Technology is relentless and just about every martial art has been impacted by the internet. Most have embraced a modern approach to teaching. However, regarding the art of Kendo, the way of the sword has remained relatively unchanged and un-phased over the ages. That doesn’t mean the 21st century hasn’t left the art without challenges though. With options to learn Kendo online, many more people will be exposed to, and have the option to study, Kendo. With a vast and fiercely guarded tradition, how will Kendo face the inevitable challenges ahead?
Enter Hiro Imafuji. He began studying Kendo when he was 7 years old and has studied at the legendary Shubukan dojo in Japan. Now a 6th Dan, and with most of his life spent learning and teaching Kendo, it was the next logical step for him to begin teaching when he arrived in the United States. Recently, I spoke with Imafuji about the challenges of broadening the appeal and accessibility of Kendo and the many reasons why it is an art that, despite its ancient ways, remains very relevant and applicable to modern life.
Enter the Cyber Dojo
After moving to the U.S. in 2004, Imafuji began experimenting with teaching Kendo online and began uploading Kendo instructional videos to his Cyber Dojo in 2005. Eventually, the platform would become the comprehensive Kendo Guide site that it is today. Although learning martial arts online is commonplace now, it wasn’t always that way, especially regarding Kendo. As Imafuji explains, the conventional thought among most Kendoka was, “You can’t learn Kendo from a video.” Although, once the pandemic hit, that all seemed to change. “Everyone started uploading Kendo videos.”
While videos can help teach kata, technique, and skills, the student must be mindful of the subtle differences in learning from a video and in-person from a teacher. Imafuji is very upfront about the online platform not being a substitute for a physical dojo, and points out that there are limitations, of course, such as for the rank of Shodan, “You need a partner.” In addition, the student must be careful not to just mimic movement. “Copying is the best way to learn quickly, but it doesn't mean they are doing something good.” Kendo involves more than technical skills and has a rich philosophical tradition that is important to learn to become a successful Kendoka.
The 4 Sicknesses
Part of Kendo's philosophy is learning about, and ultimately striving to control the 4 sicknesses: Surprise, Doubt, Fear, and Hesitation. Upon reading them, it is obvious that they have relevance to life beyond Kendo. For reference, Imafuji provides a comprehensive breakdown of the 4 sicknesses as they relate to a Kendoka facing off with an opponent. “It’s basically whatever interferes with your calmness. It interferes with your judgment. It freezes your body. That’s the sicknesses,” For example, when choosing the moment to strike your opponent, “When you try to strike, you have fear: I might get hit. I might not get this one. Can I strike men (head)? It looks open, but can I go? You have to overcome that. If you think there is an opportunity, you just go. No hesitation, you just go. You have to commit yourself to this one cut.”
Training with a teacher, and honest reflection is how a student removes the 4 sicknesses, as Imafuji instructs, “If you get cut, if you get counterattacked, he was better than you. Or it wasn’t a great time to execute your strike, but that’s a result. Results can be changed through training, but overcoming this fear, that’s always there. We are focusing on this process, and if the process improves, hopefully, result improves.”
Kendo for Life
While it is possible to just watch some videos, learn some strikes, and wear cool-looking armor, like any other art, it is important to find a good teacher to get a deeper understanding of Kendo. Imafuji questions, “Kendo does apply to life, but now it really depends on who you are learning from. Are they teaching it like that? Or are they just teaching movements? They are two different things.” Imafuji provides an example from training for competition, “A lot of people start teaching how to get a point. That part I really don’t like. It’s not about point-getting. It’s about the process to get to the point. Some Senseis say the Kendo part is before you execute a strike.”
With competition as a substitute for combat, it is useful to remember that the traditions and philosophies of Kendo were drawn from a time when combat was real and consequences were life or death. “In the old days if you have a real sword you don’t really go for it, because if you miss you’re going to die. You have to be careful. You have to snatch the right moment, so you can survive.” The philosophy of Kendo, and cultivating its inner aspects, are so important that scoring tournaments were less about the point, and more about the state of mind when a strike was landed. “In the old days, even in tournaments, you would hit the target, but the judges wouldn’t give a point. Simply, the process wasn’t good enough.”
Whether online or in-person, teaching is demanding. What motivates Imafuji to keep going after all this time? “What I’m trying to teach is the Kendo that was passed on to me. What I received from my Sensei shouldn’t be left behind, it shouldn’t die with me. That’s my motivation.”