Thoughts on the internationalisation of kendo (1992)

The following is a highly abridged and loosely translated excerpt from a book entitled Gendai Kendo (“Modern kendo”) published in 1992. The book consists of articles (based on lectures) by academics discussing kendo in it’s then current situation and was sponsored by the Ministry of Education, All Japan Kendo Association (ZNKR), and the All Japan Sport Universities Association.

Going through the book one chapter that I found of particular interest was that concerning the state of kendo outside of Japan. I found it of interest because – perhaps unusually for a Japanese kendo book – it looks at the issue relatively objectively. What piqued my interest in particular was:

  1. It gives us a view to how international kendo was viewed from a Japanese perspective 20+ years ago (which isn’t so long ago).

  2. It gives us a chance to consider what has or hasn’t improved since then – in both kendo outside of Japan and attitudes towards non-Japanese kenshi by Japanese practitioners.

    Rather than translate the whole chapter on international kendo, I have abridged two sections to make them shorter, highlighting what I think are the most interesting points, and presented them in three parts. Note that the book itself discusses kendo in quite a broad manner, this is only one section (the smallest) of a larger book.

Note also that you probably won’t agree with some of the points raised or statements made. That’s partially why I chose to present it.


Part 1: Introduction

For most of us the idea of the internationalisation of kendo doesn’t occur to us until we actually meet and do keiko with a non-Japanese person. At that time we may think “In what way should I do kendo with the person in front of me?” and may even start to think about how is it that kendo is transmitted abroad, or in what manner you should teach kendo to them.

When asked a question by a person from a different culture with different opinions, whether they just be starting kendo or are already experienced, considering how kendo is (in Japan) and how Japanese people think, how would you answer them? Many non-Japanese people – if they have a question, a complaint, or a desire – may argue with their teacher over it. How would you tackle this situation and reply/explain in a satisfactory way to them? Consider this a chance to reconsider and look-over not only Japanese kendo, but your own kendo.

Even today in Japan there are areas of kendo where we could say Japan is not perfect. For example the tendency for competition results to be over-valued resulting in the popularity of “tapping kendo” or “scrappy kendo.” Although the theme of this section is about the internationalisation of kendo, I’d like the readers to also consider deeply what exactly is “Japanese kendo” as well.


Part 2: Thinking about the internationalisation of kendo

Although many (Japanese) people may realise that activities like judo and karate are popular abroad they may, usually because they have no information on the matter, consider that the internationalisation of kendo has nothing to do with them. Rather than spending a lot of money and effort travelling abroad to teach kendo to foreigners – which they might not even be able to understand – wouldn’t it be better if all that energy was spend on solving Japan’s own kendo problems first? This is the reality of how many people think. Kasahara sensei (1st director of the international kendo federation) said:

“Surely, since different peoples have their own tradition and cultures, it’s not appropriate to impose kendo on them saying that it is the only way to mould the human spirit. This type of thinking reminds me of political slogans used during the war that said Japan deserved to dominate the world. Don’t you think this is arrogant and Disrespectful?

Can people from other cultures even comprehend Japanese thinking? I think that this is quite difficult and have little confidence that they can. However, there are something like 70,000 people practising kendo abroad that do have some sort of comprehension of the matter. It doesn’t matter if this number doesn’t increase as long as they can deepen their understanding. I believe that this is where kendo’s international mission lies. “

Reasons such as “It’s impossible for foreigners to understand Japanese thinking” or “There is no access to equipment or teachers” should not be used as excuses.

Japan as a country has always imported ideas and objects from other countries, in old times it was China and Korea, and in recent times Europe and America. We should have pride in attempting to export one of our own creations – that is, kendo – to other countries. It can be a conduit to deeper understanding between Japan and other cultures, and, in such a manner, perhaps even contribute in a way to world peace.

When it comes to the attempting to define the “internationalising” of budo we have two directions:

  1. Generalise the theory, method of execution, etc. i.e. make it universal.

  2. Keeping it’s essential nature intact, transmit it to the local peoples, all the while respecting local traditions, cultures, and independent nature.

