Korea - The Black Ships of Kendo
-The Internationalisation of Kendo and the Olympic Problem-
Written by Alexander Bennett
International Research Centre for Japanese Studies
Budo is one of Japan’s most significant contributions to the world’s athletic heritage. In fact, I consider budo to be Japan’s most successful cultural export. Wherever you go in the world, even in the remotest towns of the farthest countries, there is a high probability that there will be a ‘dojo’ of some sort in the community. In that dojo you will find the local people barefooted, dressed in Japanese dogi, obeying commands in the Japanese language, bowing the Japanese way, and more often than not, there will be a Japanese flag or a picture of some great Japanese master from the past occupying a prominent part of the dojo. Interestingly, probably not one of the members will have ever been to Japan, and contact with Japanese people will be limited. There will always be some idiosyncrasies stemming from the fact that it is not actually Japan, and there are many aspects which have to be adapted to suit that particular social milieu. Nevertheless, the locals would have been attracted to the study of budo for a number of different reasons:
Cultural reasons (in the case of Nikkeijin or newly settled Japanese families in an attempt to keep contact with their Japanese heritage. Also, Japanese exchange students or businessmen, wanting contact in the community, or general interest in Japan by local people.)
Combat reasons- (to learn how to fight, self defence skills, armed forces, police etc.)
Mental well-being. (Some people start martial arts training in the hope that they will increase in self-confidence and discipline. This also corresponds with parents who encourage their children to study the martial arts for the same benefits.)
As a competitive sport.
Pursuit of spiritual development and enlightenment. (There is a significant attraction to the perceived ‘mysterious’ metaphysical attributes of the Eastern martial arts.)
Strategy. (Although by no means a driving force now, in the days of Japan’s bubble economy, there were widespread opinions that Japan’s economic and business success was based around management practices stemming from ‘samurai strategy’, prompting small numbers of businessmen to take up martial arts training.)
Forced participation by Japanese government or military in WWI and before. (Koreans and Taiwanese as Japanese satellite states, and also a very small number of POWs who were inadvertently learned the arts though being practised upon by Japanese guards or soldiers. Although an extreme minority, there are a number of jujutsu schools in the West whose founders claim to have learned the art through such means.)
Recently, a new phenomenon has started to become apparent. One of the most significant contributors to the popularisation of budo in recent years is not only the Japanese, but also the Koreans. There has been a noticeable trend in the appearance of dojang around the world rather than dojo. Dojang is the Korean word for dojo, and where the Japanese left off, the Koreans are taking positive strides to pick up on the basis of most of the reasons I have outlined above. Particularly in regions where Korean immigrants are numerous, yudo dojang are springing up in place of judo dojo, taekwondo provides an attractive alternative to karate for self-defence and has the added bonus of being a competitive Olympic sport, hapkido is Koreanised aikido, and more recently, kumdo is making inroads into the kendo world attracting mainly Korean immigrant children at this stage, but has the potential to change the face of kendo internationally, which will eventually have far reaching consequences even in Japan.
This interesting phenomenon of the gradual ‘Koreanisation’ of budo overseas is perceived by the Koreans as the internationalisation of their own Korean martial arts heritage. The Koreans are aggressive in their dissemination, sometimes nationalistic, and often very commercial in their approach, providing attractive packages for their students and instructors alike, not to mention propositions of business partnerships with already existing dojo.
What effect could this possibly have on Japanese budo? In this paper I will consider the case example of kendo. The situation concerning the spread of kumdo as opposed to kendo has become particularly conspicuous in Japan recently due to the World Kumdo Association (WKA) inauguration in Korea, and their overtly opposing policies to the current chief international governing body of kendo the Japan based International Kendo Federation (IFK). In particular, the WKA’s mission to turn kendo/kumdo into an Olympic event is something vehemently opposed in traditional Japanese kendo circles. Nevertheless, my findings actually show that although the specialist kendo journals are touting this development as a major concern, the reality is that the situation is not as critical as they advocate, at least at this stage. Still the formation of the WKA has rekindled an old debate concerning the question of ‘strong kendo’ (sports oriented) and ‘correct kendo’ (‘traditional’ and culturally oriented). The Olympics are the apex of the sporting world, but is considered unattractive by many Japan-centric kendoka. However, judging by the status quo of kendo in Japan there are significant contradictions and inconsistency in ideals and reality that must be addressed. In this sense, I consider the kumdo tremors coming from Korea as a ‘Black Ship’, which will provide the impetus for earnest self-reflection of what kendo is to people in the 21st century.
Kendo or Kumdo?
Many Koreans still remember the brutal Japanese occupation lasting from 1910 until the end of World War II. During this period, Koreans were in many ways forced to disregard their own culture in a process of ‘Japanisation’. The ensuing brutality represented an across-the-board attempt to root out all vestiges of Korean culture, and to forge the nation into the role of a Japanese satellite state. In Japan, kendo and other budo arts were eventually elevated to compulsory subjects in schools(1) and utilised by the fascist government to encourage fighting spirit, instil nationalistic fervour, and nurture pride in Japan’s noble warrior past and the consequential moralistic values based on a Showa reinvention of ‘Bushido’, which was perceived as making Japan unique in the world.(2)
As colonies of Japan, the Taiwanese and Korean populace were also ‘encouraged’ to participate in these activities.(3) Koreans took to budo with unexpected enthusiasm, and even when the war ended and the Republic of Korea was established, they maintained a commitment to kendo that persists to this day, evident in the comparatively high level and large population of enthusiasts. (4) However, in many ways the old wounds of the occupation have still not healed, and in a nationwide revisionist stance, Koreans for the most part refuse to entertain the notion that the sport's origins lie in Japan, and instead call it "kumdo", insisting that it originated in Korea.(5)
For example, to demonstrate this revisionist mentality, I have quoted the historical information placed on the official homepage of the Korea Kumdo Association.(6)
“Our nation boasts a long history and tradition of swordsmanship. In the Koguryo dynasty (?-688) mountain ascetics perfected their technique in sword and other weapons. Similarly, the Paekche kingdom held specialist departments for the manufacture of swords, and there are records suggesting that sword masters were sent to Japan to teach swordsmanship. However, kenjutsu developed greatly during the Silla dynasty (668–935). Where a military academy was established in the capital city of Kyongju and was open to young men of aristocratic birth. Upon completion of their training, these young men were given the title hwarang, meaning Flower Knight. This period was indeed the time when the military arts flourished. One of the most significant contributions to future swordsmen to come form this period was the book Bon Gook Gum Bup (『本国剣法』). This treatise forms the basis for two-handed sword techniques and modern kumdo...The Koryo dynasty (935-1392 AD) inherited the Silla kenjutsu legacy and continued to develop it further. However, during the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910), military arts became disfavoured compared with civil arts, and fell into disarray. On the other hand, during this period, the recipients of our culture in Japan continued to develop the culture of the sword and it began to flourish over there.”
