Article by Nagao Susumu (Professor, Meiji University)
(Kendo’s Not-so Common-sense, Kendo Nippon, July 2010)
Translated by Kendo World (Bunkasha International)
Budo World thanks Kendo Nippon Magazine for allowing us to reproduce this article
Why are we required to do sonkyo in kendo?
In kendo, we are required to do sonkyo before and after a tachiai (match), as well as during practice, and it is done together with a bow. When did this tradition begin?
In the densho (written records) of the Katōda Shinkage-ryū school of swordsmanship, there are meticulously recorded details of fencing matches that took place in the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate. One such example is a densho called Kendō Shogaku Shūchi (1860). (Prof. Murayama Kinji, Shiga University, has conducted thorough research on this subject.) In this densho, there is an entry concerning “orishiki etiquette”. My interpretation is that you squat down with both feet forming a “T”, like a wooden bell hammer, with the waist positioned directly above. The legs are spread, and the left knee is placed on the floor with the right knee slightly higher. The gaze is cast straight ahead rather than down, with tension in the nape of the neck, and the back straight with shoulders dropped. The buttocks do not protrude, and the lower abdomen is extended outwards. It was said that it is important to be mentally prepared while conducting orishiki etiquette. In other words, be prepared to defeat your opponent even before the match begins. This requires creativity and hard training.
“Squat down with the feet forming a ‘T’ like a wooden bell hammer, with the waist positioned directly above.” This sounds similar in form to sonkyo. However, given that the left knee is touching the floor, there is a slight difference between this and sonkyo in modern kendo. The term “orishiki” means to have one of the knees touching the floor, and it can frequently be found in books published between the early-modern and modern period as a striking technique in kendo. An example is orishiki-kote, which is mentioned in 68 Kenjutsu Techniques. In modern terms, it resembles katsugi-kote with the left knee on the ground. (This term also appears in books such as Chiba Shūsaku Sensei Jikiden Kenjutsu Meijin-hō by the Hokushin Ittō-ryū.)
In Kendō Shōgaku Shūchi mentioned above, the paragraph preceding “orishiki etiquette” is titled “How to prepare before matches”. It says, “At the time of doing orishiki, the protocols of our school (Katōda Shinkage-ryū) dictate that we do not bow as well. Nevertheless, the kakarite (attacker) must bow to elders with a feeling of humility and gratitude for the opportunity to practice with them, and the elders must reciprocate.” This may give the impression that swordsmen did not bow when training with their peers or practitioners from other schools, but origins of the bowing tradition in modern kendo can be traced back to this. In the Chiba Shūsaku Sensei Jikiden Kenjutsu Meijin-hō, the training sessions of the Jikishinkage-ryū are described as follows:
Jikishinkage-ryū swordsmanship is quite extreme and they do orishiki or kikyo (could be referring to another kikyo, which sounds the same but uses different Chinese characters, and means to squat down with both knees on the ground, with the weight on the balls of the feet and the buttocks positioned on the heels) in every match, and breathe deeply. Once facing their opponent, they immediately assume jōdan-no-kamae and are ready to strike being one step ahead of their opponent the whole time … When facing each other, if the opponent stands up too quickly, they stop him by saying ‘not so fast’, in a way that resembles the commencement of a sumo bout. The reason why they breathe deeply is so that they can slow down their rapid heartbeat.”
Sonkyo in modern kendo appears to be a remnant of the tradition of orishiki or kikyo (kiza) in Japanese swordsmanship from early modern times which has been passed down in a slightly different form. It possibly became more like the current sonkyo (with the right foot positioned slightly in front of the left so the body inclines naturally to the left) and became widespread with the dissemination of the “Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kendo Kata” (the current “Nippon Kendo Kata”) from the Taishō and early Showa period. In the course of this process, I believe that the significance of “how to beat your opponent before the match even begins by mentally preparing yourself” from the Katōda Shinkage-ryū, or “How to slow down your rapid heartbeat” in the Jikishinkage-ryū, was reflected in sonkyo, orishiki or kikyo.
The Chinese character used to write “son” in sonkyo means to “squat down”, and so does the character that represents “kyo.” Sonkyo when used in relation to the tea ceremony can be read as “tsukubai”, and it refers to a stone basin that is placed low on the ground outside the tearoom for guests to cleanse their hands before they enter. The idea is the same as purifying the hands and mouth at shrines. In the tea ceremony, however, one must crouch down to reach the basin. It seems that by squatting down and being close to the ground while washing the hands, one is able to prepare mentally and physically before entering the special or sacred space—the tearoom.
Judging from this, sonkyo in kendo or sumo may also have the same significance in the sense that the practitioner is about to enter into a special or sacred area and have a “clean” match to test one’s skills. Indeed, sonkyo in sumo is part of a ritual that wrestlers engage in after they enter the mound. From there, they bow to each other with their fingers pointing downwards, clap their hands together, spread their arms, and then turn their palms up in order to prove that they are not carrying anything on their person such as a small weapon.
Additionally, in sumo practice wrestlers do sonkyo at the beginning of bout to slow their heartbeat down. This seems to be related to the aforementioned Jikishinkage-ryū method of slowing down the heartbeat. Why do sonkyo instead of a standing bow? Perhaps it was known through experience that in the sonkyo position one will be more cognizant of the lower abdomen and joints, which leads to faster revitalization through tanden breathing.
To conclude, sokyo has its roots in Japanese traditions as a way of showing respect when entering into a special or sacred space, or as a way of controlling one’s breathing. The same can be said of kendo, but in addition to the fact that it also has significance as a form of etiquette, it also serves as a method of mental training in which one seeks to win before the match commences. Both of these lines of thought originate in early modern period kenjutsu.