward cut”) that modern kendo has inherited from Itto-ryu school of swordmanship. This is always the first thing that a beginners learn in kendo as soon as they have a sword in their hand – and as I was reminded today, this is the only thing you ever need to know to beat someone.

In this way, the aim of training kendo is to get back to where we started – simplicity. This is the beauty of hachidan kendo: there is nothing superfluous, nothing unnecessary. Only the determination and solid fundamentals.

Tomorrow will be my last day here in Mishima, and the second day of no kendo in the last three weeks. I must say that I am quite happy about the latter – it is nice to get a day of rest, both physically as well as mentally. On Thursday I will be leaving for Osaka and Kyoto, and then there is only Kagawa left before it is time to head back to Tokyo and then Europe.

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