Doing kendo in Japan (cheat sheet) 日本剣道修行

Recently – perhaps because of the impending world kendo championships – I’ve been receiving an increased amount of inquires about doing kendo over here in Japan. Some questions/requests are quite easily resolved, others not so. What I’ve decided to do here is to write a quick “cheat sheet” for people who are coming to Japan and want to study kendo or, indeed, for those in Japan who wish to start.

Please note that this is a general guide only, and I’m sure many readers have had many different experiences. YMMV.


A. “I already do kendo in my home country and I’m coming to Japan and wish to practise for a bit.”

Great! The easiest thing to do here is to use a connection with someone you already have to find a place to practise. Ask your sensei/sempai first and go that route. Sorted!

Failing that, you can always reach out to (friendly!) people in Japan and ask. I’m happy to help/advise people who come to Osaka for example.

A third route is to contact the ZNKR or regional federations and ask for help – they should be more than willing to do so (it’s their job). You should be able to email them in English at least.

Other points to note:

1. Equipment – bring your own equipment. Rolling up to Japan and expecting to borrow stuff (unless it’s from a friend and you’ve worked it out beforehand) is a bit rude. It also, I think, reveals the extent of your dedication to kendo (i.e. not much).

Shinai can be tricky to take over, so consider buying 2 or 3 when you are here (they are cheap – ask your contact about a bogu shop or buy them online and deliver them to your hotel). If you must borrow something, then let it only be shinai.

One place where many people make easy mistakes is with their zekken:

– Absolutely do not turn up without a zekken.

– Make sure the zekken is legible (i.e. unless you are Asian or of Asian descent do not use kanji but have your name printed in roman script or katakana – otherwise people will not know how to read your name, and you risk looking foolish). If people can’t read your zekken then it’s pointless to even wear one.

– Consider making a zekken with your country or city name (assuming it’s a large place like London or Paris) rather than your dojo name. This is simply so people can place you. You may think your dojo has a cool name or is well known, but it’s probably not. btw, when I go to degeiko in other prefectures I simply use an “Osaka” zekken for the same reason.

2. Gifts. If you are going to be at a single dojo and you know the teacher then sure, bring a gift if you want to (something cheap). If you are moving around dojo and perhaps don’t know the teachers, then I suggest NOT to bring any gifts at all – nobody expects presents from random people.

3. In Japan people freely hand out business cards to each other even in non-business situations. Pleasantries like “We must go out for a drink soon” or “Get in touch if you come to my prefecture” etc are common. However they are just that: pleasantries. Kendo teachers naturally do this abroad and may say “Come and visit me when you are in Japan” however, they sometimes don’t imagine you will actually get in touch. This seems to have been more trouble in the past than it is now, but calls/emails from random people abroad (whom they can’t remember) saying “I’m coming to Japan!” do happen. You may want to think about this before emailing every Japanese kendo person whose business card you happen to have.

4. Be polite. This is a no-brainer… or should be. You’d be amazed how many people (often unintentionally) end up doing something silly that is easily avoidable:

– Reply to emails. You’d be surprised how many people don’t send a reply (even saying “thanks”) when you answer their questions.

– Don’t be late. If keiko starts at 7pm, don’t turn up at 6:50pm. Be at the dojo (at least for your first time) about 30 minutes before class starts.

– Research the route before you go. Large cities especially can be confusing for first time visitors. An easy example of a screw up is when multiple train lines from different companies have similar names: e.g. there are 4 “Namba” stations here in central Osaka: Namba, Nankai Namba, Osaka Namba, JR Namba.

– Introduce yourself to the main teacher(s) before class, and be sure to practise with at least 1 or 2 of them first during keiko.

– No matter what your grade is, sit at the bottom of the line unless moved by members of the dojo.

– Don’t randomly tsuki people you don’t know, and be carefully when doing keiko with older people and children.

B. “I live in Japan and wish to start kendo.”

Good for you! The easiest thing to do here is ask a Japanese friend to help you find a dojo (if you speak/read Japanese you can do it yourself of course). The quickest route to success is to ask your local prefectural kendo association directly. After that, it should be plain sailing.

Note that depending on where you are they may not be used to teaching adult beginners, and you may be taught with children at least initially. Just be patient.

Personally, I ask that adults who wish to start from scratch at my dojo here in Osaka to be willing to commit for at least 2 years. If you plan to leave Japan in 6 months time please consider that someone else has to sacrifice their time to teach you (possibly man-to-man).

