Keiko, renshu, shuren, tanren, kufu, and shugyo – Six Japanese words for training – and their kanji

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For this post, I decided to analyse the kanji that make up some of the different Japanese words for “training”. Because they can be so hard to differentiate in English; so I wanted to shed some light on their different meanings.

As a starting point, I took the following beautiful passage from

The Japanese have six words referring to varying degrees of training: keiko, renshu, shuren, tanren, kufu, and shugyo. The first four can be translated respectively as practice, training, discipline, and forging. There are no words for the last two. Shugyo is the deepest spiritual training possible. Refining the self in shugyo is like forging a sword from raw iron ore. Fire, water, and iron are folded upon each other by the pounding of the hammer over and over again to create the cutting edge. Without shugyo, realizations are passing highs. The natural form of the body will not be developed, nor will the structures of mind emerge from the Unconscious; and a person will regress to egotistical patterns under pressure.

If a person trains to attain enlightenment as an end, frustration and despair is inevitable for the Way is endless. But if you accept life as shugyo, see through both good and bad fortune as the effects of karma, and moment by moment refine breath, posture, and awareness, one day you will clearly realize the truth of Master Dogen’ s words, “Training is enlightenment, and enlightenment is training.

And here’s a little bit more information about the six words listed in this passage: keiko, renshu, shuren, tanren, kufu, and shugyo. I used the Shogakukan Elementary School Kanji Dictionary and Kokugo Dictionary to find these definitions, as this is a great way to go a lot deeper into the meanings than just using an ordinary Japanese-English dictionary . . .



Keiko 稽古
Keiko is an everyday, straightforward word, usually translated into English as: practice; practising; training; study.
稽 means think, consider, and 古 means old. According to the kanji dictionary, 古 is a little picture of a skull wearing a diadem. It therefore has connotations of revering your ancestors.

Keiko has a simple meaning: to practise (renshū) in order to learn or acquire knowledge.



Renshū 練習

This is another everyday word, usually translated into English as practice; practising.

The first kanji in this word is 練. The right hand side of 練 combines parts meaning bundle and divide. This gives a meaning of classifying or sorting things, and only keeping the good ones.

The left hand side糸 means thread. The dictionary explains that this has connotations of immersing a raw, silken thread into water, which gives a meaning of polishing and refining good things.

As a whole therefore, 練 means polish, forge, temper, drill, train, discipline.

The second kanji in renshuū is 習. This character習 combines羽 (wings) with an abbreviated form of自(self). It therefore symbolises movement; wings repeatedly moving.

Taken together, this word renshū has a sense of repeating something over and over again, to learn it. The dictionary also explains that this word normally applies to something like an academic or technical discipline.



Shūren 習練, 修練 or修錬
There are several ways to write this word.

The first is 習練. Full marks if you noticed that this is simply renshū written backwards. This version of shūren translates as: to repeatedly practise (renshū). To practise (keiko). As you can see, this form of shūren has a close relationship with the first two words.

The next form of shūren is 修練. As you can see, the second kanji is the same, but the first one is different: 修.

The dictionary explains that 修 has two main parts.

yuu partmeans to bathe someone by pouring water in a long, thin stream down their back – as you can see from the picture below.

shu pic smaller
Source: Shogakukan Kanji Dictionary for Elementary School Students, 5th edition – page 121

The other part is 彡which symbolises three – or in this case, ornament.

The dictionary explains that combining the two parts creates a meaning of arranging things into a long, slender, well-proportioned formation, with no gaps, roughness or unevenness.

So 修 as a whole kanji means:

  • To learn; to acquire knowledge; to polish/refine your mind/spirit or deeds
  • To put things in order decoratively; to arrange things in a nice shape
  • To fix things; to put things right

So this version of shūren修練 is translated as: to refine / improve / forge / train / discipline the spirit (kokoro) or body well.

The third form of shūren is 修錬. But 錬 is really just an alternative version of 練 The left hand side replaces thread 糸with gold 金 and the whole kanji has the meaning of either forging / tempering metal; or of forging / tempering the mind/spirit (kokoro) or body.

Shūren has a special meaning for aikidoka, as the founder of Aikido, O-Sensei named his own dojo in Iwama the Aiki Shūren Dōjō.





Tanren 鍛練 or 鍛錬
Like shūren, tanren can be written with either練 or 錬.

The first kanji, tan 鍛combines two parts:

The right-hand side, 段 is a character you might well recognise as a martial artist. It can be read as tan or dan, and means step; stair; grade; rank; level. (As in shodan, nidan and so on).

The left-hand side 金 means gold, as noted above.

So tan鍛 has a meaning of:

  • smoothly (step by step) forging metal by beating it; or
  • strengthening the mind/spirit (kokoro) or body.

And the whole word tanren means, to forge your mind, spirit, body, or waza (technique, art, skill) in the same way that you would forge metal, and in this way to become praiseworthy.



Kufū 功夫 or 工夫

Kufū can also be written in two ways.

The second kanji is the same both times. 夫shows a man wearing a kanmuri (traditional Japanese cap) – which represents a man becoming an adult. 夫 therefore means husband, or fully-fledged man, or working man.

Kanmuri pic

工 shows a hole being driven through planks from the top to the bottom. It therefore represents difficult work or craftsmanship.

功 combines 工 with 力 (power) and has a sense of work that has been done with dedication. It therefore means achievement; feat; meritorious deed; good result; good workmanship; efficacy and so on.

Either way, kufū 功夫 or 工夫 literally means: a really good way of doing something, that you come up with after lots of thought.

It also has the meaning however of dedication to spiritual improvement, especially in the context of Zen meditation. In Chinese, 功夫is pronounced Kung fu. We tend to think of this as a martial arts term, but according to Wikipedia, Kung fu or Gung fu/Gongfu refers in Chinese to:

any study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete, often used in the West to refer to Chinese martial arts. It is only in the late twentieth century, that this term was used in relation to Chinese martial arts […] The origin of this change can be attributed to the misunderstanding or mistranslation of the term through movie subtitles or dubbing. In its original meaning, kung fu can refer to any skill achieved through hard work and practice, not necessarily martial arts.



Shūgyō 修業 or 修行
修業 (shūgyō) can be easily confused with 修行: (shugyō). This entry in the kanji dictionary explains the difference as follows, and shows a little picture of 修行:

  • 修業 (shūgyō): to acquire knowledge in an academic or technical discipline
  • 修行: (shugyō): to refine your character while acquiring knowledge in something like a martial art (bugei) or religion
shugyo pic
Source: Shogakukan Kanji Dictionary for Elementary School Students, 5th edition – page 122


So there you have it – a bit more detail on what each of these words means. Do one or more of them especially resonate with you, and the way you approach your own training (or aspire to do so)?

Related posts:

How to see the hidden meanings of 16 Japanese weapons kanji

A closer look at the three kanji in “Aikido”

The meaning of the kanji for Rei (Etiquette)

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