The Survey was intended to examine Members’ initial motivation in joining Kendo; the attractions and first impressions, hopefully giving an overview to help towards recruitment.
Part one – Analysis of early replies
Early Interest and Motivation
i. A common theme in early motivation seems to be a general, if not specific, interest in ‘Things Japanese’, but not necessarily military. In this there may be a residual element remaining of World War II propaganda-fide based on many things, not solely negative. A small proportion mentioned a ‘thwarted’ pre-interest in China (art and historical culture) but channelling this instead towards Japan as ‘China was closed to easy access in the 1960s and ‘70s’.
This factor seems not to apply so much to Members who joined before the last quarter of the 20th century but after around 1990.
However, the opportunity to partially understand Japanese culture, as represented in Kendo and our Renmei presentation of this, seems to be an ever-present reason for developing interest.
ii. Once the recruit has started training, many find a fascination with the direct correlation between the actual combat skills of the mediaeval period and the ‘safe’ way this translates into Kendo with shinai.
This sense of ‘reality’ is closely connected with the actively stressed point that proper Kendo – and not the modern misrepresentation we find these days – is truly ‘a window on the past’. The key factor in this is that ‘the past’ is not specifically defined and so leads naturally to a developing interest for personal understanding. Also, training is in irregularly defined stages depending on personal effort but not necessarily connected to age, sex, formal ‘academic’ advancement, or condition. There is satisfaction to be gained by everyone rather than just for youthful fitness, to point to one aspect of this.
The above point comes out clearly from many replies from Members who are youthful, approaching middle age, and elderly – male or female.
iii. This latter factor is also noted in some replies. Additionally, it is mentioned that a majority of Iai students are not young men. The fact that they come to Iai by invitation after a two or more year’s delay from starting Kendo is not lost on them. Age brings maturity and maturity comes from one’s life experience – aided by the discipline inherent in the Kendo dojo and absorbed and expressed by all collectively
iv. The concept of joining a gym solely for physical fitness and little mental training other that youthful practical sport participation, and very few intellectual/cultural benefits, was anathema to at least two respondents.
v. There was the thought that Kendo might help to heal a recent break-up in partnerships. A good enough solution, perhaps, but dojo leaders know that in many cases it is not lasting in the long term, but Kendo did seem to help both in the short term and often in the long term.
Early Impressions of Training
vi. Finding that there is a sound reason given for all aspects of instruction. Finding that great care is given to all beginners in basics and for at least the first six practice sessions was stressed. The instruction is clearly backed by sound experience and is not delegated to junior ranks. The objective is to bring the novice up to a reasonable level of understanding so that he or she can begin to train fully within the group, only dropping out for specific instruction before re-joining the group practice and able to cope. This gives the beginner a sense of ‘belonging’, a real feeling of progressing with all ranks, however senior.
This means that all teaching is supervised by the dojo leader in an authoritative way and no one is singled out or penalised for inevitable lack of experience. The ‘discipline’ aspect, whilst strong and sometimes harsh and mediaeval, is naturally part of the learning experience. It has purpose and meaning and is very much constructive; it is not resented nor discouraging.
vii. Teaching instruction is given freely. The student only pays a fee to cover hire of premises and never for instruction. This is the very old tradition in Kendo and in direct contrast to many other so-called ‘martial arts’.
Points Emphasised in the Survey
viii. The most frequent point made is that the respondent noted that both novices and experienced members were equally included in the Dojo practice. That the first third of every session was devoted to beginners, the second third to the more senior, and only if there was time would the very senior ranks have ‘free’ practice. (There are deep reasons how this system developed in Kendo of course).
All practice, other than kata, was carried out with the bamboo shinai and mostly in strong protective armour. This permitted Kendo to be realistic, safely permitting the novice – when judged ready – to fully train in this full-contact martial system without fear of injury other that the occasional bruising.
The historical background was always kept in mind. The Survey noted that nearly all adult, employed students try to have their own armour within the first year of starting – and payments can be spread out.
ix. Everyone touched on the broader Japanese cultural background. It was pointed out that in most cases of previous contact with modern sports systems of budo, nearly all respondents had rarely experienced instructors with any necessary knowledge of the background culture and frequently quickly realised that such knowledge was thought of as irrelevant. As for any in depth understanding of Japanese religious beliefs and influences – absolutely nothing. Few seemed to have read any books to broaden their pre-knowledge but most wanted to do so after joining. (Please note this point).
