Monday, February 11, 2008

The Great Kendo Weekend

Before I begin, I think things would make more sense if I provide an update to my Kendo life.

I recently started a new job here in Cincinnati, OH doing heat transfer analysis on gas turbine engines. Over time, I have adjusted to the new area which includes joining in on the Kendo activity in the area. There are practices at the University of Cincinnati and in Covington, KY which is just across the river. Once a week, there are practices in Dayton, OH at Miami Valley Kendo Dojo with Ariga Sensei.

Things are going very well over there as I was immediately accepted into the Ohio Kendo family. No sooner after I start before I am invited to pretty much every planned outing that has happened recently. I felt very welcome and I know I will be happy being here.

Now, let's fast forward to this weekend. There were two Kendo events that happened over the weekend. One was the normal practice in Dayton on Saturday and then there was the joint practice with the East-Central United States Kendo Federation (ECUSKF).

Saturday's practice was more intense than the previous week's practice. It started up with stretching and warm ups which included a mix of suburi and footwork. That was followed by the practice of various useful waza. By the end of that, I was already feeling weak. It's drill after drill that can really take the wind out of anyone, whether or not they are prepared for it. After that was a small break in which I took the opportunity to wet my throat and take a swig of my asthma medication before the fun really starts.

It's a good thing I took the time to do that because practice finished up with mawari-geiko. There were 8 people in total so we had to fight 7 times in a row for a few minutes each. Throughout this time, I tried to remember what I was told last week about me being afraid to get hit and just concentrate my energy on pushing through. There really isn't much of an explanation for this other than it's a bad habit of mine to not really push through like I should when I'm sparring with someone. The hardest moment came when I had to go against Ariga sensei and Koizumi sensei in succession. It turned into essentially a 10 minute constant bout trying to muster up any sort of energy I had to make hits as effective as I did when I started practice. Naturally, I kept getting my but kicked, but that's pretty much expected when you go against people who have been doing Kendo like 10 times longer than you have.

After that, practice ended and we went across the street to drink some beer and eat some grapefruit slices and peas. There's just something about Kendo and beer that goes together, but I can't put my finger on it. I did discover that Killians is a very good beer by the way.

The next day was the joint practice. The ECUSKF holds this monthly in Columbus to allow everyone to get together, meet up and exchange knowledge and form friendships. It was a 1.5 hour drive to get there, but it was well worth it as I got to meet a lot of people and learn how this regional federation operates. I had some trouble finding the exact location because it's a little weirdly situated, but after a call and some asking around, I was able to find the place.

The practice started off like any other practice with the stretching ane warmups, then began with some tryouts for the US Kendo tournament in Las Vegas in July. The matches were pretty interesting because I saw some really good Kendo. One thing that was really interesting was that there wasn't one person that even remotely dominated the brackets. One person might lose a match against one person but would win the next.

After the matches, everybody who had bogu put theirs on and began the free practice. I honestly was expecting some sort of a structured practice, but it was just a free practice with anyone you could round up, with the sensei fighitng anyone who was in line. I fought with about 5 people or so including Ariga sensei and Nomiyama sensei. I tried to have an additional match with Kojima sensei, but I ran out of time. I guess I know who to go to next month, lol.

All in all, I had a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to next month's meeting. I ended up spending any energy that I recoverd, and then some, from yesterday during that practice. I also met quite a few people who were all pretty nice. One interesting note is that I saw two other black people there! I don't want to make it racist or anything, but it's nice that there's some increase and potential in increase of diversity that Kendo really needs (this was discussed somewhat in the previous entry). Either way, I was glad to meet everyone there.

On the upside, I found out that there are some openings for the mudansha division in the US Kendo tournament. I've heard about people going for it, but because I was going back and forth between Indiana and Georgia for college, I didn't make much of an effort to try since I wasn't sure about where I would fall. Now that I should be living here for at least a few years, I thought I would give this a shot. This would be the first time I get to go to Las Vegas, but this is also an opportunity to not miss to be able to participate in a highly regarded tournament within the Kendo community. I sent in my application and everything so we'll see what happens from here on out. Other than that, I will be trying very hard to prepare myself for that moment.

Next week is the Detroit tournament. Regrettably, I won't be participating in it due to the whole moving thing and whatnot. I was on the fence about going because I'd only be watching and possibly participating in a godo-geiko and after party that usually occurs after these things. I found out that the All Japan Kendo Champion will be giving a seminar that weekend. Now I REALLY have to go and take advantage of this. I could really use any help I can get if I plan on improving over the next few months. There is the Cleveland tournament that I will be participating in. I was told that they are expecting this to be pretty big due to the Japanese team captain in the World Kendo Championships will be visiting and this will be the 20th anniversary of the Cleveland tournament, so this year should be exciting. My goal here is to do better than the last tournament and get to the 4th match without almost passing out.

On a side note, I started Iaido recently. This past Sunday was my second class (I left right after to go to Columbus). This practice was better than the last one since there was only three people there. Due to this, more time was able to be spent on learning more about the basics. This gives me something more to think about with the training. All I have right now are the knee pads which are pretty much necessary if you plan on walking when you're 30. My paycheck is coming in this week so I know I can buy an Obi. I think I might just go on ahead and purchase a plastic saya for now while I do some financial planing to see if I can get an iaito. Of course, I will ask the instructor there before I buy one to make sure I don't make any mistakes or buy one earlier than they allow. I can only go so far with holding it in my hand, you know.

