FROM its practice to etiquette, the Japanese art of kendo continues to be a popular choice for local and international students in Melbourne. Trinh Le spoke with the Melbourne University Kendo Club about their passion for the bamboo sword.
“Would you mind taking off your shoes?” asked Cheryl Low, a four-year kendo practitioner and an international student from Singapore. She and I were about to enter a sports hall where one of the largest kendo clubs in Victoria — Melbourne University Kendo Club, or MUKEN — would train every Monday and Thursday evening.
Founded in 1989, MUKEN has attracted a diverse collection of kendo practitioners with people in different age groups, nationalities and varying levels of kendo experience.
Upon entering, I saw one member mopping the floor. Other members, all dressed in a blue training shirt and hakama (long pleated pants), were either setting up their armour neatly on the floor, or reviewing previously learned techniques on their own.
I asked Cheryl what led her to kendo, to which she replied enthusiastically.
“Well, I had always been interested in Japanese culture, so when I arrived [in Melbourne], I saw there was a kendo club at Melbourne Uni and thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’”
“And how long does it take before a beginner can start sparring?”
“From four to six months, depending on how dedicated you are to training,” she said.
Indeed, kendo’s most valued ideals come down to dedication and discipline—with some students giving up four to five hours each week to perfect their strikes.
These ideals and more feed into the purpose of kendo which the All Japan Kendo Federation established as a practise “to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the sword” in 1975.
Senior MUKEN member Jeffrey Khor subscribes to this philosophy and acknowledged the value kendo can have in building character.
“After training for a while, I no longer think about being the best guy, but more about building good habits, and getting better and better everyday. I guess kendo has taught me a lot of about self-progression,” Jeffrey said.
I then pointed to the sparring students’ thick armour and remarked to Cheryl, “It must be tough training in hot weather like today.” It was nearly 27 degrees that afternoon.
Cheryl replied with a smile, “Our instructor would call that discipline!”
It certainly takes a special kind of person to be able to train under such rigorous conditions. At the beginning of 2015, MUKEN’s members were around 160, but given the exhaustive toll kendo can have, that number had decreased in the course of a few months.
The number was even lower when it came to female members, which Cheryl explains is partly due to the equal amounts of training and sparring female kendo practioners have with and against their male counterparts.
“When [the beginners] first start kendo, they tend to use a lot of brute force. That’s when the male members have an advantage over female [members]. But eventually we learn to use our techniques to counter-attack, and turn our weakness into our strength,” Cheryl said proudly.
Cheryl briefly excused herself to join the ceremonial bow at the beginning of the class. The students sat orderly according to their rank. Cheryl, despite her four-year experience, sat at the end of the line as she did not wear her hakama that day.
Suddenly, I didn’t quite feel like I was in a sports hall in 21st century Australia. The atmosphere around me changed, as though I had been transported to an ancient Shinto temple, where everything was silent and sacred, and where sword-fighting techniques were passed down from generations to generations of samurai.
Then followed their session of training. In their traditional uniform, under amour and bare feet, each kendo student struck with purpose, shouting out the body part they’re aiming at—”Men” for head, “Kote” for wrist, and “Dou” for body.
“MEENN!” – POW! – STOMP
Their sword, stomp and shout all land at the same time as their swift strike. Then, like a shooting arrow, they would dash through their opponent and turn back, with their sword on guard, ready for another attack.
In Japanese, “ken” means “sword”, and “do” means “the way”. Modern kendo is derived from traditional sword-fighting techniques used by warriors in ancient Japan but there is so much more to the sport than just wielding a 114-centimetre bamboo sword.
Though kendo may look simple to learn, the more I saw of it in practise, the sooner it became clear that it was not easy to master. This didn’t apply just to perfecting sword techniques; it was also clear that truly mastering kendo meant understanding the disciplinary characteristics the sport bestows on its practitioners and allowing them in.
And in seeing this, kendo becomes more than just the way of the sword — it becomes a way of life.
Trinh Le. Previously published on Meld Magazine, Dec 2015.