Swordsmanship and Honour
March 1, 2006
By Irwin Rapoport
Paul Eric Marko, 35, an engineer with degrees in mining and electrical engineering from McGill University, had studied martial arts in the past, but took up kendo in 1999 when a group of friends from...
Paul Eric Marko, 35, an engineer with degrees in mining and electrical engineering from McGill University, had studied martial arts in the past, but took up kendo in 1999 when a group of friends from work decided to give it a try.
By day Marko is employed by the petroleum and petrochemical services company Le Groupe Ultragen. In his recreation time he is an assistant instructor at the Montreal Kendo Club.
Kendo, “the Way of the Sword,” is a form of Japanese fencing that simulates Japanese sword combat. It is practised by millions of Japanese and has approximately a million followers outside Japan. The martial art was created around 1710 to reduce unnecessary deaths and injuries that resulted from training with real steel swords.
The two-handed kendo sword called a shinai is made of four bamboo slots held together by leather and strings. The armour covers the body and a helmet protects the face. Around 1740, Japanese sword masters improvised chest and head protectors, as well as heavy gloves.
The matches, which last five minutes, occur within a square. Unlike the western sport of fencing, the combatants are not attached to wires. Two consecutive valid hits (ippon) are required to win.
In modern kendo, there are two types of attacks — strikes and thrusts. Strikes are usually allowed to only three points on the body — the top of the head, the right and left of side bodies, and the forearms. Thrusts are usually permitted only to the throat.
In competitive matches, it is not enough for a shinai to just touch the opponent; points are awarded only when the attacks are done properly to the exact target with good control and a yell (kiai).
In Canada, the main centres of activity are in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. Since the world championships were founded in 1970, a Canadian team has participated in every competition.
In addition to participating in tournaments in Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Vancouver, Marko has visited Japan and competed with members of a dojo in the Nagano Prefecture.
“It was amazing,” he says. “The Canadian National Team are world class players, but playing with these people who have literally lived kendo for their whole life was unbelievable. The masters score points on you at will. That really opens your eyes.”
“Spirit is also very important,” continues Marko. “It’s having a fearless attitude, never giving up and trying as hard as you can. kendo improves what is already good in a person.”
According to the All Japan Kendo Federation, by practising kendo, “one can mould the mind and body, cultivate a vigorous spirit through correct and rigid training, hold in esteem human courtesy and honour, and associate with others with sincerity, and to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.”
These goals are similar to those found in other martial arts. As Marko sees it, “the objective is the same, everyone is just trying to achieve it in a different way: to improve yourself as person.
“I’m a little bit of an intense person and kendo has forced me to relax or I tend to get injured,” he adds. “If you can relax in a kendo match while somebody is trying to hit you with a sword, obviously you are not going to get as tense during the day because there is very little as stressful as that.”
Marko believes kendo has indirectly affected his work, which has taken him to projects in the U.S. and as far away as Argentina.
“It teaches you not to freak out,” he says. “There are deadlines, demanding clients and difficult projects, which are mirrored in kendo where you have a demanding guy in front of you, a short deadline of five minutes and you have to be precise to make a hit.”
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance writer based in Montreal.