To say it bluntly: through influencing foreign kendo practitioners way of thinking through kendo (i.e. making them understand Japanese tradition), kendo will be able to become international and keep it’s essential nature. Kendo, therefore, should be done in the Japanese manner rather than allowing people from other countries to adapt it to their local culture as they see fit. However, of course, we should not egotistically attempt to impose our “Japanese-ness” on them and must make great efforts (self-sacrifice) to understand the various situations that exist in countries outside of our own.

The reality of kendo’s current diffusion abroad and it’s history

In 1991 there were 30 member countries (31 associations – Hawaii being separate from America) of the international kendo federation (then known as IKF, now re-branded as FIK). According to a 1988 survey into the number of kendo participants, the worldwide total (minus Japan) was 220,000 (note that Korea reported in 1989 a kendo population of 250,000). The countries with the largest reported populations were: Taiwan (2,000), America and France (1,500), Brazil (1,400), Canada (1,300), Germany (700) etc. Most countries reported a population of 200 or under. Out of these numbers there were about 35,000 yudansha (shodan and above), of which around 30,000 were shodan or nidan level. We can probably imagine that only a fraction of these people actually practise kendo regularly

Starting in 1975 the ZNKR have been running a summer gasshuku for foreign kenshi. In amongst the participants were those who don’t just do shinai kendo, but also koryu, iaido, etc etc. some we may even say are more knowledgeable about Japanese traditional customs than many Japanese people themselves. Some have – due to their hard effort and pioneering spirit – even uncovered new information about budo during their research. Under their careful scrutiny we may be able to see budo from new vantage points and budo as a whole may benefit from their endeavours, even over and above internationalisation itself.

Let’s break the history of kendo’s diffusion into 3 main areas:

  1. Kendo exported by Japanese immigrants (America, Hawaii, Brazil, western Canada, etc)

In these countries the majority of the people running the organisations or that become national team members are of Japanese descent. People of non-Japanese descent are increasing and kendo from these areas is already producing strong kenshi.

  1. Kendo that was originally planted through through the army and education system that went on to adapt to and take root in those societies (Korea, Taiwan)

(i.e. territories occupied by Imperial Japan – the text obviously doesn’t word it like this. Note that there is no mention of the then current situation in China.)

Prior to the war these both of these countries had extremely strong kendo kenshi stationed here, those that had undergone harsh training in Japan. Also, because of proximity to Japan, there was a lot of interacting kendo-wise between these countries and Japan. It was at this time that kendo became embedded.

These countries are not only able to self-support themselves equipment wise (i.e. in shinai and bogu), but they also export to other places including Japan. This is a particular strength of these countries.

Korea, in particular, because of kendo’s place in the military, schools, and universities, is blessed with an abundance of young kenshi. With this infrastructure – and with a lot of opportunities to practise – Korea has developed kenshi with a lot of speed and power, and are on the brink of creating a sensation in the international kendo scene.

  1. Countries that sprouted only after WW2, i.e. those that were nurtured (Europe, South East Asia, Oceania, etc).

Recently European kendo has been increasing in strength. There are many reasons for this: perhaps it’s converts from judo or karate due to injury, or perhaps it’s due to increased information about kendo via books, films, demonstrations, etc. The European kendo federation (EKF) is the worlds biggest kendo federation (by scale), the European championships have been held 10 times now, and there are now six 6th dans in Europe (not including Japanese people that stay in Europe).

However, in European kendo there is a big imbalance: most people begin kendo late and the complete lack of older experienced teachers (in their 50s or above). This is a major problem.

It was only last year that the first Australian 6th dan was born. South East Asia and Oceania are not yet mature.

Problems in diffusing kendo abroad

Let’s have a look at some examples of past obstacles that impeded kendo popularisation as well as some things we need to think about for the future.

