I started kendo at the comparatively late age of 19 (I’m 35 now) and, with only 16 years of practise under my belt, I can say with no false humility that my experience is pretty shallow… considering that many of my sempai and sensei have over 50 years of experience. During these 16 years the way that I have approached kendo – what it is and why I do it – has changed drastically. Part of that is, of course, simply because I have gotten older, and part of it is because of my current kendo situation: I am not only surrounded by highly experienced instructors (some of whom are professional kendo teachers) but I have also become – mostly through chance, but partially through design – a (high school) kendo teacher myself. I consider myself to be very lucky.
As my aim for practising has changed, so has my approach to kendo… not just in the way I swing my shinai, but how I aim to interact with my students, my kendo friends, my sempai, and my sensei, and how I conduct myself in these relationships. I have also seen a large change in how my sensei treat me. I guess that this change in approach is something that happens to everyone.
Since this process is ongoing, I often find myself struggling to explain what it is thats happening exactly (as my friends know). Luckily, last year I just happened to read a short article entitled “kendo and age” (年代に応じた剣道). I found the article interesting for two main reasons: it provided a chart in which age stages vs kendo phases is described, and also because it mentioned the Danish-German developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, himself a very interesting character, and whos ideas I find intriguing.
Now, how much kendo actually enters/affects your life depends on the individual of-course. For the vast majority of people – despite what they may think – its a hobby. Some people are very serious about their art and some people are casual, but to break out of the realm of “hobbyist” requires something more. Development of this line of thought isn’t for this this discussion though, but it does affect the meaning/final goal of the items below. For those of us that start later in life or outside of Japan, the items below also have necessarily to be modified (I still think that many of the ideas introduced below will be of interest/applicable to you however).
Well, what is kendo “supposed” to be about? Luckily the All Japan kendo federation chose to define and publish it for us already (in response to the over sportification of post-war kendo):
The Concept of Kendo
The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Katana (sword).
The Purpose of Practicing Kendo
The purpose of practicing Kendo is:
To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.
This will make one be able:
To love his/her country and society,
To contribute to the development of culture
And to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples.
- The Concept of Kendo was published by the All Japan Kendo Federation in 1975.
Also, here is a snippet of “The Mindset of Kendo Instruction” which I think adds to this discussion:
While providing instruction, students should be encouraged to apply the full measure of care to issues of safety and health, and to devote themselves to the development of their character throughout their lives.
Kendo is a “way of life” that successive generations can learn together. The prime objective of instructing Kendo is to encourage the practitioner to discover and define their way in life through training in the techniques of Kendo. Thus, the practitioner will be able to develop a rich outlook on life and be able to put the culture of Kendo into use, thereby benefiting from its value in their daily lives through increased social vigor.
- The Mindset of Kendo Instruction was published by the All Japan Kendo Federation in 2007.
(Although only published in 1975 and 2007 respectively, most if not all of the ideals presented above have – not only for kendo specifically but budo in general – existed long before then.)
Any clearer? Maybe, maybe not. I’m guessing the answer to this depends on how far down the road (naturally including your age) that you are.
Let me top up the “Concept of kendo” and “Lifelong kendo” quotes with the chart that was found in the “kendo and age” piece that started this article:
Life stage: child (primary school age) *
Source of vitality (人間的活力): feeling of development;
Butoku (武徳) ** : Rei. Manners;
Important people in your life (重要なる他者): Friends and people in school;
Development theme (発達課題): Learning to fit into society. Judging yourself. Starting kendo. Acquiring technical skills;
Main method of keiko (主たる稽古法と修行段階): Acquiring the basics (shu***);
Life stage: youth (early half: Adolescence)
Source of vitality: Working in a group;
Butoku: Honour/Justice. Sense of justice. Sincerity;
Important people in your life: Your group of friends, people outside your group, teachers;
Development theme: Physical and mental growth. Gender based experiences. Internalising group experiences. Kendo: acquiring as many kendo techniques as possible. Developing a body strong enough to do kendo to the full;
Main method of keiko: Kakarigeiko, uchikomigeiko, aquiring shikake waza, shiai (shu);
Life stage: youth (latter half: Early 20s)
Source of vitality: Working as an individual;
Butoku: Courage. Bravery and endurance/perseverance;
Important people in your life: Models of good leadership, your kendo teacher;
Development theme: Independence from parents. Developing morals. Choosing a career;
Main method of keiko: as above (ha)
Life stage: young adult (late 20s plus)
Source of vitality: Love / compassion;
Butoku: Benevolence/Compassion/Charity. Sympathy for others. A compassionate heart;
Important people in your life: Friends, people of the opposite sex, other competitors, people who try hard, your kendo teacher;
Development theme: Marriage. Having children. Work. Family. Lifestyle. Kendo: polishing the spirit. Getting rid of the four sicknesses. Unwavering devotion to your path;
Main method of keiko: Acquiring ojiwaza through the spirit of kokenchiai (ha);
Life stage: midlife (40s+)
Source of vitality: Aiding others;
Important people in your life: Spouse, family, co-workers, friends in your area, your kendo teacher;
Development theme: Work. Family. Raising children. Lifestyle. Kendo: as above;
Main method of keiko: Hikitategeiko, re-examination of kendo no kata, polishing your techniques to be beautiful (ri);
Life stage: old age (60s+)
Source of vitality: Synthesis/integration;
Important people in your life: Spouse, family, friends, humanity;
Development theme: Coping with changes due to old age. Awareness of life and death. Finding a new role for yourself in society. Seeking your own identity;
Main method of keiko: Hikitategeiko, attacking with the spirit (ri);
* Note that all age ranges written here are selected by me. The original Japanese uses umbrella terms to define lifestages. These umbrella terms have no precise definition.