The official explanation continues to inform readers that in the middle of the Chosun dynasty, the importance of the military arts was once more recognised through the experience of a number of wars and rebellions. During the Chungjo era (1776-1800) the text Sok Pyungjang Tosul (『武芸図譜通志』) (Revised Illustrated manual of Military training and Tactics) included sword techniques among the twenty-four martial arts recorded, and was adopted in the instruction of military training.
From there, the official history proceeds to explain how kenjutsu (gekiken撃剣) was taught at the Korean police academies from 1896, and then from 1904 in the military academies. Also, there is mention of a tournament held between the Korean police and their Japanese counterparts in 1908. In September of the same year, gekiken was also included in the first official national physical education program for the general public. According to the text, the term gekiken was changed to kumdo in 1910, although Japanese records state this as happening in Japan on August 1st 1919. Nevertheless, it is stated that this change in nomenclature helped promote kumdo as a sport with a popular civil following. Similar to trends in Japan, kumdo was also introduced into schools from 1906 (although Japan was in 1911), and was recognised as an official curricular subject in junior high schools in 1927 (again, Japan was 1931.)(8) I have placed the rest of the information found on the official KKA website in a table for easy reference. It is interesting to note that for the most part, development of kumdo in Korea was fairly much in parallel with Japan, although in some cases Korea’s advancements seem to predate Japan.(7)
1935 Kumdo included in the 16th National Chosen Sports Festival
1938 National Chosen Sports Festival prohibited by Japanese
1945 Kendo began to flourish again after Korea was liberated from Japanese colonialism
1947 Korean kumdo began to restructure itself with the holding of the Seoul Police Kumdo Tournament
1948 Approximately 100 highly ranked kumdo instructors gathered in Changdeokgung Palace and formed the predecessor to the Korean Kumdo Association
1950 The 1st National Police Kumdo Tournament was held
1952 A committee was created to oversee the formation of the KKA
1953 The KKA was inaugurated and became affiliated with the Korean Amateur Sports Association
The 1st National Individual Kumdo Championships were held
(*Same year that the All Japan Kendo Federation was formed)
1956 Kumdo was once more included as an official event of the National Sports Festival after a break of 20 years
1959 Kumdo became increasingly popular with the President’s Cup Grade Category Tournament, and the National Student Championships
1964 The Student Kumdo Federation became affiliated with the KKA
1970 The Student Federation separated into the Collegiate Federation and the Secondary Schools Federation
The International Kendo Federation was formed, and a Korean became the Vice President
1972 Kumdo was included in the National Youth Sports Meet
1979 The news agency Dong a Ilbo joined forces with the KKA in sponsoring the President’s Cup National Championships
1988 The Korean Social Kumdo Federation was formed and followed by the 1st National Social Championships
1993 Inauguration of the SBS Royal National Championships
Korea obviously has a long history of kumdo although some of the top KKA officials readily acknowledge that the modern form of kendo/kumdo widely practiced today was in fact systemized by the Japanese. “However, the further development of kumdo from now on rests in our hands, and we must strive to overtake the Japanese in matters of theory and technique. This is what we must do to reinstate Korea as the true suzerain nation of kumdo.”(9) This may seem like a preposterous claim to Japanese kendoka, but is it?
Despite wrangling of suzerainty, kumdo and kendo are essentially the same, save for a few cosmetic differences. Koreans use their native language in the sport, have changed the colour of the scoring flags (blue and white as opposed to red and white), and have abandoned the squatting bow (sonkyo) and certain other forms of Japanese etiquette considered important aspects by Japanese fencers. Also, there was a successful move to change certain parts of the attire used in kendo. Many Korean now use hakama that have no koshi-ita, and are secured with Velcro belts. This was argued as being more practical, and indeed it probably is, however it is also a clear form of protest against the overt Japanese dictation of what is acceptable in kendo and what is not.(10) Apart from these superficial differences, a casual observer would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a kendo and a kumdo practitioner.
Both arts seek to score points on one another by striking designated targets: men (mori), do (gap), kote (ho-wan), tsuki (mok) with a bamboo or carbon-graphite shinai (jukdo). Both use the same kinds of bogu (hogoo) and a stomping lunge (fumikomi-ashi) is usually employed to strike, often leading to the combatants' bodies colliding sharply as they cry out or "kiai" (kheup). Both maintain a sporting character, with many regional and national tournaments hotly contested at all levels. Both also maintain a strong metaphysical character, including meditation before and after practice, ritualised bowing, and zen-conceptions of achieving victory by emptying the mind of distracting thought of any kind. Both also purport to be ‘ways’ for developing character, body, and mind.
