“Why you study kendo?”

Kyoto Butokuden

Last night after the keiko – my final one on this trip – Yamagami sensei and his students at Kagawa University threw me a sayonara party. There was some food, drink and entertainment, and then Yamagami sensei told students to ask me questions – anything they wanted to know. After a moment of uneasy silence, a girl put her hand up and asked me “why you study kendo?”

This must be the question that almost every western kendoka has had to respond to at some point when talking with their Japanese friends or acquaintances. Over the last four weeks I have heard it, in one form or another, at least a dozen times.

For Japanese this seems to be a perplexing issue on more than one account. For one thing, although kendo is a martial art, it has no apparent benefit of being somehow practically useful as a self defense, the way judo, karate or aikido could be. Also, kendo involves a lot of culturally specific aspects that are clearly rather alien to westerners – and it is hard, very hard practice.

In Japan, a vast majority of people start kendo in their childhood, through no decision of their own. Some of them enjoy it, but many do not – and often they quit as soon as they have a say about the matter. However, those who go on doing kendo in their adult years do so almost out of a habit – and when asked why they too would most likely be puzzled as how to answer that.

Obviously there may be many different responses. One could practice kendo in order to stay fit, or perhaps because their friends are doing it. However, when asked “why do you practice kendo,” the stress (at least mentally) seems to be on the final word. There are many things one could do to stay fit and social, and most of them would seem to make much more sense for a westerner to take up than kendo.

In order to begin to answer that “why” question I believe it is first necessary to look a bit closer at what exactly it is we study when we practice kendo. The most obvious reply would seem to be “to fight with a sword.” However, this won’t take us very far. To begin with, kendo is not a very good way to become an expert swordfighter, as we do not actually use real swords in sparring, rather than shinai (bamboo swords that are straight and considerably lighter than katana). Also, kendo fight is decidedly “unrealistic,” as the aim is to score an ippon (a perfect strike, worthy of a full point), and this means that most of the hits that land, and would certainly end the fight with real swords, go unregarded. And finally, even if it was the case that doing kendo could teach one how to fight with a katana, there remains a question why would anyone need a skill like that in today’s world?

It would seem that the answer must lie somewhere else.

When talking about education and learning in general, Aristotle distinguished several different aims (or forms of “knowledge”). On the most basic level, when we learn something we do so in order to acquire a certain skill. This is what ancient Greeks called technê (τέχνη), which is of course the same root that the word “technology” stems from. Technê alone and in itself is neutral, it could be used to many different ends and purposes, both good and bad, beautiful and ugly, wise and not so. It is simply, as Aristotle put it in Nicomachean Ethics, “the art of realising possibilities,” but it does not tell one anything about which possibilities are worth pursuing. In order for the skill to be used properly, it needs to be informed by aretê (which is commonly, if somewhat misleadingly, translated into English as “virtue”). Virtue, however – and this is a point that is stressed both by Aristotle and Plato – cannot be taught, as it is not a matter of rational judgement or calculation. A virtuous person chooses the right action “naturally,” without hesitation or contemplation, and needs no other reason for choosing it apart from it being a right thing to do. Acquiring virtue is thus a matter of cultivation, that of engraining the good qualities into the very character of a person through ceaseless practice – up to the point when they indeed become natural.

In budo there are five fundamental virtues: jin (benevolence), gi (honour), rei (courtesy), chi (wisdom), and shin (sincerity). Sometimes those five are complemented by a few additional ones, such as courage, loyalty and piety. It is evident that kendo does indeed promote those qualities throughout the daily practice. In kendo one is also taught the importance of acting instinctively and immediately, without any reflective thought, uninhibited by fear, confusion or doubt. This way it becomes apparent that learning to fight with a shinai is actually a means and not and end in itself.

This all comes down to the famous distinction between -do and -jutsu (such as in kendo vs. kenjutsu – if the latter is predominantly about acquiring a practical skill or craft, the former aims at shaping one’s character through constant and rigorous practice. This is also the reason why many parents in Japan put their children into kendo classes – so that they would grow up as “good persons,” with right values and proper attitude.

In 1975, the All Japan Kendo Federation published a short document titled “The Concept of Kendo” that every kendoka has seen and read. It says that “the concept of kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana” and goes on to specify that the way to do it is:

To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.

Doing kendo is not going to turn anyone into a saint, just as studying is not going to automatically make anyone wise. I do not know if practicing kendo has made me a better person – this is for others to judge. I do know, however, that there definitely are some things that have, over those years, become something akin to a second nature to me. When entering big rooms with people in them (like, for instance, cinema halls or conference rooms), I cannot help but instinctively take a small bow at the door. I am unconsciously mindful of passing in front of the people, in particular when they are seated, I tend to place certain objects in a particular way – and so on. I trust that anyone who has done kendo for some time has similar experiences. And this would lead me to believe that there must be also other, perhaps less tangible things that have become a part of my character.

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