Why Kendo?: Robbie Laurel

I am only 9 months old with Manila Kendo Club Philippines, and just starting Kendo at age 50: the question is why Kendo for me is a serious question? I don’t think anyone at my age bracket would mention Anime or Star Wars as reasons for joining. The simple answer is health, struggling with diabetes that as a young man I thought would be easy to beat when it comes: I find myself in need of being active physically in an organized and regular way, even if my job requires me to go through great lengths walking around and visiting clients. My job in health care takes me through hospitals almost every day, and to see dialysis machines in full operation almost 24 hours a day, and the supply unable to meet demand, one knows the battle for diabetes is not easy to win. It is for this reason many health groups, including the WHO, have described diabetes to be an epidemic. Seeing a man my age in a wheelchair, wearing shoes for diabetics, sealed it for me to enlist in some regular physical activity.


Robbie (in white t-shirt) practicing footwork during Saturday Manila Kendo Club practice with Elvi Inoue (left) and Emerson Ingco (right).


As a corporate man, requiring a lot of serious time for meetings, discussions, and presentations; compounded by my one true love is reading serious books that require focus and solitude, the very first time I joined the Manila Kendo Club in their ritual exercises that are done regularly before the start of practice was a shock to me. There was a realization that so many body positions, stances, or exercises require muscles I have probably not used in ages; or as a young man I took them for granted not realizing that those muscles helped me carry the heavy stuff at home or join soccer games in school. There was a sense of despair, even humiliation, to see young people do the exercises, even if still neophytes, seemingly effortlessly. It took half a year to get to some sense of ease and optimism to do these weekly group exercises. It took as much time to understand, these calisthenics at the beginning of practice are designed for specific Kendo movements that require agility.


But why Kendo in particular? I have come to realize that it has been able to sustain my interest at many levels, and so far the only physical ritual, or weekly exercise, or even martial art that combines many things that concern me is in Kendo. These interests are: health, history, culture, physicality, community, and solitude. Health is easy to explain, as I think I have already.


Let me explain the rest, but first, see the art work below.


The Subjugation of the Rebels at Kumamoto (1877), Nagashima Shungyo


This is the description of the above work of art at the website Fuji Art: “Dramatic scene from the Satsuma Rebellion of rebel samurai attacking Kumamoto Castle, which was held by the Imperial Army. Soldiers rush through a gate with swords drawn, immediately encountering the rebel forces. At left, a samurai climbs over the fence while flames rise from inside the compound and smoke billows up into the night sky, with additional fires burning in the distance along the horizon. At center left, samurai with an axe and mallet begin to knock through the heavy wooden fence. An intriguing design, also in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.”


This art work attracted me very much and even tempted me to buy it. These woodblock prints can still be bought at the price range from a thousand pesos to ten thousand pesos, so they are generally affordable if you are not looking for an important artist or some rare sought-after print. Up until now I regret not buying it. In that art work, you see the sword in one of the oldest and most intriguing cultures of Asia, as it is actually an art work depicting two worlds: the rise of the modern nation-state, represented by uniformed representatives of the State, and the nativist samurai warriors longing for the freedoms of the past, looking for the purity and romanticism of a dying era. The sword, so much a part of Kendo, is steeped in the history of Japan, in its drive towards modernity, yet also in its struggle with nativism and nationalism.


Kendo and its connection to Japanese culture sustains my interest because it connects me to a country that became an industrial power, which produced the once legendary CEO Akio Morita and the company Sony (both were very formative to my ideas as a young man as to innovation and corporations) and now CEO Kazuo Inamori and his photocopying machine brand Kyocera (are very much an inspiration to how I run a corporation as its CEO, as he was not only an excellent founder of Kyocera, a major company, but at the peak of his powers, he became a Buddhist priest). There is also Japan the colonial occupying power with its current conflicted relationship with China, Korea, and even the Philippines. It has a history and culture that produced writers like Yukio Mishima (a nativist if there ever was one), Yasunari Kwabata (his story “The Izu Dancer” I still read whenever I want to remember how powerful a seemingly minimalist short story can be), to today’s Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami (whose books have managed to get my teenage son interested in literature, jazz, and Japan).


Kendo sustains my interest and longing for something more than just obsessing over my body or a body (that is evident in the global gym culture) or the weight-loss fervor gripping the world (evident in the various diet fads and the boom in aerobics, pilates, and zumba) defined largely by the beauty and fashion and exercise industry.


Yet there is a physicality and community to it: you prepare physically for the intense encounter that Kendo matches can be. It is communal and a community as there are internal responsibilities and ranks that are respected and ritualized. From the expectation that one wipes the floor with a certain Kendo-style of cleaning the floor (before formal training starts, as wiping the floor is part of the informal training), to the bow towards superiors and seniors and the highest-ranked sensei present at the training day: you actually enter a community of semi-combatants, as whatever else is said about the contemplative and ritualized parts of Kendo, there are moments, at least among the senior members of the Manila Kendo Club, where there is serious scoring of points in intense and quick combat.


Robbie doing ‘soji’, or cleaning the dojo


Being a serious book-reader, having a library of easily over 10,000 books at home, and now while writing this, being on vacation for the Philippine Holy Week where I brought around 45 books for a 5-day vacation where to finish three books would be just short of a miracle: it is clear I love the solitude that reading brings. Not to mention of course the incredible privilege to commune with a first class mind, which reading provides. So I use the term semi-combatant to describe Kendo competitors, because it is emphasized in Kendo that one bows to one’s opponent in gratitude after a match or after a swordfight because there is gratitude for the opportunity to find out about one’s self, one’s strengths, and maybe more importantly, one’s weaknesses. Kendo has its own version of communing or encountering another mind, the other mind being your sensei, or at times, you Kendo opponent, to enrich or learn about your own mind.


There are maybe hundreds of variations to scoring in Kendo, but there are actually only four places where hits are considered valid, and the validity judgement will be based on sound of the shout, disposition, and stance before, during, and immediately after the hit. It requires an almost (and I will probably sound very pretentious and likely I am attempting to describe something I am totally ignorant of at this point) Zen-like hit to score. The shout, or voice; the body or the extension of your soul or physical manifestation of your mind, all must align at the right moment for the hit. Say at the very moment you hit the center of head, with the right stance and gravitational drop of your foot with the forward thrust of your body for the attack, you must be announcing this intention with a shout at the point of impact: men! I am actually unsure how the beautiful hits of senior members of the Manila Kendo Club are able to do it.


Naoki Eiga, who represents Japan in world Kendo competitions, said: to be free of intent to win is the key, as Kendo is about the state of mind. He emphasized: “You will never make the perfect strike when you are aware of it. It must come to you intuitively.” For a fiftyish middle-aged man with no love for physical activity, and with much curiosity as to other minds, Kendo sustains my interest at many levels as I try to struggle with my own scheduling problems, battle with insulin resistance (diabetes), and a great need to have whatever I do be part of my life-long need to try to understand myself and the world, and to apply that understanding to my work-in-the-world.