In fact, in many countries around the world kumdo and kendo coexists side-by-side, and apart from a few differences in terminology, most people accept that they are doing essentially the same thing, and train and compete in the same environment. Recently with the ban on Japanese culture lifted and the ensuing popularity of things Japanese among Korea’s youth, even a number of young Korean fencers are starting to admit in whispered tones that they are essentially practicing a Japanese sport, and are starting to question the cultural insistence by their seniors that Korea is the suzerain nation of the art. Although, to many of the older generation who still practice kumdo actively, any hint of Japanese influence or suzerainty of the modern form of kendo/kumdo is abhorrent.
Korea - The Black Ships of Kendo by Alexander Bennett
Plethora of Federations
Recent articles in the leading kendo journals in the world outline kumdo federation developments in Korea, especially the formation of the World Kumdo Association (WKA) and the prospect of kendo becoming an Olympic sport.(11) In the 2000 Kendo World Championships in Santa Clara, and more recently in Glasgow (2003) this prospect was debated to a certain extent by the IKF as the 27th of October 2001 saw a ceremony in Korea to celebrate the inauguration of the World Kumdo Association, a self-acclaimed rival to the IKF. There were reputedly representatives from thirty countries in attendance. This newly formed entity is currently moving to amass as many affiliates as possible, and openly states inclusion in the ‘Olympic Family’ as one of its main objectives.
The mother organisation behind the formation was the Korean Kumdo Federation (KKF), which combined forces with a number of other groups to create the WKA. Before delving into the details surrounding this new federation, it is necessary to clarify the state of Korea’s hordes of kumdo organisations.
The International Kendo Federation (IKF- 国際剣道連盟) was formed in 1970 at a meeting in Tokyo attended by 17 countries and regions with the aim of cultivating goodwill through the international propagation of kendo (iaido, jodo). The IKF is responsible for holding the World Kendo Championships every three years, international seminars, assistance in developing federation infrastructure in kendo developing countries, and information exchange.
The Korean affiliate for the IKF is the Korean Kumdo Association (KKA−大韓剣道会), not the Korean Kumdo Federation (KKF−韓国剣道連盟). They are entirely different rival organisations. In addition to these two groups there is also the World Haedong Kumdo Federation（WHKF−世界海東剣道連盟）, which although propagates an art it calls kumdo it is in fact very similar in nature to iaido, and utilises a two-handed sword to conduct kata. Furthermore, the WHKF reportedly has approximately 100,000 members, which makes it a significant force not taken lightly by the KKA. As far as the Korean government is concerned, they are unable to interfere in any way to help reconcile differences, as kumdo is considered no more than a recreational activity. (12)
The KKA relies heavily in its publicity through publications to maintain its prominent position, and are going to great efforts to promote kumdo as an art that utilises bogu and shinai, completely different to what the World Haedong Kumdo Federation is engaged in. There are many offshoots and variations of these federations to be found in Korea itself, and various places around the world. The large number of kumdo associations is a cause of great confusion.
Of course, Japan also has its share of organisational rivalry and confusion, although to a much smaller scale. For example, the Dai Nippon Butokukai (Great Japan Society for Martial Virtue- my trans.), Nihon Kendo Kyokai (Japan Kendo Society- my trans.) and a variant form of kendo at the Nippon Budokan is the Ikkenkai Haga Dojo. They engage in a very physical pre-war style of kendo, which is noticeably different to the style of kendo encouraged by the All Japan Kendo Federation. There are also a number of separate iaido federations.
Nevertheless, all rival organisations in Japan to the AJKF are very small and hardly visible. The AJKF prohibits anyone from simultaneously belonging to and holding grades from the AJKF and other rival organisations. This had the immediate effect of strangle holding the activities of other groups.(13)
The AJKF is the only kendo organisation recognised by the government sanctioned Japan Amateur Sports Association (日本体育協会). They are also affiliated with the Japan Olympic Committee, although are not rated highly by the JOC.(14) In other words, the AJKF is publicly recognised as being the representative of kendo in Japan. In order to be able to participate in the All Japan Kendo Championships and the prestigious National Sports Festival (Kokutai), and the World Championships, the Japanese competitor must be a registered member of the AJKF.
The AJKF equivalent in Korea is the government acknowledged Korean Kumdo Association. They are also afforded the same rights as their Japanese counterparts to participate in the Korean National Sports Meet. Members of this federation are afforded other benefits through being governmentally recognised, such as opportunities to progress through to high school or university on the basis of good competition results, and also some of the top-ranked kumdo practitioners are employed by local governments to teach full time as professionals. They also oversee kumdo which is taught as a compulsory subject at the police academies. Any members of the many other non-recognised organisations are not afforded these same opportunities. However, it seems that many kumdo practitioners in Korea are unaware of the reasons for such disparity, and the KKA reportedly receives many protests at this unequal treatment. (15)
The Olympic Proposal
The Korean kumdo specialist magazine Kumdo World published a special 8-page feature covering the World Kumdo Association formation ceremony and festivities, including interviews with all the leading figures in the WKA hierarchy. The following is a portion of what was written about the event:
“The Korean Kumdo Federation (KKF) conducted a ceremony to mark the foundation of the World Kumdo Association on October 27th (2001). With the extensive internationalisation of kumdo, the second most popular Korean martial art, learning from the taekwondo experience, thirteen of the existing eighty or so feuding domestic kumdo organisations decided to join forces to create the WKA. The government sanctioned KKA has received much criticism for following the lead of the Japanese, and being affiliated with the International Kendo Federation (IKF), which is an organisation made by Japanese for Japanese kendo. Until now, kumdo has failed to find a place in the Asian Games and the Olympic Games. To these ends, the KKF, propagator of Korean style kumdo announced that they were aspiring to be accepted as an Olympic event, and to spread kumdo internationally.” (16)
What does this have to do with the status quo of kendo in Japan? At present, the Japan-based International Kendo Federation is the ‘recognised’ international body for overseeing the development and maintenance of kendo throughout the world, being recognised by itself as such. So far, the IKF has showed little interest in becoming affiliated with the Olympic movement. However, there have been voices from within the hierarchy of the federation who state otherwise. I clearly recall a speech given at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Kendo World Championships at Santa Clara in which a Taiwanese official of the IKF expressed his opinion that kendo should strive to become an Olympic sport “to spread the goodness as far and as wide as possible.” However, the general opinion of the IKF officials, and most Japan-centric kendo enthusiasts around the world is to keep kendo out of the Olympics.
