Then and Now – Kendo as a Foreigner in Japan in the 1970s

Then and Now – Kendo as a Foreigner in Japan in the 1970s

By Geoff Salmon

author of

Kendo: The Comprehensive Guide and Kendo: Inherited Wisdom and Personal Reflections

I was lucky enough to live and work in Japan in the 1970s. During the three years I was there I trained five times a week in Osaka and Kobe.

I now live in the UK, although I have been back to Japan on numerous recent occasions for grading and shōgō exams, seminars, the Kyoto Taikai and just to see friends. My more recent guest status gives me an obviously different perspective to that of current residents, but I am probably in as good a situation as anyone to make then and now comparisons.

In my view, life outside the dojo has changed far more than that within it. You still have to queue for 30 minutes to practise with a Hanshi, you still need to be introduced or invited to train in most dojo and you need to now, as you did then, show that you have the determination and resolve to learn correct kendo before teachers will devote time to you. What has changed however is that there are now more of us and it’s easier to communicate.

During my time in Osaka, I was aware of only two other foreign kendoka who lived in the area, Mark Grivas from the USA and an Iranian named Sadat. Today, there are many more foreign resident kendoka in Japan; enough to warrant a Kendo World Keiko Kai and regular meetings of Eikenkai.  Foreign kendoka were obviously more noticeable then, but I don’t for a moment think that that this created positive or negative bias from our teachers, we were still treated on our individual merits. Where I feel that I was lucky is that I had access to some of the great second-generation teachers such as Matsumoto Toshio-sensei in Hyogo and Ikeda-sensei and Nishi-sensei in Osaka.

Now thanks to email and social media, it’s easier to stay in touch with kendo friends all over Japan and the rest of the world. This also opens the possibility of Japan based players representing their countries in international competition. If your home country kendo association does not believe that you have improved, you can send them a clip of last night’s keiko. In the days when the quickest form of affordable communication was an airmail letter, it was a case of out of sight, out of mind.

At the time, Osaka station signs were only in Japanese, there was no internet TV and for someone like me who worked in a Japanese company, it was a case of total immersion. This was useful in that it gave a strong incentive to learn Japanese quickly, which in turn helped make kendo friends and to integrate into Japanese society far more easily than someone without a shared interest. I don’t for a moment think that this has changed, and my foreign friends in Japan all seem to be established members of the kendo community.

When I left Japan, I found that I experienced reverse culture shock in acclimatising to life in the UK, particularly within kendo.  Moving from the Shudokan to training in a hall used as a crèche took some getting used to, particularly when we bowed to where kamiza should have been, only to be greeted by a large mural of Walt Disney’s Goofy.

Living in a different country, particularly one which has a very traditional view of “inside and outside” society has its challenges, but for the kenshi who is prepared to work to be part of it, it’s as satisfying now as it was then.

1 Comment

  1. “only to be greeted by a large mural of Walt Disney’s Goofy” – Indeed, sometimes Kendo outside of Japan can get pretty damn surreal.

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