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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kendo: The Art of the Sword At UCI

By Andrew Yi

The true science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be useful at any time, and to teach them in such a way that they will be useful in all things.” - Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings: Miyamoto Musashi)

Meditation -8:30 PM

It was 8:30 PM at the Anteater Recreation Center and it was like every Tuesday night. There were basketball players playing half-court and full court games with people sitting on the sidelines, spectating or taking a break. On the other side of the curtain separating the enormous gymnasium, were the volleyball players, mostly college girls whose cheers erupted throughout the building after every point scored. The rock climbers went up and down the artificial rock-face, and others ran around the indoor track for many laps. In a room tucked away in a corner, members of the UC Irvine Kendo Club had isolated themselves from the outside commotion.
The club's members held themselves in complete silence. Shingo Amano and Ryan Langer, along with five of their peers, sat on their knees, eyes closed, and with their shinai, a bamboo practice sword, at their side. With their backs straight and hands forming a circle on their lap, each person exuded an expression of calm and concentration. Across from them sat Moon-Il Kang-sensei, the master. He was sitting in a similar fashion, observing each of the student before him. All of them, with the exception of Langer, were clothed in the traditional hakama, a dark blue robe of a thick, heavy top and a light, airy bottom. This meditation is a ritual practiced by kendoka (practitioners) to calm the mind before commencing physical exercises. The practice of finding inner balance has been a goal of Kendo for hundreds of years.
According to the official site of the All Japan Kendo Federation, kendo is essentially the product of the samurai's ideology and discipline. From the year 1392 to 1573, also known as the Muromachi Era, civil war erupted throughout Japan. Schools of kenjutsu, the technique of the sword, spread rapidly, training warriors to fight for their clans and lords. Techniques of kenjutsu evolved and became cultivated at the expense of much bloodshed from real battle experience.
The entrance of the Edo Period, from 1603 to 1867, was a time of peace. With the Tokugawa shogunate, the feudal regime, ruling the entire country, the sword techniques and focus that were developed during the Muromachi Era were altered significantly. Because large-scale wars were rarely waged, kenjutsu became an ideology of concepts of self-improvement and discipline for the samurai. Many books were written on this philosophical subject, including “Gorin-no-sho (The Books of Five Rings)” by Miyamoto Musashi, who is considered to be the most famous and mythical of the samurai. The material of these writings dictated every aspect of a samurai's life, which eventually evolved into Bushido, the Way of the Samurai. Modern kendo draw upon these texts and their influences still live on through its practice to this present day.

At UCI, the Kendo Club has attracted 17 members who meet every Tuesday and Thursday evening to practice and prepare for tournaments, including the Yuininai Tournament and matches with other UCs and universities. In kendo's birthplace of Japan, the sport is practiced virtually in every city and corner of the country, but kendo would not be the first choice for self-defence purposes here in the U.S. due to its sparse availability and limited effectiveness if the defender is empty-handed.

Drills -8:35 PM

After meditation, Amano, a Political Science major, instructed the others to form a circle in the middle of the room. Although he is a student, Amano is of a ranked above the others and has experience that is second to only that of Kang-sensei. Amano was born in Hiroshima, Japan and moved to the California when he was two years old. Seven years later, at the age of nine, he began to train in kendo and since then taken part in at least a hundred kendo tournaments in California, taking first in a number of them. Amano chose the UC Irvine Kendo Club as a place to further hone his skills and, be able to compete in tournaments and impart his long-learned knowledge upon starters.
Amano lead the body stretches, counting loudly in Japanese, “Ichi, Ni!” “San, Shi!”, the others would reply with the same volume. From stretching the arms, the legs and the necks, they concluded with picking up their shinai and stood in the rigid movement stance.
With swords pointing in, the students rapidly moved into the circle and stepped back. It was not only a matter of movement, however, but an incorporation of form and agility. The right foot laid flatly on the ground, with toes pointing forward, but the left sole is lifted slightly off the ground, allowing the person to spring off of the back foot's bulbs and toes. This allows for a quick advance for a strike to the intended part of the body.
As the group continued to move back and forth, Langer was noticeably slower than the others. While the other's feet snapped back and forth, Langer's slid into position, rather than locking into place. It is not a indication of sloppiness, but one of a beginner. Langer is a freshman in the computer game science major who started kendo two months ago at the beginning of the winter quarter.
Langer said that one goal he had in joining the UCI Kendo Club is that he “want[ed] to be better and to get stronger” from the intense physical workout from the sport. He also expressed that in order to test his strength he wants to compete in tournaments to see how far he has come.
He later said, “It's kind of hard to get used to some of the movements and judging distance.”, when asked what some of the challenging parts of kendo he faced thus far. The stance is the first thing that is taught to a beginner because the ability to move quickly and deliberately is the key for scoring hits on the opponent.
Amano switched the to striking warm-ups, where in addition to movement, the students target specific parts of an invisible target. In unison, the group strikes high for the head releasing a kiai for the men (head).
The kiai is an important part kendo for its many uses. Amano stated that the kiai is used in sharpening the mind and strike. It is a yell that the user musters from their stomach, used to intimidate an opponent during matches and used to announce a targeted body part to match personnel of the kendoka's commitment to the strike. In addition to that, it is also to most people a good stress-reliever.
As the group continued to practice strikes to the kote (wrist) and the tsuki (neck), Kang-sensei would walk around the circle, inspecting the students' stance, feet position and swings. He would often stick out his own shinai to a single student and make them hit the sword in order to correctly calibrate how far their hit should be. There were corrections to be found in almost everyone. He stopped the exercise and explained that the left hand that is holding the bottom of the shinai handle should always be in front of the center of the body, which is another instance kendo's theme of balance.