To test this theory, a total of 264 people from 36 countries answered a Kendo World questionnaire, which was conducted over the Internet. The majority of respondents indicated that they were opposed to kendo becoming an Olympic sport, however, almost 30 percent were in favour.(17)
In Korea, the KKA is concerned with what the WKA is advocating in their views to internationalise kumdo, but at the same time the KKA also agrees that kumdo/kendo should become an Olympic event. In fact, the Managing Director of the KKA was quoted as saying “Kumdo/kendo in countries outside of Japan will never achieve a big following unless it becomes an Olympic sport. It should be developed and made accessible to all people by making appeals to the wonderful attributes to be gained from kendo. Kendo should be for all people all around the world. In Korea and Taiwan, even though there is a certain amount of understanding of the art, it is still difficult to popularise. Representative organisations from other countries, in actuality are no bigger than ‘clubs’.” (18)
In this sense, even though becoming an official Olympic event is generally opposed by kendo enthusiasts, becoming affiliated with the IOC through belonging to a recognised organisation such as General Association of Sports Federations (GAISF) evidently seems attractive to many small kendo federations around the world. This is because of the greatly increased possibilities for receiving financial finding. In regards to the Olympic issue we also investigated the financial possibilities of becoming affiliated to the IOC. The following chart shows the extent of opinion regarding whether becoming affiliated to the IOC would be financially beneficial for kendo in their country. (19)
Here, the majority of respondents clearly see the financial advantages of Olympic affiliation. This very point was raised at the recent Glasgow World Kendo Championships where a number of European federations expressed their desire to become affiliated with GAISF in order to increase the standing and status of kendo in that country, and also make them eligible for governmentally funded financial aid. Without such financial assistance, the propagation of kendo in each country is very difficult.(20) Naturally, kendo has a cultural base in Japan, and is recognised widely throughout the country as traditional Japanese culture even by people who do not participate. Comparatively speaking, raising the profile of kendo and raising funds for propagation and mere survival is not as big an issue in Japan as it is for the rest of the world’s kendo federations.
The Process of Induction into the ‘Olympic Family’
This Olympic ripple, which has appeared on the otherwise calm and Japan-centric kendo pond has the potential to develop into a wave of far-reaching consequences to the international kendo community, and Japan. It will more than likely be exasperated by issues of nationalism highlighted by a turbulent history of less than amicable relations between Japan and Korea. As I have already shown, it is true that many Koreans consider kumdo as traditional Korean culture. Naturally, the Japanese also claim kendo as their ‘unique’ culture, and a gift to the many kendo aficionados around the world. Other nationalities are not so concerned with issues of suzerainty, but will probably eventually be coerced into taking sides one way or another as the situation gets out of hand. In fact this is already evident to a certain extent now.
Having said that let me review the facts of this recent development in the kendo world that is starting to cause concern. The WKA was formed in October 2001 as a rival organisation to the IKF. The WKA is seen to be recruiting individual clubs and federations on an international scale. The WKA is politically ambitious, and is open about its ambitions of Olympic inclusion. The WKA states clearly that it has no qualms about changing the style and content of kendo to gain the much-coveted status of becoming an Olympic event, like its predecessor taekwondo.
Its first aim is to become affiliated as an IF (International Federation) with an IOC recognised association such as the aforementioned General Association of Sports Federations (GAISF). GAISF, founded in 1967, groups together the International Sports Federations and various associations with the aim of defending worldwide sport, becoming better informed and making themselves known, and cooperating and coordinating their activities. GAISF, along with other IOC affiliated groups such as the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), the Association of International Winter Sports Federations (AIWF), and the Association of IOC Recognised International Sports Federations (ARISF) look after the interests of its affiliated sports federations. Belonging to one of these IOC recognised groups doesn’t mean that the sport in question automatically becomes an Olympic sport, but it does mean inclusion in the Olympic movement. They are considered the ‘official’ international representatives (IF) of whatever sport they act for, and are allowed to vie for admission as an official Olympic sport. There are a number of martial arts organisations already affiliated with GAISF such as judo, aikido, karate, jujutsu, taekwondo, wrestling, fencing, sambo, and more recently wushu, which is scheduled as a demonstration sport in the Beijing Olympics of 2008.
How feasible are the WKA’s aspirations? Interestingly, from my research I have found that even though the WKA does have very powerful officials, it does not have the membership to pose as a serious contender to become a member of GAISF yet. To become a GIASF recognised International Federation (IF) requires exposure to intense scrutiny, and needs to be approved at numerous board meetings. Korea has had a successful history of using political weight and know-how to influence sporting decisions in the past. We see examples of Korean success in the Chairman elections of the International Judo Federation, and co-hosting the FIFA 2002 World Cup with Japan. A significant strength that the WKA possesses is its ties with officials connected with taekwondo’s successful entry into the Olympics. Of particular importance in this development was the nine-times elected President of GAISF, Korean Dr. Un Yong Kim, who is also President of the World Taekwondo Federation, and has recently been re-elected as Vice President of the IOC.(21) Incidentally, the president of the WKA is Jung Hak Seo who was the first Vice President of the International Kendo Federation when it was formed in 1970.(22) Thus, with such a network at their disposal, the WKA certainly has a number of political advantages to advance their objectives.
