The samurai of Shanghai

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-7 14:23:00

Wearing black armor and helmets, barefooted kendo practitioners engage each other in a stadium in downtown Shanghai. Photo: Cai Xianmin/GT
Wearing black armor and helmets, barefooted kendo practitioners engage each other in a stadium in downtown Shanghai. Photo: Cai Xianmin/GT

Every Sunday night the indoor stadium at Fudan Senior High School on Huashan Road resembles a surreal feudal scene. Open the wooden door to the second floor and you will see more than 40 samurai warriors, barefoot, wearing black armor and helmets, charging each other with long bamboo swords. The shouts, stamps of the warriors and the whacks of the swords echo all over the building and can be heard even outside on Huashan Road.

These are not time-traveling warriors from the Japanese Meiji period - just members of the Shanghai Katsusinkai Kendo Club in training. Although the past year might have been difficult for Chinese-Japanese relationships, enthusiasm for kendo in Shanghai has been growing apace. According to Gu Min, the deputy secretary of the Shanghai Kendo Association, although kendo is far from being mainstream, the number of people taking up kendo in the past year has almost tripled and about 200 took the kendo grading examinations in Shanghai in 2012, a twofold increase from 2011.

Kendo ("the way of the sword" in Japanese) is a modern martial art that originated in Japan. Its original form, kenjutsu, or "the technique of the sword," can be traced back to the ninth century in feudal Japan and had been an essential part of Japan's samurai culture. It evolved from the battlefield to the stadium during the late 18th century, when protective armor, helmets and bamboo swords were introduced in training to minimize injuries. This was the beginning of modern kendo.

Discipline and application

The All Japan Kendo Federation website states that philosophy of the sport is to "discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana (sword)," to mold the mind and body and cultivate a vigorous spirit through rigid training.

In Shanghai most kendoka (practitioners of kendo) are aged under 40 and are students or office workers. Most have been attracted to the sport by the images of sword wielding samurai in Japanese manga and anime.

Ju Pengxue, a human resources officer for a city firm, has been practicing kendo at Katsusinkai, one of the five clubs under the Shanghai Kendo Association, for 10 months. The slight and serious 27-year-old said her motivation to learn kendo came from Rurouni Kenshin, a Japanese animated television series she watched as a teenager. The show followed the life and adventures of an assassin-turned Japanese wanderer and samurai after the Meiji Restoration.

But for her gradually the allure of the television show was replaced by a genuine interest in the martial art. "The ancient principles of kendo help me handle the pressures at work," she said. "It has also changed my character and turned me into a more determined person. People of my age give up on things easily. Kendo can change that."

She said the cost of kendo training - about 700 yuan ($112) for three months was comparable with the amount other women paid for fitness classes like yoga.

Zhou Dawei, a long-term member and a voluntary coach with the club, has been practicing kendo for more than 16 years. He took up kendo as an overseas high school student in Japan. "I was a teenager when I first started learning kendo. I liked reading Jin Yong's (Louis Cha) martial arts novels and the prospect of being able to fight with a real sword was too cool to resist," he said.

The rigorous training in kendo in Japan sharpened his character too. "I used to be a very changeable person - so changeable that I was easily influenced or persuaded by others. After practicing kendo, I'm more confident and self-assured," he said.

However, not every manga or book fan can handle the noisy, harsh and aggressive combative sport. "Many students left the club after a few sessions saying that it wasn't as cool and effortless as the way it was portrayed in Japanese manga," Gu said.

The guttural yells in kendo, the "kiai," for example, intimidate many at first. According to Zhou, yelling on the completion of a blow is important because it balances the combatant's breathing with the delivery of the sword strike, and helps focus concentration and frighten an enemy.

Bao Bin, 24, who works in the car industry, has been practicing kendo for one year. He said, "I was too shy to shout in front of people at first, but shouting out loud gives you power and I'm comfortable with it now."

It still hurts

Kendo needs a relatively large amount of equipment and a specific venue (a dojo). Unlike basketball or football, it cannot be undertaken anywhere. Despite the armor and helmets, injuries still occur but Zhou said that this was nothing compared with the training systems in Japan. "In Japan, kendo is treated seriously as a martial art. Teachers are very tough with their students and when I was in Japan I was being constantly bruised and hurt."

The All Japan Kendo Federation reported in 2007 that more than 1 million people had studied kendo, and many junior and junior high schools listed it as a compulsory course.

"In Shanghai, kendo is practiced more like a hobby. Most of the participants are students and office workers and they don't want to be injured by a hobby," Zhou said.

In kendo, achievement is measured by the "dan" grading system, like the systems used in judo and karate. The highest grade is eighth dan. Unlike other martial arts grading examinations, kendo puts a great deal of value on experience and a kendoka has to practice for a set number of years before he or she can go on to a higher level. A fifth dan kendoka has to practice for another five years before he can apply for the examination to become a sixth dan. To become an eighth dan, a kendoka must be at least 46 years old and have practiced for 10 years since achieving the seventh dan position. Many kendoka are 50 or 60 before they attain this level.

In Shanghai the examinations are held twice a year, in the spring and autumn, and are organized by the Shanghai Kendo Association. The highest level kendoka in Shanghai is a fourth dan.

Gu said that they invited experts including Japanese kendo masters living in China to serve as referees and judges. Sometimes they invited kendo masters from Taiwan and Japan.

But as the local grading examination isn't recognized by the International Kendo Federation, some candidates prefer to take their examinations in Taiwan or in Japan for internationally-recognized certificates.

University launch

Gu said kendo was first introduced to Shanghai by Hisamitsu Ono, a Japanese martial arts teacher. In 1988 the Shanghai University of Sport invited Ono to launch a kendo course to further exchanges between Chinese and Japanese martial arts enthusiasts. The university hired a translator to make communications easier for Ono and his students.

Fu Zhengjie, now 44, was one of the 30 or so students at Ono's class 24 years ago. He is a third dan. "Few people had heard about kendo then and we were all very curious about it," Fu said.

Before taking up kendo, Fu had been studying wushu, a traditional Chinese martial art, for several years. "Kendo and wushu are both combat sports and both of them help strengthen the body and cultivate the spirit. But many young people enjoy kendo because even a beginner can whack an opponent with the sword - it's more direct than wushu in this regard. The etiquette and culture in kendo are also different," he said.

During the 1990s the study of kendo was restricted to sports academy students. At the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003, a group of young people aspiring to learn the art gathered together and founded the kendo clubs.

Gu Min, now the deputy secretary of Shanghai Kendo Association, has witnessed the gradual development of the sport in the past decade. He said that Japanese nationals working in Shanghai played a big role in promoting the sport.

"There were some sixth and seventh dan kendoka in Shanghai then, and we often consulted them. They coached us but never asked a penny from us."

With the development of kendo in Shanghai, the Shanghai Kendo Association was founded in 2010 to promote the sports in the city. The association has been holding examinations and competitions in Shanghai. Gu and his colleagues are now busy preparing for a national kendo contest to be held in Shanghai this year.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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