Separation -9:00 PM

The students returned to sitting on their knees for another minute of meditation. Everybody, including Amano, were breathing heavily. Swinging the 2.5 pound heavy shinai and rapid footwork puts a strain on one's body and tests the stamina of every participant.
In the meditation, everybody was sweating heavily, and some students had to resist the temptation to use their hakama sleeve to wipe the sweat off of their faces, instead letting the sweat drip off their face and hair. Despite the stifling heat generated inside the coat-like upper robe of the hakama, the students had to control their breathing. Amano and Langer took deep breaths to regulate breathing, while also diverting their focus from their aching body parts to the next task at hand: more practice.
Kang-sensei commanded the class to wake up and instructed the veterans to put on their helmet and arm-guards. Langer and the other beginners sat at attention, while Amano and another student beside him in addition to the chestplate, began go through the complex steps of putting a bandana on their heads to soak up any fall beads of sweat and to cushion the weight of the helmet.
The helmet had two strings used to tie the helmet onto its owner's head. Amano wrapped the string towards the back, around towards the front and again to the back, tying the remainder into a solid knot, and jerking the ribbon that made a sharp snapping noise. He then slipped on the arm-guards that covered his forearm that the hakama sleeves did not cover.
Amano and Langer were split into two groups. In preparation for the upcoming Yuihihai tournament taking place at University of California Los Angeles, Amano and his sparring partner were personally being coached by Kang-sensei, while the beginners were on the other side of the room practicing the men-strike.
Amano and his opponent faced each other about fifteen feet away. Their shinai were at their sides while they walked towards each other and drew their weapons. With the tips of their swords barely touching, they dipped down to the ground and standard courtesy and procedure.
Both stood back up and went into attack stances. Kang-sensei yelled, “Hajime (start)!”, and Amano let out an kiai with an indistinguishable taunt, and the opponent replied with, “Urusai (be quiet)!”
Their shinai began to quiver, as efforts to fake out the other and tapping the each other's swords to bring it out of balance and hopefully gain a clear path for a kote-strike. After a few seconds they clashed, Amano charged in with kiai and a strike to the head, while the opponent raised his own sword to lessen the force of the smack. Amano's sword did connect with the mask, but the hit did not count; he could not move past his target after the contact, instead he was blocked by his opponent.
Langer and the others set up a continual drill that practiced aiming for the men-strike and following through past the target. The last person in line would hold up his shinai vertically up into the air, allowing the other students to hit the handle of the sword and move past. It appeared to be a drill that not many of the students were fond of, due to the repetitive nature of the drill. Even so, the students kept on going, yelling kiai and “Men!” after every pass of the imaginary head of their enemy.
Yame (stop)!”, Kang-sensei yelled and Amano and his opponent lowered their swords and turned to face the teacher. He motioned Amano to come forward in an attack stance and brought up his own shinai. Because of the upcoming tournament, Kang-sensei explained that he noticed that players would remain face-to-face against each other, without room to attack. Other than pushing them away, Kang-sensei taught Amano about the tsuki stab; a defense against an incoming enemy by extending the shinai towards their throat, and by doing so, keeping the opponent from landing a solid blow on the head. After the instruction, the sparring between Amano and his opponent started again.
Amano and his counterpart circle around each other. Both were intensely concentrated with them sidestepping and shinai tapping against each other and their shoulders heaved up and down with heavy breathing. Their helmets blocked their faces, but both of them were waiting for the opportune moment to strike. A strike too soon or slow would end up giving the other an opening for a fatal strike. The opponent raised his shinai high for a men-strike and left his torso unguarded. Amano reacted quickly, shifting his head to the right as soon as the enemy's shinai came down onto his shoulder and he went for the open torso. He kiai-ed, “Do (body)!”, slid his own shinai across his opponent's body and ducked past. He got the point.

End -10:00 PM

It was almost ten o'clock and their allotted time-slot for the room was almost spent. Kang-sensei bellowed, “Yame!” and the students went back to their spots on the line, from most experienced to least.
Amano took off his arm-guards and set them parallel to one another in front of him and began to untie his helmet. After taking off the bandana, he used it to wipe his sweat-drenched brow and neck and proceeded with the ending ritual.
Another meditation. It was a time to calm one's body but also a time of reflection of the lessons taught by the sensei. As the noise outside of the room lessened, the collected inhaling and exhaling of the kendoka could be heard in the room. Then, at Amano's command and the students circled around Kang-sensei, dipped to their knees and bowed. They said together, “Arigatou gozaimashita (thank you very much).” before they left for the night.
As Amano and Langer bowed at the exit of the room, they were tired and sweaty but all-together content. Kendo had shaped their life in different ways: Langer feels more out-going, energetic, as well as helping him concentrate on his studies, while Amano sees the Kendo Club as a significant stepping-stone in his kendo journey, able to teach others while learning more himself. Kendo to them is not simply just a sport, but something that shaped and formed them into what they are today.

Reporting Notes
Long Interview with Thien Doan
Short Interview with Ryan Langer
Short Interview with Shingo Amano
“The History of Kendo” page of the All Japan Kendo Federation official site.
Videos of past tournaments on the Facebook page of the UCI Kendo Club.
Wikipedia page on Kendo (material double-checked with outside sources).
First-hand experience with Kendo during high school.

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