Nevertheless, to become a sport contested at the Olympics, certain criteria must be met as outlined in the Olympic Charter:
“To be included in the programme of the Olympic Games, an Olympic sport must conform to the following criteria:
1.1.1 Only sports widely practised by men in at least seventy-five counties and on four continents, and by women in at least forty countries and three continents, may be included in the programme of the Games of the Olympiad.” (23)
From what I can ascertain, the WKA does not come anywhere near reaching these figures. The WKA as of November 2003 claims to have approximately 30 international affiliates. Of those, I have only been able to confirm branches in Korea, USA, Taiwan, Canada, Russia, and the UK. Furthermore, information on actual registered members is impossible to ascertain. However, it is fair to assume that the WKA is absolutely no match for the forty-four IKF affiliates (420,404 members not including Japan), and the thirty-eight countries that are seeking affiliation (817 registered members.)(24)
For the WKA in its current state to become affiliated with GAISF would require large-scale fabrication of figures, and some remarkable political manoeuvring, or both. Nonetheless, if through some means the WKA were to become affiliated with GAISF, even if membership is significantly less than that of the IKF, they will be recognised by the IOC as the world’s representative kendo organisation. If they then decide to adapt the current form of kendo to fit the requirements of the Olympics, they would be well within their rights, and the IKF would be virtually powerless to stop them promoting a hybrid version as ‘kendo’, or ‘kumdo’ as the case may be.
Judging from the aforementioned political situation in the Korean kumdo world, it is difficult to imagine that the thirteen organisations that make up the WKA are doing the same style of “kumdo”. Furthermore, it seems that some of the WKA officials are not kumdo practitioners but taekwondo.(25) This begs the question, exactly what kind of kumdo/kendo do they intend to popularise around the world? One of the officials of the WKA also mentioned the possibility of introducing electronic scoring equipment along the lines of that utilised in Western fencing matches.
“We intend to introduce electronic armour to assist in umpiring. We also intend to make kicks valid for scoring points, and also an accumulative point system to encourage positive and successive attacking. We are looking at ways to make it more interesting.”(26)
For kendo traditionalists, the act of adapting kendo to suit the requirements of the IOC is the most worrying factor. Indeed, the WKA proposition to use electricity to ‘accurately’ score points, as is done in fencing is almost unthinkable in a conventional sense. Kendo points are based on the technique having been executed with ki-ken-tai-itchi (気剣体一致) and meeting a number of other stringent (often nebulous) requirements that are not obvious to the untrained eye.
According to the official IKF Kendo Shiai and Shinpan Regulations a valid strike (yuko-datotsu) must consist of the following elements;
“SECTION 2- Article 17. Yuko-datotsu is defined as the accurate striking or thrusting made onto Datotsu-bui of the opponent’s Kendo-gu with Shinai at its Datotsu-bu in high spirits and correct posture, being followed by Zanshin.” (27)
The rules for scoring a point in fencing are as follows;
“At epee the target includes the whole of the fencer’s body including his clothing and equipment. Thus any point which arrives counts as touch whatever part of the body (trunk, limbs, or head), the clothing or the equipment it touches…Only the indications of the electrical recording apparatus can be taken in to consideration for judging the materiality of touches. In no circumstances can the Referee declare a competitor to be touched unless the touch has been properly registered by the apparatus.”(28)
Obviously, a mere touch with the blade on the target in kendo is not sufficient according to the current rules. Even though it looks to be connecting, often the attack is not deemed valid in kendo because some of the aforementioned criteria are not met. This aspect of kendo makes it very difficult to follow for people who are not versed in the ways of ki-ken-tai-itchi, and all the elements that have to be present in a strike to make it valid. (Actually, this is a constant point of confusion even for seasoned kendo exponents.)
One important aspect of any Olympic sport is its accessibility to spectators who do not actually participate in the sport. If kendo were to become an Olympic sport, issues such as the difficulty in judging or understanding ippon would have to be overcome with rule changes. One of the foreseeable changes would be the simplification of what constitutes or is judged as a point. Hence, it the WKA’s idea to use electrical devices such as those used in fencing, which would undoubtedly aid in its ‘followability’, at least on a superficial level. This, to most kendoists, would be totally inappropriate as such things as striking correct target areas with ki-ken-tai-itchi （気剣体一致）from correct ma-ai （間合）with the correct part of the shinai maintaining correct hasuji (刃筋) with sae (冴) on impact, followed with zanshin (残心) and so on, contain the essence of what kendo is, and should be retained even if this means casual observers have absolutely no idea of what is going on. Thus, it would be close to impossible for kendo in its current form to become an official Olympic sport.
However, if enough changes were made to its current form, what would be the consequences? Although one can only speculate, it is probable that under such circumstances many newcomers would be attracted to the Olympic version. For good or for bad, the Olympics are the most prestigious sporting event in the world, and many athletes in a number of sports have been financially set up for life through Olympic success. Many lament the apparent loss of budo virtues such as respect, modesty, and general courtesy in judo since it became washed away in the tide of ‘Olympism’, and the fervour to win at all costs to get the gold. Even the Olympics itself is not what it used to be. It states in the first section of the Olympic Charter;
“Modern Olympism was conceived by Pierre le Coubertin, on whose initiative the International Athletic Congress of Paris was held in June 1894….Olympism is a philosophy of life , exalting and combining in a balanced whole, the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”(30)
It is widely recognised that the so-called Olympic Family is really the Olympic industry using sports as a vehicle to create billions of dollars of revenue. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as people want drama in their lives, and the spectacular sporting stage of ‘do or die’ antics offered us by the Olympics fulfils these needs. Why shouldn’t the athletes who dedicate their lives to their sport profit, and sponsors who make it possible reap the benefits? In many ways, although the target of much criticism in the last decade, the Olympic movement must be commended for their amazing ability to keep with the times, and to a great extent influencing the times.
