the Gauntlet

Kendo: the art of hitting people with sticks

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In its continuing quest to seek out the under-appreciated and little-known sports, the Gauntlet got ahold of the Calgary Kendo Club to talk about the elusive Japanese martial art. Club member Darren Barar indulged us and explained a little about the sport he knows and loves.
Gauntlet: Tell me a little about the history of the sport.

Darren Barar: Kendo stems from the ancient sword tradition in Japan up to the late 1800s to early 1900s. The idea of Kendo is that they needed a safe way to practice swordplay and make contact with a person without killing one another or getting seriously injured. You wore your armour and swung a wooden thing at people. Doing that, they could determine how good one's technique was without anyone getting injured. That went on for hundreds of years until it became more sport-like and people would actually compete in these fencing duels. At the end of the Edo period, they decided to westernize, [meaning] no more swords, no more samurai class. The wearing of swords was over but they still thought it was an important and integral part of the culture, learning the way of the sword, because it had value. We have a sword implement that is very similar to the ones they used then and have armour very similar to that of what they used then as well. There was a change in the sport of Kendo during the Second World War during the Allied occupation where they took some of the more violent pieces out of the sport, but it is still very aggressive. The movements of Kendo, which are meant to remind us [of the history], are done in such a way so that they look good. What you're trying to do is replicate [the situation] that everyone is on the battlefield hacking away at each other. What we're taught through the rules is to have good posture and spirit and that you didn't make a lucky hit. You saw the opportunity and you took the opportunity. [The rules] all embody traditions. There is also a world Kendo federation encompassing many member countries with their own associations and federations. Canada has a national governing body that associates with Japan as well as a national team that competes in the world championships every year.

G: Is there age range for the national team?

DB: You have to have a minimum rank to compete and ranks have minimum age limits. You have to actually compete to gain a space [on the team]. The people you see on team Canada are at least 25 but probably a little bit older.

G: What is the significance of the katas and how are they sequenced?

DB: The katas come from the time of swords also. At the same time they started dispensing with the sword culture, they started to firm up the rules for what Kendo is. Out of the hundreds of different sword arts, they chose 10 encounters with an opponent that would embody the art of swordplay. Unlike many other martial arts, the 10 katas we learn are against an opponent. The lesson is taught in each one is done in a slow, methodical fashion. As you get more experienced in the sport aspect of Kendo, you start to realize that the artistic aspect of it is held in the katas. With "battle experience," if you will, you learn fine points as you learn the kata that you can then turn around and re-apply, giving you the ability to make it more real.

G: What are the swords made out of?

DB: There are two types of swords: there is the one that you use for Kendo and the one you use for kata. The ones you use for Kendo are made out of bamboo or carbon fibre. They're both constructed the same way, but carbon fibre is much more durable than the bamboo. The kata sword is made out of a solid wood of some sort.

G: So it's more blade-shaped?

DB: Yeah, exactly. You can see that there is a difference in lengths. [The kata sword] is more the length of a real sword or a katana. It has a curve to it and a noticeable blade with a sharper side and a more dull side and a pointy end. It teaches you a little bit about what it would like to actually use a real sword. For the sake of manufacturing ease, the Kendo swords are made more round.

G: The training regime seems kind of confusing to the on-looker. How do people know what kind of movements to make?

DB: It can appear that we're just standing there hitting each other, but there's a method to the madness. Because Kendo is not a self-defence sport, we wear equipment that provides us with protection [in vulnerable places]. We train to hit these spots because in battle, these places are not protected. So we [train to] strike the deadliest areas. [For example], we hit the wrists to cut off the hands of our opponents because it makes it a really difficult day for them to hold a sword if they haven't got a hand. We strike the top of the head, because it's [obviously] a very bad place to be hit. We also strike the throat with a sort of stabbing thrust, again making for a bad day. The last thing is a strike against the abdomen. We have a shiny breastplate in practice to protect that area.

G: There is a lot of literature that suggests ties between Kendo and Zen Buddhism, it seems, in terms of an historical tendency to disregard one's own life on the battlefield. Are there still a lot of connections to that mentality in the modern-day Kendo?

DB: Everyone is here for a different reason. Some people might be here for the spiritual aspect, perhaps. There's a saying that goes, "To fight without respect is just violence." Part of what Kendo teaches by the ritual, if you will--we're not Buddhists or anything--is the same in some ways. You have to respect somebody that's going to fight you. We don't believe that we're killing people or that we're samurai or anything. We don't live to a higher code or things like that but everyone is here to work hard. We respect that and if you have respect, you can have the luxury of reaching within yourself and trying a little harder. It's odd what you can get out of hitting someone on the head with a stick.

G: I guess it's kind of confidence-instilling, then.

DB: Yes. In a minute, I can tell you everything you need to know, but when you do it, versus when someone with many years of experience does it, it will look very different. Like golf or tennis--that is a very simple game with very few technical points--people can spend a lifetime mastering it.

G: There seems to be a lot of yelling in conjunction with movements.

DB: Yeah. Like pool or billiards, you say something like, "four ball in the corner pocket," and everyone knows it's not an accident when it goes in. Part of the construct is, we say the name of the thing before we hit it, so it kind of serves that purpose. Plus, it gets you breathing and yelling stuff like that. Once you actually start doing it for a long time, you start saying those words less formally. It does happen every now and again where someone will hit one thing and call another.

G: Do you get penalized for that in competition?

DB: No, The judging is all pretty subjective. When we're practicing with each other, we kind of have a dialogue going back and forth [between members] like, "Do you think that was hit?" "I don't know. What do you think?" In other cases, such as a real tournament, there are three referees that all vote on whether what they saw was a point. And they have a series of flags and stuff. So, you're fighting a guy and you hit him but the action doesn't stop because the referees will continue deliberating [during play]. So they're looking at five, six, seven or eight points of [things like] did he initiate correctly, did he strike the target cleanly, did it sound good, did his foot hit the floor as the same time he hit [his opponent], did he yell at the same time he hit that and after the hit, did he continue with spirit and in the prescribed fashion with his sword pointing in the correct direction and other things.

G: That seems like a lot of things to consider.

DB: They have all of this stuff from the sword tradition to let you know that you've followed what has been prescribed. They will say, "yes that is a fatal strike. That is a point." It's a really hard job, with all of those things to consider.

G: Are the referees at the same level as the competitors or are they at a higher level than that?

DB: Officially, they have to be at a very high level. There are 10 non-black belt level degrees. The first are for kids, usually, and adults would start at eight, going up to one. Then you get to your first black belt and there are eight of those. So, you're not considered to know a whole hell of a lot until you have your black belt and even then, all you know is the basics, really. That might take two, three, four years depending on who you are. Then they can start training you as a referee when you get to your second degree of black belt, but you can't officiate over any matches until you're at your fourth or fifth level.

G: What is it like being part of the Kendo community?

DB: We pick up a lot of beginners but many tend to give up right away and then we keep one or two. The groups are usually smallish. To actually go to a tournament, like in Vancouver, there are sometimes around 300 people there from many different groups. So, as someone who's used to being in a small group to go to realizing that you're part of something much bigger is kind of neat.

G: There must be a great sense of community there.

DB: Yeah, it's just like if you're into, say, scrapbooking and go to a scrapbooking convention all buying the same rubber stamp you are. We get to talk swords. There's a lot of camaraderie at those events. And you get to talk to the world-class athletes, because he's sitting right beside you. You get to fight the coach of Team Canada and, likely, get your butt properly kicked. It's great being part of a smaller community like that. It's like being a little-league baseball player getting to play on a major-league baseball team.