2017 November 17 : Kendo scoreboards. So what if I don't know how to read this thing?

Hi Everybody. I hope you found today's practice interesting. Practicing shiai (competitive 'matches') can really help us to understand kendo better.

While I don't believe competition should be the main objective of our kendo training, competition can be a very powerful tool for self-reflection and learning. Avoiding participation in competitive kendo can make it difficult to understand why so much of contemporary kendo instruction is the way it is, since a fair amount of kendo instruction is, to some extent, based on the assumption that we should develop the kind of mental and physical skills that are especially useful in competition. In other words, if we don't understand competitive kendo, to a large extent we lose the ability to evaluate and critique kendo training relative to its proper context.

Kendo has its own rules and conventions that we have to practice in order to become more familiar with them. Consider this picture of a basketball scoreboard - I think most Americas can understand what it means:


The Home Team is leading the Visiting Team by 1 point, it's the Fourth quarter with 8 1/2 minutes left in the game, the Visiting Team has possession of the ball, etc. If you know even just a little bit about basketball, it's pretty easy to figure out what the information on the scoreboard means.

Many kendoists, however - even those who have been doing kendo for a very long time - don't know how to properly read a kendo match scoreboard. Believe it or not, even some referees can't easily read one of these scoreboards. Here are two examples - an English language version (left), and a Japanese one (right):

[ click on the photo to make it larger ]

One reason why many kendoists aren't comfortable trying to read or write scoreboards is simply because we're never really taught how to do it. I've been doing kendo for about 35 years but I've literally never had anyone teach me how to do score-keeping. And it's not just scoreboards - basic elements of competition are rarely taught or learned in an organized way. Most kendoists learn the rules & regulations of kendo shiai through a combination of simple 'exposure', and long-term, individualized trial-and-error. Of course it wouldn't make any sense for anyone to think that aimless, non-existent 'instruction' should somehow result in consistent, high-level understanding. But that's exactly what the HKF does - it would only be inexplicable if our tournaments were somehow organized, efficient, and fair.

Getting back to scoreboards - a second reason why many people have a hard time decoding kendo scoreboards is because we aren't so familiar with what they're referring to in the first place. Beyond counting points (men, kote, do, tsuki), the scoreboard also records what happens in a match in terms of All-Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF) or FIK (International Kendo Federation) rules and regulations. So if we don't really know what these are or have a good feeling for how matches are supposed to be conducted, looking at a marked-up scoreboard isn't going to communicate much meaning to us.

It goes without saying that if we don't understand what's going on during matches, the chance that we'll be able to get good at shiai is pretty much zero. In some ways kendo shiai is a form of communication and the AJKF rule book is the grammar. Increasing our fluency allows for all kinds of interesting expressive possibilities.

Anyway, here's a messy and incomplete 'key' for writing and reading match scoreboards that I scribbled before class:

All of these marks will acquire more meaning as we continue to practice shiai.

When kids start learning how to play basketball, they're taught some of the rules even though they're just beginners. They don't have to be experts on the rules & regulations, but at least they should know enough so that they can play basketball intelligently - it shouldn't just be random shit. It's the same with kendo - making an effort to learn the basic rules and logic of shiai gives our actions in competition more focus. It allows us to consider strategy and tactics. At an organizational level, matches run more smoothly and ultimately competitions tend to become more fair. Understanding the basic logic of kendo shiai even makes them more enjoyable to watch - it's pleasurable to be able to appreciate a smart kendoist, and even when we see someone make a mistake, being able to recognize the nature of the mistake allows us to empathize and maybe even learn from someone else's errors and limitations.

Eventually I'd like everyone in our dojo to be good ("good"?) at kata, good at shinai keiko, good at competition, have a good understanding of kendo culture, history, philosophy, on and on. Let's keep studying all of these different aspects - steadily, little by little - because actually all of these parts fit together very nicely anyway.

~ jks

< end >