|Finnish Kendo Travel Diary
Japanese Culture Abroad\Uncertainty, Inspiration and Appreciation
text by Sakai Toshinobu (Tsukuba University)
I was dispatched by the All Japan Kendo Federation as an instructor
to the Scandinavian nation of Finland from February 16 until May 1 2005.
A year has passed since, with mixed feelings of excitement and apprehension,
I embarked upon my journey. I should have completed this report sooner;
however, so many things happened during my short stay in Finland, that
it has taken me quite some time to organize my thoughts. This, combined
with my busy work schedule, has meant that it has taken me nearly a
year to commit my fond memories of Finland to paper. I believe that
my experiences there were of great value to me and I would like to record
them for you before the passage of time blurs their memory.
Off to Finland
I will never forget the first sensation of freezing air brushing against
my face when I arrived at Helsinki Airport. Finland in February is excruciatingly
cold. At that time of year, even the capital Helsinki is minus 10 degrees
Celsius during the day and can drop below minus 20 degrees at night.
I was amazed to see people walking on the frozen sea and I heard that
cars are even driven on the frozen sea surface and on frozen lakes.
Nevertheless, indoors it was warm and comfortable and I was able to
spend much of my time relaxing indoors in short sleeves.
By way of a brief introduction to the country itself, the total landmass
of Finland is slightly smaller than that of Japan. Its population, however,
is significantly smaller at a mere five million people. Most of the
population speaks Finnish. Appreciation of culture is at a very high
level and great emphasis is placed on education, as a result of which
there is an extremely high level of linguistic ability. Virtually everybody
can communicate in English and it is not uncommon for people to be multi
lingual. The Finnish national character is often said to be similar
to that of the Japanese, and the men are quite reserved and kind. I
have vivid memories, however, that in contrast to the Finnish men, the
women are extremely lively.
While in Finland I had two main areas of responsibility as a coach.
My first job was to train the national squad in Helsinki, while my second
responsibility was to visit the provinces and, while being hosted by
the locals, improve the overall level in the clubs. I attended to one
responsibility one week, the other the following week, and then back
to the first again. In any event, my life in Finland\as opposed to my
overall trip\commenced with those first impressions of extreme cold.
The Finnish Kendo Association
The activities of the Finnish Kendo Association revolve around the clubs
based in Helsinki, which are very well organized. Notably, the technical
directors Mikko Salonen and Markus Frey are the main instructors for
the whole country. Both of them hold the rank of 6th dan and their style
of kendo is highly orthodox and very impressive. The presidency of the
association, which is rotated among the older members, plays a supporting
role to these two younger instructors, who are in their mid thirties.
The role of association manager is filled by Mikkofs wife, Susanna Salonen.
Not only is she a very efficient manager, she also holds the rank of
5th dan, and has competed with considerable success in Europe. Without
her, the association would come to a standstill. In fact, she could
almost be called the boss. In addition, Heini Inkinen has taken on the
role of junior leader of the association. She has spent some time in
Japan as an exchange student and speaks fluent Japanese.
There are three clubs operating in Helsinki\the Ki-ken-tai-icchi Club,
the Helsinki University Kendo Club, and the Era Ken Kai. Of these, the
Ki-ken-tai-icchi Club is the oldest, and, with several hundred members,
the largest. I also felt that the overall skill level at this club was
significantly higher than at the other clubs.
There are also a number of active clubs in the provinces. The clubs
and towns that I visited included the following: the Dai Kuma Ken Kai
in Pori, the Shi Ken Kai in Lahti, the Jo Ken Kai in Hameenlinna, Turku,
the Hokufu in Oulu, Tampere, Mikkeli, and the Sho Ken Kai in Kuopio.
Their level of activity varied; however, without exception the members
of every club were very enthusiastic about kendo. The communication
between Helsinki and the provinces was very efficient, and all the details
relating to instruction and finances were handled meticulously. Thus,
all the arrangements for my stay in Finland as a visiting instructor
were made smoothly and without a single hitch. Yet, I was certainly
never treated in a cold or robotic fashion, and I was impressed by the
warmth and generous hospitality that was extended to me. In fact, all
the Japanese instructors who have visited Finland in the past have left
with this same impression, and most are very keen to return.