Due to the tournament and visiting a friend of mine, I won't be able to attend for the next two weeks, which is pretty unfortunate. I told them that I would be there next week, but I didn't realize the Detroit tournament was next week and that there would be an important seminar going on there. As for next week, I think I might stick around for the weekend and practice with the old Purdue club while I'm there and get my Menjo. They practice on Sunday afternoon so that would cause me to miss the iaido. I wish I could get in contact with someone who plans on going since I would like to let them know I didn't just drop off the face of the earth. I tried sending emails earlier but they seemed to never get through. We'll see what happens. I know I will return, but it would be nice of me to tell them if I'm not coming since the club is small and close-knit enough.

Okay, I think that this entry is long enough. I hope you were able to read all of that!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Diversity in Kendo

There was a recent thread on the Kendo World forums that, admittedly, hasn't really been talked about too much. The thread was talking about why women tend to not stay too long in Kendo, but it can also be applied race as well. As a disclaimer, I'm not trying to incite any sort of racism. I'm just bringing up an issue that I have thought about for a bit and would like to bring to the masses and find their opinions on it.

For those that aren't in the know, there are about 8 million Kendoka (kendo practitioners) in the world with about 7 million in Japan alone. Everyone else is dotted throughout the world in various clubs and organizations with an interest in Kendo for various reasons. I don't have any demographical data, but one can infer that the vast majority of people that practice in the world are either Japanese or Korean. Then you have your Whites, Blacks and whatever bringing up the rear.

Anyone who has been practicing Kendo for long enough has seen a number of people come and go. These beginning groups can be quite diverse with a variety of types of people, but quickly dwindle in the following weeks for a number a reasons that would be left for another blog entry. The exact number of retainers vary from place to place depending on the local demographics, but it's usually males of caucasian or asian descent that are more likely to stay longer. There are exceptions to this rule, or you wouldn't be seeing me typing this up.

Why do you think that this sort of thing happens? One could look at the structure of Kendo and even the people involved. Of course, we can't ignore the people themselves. There are a multitude of reasons why people decide to leave and stay in Kendo, but they can be rooted into those basic reasons. I'll tackle these reasons one by one and give possible ways to possibly retain people.

- The Newcomers Themselves

As I said before, there are a large variety of reasons that people join and leave. The issue here is that some dojos might see an influx of beginners only to be lucky to have one person stay from each new group.

In terms of diversity, when we think of the typical Kendoka, we think of the asian or caucasian male. Because of this sort of demographic, it can be quite a culture shock if they don't see someone similar attending practice. Depending on the person, that can be handled in a number of different ways.

As far as increasing diversity, the only thing that can be done is exposure. Kendo is such a small community and doesn't get much exposure to the masses like other martial arts have. As a dojo, it helps to do demonstrations that show what Kendo is, what practice is like, any information about joining and some contact info. As an individual, don't hide the fact that you do Kendo and be willing to explain things to people that are interested. With doing this, you give the exposure and the ability for people to start if they are interested.

- The Structure of Kendo Practice

Anyone who has experienced one Kendo practice should know how greuling it can become. Those with a bit more experience in bogu have a better idea of the intensity of practice while wearing 15 lbs of dead weight on your body for an hour and a half each session. In some cases, practice can be too hard for some if they aren't prepared for it. There are many variables that come into it like over-agressive people or a sensei that wants to see the best out of his or her students. Sometimes, it might get too intense for people and you might see people drop off at this point, which can be a problem for those that just start getting into bogu.

What can be done about this? I guess the real question is whether or not anything should be done about this case. Each sensei has a responsibility to their students to plant their knowledge on them in the best way they know how. Each one has a certain philosophy to Kendo and the teaching structure is based around that. So it really wouldn't make much sense to change their instruction for the sake of a small minority of people that may not be serious about it. The most that has been done was to offer a children's class so they can have someone similar in size to practice with. I mean, it's hard to do men on someone who's a few feet taller than you.

In this situation, I wouldn't say to really change the practice structure. The best thing to do is to encourage the beginners to keep going and do their best and show that progress can be made. The most important thing to do is to expose them to what is in store for them when they stick to it. I was always interested in Kendo, but going to the first tournament way back in the fall of 2003 solidified my notion that kendo was for me and I wanted to get to the point where they were at. In a way, you would be telling them that, while practice can be hard and repetitive, if you stick to it, this is what you will be doing. It really helps if you give them some sort of end-goal to all the drills and show them how they will be applied later. If they are truely serious about it, they'll form their own goals later on so I wouldn't be concerned about that.

- The Kendo Practitioners Themselves

The Kendo world is a pretty tight-knit community. No matter where you go, you will most likely be welcomed with open arms as we realize that Kendo is such a niche community and desire to expand that. For this, the thing to do would be to do a better job with having people feel included. You could have the best of instruction and the most skilled Kendoka around, but it all goes to pot if there's no sense of belonging.

What I am saying goes beyond what I said in the second part. There are outside gatherings for various reasons and conversations that go on before, during and after practice. To make them feel belonged, try including beginners in these things to have something to come back to for the next practice. In a way, this also makes the beginners start to feel a little guilty if they decide to not attend practice anymore. Don't get me wrong, if they don't like Kendo then they will stop. But if there is a small desire to keep trying, just that small push of inclusiveness could keep them coming.

Note that these aren't supposed to be the end-all-be-all for reasons why there isn't a diverse crowd in Kendo or methods for increasing the population and diversity of those that are involved. Every dojo is different in terms of available demographic and philosophy. I would be interested in hearing from others what they feel the problem may be and any possible solutions to alleviate the situation.

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