“The way of the sword” is the literal translation of the Japanese word “kendo.” Kendo is also the name of the centuries-old martial art of Japanese fencing.
A Rich History
Kendo is a martial art derived from the sword fighting of Japan’s samurai warriors. The roots of the modern-day sport date back to the early 18th century when the bamboo swords – or shinai – were first introduced.
Shoryuhai is Harvard’s invitational kendo tournament. It is held every year in April and has become the largest intercollegiate kendo tournament in the U.S. Saturday’s team event and Sunday’s individual competition drew male and female kendo practitioners from 22 colleges and universities.
In kendo, the athletes are barefoot and wear navy blue guis, tops similar to those worn in karate, and wide, flowing pants called hakamas. The kendo mask – or men – is an oval made up of thin metal bars.
Kofi Kumi is the chairman of the Havard-Radcliffe Kendo Club Alumni Association. He explains the team tournament format.
“Usually a match is between two schools. There are five people competing, they go one at a time in a specific order. At the Shoryuhai [the goal] is trying to hit one of three spots,” Kumi said, explaining the tournament format. “Men being the head. Kotay being the right wrist. And do being the side of the stomach. First person to get two points [wins] and they have two minutes. … And then in later rounds when we get to quarterfinals, it will be three minutes per match.”
Precision Equals Points
All of the shimpan or judges, male and female, are dressed in dark blazers, grey slacks, white shirts and red ties. Team tie red or white kerchiefs to the back of their guis. As the shimpan circle the match they hold a white flag in one hand and a red one in the other, and raise the appropriate color when a point is awarded.
It takes more than striking your opponent to earn a point.
“Then there’s a kiai, which is the yelling. So you have to actually yell the name of the point that you’re hitting,” Daniel Van Beek, a senior at the University of California, Davis, explained. “If I yell “men,” which is the head strike and I hit the wrist then they know that I didn’t really mean to hit the wrist. So if you hit the men and you yell, “Men!” they know, oh you meant to do that, it’s not an accident. … Just like calling your shots in pool, except you have to do it on the spot simultaneously.”
The sports roots also dictate precision in the form of each strike.
“The idea is that you can hit and it won’t be a point. It has to be a cut to be considered a point,” Van Beek said. “If you think about the basis of kendo, which is combat between samurai, they’re all wearing this armor so if you’re going to cut through someone’s armor and their arm it has to be pretty perfect.”
Armor Doesn’t Cover Everything
The clashes during matches can be both vigorous and violent. Practitioners frequently end up almost mask to mask with their shinai locked and often use their bamboo swords to shove their opponents away. Unlike western fencing, kendo competitors keep both hands on their swords and swing them in a downward or sideways slicing motions. The shinai are made of four flexible bamboo slats and athletes wear body armor to protect their chest, abdomen, and wrists, but van Beek says kendo matches are still painful.
“Most people believe that once you have the armor on nothing hurts. It still hurts a lot. The armor is really there more to prevent injury than to prevent pain.”
A Sport For Men And Women
While some tournaments have separate divisions for men and women, at Shoryuhai, male and female athletes compete side by side. In fact, dressed in full gear, it’s often difficult to tell them apart.
Ohio State’s Tricia Kubrin says during matches, the men are noticeably more aggressive than the women.
Whenever I play a girl, it’s kind of like you feel each other first, you kind of play a little bit,” Kubrin said, chuckling. “But with guys, they just [hit] boom, boom, boom, boom, and they’re just like coming at you. And you’re just like, ‘I have not gotten a proper feeling of how this going yet because you’re just coming straight at me.’”
Kendo is filled with rituals. Before a match both competitors squat in the center of the square raising their swords so the tips nearly touch. At the end they kneel and pantomime sheathing their weapons on their hips before backing to the court’s edges and bowing as they exit.
New York University kendo club member Axel Wilhite says the rigidity of the rules and etiquette appeal to him.
“I find it to be very meditative. It’s very deep in that respect. And you’re learning everything all the time, just these little tiny aspects,” Wilhite said, pausing as a smile spread across his face. “And then you have this amazing sport where you get to fight other people with bamboo swords.”
The All Japan Kendo Federation lists about 1.5 million registered Japanese kendo practitioners and the International Kendo Federation has affiliate organizations in nearly 50 countries. The Harvard tournament was founded in 1997 and quickly gained international attention. The next year, then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto donated trophies and called the tournament Shoryuhai – or rising dragon – symbolizing the growing popularity of collegiate kendo in the U.S. The name stuck and the trophies are still used today.
This year a number of elite black belts – or dans – traveled from Japan for the tournament, including Hironori Tahara. Tahara is a hachi-dan or eighth-degree black belt. Tahara said he is pleased to see kendo’s popularity growing.
“I am delighted to see that something that was born in Japan, raised in Japan, and developed in Japan has now went overseas just like judo and now has a very international participation pool,” Tahara said, speaking through a translator.
Experience Defeats Youth
Ohio State University Assistant Professor of Psychology Kentaro Fujita is a fourth-degree black belt and served as a shimpan at the tournament. He says athletes often continue competing for much longer than they would in other sports because kendo is as much mental as it is physical.
“I once played an elderly gentleman who needed help standing, so physically he was much weaker than me. I was a college student. And yet because his knowledge of what I was going to do with him was so much more than mine, I ended up flailing away and I got angry and tried to launch myself at him and I was basically on the floor because his understanding of my movements,” Fujita recalled. “You can be 80, 90 years old and you can be having your way with an uber-athlete who’s 20 years old.”
After the morning round-robin matches, teams from UC Davis, UCLA, UC San Diego, Soka University of America, Stonybrook, and the University of Washington, advanced to the quarterfinals. In the end, UCLA defeated Washington for its fifth team title in seven years, but the day didn’t end with the trophy presentation.
After the ceremony, students paired off for rounds of open sparring and many coaches and shimpan put on their own gear and joined in … and the ancient traditions of kendo continued.