Overall, the kendo demonstrated is orthodox and of an impressive standard.
It is the kind of kendo that Japanese experts appreciate and I think
that this may be attributable to the high standard of the instructors
who have visited in the past. The list of teachers who have been dispatched
to teach in Finland by the AJKF is as follows: Uematsu Daizaburo (SDF),
Takahashi Toru (Tokyo University of the Arts), Iwadate Saburo (Airport
Police), Muto Shizuo(Fukushima Police), Ishizuka Yoshifumi (Osaka Police),
Onda Koji (Tokyo Metropolitan Police), Kondo Wataru (Tokushima Police),
Yokoyama Naoya (Yokohama National University), Ota Yoriyasu (Osaka University
of Education), Takeda Ryuichi (Yamagata University), Yamagami Shinfichi
(Kagawa University), Yagisawa Makoto (Japan College of Physical Education),
Iwakiri Kimiharu (International Budo University), and myself.
Sauna Party Initiation?
All the kendo clubs that I visited in Finland welcomed me with a sauna
party. Finland is the birthplace of the sauna, and the sauna is often
the venue for their parties. In accordance with tradition, about 20
members of the Era Ken Kai in Helsinki held a sauna party for me after
my first training session there. This was a new experience for me and
I was totally flabbergasted by the idea of drinking beer in a sauna.
Their leader, Kari Jaaskelainen, enlightened me as follows: gWhen we
Finns hold sauna parties, we always rush outside and dive into the snow.h
As the temperature outside was minus 20 degrees Celsius, I naturally
declined. However, they were determined to see me participate in this
cultural ritual, and so I finally complied, rushing outside and diving
head first into the powdery snow. It is difficult to describe the piercing
sensation that I experienced, which transcended ordinary feelings of
cold and pain. Needless to say, it was not long before I rushed back
inside the sauna. Everybody was very pleased with my efforts; however,
it then dawned on me that only one other person, Akseli Korhonen, had
accompanied me. I asked Kari why he had not taken part in the ritual
as well. He replied that it was gtoo coldh, and that he was satisfied
to simply gwatch and learnh from me. He had got me!
Two weeks later I visited a club in the town of Lahti. They also held
a sauna party for me; however, this time they dug a hole through the
thick ice of a frozen lake, into which I was expected to jump. I found
that joining in like this was a quick way to gmelt the iceh, so to speak,
and I suspect that it represented a kind of initiation.
Visiting the Provinces
My hosts installed me in my own apartment in Helsinki. At first, it
was difficult to get used to it, due to the differences between the
Finnish lifestyle and the Japanese. However, once I had settled in,
I found it quite comfortable. Touring the provincial kendo clubs was
an entirely different matter, however. While on the road I stayed in
peoplefs houses, an arrangement which I found a little uncomfortable.
By the time I started to feel at home with my host family, I would be
whisked off to the next town. People who I did not know would come to
meet me, and then I would be taken to a town I did not know, go and
stay with a family I did not know, and train at a club I did not know.
This process would be repeated every few days. It was a uniquely fascinating
It was impossible to predict what the level of kendo would be at a club
before arriving there. Some clubs had many members, boasted a number
of highly ranked exponents, and were very active. However, there was
also one club that consisted solely of four beginners practicing on
their own. I ran classes focusing on fundamental techniques (kihon).
In particular, I taught the techniques from the recently created gbokuto
ni yoru kendo kihon no keiko-hoh (basic technique training with wooden
swords) in all the towns that I visited. Through my teaching in the
provincial clubs I discovered that this training method is exceedingly
well thought out. Not knowing a clubfs level beforehand meant that it
was impossible to do any useful preparation in advance, and I had to
decide what I would do on the spot. Even if training sessions were usually
conducted using shinai (bamboo swords), teaching these forms was still
very useful and it was easy for the students to understand how to execute
the various techniques.
Fortunately, all the towns I visited were very happy to receive a Japanese
instructor, and I thus felt a huge responsibility to perform my duties
to the best of my ability.
Every time I visited a new town, I managed to lose a few kilograms in
weight before my return to Helsinki. Within a few weeks I felt very
much at home in my apartment there. Thanks to the beer and sausage in
Helsinki, I would always have regained the weight I had lost by the
time I embarked on my next tour of the provinces.
