The Internationalization of Kendo

Posted: December 18, 2015 in Martial Arts
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To what extant are concepts of honor, excellence, rhythm, and ethics,  cross-cultural? This question was prompted by Alex C. Bennett’s excellent book on the history of kendo. In it he talks about the internationalization of kendo and how the Japanese kendo leadership, sensitive to how judo was absorbed into the international community (and effectively taken away from them with the Japanese having their asses handed to them in tournaments).

Judo

That was due to the sportification of judo, where the emphasis shifted to victory in physical contests and not on the improvement of the self through vigorous practice. Judo’s founder, Jigero Kano, famously assimilated the various jujitsu techniques from several schools during the early 20th century into an exportable system designed for mass distribution in Japan’s rapidly modernizing society.

However, Kano was concerned about the use of judo in a competitive sports environment, fearing that the emphasis on victory would outweigh the focus on physical and mental improvement (like a lot of new sports programs in the late 19th and early 20th century in Japan, European and the US, those systems were designed to improve the strength and moral character of the individual so that they could be useful and productive citizens).

Ag School KendoIn the case of kendo, the concern runs deeper as kendo is related to the sword which the Japanese retain as something unique and special to their identity. Kendo is practiced with a bamboo waster that is used to replicate the katana. Practitioners wear padded armor and a helmet so hits can be done at full speed and intensity without a lot of physical risk.

Kendo also includes the practice of sword kata with bokken (solid wood swords) but without contact. Combined, these two practices enable one to improve their physical skills and explore the deeper concepts of kendo such as timing and distance with an opponent, poise, balance, and rhythm. There is also a deeper component to kendo and that is the focus on etiquette and form. In both the wearing of the uniform and armor as well as how practitioners engage with each other; whether in a class, a tournament, or a rank test.

It is the last point that is of concern to the Japanese kendo leadership as kendo becomes more popular, practiced diligently almost anywhere now in the world. Clubs and teams in Canada, the US, Europe, and Asia, maintain their federations, engage in tournaments, and participate in international tournaments. The US and South Korea have challenged Japanese dominance in kendo, causing fears that kendo is slipping out of Japanese hands.

Kendo Athlete LineupAccording to Alex Bennett and others, some Japanese kendo officials are retreating into a defensive position, claiming that while foreigners can certainly grasp the physical concepts of kendo, they will never truly understand the deeper, more cultural and spiritual aspects of this art.

I take exception to that as a student of history, where the record of mankind has shown that ideas and people have intermingled far more than governments would like to admit. Countries that hold tightly to their alleged uniqueness in the world very often do so from a position of weakness or defensiveness.

In the case of kendo, the concepts unique to kendo as a martial art are not unique to one society. Look deeply enough and you will find a rich record of sword arts, heritages, and philosophical teachings, that have their home in Japan, as well as Asia and Europe. In the case of Asia, specifically China, Japan benefited directly from imports such as sword making as well as religion, language, and the arts; assimilating them into their culture.

Furthermore, the system of modern kendo has its roots in the physical education systems of northern Europe (e.g., the introduction of formal exercise and warm up routines for students in the new school systems). Ironically, one can see that kendo has international roots mixed in with the old sword school systems of Tokugawa Japan. And that has been why kendo has become exportable to a world audience.

It is a shared culture of physical effort and personal introspection, designed to improve the person and widen their understanding of the world around them. It allows one to connect with the heritage of the sword, feeling something of what our ancestors may have felt.

Efforts to restrict that and to “nationalize” kendo would do no good and would not be true to the heart of what is kendo.

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