However, regardless of the controversy surrounding the ethical fortitude of the Olympic movement, what would kendo gain from becoming an Olympic sport? Again, we must rely on pure speculation to answer this question, and it would seem that the perceived benefits I have outlined such as more exposure, more revenue, and more prestige could very well be offset with negative factors such as diminished importance of kendo’s own perceived ‘traditional’ ideals as winning became not everything, but the only thing. Who cares about how nice a person you are when you have an Olympic medal draped around your neck, and a massive endorsement check in the mail from a corporate sponsor? It is difficult to know what the far-reaching implications would be. But, it seems apparent that the time has come for the kendo world to reassess its motives and what it holds dearest in its kendo ideals.
The IKF claims to be “a non-political and friendly organization and its purpose is to propagate and develop kendo (including iaido and jodo) internationally and to foster the mutual trust and friendship among the affiliates.” If it wants to do this successfully, it might even want to consider becoming a member of GAISF, so that at least then it has the power to decide its own fate, and the fate of kendo as we know it now, before a hybrid version is able to usurp that privilege.
If kendo were to become an Olympic sport as desired by the WKA, many things would have to be changed, which it is thought would detract from kendo's perceived essence. Much of this paranoia stems from the example of judo’s inclusion into the Olympics. The ideals of Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan Judo have for the most part taken the back seat in recent years where winning the gold medal rather than developing body, character, and sociability has earned the scorn of many traditionalists.
We see incidents of doping, money for winning, cheating (suspicious dogi), point system instead of clean ippon which is seen to advantage brute strength over technique, unbridled emotional outbursts in victory or defeat when the essence of budo is said to be to control emotion and show respect, death threats (by Japanese) to international referees who are perceived to have made flawed judgments, raucous crowds of the kind seen at football matches, and so on. Also, the recent introduction of blue judo-gi was seen as spitting in the face of Japanese tradition, although very few Japanese exponents could offer much more of a persuasive argument than “white traditionally signifies purity in Japan.”
What resulted from this furore was a clear demonstration that, although the suzerain country for judo, the Japanese authorities were completely unable to express convincing opinions on the international stage when it counted(31) , be it through linguistic deficiency, lack of political clout, or perhaps even confusion about their own so-called traditional values. What compounds matters for many is the fact that not only Japan is unable live up to the Kano legacy and demonstrate political savoir-faire, the same could also be said out on the mat where it is no longer surprising for Japan’s top judoka to be defeated with relative ease. All of this has prompted judo authorities to instigate the ‘Judo Renaissance’ in Japan in an attempt to go back to basics and reconsider Kano Jigoro’s humanistic and educational ideals.
With judo looked upon as an example of the overwhelming negative power of internationalisation, kendoka appear to be very wary of too much international propagation, and especially want to avoid any contact with Olympism. There is a stigma attached which is deep-rooted, and in my opinion has certain legitimate grounding. Having said that, the current form of kendo is not really that old anyway, and a very similar debate was raging a few centuries ago about the introduction of such ghastly apparatus as shinai and bogu. This, it was argued would completely corrupt the real kenjutsu into some ridiculous form of senseless stick fighting. Cultural evolution is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be stopped if necessary, as long as the main motives are not sentimental longings for "the way it was in the good old days." When faced with issues like this, it offers an important opportunity to reassess the whole point of doing kendo in the first place.
Korea - The Black Ships of Kendo by Alexander Bennett
The Great Kendo Contradiction
What is it that Japan can and should do from now? Barely a century has passed since the Butokukai was formed in 1895 and budo was systematically propagated in Japan. In fact, it wasn’t until 1918 thanks in large part to the efforts of Nishikubo Hiromichi that the term ‘budo’ was denoted as the official term for the martial arts instead of ‘bujutsu’, thereby stressing the character building attributes as opposed to the combative or competitive aspects.(32)
Since the Bakumatsu era, many aspects of the martial arts were in a state of constant flux, and adaptations were made to fine-tune it in order to suit the needs of the day. It is no exaggeration to say, using Hobsbawm’s term, that a ‘new tradition’ was being persistently developed in Japan before budo was ever exported.(33) There were numerous reinterpretations and refining of the rules for competition, ranks, reviews of techniques, and motivations for training and teaching. Kendo has often found itself torn between conflicting definitions. The cause of this is what Otsuka Tadayoshi calls the “duel structure” (二重構造) of kendo, or the inconsistency between ideals of the katana versus shinai.(34)
In short, the principle of ‘butoku’(武徳) or martial virtue espoused by the Butokukai encouraged the adept to use the shinai as a sword in order to attain a state of transcendence over issues of life and death, and also to instil a sense of affinity with the bushi and their ethos known as Bushido. Given such considerations, it was deemed preposterous to celebrate the scoring of a point on an opponent, and do flashy unnatural moves with the shinai that could never be successfully accomplished with a real sword. In effect, the seriousness of the endeavour based on the principles of that most Japanese of weapons, the katana, was precisely what was needed to encourage the perceived ideal character qualities of people of the time.