  1. Problems with regional associations

Despite the kendo population abroad being relatively low there sometimes occurs a lack of harmony in local organisations, for example:

  • for over 10 years both the UK and France had two competing rival organisations;
  • recently the Italian federation was expelled from the IKF;
  • the American federation has undergone internal disputes.
  1. Dispatching (Japanese) teachers long-term and the training and development of local teachers

Kendo, for most kenshi, is an expensive business: the cost of bogu and shinai, postage and packing, tax applied at customs, the non-access to repair, etc etc. If you combine this with organisations with very few members and countries with bad economies, then we could say that importing a Japanese teacher long-term for teaching purposes is nothing less than a herculean task. Surely we’d need contributions from international exchange organisations, the Japan amateur sports association, and the ZNKR. Also, due to the fact that only police or university teachers could take a long time of work, there would be a tendency for instructors to only be of this type.

We should endeavour to create a system that would both allow instructors from all backgrounds be posted abroad long-term and provide adequate training opportunity and resources to develop non-Japanese people that come to Japan.

  1. Kendo equipment

Currently the ZNKR are collecting second-hand bogu and sending it abroad every year. We should aim to take this one step further and help people to produce and repair bogu and shinai abroad.

  1. Grading problems

Currently you may, if you have permission from your own organisation, take a grading under a different organisation. Looking at the IKF rules we can see that you can join a grading panel if you have 2 dan’s above the grade being tested for. However, this means that there is almost nowhere you can sit 5th dan and if you want to sit 6th or 7th dan you have no option but either come to Japan or do it at a world kendo championships. At the same time as this reality exists each federation can – completely at its own discretion – award 9th or 10th dan.

  1. The IKFs structural and financial independence

At this point in time the IKF doesn’t have any incoming money except yearly fees from regional federations, thus there is no option for the ZNKR to continue supporting it.

  1. The olympic question

At this point in time the Korean association is the main body arguing for kendo’s inclusion in the Olympics. The IKF committees cautious approach to this is that whilst it’s ok to promote kendo as a ‘combative’ activity, it is also worried about the harmful effects that can be caused to kendo through promoting kendo as a win-at-all-costs sport.

Joining the IOC would not mean kendo would become an olympic event but, either way, it’s now time to resolve the issue. In order to do this we must seriously consider what is best for the correct development of kendo.

In conclusion

As you can see there are many issues that need addressed in the matter of the internationalisation of kendo. However, we Japanese – if we have faith in ourselves and are willing to rethink the matter seriously – can help transmit correct kendo abroad and plant the seeds for it’s internationalisation.

Through the medium of kendo we can deepen understanding between people of different cultures and promote world peace.

6. Men-tsuke

Part 3: Kendo abroad (based on experience in Italy and France in the 1970s-80s)

  1. Leadership and grades

Whereas in Japan sport is something mainly occurs in school (and thus performed by students) in Europe this happens in sports clubs. Unlike Japan, people don’t have a strong loyalty to the groups they join so they easily quit and change their clubs, or come only intermittently.

In Europe, along with the lack of both public awareness and equipment, there is also a lack of kendo instructors. You can even find people with shodan who are leading clubs. Leaders who have shiai success or are of high grades often make note of those facts on leaflets to attract new members. In other words, there seemed to be a strong (over) emphasis on shiai results and grades.

In Japan a grade such as shodan may be given easily in order to encourage the student or to promote kendo, whereas in France there is far more expected of candidates when attempting grades such as shodan and nidan. With this in mind, you can probably imagine the value placed on grades in Europe.

In Europe, people open dojo when they are shodan, and by the time they are 4th or 5th dan they are seen as being mature and accomplished kenshi. It’s this reason that much is expected of grades such as shodan. If you were to pass someone simply to encourage them or to promote kendo they might go back to wherever it was they were from and start attempting to teach, as if they had the authority of a high graded person. Invariably they teach incorrectly.

Within clubs people line up not in sempai-kohai order, but by grade. During keiko people would listen earnestly to senior grades but outside of class time everybody becomes equal. If you were to look at people’s activity before and after class you would see nobody acting haughty. In other words, the atmosphere created in Japanese dojo due to the sempai-kohai system is almost nowhere to be seen. Also, everyone calls each other by their first name.

