Updated: Jun 28, 2018
The professional Korean kendoka. International kendokas rarely see these shiai-shas in action other than at the World Kendo Championships. While there is an increasing amount of information and coverage on kendo worldwide, Korean kendo remains a near mystery to most. Those wanting to know more about it may find information regarding the topic in English almost non-existent.
Today we’re catching up with Jo Hyun (Joe) Park, founder of K-Kendo.com and all around nice guy. Joe attended Cheongju Agricultural High School where he represented the school kendo team. Cheongju Agriculture High School is famous for producing some of the top professional players in Korea including a few WKC representatives. Upon graduation, he was recruited by Mokpo University on a full kendo scholarship. Mokpo University kendo team regularly places among the top 5 in national student matches and its alumni consist of who's who in professional kendo teams as well as WKC representatives. Joe took a break from kendo as he enlisted into mandatory national military service. He still maintains close friendship with many of his childhood and university mates who are now professional shiai-shas with various teams throughout Korea.
He currently resides in Perth, Australia where he trains and coaches kendo. Among his major kendo accomplishments in Korea:
39th Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Cup National Students’ Team Competition, 1st place
51st Spring National Kumdo Competition, 1st Place
35th National Students Sports Team Competition,1st Place
9th Kumdo Association Presidential Cup Team Competition, 3rd Place
11th Daegu University Presidential Cup National Team Kumdo Championship, 3rd Place
In part one of this interview, Joe gives us a glimpse into the Korean professional kendo environment and share some of his training experience.
K-KENDO: How old were you when you started kendo?
"I started kendo at 10 years old."
K-KENDO: You must have done pretty well in high school to be recruited on a full scholarship to one of Korea’s top university kendo team.
"Everyone has to do well to be recruited. Competition is very tough even at high school level because they’re the scouting ground for university teams. My hardest training sessions to date were long before I graduated high school, particularly in middle school. You’re pushed beyond absolute exhaustion almost daily."
K-KENDO: What was the training schedule like at the university?
"Not too different from high school, actually. 2 hours, five days per week. 3 hours if it’s nearing a competition."
K-KENDO: Many amateur kendokas clock those hours. I thought your training hours were more along the lines of twice a day, 2-3 hours each.
"That was because I was still a student. A typical professional player with kendo as an occupation would have two training sessions daily, for at least 2 and a half hours each. Regardless, those 2-3 hours of training I had to go through were intense. It was all maximum effort every second where indolence is not an option. Every cut was meant to be an ippon as if you were in a shiai. You’re under pressure and scrutiny every day to fight for a spot on the main competition team; it was necessary to prove your determination. Additionally, conditioning is not included in these hours."
K-KENDO: By conditioning, do you mean resistance and cardio training?
"Yes. Calisthenics and running/jogging etc. Whatever you need to focus on to give yourself an edge."
K-KENDO: Could you take us through a regular training session during your university days?
"We start with regular warm up routines consisting of dynamic stretching and movements then proceed with joge suburi, nana suburi, haya suburi etc. Formal training always start kirikaeshi and big kihon cuts then move onto small cuts. Then it is waza training followed by a quick break then jigeiko. The closer it gets to competition, kakari-keiko and ai-kakari-keiko becomes the bulk of training along with mock shiai."
K-KENDO: Seems like a typical training routine world wide.
"The difference is in the quality of instruction and intensity. The pressure is constant. The coach may prescribe different training methods to improve specific skills. Also, you get immediate feedback on your strength and weaknesses from an expert coach. When you have a former WKC player as coach scrutinizing your every step, your will to improve increases as you need to prove that you deserve to be on the team."
K-KENDO: You kept mentioning the word intensity. How intense did it get?
"There were times where as high school students, we had to keep up with already established professional kendokas. It wasn’t physically possible for us to do, but we still had to do it.""
K-KENDO: Won’t they burn out from over-training?
"The program utilizes a periodization method where the intensity is cycled. There are periods of lower intensity but I think an average amateur kendoka may have a hard time even following that regiment (of low intensity training). That said, remember this is the path to professional kendo. It weeds out those who cannot take the sheer training quantity. A soft selection process of sorts."
K-KENDO: But there is off-season, right?
"During school breaks. However, even then we did a lot of conditioning as part of GPP (General Preparatory Phase) for the next season."
K-KENDO: What kinds of conditioning do you do?
"Depends on your weakness. Strength, stamina, agility, flexibility. Everybody runs though. You can never have enough stamina and endurance. Running is the foundation which the GPP is built upon."
K-KENDO: What if you’re injured?
"Don’t get injured."
K-KENDO: What if by chance you are?
"Then rest during school break if you must but you will have a hard time catching up once formal training begins and potentially lose your spot on the starting team. Career ending injuries are relatively rare because your body recovers quickly when you are young. However, you risk developing chronic injuries as you age. That little achilles discomfort you had at 18 may become a career-ending chronic tendon damage or pain at 28. Most professional kendokas struggle with chronic injuries throughout their career then cope with it the rest of their lives. It is almost inevitable from the hard training."
