Ruminating is something I do a lot of. I guess you do too. Work, family, the mortgage, the next episode of your favourite Netflix show, and of course kendo all use some of our mental resources (the balance of which changes depending). Kendo, in particular, has been somewhat vexing for me over the years: Why do I spend so much of my time doing this? Why do I have get up at 5am during on weekdays for asageiko? Why do I have to do so much kirikaeshi? Just what am I doing……?!?!?!!
I have read a lot of kendo books and am surrounded by many kendo friends, so I have had plenty of opportunities to hear different answers to these questions. Of course, my own answers (when I have one) have changed over time. During the pandemic in particular, I – and I guess many of you as well – questioned the role kendo has in our lives.
Another avenue to learn about and perhaps explore a greater meaning of kendo came to me about three years back when I had the chance to join the kendo speciality subcommittee of the Japanese Academy of Budo. Formed in 1968, the academy is a group of academics that research and present on various aspects of budo culture. Of course, I am not an academic in the traditional sense, and calling me an independent scholar would be a stretch. Still I enjoy private research/study (such as it is) and furthering my own eduction, especially in my preferred field: kendo (especially its history).
Anyway, due the pandemic the academy were not so active, just a yearly newsletter and some zoom stuff now and then, so I was intrigued when their yearly conference was announced and that it would be held in Osaka. Having a real job (as opposed to being an academic!) attending was unrealistic. On the afternoon of the last day, however, there was a kendo-related lecture hosted by the kendo speciality sub-committee that seemed interesting and – if I got out of work quickly and ran – I might just make. The main reason I decided to attend, however, was that the lecture would be chaired by my old kendo friend (he is now a professor at Fukuoka University of Education). I hadn’t seen him in a while, so it seemed like a good excuse… even if I would be a fish out of water.
Budo is an extremely narrow field of study, kendo even more so. There are only so many things that you can research. A lot of papers are either very vague (coming to no real answer), overly specific (I recently spotted one on “kote gaeshi-men”), or don’t provide anything really new. I also wonder what “use” many of these papers are outside of their field (or even inside as well). Still, being a kendo nerd, I do look through the papers and occasionally get some inspiration.
The lecture I am about to describe and comment on is kind of in the same vein to tell you the truth. In particular, it is heavily related with the Japanese education system, do if you don’t like type of thing you should probably skip this article. As a teacher and a kendo person, I enjoyed it though!
The lecture that I decided to attend was entitled “Further enrichment of budo classes in school physical education” by Seki Nobuo, a senior specialist for national curriculum (P.E.) at the Japan Sports Agency. It was given on the 5th of September 2023 at Osaka University of Education.
An ex-high school P.E. teacher before he moved into his governmental post, Seki has had a wide experience across difference P.E. related divisions. It is important to note that he travels across the country promoting the governments sports curriculum and, also, that he is NOT a kendo person.
Here is the English outline provided for the lecture:
“Budo has been compulsory subject based on the policy that students exposure to the unique traditions and culture of our country and establish enrich sport life in school physical education since 2012. In the fact that about 10 years have passed since budo became compulsory and the current revision of the Courses of Study, we would like to consider issues and measures for further enhancement of martial arts classes in physical education.”
(Note that the decision to add budo into compulsory education was taken in 2008, but it took 4 years of preparation before going into effect.)
Prior to 2012 the only other time that budo has been mandatory in the education system in Japan was for boys starting in 1933/34 (girls were forced into very basic naginata training during the war). This wasn’t as part of some sort of overall P.E. curriculum per-se, but was used to install nationalism (boys and girls) to create soldiers (boys) for/in wartime periods. This obviously stopped after the war.
BTW, budo is not actually “compulsory” nowadays but rather, all first and second year junior high school students (approx. 12-14 year olds) have to choose between “budo” or “dance” as part of their P.E. curriculum. What budo is on offer depends on what teachers are at the school (at the moment across the entire country the rates are: 60% judo, 30% kendo, 10% others). Boys overwhelmingly choose budo, and girls dance.
