(Originally written as a part of the Narrative Journalism class at Ithaca College, fall 2012. Available here as work preservation.)
The room is silent. It is bare, brightly lit, hot, and smells of salt. The students inside are dressed for battle, clad as samurai. The kendo students form a circle and place their bamboo swords, shinai, in front of them to form another smaller circle. One by one, they inhale together and then exhale together. In … Out. In… Out. In unison the group puts out a leg.
“Ichi, ni, san, shi!” Martha, the president of the club, shouts the numbers one through four in Japanese as each kendo student holds a count for stretching.
“Go, roku, shichi, hachi!” The other students yell the following four numbers. The words echo. Their hakama, the large pleated pants, brush the floor.
In her naturally quiet voice, Martha announces, “Okay, everyone.” The others talk among themselves over sips of water and Gatorade.
“Hey, guys,” Martha calls. A few turn people turn toward her, but others are still talking. “Guys!” Martha repeats louder. All eyes are on her. “As you all know, some kendo teachers from Osaka are visiting next weekend. They’re going to lead us in practice, and then we’re having a mini tournament. This is going to be a five-person team, and to decide who’s competing, we’re going to have two-minute matches today.”
Gin, the club member who has practiced kendo the longest, acts as the referee for the match. He signals for Martha and one other student to come forward. Martha adjusts her helmet, tugging at the ties. Her hair, back in a ponytail, is barely visible under the tenugui, a cotton hand towel she wears under her helmet.
Martha and her opponent bow. They start with their swords in their left hands, bow their heads, return upright, swords ready, and bend at the knees. They back away a few paces. Now the match is ready to start.
“Hajime!” Gin yells. “Begin!”
Martha immediately takes the offensive and shrieks a kiai during her first strike. Her opponent blocks and the two bamboo swords clack against each other. He attacks again, and Martha retreats, awkwardly dropping one hand from the sword as she desperately blocks another strike. Clack! Clack! The swords continue to collide until the two fighters get in close, wrists locked. They break free and spin around each other.
“Do!” Martha shrieks, emphasis on the “oh.” Her sword hits her opponent’s chest piece hard. Point one for Martha.
They restart. This time her opponent is the first to attack, but Martha advances on him in a second, slamming her foot on the wooden floor. Both stand still for a moment. Martha’s foot twitches slightly, and she’s moving quickly again, striking. Head. Head. Arm. Block. Chest. Chest. Chest again. Her next strike hits his wrists.
Spirit, sword technique, and proper posture—all three are required for a point, and most matches are played to two points. A person can swing a sword around all he wants to, but without accuracy and spirit, it’s just a child with a sharp stick.
Jess, the secretary, sits with a stopwatch. “Jikan desu!” she says. It’s time; the two minutes are up. Martha and her opponent bow before returning to the sides of the room.
At the end of practice, the kendo students line up on the floor by seniority, sitting on the floor with their feet tucked underneath their rears. The room is quiet with a moment of reflection. With hands placed in front on the ground, they bow together, raising their heads slower than they lowered them. Together they say, “Arigato gozaimasu,” a formal thank you.
They file outside the gym one-by-one, but not without one final bow.
* * *
Practices involve being hit over and over. Repeatedly.
Abulu, the vice president of the club, stands in the middle of the room running drills with Martha. He holds his sword out for Martha to strike with each step she takes. She finishes with a men strike and runs past Abulu while she shouts a nasally “aaaaaaa!”
Only Martha, Abulu, and Jess are present for the Wednesday night practice. With exams coming up, most club members take the night off to study.
“We’re going to go over some of the basics today,” Martha says. “We should do this more often, anyway. Everything starts with the fundamentals.”
As they continue doing drills, Martha sees Abulu adjusting his grip on the hilt frequently.
“Make sure you have a strong grip before you strike, Abulu! But you want your body to be relaxed. You can’t attack properly if you’re tense. Just relax.”
He shakes out his arms and takes a deep breath. Even though he’s the vice president, Abulu is a newcomer to kendo when compared to Martha, who’s been practicing since she was a child. But there’s room for improvement for everyone.
Martha starts another basic drill. She, Abulu, and Jess line up, facing themselves in a mirror. On counts to three, they practice a series of strikes. Jess counts off first, Abulu does it second, and Martha does the third round.
