Towards true internationalisation of kendo (1989)

After the popularity of the last post I’ve decided to translate something else along the same theme. It comes from around the same time frame and is the work of another academic, though this time a sort of – whats the right word? – maverick of the Japanese kendo community: Baba Kinji sensei (kyoshi nanadan, Kokushikan university professor and kendo teacher of the Tsurugawa campus kendo club). I don’t mean “maverick” in a bad sense, rather, he’s someone who likes to speak his mind even if his opinion is different from others, and isn’t afraid to openly criticise. Needless to say these traits are not the norm in Japanese kendo circles and it makes for some interesting reading. At any rate, today’s translation is more inwardly looking, one that looks hard at kendo in Japan and finds fault.

Like the last translation this is a highly abridged and loosely translated section of a larger book (if you can read Japanese I’d urge you to read the original) and I believe that it can help act as a sort of barometer to see if and what has changed since the time of publication (26 years ago), both inside Japan and out.

Please remember that the book was published in 1989 and relies on experiences and anecdotes from the 80s. It also reflects a strong feeling of the difference and uniqueness of Japanese people, which might make reading it awkward for Europeans, north Americans, etc but is, for better or worse, still a strong trait within Japanese society in general even today.



Recently I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about the “internationalisation” of kendo. However, as I was watching the video of the 7th World Kendo Championships (WKC) in Seoul I was struck with the thought that the true “way” of kendo has deviated off onto a side road, as if it was somehow walking away by itself. Like fighting cocks, the Japanese team members themselves displayed a noisy and scrappy style of kendo, something completely distant from the traditional Japanese arts. This, I conjecture, is something you (i.e. Japanese readers) should probably know.

Japanese people are liars !?

It’s obviously not very easy to correctly explain and transmit an intangible cultural activity such as kendo to those from different cultures. Therefore let’s think about the problem from another angle: what do non-Japanese people seek from the pursuit of kendo?

Well, first of all, we Japanese are apt to say “kendo is great, if you try it out then you will understand” which is a kind of one-way, abbreviated non-explanation. Of course there are things that cannot be explained by words alone. A good example of this is the term “shitei-no-michi” (aka “shitei-doko” : the teacher and student follow the same path) which is something you have to comprehend perfectly, otherwise continuing kendo becomes a futile activity. Basically, if we look at this particular teaching from the perspective of internationalisation, we are saying that having a teacher is indispensable, otherwise what you are doing will be half-baked. Outside of Japan, however, they have one sensei last year, a different sensei this year (i.e. different teachers coming to do seminars or being dispatched by the ZNKR) …. which just ends up in their kendo being a mess. If you really think about this you will realise that this situation is of Japanese making.

In this way we should send Japanese kendoka abroad to listen and learn what and how other cultures think. Not understanding the local language, just teaching in one-direction in Japanese, or – for example when a student asks “Isn’t what you are teaching this year different from what the sensei taught last year?” – answering queries flippantly with “I don’t care who said what when. What I am teaching is correct, got it?” then returning back to Japan is unproductive. This is what Japanese people call “internationalisation.” Somehow this just seems like a normal Japanese training course (i.e. the writer doesn’t find those too impressive either).

So, dispatched Japanese teachers change back and forth over time. In the beginning the non-Japanese kenshi think “These Japanese teachers say different things” but in time that changes to “These Japanese teachers are liars.” In other words when a new teacher comes along he teaches something different to the one that came before, then he leaves and another comes who teaches something different again, etc, so eventually doubt arises in the non-Japanese kenshi’s mind: “What we were taught last year and have spent our time studying this past year was wrong?”

What is going on here is not that the teachers are liars, it’s that they are teaching to the kenshi’s level. What they should say is: “Compared to the last time I came your skill has naturally increased, so I am now teaching you something in line with your increase in ability, it’s just that you don’t realise this.” Misunderstandings happen both due to lack of mutual communication and understanding between dispatched teachers (past and present) and because they don’t explicitly explain things to the non-Japanese kenshi. The root cause of this is that many (Japanese) kendoka are self-conceited, overly competitive, and obstinate. This is why they try to force their kendo on others. However, when all is said and done, it is true that they do actually attempt to correct mistaken teachings.

Thinking back to the “shitei-no-michi” term mentioned above I want to relate an anecdote I have concerning my visits to Belgium and France over the last couple of years. One teacher over there was teaching this to the local kenshi: “Strike hard from above your head, so much so to dent the opponents head!” Another teacher said to me: “Don’t deliberately let these local kenshi hit you. If you do then they’ll think they have won.” Obviously the way that we Japanese learned kendo from our sempai and sensei, that is, to pull our students level up through allowing them to strike you (hikitate-geiko), is impossible in such a situation. Naturally, “shitei-no-michi” cannot occur.

