On kendo.

(This was originally part of a different entry, but I felt it needed some fleshing out.)

I joined the kendo club a couple weeks into the semester because it seemed like something that might be fun. It’s a very Japanese-cultural activity, for starters; when I looked at the club booklet the office gave me, there seemed to be a lot of culture-neutral clubs (chorus, dance, baseball, etc). I nearly signed up for the naginata club, but they had fairly steep dues, while kendo had none.

I’ve taken a few styles of martial arts in the past, as well as some foil fencing, but none of them for very long. Still, that sort of thing has always interested me, and kendo seemed like it would be a good fit. Of course, I somehow managed to miss the largest obstacle (and the likely reason they don’t charge dues): Kendo requires specific clothing and protective gear, and while most of the pieces wouldn’t be so expensive individually, all together it ends up costing a lot. Most of the club members have been doing this for years, so not only do they have the equipment already, they’ve also gotten their money’s worth out of it. I’m just not here for long enough to make buying the mask, hand guards, chest armor, bamboo sword, and other items worth the cost. Even if I were here for two semesters, it’s just too short. Transporting the stuff home would be a pain as well, and once I got back, there’d be nowhere to use it — it’s been my experience that traditional Japanese arts only catch on in America if they have a practical use (such as most unarmed fighting styles).

When I initially joined, people would take time away from sparring and drills to teach me the basics of footwork, striking, and follow-through. They seemed eager to help me out, correcting me when I didn’t get it and encouraging me when I did. Lately, though, they’ve been less willing to help out, and I’ve spent most of my time there off to the side, practicing what I remember with a borrowed 竹刀 and no real feedback.

Thing is, I get it. They all know I’m far too inexperienced to show me anything more than the most fundamental things, and they also know I’m just not going to be here long enough to learn much more than those. While one or two of them told me I was picking it up faster than Hibino, their newest member, he has something I don’t: the gear. Without the full outfit, I can’t take a hit (making my training entirely one-sided) and I can’t practice sparring. The club people understand why I don’t buy the gear, and they even seem to agree it’d be kind of a big expense for such a short time, but no one can deny that without it, all I can do is practice the same four or five things. In fact, I never did fill out any paperwork; I suppose they basically consider me an unofficial guest member.

Club practice is almost always the same. Everyone trickles in until right around six, with a few upperclassmen arriving fashionably late. They suit up in the basic gear and jan-ken to decide who leads drills for the night. They form a wide circle, facing in, and proceed with some basic warmups, first without the sword, then with. After that, they put on the rest of the gear (most notably mask and hand guards) and drill in rotating pairs until right around seven. They break for about ten minutes or so, then do thirty minutes of free sparring, with an option to change every three minutes. Finally, after a little more structured practice, they take off their protective gear and race to see who can be first to sweep the gym floor. After that, it’s just a matter of storing their stuff and changing back into street clothes so everyone can leave campus together.

Since I can do neither pair drills nor sparring,  I tried something new last week: rather than just watch, in the second half of the club, I went to the girl who’d been chosen as leader and told her if I knew how to do it, I’d be willing to keep time for her so she could go spar. Turns out that part’s simple: for that thirty minutes, the timekeeper’s job is just to call out 「時間です!」 every three minutes to let people know it’s time to change partners. You don’t even stop the countdown. She seemed hesitant at first, but once she saw I could manage shouting a short phrase in three-minute intervals, she happily went off and got in some practice. I did the same this week, and then continued to help while they did fifteen-second all-out attack drills.  If I can’t practice fighting, I can at least make sure everyone else gets to.

It’s a shame I can’t really participate. In the short time I’ve been practicing, I feel like I’m slowly picking the sport up. I’m by no means good, and I don’t know if I could ever be, but I think I could at least get the hang of the basics and enjoy myself. The club people are, for the most part, pretty decent folk. The guys are pretty funny, and the girls aren’t really shy (since shouting and whacking people with bamboo tends not to attract serious introverts). More than that, joining a club fits with the Japanese mindset of belonging. Being part of a group carries certain obligations, but the benefits far outweigh the responsibilities.

My friend Neil reminded me a couple weeks ago that a couple years back, when the two of us decided to go back to school, we’d been discussing clubs and such and I’d said how I wished WVU had something along the lines of kendo. I honestly didn’t recall that conversation,  but despite my limited ability to participate and the short time I’ve gotten to know my fellow members, I can honestly say I’m glad I joined. This may be the last month I ever get to do the traditional Japanese sport of kendo, but at least I can say I tried it.


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