“Ichi!” Swords up. “Ni!” Step forward and strike. “San!” Return. “Ichi! Ni! San! Ichi! Ni! San! Ichi…”
Martha stands still with her sword above her head. Abulu and Jess both step forward and strike for the second count, but they hesitate halfway when they realize Martha hasn’t moved.
“Got you!” The three take a moment to laugh before it’s all business again. “Oh, and make sure your back heel is raised,” Martha reminds them.
* * *
Three older Japanese men walk in barefoot to a middle school gym. Upon entering, they bow, and students—both Japanese and American—do the same. Just outside the gym doors, Martha runs back and forth.
“Right this way,” she says in Japanese. She later recalls that many of the students visiting from Japan knew English, but because she’s fluent in Japanese, it was easier to converse in their native language.
“Arigato, arigato,” the young Japanese students reply. They file in calmly, and soon Martha joins them in the makeshift dojo. It was the gym of a nearby middle school, but for today’s purposes, it is a dojo.
A long line of varying shades of dark blues and black tops and hakama pants forms across the gym floor, made up of students from Osaka University, Cornell, NYU, and Syracuse University. Martha stands somewhere in the middle. The three sensei from Kyoto, Japan, stand facing them. Of the three, one does most of the talking.
His name is Ichihara-sensei. He is small, standing roughly at five feet and five inches. Martha sees the muscles of his forearms, which aren’t covered by his kendo top, and notices he is well built for his age. In fact, the only thing giving away his old age is his graying hair.
“First, thank you to the Corneru students for hosting us,” Ichihara says in English for the American students. He struggles with double l in “Cornell.”
Martha smiles slightly and the others from the Cornell Kendo Club nod to Ichihara.
The other two are quiet for now. Actually, the second teacher, Ikeda-sensei is quiet in spite of a student asking him a question. The third, Kakinoki-sensei is the youngest of the teachers and lets the others answer questions. But something blinking on his chest catches Martha’s eye. Squinting her eyes, she can see it’s a nametag, flashing Kakinoki. It’s strangely out of place compared to all of the embroidered nametags people wear.
“Now you all will have to know my name,” he says quietly, but with a laugh. Turning to Martha, whose attention is clearly on the bling, he adds, “I’ll even make one for you.”
The room erupts with giggles.
But kendo is no laughing matter; the room is serious minutes later. The first event of the day is a mini tournament, one-on-one matches in five-person teams.
Martha steps forward as the competitor. Her opponent is one of the Japanese students from the Osaka University Kendo Club. Although she is smaller than him, he is also short—a “fit but compact size.” She bows at the knees and takes a long look at him.
His eyes narrow. It’s a look of determination, but also perhaps of arrogance. She sees his eyes say, “I’m not losing to a girl.”
“Hajime!” Ichihara yells. The match begins.
Each takes a few moments to size up the other, both in a basic ready stance with the sword held out in front of the body, the end of the sword pointed at the opponent’s neck. Martha takes one step forward.
He shouts. Martha feels the vibration from his sword on her helmet, and the feeling reaches all the way to her stomach. A solid hit. He scores his second point in less than ten seconds.
The match is already over.
* * *
Martha takes a swig from her water bottle and wipes away the dribble on the sides of her mouth. Practice is quiet with only three people present, and Jess tries to disturb the silence by playing on the piano in the corner of the room.
“Ugh, I ate too much food over my fall break,” Martha groans. “I got fat.”
No, she didn’t, Jess mouths from behind her.
Abulu stifles a laugh.
Martha arranges Jess and Abulu for a lesson in nuki-do. She and Jess demonstrate for him. They stand at the ready, and when Martha brings her sword down at Jess’s head, Jess almost walks under Martha’s armpit as she swiftly drops her sword parallel to the ground and strikes Martha’s exposed side.
Abulu gives it a shot. He and Jess line up across from each other, staring at each other. Abulu towers over her. He’s tall and skinny, and fighting someone of a radically different size takes some adjustment. As Jess raises her sword to strike, Abulu closes the distance and tries to strike her side, but she easily hits his head first.
“Faster, Abulu!” Martha says.