The inclusion of budo into the national curriculum only happened after years of work spearheaded by the Nippon Budokan foundation (NB) since it was formed in 1964. As such, only budo as represented by the NB can be allowed in schools, i.e. judo, kendo, kyudo, sumo, karate, aikido, shorinji-kempo, naginata, and jukendo. NB has also taken a lead in publishing teaching texts and methodology related to teaching budo in schools (and recently into exploring how to expand budo practice for special needs students).
(Note that it is entirely possible for junior/senior high schools to offer things like kendo or judo as electives as part of the P.E. curriculum, and has been for a while, though they were treated as “P.E.” subjects rather than “budo” ones, and were only really available when a P.E. teacher happened to specialise in kendo or judo. Until 1986 you weren’t even allowed to use the term “budo” in schools. In todays article “compulsory” is the key word here, as it includes a governmentally mandated purpose and execution of “budo” classes.)
I am reconstruction salient points based on the notes I took during the lecture, so please forgive me if it isn’t comprehensive (Seki, an accustomed speaker, was very good at logically expressing what his points were). Also, please remember that Seki is talking about “budo in education” and so a lot of the discussion was teaching academics about how the school system works in regards to recent changes in policy (stuff that I deal with on a day-to-day basis at work, but not something that university professors or graduate students know so much about).
First off, as expected from an ex-P.E. teacher, Seki noted that physical education in the schools system is important. He bases this of large-scale student surveys that were taken where the majority of students (junior and senior high school) not only enjoyed their P.E. lessons, but state that they wish to continue doing sports as adults. This ties in nicely with the governments goal of having a healthy (body and mind) citizenry. Currently, 52.3% of adults in the country do some sort of sporting activity more than once a week. Japan’s goal is to move that figure to 70% in the future. Budo is, according to Seki, just another type or option of sport that people can do, so introducing it in schools can only be a good thing.
The lecture stares with discussing the latest (2017) junior high school (JHS) “course of study.” This is an official government manual that is renewed/updated every 15 years or so which stipulates what and how the county’s public junior high school teachers should be teaching going forward (I have an unread copy of the senior high school one in a drawer somewhere).
(btw, the latest JHS course of study – for P.E. alone – consists of 311 pages (including 25 pages for budo). As an overworked public teacher with no time or inclination to consumer something of this length, it is no surprise to me that people like Seki get dispatched around the country to talk and introduce concepts therein, both to the in-the-trenches teachers and academics.)
The course of study attempts to predict what students will need in the near future in order to ready them for adult life. Thus, in theory, the overarching goal of the education system is to equip students with the skills needed to survive in the society of the near-future. Grandiose, yes, but not different that most countries education systems I guess.
Let me turn back to budo as a subject. Of course, all subjects are treated in generally the same way, and start with three questions:
A : “What will the student be able to do?” B : “What will they learn?” C : “How should they learn it?”
For A, Seki talks of cultivating three pillars:
- knowledge and skill - ability to think, make decisions, and express oneself (clearly) - become a lifetime learner
All subjects, be they as diverse as maths, calligraphy, programming, or budo, have to plan with these things in mind.
B is a little more concrete than A, so we have subject-specific (i.e.budo) details here:
- knowledge / information: the unique characteristics of budo, how it developed, traditional concepts, and names of waza - skill / ability: mainly tasting the joy of doing budo (executing waza or doing shiai) - thought process: thinking about the keiko menu and the waza by yourself or with friends, working out how to execute things together, and so on. In short: the student should be proactive in learning, talk with others, and attempt to learn deeply (here we see a departure in the school subject from the traditional way of teaching budo, be it in the dojo or school clubs)
C veers back into the general but budo-wise we can bring up stuff like:
- engendering positivity - staying health - avoiding injury - fair play
Next, Seki mentioned some unique points about budo classes, things that don’t appear in description of other subjects. The first was, of course, “reigi” (etiquette). This is oft mentioned when budo discussions come up, so much so that many parents enrol their children in dojo in order to hopefully cultivate good manners. I am not sure whether this is a pure fallacy or not, and perhaps Seki pointedly mentioned it to make the kendo academics in the room feel happy. Personally, I think that many “older” things in bygone Japan required strict adherence to etiquette, and that budo was not particularly unique… perhaps.