To encourage these qualities, matches were conducted at the Butokukai where competitors were given scores based on their attacking, posture, attitude, and spirit i.e. those who were deemed to be upholding the principles of the katana scored highly. This system of scoring continued for eight years until 1927 when a unified definition for criteria to judge a valid point was devised by the Butokukai. “A valid strike (yuko-datotsu) will be when the attack is conducted in full spirit, and the technique is executed with the proper blade angle (hasuji), while maintaining correct posture.” (35)
In 1929, against the wishes of numerous kendo leaders, the first of three Emperor tournaments (Tenran-jiai) were held in Kyoto to decide the number-one fencer in Japan. To many, this would spell the demise of kendo, regardless of the honour involved in performing before the Emperor himself. This event saw for the first time a time limit on each bout of five minutes, which encouraged the ‘cowardly’ behaviour of some exponents who after scoring first, would sit on that one point until time was up without putting up much of a fight. Nevertheless this provided the catalyst for many more similar tournaments in other sectors of the kendo world up until war loomed.
Wartime kendo called for realism. The shinai was shortened to that of a real sword, as was the tsuka (handle) of the shinai to encourage true cutting action rather than relying on leverage. Also, terminology was changed to ‘cut’ (kiru) and ‘jab’ (tsuku) rather than ‘strike’, and matches were decided by ippon-shobu (first valid cut i.e. representing true mortal combat). Adepts fought to kill.
A valid cut was redefined then as being one made “with emphasis placed on vigorous attacking, the cut or thrust must be accurate and conducted with the spirit of true combat. Particular importance is to be placed on posture and attitude.”(36)
After the initial prohibition of budo enforced by GHQ in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat for several years, kendo was eventually reinstated for educational purposes. Various changes were made, but the definition of a valid strike/cut (yuko-datotsu) remained almost the same as the pre-war explanation, and even now is relatively unchanged and abstract in nature.
Having said that, it is the relative romanticism in completing the process of scoring that elusive perfect strike that is so attractive to kendo enthusiasts around the world. But it is also the cause for much confusion. As Otsuka Tadayoshi points out, the emphasis still placed on “ideals of the katana” has stymied the development of the “ideals of the shinai.” In other words, there are many aspects of kendo that are nebulous to say the least, and there are calls for complete revision of the current kendo rules and regulations. Although a number of amendments have been made to the rules of kendo in the post-war period some commentators call for debate on what constitutes a valid strike to make it more rational and easier to understand, and conducive to the actual implement being used, a shinai, and the natural progression of the art as a logical modern sport.
Regardless of whether one agrees with this logic, there is much uncertainty in what is expected of the kendoka. That is to say, there exist contradictions in what is considered ‘strong kendo’, and what constitutes ‘correct kendo’.(37) Put simply, strong kendo wins matches, but is often sneaky, relies on trickery, can be cowardly, and often pushes the rules to the limit. So-called ‘correct kendo’ conducted in the true spirit of fair-play is honest, straight, usually executed with big textbook cuts, and stringently adheres to the rules. It may not win, but it is aesthetically pleasing, and shows the admirable trait that the adept is more concerned with developing the self rather than being preoccupied with matters of winning or losing, or being hit. Ideally being strong by being correct is what most kendoka aspire to, but reality dictates that the majority of kendoka are caught in the spectrum somewhere between the two.
This tendency is also very evident in countries outside Japan. From my experience with international kendo, I have trained in dojo which concentrate entirely on ‘correct kendo’. Every strike is big, straight and powerful. These exponents are, for the most part, completely oblivious to finer techniques such as well-timed debana-kote as they roll through like bulldozers. They very rarely participate in kendo competitions.
On the other hand there are also dojo which concentrate purely on techniques to win at shiai. I would class this type as a minority at this stage, but certainly growing in recent years. This is obvious by the increasing competitiveness seen at the World Kendo Championships every three years. Nevertheless the general attitude toward shiai by non-Japanese kendoka is expressed in the graph below.(38)
I attribute negation of the supremacy of competition to the missionary efforts of Japanese kendoka who have conscientiously propagated ‘correct kendo’ as an historical and important Japanese cultural tradition, emphasizing the value of executing large, powerful (but not too forceful), straight techniques with total conviction. In other words, the remnants of pre-war katana kendo. Nevertheless, as kendo matures outside Japan, these attitudes are starting to change. I perceive three main reasons for this.
Firstly, as I have already mentioned, kendo is considered a minority sport in most countries. Each local federation requires financial assistance from government sport trusts and foundations to enable them to publicise the activity to attract more members. Kendo also has to compete with hoards of other minority sports for limited funds. Therefore, the most reliable way to gage the merit of funding is through favourable competition results. The prospect of funding is also another motivation for wishing to belong to an organisation recognised by GAISF, and is an issue that I believe the IKF should prioritise without delay.
Secondly, the rapidly increasing presence of Korean kumdo dojang are providing many countries with a different style which is characteristically more dynamic than Japanese kendo, and openly advocates a competition oriented form. That is not to say that aspects of etiquette, character building, and metaphysical aspects are not an important part of kumdo. However, kumdo tends to openly place more value competition and commercialisation. Kumdo will undoubtedly gain more international momentum in the event their national team defeats the Japanese at the World Championships. Many predict this is not far away.
Thirdly, non-Japanese kendoka are becoming acutely aware and frustrated with the blatant contradictions in what they are being taught as ‘correct kendo’ by Japanese instructors, and the actual status quo in Japan. Japanese kendo, despite all romantic ideals to the contrary is now very much an activity where winning, often at any cost, is the most important thing. An individual’s entire career can be decided by one point that they scored in one match at junior high school. Regardless of an awareness of what is ‘correct’, like most things in modern society, performance and innovation is a matter of survival, not only for the competitor, but also the coach, and in some cases the entire institution. The persuasiveness of argument for ‘correct kendo’ is greatly diminished, as is trust, when the very advocators of this ideal resort to other means in order to gain victory in competition. However, this is the reality of kendo in Japan. The issue that must be addressed is how to come to grips with these seemingly opposing ideals.
