Overview of Professional Kendo in Korea by Jo Hyun Park (Part 2)

Updated: Sep 22, 2018

Jo Hyun Park at 4th Vietnam Kendo Championship 2017

In part two of the interview, Joe continues with providing us a glimpse into the Korean professional kendo, their equipment and some of his training insight.

Part one of the interview can be found at https://www.k-kendo.com/blog/overview-of-professional-kendo-in-korea-by-jo-hyun-park-part-1

Jo Hyun (Joe) Park 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 competitions and its alumni consist of some of the elite kendokas in professional kendo teams as well as WKC representatives; such as Lee Kang Ho, the captain of the Korean 2018 WKC team. 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 on a casual basis. 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

K-KENDO: Let’s start off with the bogu used by professional kendokas. What are you general thoughts on the kind of bogu they use?

“Obviously it needs to be of higher quality due to the training duration and intensity. Both hand-stitched and high quality machine-stitched bogus are common. Machine-stitched bogu made huge improvement over the past decade, enhancing both comfort and visual features. Hand-stitched is more of a luxury these days. Durability and protection wise- given the proper fit, the gap between hand-stitched and machine-stitched is quite small especially if you take cost-benefit ratio into consideration. I think the real question is whether one should get custom fitted or pre-made bogus. A custom bogu set usually provides the best fit and that (proper fit) is one of the biggest factor in determining the protection level of the bogu.”

K-KENDO: Do they change bogu often?

“Professionals usually train up to 5 hours per day, 6 days pser week. The wear and tear alone necessitates more frequent equipment replacement. The futon eventually becomes less protective from the constant beating . For safety purposes, they may retire their older bogu even if it is still technically usable. But more importantly than the decrease in the futon’s protective ability is the tenouchi’s (kote palm) rapid deterioration and overall kote fit due to the sweat and moisture accumulation. Where fit is affected, so will the grip. As a result professional kendokas would often more frequently replace their kotes.”

K-KENDO: Why change when the bogu is still usable?

“Bogus are constantly evolving and new materials are being sourced and used, making each new generation of bogus lighter as well as more comfortable and durable. As kendo is an instantaneous sport where one can score within fraction of a second, even the smallest advantage may make a difference. As a result, professional kendokas normally get a new bogu set when they deem there is a better set out there. Less significantly, bogu designs in terms of material, patterns, and stitches, change over time and kendokas can tell the difference between older bogu designs and newer ones. This can be an additional influencing factor to kendokas to get new bogus; to keep up with the ‘kendo fashion’.”

Keiko session. Professionals train up to 30 hours per week. Photo source: https://news.joins.com

K-KENDO: Do they use a lighter bogu for shiai?

“Yes, many do as it is more comfortable and allows a wider and faster range of movement. Don’t mistaken the lightest bogu as the best for shiai though. A good jissengata bogu isn’t necessarily the lightest. By that account, the bogu with the least futon wins. It is more complicated than that. It needs to be of superior material, stitching and fit to compensate for the thinner padding. ”

K-KENDO: Does a jissengata bogu makes that much difference in shiai compared to a heavier, traditional one?

“At amateur level, probably negligible. At an elite level, one must maximize every possible advantage. Shave .05 of a second here; maybe less fatigue there, but the slightest edge may dictate winning and losing. It also depends on your fighting style. Obviously those with a dynamic, aggressive play with lots of movements benefit more from wearing a lighter bogu.

That said, kendo is ultimately a game of skill.”

K-KENDO: I recall you mentioned professionals pay a lot of attention to their kote.

“The shinai and body move as one. It is an extension of the body and the kote is the conduit that connects the shinai to the body. Therefore, fit, grip and dexterity are very important. Some players prefer pistol grips, some closed grip etc. Ideally the kote requires different designs and curves to accommodate each of the kendokas preferred grip style. We are addressing that with our upcoming range of kotes soon available at K-Kendo.com.”

K-KENDO: There is a debate between sticking to traditional material versus incorporating newer technology into kendo uniform and bogu. What are your thoughts on it?

“Most players welcome the new material. With characteristics such as lighter weight, antibacterial properties, odour absorbent, moisture wicking and etc they are truly beneficial to those who train long hours and drench in sweat daily. Nonetheless, traditional material still has its place. For example, I still find that high quality orizashi cotton gives the best combination in body heat transfer, sweat absorption and shape retention in a keiko-gi. Synthetic gi tends to stick to the skin once I start sweating and gives that cold, heavy, clingy feeling. Not to mention, they also tend to become smelly relatively quickly.”

K-KENDO: What about their shinais?

“Again, at that training frequency, shinais are virtually consumables. They’re not fussy about it for regular keiko. For shiai, however, it is a totally different story. Pro players are very particular on their choice of jissengata shinai. Endless trials are conducted to find the best shinai to suit their preferences and fighting style. A well balanced shinai feels quite light and highly manoeuvrable. Some players are so sensitive to the balance that they can feel the slightest shift from putting on a different tsuba. Some also mastered the art of shinai shaving to fine tune the balance exactly to their liking. Usually they keep two or three shinais specifically for shiai only and not use these for anything else.”

K-KENDO: Custom or stock shinais?

