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Kendo Lost in Translation October 3, 2015

Posted by Alex Sawit in Stuff in General.

By Alex Sawit

October 3, 2015





   I was reviewing old commentaries on this blog when I realized that one discussion – a visitor’s comment followed by my own reply – actually deserves to be elevated as a post in its own right. The discussion is attached to a post written several years ago entitled, How to Practice Kendo Without Thinking, in reaction to which a visitor raised the issue of confusion when translating Japanese martial art terminology into English.

   Asian martial arts (especially Japanese ones) are popularly seen by the public as sources of “hidden knowledge”. To be honest, however, a lot of these esoteric teachings are needlessly made difficult to understand by their custodians. This is because Asian masters traditionally explain many of their teachings using indirect answers, philosophically expressed through “flowery” concepts. Further, masters often do not pass all their secrets to their disciples, leaving succeeding generations of instructors to figure things out on their own, which in turn can result in successors misinterpreting the original concepts.

   Scholarly research reveals that such misunderstandings also happen in Japanese kendo. In modern kendo, two concepts that many students and even instructors frequently misinterpret are the Empty Mind (mushin 無心) and the Unified Strike (ki ken tai ichi 気剣体一).

   In the original post, these concepts are presented in simplified form, purposely without Japanese terminologies and deconstructed to make them less confusing to a general audience.

  Here is the visitor’s comment and my reply (if you haven’t seen the original post, read How to Practice Kendo Without Thinking).



    [ SPOILER ALERT – In the interest of establishing absolute clarity for kendo practitioners so that there could be no possible misunderstanding, even though this is spoon-feeding it, the discussion’s main message is this: without Empty Mind, you cannot deliver a Unified Strike. ]



    Dang Trinh – October 24, 2011

    Hi Alex,

    Regarding this passage:

    “At the risk of sounding grandiose,” Ishida reflected, “I’d say the ultimate goal is to master a strike in which the mind, sword and body are united as one.”

    I have just been informed that the word “mind” is the incorrect translation of “ki” in kendo. What Ishida sensei mentioned was ki-ken-tai no ichi, a fundamental concept in kendo, which means the union of spirit/energy, sword and body/movement.

    “Ki” is a common idea in Eastern martial arts, which refers to the flow of energy in a body. This idea does not exist in Western sports nor martial arts, therefore it’s hard to find a proper translation for it.
    However, I think the word “mind” can be misleading.

    Just want to let you know. Cheers 🙂



    Alexander Sawit – October 24, 2011

    Hi Dang,

    Thank you very much for your comment as it is always great to hear from martial artists who walk the noble path.

    Regarding the translation of “ki,” I shall offer the following explanation.

    In Ki Ken Tai Ichi (気剣体一), the kanji character “ki” (気) is the representation for “energy.” The English translators of the documentary “Kendo’s Grueling Challenge” knew very well that this is the literal translation of “ki.” However, this literal translation is misleading if it is not understood in proper context.

    In the context of Ki Ken Tai Ichi, “ki” does not refer to the general circulation of energy in the body but refers specifically to the warrior’s “mental energy” — the clarity of focus that makes a warrior’s mind totally resolved in the face of death even as others around him are descending into fear and panic on the battlefield. It is the warrior’s mental resolve that initiates the strike, therefore if his resolve is filled with doubt then his strike is also in doubt.

    This is precisely the reason why the English translators of the documentary interpreted “ki” using the word “mind.” Even Ishida, in the quoted passage about delivering a unified strike, was referring to a mental thing. “The more you’re self-conscious about it,” he pointed, “the less possible it is to deliver.”

    To put it simply, “mental energy” is the more precise interpretation of “ki” in the context of Ki Ken Tai Ichi. It is just more succinct and meaningful to translate it as “mind” for the martial artist.

    Further, the kanji character in question, “ki” (気), has variations in meaning. In addition to being a representation for “energy,” it is also a representation for both “spirit” and “mind.” This is not surprising considering that in Japanese culture both “spirit” and “mind” can exist as a harmonious concept. Hence, in Ki Ken Tai Ichi (気剣体一), it is absolutely correct for “ki” to be translated as “mind”.

    Let’s put it this way as martial artists:

    Weak MIND = Weak SPIRIT

    Strong MIND = Strong SPIRIT

    You can not have a strong spirit if your mind is weak. You will not have a weak spirit if your mind is strong.

    At the end of the day, it is faithful training that expedites this mental resolve. So please accept my best wishes for your training and continued advancement. And since this is a kendo discussion on a wine blog, I guess it’s only fitting that I say…”kampai!”







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