When I started kendo in the late 1960s the reasons for many inadequacies in western kendo were explained away as differences caused by physical or cultural factors. Japanese kendoka were supposed to have more leg strength developed through sitting on the floor “tatami seikatsu”. They were also more flexible and less prone to concentration of strength in the upper body; a condition that was normally blamed on a high meat content diet.
Nowadays, east or west, most of us sleep in beds, sit on chairs and eat McDonalds, so how do we account for the fact that there are still more strong players inside Japan than out?
Throughout my kendo career I have noticed that regardless of ethnic background, we all tend to make the same mistakes. There is no major inherent physical difference between the kendo of an American of Caucasian heritage and one of Japanese parentage given similar experience levels. I appreciate that studies have shown that there are subtle differences between physiologies of different ethnic groups that can account for a fine margin of ability in say running, but on an average evening in the dojo I witness a mix of people with Japanese, Anglo Saxon, Afro Caribbean and Indian backgrounds all doing the same things wrong.
When I first went to live and train in Japan, I spent most of my time unlearning the bad habits developed in the U.K. With the benefit of hindsight, this was not surprising. In those pre-Youtube days, we had to make up a lot of what we did as we went along. Forgetting my own unique challenges, my illusions that a Japanese passport automatically entitled you to perfect kendo were soon shattered.
It was obvious that members who had been practising continuously since junior school were vastly better than those of the same age who had started later in life. What I also saw was that kendoka who trained regularly in dojo with strong sensei and sempai progressed quickly whilst those from weaker dojo, remained at the same level.
Cutting to the chase, Japan has almost a two tier system. Talented young kendoka, start early, achieve success in high-school and university competition then become police tokuren athletes or physical education professionals. It is however easy to fall of this ladder as the pressures of university study or a job outside kendo cut into the time needed for training. It is hard to get to keiko every evening when you are working a 60 hour week. The bulk of Japanese kendoka who achieve national or international success, come from the ranks of kendo professionals. There are of course exceptional cases and you do see shakaijin (ordinary members of society) achieve major shiai success or reach hachidan standard, but the odds are against them.
Korea and Taiwan also have long histories of doing kendo as a mainstream sport. Korea in particular has provided strong competition to Japan at international level, winning the 13WKC in Taipei. It is also worth bearing in mind that Team USA beat the Japanese team at that event. As kendo continues to grow internationally, so do the chances of teams from other countries taking the prizes. The element that Japan still has in its favour is depth of kendo, by which I mean – the number of people practising from an early age, the strong core of professional players and the quality and availability of instructors. It gives us all some interesting goals to aim for.