“Overwhelmingly stock shinais. Most players prefer high quality, well designed, jissengata stock shinais with good quality control. On the other hand, customs are more aesthetically pleasing and may offer the best bamboo which allows them to retain great shape and shine making them more suitable for presentations and shinsa. In my opinion, with the cost difference, they don’t seem to offer significantly better balance than a superior stock jissengata shinai. Most of the customs I tried are on the heavier side; perhaps to appeal to its aesthetic qualities and durability. Nobody wants to spend big money on a custom only to have it break easily. ”

K-KENDO: Many international kendokas lamented that unlike in Japan and Korea where you can go to the shop and pick out the shinai that works best for you, buying a shinai for them is more of a hit-and-miss affair.

“The secret is to have a supplier that can provide very consistent quality and put meticulous focus on getting the optimal balance on the shinai. That it is easier said than done as strict quality control must be in place. Everything from bamboo quality to craftsmanship needs to be checked and the easiest affected portion of the shinai is the balance.

If that is ruined, nothing else matters. If you cannot try before you buy, the best option is to try what’s out there until you find one that best suits you. Then try a few more times from the same seller. If it’s good, it is likely you found a good store that provides consistent quality. Online reviews and knowing who actually uses the shinai may help you decide.”

The “Yi” jissengata shinai are used by both the WKC and professional team members. Now available at K-Kendo.com

K-KENDO: Coming back to training, what in your opinion is the single most overlooked aspect of training by an amateur shiai-sha compared to a professional?

“Footwork. From what I observe, there is too much focus on waza but very little on footwork. A big difference between an amateur and professional is balance. Not static balance, as that’s relatively easy, but dynamic stability. Professionals can hit continuously while moving in and out of range. They can also accelerate and decelerate tightly with good posture which enables them to hit at any moment and deliver powerful cuts at any angle.”

K-KENDO: Then what is the most practical exercise to improve footwork for shiai?

“This is actually more complicated than a straightforward answer. In my experience, it wasn’t a particular exercise that made a drastic change but rather a slow progression from all the time invested and the eventual muscle memory development that creates the natural and smooth footwork. If I had to name one exercise though, it would be ashi-sabaki exercises but with small and fast steps. You need to find your control and balance when doing these exercises. When you watch professionals during any big shiai events, you can realise that their steps are always small and fast which gives them the potential to make multiple cuts. Shadowing the footwork of professional kendokas during shiais may also help you improve your footwork.”

K-KENDO: Korean players are known for having high mobility.

“If you watch the professional league players, they are virtually always moving their feet to get optimal distancing and create angles of attack while not presenting stationary targets themselves. Their ability to dart in and out of range very quickly is noticeable even at tsubazeriai. You cannot have an aggressive attacking game without good mobility and footwork.”

K-KENDO: What are your thoughts on the new generation of shiai-shas?

They’re fitter and more disciplined. Improvements in training equipment and methodology as well as the accumulation of knowledge has given the newer kendokas an advantage to become better with higher technique intelligence compared to the past. As a result, physically they are often stronger, leaner and faster than previous generations. The current crop of players like Jo Jin Yong (https://www.k-kendo.com/blog/match-study-02-shin-yeong-bin-vs-jo-jin-yong), are phenomenally fast and powerful.”

Jo Jin Yong at the 16th WKC

K-KENDO: Referring back to our previous interview; after retiring from professional ranks, what about joining corporate kendo teams?

“It used to be an option but there are barely any corporate kendo teams these days. I can’t say for sure but it may be because kendo is such a niched sport that companies don’t see investing in kendo teams as an asset as compared to major sports like baseball.”

K-KENDO: But they usually have university degrees from their scholarships.

“That’s not necessarily true. While most of them may have degrees, only a minority were awarded scholarships, especially fully funded ones. Those that do have degrees mostly major in physical education. In Korea, that really limits your future job prospects to occupations involved with teaching physical education for example. But as teaching is a civil service, it requires additional certifications and requirements to be eligible to teach. So I think ideally they should major in something more relevant to future job markets like business or engineering degrees, for example.”

K-KENDO: What about opening a dojang (dojo)?

“It’s an expensive endeavour as rent is high and there is a lot of competition. Although teaching children is a substantial revenue generator, you will need to account for the resulting necessities like a mini bus to pick up the children after school to train and then drive them back to their residences. There is still good demand for experienced instructors though. Kendo is a rather popular activity for both young and old alike and there are almost monthly competitions for social or non-professional kendokas.”

K-KENDO: What about those who don’t go these routes?

“Many become entrepreneurs, small businesses, restaurateurs, security, etc. Most do just fine. They developed the discipline and the drive to succeed from all those years of hard training. They usually know what to expect before turning professional so they plan and save accordingly. I don’t see this as any different to most professional sports. Few make it, most don’t. Most go back to regular lives.“

K-KENDO: Do they still practice kendo?

“Yes, they do. They welcome the opportunity to enjoy kendo with less pressure . Most still retain access to professional teachers and friends so continuous kendo improvement is not the issue albeit slower, of course, by virtue of less training frequency. ”

Most former professionals remain active in kendo. Photo source: www.thesegye.com

K-KENDO: Thank you for giving us such valuable insights.

“Yes, they do. They welcome the opportunity to enjoy kendo with less pressure . Most still retain access to professional teachers and friends so continuous kendo improvement is not the issue albeit slower, of course, by virtue of less training frequency. ”


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