In other words, teaching there does not conform to the principles of kendo and the true “way” that they are seeking is not being transmitted. We Japanese, I think, have completely misunderstood the non-Japanese kenshi.

We Japanese tend to pay respect to European and American people but look down on those from SE Asia and Africa. In the university lectures I give (180 people) the exchange students (20 people) monopolise the front rows of the lecture theatre and are earnest in their studies. When I asked them what they thought of Japanese people the Europeans and Americans said “Japanese people are shy” whereas the SE Asians said “Japanese people are arrogant and unkind.” I think this captures precisely the polar attributes of the Japanese people, and is cause for deep consideration. During classes the Asian exchange students took to the lessons with enthusiasm – as if having the room to themselves – and I felt anxious for the future of the Japanese youths.

In other words, if we are to popularise the good points of Japan we must understand the good points of others. If you don’t understand the culture or the characteristics of the non-Japanese people you teach then instruction will likely become a one-way affair.

Samurai: the attraction of Japan

Above and beyond what we have just discussed, what is it that non-Japanese people seek through kendo? The fact is that most people became interested in Japanese culture before they discovered kendo. When I asked people about the question when I was teaching in Belgium and France they replied that they were interested in the fact that essence of the European ideal of mediaeval chivalry (long dead in Europe) was still alive in Japan in the form of Bushido. This is why a German kendoka acquaintance of mine believed “sports kendo” to be silly, and why it is very common for non-Japanese to think that the inclusion of kendo in the olympics is nonsense. Thinking from their perspective we might say: “Sorry, but when it comes to sport we are far ahead of you Japanese. The spirit of chivalry, however, died out a long time ago here, but in Japan you still have Bushido.”

The most important vehicle for transmitting this culture in Japanese history were the samurai. In the distant past the samurai started out as bodyguards but rose to the top of the social ladder by the Edo period. Nowadays, Japanese people have a romantic image/ideal of the samurai, and many non-Japanese people have fallen in love with this romanticised image. I hear even that sometimes non-Japanese people even ask “Is there still people walking about with swords in Japan?” Before we talk about internationalisation surely we must first teach the correct history.

Simply increasing the number of kendo practitioners abroad is half-baked internationalisation, and if we continue changing /dispatching teachers in-and-out, then this internationalisation process will remain half-baked.

What’s the true meaning of “internationalisation” ?

The first thing we must do if we want to measure the internationalisation process is to plant a young teacher abroad, probably for more than 10 years. However, most people that are sent abroad are people who have just graduated and have free time, someone who is jobless (perhaps retired?), someone who’s family kindly let’s them go abroad for a year, etc, this type of person. I think that this “side job” attitude is rude to non-Japanese people. If someone wants to go abroad they should do so because they believe strongly that it’s something they wish to do. They should graduate from a specialist school with this international mission in mind. I believe that we should create a route like this, and it’s the International Kendo Federations job to ensure that it happens.

One university teacher said this to me: “The All Japan Kendo Federation (ZNKR) selected me to teach abroad and dispatched me to country X to teach. It was a horrible experience.” What happened was that he was selected and sent to the country without any background information about the kendo situation there at all. He was sent there for 2 months and received absolutely no backup from the ZNKR (i.e. he was stranded in a foreign country with no help). As it was a ZNKR dispatch he initially took up the job with enthusiasm but once there he was given only a small stipend and survived barely on it and free gifts (i.e. from the local kenshi). I’ll say it plainly – as he was a university teacher (and thus would still receive salary through the 2 month break) the ZNKR treated the dispatch as simply something ‘extra’ and assumed he’d get by fine without being reimbursed with much. In other words, the dispatch system runs cheaply because it uses people it can send abroad as part of their job (i.e. police and teachers) in an effort to cut down costs. This is how the dispatch system runs. Obviously – if we remove those teachers that treat the dispatch as simply a holiday (i.e. who don’t care anyway) – it’s impossible for kendo to take root proper in this circumstance. The actual state of affairs is actually worse: the dispatched pay for their own travel and the foreign kendo federation pays for accommodation.

In the end the dispatch system is simply one in name only. It’s something to add to your kendo resume and bring up in conversation, to say you worked in this and that country over x period of time – it adds to the value of your name. The content of the system is indeed poor.

