Then and Now – British Kendo in the 1960s
By Geoff Salmon
Kendo: The Comprehensive Guide and Kendo: Inherited Wisdom and Personal Reflections
The poet Philip Larkin asserts that sex began in 1963. Similarly, for me kendo began in 1969. Until then I had read about kendo in Judo and Black Belt Magazine, and had seen several Kurosawa films and some kendo demonstrations of varying accuracy, including one where an unpegged kodachi blade left its handle and flew over the heads of spectators.
As a teenage judoka, kendo seemed to me to be incredibly exotic. Japanese kendo was part of an imaginary landscape where people ran up castle walls and made birds fall from trees with their kiai. The list of European kendo leaders looked like the cast of a James Bond film with Swedish, Austro-Hungarian counts, retired French paratroopers and a mysterious doctor from Morocco. R.A. Lidstone, the father of British kendo, was a western sword master and a professional film fight arranger working under the name of Charles Alexis.
In 1969 British kendo centred on London’s Nenriki Dojo. Practices were held twice weekly with Friday night attracting kenshi from all over the South East. There were no beginners’ courses at the time; instead the seniors took turns in helping the new people get to a level where they could join general keiko.
Training at the time was very jigeiko orientated, built around the traditional Japanese approach of “watch and copy”. Very few of us were experienced motodachi, so keiko may often have been too combative for our levels of kendo skill. When kihon was taught, it was often done in a way that I recognise today as being more aligned to teaching Japanese elementary school students.
Our most senior grade at the time was 4-dan, which was held by R.A. Lidstone, Roald Knutsen and Fujii Okimitsu, a Japanese businessman who was then working in London. Most dojo outside London consisted of small groups of kenshi at or below shodan level, who had to work things out for themselves. We did though, and often got together for impromptu visits and gasshuku.
I have never actually seen people using home-made bōgu, but there was certainly a mend and make do ethos with equipment being constantly repaired and recycled. For some reason, there was a global reluctance to wash hakama and keiko-gi.
Shiai opportunities were limited, but the Japan Airlines Cup was an annual high-spot and the 1st World Kendo Championships (WKC) were about to happen. It is interesting to compare that 17 countries took part in the WKC in 1970 and 52 competed in 2012.
Today UK kendo has a far broader footprint. There are 63 UK clubs, with 10 in London alone. The BKA has six kendo 7-dan and 11 6-dan sensei, many of whom have spent significant periods of time in Japan. People look much neater, as new, good quality kendo equipment is readily available from local, internet and visiting suppliers.
We have regularly hosted seminars from such luminaries as Chiba Masashi-sensei, Sumi Masatake-sensei, Iwadate Saburo-sensei, Sueno Eiji-sensei and Inoue Shigeaki-sensei. This generation of senior Japanese teachers has replaced the “watch and copy” approach to teaching with a more explanatory teaching style, and this has filtered down to the way local British instructors teach.
Finally the use of the washing machine is no longer taboo, making British dojo happier places.