Way of the Sword : Southland Kendo Students Follow One-Time Path of Samurai

<i> Takehara is a Southland free-lance writer. </i>

This Sunday, fierce battle cries accompanied by the clash of wooden swords will shatter the silence at the Southeast Japanese Community Center in Norwalk.

Beginning at 10 a.m., the Southern California Kendo Championships will be in full swing. Contestants will vie for martial arts trophies, while winners will head for the U.S. championships in Ft. Worth this summer. The tournament is free and open to the public.

Kendo translates as “the way of the sword.” In the 18th Century, after years of destructive civil war, the Tokugawa government brought stability to Japan.

“During that period, samurai started training with wooden swords instead of the more lethal steel weapons,” said Edwin Parr, a West Covina Kendo Club teacher. Between 1765 and 1770, kendo armor was developed.


Kendo came to California with the first Japanese immigrants at the turn of the century. Since then, it has spread nationwide with organizations in Georgia, New York, Chicago, Texas and Washington. There also are kendo clubs in Brazil and Canada.

In the United States, Southern California has the most kendo students, with 400 to 500 kenshi , or students, in 14 clubs.

Although it started out as a samurai sport, kendo gradually took on philosophical overtones and evolved into a martial art, said Masashi Shikai of Chuo Kendo Club in East Los Angeles.

Because of this, kendo has a spiritual dimension. It has been forged through centuries of strict discipline and the samurai code, and did not emerge entirely from physical power but through deep mental training.

“There’s no physical contact as in other martial arts, only the swords and each participant’s spirit, called seishin . It flows from the mind and body and is translated through the sword,” said Shikai.

In Japan, kendo is the No. 1 participant sport, said Shikai.

“Throughout the schools and up to the colleges it is one of the most popular sports. About 20 million people are doing it in Japan.”

For most participants, kendo is enjoyed as a sport.

In tournaments, points are scored when the shinai (sword), strikes a part of the body. The three basic targets, men (head), kote (wrist), do (side of the body), are each worth one point.

The kenshi shouts the name of the opponent’s body that is attacked. This shout is called a kiai .

“The kiai brings out inner strength. To overcome fear and psychologically disturb the opponent,” said Shikai.

“This also focuses attention on what you’re doing,” said Parr. “It keeps you mentally alert. The shout also makes the attacks more forceful.”

The kiai’s intensity corresponds to the area attacked, said Parr. In a wrist attack, a short kiai is uttered. A head attack requires a louder shout, and a do shout is the loudest.

Unlike the other Japanese martial arts of judo and karate, kendo injuries are extremely rare.

“No one gets hurt,” said Shikai, “because of the protective equipment.” Kendo gear includes a helmet, padded mittens, cotton jacket, chest protector and a pleated skirt called a hakama.

Physical strength plays a smaller role in contests. “In kendo tournaments, you don’t have weight divisions like judo. Competitors are matched according to experience,” Shikai said.

And there is no age limit in studying kendo, said Parr, who started some 24 years ago when he was 40.

“You have to be able to see well and be fit,” he said. “I know this kendoist who has only one leg, and another in Hawaii who has no legs.”

After years of training, speed and strength are replaced by intuition. “I’ve been doing it for 27 years, and I’m beginning to understand more of it every day,” said Shikai, adding that there are kendoists who still practice well into their 80s.

“Their spirits are so strong, you can’t touch them. They know in an instant what you’re going to do,” he said.

The difference between Eastern kendo and Western fencing is the method of attack. In fencing, straight thrusts are used. Kendoists use a more sweeping circular stroke.

The man responsible for officially organizing kendo in America was also an outstanding fencer, said Shikai.

Tora Mori, a 24-year-old Japanese kendoist, attended USC in the 1930s. A superb swordsman, he took up fencing and won both state and national fencing championships. He also taught kendo and fencing.

Mori organized the U.S. Kendo Federation and served as its first president. The first club was established in San Pedro, said Shikai.

Kendo is not as popular as other more flamboyant martial arts, because it stresses swordsmanship and one’s spirit.

“Young people like the weaponless arts, especially after seeing kung fu movies. Once they find out about the expensive equipment (full kendo gear runs between $250 and $800), they get discouraged,” he said.

Novices train the first six months without armor, concentrating on the basics of footwork and posture. Of utmost importance in kendo, students learn, is the mutual respect between participants.

“You must always respect the teacher and student,” said Shikai. “That goes for all martial arts.”

* Southern California Kendo Championships, 10 a.m. Sunday, Southeast Japanese Community Center in Norwalk, 14615 S. Gridley Road. For kendo information, call Ed Parr, (818) 334-2663.