The Helsinki Camp
During my stay in Finland, many training camps were held, including
some in the provinces. The largest camp was held in Helsinki on March
12 and 13. Also in attendance were Takeda Ryuichi (Yamagata University),
Saito Koji (Sendai University), Kobayashi Hideshiro (Niigata University),
and over 20 college students from the Tohoku region. In all, 111 people
attended. The participants were divided into groups based on skill level,
and each of the Japanese instructors took charge of one group. We practiced
basic techniques and conducted free training, and the Finnish national
squad engaged in practice matches with the Japanese students. It turned
out to be a highly productive camp.
All the participants were pure and determined in their approach to kendo
and showed great fortitude. There was one point in particular which
took me by surprise. Participants came from all parts of Finland to
attend the camp, and they all brought sleeping bags and slept on the
gymnasium floor. This also happened at the national championships, which
were held in Pore, despite the fact that there were hotels there where
people could have stayed. I hear that this is far from unusual in Europe,
as most participants attend training seminars and competitions on a
very tight budget. In Japan the prevailing attitude would dictate that
if one did not have enough money to stay at a hotel, one would find
it impossible to attend the camp. However, they think differently in
Europe, and it was this dogged determination to learn kendo that impressed
me. It made me wonder if Japanese students would be prepared to train
in kendo with the same level of purity, determination, and sacrifice.
My Family fall for Finland
While I was in Finland, my wife, five year old daughter, and
three year old son came from Japan to visit me, and we were
able to travel to the provinces together. Naturally, this was
a great experience for my family and I am extremely grateful
to the Finnish Kendo Association for their understanding and
During one home stay, one of my children went down with a 40
degree fever and suffered a nosebleed in the middle of the
night. However, I will never forget the experience of visiting
the northern town of Rovaniemi\said to be the birthplace of
Santa Claus\and seeing the joy on my childrenfs faces when
they met gthe real Santah. In fact, there is a prologue to
this story. The previous Christmas I had been asked by my daughter
to make a telephone call to Santa directly. Doing the fatherly
thing, I had picked up the phone with nobody on the other end
and, in English, given Santa a list of presents to bring. However,
when she came to meet the real Santa, he spoke in fluent Japanese,
leaving my daughter more than a little perplexed.
I fear that we may have caused many problems to our host families;
however, it was fantastic for my family to be able to experience
Finnish family life. I feel that my children benefited greatly.
While we were living together in our Helsinki apartment, I
was unsure how my wife would cope with daily tasks such as
shopping. To my pleasant surprise, she managed to communicate
in broken English with relative ease and was able enjoy shopping
and sight seeing. The four weeks during which she was with
me served to reaffirm how strong women really are.
European Kendo Championships
One of the main reasons why the Finnish Kendo
Association requests Japanese instructors
each year is to assist it in preparation
for the European Kendo Championships. The
2005 championships were held from April 15
to 17 in Berne, Switzerland. A total of 29
countries attended and the events included
menfs and womenfs team matches and individual
matches. The results were as follows:
Menfs Individual: 1. Herve Blanchard (France)
2. Jan Ulmer (Germany)
Womenfs Individual: 1. Clemence Garcia (France)
2. Aurelia Destobbeleer (France)
Menfs Team: 1. Spain 2. France 3. Italy 3.
Womenfs Team: 1. Germany 2. Hungary 3. Poland
The Finnish team was unable to win any medals
this time. However, they fought very well
to make the quarter-finals. In particular,
Mia Raitanen fought extremely well and won
the Fighting Spirit Award. Since the Finnish
team had won these championships the year
before, I must take some responsibility for
the decline in results. However, I thought
that in fact the team did very well. Mikko
Salonen, who had been team captain for a
number of years, officially retired from
competition at these championships. I would
like to express my respect for his years
of hard work and success.
These championships provided me with an opportunity
to catch up with many old friends and make
new friends. By pure chance, I ran into an
old high school friend who happens to be
the coach of the Norwegian team. Over drinks
I also caught up with Abe Tetsushi (resident
instructor and leader of the Hungarian kendo
delegation), who is an old colleague of mine
from my post graduate days. In fact, many
hours were spent in the hotel lobby drinking
with Japanese instructors based all over
Europe, and it thus proved to be a fruitful
time for networking.