He tries again and again, but Jess hits him every time.
“If it makes you feel better, girls are naturally better at nuki-do,” Jess says.
“We’re smaller and faster,” Martha adds.
The two girls grin at each other. Abulu rubs the back of his head and sighs.
“The key is to already be in motion—to anticipate their attack,” Martha suggests. “And don’t wait for them to attack you. Force them to attack. Kendo isn’t only about the physical.”
* * *
Jess sits at a small table, the only one in jeans and a jacket. "CORNELL KENDO CLUB" is printed on the back in large red letters. A series of papers lay on the table. She leans back in the uncomfortable school chair, jumping to attention when a young man in kendo gear appears. The nametag between his legs reads "ALLEGHENY."
"There's a problem with our liability sheets," he says. "We, ah, forgot to bring them."
Jess laughs and waves him off. "That's okay. Just don't get hurt."
During this weekend-long tournament, held by the Cornell Kendo Club each year, Jess greets the competitors and keeps track of paperwork. Inside the gym, Martha and Gin sit on opposite sides of the room at two different tables, calling competitors to their matches. Jess sits outside, alone.
"I'm supposed to compete today, but I honestly have no idea how because I'll be at this table all day," she groans.
She hears shouts of "Fight-OOOOOO, fight-OOOOOO!" from the gym. The rest of the day is going to be loud.
Helmets and shinai lay scattered across the gym floor. Students' embroidered nametags read "Rutgers," "NYU," "Yale," "Harvard," "Allegheny," and of course, "Cornell." Both undergraduate and graduate students from the east coast come to Cornell once a year for the fall competition.
“Wei Lin from Cornell, red!” Martha calls from her table. Even from across the gym, Gin’s shouts overtake hers. “Wei Lin from Cornell!” she repeats.
The competitor set to fight next stands at the corner. Martha checks his ribbon to make sure it is tied securely to the back strings of his chest plate. She gives him a thumbs up and returns to her seat.
A match on Gin’s side ends, and a man walks to the bleachers. As he takes off his helmet, he wipes off a layer of sweat from his brow. He, and the majority of people here, reeks of sweat. He slumps to a seat and sighs.
“It was my first time,” he admits to a teammate. “I didn’t do that well. Well, shit.”
His teammate pats him on the back. “It was close—nearly a tie.”
“What would have happened then?”
“The judges would have made a decision based on your spirit. That’s what it comes down to.”
Jess walks into the gym, now in her kendo uniform. She sniffles and rubs her nose. The women’s tournament will begin soon. The table will survive without her for a few minutes.
Martha also leaves her station. A few people wave to her as she walks past. She returns the gesture, but scurries past.
On the gym floor, Jess steps forward as her name is called. She and her opponent bow and wait for the judge’s signal.
Jess is cautious at first. Her opponent is larger and more aggressive. She strikes at Jess with ferocity, slapping the floor with her feet each time she attacks. Jess blocks and returns fire. They rotate positions, circling each other.
Jess can see the strike coming. She raises her sword enough to block the overhead strike as she slides to the left, bringing her sword down to her right side and swinging it across. “Do!”
The judge’s flag shoots into the air. Outside in the hallway, swords clack against each other as Martha loosens her muscles. She takes a moment to roll her shoulders and stretch her legs.
“I’m not too nervous,” she says. “I’ve done kendo for years, so this isn’t my first tournament by any means. I also have a by to the second round because I’ve done kendo the longest.”
She coughs once and clears her throat. A bug is going around in the chilly October month.
“I’ll be up in a few matches. Wish me luck.” She nods to herself, firmly grips her shinai, and walks to the corner of the gym where she waits her turn.
Jess finishes her second match with a loss. She drops herself on the bleachers. “A cold plus sports-induced asthma is never helpful for winning,” she says. “Martha will be competing against the girl who beat me.”
She coughs and wipes the sweat off of her face. “Her match should be fun to watch, so don’t miss it.”
* * *
“On deck, Joo from NYU, red. Adams from Cornell, white!”
The two women bow and stare at each other. Martha adjusts her grip on her sword, left hand on the butt of the hilt and her right hand next to the handguard. Her left hand grips it strongly.
