“Kendo in Japanese Martial Culture: Swordsmanship as Self-Cultivation” – Jeffrey Dann’s Ph.D. Thesis

I came across some old notes regarding a Ph.D. Thesis which investigated kendo from a cultural perspective that I had read many years ago.  If you are interested in a comprehensive resource for understanding kendo in a broader context, I’d highly recommend reading:

Jeffrey Lewis Dann, Kendo in Japanese Martial Culture: Swordsmanship as Self-Cultivation, Ph.D. Thesis, March 3, 1978, University of Washington (PDF, 311 pages).

Here’s a portion of the abstract:

The dissertation concerns the forms, meanings, and uses of kendo in modern Japan where, as a central part of martial culture, it is a regimen for “spiritual education.”  Tracing kendo – the way of the sword – to its principal historical roots in Japanese warrior codes and swordsmanship, the dissertation locates contemporary kendo among the “martial ways” (budo) which are developed and perpetuated today for the self-cultivation of the individual in a quasi-combative learning context.  By relating the rules of performance and the theory of instruction in kendo to Japanese ideas of maturation and ideals of person-hood, the dissertation demonstrates persuasively the use of forms and precepts that make use of the sword, its manufacture, and its manipulation in combat as a metaphor and guide for individual discipline and morality, among other purposes.

There are so many invaluable insights in Dr. Dann’s Thesis.  Here are some examples:

  • He points out a fascinating culture vs. activity observation in Chapter 3 (PDF p. 138).
    • How the more individualistic American culture tends to promote team sports (e.g. football, baseball, basketball) to serve as a counter-balance.
    • Whereas the more group-oriented Japanese culture tends to promote individualistic martial arts (e.g. kendo, judo, kyudo).  Though that seems to have been changing since the publication of the Thesis.
  • Have you noticed how some sensei’s in Japan tend to teach more with action rather than with words or verbal explanations?  He explains this aspect in the Section “Experiential Learning and the Body” in Chapter 5 “The Theory of Learning”.
    • Moreover, he delves into how sensei‘s may offer “physical koans” (in contrast to koans or teachings expressed with words) to encourage a student to develop intuition in handling different situations and opponents (PDF p. 242).  Essentially, a physical and non-verbal form of teaching and learning.
  • He presents an analysis of kendo from a cultural, sociological and spiritual viewpoint in Chapter 6 (PDF p.  264).

Even though a little over forty years has passed since its publication, much of the thesis still seems relevant today.


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