(Over the past few months I’ve written and re-written, scrapped, dumped, given-up on, and saved-for-later many kenshi 24/7 posts. I had ideas but couldn’t find the motivation, or I had no ideas but felt like I needed to post something. Todays effort is a ramble to be honest, but at least I pushed the “publish” button!)
In 2014 I wrote and published a collection of 20 essays entitled “Kenkyu and Kufu: reflections towards self development in kendo.” I unpublished the collection about a year or so later because I wasn’t 100% happy with the content (I felt I had more to grow and evolve more before being at the position I could release a collection of essays). One essay that I had planned to include in the collection and had mostly finished but that I abandoned and didn’t include, was tentatively titled “Crisis of philosophy.” The essay started about my unease in regards to kendo as a self-proclaimed vehicle for self-development before moving out and extending into a discussion about how there was, as far as I could see (to my great disappointment), no over-arching or, rather, no substantial cohesive philosophy behind the thing that I was dedicating my life to. Six years later this unease, though mostly buried, now and then pokes a crooked boney arm out through the shallow grave I put it into.
The current pandemic has not had a positive effect on my kendo life, and I guess the same goes for a lot of people. Of course, I haven’t had to deal with the zero-keiko situation that almost all of the readers of kenshi 24/7 probably have, so I shouldn’t complain. Still, motivation is a problem.
Kendo has faced two crises in the past. The first was after the dismantling of the feudal domain and class systems starting from around 1868. This, and the new social systems that were developed from then on, basically disfranchised many people who had worked as martial art instructors. Partly to help restore the fortunes of these people, Sakakibara Kenkichi created a swordsmanship-centred pay-to-view combative spectacle in 1873 called “Gekken Kogyo.” Much has been written about it in the past, but it was an important element in bridging the gap until 1879, when Keishicho started to hire kenjutsu exponents to teach policemen, an act that probably saved kenjutsu from disappearing entirely and paved the way for modern kendo.
The second crisis occurred in post-war America occupied Japan. The Butokukai (which went from a civilian organisation to being run by the military government in 1942) was forced to dismantle and its members purged from official posts. It wasn’t long before kendo training itself was banned. What saved kendo at this point was the creation of a democratised modern combative sport based on kendo called Shinai Kyogi in 1950. This sport was allowed to be practiced in schools and, when a new kendo organisation was finally created in 1952 and its practice allowed again, was subsumed into and finally replaced by kendo itself (though modified) in 1954. This, of course, was the plan all along. Odysseus would’ve been impressed.
(Note that kendo practice didn’t 100% disappear during this time)
Needless to say, there is more to the story of the two crises above – I tried to keep it short here.
The current pandemic and its impact on kendo around the world could be seen as another crisis for kendo. In both the cases above kendo (kenjutsu) as it was at the time was forced to evolve to survive. Kendo has already started to evolve here in Japan – plastic mouth and eye guards, full face shields, and men-masks. There have also been modifications to training (especially in summer) to avoid heat stroke. We are still unsure how long we will have to continue training like this, perhaps for the foreseeable future. If it continues, we might start to see modifications in men design amongst other things. Perhaps mask-wearing is here to stay.
The biggest danger to kendo is, and one that isn’t talked about much, the perception that kendo itself is a particularly dangerous activity in regards to virus transmission. This could have a long and far-reaching impact on the (already in decline) kendo population. If this happens, we can expect more changes in the future as kendo fights for survival.
As for the last point, I suspect that this might have a larger immediate impact outside of Japan, where populations are already low and COVID-19 is causing far more carnage than here (as things stand at the moment). Once things have settled down (if?), will people come back to the dojo? Will new people arrive?
At any rate, the situation is far from over and continues to change. How this will affect the collective consciousness of the people going through it is still unknown.
While thinking/worrying/pondering the current situation a kendo friend randomly messaged me and asked about a, now passed-away, kendo teacher called Ogawa Chutaro sensei.
Ogawa sensei was the subject of the – now archived – second ever kenshi 24/7 article published, way back in 2008. I also wrote an article about him only a few months ago (before the coronavirus upended everyone’s life). My interest in Ogawa is long held and so I was enthused when someone asked me about him. Giving advice about his books, my motivation was somehow re-kindled, and the very next day I picked up his book “Hyakukai keiko” and read. I have read and re-read this book countless times over the years and it is full of scribbles and notes, highlighted areas and comments. Still, each time I read it I find something new.
My respect for Ogawa lies in many areas, but the main one must be that he was – as far as I can gather – pretty much the only real kendo philosopher/intellectual that the kendo community has seen (with an Eastern flavour). There are a handful of interesting academics of-course (generally historians), some prolific writers, and the odd hachidan (a technical award) that are somewhat convincing, but it seems to me that it is only Ogawa that lived as he preached inside and outside of the dojo. To me, at least, he was the only person who had a cohesive and – perhaps more importantly – convincing overall approach to kendo and its mindset. Of course, I haven’t read everything that has been written about kendo. Anyway, his written words, at least to me, carry weight.
He was, as you know, the principle architect behind The Concept of Kendo and The Purpose of Practicing.
Let’s remind ourselves about the stated purpose of kendo, as directed by Ogawa sensei:
The purpose of practicing kendo is... To mould 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 honour, 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.
Reading and watching the news over the past while, I often wonder if simple human courtesy and honour is gone: politicians lie brazenly in public and work only to line their own pockets; un-needed tragedy is turned into short-lived memes and gifs; people over-love their country without comprehending that “nationality” itself is a false construct; and cultural development, peace, and wealth for all seems unachievable. Sincerity, itself seems lost. Add in an indiscriminate viral organism and we have a recipe for chaos.
Many years ago I remember jokingly saying (or perhaps it was said to me, or maybe I read it somewhere) that “if everyone in the world did kendo then there would be no war,” and recently I’ve began to wonder if there isn’t some truth to the matter!!! Of course, this only works if kendo practitioners themselves bother to read and contemplate deeply the above.
The current enforced break from keiko, I suspect, may elicit a sort of metaphysical kendo crisis in some. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I think.
btw, the concept of kendo is an ideal, one in which I think most people aren’t particularly interested in. That’s totally fine. At the end of the day we have to rationalise to ourselves why it is we do what we do and why we act as we act. To each her own.
The following is in Japanese I am afraid. Anyway, enjoy!