Very few people outside of Japan would deny that shiai is not an important aspect of one’s overall kendo training. Again, this is evident in the replies to survey results in the pie chart.(39) However, there are many in Japan and around the world who advocate that although shiai is important, it must not become the sole objective. Therein lays the greatest fear of kendo becoming an Olympic sport, the ultimate achievement for any athletic activity.
Some kendo authorities suggest that to solve this dilemma of sport kendo and correct kendo, two types of kendo should be popularised. One would be traditional 剣道 which upheld the ‘true way’ based on the principles of the sword. The other would be KENDO, a mixture of Japanese and Western ideals in which sporting aspects would be encouraged. The ultimate destination for KENDO would be Olympic participation. These are the terms in which judo (JUDO) is often referred to.(41) However, to most non-Japanese kendoka, this would seem an extremely condescending and hypocritical stance. Before labelling a new kind of kendo with Roman letters to solve the dilemma of sports versus tradition, there are many issues which have to be properly debated and brought to a consensus first. At this crucial stage of kendo’s development, such an initiative would be a superficial and be neglecting the wider issues. What then are those wider issues? For example;
Is kendo in Japan in its current state satisfactory to kendoka? (I.e. competition rules, yuko-datotsu criteria, grading criteria etc.)
Has kendo evolved to suit the modern era for people with modern needs? (E.g. Why are fewer people taking up kendo in Japan? What are the main social problems facing youth today, and how could kendo possible help contribute to rectifying them?)
Is kendo truly helping people develop body and spirit as the relatively recent Concept of Kendo promises?
If not, what changes can be made to help achieve these goals?
Are there any outdated traditions, rituals, or modes of thought that should be reviewed or even scrapped entirely in order to make way for new traditions?
What are the essential elements (traditional, cultural, metaphysical and physical) that must be maintained at all costs?
Are these elements being maintained now any way?
Considering the cultural differences, these are precisely the issues that kendoka outside Japan have had to ask themselves for it to work in their respective countries. In this respect, Japan could very well learn from the kendo minnows of the world.
The ever-increasing popularity of kumdo in Korea and the push of kumdo overseas as a traditional form of Korean culture in recent years, and the formation of the WKA has been a most timely development for Japanese kendo and budo. It has opened the way for much needed self-reflection in the Japanese kendo world by providing the potential spectre of Olympism.
As the extent of Japanese budo’s international propagation has exceeded the wildest expectations of Japanese nationalists and humanists alike, now is not the time to try and force-feed Japan-centric values on the rest of the world. The ‘missionary’ phase budo’s international propagation has served its purpose. It is true that many countries still lack highly ranked leaders are barely breaking in to a second generational structure as opposed to the luxury of three generations in Japan where younger practitioners have the luxury of many highly experienced sensei and sempai to look up to.(42) Indeed, there is still a distinct lack of human resources and literature to aid in the deeper understanding of kendo/budo ideals outside Japan. In this respect the value of contact with highly ranked Japanese instructors who are dispatched to teach by the IKF cannot be understated, even though they can be financially debilitating for small federations. Nevertheless, now there are growing numbers of experienced non-Japanese budoka who, through much trial and error, and a certain amount of confusion have managed to adapt what was originally Japanese into something workable in their own communities. It goes without saying that when Japanese budo is transplanted in another country or society, with another language, and another set of cultural values, it has to adapt to suit that particular cultural climate. Not to do so would have the same results as planting a cactus in a rain forest, or putting a fresh-water fish in the ocean.
Commonsense dictates that each country is different, and the needs of each society’s people differ greatly. Thus, even though many aspects of Japanese culture will remain obvious and clearly visible in say a kendo club in the Middle East, there will undoubtedly be many aspects that will be changed out of necessity for it to be of use to the locals and survive into the future. A very simple example would be zarei. It would be unthinkable to perform zarei to another person in say an Islamic country such as Iran, where this ritual already exists as the ultimate expression of deference to Allah. There must be a change made, but the essence of showing respect to one’s opponent or the like does not necessarily have to be omitted. In fact, such budo ideals as respect, cooperation, and so on are considered to be absolutely essential even if the form it takes is different.
Korea - The Black Ships of Kendo by Alexander Bennett
In effect, Japan’s international contribution to the world through the spread of budo was to provide a blueprint, which although retaining essential elements, has evolved sometimes successfully, and sometimes not. The evolution is subtle in some cases, such as the aforementioned Korean adaptations in kumdo, and more explicit in others with the creation of hybrid arts hardly recognisable as having its roots in Japanese budo. Still, the extensive popularity and recognition of Japanese budo proves beyond any doubt that it has core elements of universal value to mankind, even if that form differs from region to region, and indeed time to time.
In short, kendo and budo in general has carved out a very significant niche in many different cultures. It has matured into something more than just ‘traditional’ Japanese culture, but has had to make some changes in the process in order to survive. Budo in Japan also has a history of change to fit the ideals and needs of the era in question.
Even though Japan has been instrumental in introducing the ideals of kendo to the rest of the world, with the ever-increasing competitive level of Korean kumdo coupled with initiatives for propagation, and the fringe elements that seek Olympic inclusion, the Japanese kendo world is starting to see the actual extent of kendo’s internationalisation, and the possible routes it could take in the future.
This is a cause of unease for many, especially the lack of reliable information indicating the true state of affairs. Is the internationalisation of budo/kendo Japan’s equivalent to Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, who came back to haunt him until both were destroyed? That may be too much of a dramatic analogy. Nevertheless, the objective of Japanese kendo at this stage should not be to seek to tame or control the ‘monster.’ Instead, Japan would be prudent to return to drastically pioneering kendo at home again, in the manner it was in the Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods. Japan has blessed the world with a wonderful blueprint. What the world needs now is a reliable role model to look up to and aspire to, which does not promote contradictions and double standards. Who will fill that role?