(Comment: the underlying message of this part suggests to me that the writer believes that pretty much all dispatched teachers went in holiday mode and were not serious about teaching abroad. Those that were serious, however, found many barriers in their paths, including – but not limited to – financial ones.)

The kendo community cries out a chorus of “internationalisation, internationalisation” but in the end the conversation simply comes down to the increase in kendo population abroad and how this is great. Internationalisation is not as simple as this: judging that an increase in population equals success/progress is dangerous. Unless we teach kendo as a part of the larger culture of Japan we cannot meet the enthusiasm of non-Japanese kendoka. Therefore, we Japanese should take it upon ourselves to revise and study our understanding of our own culture, then teach kendo as a part of that culture when we go abroad.

If we want to measure the internationalisation process of kendo we should re-think seriously the teacher dispatch system, and be create a system that allows us to send teachers over to foreign countries for at least 10 years at a time. The ZNKR (IKF) should be the central organisation for making this financially viable by setting up a foundation and eliciting contributions.

On the other side, we Japanese should work to understand what it is that non-Japanese kendoka are seeking. It’s not just “We Japanese kenshi are strong so we’ll teach you some techniques” that is, we shouldn’t only teach technical ability. Rather, our teaching must first begin by instruction on Japanese culture.

After I came home after teaching abroad some non-Japanese kenshi – travelling a far distance and at their own expense – came to my dojo. When in Japan they study not only kendo, but iaido, sumo wrestling, noh, kabuki, etc. Depending on their zeal for Japanese culture I sometimes took them to Nara, Kamakura, etc, and show them the culture that kendo was created from. My own university students whom I teach kendo to also study the same things, for if they don’t their kendo will just fall into “sports kendo.” Many of my students sometimes go to keiko at keishicho, various prefectural police departments, other universities, etc that is, they have a chance to compare kendo in various situations. They come back from these places and tell me various things, sometimes asking difficult questions: “x dojo’s kendo is simply about power and speed” , “y dojo doesn’t have a kamidana, why not?” , “z dojo has a kamidana but they don’t bow to it, why is that? What’s the purpose of practising kendo in that dojo then?” etc etc. These students collect various experiences and then, within themselves, evaluate what is right and wrong. They become sensitive to the varied ways kendo exists, and never act in an careless manner. I think we too (i.e. Japanese kenshi as a whole when travelling abroad) should be careful to be observant and thoughtful of others (i.e. non Japanese).

Rejecting sport kendo

Many non-Japanese people who – after waking up to Japanese culture and choosing, from within all the myriad traditional arts, kendo as a path – state that their experience/image of kendo after beginning it is different to what they thought before starting. They feel frustrated because they are limited by age and power and, in that way, kendo becomes to be the same as other sports. For example, many non-Japanese state that European fencing decides bouts by electricity and the traditional aspect has been completely removed. Many are therefore naturally disappointed with sports where the crowd cheers and shouts to encourage participants. People have said to me that they chose to study kendo because it wasn’t simply a sport concerned with winning and losing.

Kendo doesn’t equal culture, kendo equals sport (i.e. this is what many non-Japanese kenshi end up thinking after beginning to practise it). We Japanese should wake up to our own culture and make a proper study of it: many non-Japanese people can be said to already have done this and thus have a high ideal of what kendo should be. However, most Japanese teach half-heartedly and often speak ambiguously or evasively when the topic of culture comes up. Basically, Japanese people lack understanding of their own culture, so it doesn’t matter how times a Japanese person says “kendo is budo” the non-Japanese kenshi is not fooled. As many of them study more about Japan than Japanese people I’m tempted to say that there may be a fraction of those non-Japanese kenshi that could actually teach us about our own culture (including kendo).

Based on my experience, looking at those non-Japanese people that study kendo in various countries today – and apologies if this seems rude – many people start kendo during middle-age and don’t really have the (physical) qualities that would suggest future mastery. In amongst them I haven’t seen anyone who was an elite sportsman in the past. Therefore, up until now, Japanese teachers have taught casually and at a leisurely pace.

An example of this casual approach to foreign kendo was seen at the recent world kendo championships in Seoul. Korean kendo has (unexpectedly) increased in ability so much that Japan was caught unprepared. Their kendo has improved so much the top kendo teacher in Japan stated: “We will loose to Korea very soon, watch and see!”

Against this threat it seems as the association is gathering together the best Japanese competitors and teaching them how to win at shiai. If foreign countries gathered together elite sportsmen and did the same thing then kendo would move one step closer to something that relies solely on speed and power, and Japanese kendo would fear for it’s future. If this happens then kendo will end up going the same way as judo: class divisions, rules spelled out minutely, etc and kendo might even become “KENDO” and not “剣道” (in Korea they call kendo “kumdo”).

