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JapaneseA colleague who trains in Brazillian Jujutsu showed me an on-line video of the sport. I could not but notice the similarity to Judo, although I am told that the groundwork differs but that the throws are almost identical. Having done Judo in the past I know many of these techniques only by their Japanese names and my friend referred to them by their English tags. He did not go into detail but I presume the original language used is Portuguese and that the countries where it is practised use their own terms.

This made me reflect on the fact that in kendo we use Japanese on a scale that followers of other martial arts would find difficult to justify. Not only do we have imported labels for the techniques, but all dojo and shiai commands are in Japanese. The courtesies we observe before and after practice are in Japanese and many kenshi have a vocabulary that extends to social conversation.

There are obvious advantages to the use of a single language amongst an international population. We can travel to countries where we do not share a common language and still understand the instructions given in a training session. The downside is that as beginner as well as having to learn to make your body do things that it has never done before, you have to learn a new vocabulary.

The official languages of kendo are Japanese and English and when we attend Europe Zone Referee Seminars, translation is provided from the former to the latter, we then usually have numerous side conversations to ensure that whatever message is being delivered is understood by those who are not fluent in English. My guess however is that nearly as many people understand the Japanese instruction as the English translation.

I personally like the fact that we use Japanese for kendo. Initially I found it part of the attraction as it made kendo seem exotic. Then having spent time living in Japan and using the language I realised that the meanings of technique names and commands are fairly mundane – “mask, glove, trunk, stop, start, thank you very much”; they do not sound nearly as grand in English.

If we did revert to our own languages, international competition would be interesting.  In the shiai-jo with a Spanish opponent and a German referee, should you shout glove, or guante, or handschu  or all three when you make a kote attack?

Kakegoe too would become interesting. When we make these initial shouts before attacking, although without meaning, they are usually modelled on Japanese sounds. I have a fear that in moving to English these would become more like the “sledging” insults used in English cricket to put the opponent off his stroke.  Standing up from sonkyo to taunts about my body shape or my opponent’s relationship with my wife does not seem like an ideal start to a good kendo tachiai.

It might not be ideal for everyone but I suggest that for the time being we keep the ZNKR’s dictionary of kendo terms in the bogu bag.

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