  1. Keiko

Most keiko occurs after work, usually about 8-10pm. Most gym floors have no spring and are consequently hard. Some clubs practise on top of mats used for judo.

In both France and Italy Japanese is used during warmups, suburi, and basics practise. Maybe this makes it a little bit difficult for beginners to understand what’s going on during practise.

In almost all clubs people bring their bokuto along with their shinai, and spend anything from 30mins to an hour practising kata before donning bogu. Everybody apart from complete beginners has no problems with kata. If you compare a European kenshi to a Japanese kenshi of the same grade level the European invariably has spent more time practising kata.

In France it seems that they have been taught by Japanese teachers well: when they attack they do so straight on without any tricky movements. Of course, because there are many beginners and many started only when they became adults, their movements are a bit stiff and their strikes lacking snap, but they attack powerfully. There are some members of the French national team whose do kendo better than many young Japanese kenshi.

In Italy, which doesn’t really have a long kendo history, there are a lot of people who attack randomly. Not only that, but the strikes are heavy and painful. I believe this is partly due to the immature state of kendo there, but also partly because they are aiming to “cut” with the shinai, and they believe that “cutting” requires strength.

  1. Dojo customs

The reiho used in European clubs is the same as found in Japan. However, although before and during keiko everyone walks around barefoot, once keiko is finished people freely wander around inside the “dojo” with their shoes on.

In Japan we usually clean the dojo before and after keiko, but in France and Italy they don’t even make an effort to try. I think this is because they believe it’s not the job of the club using the facilities, but the job of the person in charge of the facilities itself.

  1. Difference in keiko volume

There is a massive difference between the keiko of volume of Japanese kenshi and non-Japanese kenshi. One of the reasons is that non-Japanese kenshi are not in the habit of practising on consecutive days. In France, the average person practises only twice a week. Even the most hard working of French kenshi only practises 4 times per week.

It is the custom for French (and Italian) married couples to continually express love to each other during daily life. Consequently, if one of the couple were to give up their family time to go to keiko then it would harm their relationship. I didn’t see any husbands completely ignore their wives and do as they pleased. The most earnest kenshi tend to be single or divorced.

One of the top European kendo leaders, a French 6th dan, asked me: “Why is it that Japanese sensei do kendo every day, what’s the point? French people find it difficult to understand.” The reason Japanese kenshi do kendo everyday is because it is possible. Policemen/women and teachers do kendo as part of their job, and they (as kendo professionals/specialists) influence the kendo community as a whole.

Even though we Japanese think that daily kendo is important Europeans, who have different cultures and customs, think it’s nonsense to do kendo everyday as kendo specialists do. This is an important thing to consider when thinking about the internationalising of kendo.

Another reason to consider about why there is a difference in keiko volume is due to age. In Japan we start kendo as kids and get into the habit of practising consecutively when we are young. In Europe, however, kendo is not a familiar activity and most people meet kendo by accident (and are older). Due to this many people rely on strength too much, and movement is often not smooth. This is probably the same situation of Japanese people who begin as adults.

The best way to deal with this would be to practise a lot but, as these people are adults, if you try to force them into something they are not happy with they will simply quit. Even if someone wants to start kendo most simply show up once or twice and disappear. All clubs constantly worry how to increase their members.


It’s not easy to do kendo outside of Japan, and as a beginner it’s hard to continue. In this way it is very hard to increase the kendo population abroad. However, if people get over the beginning stage then, even if they don’t practise very often, they do try hard. I think this is the result of efforts made by instructors in local areas.

In Europe, with it’s different culture(s) and difficulty in doing daily practise, it may be difficult to produce strong competitive kenshi. However, without worrying about shiai success, we can say that European kendo is one that values kendo kata and basic practise.

Although it may be difficult to raise up kenshi in Europe to practise daily without break throughout their lives (like Japanese shugyo) there are many that say they are seeking “Japanese kendo” and many more than want to come to Japan to practise kendo.