Her left heel is slightly off the ground. Her legs are loose, but strong. The judges consult each other with quick head nods. Once they yell, the two fighters spring forward.
BUM. “Men!” “Do!” CLACK! BU-BUM. “DOOO!”
Martha and Joo move back and forth, screaming, slamming their feet, and swinging their swords. Chatter from the sidelines has quieted.
“MEN!” Martha shrieks as she strikes Joo’s helmet. A judge’s flag waves in the air.
Once the judge gives the signal, Martha and Joo strike at the same time. Just like in practice, as Joo went to strike Martha’s head, Martha blocked it, brought her sword to her side and struck Joo’s chest. The clack against the chest plate echoes.
“Ooooh!” the crowd says.
From the corner of her eye, Martha doesn’t see the white flag rise, so she continues. She and Joo both advance quickly and strike at the same time. Their swords push against each other as both fighters’ wrists are locked together. Joo pushes harder and jumps backward, almost tripping over her feet. The crowd oooohs again.
Martha takes a swift step forward and stomps. “Do!” she shouts once more. With the technique, her kiai, and the footwork, the judge raises the white flag a second time.
The crowd screams in both English and Japanese. Martha and Joo bow. They both walk to the sidelines and shake hands. Martha takes a moment to breathe deeply. There’s no time for a water break, but the adrenaline keeps her going.
Martha steps back on the court, waiting for her opponent to do the same. She stands tall, legs together, sword at the side. Her white ribbon hangs from her back. This match will decide the winner of the women’s tournament.
The opponent, the one who defeated Jess, walks forward. With their respective bows, she and Martha take a deep breath together. Martha holds her sword comfortably, the tip in line with her opponent’s chest.
“Haaajime!” the judge yells.
“Go, Martha!” somebody shouts from the crowd.
“Ganbare!” another person says. “Do your best!”
“Kote!” her opponent yells, swinging at Martha’s wrist. Martha moves to the side.
She stomps forward and attacks, but it’s no good. Martha keeps stomping, shouting, and attacking. Her opponent stops Martha’s sword with a block and moves in.
“MEN!” she screams. Her sword hits Martha squarely on the head. Martha flinches only for a second from the sudden strike. The red flag points upward.
A few whispered voices utter an “ouch” in sympathy. The helmets soften the blow of all men strikes, but the sound of the sword on the helmet can be more off-putting.
The second round begins. If Martha doesn’t get the next point, she’ll lose. She ensures her grip on the hilt is secure before she dashes forward. Trying to minimize wide open areas, Martha keeps her sword close to her, doing small strikes at the wrists. Some of them connect, but she hadn’t stomped or shouted.
Martha forces the young woman into the corner of the boundaries for the match. She continuously swings her sword, forcing her opponent to block. She backs up farther and farther until the judge raises the white flag.
Through her helmet, Martha breathes in…and out. No one in the audience dares make a sound. The two women on the court take a moment to compose themselves. The next point will be the last.
Both are cautious this time. Martha’s toes grip the floor as she waits for the moment. Her opponent hesitates as her eyes meet Martha’s, but she slides forward and attacks. Martha sidesteps and takes one step forward, forcing her adversary to follow. As she does, Martha also runs forward, her bare feet squeaking on the floor.
They shout and strike at once. Martha struggles to get away. Retreating would mean putting herself in danger of being struck, but nothing would happen if they were in a stalemate, too close to use a sword effectively. Their gloved wrists push back and forth, neither competitor giving way. They circle around, trying to use momentum, and both push upward, leaving themselves open. They quickly step backward before running back in.
BUMBUM. Martha stomps twice as she steps forward and attacks her opponent’s open left side, but she’s too slow and it’s blocked. She puts more space between them. Neither moves.
The crowd is silent, holding their breath in unison.
Martha suddenly screams and stomps hard enough for her foot to tingle as she readies herself for a strong swing.
“KYAAAA!” she screeches. Martha’s sword slams into the opponent’s side with a booming clap.
The judge whips the white flag in the air. The crowd jumps in the air. Teammates let go of the breath trapped in their chests. As Martha reaches the sidelines, she rips off her helmet and grins, sweat shining on her face.
“I told you it’d be good,” Jess says, watching from the doorway. “That’s Martha for ya.”