Recently, a lot of kenshi from abroad have been coming through Osaka and getting in touch. When possible, I invite them to keiko at my workplace and sometimes to my small asageiko sessions as well as some other places depending. Work and life can be quite busy, so it’s not always possible to fit people in neatly, still, I a steady stream of people have been turning up in my dojo. As someone who is a long-term Japan resident and will probably die and be buried (cremated) here, I enjoy seeing peoples passion for kendo and Japan in general (the latter in particular is something that has faded from me).
During a conversation with one such visitor recently they casually noted that kendo in Japan is often “too serious” and that it’s simply more “fun” in Europe. I laughed and agreed – yeah, of course it is.
Modern kendo in Japan has been intrinsically bound with (and to) the education system for well over a century now. Also, as you no doubt know, kendo in the police system (yes, it is a slightly separate thing – nor particularly technically, but in purpose) has always been a highly influential factor. Of course, educational kendo and police kendo were highly cross pollinated in the past (not now unfortunately). Due to such influences kendo was, at least in generations past, seen primarily as a tool of education, both physical and mental. Building up to and during the Japan’s highly militarised era’s, it was also used explicitly as a tool of “soldier creation” and to engender nationalism. After WWII a concerted effort was done to democratise kendo, but in the end most of the teachers were of the old school variety (and if not, then their students).
Since it essentially evolved in such a serious situation, it comes with no surprise that kendo is – and is still seen to be – a serious activity. At least that the image here in Japan.
Multitudes of kids clubs can be found all around Japan, and I’m sure many readers have experienced keiko there. I wonder, however, if you talked to the teachers about what their purpose is, that is, their kendo philosophy?
Kids kendo clubs here are generally (not always) community based affairs. Parents elect to have their kid “study” kendo – often kendo is referred to as NARAIGOTO (“something to be studied”), in the same vein as things like as piano, abacus, English, or shodo, for example. Of course, you’d send your kid to a nearby dojo, not travel too much. The vast majority of parents chose kendo not because of the physical benefits for their kids, but because it can (or is supposed to) engender confidence and manners. Instructors are almost always unpaid, generally older, and the clubs are run by parents (= usually the mothers). Of course, there are some for-profit private dojo, but there are not so many, and I guess don’t make much money (otherwise there’d be more). Keiko will usually be tough (not violent) and kids may be pushed about and cry a lot. In general, a kid doesn’t have the freedom to quit either. Anyway, the point is that kendo – at the very start of a young persons kendo career – has seriousness already baked in.
[ The above, however, breaks down when kids start older (junior or senior high school age) and do kendo under younger kendo teachers, or perhaps just amongst themselves. It looks as if these type of kendoka have increased over the last couple of decades…. ]
Outside of Japan, in my now admittedly limited experience, kendo seems to be very more of a social activity rather than a community based one: a once or twice or even three times a week affair with some drinks afterwards. There might be some kids in the club, but maybe not that many, and those that are there are treated softly so that they don’t quit. There may not be any older people with decades of experience (kendo and life) to help teach the kids or act as mentors or role-models to young(er) adults. Obviously, this is a generalisation.
So yeah, kendo outside of Japan is almost certainly more “fun” … and that’s ok: it’s a hobby. It can become a serious activity for many, but that’s because the individual themselves has perhaps “switched on” to that aspect of kendo (usually shiai-centric, but sometimes not), not necessarily because the situation required it. When I think back on my early kendo career I would’ve probably never continued had I been made to practice six times a week, gotten beaten up by everybody, and received the occasional ire of the instructor. It was only later on, after practicing for a number of years, that something clicked (for better or worse!).
Every now and then people ask me what initially enamoured me to kendo, and my answer is easy: when I was practicing at Edinburgh Kendo Club in the early 90s, we’d go to the pub every Friday post-keiko. There we would drink, chat, laugh, and just have an awesome time. I strongly remember the feeling to this day (sadly, the pub – called The Green Tree – was knocked down). It was this social aspect that kept me in kendo long enough for the more serious side to kick in, and I am glad it did.
Here in Japan, the reverse situation is common: a super serious kendo upbringing eventually leading to “hobby” kendo as a university student or an adult. Recently we can see this played out openly in some YouTube channels: the often frivolous and always ephemeral social media content and/or people trying to somehow turn a profit using kendo. They only have success with other like-minded people, however.
After I finished this article but before I picked a header image I suddenly recalled something that surprised me a few years back. I am not sure it’s relevant, but let me share anyway.
During the 16th World Kendo Championships I was invited by the ZNKR to do some (quite simple!) volunteer work for them. At one point during the event I was sitting in the designated “media area” chatting to other staff members working on the live stream, taking pictures, and updating social media. Behind us was a large NHK presence, and I remember that Eiga Naoki sensei was commentating. Chatting away I was introduced (and would later go out drinking) with a member of the imperial household, the only time in my life (as yet!) I would speak to a real princess! I remember that – when she stood to leave – all the NHK and ZNKR staff stood up and bowed deeply.
Anyway, before, during, and after all this there was a group of young kenshi sitting in the clearly marked cordoned off area next to us. They were loud, sat slouched over the seats with their feet up, and generally displayed a lack of interest in what was going on outside their own immediate area. Many were stating at their phones. And yeah, they were wearing their team jackets, country name emblazoned prominently as well. I guess they were having “fun” but, maybe it’s the old Japanese man inside me, I don’t think it was of the right sort.