The Way of Kendama: Kendama-dō (けん玉道)

Although the JKA holds competitions annually and has successfully created a system for kendama level testing, and competition judging there is another part of kendama that is not as well known outside of Japan.  It is called Kendama-dō (the way of kendama).  Kendama-dō influences every aspect of kendama.  It is drawn from the country’s marital arts heritage and shares many ideals with them.

Generally the purpose of sport is competition, to determine a winner based on certain rules. In Japan there are a number of martial arts like kendo, judo, aikido, and karate which are sport but then again something more. In addition to the sport aspects of martial arts there are additional, deeper meanings contained within the teachings.  In these martial arts part of one’s mastery centers around development of one’s character; to be a better person. 

Understanding Dō will help you understand why members of the JKA take kendama play, testing, and competing so seriously.  The kendama is not just a toy; it is the representation of all the things related to learning kendama.  It becomes the physical representation of how they practice, test and compete so, for example, Japanese will not slam the kendama down or mistreat the device.  Just as you wouldn’t expect a swordsman to throw his sword (device) on the ground JKA members also treat the kendama (device) with respect.

If you have ever seen or participated in a martial arts exam or competition you’ll notice many similarities to tests and competitions for kendama.  Part of this is represented by the bow.  At a test for example you’ll see the student bow to the examiners as a sign of respect both for their elders and kendama.  In line with this the belief the JKA recommends a bow to each other at the beginning and the ending of promotion tests and competitions as a symbol and reminder of our goals.

Continuing with the progression of the test, they’ll listen to the instructions quietly and wait for the examiner’s instructions.  If they pass the test they don’t jump up and down happy that they did it.  They will thank the examiners/instructors and their parents for their support and time realizing that without them they would not have the opportunity to play kendama and succeed.

In a competition the contestants start and end with bow to each other and to the audience as a sign of respect for our competitor through interaction since we both have the same goal of character and skill building.  We are helping each other achieve those goals by being our best and performing our best.  The opponent in a match is considered an assistant to help reach your goals.    The kendama is held at the side as if it was a sword; again as a sign of respect.  While the competitors are performing there is no shouting from the crowd or comments to each other.  The crowd also respects the contestants and the efforts they have put into learning kendama and becoming skilled and consistent.  The ability to do a trick isn’t as important as the ability to do it consistently.

Those who aspire to learn the art should always remember to be thankful and respectful toward people around you, the training hall (school room, gym, etc.), and implements you use, as in our case the kendama.

Ideally the mastery of a martial art encompasses mind, body, and spirit.  You contribute to society through mastering the art, training body, mind and improving your character. For example in Kendama-dō through practice you train your body and mind to move yourself higher, to become better; to be a person of not only of skill but integrity. Every activity from practicing and being taught to participating in a match are all considered training to cultivate yourself. Each moment should be treated with respect. When you are training you are always focused on the moment since it cannot be lived again. Simply completing a trick is not enough. It is equally important to perform a trick beautifully. A perfect performance flows smoothly without a hitch.  Consistency is key to the development and progression through levels.

If you are looking for a real-world example of Dō in action look no further than Moshikame. Many wonder why such a simple trick is part of the Dan level tests. It isn’t about the trick so much as it’s about self-discipline and patience. It takes a lot of both to do 1000 iterations at 135bpm (beats per minute) and it takes a crazy amount to go for 8+ hours straight which has been accomplished by a number of JKA members.

The JKA does not allow any adjustments during performance of most tricks (an example of an exception is the wrist flick for jumping stick). To complete one trick it is necessary to control the position and direction of the ken and tama precisely.  Moreover you have to be careful of the movement of the string so as not to get tangled. Only with the closest attention to detail can you master the ultimate technique. In addition the JKA requires players to stand completely still during or at the end of certain tricks. In a perfect performance stillness and dynamic movement are beautifully harmonized. The contrast of two distinctly different states is viewed with appreciation of the mastery in kendama-dō. To bring to a total halt all movement, including the kendama, requires the ability to have complete control over your body, mind and the kendama. It will be challenging to stay calm even in difficult situations however it is one of the most thrilling aspects of training and execution of kendama moves; to accumulate all your efforts into a single point in time, to attain that total state of balance between mind, body and spirit.

The JKA has a slogan 焦らず、慌てず、諦めず (aserazu, awatezu, akiramezu): “Never rush, Never panic, Never give up.” Through this motto we encourage players to acquire not only good spirit, technique, and physical strength but a moral sense and good manners. We believe that we can foster positive power within ourselves that cannot be quantified and bring that vitality into the real world. This is the meaning of “Kendama-dō.”