In the end, we could say that modern kendo has completely lost the feeling of being an art. In other words, it has become sport-like, with renowned kenshi being those endowed with youth and strength. Older people cannot compete – in shiai or keiko – with healthy bodied young people. It is this reliance on physique, endurance, and power that led me to start questioning the state of kendo. I think we must try to set kendo free of this state.

Kendo presents itself as something that can be studied whether you are young or old, male or female. In spite of this you sometimes get some mother come along who asks the question: “Am I too old to start kendo?” Some often then qualify this with: “In other sports you run around a lot so that’s impossible for me, but kendo seems like no problem! Onegaishimasu!” …….

On the other hand if you were to watch what could be said to be called the top level shiai on the world (of course, it’s not) – Japan vs Korea – what do you think the spectator who started kendo later in life thinks? They probably see kendo that is nothing but speed, power, youth, and force, and consider that this is not the type of kendo they could physically do. At the end of the day we teach the exact same kendo to everybody, whether they are young or old, beginner or experienced, male or female. However (i.e. looking at shiai) you would imagine it’s not an activity that can be carried out into old age. I believe this state of affairs is contrary to what is spelled out in the Concept of Kendo and one of the primary causes of disappointment of kendoka throughout the world.

Sympathetic teaching across spheres

I heard that there were some Germans that came to Japan to study kendo. They practised very hard – attacking and striking, taiatari, uchikomi, etc – but soon enough people started to get injured here and there. The German kenshi said nothing themselves, but obviously this was the result of how they had been taught. Age, ability, individual manner, enthusiasm, etc these are all things you have to take into account when teaching people. btw those German kenshi were doing the same type of keiko as sports-university students, so it was no wonder that injuries occurred.

It’s obvious that kendo should be taught in stages depending upon the students. If you try to teach the old and young, male and female in exactly the same way then there will be problems. For example when it comes to universities with kendo clubs in the Kanto area there are about 100 clubs. However, some clubs have no instructors and others are studying sports science. Someone teaching kendo at a sports-science university club shouldn’t turn around and say of the club with no instructors “their kendo is awful.” Teachers must learn to develop the ability to recognise the level of the students in front of them and instruct them based on that. They should never use the excuse that students are beginners and thus teach them casually or with a leisurely attitude. The reality is that this is a chronic problem. Learning how to teach based on level is of course difficult, but it is also interesting and challenging.

When I went to Belgium and France to teach one local said this to me: “I thought that the pain felt when struck during keiko was something to be endured. However, when I did keiko with you I enjoyed sparring and it even felt satisfying to be struck.” In other words, they had been taught that it was natural to feel pain when struck….

Asking for everyone’s thoughts afterwards the consensus was: “It seems that we have somehow misunderstood what we have been taught. We have mistaken the meaning of ‘strike firmly and strongly.’ Everyone struck by you today said it not only felt satisfying but there was a pleasant sting to the strike. More than this though, we really felt as if we had truly been struck. It was quite a strange experience: normally in a sporty activity you feel disappointment at losing, however this time, instead, we felt admiration. Keiko was a relaxing experience and we found ourselves copying your kendo.”

If we just teach simple things then people will not only get bored quickly, but they will hit a dead end. In this case it’s just like doing an aerobics class for a while then quitting because you didn’t loose weight. This (simple, technique only only kendo) is not what non-Japanese people are after: they are interested in learning the deepest depths of the mysteries of Japanese culture though the study of kendo. I believe this is what Japanese kenshi should also be seeking but, as described before, they have (due to lack of study) lost sight of the true essence of kendo, as if they were a frog stuck in a well. Japanese kendo teachers now no longer talk about things like “elegance,” “refinement,” “mystique,” and “grace” when they teach, and isn’t the fact that they are often surprised – and a little bit sad – when they listen to the (educated) words of the European or American kendo student indicative of a problem?

Towards true “internationalisation” of kendo

I believe that “shitei-no-michi” is something that can work abroad as well as in Japan. However, since this is already almost lost in Japan how can those in other countries realistically seek this? In this way I feel that that we have betrayed the expectations of people from other countries.

