Physical Training Jan 2014
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An Essay on the Dogma of Fencing and Kendo:
A Fencing Coach's Opinion, How a Student's Attitude Reflects Learning

copyright © 2014 Jonathan Riddle, all rights reserved.

An important part of teaching is effective communication.  The teacher has to translate, and transliterate his ideas into actions that the student will understand.  In fencing and in kendo, he must remove all the romantic and fantastic notions about the sports.

Personally, I have tried changing the image and the preconception of both sports.  Fencing and kendo have a diverse history, but they share several common technical concepts as combative sword-based sport.  And as a student and an instructor, I have learned a lot about both. I think we have lot to learn and share with each other.  

There is a cultural mysticism about swordsmanship that comes from several sources: stories, books, movies, cartoons, and TV shows, which Americans have grown up with.

When talking about fencing, most kids pretended they are pirates, or buccaneers dancing around with swords, fighting onboard a ship, or a screaming samurai running down his opponent in an open field swinging a katana wildly.

What kid did not want to be Zorro when he grew up?

As much as I love all of this, this is fantasy, not reality.  Unfortunately most Americans have grown up with a superficial understanding about swordsmanship, the history of swordsmanship and the sports of fencing and kendo.

Their attitudes have evolved into a kind of negative cultural bias which has led to a  misunderstanding about the sports. The reason probably is because Americans do not have the shared cultural experience of either sport as compared with the Europeans and the Japanese.  Americans hold a strong culture link to firearms because of the importance they have played in shaping US history. 

Every semester, some student would hold up his foil, and say, “I have the power,” or “there can be only one.” These are awesome quotes from epic swordsmen: Heman from Heman and the Masters of the Universe and Conner McCloud of the clan McCloud from the movie, The Highlander. To my annoyance. What does this have to do with fencing, kendo or swordsmanship at that?

I would reply, “…that is great, now go back to practice, and FENCE.”

Movies and TV shows are inspiring, and instill spirited enthusiasm that can make for a great fencer or kendoist, but this is not useful against your opponent. There is nothing supernatural, mystical, or magical that will help you win a bout or a tournament.  I believe in skill, not luck. With that said, there are some superstitious fencers who still name their foils like the warriors from the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf.

When people think of Japanese swordsmanship, they think of the movies, American Ninja or Rodan.  These are great movies, but these productions and the people in them are actors that are pretending to be samurai and ninjas.  Their actions are exaggerated for cinematic effect.  

Real swordsmanship contains movements that are controlled, subtle, and quick.  Americans assume that the swordsmanship of these samurai and ninjas are accurate, they could not be more wrong, and their opinion is not based on experience, but based on fantasy created in the minds of movie directors and producers.

Again, unfortunately, kendo holds a mysticism because it is an oriental sport as compared to an occidental, European sport. Kendo technical language when translated can be very cryptic.

The technical language of kendo as compared to Western fencing, is in Japanese versus  the technical language of fencing which is mostly based on Latin, and are more commonly understood because of their use in the medicine and the sciences. There are also terms that are in French and in English.

My point is that students need to separate the fantasy of welding a sword wildly and the authenticity of the sport of Kendo and of fencing, both of which require training and discipline.

During practice, they both require a serious learning effort and  attitude. And it is not play time.  As my fencing coach, the late fencing master, and coach of the Fencing Academy of Michigan, Yuri Rabinovich would have said, “any idiot can swing a club, but only a few can fence.”

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