Triumphing in the ancient way of the sword

    UCSD’s Kendo team has just achieved national recognition for its efforts.

    Courtesy ofa Takumi Kato
    True masters:

    Five team members — Takumi Kato, Sachiko (Ann) Tamura, Mio Shimizu, Gene Kim and Young-Shik (Bryan) Cho — flew to Harvard University on April 23 to compete in the ninth-annual Harvard-Invitational Shoryuhai Intercollegiate Kendo Tournament. Two days later, the team returned, boasting the elaborate Himeno trophy and a well-deserved sense of pride.

    The Himeno trophy is a hefty golden cup that stands about two feet tall and resembles the sort of trophy that would belong to an undefeated college football team, but instead it is passed along each year to champions in the ancient art of kendo.

    “This is the largest, oldest and most prestigious intercollegiate Kendo tournament for undergrads in North America,” team coach Imre Kovacs said. “Kendo players have been participating from the United States and Canada for years, and this year there was participation from Mexico, too.”

    In total, 26 teams competed, with each participating university permitted to bring as many teams as it wished.

    “We could only afford to send one team, so it’s pretty impressive that we won,” UCSD Kendo artist Tam Hoang said.

    Winning the tournament is a great honor in the eyes of those who practice Kendo, but the art form is practically unknown in American popular culture.

    Kendo, literally translated as “the way of the sword,” has its origins in the sword-wielding Japanese samurai class of the 12th century. Today, the practice of kendo is a simulation of ancient samurai fighting techniques utilizing bamboo swords, or Shinai, body armor and recognition of the samurai virtues of bravery, loyalty, honor, self discipline and stoic acceptance of death.

    “[When doing Kendo] you feel like a samurai because you have the same mentality,” Thurgood Marshall College sophomore and team captain Kato said.

    Perfecting the art of kendo is no simple task. Though it has been influenced by European fencing, kendo has unique rules which make it particularly complex and technical.

    “There are four targets on your opponent’s body: the trunk, head, wrist and throat, and the first person to get two points wins the match,” Hoang said.

    But scoring extends beyond simply striking an opponent in the appropriate target area.

    “You only get a point if the referee judges that you hit the target with good posture, spirit and form,” Hoang said. Achieving this physical and mental balance, known in Japanese as waza, requires a great deal of experience and practice.

    According to Darrel Max Craig, Kendo artist and author of “The Heart of Kendo,” Kendo is not a sport.

    “One should never say, ‘We play Kendo,’” Craig said. “One who ‘plays’ Kendo has lost the true meaning, along with the real spirit, of the art.”

    Elaborating on this idea, recognized Kendo artist Jirokichi Yamada explains the distinction between Kendo and a traditional sport in his book, “Treatise on Kendo”:

    “A sport takes only a small portion of one’s life, whereas Kendo takes it all,” Yamada states in his book.

    Those involved with Kendo stress this sense of artistry over all other interpretations.

    “It is definitely more art than self-defense,” Kato said. “You can’t use it to protect yourself.”

    The art of Kendo may require focus and precision, but for many, it is an influential aspect of everyday life.

    “Kendo has shaped the way I view a lot of things,” Kato said. “Kendo is not a sport where you have a grudge against your opponent. You have respect for your opponent, and they have respect for you. That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with people outside of Kendo as well.”

    Revelle College freshman and Kendo team member Tamura has practiced kendo for 11 years.

    Her long-term dedication to her art has earned Tamura a position on the women’s national team, with which she will compete in July. While Kendo is a serious part of life, she enjoys the art as a form of leisure as well. When asked if Kendo provided stress relief in her life, she said, jokingly, “Yeah, because you get to hit people.”

    No member of UCSD’s Kendo team was surprised to win the tournament at Harvard University this year.

    “Although the Shoryuhai is getting bigger and bigger each year, and it’s much harder to win, we went there to win this year,” Kovacs said.

    Still, the fact that the triumph was anticipated made the victory no less sweet.

    “We only lost to UCLA by one point last year,” Kato said. “It was a really close match, so we were determined to take it this year, and we did.”

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