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 practice 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. There are now a few people active on social media that you can easily reach out to and inquire about opportunities. If you want to come to Osaka, for example, check out this post.
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 stuff. 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.
– 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. It is a major faux pas..
– Make sure the zekken is legible (unless you are Asian or of Asian descent I strongly recommend not using 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 what’s the point?
– 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 easily.
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/messages. 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 practice 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 suggest that adults who wish to start from scratch 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 one-to-one).
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 practice 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 isn’t impossible but statistically you have very little chance, especially if you don’t have much kendo experience. Finding a job is a better bet.
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. Nowadays there are also places that cater for “Budo Tourists” as well.
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!
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!
Update (November 2023)
A lot of stuff has happened in the world since I published this article way back in 2015. The most relevant is that networking and finding keiko opportunities has become a lot easier, perhaps even exponentially so. As with everything these days, social media has been the fuel for this. Anyway, about 99% of what I wrote eight years ago is still as valid today as it was then.