Saturday, February 09, 2008

Diversity in Kendo

There was a recent thread on the Kendo World forums that, admittedly, hasn't really been talked about too much. The thread was talking about why women tend to not stay too long in Kendo, but it can also be applied race as well. As a disclaimer, I'm not trying to incite any sort of racism. I'm just bringing up an issue that I have thought about for a bit and would like to bring to the masses and find their opinions on it.

For those that aren't in the know, there are about 8 million Kendoka (kendo practitioners) in the world with about 7 million in Japan alone. Everyone else is dotted throughout the world in various clubs and organizations with an interest in Kendo for various reasons. I don't have any demographical data, but one can infer that the vast majority of people that practice in the world are either Japanese or Korean. Then you have your Whites, Blacks and whatever bringing up the rear.

Anyone who has been practicing Kendo for long enough has seen a number of people come and go. These beginning groups can be quite diverse with a variety of types of people, but quickly dwindle in the following weeks for a number a reasons that would be left for another blog entry. The exact number of retainers vary from place to place depending on the local demographics, but it's usually males of caucasian or asian descent that are more likely to stay longer. There are exceptions to this rule, or you wouldn't be seeing me typing this up.

Why do you think that this sort of thing happens? One could look at the structure of Kendo and even the people involved. Of course, we can't ignore the people themselves. There are a multitude of reasons why people decide to leave and stay in Kendo, but they can be rooted into those basic reasons. I'll tackle these reasons one by one and give possible ways to possibly retain people.

- The Newcomers Themselves

As I said before, there are a large variety of reasons that people join and leave. The issue here is that some dojos might see an influx of beginners only to be lucky to have one person stay from each new group.

In terms of diversity, when we think of the typical Kendoka, we think of the asian or caucasian male. Because of this sort of demographic, it can be quite a culture shock if they don't see someone similar attending practice. Depending on the person, that can be handled in a number of different ways.

As far as increasing diversity, the only thing that can be done is exposure. Kendo is such a small community and doesn't get much exposure to the masses like other martial arts have. As a dojo, it helps to do demonstrations that show what Kendo is, what practice is like, any information about joining and some contact info. As an individual, don't hide the fact that you do Kendo and be willing to explain things to people that are interested. With doing this, you give the exposure and the ability for people to start if they are interested.

- The Structure of Kendo Practice

Anyone who has experienced one Kendo practice should know how greuling it can become. Those with a bit more experience in bogu have a better idea of the intensity of practice while wearing 15 lbs of dead weight on your body for an hour and a half each session. In some cases, practice can be too hard for some if they aren't prepared for it. There are many variables that come into it like over-agressive people or a sensei that wants to see the best out of his or her students. Sometimes, it might get too intense for people and you might see people drop off at this point, which can be a problem for those that just start getting into bogu.

What can be done about this? I guess the real question is whether or not anything should be done about this case. Each sensei has a responsibility to their students to plant their knowledge on them in the best way they know how. Each one has a certain philosophy to Kendo and the teaching structure is based around that. So it really wouldn't make much sense to change their instruction for the sake of a small minority of people that may not be serious about it. The most that has been done was to offer a children's class so they can have someone similar in size to practice with. I mean, it's hard to do men on someone who's a few feet taller than you.

In this situation, I wouldn't say to really change the practice structure. The best thing to do is to encourage the beginners to keep going and do their best and show that progress can be made. The most important thing to do is to expose them to what is in store for them when they stick to it. I was always interested in Kendo, but going to the first tournament way back in the fall of 2003 solidified my notion that kendo was for me and I wanted to get to the point where they were at. In a way, you would be telling them that, while practice can be hard and repetitive, if you stick to it, this is what you will be doing. It really helps if you give them some sort of end-goal to all the drills and show them how they will be applied later. If they are truely serious about it, they'll form their own goals later on so I wouldn't be concerned about that.

- The Kendo Practitioners Themselves

The Kendo world is a pretty tight-knit community. No matter where you go, you will most likely be welcomed with open arms as we realize that Kendo is such a niche community and desire to expand that. For this, the thing to do would be to do a better job with having people feel included. You could have the best of instruction and the most skilled Kendoka around, but it all goes to pot if there's no sense of belonging.

What I am saying goes beyond what I said in the second part. There are outside gatherings for various reasons and conversations that go on before, during and after practice. To make them feel belonged, try including beginners in these things to have something to come back to for the next practice. In a way, this also makes the beginners start to feel a little guilty if they decide to not attend practice anymore. Don't get me wrong, if they don't like Kendo then they will stop. But if there is a small desire to keep trying, just that small push of inclusiveness could keep them coming.

Note that these aren't supposed to be the end-all-be-all for reasons why there isn't a diverse crowd in Kendo or methods for increasing the population and diversity of those that are involved. Every dojo is different in terms of available demographic and philosophy. I would be interested in hearing from others what they feel the problem may be and any possible solutions to alleviate the situation.


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