A few years ago I went with another teacher abroad to teach. However, on the very first day we arrived he simply left everything up to me. Not only were the students in trouble, but so was I – because I was just one Japanese teacher replacing another. Eventually, when I was leaving to return to Japan, I was approached by the students. They asked me to become their sensei. However this wasn’t something I could easily say yes to as I felt as if I’d be stealing another teachers students… In the end, of course, I refused. Well, it’s not exactly as if I refused, but how could I accept if they had numerous teachers before me? The first person to teach someone is their teacher. I acknowledge and accept this responsibility when I teach someone for the first time. In the traditional arts the first thing you must to is to choose a teacher and build a relationship with him or her. Unfortunately, I’m afraid to say, those students didn’t have the chance to do this.

If a teacher accepts this responsibility then they should realise that this responsibility doesn’t only apply when in the dojo. It’s the teachers responsibility to look after them if they come to Japan. This is part of the “way.” When abroad some teachers say “When you come to Japan please get in touch!” but when the non-Japanese people actually do turn up (i.e. they didn’t actually think they would) they simply say “Um, ok… I’ll introduce you to a place I know” (i.e. which might not necessarily be anything to do with them). This not only causes potential problems for the dojo they are handed off too, but it often ends up with the non-Japanese kenshi being shuttled around multiple dojo, like a gypsy, with no main base dojo, and their trip doesn’t quite go as good as it could have. In the worst case scenario some people may think: “Why the hell did I come to Japan anyway…?!” before finally returning home without learning anything. It’s also not uncommon for people to end up being taken under the wing and run around by some random koryu teacher from the countryside.

There was one French woman who wanted to come to Japan and study kendo under me. After making sure she understood what the “way” was I allowed her to come over. However, respecting the fact that she was not only a career woman but older, I knew that it was not appropriate for her to try and live with the students in the dormitory and so I booked her a hotel. For the same reason I knew that it would be pushing things to do the same volume of kendo as the students so I reduced that and, emphasising the “kendo as culture” aspect, sent her to view some traditional arts.

As a teacher, shouldn’t you be prepared to do things like this? Going abroad to teach with a leisurely manner is surely bad. Where going may be easy, if non-Japanese students come it can cause problems. Therefore, many teachers go abroad with a holiday spirit, and teach kendo only casually (i.e. they don’t want to make real student-teacher relationships). Don’t you think that this is awful?

If the people who go abroad don’t have a strong desire to spread kendo then true internationalisation cannot occur. We must also not overlook the problems caused due to the language barrier as well, namely that it raises walls, means that teaching goes in one direction, and finally allows instruction to become casual. Translators who understand kendo are vital (note that he doesn’t suggest that the dispatched teachers learn other languages!). For the sake of true internationalisation we need to develop people with these skills. For this, I believe, those teaching the Japanese youth today are vitally important.

I want to see impressive competitors in the World Kendo Championships that make people think: “Wow, I want to be able to do kendo like that!” At the moment, however, we see people randomly tsuki-ing each other, trying to push each other over, not saying thank-you to your opponent after the match, and even saying things like: “That guy didn’t really win, he was awarded an ippon only because of the bad shinpan.” Obviously, in a situation like this, how can the spirit of international develop? I believe it is important to immediately attempt to fix the current win-at-all-costs state of the world kendo championships.

Watching the overwhelming defeat of Japanese judo at the Seoul Olympics (1988, Japan won only one gold medal) I couldn’t help imagining the future of Japanese kendo. In less than one year (between the World Championships in 1987 where Japan won 4 gold medals) non-Japanese judoka refined their skills so much that they easily defeated Japanese players.

In the past I had a friend who was studying in America. During a shiai he faced a muscle-bound black man who overcame him with his speed. Later he discovered that the man was only shodan. My friend said: “He body slammed me like an American football player… there was nothing that I (and by implication, or any other Japanese person) could do. We’d best be careful.”

A friend who has a senior position in the Korean kendo federation said to me: “If kendo became an olympic event then Korea would soon win. Not only is the budget here completely different to that in Japan (i.e. they have a lot more), but the country aids us in selecting and training those with the most potential. However, it’s my wish that we (Japanese and Korean) who understand the true spirit of kendo teach the young kendoka of this country.” This gentlemen really has a tremendous attitude.

Like this, the sports world is one of victory, nationalism, and money. Not only this but in the effort for victory people are turning to sports science and even taking life-threatening drugs. The original merits of the olympic spirit are gone, that is the idea of competing for the glory of your country rather than personal honour, and the ideal of amateurism. You can guess what would happen to kendo if placed in amongst all this. Some people are even saying out loud perhaps the only way for Japanese kendo to survive is if we split it into two: one that places emphasis on technical ability, and another that is more spiritual in nature.