From the foregoing we can clearly see the most important points that Members have highlighted in their replies. While many indicated that they were looking for Fitness and Well-being that might lead through physical exercise to mental benefits, it was with a degree of hindsight that the cultural aspect was brought out. Several continued to reflect a confusion between Kendo, in its historical tradition, and ‘sport’ as continually thrust on us daily by the Media. Here lies a very difficult problem.
Perhaps it is interesting that no one remarked on adult female participation, even obliquely, or the strict controls required in the hurly-burley of keiko. Is this an omission or simply because it was not specifically mentioned as a question in the Survey? There is a significant female membership in Japan and elsewhere, it should be noted, many reaching 7th dan rank, too.
Application and Action
This has only been a cursory Survey, one very far from exhaustive, but it does supply food for thought. Initially, the Renmei would like your (brief) views and opinions where we can make use of some – or all – of these points, or expand on some with the express aim of encouraging new recruits to all our dojo.
One point that wasn’t brought out, by the way, is that all Kendoka are volunteers, not impressed members. We all, to some degree or other, have a common interest. We train in the manner we do, because not only it is a worthwhile tradition – but we like to do so. However, we all derive some positive satisfaction from honest-to-goodness old style discipline. None of us, hopefully, are in the dojo for a brief year or two. It was once said that the biggest and most serious loss is when someone at sandan (3rd dan) gives up. That event should be addressed, perhaps, in another but much more enquiring survey.
We made the point in launching this survey that we consider it very serious at this time. It is not too late to reply even now – and very welcome, too – but we would like every single member to look at these viewpoints carefully and send your thoughts – in ‘stab’ points if possible, particularly the three or four points that you, personally, consider might encourage a prospective beginner to enquire and, hopefully join. Please don’t hesitate and think that someone else will do this, They might but, equally, they might not! Just a short e-mail is all that is needed. And it doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or a senior yudansha – just send in your thoughts.
Part Two -What attracts in Traditional Kendo or Iai?
This question that several Members tried to answer without going into detail proved interesting at this stage and may prompt further analysis.
Really the question should be divided into two parts: ‘What attracted you to these branches of swordsmanship’ and ‘Why did you bother to join when there are so many much more modern systems of ‘self-defence exercises’ offered’? Were you, in some way, vaguely interested in Japanese culture, or was it a simple straightforward need for physical exercise, hopefully with a touch of difference from the ‘norm’? Something that was not merely physical but interesting that might develop your self-esteem and self-control; your breathing, self-awareness and, possibly, helping to understand and broaden something of the fascinatingly unique Japanese culture?
Many people are not attracted by simple competitive sport. Sport is fine for the youthful but it is mostly limited by age and certainly by condition. When the first flush of youth is past, serious sport becomes increasingly stressful. While for some competition is fine, for the majority it is increasingly hard so what might be an alternative?
There are several reasonable options but what about Kendo? Here is an excellent balanced exercise that is suited to men or women of any age, even, within common sense, physically handicapped, offering great skill according to ability and supported by new friends of like mind. Added to this Kendo is a very real ‘window on the past’ – rooted in the distant Japanese Middle Ages but now to be found across the Globe.
Another strong point brought out in our Survey, was the fact that we make no charge for instruction – none at all. Kendo within the Renmei (Federation) only asks all students for a modest Membership Fee that covers rental for Dojo (Practice Halls) and a small amount to contingency funds. All practice is free to all ranks from beginner to the highest. All this is achievable in the old Kendo tradition where the best possible teaching instruction is freely given and cannot be bought commercially or professionally.
Another important point made by respondents was that they all felt that the leaders of each group fully understood the background from which Kendo had developed. This gave them confidence to initially join. This feeling deepened as they progressed through their early experiences. They also found that all the leaders were friendly, which contrasted with the somewhat negative feeling they had from some modern Budo communities.
In conclusion at this stage of the initial analysis, it would seem that all are agreed that Kendo offers a degree of dedication and determination from its newcomers, but nothing that isn’t to be found elsewhere. The exercise and regular training is beneficial in many collective ways. This is in the physical exercise that also requires mental controls and, eventually develops intellectual strengths as time goes on. But it is training in self-awareness that can continue throughout life.