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U. of C. Economics Professor Teaches Balance Through Kendo

Kotaro Yoshida, economics PhD and accomplished kendoka, says simplicity ties the two disciplines together.

Still: Courtesy of University of Chicago

Balance is the key to surviving college, or at least that’s how graduates, administrators, and professors might counsel undergrads who are overdosing on either classes or the social pleasures of university life. One professor featured in a recent University of Chicago video is embodying that balance himself: Kotaro Yoshida, an economics PhD and accomplished kendoka, coaches the University of Chicago’s kendo club, a Japanese martial art that aims to strengthen the mind and spirit through physical practice. “I still consider myself a student of kendo as well, I just have a little more experience and can guide my students in different ways to train or think,” Yoshida says

Kendo started with ancient samurai warriors seeking to improve their sword skills, says Yoshida, who started his practice at 8 years old. They sought the help of Buddhist monks to learn to clear their minds, breathe more efficiently, and overcome self-doubt and fear. Though some people link kendo to lightsaber fighting (Yoshida was an associate producer on the ESPN documentary Star Wars: The Evolution of the Lightsaber Duel), the art is actually more about discipline and repetition than showmanship. “We don’t teach them the flashy moves they see in movies,” Yoshida says.

Yoshida, 43, is now retired from competing in kendo tournaments, but most recently won the 16th annual Detroit Open Kendo Tournament in 2014. While he is passionate about kendo, his work in economics is equally impressive. Yoshida worked for the Bank of Japan then earned his doctorate in economics at Duke University. He worked at Albion College as an assistant professor before coming to the University of Chicago in 2012—he says his passion is in teaching and distilling complicated topics for undergraduate students.

In a phone interview, Yoshida discussed his work in economics, the history of kendo, and the similarities in the search for truth between kendo and economics. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the overall philosophy or goal of kendo?

The ultimate goal of kendo is to make the kendo practitioner a better person. That’s a really broad and vague objective, so people often ask, how can we achieve that? The answer is through really hard, really repetitive, harsh and sometimes unreasonable trainings where you really strengthen your mind and spirit. You cultivate all these virtues of respect towards others, discipline, humility, and compassion. It’s sort of like all those medieval chivalry values from knighthood.

Some people start kendo because they were drawn to a part of Japanese culture that features kendo as part of the plot, maybe anime or manga for example, or they might get drawn to kendo for the martial arts aspect of the practice. A lot of people get disillusioned after they start, though, because it’s mainly a repetitive practice of the same basic movements. We don’t teach them the flashy moves they see in movies, so some people think, “this isn’t what I signed up for,” and they leave. For those people that stay with kendo for a long time, they often say that kendo teaches them all of those lessons about those values I talked about earlier.

Do you see any sort of similarities between kendo and economics?

Economics is a social science; people call it “the dismal” science, but it is a science just like any other physical or emotional sciences. I think that it is forward looking in a sense that the state of knowledge always improves over time. Whereas kendo looks backward in time, it’s like studying classics in a sense. Arguably, the ancestral teachers know more than us about the truth of kendo. In some sense, kendo can be thought of as an attempt to train really hard and get a glimpse back in time of what these old teachers might have seen in the truth of kendo.

What’s common between kendo and economics or becoming a scientist, it’s a pursuit for finding a truth, and probably a simple truth. There’s a great tradition in Chicago economics that you write a really simple model and then see how far it can go in explaining different aspects or dimensions of data. I see a great similarity in that approach in kendo because kendo also aims for simplicity. We try to eliminate waste and unnecessary movements both physically and mentally.

Most people practice kendo for the rest of their lives, and even when they’re old they can fight and compete against the younger ones. The reason is because they can move more efficiently and have only necessary movements. They can read minds and can anticipate their opponent’s actions and then they know how to overcome their fear because they have a stronger mind. And doing kendo simply is also an elegant thing. Einstein said simplicity is beautiful, and the unified theory that explains the world has to be beautiful and simple. I think there are a lot of similarities in “truth” in that they must be simple.

Do you participate in kendo competitions and does the University of Chicago send a team to participate, or do you focus more on the practice itself?

It’s a little bit of both. So I’m 43 years old and have slowed down and retired from competitions. But two years ago, I did travel to a competition in Detroit, which is the largest one on the eastern side of the United States. People traveled from Toronto, Canada, New York, even Japan. I actually won that one in the individual division. Winning in a tournament is nice, but it’s not my ultimate purpose. My purpose is to pass along the great tradition of kendo in a very traditional sense through teaching others.

When it comes to other competitions, the University of Chicago most recently sent our team to Harvard, [for] an intercollegiate tournament held every year in April. I didn’t travel there, but I heard they didn’t bring back any trophy. Again, tournament victory is not our main focus, and I’m fine with that.

While tournament victories aren’t your main focus, are there other ways to demonstrate one’s mastery of kendo?

Yes, there are ranks and grades. You apply for testing for a certain rank. For example, I am sixth dan [grades—there are eight total dan and in order to test into the top grade you must be at least 46 years old]. When I tested I fought about a minute and a half against one opponent, then a minute and a half against another opponent. I had to show I could perform and dominate those two in a duel. In a tournament if you get a point, you win. In promotion exams, what you’re judged on is how composed you are and if you can apply the basics and principles of kendo, i.e. disturb your opponent, create openings, etc. Basically you’re required to present the whole package of the kendo you represent and that’s evaluated wholly.

What is your specialty in economics?

I do macroeconomics, especially money and banking, more specifically I try to study how failures in banking affect the macro economy. I write a complicated model, which is against the Chicago tradition [laughs].

Coming back to economics and kendo similarities, there are broadly speaking two types of experts. One type is like my colleagues at the University of Chicago who are top-notch researchers who can really push the boundaries of economics. But the other type of experts are messengers; they take what others have found and communicate that to the students or the general public. So I fall into that category, I’m not a great researcher by any stretch, but I attend weekly workshops where top researchers come from all over the world. Then [I] contextualize them in a digestible form. [Students] sometimes fail to see the light at the end of the tunnel, how those tools are used in reality and in practice and in research. I take it upon myself as a responsibility to show the findings of cutting-edge, frontier research, how it’s done and in what fashion, and how the current learning might be useful down the road.

What is your favorite economics class to teach?

I teach this elective class called Money and Banking and there I get to draw on current research and showcase what people are doing. There’s this intercollegiate competition called Fed Challenge, which I also coach. The University of Chicago team won a couple years ago, but Northwestern has been winning that competition for years. When a team wins the Chicago district they go on to a national competition in D.C. They actually present their monetary policy proposal in the room where the Federal Reserve meeting takes place. Students can see plates embedded on the chair that reads Janet Yellen or whoever.

Between all of those things it doesn’t sound like you have much free time, but are there other hobbies or interests you enjoy?

I currently don’t do Fed Challenge mentoring yet, even though the students are already meeting each week to discuss current research. I do kendo and academics, and I still have lots of time, but I don’t know what else I do [laughs]. I mindlessly watch TV, I suppose.

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