KIN 102M cont. – You mean I gotta write an essay?

KIN 102M cont. – You mean I gotta write an essay?
By Ron Fox

This article has its roots in two other articles I’ve written. If you want to get the background, have a look at “Kirikaeshi? Is that going to be on the final?” Part I and Part II and “What good is kendo?” If you’re impatient like me… well then just dive right in and ignore the back story.

In the Michigan State University “KIN 102M” (Introduction to Kendo) students are required to write an essay for their midterm. The essay has no right or wrong answer. It is an attempt to get a hint at what students understand kendo to be after a relatively short time of practice (about 7-8 weeks).

The essay questions are often drawn from questions/discussions I had with people during my short stays in Japan. This year’s question is derived from a discussion I had about 18 years ago when I worked for a summer at Osaka University. It had to do with how and if kendo would morph as it became practiced more and more internationally:
“While kendo originated in Japan, it is now an internationally practised martial art. Some people believe that the end result of this will be that each country will wind up modifying the art and its principles to better match their culture. Do you think this is a good idea or do you think that kendo as a whole is better off remaining an art that draws its culture from its Japanese roots?  Why?”

Not surprisingly, given the phrasing of the question, the answers were divided between traditionalist and progressive camps. Traditionalists feel that kendo should remain true to its Japanese roots, while the progressives felt that drifting away was a good thing. I think this question is interesting. All kenshi, especially dojo leaders should think about it.

If you are a strict traditionalist, then you have to ask yourself the following questions:
Isn’t some drift inevitable both because of honest misinterpretations of the culture of kendo/Japan by foreigners, as well as generational differences within Japan itself?
If you are a strict progressive you have to ask yourself how much drift away from the roots of kendo can occur before what we are doing is no longer kendo?

The students were all told that if they wrote a few coherent paragraphs on the subject, they would get full credit, regardless of what they wrote. Some students asked how long the essay needed to be. I was intentionally vague when answering that question. I told them to write as much as they needed to communicate their views. Some responses were quite well thought out, others rather superficial. With this in mind I want to provide some passages from some of the essays.

From the traditionalist essays:
“Changing kendo would be as if changing a part of Japanese culture… It’s not for other countries to modify.”

“The concept of kendo the AJKC espouses believes in molding the mind and body through correct and rigid training. Any alterations would result in new forms of martial arts … not to be known as kendo.”

“Being a part of kendo means adopting its culture as well…”

“Modifying the art which is literally Japan’s way of the sword and still calling it kendo seems almost an insult.”

From the progressives:
“One of the best parts of cultural traditions being disseminated internationally is that each country gets to put their own contributions into the mix.”

“I would like to say it is a good thing [cultural modification]. Everything needs to evolve and absorb new ideas…to make itself better.”

“…where visiting a new country is just a matter of hours [travel], the eventual mixing and blending of cultures is inevitable. As the culture adopts kendo the principles… what [each culture] finds important will develop more as other fade away.”

“Tradition is nice when it does not get in the way. If it gets in the way of something better, then that tradition is obsolete and should no longer be discarded.”

Here’s one that recognizes that both poles are hard to defend:
“Evolution is inevitable… as time passes cultures change. Can a martial art still be considered kendo if it no longer subscribes to the majority of the key principles of [today’s] kendo?”

What do you think about this question? Why not write your own answers to this question in the comments below. Remember, there’s no wrong or right answer. While you’re at it, I’m looking for questions for the Winter/Spring semester 2015. Any ideas?

1 Comment

  1. Hasn’t Kendo itself changed within Japanese history? Given the nature of Kendo and how it was originally to be used as a training for Samurai without using *sharp* swords that would cut to using bokken. Also Kendo was used in the training of students and military in the lead up to WWII and the symbolic nationalistic view it gave of the Japanese, the subsequent banning by the US after the war, Kendo has had to undergo a evolution from its traditional beginnings. However, *modern* Kendo (post WWII) has also had a renaissance back to more traditional rituals. As such, any activity will have influence from its adoptive culture – it is a natural consequence of cultural diffusion. The question too should be asked, whether a tradition can survive the modern world without any influence, even in Japan? Another question that could or should be asked, has the modern times left behind the traditions that should matter – honor, integrity, etc? Do those ideals fit into different cultures as it does in Japan? Do they still matter in Japan itself?

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