C. “I love kendo and want to seriously study it in Japan.”

Well, you sound like me all those years ago! First of all, most people say they want to seriously study kendo, but few are willing to give up much to do so. When I hear “seriously study” I imagine 10 years plus or maybe, minimally, 5 years. Pretty much nobody is willing to sacrifice the time but if you are, please consider the following:

1. You need a job. Unless you are independently wealthy, you will need to work. First, find a job in Japan and then work on kendo from there.

2. Unless you are extremely lucky, most working people don’t practise more than 3 or 4 times/week… often less. i.e. you’ll be at work more than you will be the dojo. This might not be the fantastic-life-of-kendo you imagine. Combining work and kendo is possible, but rare.

3. Kendo is hard and takes a long time. 5 years is not enough for your average person to get good, neither is 10. You may find yourself getting physically and mentally beaten down a lot. You will almost also certainly be at the very bottom of the pile with little or no chance to make it to the top. You may think you can handle all this, but can you really? Also, the kendo social scene is not as friendly as it is in many places abroad, so it’s easy for people to feel lonely and isolated at times.

4. One serious option is the International Budo University’s special one year course for non-Japanese students (they do both a kendo and judo course). I’ve heard more horror stories than good about the place and was actually talked out of going myself by a graduate a few years ago. However it does – to those with the Japanese skills – offer something rare to non-Japanese people: the potential to move onto the full-time course after the one-year course is completed. In reality, almost nobody does this, but if you want to study sport or budo at a Japanese university, this is basically your only option. Note that Japanese university system is different from many countries, including the method of entrance and the qualification received.

A note here for people trying to get cultural visa’s to study kendo: it almost certainly won’t happen. Especially if you have very little kendo experience. Get a job.

D. “I’m visiting Japan and would like to try kendo (individual or group).”

Get in touch with the All Japan Kendo Federation or your own country’s federation.

E. “I’m going to do a school exchange / study in Japan and I’d love to start kendo.”

I’m jealous!! I’ve heard of many many (high school and university aged) students who started kendo on a school exchange or study-year, so you are in a great situation.

If you are going to attend a Japanese high school then (assuming the kendo teacher is good) it’s like hitting the kendo lottery: get in there! It may be physically intense and you may have little time left for other pursuits, but it will be a year worth spent. In fact, I’ve personally taught 4 high school exchange students before (3 from China, 1 from Europe).

University clubs tend to be a lot different and – I hear – can be very unfriendly at times. You should realise that most universities have a “main” club and a less-formal “kendo circle” club. The latter is often less strict and less competition orientated, so it might be better for the adult beginner or those with less experience. Good luck!


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Comment

Like I said at the top of this piece: the advice here is general. For the most part it’s also self-explanatory… or you would think so!!!

Over the last 10 years or so I’ve had people roll up here in Osaka wanting to borrow a hakama, without a zekken (or with illegible kanji), people obviously not reading the explicit directions I’ve given them and going to the wrong station, turn up late, turn up on time but fence only the shodans and 2dans, etc etc etc. I’ve also seen an increase in the number of adult beginners who wish to start (although no non-Japanese person has ever stayed more than a year or so…) and – surprisingly – random requests like “My son and I study karate and will be in Osaka for a day, can we try kendo?” or “I’ve done kendo for 4 months and love it. I need your help getting a cultural visa to study kendo. Can you ask your sensei to be my teacher and sign the immigration form for me?”… [ bury face into kote ] … etc etc.

At any rate, this was a light-hearted advice article – feel free to add any more advice or personal anecdotes you have in the comments below. Cheers!

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George

I'm the founder and chief editor of kenshi247.net. Amongst other things I am a high school kendo club coach, an avid practitioner of classical swordsmanship, a history student, and a vegetarian.

28 thoughts on “Doing kendo in Japan (cheat sheet) 日本剣道修行

  1. Thanks for the article, enlightening and entertaining as ever.
    It’s extremely unlikely that I will ever get to Japan to train, although I would love to do so, as I am nearly 57. What advice would you offer for an ageing sandan such as myself on the subject?

  2. Great tips as always ^^

    About the shinai. Once i visit a dojo abroad and the company lost my shinai or send it somehere else in the world. When i first show up in the dojo i felt embarrassed to had to ask for a shinai, luckily the sempai borrow me one of his, twice…I was the most embarassing thing =/.