What is the best direction for kendo in the future? I think top sensei should quickly consolidate their opinions point the direction to us. They should explain the Concept of Kendo in an easier to understand manner, without fine complicated words, so that everyone can comprehend it. But is the current Japanese kendo community even working towards what was written in the Concept of Kendo? It seems that maybe discussion of the subject has become taboo. We Japanese are happy that we weren’t mistaken about choosing to study kendo and that it has enriched our lives. It’s my desire that non-Japanese kenshi can feel this way too.



Before I start making comments please remember that the piece above was originally published in 1989 and was based on experiences from (what seems like) the mid/late-80s. I suspect that much has changed since then, but I’d like to address at couple of the core issues raised within the article, specifically the teacher-dispatch system and Japanese kenshi’s lack of study (tackled in reverse order).

First of all, how much about their own culture do Japanese person actually know? Well, in my experience, I’d say that the answer for your average person is: “as much as the average British person knows about British culture” … that is, they know a lot about the whole culture in general, but probably not much about the actual specifics. When it comes to kendo, the average Japanese kenshi will know more than your average Japanese non-kenshi, but not – you may be surprised to hear – to a deep level. This is something I’ve actually had (drunken!) arguments with hachidan sensei about. The fact of the matter is that your average Japanese kenshi doesn’t seem too much interested in learning more than the surface history of kendo, nor do they attempt to study older kenjutsu or even iaido (dare I mention kendo no kata?!). Of course, I’m talking about an average kenshi here – some people are indeed highly knowledgeable.

Therefore, Baba sensei’s conjecture in this piece that Japanese kenshi don’t know their own culture is – generally – a fairly accurate statement I believe, and still stands today. He obviously believes that an instructor sent abroad to teach kendo must teach kendo as something that is part of Japanese culture, therefore, they must be fluent in that culture as a whole (i.e. not limited to kendo knowledge). If Japanese kenshi don’t bother studying deeply even about kendo (a situation that in general still exists today) how can they then go and teach abroad? The answer is, of course, they can only teach the technical side of kendo, which Baba sensei believes is not enough.

The second theme that Baba sensei tackles repeatedly throughout this piece is the teacher-dispatch system (something set-up specifically to spread “Japanese kendo” abroad). Now, I assume things have changed since the 80s, but is this actually so? Not so long ago I was personally drinking with a recently retired hachidan sensei who was sent abroad for a couple of months to teach. What he told me was this: “I was excited to go and serious about teaching kendo abroad but as soon as the plane took off I realised that the other sensei were acting as if they were going on holiday. They spent those two months drinking, eating, sightseeing, and casually teaching kendo. During jigeiko they didn’t make much effort, after which they then heaped praise on the students… because if they didn’t praise them they wouldn’t get invited back again.” That sensei was visibly disappointed when he told me the story.

Perhaps this is not everyone’s experience nowadays, but it does seem to still happen. I know of at least one kendo seminar where the accompanying grading is seen as an “easy pass” (i.e. the invited sensei seem to pass people because they know if they don’t then they won’t get invited back) and I’ve had friends contact me from two different continents (they don’t know each other) to complain about a particular teacher who was blatantly (according to their perception) uninterested in running a teaching seminar and who just did kaeshi-dou to everyone during jigeiko (i.e. he was lazy in jigeiko).

Baba-sensei mentions “shitei-no-michi” a couple of times – the idea that teachers and students are bound together and follow the same path (one of the more traditional Japanese teaching methods). In Japan this means that you learn under the teacher (traditionally to the exclusion of others) daily over years in an effort to acquire their kendo. Obviously, meeting a sensei now and again (whether they be dispatched or are running an annual seminar) and doing keiko with them for a few minutes here and there does not constitute a teacher-student relationship, no matter what the student may wish. Both the casual manner of the sensei’s holiday-mode demeanour, and the fobbing off of non-Japanese kenshi that (surprisingly!) do roll-up to Japan to other dojo, is proof of this in Baba sensei’s eyes. And yes, fobbing off still happens today.

So, what do you think? Should kendo be taught as cultural thing, or can (should) it survive on it’s own, stripped of any cultural baggage? If that’s the case, what happens to the “internationalisation” aspect? Has the teacher-dispatch system improved over the last nearly 30 years? Has the lack of traditional teacher-student relationships caused problems in the transmission of kendo and thus hurt or damaged the “internationalisation” process? etc etc etc etc etc….. opinions/experiences please!

In my eyes, at least, Baba sensei is suggesting that any faults in the internationalisation process lie squarely with Japanese kenshi themselves. I believe he brings up some good points.

Final note (caveat)

As with any translation work this piece (and all the others on is naturally interpretative in nature. Any mistake in nuance or error in translation is unintentional. Apologies.



