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Courtesy of Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin

If you've seen an Akira Kurosawa film, replete with armor-clad, sword-brandishing samurai, you have some idea of what draws many students to kendo. Sparring in full armor looks as thrilling and challenging as it is, and the opportunity to swing a sword at someone else is a siren call to those of us with pent-up stress. However, there is far more to kendo than the physical aspects of this weapon art.

Kendo, or the "art of the sword," is a form of Japanese sword-fighting with roots in the samurai tradition. The sport, as it is known today, evolved from the need for samurai to practice swordplay without inflicting serious injury or even death on their practice partners (something students try to avoid to this day). Two traditions eventually developed: in one, actual combat was replaced with kata, or routines, that allowed combatants without armor to practice moves safely, without making contact. In the other, a bamboo sword, or shinai, replaced the metal swords; and armor, or bogu, was introduced, thereby making full-force sparring possible. The second tradition is what is generally known as kendo, although kata are also integrated into most kendo instruction.

Despite periodic popularity with non-samurai, kendo seemed set to disappear with the samurai class following the Meiji Restoration. However, a rebellion in the 1870s led the Tokyo police to train in kendo. Shortly after that, the All-Japan Martial Virtue Society (Dai Nihon Butokukai) was formed to cultivate kendo and other martial arts, and public schools introduced compulsory training in kendo. The occupation forces initially banned kendo after World War II because of its nationalistic and militaristic aspects, but kendo returned to the public schools in 1957 and today is popular not only in Japan, but with men and women around the world. There is even an All Japan Housewives Kendo Association!

As a weapon art, kendo is sometimes relegated to the fringe of the martial arts world in the United States. I admit that even I used to view people who could wax eloquent on numchucks and bokken as a highly suspect lot. My simplistic stereotypes, to my delight, have been proven wrong; serious students of the weapon arts tend to be very thoughtful, peace-loving people.

Respect for and understanding of the weapon are learned first and foremost, not merely as a spiritual aspect of the sport, but also a very practical one: a bamboo sword can cause serious injury. In arts such as iaido, the more ritualistic art of sword drawing that uses an actual metal blade, respect for the weapon is even more important.

Kendo also differs from unarmed martial arts in that the weapon is an excellent equalizer between opponents of different sizes and strengths. To best my six-foot, 250-pound classmate in a grappling art like judo, I have to be both faster and more skilled in order to have a chance at overcoming his obvious size and strength advantage. However, in kendo, my opponent first has to get past my sword, which demands strategy, speed and agility-not strength. In fact, too much reliance on strength slows movements. In addition, I must maintain a certain distance between myself and my opponent in order to strike with a sword. The weapon thereby extends my personal zone and increases the importance of such principles as proper distance, timing, balance and focus. Finally, there is nothing quite like a weapon aimed at one's head to emphasize the value of living in the moment.

Kendo, owing to its samurai origins, has been heavily influenced by the samurai code of honor, Zen Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism. According to some accounts, the strong spiritual influences came from a time when monasteries hired samurai for protection. The monks began to study the martial arts with these samurai for self-defense purposes, and the samurai likewise saw benefits in the calmness of spirit and other mental techniques found in the monks' spiritual training.

Kendo today still emphasizes a strict code of honor, respect, loyalty, honesty, mindfulness and meditation, as well as commitment to peace and the overall good of society. Samurai were, after all, servants to a lord, and the idea that kendoka, or kendo students, should be of service, now to society at large, is still a very strong tradition.

I started studying kendo during a difficult year: My long-term relationship ended, and I was changing careers, undergoing a trans-Pacific household move, and coping with a string of family illnesses. Desperate to keep my sanity-or what remained of it-intact, I followed a piece of advice in T. H. White's The Once and Future King: "The best thing for being sad is to learn something." I enrolled first in an age-50-and-over hula-dancing class that needed bodies and was willing to overlook a couple of decades, but my spot was given to a legitimate senior citizen at the last minute. By chance, I then found an ad in the same catalog for a martial art and thought that it might be useful, and good exercise. I had no idea what I was getting into. Kendo is no hula-dancing class.

What I love most about kendo is the feeling of actually hitting and getting hit-something self-defense classes had never provided. I had never been in a fight and was always a little squeamish about getting hit. I could perform simple self-defense routines, but whenever anyone actually came at me with real aggression, I would instinctively freeze. I wasn't sure how I would react if someone was actually trying to hit me. No one can be certain of how he or she might react, of course, but getting hit over and over (and over) again in kendo has helped reduce the psychological threat of aggression. I am not immune to fear of attack, but I have experienced it enough that I do not freeze, as I used to. I have begun to condition myself to respond to real aggression instinctively, with an appropriate defensive attack.

These psychological benefits of studying a weapon art are invaluable. Chances are I am not going to be attacked while carrying a sword around, and although some of the motions I learn with the weapon can be translated into effectual unarmed defensive responses, there are other martial arts that are more directly relevant in learning defensive maneuvers. The greatest advantages in kendo, for me, have been the conditioning to respond to real, full-force attacks, the knowledge of what it feels like to attack someone with full force, and focused relaxation in the face of an attack that allows me to respond faster, more strategically and with a calmer mind.

Being able to withstand threats also transfers into ordinary life. I have been better able to cope with family crises and other challenges with a clear mind. The calmness of mind essential in kendo and which comes, in part, from the samurai's need to confront and conquer fear of death, helps distill everyday problems in a more objective, less emotional form. A famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, said, "To be swayed neither by the opponent nor by his sword is the essence of swordsmanship." To be able to confront a challenge candidly and not be swayed by fear is the ultimate goal.

I also have to admit that, in addition to everything else, I love the respect female practitioners of weapon arts get from male martial artists. Because weapon arts often initially attract many aggressive students of the head-smashing, backyard wrestling mindset, there always seem to be a few men who question my abilities when they first join. These students rarely last long in class, however. In most cases I've found nothing but support and respect, sometimes more than the male students get. The novelty of being a woman in such a male-dominated area of martial arts sometimes helps, in this regard. My teacher also claims that women students generally come to the weapon arts with fewer preconceptions, more natural agility and speed, and less reliance on strength. My own class is somewhat unusual; although there are only two women in my class, we are also the two most senior students.

Kendo has always involved development of the whole person-the mental and psychological training can be as rigorous as the physical training, which is, I can attest, quite rigorous. Samurai placed a great emphasis on the cultivation of all aspects of a person. Samurai were expected to be more than mere warriors. Musashi, author of the kendo (and Wall Street) classic, The Book of Five Rings, was an accomplished painter. Many samurai were adept at flower arranging or poetry. In addition to conquering their fear of death, samurai were expected to develop a deeper understanding of and appreciation for life-an appropriate combination for us all to remember.

After graduating from Bryn Mawr with an East Asian studies major, Amanda Buster moved to Nanjing, China, to study for one year. She then worked in Beijing as a freelance writer and, later, as a paralegal in a multinational law firm. She is currently working on a book and doing freelance writing. Despite traumatic memories of the swim test, she certified in Basic Keelboat Sailing last year, oddly enough in Kansas, where she now lives.

written by Amanda Buster

Ten Shin Ichi Ryu