Anyway, the idea that budo somehow teaches you manners is embedded in modern society, and is pointedly noted as a unique characteristic in the course of study.
Another thing mentioned is the vague “keeping traditional conduct (values) alive.” What these are exactly is left unsaid, and Seki himself didn’t seem too sure as to what it was exactly.
Lastly, it was mentioned that a further unique thing about budo is that it is a contact sport. People actually have to touch, grab, or strike the other person, something that doesn’t happen in other sports included in the curriculum. At any rate, that contact occurs is something that makes it different and must be considered.
All of the above sounds conceptually solid, but in actually fact JHS students can only do 16 hours of budo classes per year maximum, with the vast majority of schools only managing ten. P.E. teachers (of which 92% have now undertaken budo subject training) are not necessarily specialists in what sports it is they teach, including budo. I have seen (high school) P.E. teachers read store-bought manuals about the sport they have to teach (e.g. table tennis or judo) the day before they have to teach it which, I gather, is not too uncommon. What hope is there that, in the very very limited time available, and almost certainly with a non-specialist, that budo classes can amount to anything substantial?
As a JHS subject now, students must be graded in the same way as other subjects, like English or Chemistry. Of course, P.E. (like music, art, home economics) is not treated as an equal subject here in Japan, so, despite all of the pages of well-meaning documentation and the grandiose wording, everyone just gets an “A.”
My experience / thoughts
Recently I talked about the free fall in number of the kendo population, and the need to adapt and reshape things. The Nippon Budokan, I believe, probably thought that somehow including budo into schools would increase the budo population (with some Conservative thinking in the mix), I don’t really know, but it doesn’t seem likely that this will be the result. In fact, I suspect that due to the execution of the programme, the reverse will be more likely: i.e. the poor implementation will make things worse.
Although not compulsory at senior high school (SHS) level, some SHSs have in fact adopted a P.E. elective in a similar style, my workplace included. Students at my school have the choice between judo and dance. We have three after school budo-related clubs, kendo (my club), judo, and aikido. Aikido is by far the largest, and the judo club has only 3 members. Aikido is super rare in high school so is a bit “esoteric” plus (more pointedly) it practises only three times/week, is super lax, and everyone starts as a beginner. My kendo club practices six times a week and has a super serious teacher, so the mental/physical barrier to join is quite high! Judo, well, most people can do it during P.E., so they just don’t bother choosing to do it after school as well. I asked some of the aikido students why they didn’t try kendo. Over the years I’ve had all sorts of answers, but none more biting than: “Kendo? Oh, I already did that in JHS class.”
What is important to note here is that Seki, during the Q&A session at the end, was quite honest in saying that he didn’t consider an increase in the kendo (budo) population as a goal of the programme. Rather, he said that “budo” was just another type of sport that some people might take to and like, just like volleyball or tennis. The point was to enjoy exercise, have fun, and remain healthy throughout ones life. The kendo academics in the room didn’t look, at least to me, too impressed…
As everyone reading this here today knowns, kendo takes a long time to acquire even the most basic of movements, and it seems a lifetime is probably not enough to master it completely. What can 10 hours a year for two years – more than likely with a teacher who has little or no experience in kendo – hope to accomplish?
Kendo as it is at the moment simply cannot be taught in such little time, even with experienced instructors. The result has been, as you can guess, the gamifying of kendo. This has taken many shapes but the end point is the same: a “kendo-like” activity that doesn’t look like kendo. As it has to be done P.E. teachers do their best to get it over with, and I fully understand that. The longer the programme continues, the more standardised these games will become, and the less and less kendo-like they will be.
If the introduction of a budo subject and these gamified kendo-like activities meant that more people took up kendo later in life, then I’m all for it. However, as it obvious to everyone involved in kendo here in Japan, this hasn’t happened yet, and I imagine it won’t happen in the future either. In fact, I suggest it might even be part of the problem…