By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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11 replies on “Towards true internationalisation of kendo (1989)”

I totally agree with the author. In general, people who are in a position of teaching should have a relatively extended culture and should be able to connect topics. For kendo, that should be at least a traditional “physical” culture where parallels could be drawn between kendo and Japanese scenic art forms for exemple, or even non-Japanese practices (Mr. Yoshimura mentions in his book that he’s been practicing qigong for 10 years at the time of publishing). But as the author suggests, you can’t really blame teachers who are sent abroad to not have such a culture when most of the teachers here in Japan don’t have it, and when some don’t even have a strong moral compass (even though this is supposed to come with practicing budo…)

And I like his thinking when he says that it is important to understand the circumstances in which non-Japanese practitioners do kendo. If anything, “internationalization” is really mutual understanding and as you note, it could be suggested to the IKF that experts take enough classes in the language of the country they visit to be able to at least have a short conversation about kendo. And that “mutual understanding” part it deeply connected with the ability to adapt your teaching to the group you teach here, be it young children, beginning adults etc. Trying to understand where the other comes from is certainly a value that more people need to share.

Still, as far as culture and morals are concerned, I am not sure things have much evolved since the time the author wrote, but I want to think that worrying about eventually loosing again the world championships will place Japan in a position of “normality” and not anymore of exceptionalism, where people can reflect on their practice and free themselves from the burden of having to be the bearers of the kendo light in that world of darkness. Loosening up a bit will certainly contribute to have them see more clearly in their practice, which can only bring good things.

Indeed, Baba Sensei raises several very pertinent points.

I’ve been lucky enough to start Kendo in 1981 in Switzerland with a Japanese teacher (4th dan at the time) who not only told us that teaching would change from one sensei to another but gave us several explanations for this fact. It mostly boiled down to many of the sensei dispatched to Europe not being formally trained as teachers, having no knowledge of, nor interests for, European cultures past gastronomy and sightseeing, and often not taking non-Japanese kenshi seriously outside of Japan and a few Asian countries (I remember him fuming about the horrible quality of some shinai he had ordered for the club from a sensei who had visited us the year before …)
I can’t say I’ve met more than a couple of those « bad sensei » but I’ve often heard the same complaints, mostly the lack of follow-up due to the constant change of sensei, the lack of coordination from one sensei to the next, the lack of sufficient time for even the best dedicated teacher to establish a programme, the over emphasis on shiai kendo, and I still hear it today, although the situation has improved due to the efforts of a number of sensei who have taken upon themselves to keep a follow-up and return regularly, and to the number of non-japanese kenshi who have attained 6-7 dans and gained a real knowledge of Japanese language and culture.

There’s clearly a discussion to be had between the non-Japanese federations and the AJKF about all those questions, and maybe there is, but it needs to be determined whether there’s an awareness and/or real interest into solving any remaining problems.

In my limited experience practicing with the sword “kendo” has become “shinai kendo” instead of only one part of the whole. Ability is if you can win matches not whether you have improved. Starting kendo late in life (50’s) I never had much desire to become a sport kendo player and did not think I would need to be but if you don’t compete it seems you are not really doing kendo. Self improvement is what I was looking for but youth is what matters to most Sensei that I have come across. The first five years of our club we would do half the class with boken (non bogu) now we only use them when testing is being considered, so it seems that a part has become the whole. The proper use of the weapon is not as important as what works is competition, so maybe it has become internationalized because that’s what seems to be important to the Japanese.

I think this article, like the previous one, misses the other question related to perceptions of internationalisation held by those who are at the top of Japan’s kendo food chain. That other question is what are expectations of kendo within contemporary lifestyles? If (again) your average Japanese salaryman/salarywoman is not able to follow a shitei relationship when he probably (unknowingly) walks by high ranking sensei on his way to work, how is this supposed to be exported? I believe ultimately kendo will always have a population who practice as and when they can and a population that practices almost full-time close to the manner of “the old days” and that there will be both Japanese and non-Japanese within these populations. It’s quite likely that since dojo doors were first opened to the non-bushi class (who do not live on their lord’s stipend so have a job to attend to) there have been a “second-class” of kenshi.

Thanks for the comments guys…. I was waiting a wee bit before responding. Now, where to start?!

Dillon – as always you’ve caused me to stop and think, particularly the class comment. It immediately struck me as being highly accurate.

Ken – here in Japan competition is an activity for kids and the youth (i.e. up until university level). After that – apart from a handful of the adult kendo population – it barely comes into the equation. However, it’s true that the proper use of a weapon is not the primary goal … and i’d posit that it never has been for kendo: the shinai is a training tool for the body and mind, not something that is interchangeable with a sword.