K-KENDO: What are your thoughts on the importance of kihon for shiai?
"In Korea, when you start kendo as a 10 year old all you do is kihon suburi for years upon years under the watchful eye of the coach. Your form is constantly corrected and repeated to a point it becomes second nature; complete muscle memory. The foundation is laid from an early age. Hence the form and efficiency are there before waza is taught. Without a solid foundation, shiai waza won’t work well. It becomes too sloppy, too slow. You simply don’t possess the body mechanics to make the waza work in shiai. That’s why during overseas seminars, most senseis focus on kihon which many attendees may find it a tad boring. Not because they want to withhold anything but rather because they know there is no point in teaching waza when it is much more beneficial for the participants to hone their kihon first.
K-KENDO: Most people want to know whether there is any difference between Japanese and Korean kendo (kumdo)? There are comments online that kumdo is played more aggressively.
"In my opinion, there is no technical difference. Any difference is merely stylistic. Terminology aside, the international kendoka should be familiar with the typical training syllabus in both countries. Similar to everywhere else, different coaches may have different preferences and training approach. Korean players are encouraged to sharpen their attacking game. Renzoku waza is refined from this mentality. This is drilled until it becomes reflex. If a cut fails to score, the attack continues until the player gets the point. But it also primarily depends on the individual kendoka. I feel the perceived Korean and Japanese stylistic difference is highly individualized. I encounter many Korean shiai-shas who takes the “one cut approach” and many Japanese shiai-shas with a highly aggressive attacking style. A good shiai-sha can adapt to both approaches."
K-KENDO: Are there any differences in shiai rules?
"There are events organized by different associations with different number of shinpans. The current regulations require at least four shipans; three sitting spread out on one side and one main shinpan on the shiai jo, the opposite side. Scoring requirements (yukotodatsu) remains the same though. Also, at certain events for example, individual matches subsequent and including quarter-finals, each player is entitled to use the official video cam to review what they perceive to be bad calls."
K-KENDO: Similar to professional tennis matches?
K-KENDO: Does it happens a lot?
"No, generally the shinpans’ calls are pretty spot on."
K-KENDO: In Japan, if they choose to pursue kendo professionally after university, they aim to join the tokuren (professional police kendo teams). Is this the same in Korea?
"Korea does not have professional police kendo teams. Instead they join various city hall teams."
K-KENDO: So they represent the city halls in professional kendo tournaments.
K-KENDO: What are their training regimens like?
"Minimum 2-3 times a day, 5-6 days a week. Some may elect to teach kendo to supplement their income on their day off which makes it a 7-day job."
K-KENDO: The Japanese police kendoka may still be required to do some regular police work. What about in Korea?
"They focus 100% on kendo. No additional work is required from them. There are pros and cons to this. In Japan, from what I gather, after retiring from the tokuren, he reverts back to regular police work and earns a stable living as a government servant. This not the case in Korea. Employment contracts are short term and reviewed every 2 to 3 years."
K-KENDO: What if your contract is not renewed?
"Then you’re out of a job."
K-KENDO: No pension or benefits?
"Not generally, but you do get given compensation that amounts to a couple of months’ salary if you’ve worked for the team for at least a year. However, if you are exceedingly good at a professional level, such as an equivalent to winning an Olympic medal, you will be eligible to receive pensions. Since kendo is not an Olympic sport, the player needs to represent the country a number of times and win medals at the WKC to accumulate enough points equivalent to an Olympic medal. That is a quite a feat considering the extremely competitive selection criteria for team Korea."
K-KENDO: So your employment is based solely on your shiai results?
"Yes, pretty much."
K-KENDO: Must be very tough competition.
"Indeed. You must be in peak physical and mental condition throughout the year. It is not an easy job nor is it the best paying. You must absolutely love kendo and have a passion for it."
K-KENDO: I take it the active professional Korean shiai-sha is rather young.
"Yes. Early 20s to early 30s. If you’re still in the game by your mid 30s, you’re probably coaching. You have to factor in the 2-year compulsory national service as well."
K-KENDO: They don’t do kendo during national service?
"Generally no. The national service is full time. Barring very few exceptions, you don’t do professional kendo during national service. Maybe if you’re selected for the WKC team. You’re free to pursue it in your own time but that is hard given the hours and the fact that you’re staying at the barracks."
K-KENDO: Given most of the professionals come from just a few top kendo universities, they probably knew each other pretty well.
"Indeed. It is small community. Everybody knows each other. Perhaps just one or two degrees of separation at most. Many were from the same university and were often roommates. They are rather close. It is quite common for athletes from different city halls have dinner together after a competition and catch up as friends."
K-KENDO: What happens when their professional kendo career is over?
"A small proportion of the highly-skilled kendokas are eligible to join the police force but, this in itself, is also very competitive. Some go back to regular jobs while some open dojangs (dojos)." In part two of the interview, Joe will discuss more about the equipment and actual training drills used by professional Korean kendo players. Stay tuned and subscribe to be kept updated with exciting new articles and products from K-KENDO.