They bow and advance into the court, circling each other and shouting war-cries, blades barely touching as they jockey for position. Finally, the combatants clash together with a shout, slashing at one another and finally breaking apart for another pass, sweat dripping from the fittings of their armor.
In this dance of blades, the some fifteen-hundred year old tradition of Japanese swordsmanship lives on to the present day.
Except that the fencers are not Japanese. In fact, they are citizens of Japan's most hated rival, Korea.
The Japanese art of fencing, also known as kendo, has long since been converted to a modern sport-like martial art, and exported around the world. Competitive teams have sprung up at universities, recreation centers, and company-sponsored fencing halls all over Asia and Europe and it has a strong following in such far-flung places as South America, the United States, and even Israel. But the sport has no stronger extra-Japanese following than Korea.
The irony here is hard to miss. The Land of The Rising Sun has had a stormy relationship with The Land of The Morning Calm, most recently reflected in a bitter dispute over the hosting of the 2002 FIFA Soccer World Cup. Japan has a history of invasion attempts made famous by the great Hideyoshi's attempt to conquer the Korean peninsula in the 16th century.
What most Koreans still remember is the brutal occupation of World War II, during which Koreans were forbidden to speak their own language, forced to convert to the Japanese state religion (Shinto) and given Japanese names. Many women were forced into sexual slavery to provide accommodation for the Japanese army. Thousands were murdered and more imprisoned. Other thousands were kidnapped to provide forced labor for the Japaese war machine and never repatriated.
This brutality represented a wholesale attempt to root out all vestiges of Korean culture, and to beat the nation into the role of a Japanese satellite state. Part of this effort included the introduction of kendo to the Korean populace. Koreans took to this sport with surprising vigor. With the end of the war and the establishment of the Republic of Korea, they maintained a commitment to Japanese fencing that persists to this day. However, the old wounds of the occupation have still not healed, and in a nationwide revisionist stance, Koreans wholesale refuse to admit the sport's origins, and instead call it "kumdo," insisting that it originated in Korea.
Kumdo and kendo are, save for a few cosmetic differences, completely identical. Both words mean the same thing (the way of the sword), and are written in the same Chinese characters (both Korean and Japanese make use of much of the Chinese language, including the writing system). Koreans now use their native language in the sport, have changed the color of the scoring flags, and have abandoned the squatting bow (sonkyo) that is religiously adhered to by Japanese fencers. Apart from this, a viewer would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a kendo and a kumdo practitioner.
Both sports are much like western fencing. Combatants seek to score points on one another by striking certain targets with a bamboo or carbon-graphite sword (only the head, side, wrist, and throat are legal targets). Elaborate suits of armor are worn, and a stomping lunge is usually employed to strike, often leading to the combatants' bodies colliding sharply as they cry out or "kiai" (kheup in Korean) which is believed to summon the necessary aggressive spirit to defeat one's opponent. Both maintain a sporting character, with national championship tournaments, a world championship held once every four years in a different country, and strong competition for trophies and medals at high-school and collegiate levels. In spite of this, both maintain a strong metaphysical character, including meditation before and after practice, ritualized bowing, and zen-conceptions of achieving victory by emptying the mind of distracting thought of any kind.
Korean revisionist histories of the development of swordsmanship can be found in many history books. Most trace Korean fencing in an unbroken line back to the Palhae dynasty in the early 7th century. The evolution of modern kumdo is credited to the establishment of the "Ghilhuck-Gum" as a mandatory training regimen at Korean police-academies during the beginning of the 19th century (kendo and kumdo both remain enormously popular among the police forces of both nations). No mention of a Japanese contribution is ever made, though privately, younger Korean fencers will admit in hushed tones that they are essentially practicing a Japanese sport and don't understand the cultural insistence on what they know to be the national equivalent of the emperor's new clothes. The older generation, many of whom still practice kumdo actively, wear the scars of the occupation. To many of them, any hint of such a contribution is anathema. Tournaments are held separately according to Japanese or Korean rules (which are wholly identical), with only rare visits by one style to the other's tournament.
While the All Korea Kumdo Association is under the auspices of the International Kendo Federation (IKF), the titular governing body for the entire sport world-wide, Koreans generally keep to their side of the fence and the Japanese to theirs. This is changing slowly as younger generations of fencers begin to question the validity of the old grudges. In the fashion esteemed by both cultures, politeness is rigidly maintained when fencers, whatever their national origins, meet in competition.
When crossovers do occur, the results are impressive. The Korean Hwa Rang Kwan school sends fencers to the Greater Northeast U.S. Kendo Federation Championships held in Cleveland, Ohio each year. The tournament is one of the largest on the east coast, attracting fencers from all over the United States and from as far away as French-speaking Canada. Last year, as well as claiming the coveted team-championship title, the Hwa Rang Kwan took home 6 of the 9 available medals in the individual men's divisions. Though the Hwa Rang Kwan was the single largest school present at the competition, the Korean flag and anthem were conspicuously absent, as the U.S., Canadian, and Japanese flags were flown and national anthems were sung during the opening ceremonies. Such silent slights are common when Japanese schools attend Korean tournaments as well.