There were some unseasonable snowfalls, which
caused electrical blackouts; however, the
tournament concluded successfully and was
followed by a raucous farewell party prior
to our departure from Berne.
Lecture on Japanese Culture
During my stay in Finland, the activity which put me under the greatest
pressure was the lecture that I was asked to deliver on April 10 (Japan
Day), an event which was sponsored by the Japanese embassy. I was to
give a one hour lecture entitled gThe Japanese Spirit and the Japanese
Swordh, in English and without translation. In all honesty, the preparation
for this lecture was most hectic. Once I had arrived in Finland, I spent
every spare moment preparing the lecturefs content, the English translation,
and the PowerPoint slides, and practicing my delivery. The outline of
my lecture was as follows:
1. What is Budo?
2. What is the Concept of the Sword?
3. Kendo and the Concept of the Sword
4. The Concept of the Sword in the Edo Period
5. The Concept of the Sword in the Middle Ages
6. Ancient Japanfs Concept of the Sword
7. Ancient Koreafs Concept of the Sword
8. Ancient Chinafs Concept of the Sword
9. Epilogue: The Japanese Spirit and Budo
There was great excitement on the appointed day and 144 people squeezed
into the culture centre, which was only designed to seat 70 people.
As people filed into the lecture theatre, there was standing room only.
The room soon reached full capacity and the lecture commenced slightly
earlier than originally scheduled. I was very relieved once I had finished,
and the room erupted in applause. It was an experience I shall never
forget and I felt a great surge of satisfaction. It was hard work, yet
completely worth every ounce of the effort that I had put into it. In
fact, the experience has given me a lot of confidence, and I am grateful
to have been given this opportunity. At some stage I would like to re
use the English script.
The final month passed very quickly. After returning to Finland from
the European Championships, it was not long before I was making preparations
to go home to Japan. When I first arrived in Finland, the daylight was
always subdued, the temperature remained below freezing, and the landscape
was covered in a white sheet of snow. However, while I was getting ready
to return home at the end of April, the sun shone brightly, it was much
warmer outside, and people were buzzing with activity. On the way home
I diffidently asked myself gWhat did I manage to do for them?h
When I teach kendo in Japan, I consider it socially significant and
ultimately a vehicle for character development. Historically speaking,
it is for this purpose that kendo has been developed in Japan. However,
does this idea hold true outside Japan? In many cultures character development
or moral education has traditionally been left to religion, and this
remains the case today. I thought that it might be difficult for people
overseas to connect the idea of character development with the process
of learning how to hit people with bamboo swords. Due to religion, kendo
may not be necessary, and pushing the issue may be construed as a gross
intrusion. In fact, my aforementioned colleague, Abe Tetsushi (who lives
in Hungary), was once strongly reprimanded when he tried to explain
that the objective of kendo was character development. In fact, a student
told him gI want to learn kendo, but that doesnft mean that I want to
become Japanese.h This suggests that the student did not want to be
instructed in how he should live. I have also had similar experiences
in the places to which I have travelled. At the same time, it is true
that the people I have met through kendo have been determined and pure
in their approach to learning. What was it that they wanted to learn
from kendo? I think that a clue to the answer to this lies in the fact
that I was not only asked to teach the techniques of kendo, but also
to give a lecture about Japanese culture. The truth is, I am still quite
confused. What are other cultures seeking in Japanese kendo?
I do not think I will be able to answer this question for a while yet.
However, one thing I can say now, based on my experience, is that there
is a gap between what they are seeking and the content that we Japanese
regard as gospel and try to pass on. It is thus important that we first
try to ascertain what it is that the recipients of our instruction are
The day before I left Finland, I was treated to a huge farewell party.
Showered with alcohol and still puzzling over many things, I realised
what an incredible experience I had just been through and how grateful
I was for the opportunity. I left Helsinki on a direct Finn Air flight
to Narita and was happy once more to feel the humidity of Japan against
my face upon arrival. Since my return to Japan, five delegations and
nine individuals have come from Finland to Japan to train in kendo at
Tsukuba University. This has been the greatest prize of all.