Learn samurai spirit through kendo
By Primastuti Handayani
JAKARTA (JP): Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai reminds us of the great technical skills of Japanese warriors in using their swords.
Musashi, the classic novel by Eiji Yoshikawa, describes the greatness of Japanese hero Miyamoto Musashi, who is remembered as a kenshi, or sword saint, for his supreme skill in using the weapon.
The technique of using a sword in modern times is recognized in kendo, which means the way of sword. Kendo is a sport that emphasizes the spirit of martial arts.
From the end of the Sengoku era at the end of the 16th century to the 17th century, fighting techniques using the Japanese sword became systematized as fencing techniques.
During the Edo era in the 18th century, bamboo swords (shinai) and defensive weapons were invented and widely used as part of samurai culture.
With the start of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the samurai class disappeared and carrying a sword was banned.
Due to the active role played by the Japanese Sword Division of the Police Agency (Battotai, or sword drawing regiment) in suppressing the Seinan War at the end of the 19th century, kendo was adopted as part of the police curriculum.
The name kendo was established in 1931 and along with judo, it become a compulsory school subject and was taught as part of military training.
Kendo is based on the mind-set of the samurai, who frequently confronted issues of life and death, and stresses spiritual cultivation even more than judo does.
Yet behind the martial arts lie the philosophies of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Japanese martial arts is not only about waza (skills) for killing and fighting, but more importantly it explores the searching for kokoro (or shin, heart), the heart that transcends victory and defeat, which then leads to the Buddhist view of life and death and the Confucian way of natural harmony, yawara (pliancy).
Tadanori Okamura, managing director of the All Japan Kendo Federation, told The Jakarta Post last week that kendo now is meant to improve someone's mentality and physical condition.
"Kendo taught us that mental and physical training cannot be done separately. We should combine them in one. But the basic point is mentality," he said during his visit to Jakarta and Bandung with six other kendo masters.
"Without heart and mind, kendo is like violence. By having a good heart and mind, a kendoka (a student who learns kendo) is expected to be able to control his or her emotions and not misuse his or her skills for violence."
Anybody can practice kendo starting from the age of seven. Instead of using a real sword, the students use a shinai, a wooden sword of between 110 and 180 centimeters long. The hilt of the wooden sword is covered in leather.
There is also another type of wooden sword for adults, called a bokuto, which is about 100 centimeters long.
A kendoka wears protective equipment covering the target areas -- the head, wrists and abdomen. The bogu (protective gear) consists of a men (face mask), a do (breastplate), kote (fencing gloves) and the tare, a kind of apron to protect the stomach and hips.
Under the protective gear, the kendoka wears a hakama (wide split skirt reaching the ankles).
The kendo practice hall is called a dojo, while the contest area consists of a wood floor between nine and 11 square meters in size.
After the contestants rise and bow, they stand with the right foot slightly advanced and the left heel slightly raised. The shinai is held in both hands, the tip directed toward the opponent's throat.
In modern kendo, there are only two motions; cut and thrust. The cutting can be done to the opponent's head, abdomen and hands, while the thrust (tsuki) is aimed at the throat and chest.
Training also involves appropriate blocks and parries, counterattacks and footwork.
To earn a point, the contestant calls out the intended target area. Points are given for strikes to the target areas. Matches usually last five minutes and the first person who scores ippon (two points) wins.
"In kendo, you only score ippon or nothing. It is equal to perfection or nothing," said Okamura.
Okamura said that kendo would not become an Olympic sport like judo and tae kwon do.
"Winning is not a target for a kendoka. We are aiming at mental improvement," he said.
The development of kendo in Indonesia has yet to show much progress. Currently, the Jakarta Kendo Federation (JKF) has only 50 members -- 20 of whom are not active. While the Jakarta Kendo Club is open for Japanese kendo practitioners.
Okamura said Indonesians had a similar anatomical structure to the Japanese. Therefore, he hoped more Indonesians would take up the sport in the future.
"Indonesians have similar flexibility with the Japanese, compared to Europeans or Americans, who rely on their power," he said.
He blamed the hot weather in the country as the main factor for the unpopularity of kendo.
"With the costume weighing about 20 kilograms, it's really difficult for Indonesians to practice kendo. They will be sweating all over and feel exhausted. Only with strong motivation can people train."
The visit of Okamura and the six other kendo masters is expected to increase the sport's popularity here.
Masato Tsuji, an official at JKF, told the Post the best age to start learning kendo was seven.
"But people can start at any age, 30, 40 or even 50. It doesn't really matter. The most important thing is they have the power to lift the shinai."
Those interested in kendo can contact the Jakarta Kendo Federation at (021) 662-4737 or 619-8080 or visit their homepage at www.jakartakendo.dk3.com or www.angelfire.com/me2/Kendo.