The Hwa Rang are not unlike other Korean fencing schools in their approach to the sport. Koreans fence with a dynamism and ferocity not usually found in Japanese circles. Much of the Japanese fencing practiced today grew out of the patient, artful style of the Yagyu and Itto ryus (or styles). Yagyu ryu, whose historical progenitor is the honored antagonist of the "Lone Wolf and Cub" comic book series popular among many speculative fiction readers, emphasized one-cut fencing, in which patience and beauty are emphasized in positioning the fencer to make a single, perfect killing blow. Much of the competition is metaphysical, as opponents seek to break the opponent's will by projecting the Ki (spirit) before moving to attack. In watching footage of the All-Japan Championships, one can see this style at work, as fencers circle each other for long minutes without striking, attempting to find the perfect position before going for the point. To the uninitiated, it can appear that the majority of a Japanese traditional fencing match consists of taking small steps and otherwise doing nothing.
The Korean tradition has its patient moments as well, but places much more emphasis on vicious attack. Metaphysics have their role, but are downplayed in favor of raw speed and bodily force. Korean fencers are more willing to trade flurries of blows with an opponent, often relying on a vigorous attack to create the openings required to score. The dynamic style of Korean fencing makes it more palatable to viewers, as the action is veritably nonstop. The large-motions that comprise much the esteemed beauty of the Japanese tradition are eschewed in favor of smaller, faster strikes.
"Modern kumdo," says Soochil Chang, Master of the Hwa Rang Kwan and former member of the Korean national team, "is faster and more dynamic than it once was. Big motion swings may be pretty, but they are not fast enough to be truly effective."
It is clear that the Korean schools see themselves as the inheritors of a vibrant but out-of-date tradition. In an effort to bring the sport up to speed, the Korean-based World Kumdo Association has mounted a concerted effort to have kumdo recognized as an Olympic sport, a move vigorously opposed by the IKF, as they fear the effort to make the sport more palatable to Olympic viewers will strip it of its metaphysical character, as has already happened with Japanese judo. The debate still rages hotly, and occupies the pages of leading magazines on the sport, such as Nihon-Kendo-Jidai (in Japan) and Kendo World, the only English language periodical devoted entirely to kendo.
While Korean dynamism nets great success in local tournaments in the United States, it has thus far failed to translate at the World Championships. This event represents the world cup of Japanese fencing. It is held once every four years on a rotating basis allowing the various member nations of the IKF the privilege of hosting it. The event has been dominated by the Japanese since its inception, and they have not failed to win the gold medal in the coveted men's team divisional match in the nearly fifty years the event has been held.
The most competitive nations at the World Championships usually reflect the largest expatriate Japanese populations, including Brazil, Canada, and the United States. Korea maintains a strong second place behind Japan in most of the men's events. The 11th Worlds, held in California in 1999, had the singular distinction of being the first time a Korean competitor took home a bronze in the men's individuals. Many Koreans argue that the source of lack of success in the Worlds comes less from Japanese domination of the sport and more from the subjective nature of the judging (points are awarded by a consensus of 2 out of 3 court referees).
Regardless, Korean competitor Hong's capture of the bronze at the 11th Worlds is a significant achievement and marks the creeping advance of Korean swordsmanship into the international pantheon. That this brand of fencing is built on a solidly Japanese foundation, despite the popular Korean refusal to admit to the fact, is largely irrelevant. In the intervening years, Korea has made the game its own, and continues to prove that what was once the national patrimony of Japan now truly belongs to the entire world.
The Japanese cope with this filching of what is considered to be an integral element of their heritage by fitting it into their own cultural framework. The dissemination of sword fighting skill has always been accomplished on a grassroots level via the "ryu." Ryu can loosely be translated to mean "school" or "style." Famous ryus include the Yagyu and Itto mentioned above, and also the Nito (two-sword) style of the legendary Musashi Miyamoto, author of the Go-Rin-No-Sho (Book of Five Rings), which is still widely read by history, fencing, and business enthusiasts in the present day. The development of independent and often rival ryus helped to ensure a diverse and adapting nature of Japanese swordsmanship, and this diversity remained the order of the day until the modernization of Japan made sword use obsolete, permitting martial skill to mutate into martial art, and eventually leading to the sporting standardization we now know as modern kendo. Iaido, Batto-do and some forms of "classical" kendo provide rump versions of the ryu of medieval times, but the dominant sport carries on unmolested. Korean kumdo, with its minor stylistic and cosmetic variations, is fast coming to be considered another ryu in the over-arching discipline of Japanese fencing.
It is in this standardization and mental making-of-room for cultural distance, coupled by the retiring of older generations of fencers for whom the brutal occupation of the '40s is still a real memory, that we find a growing cordiality between Japanese and Korean camps, reflected in higher cross-traditional turnouts at tournaments, a freer acknowledgement of contributions in the literature, and a vigorous and passionate conversation enfranchised by the advent of internet bulletin boards. This can only be good news for the sport, as greater numbers of devotees bring greater opportunities to train and compete, and hopefully, the kind of national media recognition that can cause a snowball-effect of rising interest. Both Koreans and Japanese have a passionate love for swordplay and an earnest devotion to spreading and developing the sport as much as they are able.
Japanese fencers largely recognize the growth of kumdo as a natural outgrowth of the IKF's concerted efforts to disseminate fencing and to interest the world in its traditions and continued growth. The perception of it as yet another ryu is perhaps a trivialization of Korea's commitment to the game, but it remains an important way of reconciling the fact that its historically most bitter rival has found yet another arena to truly contest Japan on even ground.
Myke Cole has been a kendo and kumdo practitioner for many years. His nonfiction has appeared in the Journal of the American Historical Association, the Journal of the American Association of Museums, and the Washington City Paper. His fiction recently won third prize in the Writers of the Future contest, and will appear in volume XIX of the anthology next year, and he also has a short story forthcoming in The Book of Final Flesh (April 2003). He is a recent graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop.