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 Mikkofs 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 Shinfichi (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 coldh, and that he was satisfied to simply gwatch and learnh 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 iceh, 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 peoplefs 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 experience.

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-hoh (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 clubfs 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 hospitality.

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 childrenfs faces when they met gthe real Santah. 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 menfs and womenfs team matches and individual matches. The results were as follows:
Menfs Individual: 1. Herve Blanchard (France) 2. Jan Ulmer (Germany)
Womenfs Individual: 1. Clemence Garcia (France) 2. Aurelia Destobbeleer (France)
Menfs Team: 1. Spain 2. France 3. Italy 3. Germany
Womenfs Team: 1. Germany 2. Hungary 3. Poland 3. France

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 Swordh, 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 lecturefs 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 Japanfs Concept of the Sword
7. Ancient Koreafs Concept of the Sword
8. Ancient Chinafs 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 doesnft 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 looking for.

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.

February 2006