Kihon practice


“Internationalisation” – “Global Society” – these are key phrases used in Japan since I’ve lived here (12 years) and probably since long before then. However, from my experience at least, this “internationalisation” tends to be a one-way affair: a process of teaching other countries about Japan’s culture while, at the same time, resisting outside pressure to change. But what about kendo? Is this also a one-way affair? Are there parts – or attitudes – that should change? Has kendo successfully internationalised itself? etc etc etc. What do you think?

It’s highly possible that the people who wrote the sections above (who, by the way, I have deliberately left unnamed) have changed their opinions in the 23 years since original publication… or maybe they haven’t, I don’t know. This is what they thought at that time. Whether you agree or disagree with the whole thing or parts of it, I believe it does at least open a small window into the not-so-distant past, and hopefully leads to some discussion in the pub!!! Enjoy.



By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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12 replies on “Thoughts on the internationalisation of kendo (1992)”

Kendo has arrived to Bolivia, my native country. And I’ve been waiting this for years. So there has to be a certain positive degree of internationalization. But we do face the problems mentioned in the article: most of us are adult people and we are struggling to incorporate as many teenagers and children as possible. We lack instructors and after two continuous years of practice we only have one dojo in La Paz though there are people in at least two other cities that would also like doing kendo. Thank you for the article, George. It helps us address these issues and be clear about the immediate goals we have to accomplish by now.

Thanks George, a nice article that is helping me to refresh my East-West appreciation of kendo.
Also it reminds me somewhat of how and why I started (and continued) in my earlier days.

I don’t worry too much these days about whether or not people stay the course- although I do find myself being sometimes too strict (for the UK) with both kids and adults in terms of their adherence once they do begin with me.
I am not Japanese but let’s be honest, Japan set a pretty high bar for us to follow and for me, this means paying attention to why we train, then how we train- not forgetting reiho and attitudes in and out of the dojo.

Nice pics by the way. Steve

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on this post.

Ademar – you are in a much more kendo-aware world now so even though Bolivia started on it’s kendo path later than some countries, I’m sure that – if you look at things in the long run – everything will turn out well. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bolivia turns out to be a “better” kendo country that some more established areas (my own home country being an example of an oldish kendo nation that never really developed it’s potential).

Steve – I’m of the opinion that a dedicated small group of individuals is worth more than a large group of hobbyists. Bending over backwards to keep casual kenshi is a waste of time and effort. Let them leave!

Jeff – I’d like to believe that their opinions have changed…. but I suspect we need to wait a generation or two.

Scott – cheers!

I hope the French 6th Dan has meanwhile understood why japanese sensei do kendo every day. 🙂 Yes, because they can but isn’t another driving factor because some want to get better and delve deeper into the “secrets of kendo” and all areas involved? All the old swordmen seemed to train hard 24/365 to obtain their wisdom?

As what I’ve heard here in Germany, the teachers sent yearly by the IKF adapted their former harsh training regime and style over the years to the main audience of club trainings or gasshukus/kangeikos. Only the national teams and their candidates are still treated as japanese :).

I don’t think many seek anything esoteric from their kendo practise. For most it’s simply routine driven by the belief that this is what serious people do. Remember that few Japanese people CAN actually practise daily … it’s restricted to kids/students, and specialists (police/teachers). In this point, I believe, the writer was making a sweeping statement.

The harshness of training in schools over here has also obviously been lessened over the past few decades. Not to keep membership of course, but because it’s not seen as productive. I believe also that the prior harshness was a product of militarism and not kendo per se.

Considering the theme of this article, your very last words are the most intriguing for me — “treated as Japanese” …. why do you see this as important or a badge of distinction? And what *exactly* do you mean?

Since it tends to be rare for the average Japanese adult club/machidojo practice to practice kihon (at least in here in Tokyo), from my experience your average salaryman kendoist tends to go through less huffing and puffing than your average weekend/after-work Western kendoist.

