When I visited the Nippon Budokan (日本武道館) to watch the Kokusai Kendo Senshuken (世界剣道選手権大会, World Kendo Championships), an unexpected surge of joy coursed through my veins. This is probably how Brazilians feel when watching a soccer match between their national team and anyone else: they own this game. Beating the life out of their opponents is part of their birthright.
The Budokan was rissui no yochi nashi (立錐の余地なし, crowded with hardly any place to stand) and — judging from the cheering, ecstatic crowd — everyone was feeling the same surge of joy. We’re good at this, and unlike with other kokugi (国技, national sports) like sumo and judo, Japan still excels at kendo — to the extent that tsuizui o yurusanai (追随を許さない, no one else comes close).
Kendo is weird and often brutal but the Japanese have been taught to believe there’s something inherently trustworthy about anyone who has devoted a chunk of their lives to swinging the shinai (竹刀, bamboo sword).
Kendo was mandatory in my male-oriented family. I myself never got beyond my second year of training but one of my female cousins went as far as to compete in the kokutai (国体, National Athletic Meet) and wound up marrying a teammate from high school. As for my brothers, they each endured a solid six years of keiko (稽古, rigorous practice) and all that shugyō (修行, discipline, work and apprenticeship) must have paid off. Though my brothers have their faults, I’ve never heard them put kojintekina jijyō (個人的な事情, personal affairs) over social obligations or work commitments. For them, the team or organization precedes everything and the sooner a Japanese male embraces that logic, the more kurashiyasui (暮らしやすい, livable) life is for him in this country.
Japan has always liked to pretend we are a Westernized, modernized, ultra-sanitized society (“comfort women” — what’s that?). But dig a couple of meters down and what you’ll see is a wide, murky streak of what we call yamato damashii (大和魂, the Japanese soul).
This soul sets great store in kendo-related phenomena such as kangeiko (寒稽古, practicing at the crack of dawn in subzero temperatures), shūchūgasshuku (集中合宿, concentrated practice away from home, usually in a remote mountain area cut off from civilization), and of course that most fundamental of yamato damashii tasks: the zōkingake (雑巾がけ, going down on all fours and polishing the dojo’s floor with a hand-stitched cloth and a bucket full of cold water). Just for the record, there is no app for any of this stuff.
Anything the “Karate Kid” had to go through is multiplied by about 25. The much-talked about bloody hands of Miles Teller in “Whiplash”? In the world of kendo, that’s nichijō sahanji (日常茶飯事, a trivial, everyday thing). The bad news for all of us was that all that pain and suffering was never headed toward a Hollywood ending — with a pretty girl and a kiss and glorious applause. My brothers were dateless and miserable throughout their teens and what little personal time they had was jealously rationed out by a oni-komon (鬼顧問, demon coach) who made the team sit seiza (正座, sitting straight while kneeling) for hours on end in the name of “seishin shūyō (精神修養, nourishing the soul).”
As the new millennium kicked in, people like this oni komon took a back seat and yutori kyōiku (ゆとり教育, education without pressure) was applied in the school system. For the first time in the nation’s history, Japanese kids were told to relax and take it easy and foster virtues like kindness and friendship. Putting time and energy into anachronistic, militaristic pursuits like kendo was ill-advised and the far more fashionable thing was for kids to learn eikaiwa (英会話, English conversation) so they could grow up to be a kokusaijin (国際人, person with an international perspective) instead of the contemptible, outdated, old-style Japanese known as kyūnihonjin (旧日本人).
Now the oldies are staging a comeback, and welcoming younger Japanese into the fold. For the past two years, sumo tournaments are jam-packed with younger fans, and the man’in onrei (満員御礼, no seats left) banner hangs outside every basho (場所, tournament). In addition, right-wing sentiments are seeping in — not to mention the recent revision of a constitutional peace clause that was long considered the symbol of Japanese modernization and anti-nationalism.
Interestingly, favoring gara-kei (ガラ系, flip phones) over sumaho (スマホ, smartphones) is the newest youth trend, partly because it’s far less expensive, but also because staying connected 24-7 is too stressful on this overcrowded archipelago.
When my brothers feel that life is too much for them, they don’t talk about it, they go to the dojo for two hours of kendo, and after that they get on all fours and polish the floor. This is a form of therapy that has been around for centuries, and far more effective than the imported Western method of treating depression and personal problems. Personally, I find kendo danshi (男子, boys) the most attractive segment of the nation’s male populace.
And though I don’t know if yamato damashii is all good, one thing’s for sure: without it, the Japanese male may just become another oblivious, digital-screen addict with poor posture. That would surely be disastrous for Japanese women.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.