Budo World

Finnish Kendo Travel: DiaryJapanese Culture Abroad―Uncertainty, Inspiration and Appreciation

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’s 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’ichi (Kagawa University), Yagisawa Makoto (Japan College of Physical Education), Iwakiri Kimiharu (International Budo University), and myself.