    Same happend (in the same place for my bad luck) that once i went to jigeiko and forgot my tenugui, i think it was as embarassing as not having a shinai luckily again the same sempai borrow me his (thanks sempai!). So, DON’T FORGET YOUR TENUGUI EITHER!

  3. “5 years is not enough for your average person to get good, neither is 10.” –

    I’m starting to think neither is 20!

    Good points about university Kendo clubs. I had the experience of practicing for a three month summer session with the Nagoya University club when I first moved there. Whilst they were pleasant enough in the beginning, towards the end it was very clear that they were really starting to focus on the upcoming school year’s shiai circuit and that basically, I was kinda getting in the way.

    I ended up finding a great adult club eventually though and everyone was better off for it I reckon.

  4. Rob, 57 is hardly old !!! I regularly fence (and am beaten up by) people in their 60s and 70s, so you have no excuse! Kendo in Japan is probably a lot wider in age-scope than you see abroad, and that comes with deep experience – so you can expected to be treated appropriately for your age and ability. Remember that in Japan (generally speaking) younger people still respect their seniors. Oh, remember also that shiai is for children and young adults here, so you won’t have to deal with all the problems of pride and ego which sometimes come along with that. Get in touch when you pop over!!!!

    Scott – I’ve heard stories of the same ilk multiple times over the years (across a variety of universities). In general clubs are run by members at university and are focused on shiai, so (obviously for young adults of that age) ego can run rampant… In all these years I’ve probably only heard of a maybe one or two friends who managed to “get in” with their clubs. One was because of an amazing fluency in Japanese, and the other because she started kendo as a kid and was at a level not so different to the other female students. Almost all my non-Japanese friends who are involved in some way at the university level end up in “kendo circles.” One or two have also ended up practising with the university kendo teachers at their own (no students allowed) keiko!

    Anyway, I must admit that I’ve never really been involved in kendo at the university level except on the periphery, so I’m not particularly knowledgeable about it.

  5. Very good article that should help many people, thanks.

    I first visited Japan in my late twenties after 2 years of kendo and a mere shodan. I was lucky to be taken to a dojo by a nanadan sensei who had been visiting Europe earlier in the year, but nevertheless, the experience proved strange. First, said sensei introduced us to the dojo leaders but did not practice himself. Then, we were asked to perform kirigaeshi with the local children and only after were we allowed to don our bogu and practice with a dozen shodan, who were around 14-15 years old. Finally, we were allowed to perform ji-geiko with 25-30 years old, who of course wiped the floor with us. I remember being so tired at the end that I could barely lift my arms to untie my men himo … I also remember feeling that we had been run through some rite of passage and wouldn’t have been taken seriously unless we could show some dedication, tolerance for effort and suffering, and of course some proficiency. I loved it, was very grateful to the inviting sensei for throwing me directly into the « deep pool » instead of coddling us, and it cemented my opinion of kendo as much more than a mere competitive sport, something that I could and would do all my life.
    On the other hand, I heard some guys complain bitterly about this kind of treatment, feeling humiliated to have to practice with kids and not having their « black belt » and their visitors status valued as high as they thought it would. Most of them have stopped practicing long ago.

    Over the years, I’ve developped links with a sensei and his dojo in Tokyo, where I return regularly and try to pack as much practice as I can. Nowaday, however, instead of pushing me to do more and more hard keiko, they tend to tell me « muri shinaide » (don’t overdo it) because of my age and my knees … So Rob, at your young age of 57, don’t hesitate to go to Japan, you’ll find that many dojos have members much older than you who won’t try to kill you through exhaution.

    About equipment : I’ve found that borrowing a shinai, especially at the start of a visit, usually poses no problem as it is generally understood that visitors come to Japan to buy some.
    Tenuguis can be found cheap in any 100 yen shops nowadays, but beware of flashy designs. You can wear a tenugui from your own dojo or federation, but I’ve often seen disapproval at wearing one from a different Japanese dojo (I suspect it is a question of apparent loyalty).
    If you borrow a bogu, it is a good idea to bring at least your own Kote and a protective pad for inside the Men.

  6. Florence, thank you very much…. some great comments there!!!

    I’ve never heard or seen any problems regarding which tenugui you use in the dojo though….

  7. Before I go,I am curious about one thing: I’m here working now, but several years ago I had a cultural activities visa to study karate in Okinawa. You mentioned that it’s difficult to get them for kendo. What causes the difficulty?

    I’m currently working in the Tokyo area and just started kendo, so I’m not in need of that now. Just wondering.