** JINGIREICHISHIN (仁義礼智信) – the five Confucian virtues (benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom, and sincerity)
*** Each stage is also categorised in the SHU-HA-RI sequence.
Ok, so what we have here is an overriding defined objective of kendo (as created and controlled by the heads of a [non-democratic?] organisation based in Tokyo), and a more specific breakdown based on various lifecycles (using Erikson’s theories as a vague model) by Japanese kendo academics. But what does this actually mean – if anything – to the people on the ground? And how exactly does this transfer abroad, especially when the vast majority of kendo people outside Japan are not in day-to-day contact with ZNKR appointed teachers? Is there space for other, perhaps less over-reaching objectives for kendo practitioners?
Just to make us all more confused, I broke out a copy of Sumi Masatake sensei’s book “Kendo methodology breakdown by period/age” (年代別稽古法. Published 2000). Sumi sensei is probably well known to readers of kenshi247.net as he has travelled to many countries over the years to teach kendo. I won’t attempt to translate portions of his book, simply liberally paraphrase the table of contents. This should give you yet another view of the “kendo lifecycle” :
Kindergarten and younger primary school kids (4-8 years old)
Having an interest in learning – the first teachers children meet are like parents;
Playing with shinai – teachers should exert a strong influence on the children to learn correct movements;
Wearing the keikogi and hakama – learning to wear your clothes correctly is the first step in preparation for serious keiko;
Old primary school children (9-11 years old)
Ashisabaki – learning the first step of acquiring kendo-like movements, and using fumikomi with this;
Kamae – building the feeling of concentration and connection with and on your opponent;
Suburi – reinforcing the idea that swinging the shinai is the same as swinging a katana;
Kendo-gu -learning to look after your equipment is something that cannot be left out of your shugyo;
Junior high school (12-14 years old)
Mid-air striking – this method can help your body to acquire correct cutting movements;
Kirikaeshi – learn to cut large, correctly, and with full concentration, strike by strike;
School club – is a place not to learn the specifics of kendo, but a place to learn your own autonomy;
High school (15-18 years old)
Uchikomigeiko – correctly acquiring body movements and shinai control;
Acquiring technique – moving from learning simply the shape of techniques to polishing them and making them your own;
Shiai – improving your kendo through the experience of winning and losing;
Girls kendo – pulling out girls deep interest/study of kendo and creating a forward style of kendo;
Adolescence / young adults – rather than relying on power, acquire kendo that has an understanding of distance and timing;
Becoming a woman – making kendo a part of your life, and being healthy mentally;
University (18+ years old)
The study of kendo – the first step on your independent path to kendo;
The makeup of the club – a deeper investigation into the pursuit of kendo;
How to keiko – working to pursue the deeper aspects of kendo methodology. A re-examining of your basics;
Entering society – how to take what you have learned in kendo and apply it to real life;
Re-examining your method of keiko – the real start of your kendo shugyo as an individual begins;
Promotion – the beginning of aiming at higher levels;
Re-starting kendo – for those that have a had a break due to work, how to restart your kendo life;
Strengthening your kendo – the start of executing your waza with power and intensity;
Study of kendo no kata – how do you use kata to make your shinai kendo better?;
Research on seme – learning the principles of kendo, acquiring your own kendo style;
Becoming a shinpan – when you learn to devalue your own kendo;
Book study – when you find countless things you didn’t know from books;
Injury prevention – balance between activity and rest. Doing keiko in tune with your age and health;
Leading the next generation – the success of your kendo life to date is shown in how you use your experience to lead those younger than you;
Interaction with foreigners – the importance of considering how to integrate Japans physical and mental cultural into kendo;
Note that the translations here are liberal paraphrased on occasion! If you are a Japanese reader then please check out the book itself.
So now we have the well known defined goal of kendo as well as two theoretical kendo lifecycle examples. I posit that the ZNKR defined goal of kendo is a wide, far reaching aim for the wider kendo community, not simply Japan. The kendo lifecycles may not be obviously relevant to most readers (as they presuppose living in Japan, which has a strong kendo culture and infrastructure) but they do provide a window into the way senior kendo teachers and academics view this thing we call “kendo” and what it means to the individual over the span of their lives. It also shows how kendo integrates within an individuals life and makes them a better person… leading us back to the original ZNKR defined goal of kendo.
So where you fit into this cycle? And what does kendo mean to you? Do you even care? Well, that’s up to you do decide. I could attempt some sort of conclusion, but as I’m sure my thoughts on the matter will change again at some point in the future, I will just leave the article open ended. I hope you can find something to stimulate discussion on or offline within!
p.s. Note that all these concepts and lifecycles are AGE and not RANK based… in fact, gradings are mentioned only once in passing. I personally think this point needs deep consideration.
Please remember I am not a professional translator, nor have studied Japanese at university nor in an institution. Any errors in fact, misunderstandings in the reading of the text, errors in translations, etc, are all my own. I can but apologise in advance.