Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Kendo: Between "Religion" and "Nationalism"

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Kendo: Between "Religion" and "Nationalism"

Article excerpt

To date, the study of "religion" and "martial arts" is a lacuna of the field in Religious Studies1. As observed by Michael Maliszewski, "the depth of association that many of these disciplines had with specific religious traditions has gone unrecognised"2 within academia. However, Maliszewski also contributes as to why this has been the case. There is a problem with the study of martial arts similar to that identified by Markus Davidsen3 in the case of "spiritual studies": many of the scholars involved in the topic are themselves practitioners and their works betray normative, apologetic agendas4. As commented by Alexander Bennett: "A growing number of English books about traditional Japanese swordsmanship are on the market. Most of them, however, are how-to manuals, biographies of master swordsmen, or translations and commentaries on classic texts - often historically naïve, mixing fact with fiction."5 As practitioners themselves, these scholars have tended to underplay certain historical factors in the development of their martial arts that might portray them in a negative light. Maliszewski's Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts, is a prime example of this: "The lack of serious attention by practitioners of these disciplines as well as scholar's lack of attention to or participation in the martial arts is a central theme addressed in this book."6 Blurring the lines between scholar and practitioner, this comment and more indicate an Eliadean style of study - i.e. one which presumes a transhistorical essence which martial arts contribute to manifesting.7 Not only is Maliszewski looking to rectify a scholarly lacuna, it becomes clear that he is evaluating the martial arts themselves for how well they have manifested this transhistorial spiritual essence.

It is my intention to get out of this trap and show how the study of martial arts can help contribute in a critical manner to the ongoing problematisation of "religion" as an analytic category and its relation to such concepts as "the secular" and "nationalism."8 One of the key faults involved here is how we use the term "spiritual" which, as Fitzegerald's work highlights, carries a Christian bias that would make connections with a metaphysical realm and presupposing the natural/supernatural divide which underpins much of Western European9 thought. Moreover, this Christo-centric usage reinforces the secular/religious binary, one which sees "secular" as public and "religion" as private. But in recent debates on the sportification of martial arts, Taekwondo's presence in the Olympics being a notable example, one of the consistent themes of critics is how the emphasis on sport degenerates the spiritual aspects of their disciplines. Yet their usage of "spirit" and "spiritual" then runs counter to Christo-centric understanding, in their usage a martial art is "public" and a sport is "private."

This "public" nature of martial arts has been demonstrated by Bennett in the case of Kendo when demonstrating that the development of the martial art is bound up with Japanese notions of nationalism. With this paper I intend to extend Bennett's work to show the relation of Kendo to the category of "religion." Specifically, by drawing on the philosophical phenomenology of Husserl, Sartre and Schutz, I want to frame this discussion in terms of naturalisation: how a person "fits" within their lifeworld. As I will argue here, Kendo, and martial arts more broadly, is a mode of naturalisation. "Religion" and "nationalism" have then been used as a means to categorise this mode. What I want to shift away from here is an approach to religion which has been best articulated in the words of Ann Taves10 as "things deemed religious." Such an approach is concerned with the proper classification of things "out there", most often expressed in terms of whether they are "natural" or "supernatural." By looking at naturalisation I want to shift focus to "people deemed religious." As I see it, "religion" is a tool of Othering. …

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