  8. Well, there are no real for-profit kendojo in Japan. Professional kendoka exist in few numbers mostly in the police system (and some in the education system). As you can imagine by this, the chance of taking on an individual in these situations is zero. It may be hard for your to imagine, but the culture (and infrastructure) of kendo is completely different than that of karate (and judo and aikido for that matter).

    Now, can non or ex-professional teacher help sponsor cultural visas? I’m sure they can. I’ve yet to meet or even hear of anyone though.

  9. I know of one case years ago, a young European who got sponsored by a sensei in Tokyo who also found him a part-time job in a restaurant. Didn’t end well, the guy spent most of his free time doing almost nothing, expecting the sensei and other dojo members to teach him the language and to find him a permanent job and a wife … After about one year, everybody was obviously fed up with him.

  10. Nice piece George. Thanks for helping me train with you a few years back!The shop around the corner was perfect for shinai.

  11. Cheers!

    I probably won’t be there in afraid … I have a Gasshuku the same weekend (and obviously I prefer keiko!). On the off chance I do come it will be as a volunteer.

  12. I was very fortunate to train briefly at a dojo in Kochi. I was so very nervous. I tried to bow alot hanging back till given directions on were to line up,and staying alert to dojo movements. And ensured I bowed in seize to each teacher and senior after training finished. I probably over did it with gifts,taking some small gifts, fortunately there was a lot of children. Remember to not be overly serious, smile be friendly and enjoy.
    Thank you.

  13. That’s a great point Shaun!

    As everyone tends to know what’s expected of them culturally dojo tend to be a lot more casual affairs that some I’ve been to in the west. That doesn’t mean they aren’t serious, just that they know what’s what.

    Cheers !

  14. Thank you. Congratulations very nice words. I will look forward to go and train even for a short time. My work doesn’t fit a one year trip, but maybe a month. The tips are very helpful. Best regards from Mexico City. (I would include Mexico in my Zekken)

  15. I just wanted to confirm many of the things in this article for anyone looking to do it. I arrived in Okayama prefecture last year and took up Kendo with one of my local community clubs. Showing dedication really goes a long way and it pays off. I started from scratch learning with primary school first years and am now up to training with middle school. Showing willing and being self sufficient allows you to get on remarkably well, even with a significant language barrier it is definitely possible. A really good article. If anyone is training in Chugoku or Kansai I would love to meet up for tips!

  16. Great read. I can tell you if you are over as a high school exchange student it is hard to step in. The level of training and intensity plus being a great target if you are in a rural area make it hard emotionally and physically as the author alludes to. Also in Japan the training is often done in school gyms or community centers… in the summer no A/C, in the winter (in Tokyo) the wood floors feel like ice but are probably in the low 40’s. I have sat watching my son’s practice in long johns and parka while they practice in hakama, talk about character building…
    The other great thing is that it is one of the most egalitarian sports kids can do in Japan with (in practice) girls and boys sparring based on experience not gender.
    Most shops and the club I’ve worked with are pretty welcoming ( I don’t have a language barrier though).

  17. Thanks for the comment!

    I’ve taught three international high school students here in Japan and yes it’s very hard for them. The most difficult barrier is that most come DURING term (the Japanese Academic term being odd). And yes, it’s sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter!!!

  18. Hello. I’m going to train for a month in Japanese Dojo. I have a question concerning a payment for the trainings. How is it better to ask how much should I pay and whom and etc?

  19. Hi, I will visit Osaka in Jul for vacation and my girls (8&10) wants to try Kendo. Please inform if this is possible?

  20. Please contact the local kendo federation of the area(s) you are planning to visit. It would be better if you had a friend in the area to help. Based on the ages of your girls (and the fact that it will be blistering hot) I don’t think they will actually put any armour on. Good luck !

  21. Hi, we have been asked to include Kendo Training as part of the Japanese cultural events to be experienced by two groups travelling from Sydney and London on a conference in November 2017.

    It is one corporation looking to have its two groups get to know each other more. From reading your Cheat Sheet, it sounds like it is not something to be once-off. But this is what they want.

    I have emailed the only place I found online but it has bounced back to me (kendo@kyumeikan.info)
    Any advice on where they can participate will be greatly appreciated.

    Group 1
    35 attendees
    Kendo training dates: 7 or 8 or 9 or 10 Nov 2017
    Preferred hours: between 12 noon and 5pm

    Group 2
    40 attendees
    Kendo training dates: 21 or 22 or 23 or 24 Nov 2017
    Preferred hours: between 12 noon and 5pm

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