July 27th 2003, exactly 10 years ago today, was when I stepped of the airplane in Tokyo and started my vague “move to Japan to study kendo and learn the language” experiment. That I’d still be here all this time later is… I don’t know, surprising? Stupid? Crazy? Probably all of the above! Like the vagueness of the initial experiment, I’ve no real plan for this post, so let me run with it and see where it goes.
Although now I’m in what many people assume to be an envious kendo situation, needless to say it hasn’t come without a lot of sacrifice and hard work (not to mention luck), and it continues to be both physically and mentally hard even now. I’ve thought seriously countless times about giving it up and heading back to Europe, but somehow here I still am. I’m not sure exactly how much longer I can keep it up!
I arrived in Japan about 2 weeks after taking part in the 12th World Kendo Championships, held in my home country of Scotland. I was sandan at the time and I knew what I was talking about (actually, I was clueless). One of the first keiko’s I was invited to was a combined primary and junior high school one. With my faltering Japanese I explained my background. I still remember the sensei looking at me and saying “World Kendo Championships? Where was that held? Last year wasn’t it? Who won?” Yeah, the most prestigious competition of the international kendo community meant nothing to your *average Japanese 7dan. Suddenly I was disarmed. The sensei then asked did I want to join the junior high schools kihon routine. Yes, I said, and joined in only to be removed after about 15 minutes into the practise – I couldn’t keep up with the kids pace, I couldn’t understand the Japanese instructions been given, and – frankly – I was so unskilled compared to the students that joining in ruined it for my partners. I’d just been force fed a dose of reality.
Over the next 10 years I’d be force fed on a number of occasions. Getting a hard beating I can take, but its the mental challenge of doing kendo over here that can be the hardest thing to overcome. The fact is, integration is nigh on impossible. This isn’t just in the dojo of course, but a larger barrier that exists at the core of Japanese society. This is assuming of course that you don’t want to stick out, that you want to be treated like your other Japanese kendo friends as much as possible, and that you don’t try to use your awkward non-Japanese ‘special’ status to get some sort of preferential treatment. Even if you manage to fit in pretty well, if you go to a new dojo, take part in a shiai, or join some sort of godo-geiko, many people who haven’t seen you before will assume that you a) have bad kendo; b) you can’t speak the language; and c) you don’t understand what kendo is really about. This is, even for people who do want to stick out (not me btw) a very frustrating experience. Ultimately, this is not something an individual or even a group of individuals can change, and – for me personally – it has been the most disappointing part of my kendo experience in Japan.
I receive emails on a semi-regular basis that start “I love kendo. I want to move to Japan and study it seriously. What should I do?” My advice is almost always the same – “if you are in your early/mid 20s then come over for a year or two, learn the language as much as you can, and enjoy/explore Japan… all while getting in as much keiko as you can. After that, get out of dodge and go back to wherever and focus on your job/career and friends.” The reason why I say this is not only because of my personal experiences, but of those around me: I’ve yet to see a single non-Japanese person balance a successful kendo life and career (of course I don’t know every non-Japanese kendoka in the country). I guess those that do come out the most successful are the people that manage to get professional jobs and still manage to get to the dojo twice or three times a week. Honestly speaking – if your mind is set on coming to Japan – this is probably your best bet…. just remember that you may only do kendo 2 or maybe 3 times a week and you’ll probably have to live in or around Tokyo.
When all is said and done, I speak Japanese pretty well and I’m doing kendo a lot. I study under really strong teachers, great kendo friends, nice dojo’s with beautiful floors, etc etc. Sounds great doesn’t it? I guess it is!!!!!!!!!
* this attitude has changed slightly since then, but not as much as you may imagine