The ”strict” regime aspect of kendo tends to be seen more in the earlier stages of one’s kendo, whether as an adult beginner or as a child/student. From my understanding this is important to get the body to move naturally because kendo is by no means natural. As the original author stated, Japanese adult beginners have the same problems as Western adult beginners and suffer the same unnaturalness. Hard practice is the only way to get to fluidity.

So I believe there is to some degree comparing apples and oranges going around: Comparing Western adult beginners to seasoned Japanese adults to Japanese students who started at a young age. I presume the original author is describing things through the filter of a kendo specialist and soon after Showa-jidai.

Not all police kendo is the same. Kendo specialist in the police (the hard ass creme de la creme) are a minority of kendo police players.There are adult beginners within the police as well (ok they start around 18-20 upon entering police academy) with the same problems as Western beginners but better access to top teaching. There are also some pretty awful police kendo too although the average is relatively high.

Lastly, Westerners can also be (and often) accused of seeing “Internationalisation” as adoption of Western values and methods. Every country/region I have ever been to puts their own culture in the center of their world. Arguably it keeps our world more colorful.

You bring up an obvious point, and one that was made to me in private already – that is, what exactly is being compared? The original author was not (despite what they may imply or hoped to do) comparing your average Japanese kendoka with your average “western” one. You’re average Japanese (adult) kendoka – as you rightly pointed out – doesn’t actually work that hard …. only a fraction do (sheer numbers are higher of course). I think his audience (remember this was originally a lecture) were probably those that took/take kendo seriously.

Your last paragraph I find most interesting because I’m interested in the the idea of a “mono-culture” or an averaging out of different cultures, to create something “global” that belongs to all. If something is to be truly international does that mean that no single culture has possession of it? Do you strip it of identifiable cultural markers? Or do you hope that whatever particular markers are there become subsumed in the whole? Is the internationalisation of kendo simply a matter of increasing numbers in countries outside of Japan? etc etc etc etc etc

George, thanks for your inquiry. It made me think about on how much I really know about the kendo reality in Japan and I realised that I probably know not that much about it. To be honest, my knowledge is based on Kendo World, tales (from the past) and personal experiences with the japanese trainers at seminars.

I think the majority of them are or were high ranking police members. Some of them are now hanshi and due to personal contacts they are once in a while invited from local clubs or sub federations. Sometimes they are accompanied by other hanshi, sometimes by some kendo “hard ass creme de la creme” (ty dillon) like Iwasa Hidenori or Harada Satoru and sometimes by a bunch of rokudan and nanadan. And if they can’t come personally they send some who they really trust to fullfill their task and instruct them personally on how to teach us.

So I think I met mostly japanese kenshi that train or trained more than others. Plus the message spread by Kendo World’s series “Hanshi says” (“How to acieve that? Keiko, keiko, keiko! Afterwards, do more keiko!”) for me the conclusion was clear: to become that good, you have to train hard and often.

My phrase “treated as Japanese” is based on my limited knowledge, too, and maybe was a little glib. I meant, that the national teams and their candidates train from my knowledge with higher frequency and intensity and are maybe not treated as considerately by their trainers as the average kenshi (in jigeiko). They are expected to compete and to win. Maybe I should have written “Japanese students/police member”. I guess they are not required to behave like Japanese and know all the rules and what and when.

Quite the contrary. I heard and saw many teachers who like to be in another country because they experience a life outside their own culture and society, where they can act more freely and individualistic. For example, some years ago we asked a sensei what he likes about Germany and his answer was something like:”That I can stop drinking when I want to!”. And he said it in a honest and sincere tone.

I enjoyed reading this comment, thank you!

“Japanese kendo” is a sweeping statement of course, and I think most people outside of Japan don’t really see it exactly. And those that do go are only usually there for a short time or – even if they do stay a couple of years or so (still not enough) – they only see one aspect of it. Language also has a large part to play in perception.

I am posting another translation this evening which questions the dispatch system as it existed in the 80s. Check it out !

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