Florence – thanks for sharing your personal experience. Your last paragraph I believe is a key question. I suspect that the nebulous nature of “culture” makes things difficult. I posit that European kendo will take (and has taken?) it’s own form and create it’s own culture.

Jean-Christophe – as usual you bring up some excellent points, however I disagree that winning or losing the WKC matters much in the long run. Most Japanese kenshi don’t care either way.

Do you know, I wasn’t even aware that the ZNKR has an actual system in-place of dispatching teachers abroad. That’s weird. Does this mean that when Japan-based teachers arrive to conduct seminars and such, they are backed by the ZNKR? I always thought it was the local, or national, federation of the respective “hosting” country.

Per usual, a great read. I’ve heard about this fellow (Baba-sensei) before. Would be very interesting to meet the man.


I must admit I’m not privy to how the system works exactly (so forgive the inexactitude of the following) , but “dispatched” teachers tend to be either sent short term (for seminars etc) via the ZNKR/FIK or longer term via non-governmental Japanese-cultural promotion organisations like JICA. I think federations can ask FIK for a delegation, but I’m not sure how the economics of this work out (the fact that many countries don’t bother suggests the inviting organisation may pay something). Other people come on their own steam, either by being invited or just randomly.

Once connections are made then these things often turn into more personal affairs, annual seminars and what not. Some of the most successful European countries had a dispatched teacher that went on to stay long term , changing the kendo shape and future of those countries. Anyway, I think if you look around you’ll see a case-by-case thing going on, i.e. these things don’t always follow the same pattern.

It’s interesting to note that as personal seminars became more and more popular the ZNKR (eventually!) reacted by begging Japanese sensei not to run grading panels abroad unless permission was granted from Japan. Why was this? I’ll let you ponder that one yourself!!

“I think federations can ask FIK for a delegation, but I’m not sure how the economics of this work out (the fact that many countries don’t bother suggests the inviting organisation may pay something). Other people come on their own steam, either by being invited or just randomly.”

Indeed, most of the financial burden lies on the local organisations. That means that only the federations with either a strong financial support (state, sponsorship) or links with the local Japanese expatriate community can consider officially inviting high level sensei for more than a few days/weeks for seminars.

Most of the time, those seminars will be geared towards the national team ahead of important championships, with general instruction for the average kenshi low on the list.

This translation is super insightful so thanks for the efforts George!
The comment in the article regarding a “split” in the kendo community struck me the most as I’ve not been doing kendo for very long =)

Coming into Kendo after leaving traditional Taekwon-do (which I practiced for a decade or so), I was heavily drawn by the traditional attitude, enforced ettiqutte and especially the lack of division i.e. one lot overtly teaches traditionally and the other a sport as has torn the TKD culture into two, not overly firendly to each other, camps.

In this sense, I am not a fan of sportifying kendo – particularly the comments about the dominance of strength and speed – as I undertook Kendo in order to better myself through hard work, tradition, culture, history, philosophy and ettiqutte and continuing my motivation from TKD, to perform the art so that it is both highly effective and attractive to look at. Winning is irrelevant in the face of “was it the best I could do right now?” These are the cultural exploits generally non-existent in the West and sport (his comment re: the Olympics was dead on and something I’m disappointed in as the event should be the height of “not for myself”) that I would like to see “exported” and would be very sad to see them slide – they are the whole reason I follow martial arts and not sports.

I take this on from the person above who says that (in the UK in my case) it feels like competing is expected and I would agree – it doesn’t seem accepted that learning it for ME is enough – granted among general people – it requires application to be judged externally but that’s an inherant issue in Western cuture =) One could say the same for my position in academia =)

Basically, this amounts to my desire to learn a diverse body of information from Kendo, about the art, origiating nation and myself, far from “just” waza and their application.

Having thought this out, I’m not sure if this exactly follows the article above but it is what I thought foremost having read it.


Very informative post about a side of Japanese culture. It is also true that kendo requires discipline, and enthusiasm of the sport can make learning (and teaching) kendo go on a different path. The different teaching techniques will always come from different teachers, and it is natural for doubt to arise. The lack of mutual communication may arise from cultural barriers, or in some degree, due to language barriers as the Japanese tend to form words differently compared to Westerners.

I’m really wondering how the IKF chooses the teachers they want to dispatch. Sometimes you can get the impression that it is a punishment. I only know that the ones requesting a teacher have very little influence or must be cautious.

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