Sometimes when talking to newer kendoka about the objectives and culture of kendo, I am reminded of a manzai comedy sketch I saw many years ago. The principal comedian asked a supposedly non- Japanese sidekick about his understanding of wabi sabi (the Japanese aesthetic of imperfection and oneness with nature). The foreign straight-man replied that he loved wasabi (Japanese green mustard) and how well it went with sushi and noodles.
The fact that we very seldom “get-it” from day one, is not surprising! Kendo whilst a sport, is built on a multi layered philosophy incorporating Shinto and Confucian and Taoist thought augmented by the principles of Zen. The difficulty in fully understanding the ethos of kendo is not reserved for beginners. Kendo’s culture is similar in some ways to my Microsoft Office software. Most of us get really good use from about 30% of its functionality, although we seldom bother with the other 70%.
Motivations for taking up kendo are varied: from a love of Star Wars or Manga to an interest in Zen, or to the fact that it simply “looked cool”. For some people of Japanese heritage outside Japan, it’s a link with their roots. In Japan the reasons are equally diverse: “mum made me do it”, “it was compulsory in school”, “it was a way to get fit after the kids graduated from university” etc. Kendo however, has a way of drawing in its practitioners, so that once in the routine of regular training it’s hard to stop. The reasons for keeping going, if even thought about, are very different from the reasons for starting in the first place.
When I started kendo in Japan in the 70’s most of my peers had continued on a path that started in the school system and had given little conscious thought to their reasons for training. Some of the senior members and teachers had started kendo before the Second World War and had been through the occupation and the resultant ban on martial arts. I imagine that this hiatus had caused them to seriously reflect on their motivation before restarting practice. At the time, I did not have the temerity to ask directly about their experiences and the few conversations I had with them on the subject at drinking parties were hard to remember afterwards.
With hindsight I wish that I had asked more questions, although I doubt that I would have received any more answers. The ethos at the time; was that it would have been beyond impertinence for a beginner in their twenties to ask for justification from a master in their 70’s. The response to philosophical questions was expressed physically. The treatment that I received however was always concerned and courteous. I imagine that at the time, there must have been some internal debate between curiosity as to why a foreigner was interested in something so intrinsically Japanese, and the desire to evangelise the values of kendo.
I have reached the conclusion that whatever your ethnic background, the most important thing is starting kendo in the first place. Of course the drop-out rate is enormous. 90% of those who start kendo beginner’s classes give up within 6 months. But for those who stick with it, the process of regular keiko does more to clarify the meaning of kendo than could any reading matter. The ZNKR “Purpose and Principles of kendo” is a good reference to kendo’s values, but to quote Nike’s advertising gurus, the best way to achieve knowledge is to – “Just do it”.