The Iaido Journal  Feb 2010
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One-on-One with Satomi Matsuhashi
(3rd Dan Kendo)
Part 1: Starting Kendo

copyright 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved 
The following article is the first part of an interview with Satomi Matsuhashi (3rd dan, kendo), who is an assistant instructor in the Nikka Gakuen Kendo Club in Toronto. In this article, Ms. Matsuhashi talks about her early experiences in kendo in Japan.

Author’s note: This interview was conducted in January 2010 in Toronto, Canada.

Question: Where are you from? Your birthplace?
Matsuhashi: Akita. *
* (Akita Prefecture – a prefecture in northern Japan).

Question: How did you get started in kendo?
Matsuhashi: In Junior high school, I was not athletic. I wasn’t good at any sports, so I had to find something that had nothing to do with speed or height. For example, in basketball, it is better to be taller. Because I wasn’t good at any sports, my sister and my parents all told me to do rhythmic gymnastics.

Question: Why?
Matsuhashi: You don’t have to be tall or fast to do rhythmic gymnastics. Actually, they are typically small and petite. Even the gymnastics teacher at my school recommended that I join because I was flexible… At that time, of course!! (laughs.)  But one day, I was walking past the budokan* and I just noticed out of the corner of my eye some shinai moving. I just noticed it briefly through the slats of the windows. But it was something that was totally new to me.
(* the school’s dojo. Typically, simply referred to as “Budokan” in Japanese which translated means “the place for training in martial arts” or martial arts training hall.)

I did volleyball and swimming and all that phys. ed. stuff like we were supposed to but kendo was something that was completely new. I didn’t know anything about kendo but I imagined at the time that it didn’t have anything to do with speed or height. I guess I was subconsciously trying to find nothing to do with my height because I am short, and nothing to do with running speed because I’m not a good runner. No matter how hard I tried for any sport, I was not fast enough, I was not tall enough, either to compete individually or to become a member of a school team. My consistent effort in attending practice for these sports had not produced anything so I knew I was no good to compete. I would never be a star player. So my self-esteem was low and my expectations for myself were low as well.

So even in kendo, I did not start with a lot of passion since I knew from past experience that I would never be a high-level player. But that outlook changed shortly after.

Question: Why? What happened?
Matsuhashi: When I joined the kendo club (and this was in the first grade of junior high school*), ten girls had also joined with me at the same time.
(* Grade 7: about 13 years old. For more information about the Japanese Education system, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Japan .)

Question: Is that considered a lot?
Matsuhashi: Yes. In tennis or basketball, you could expect that many but kendo at that time was not popular. But as soon as I joined, I found out that my school’s kendo dojo was at a pretty good level* compared to other schools in the local area. They were always in the finals of local tournaments.
(* a good technical quality, a good reputation)

So all my sempais* were proud of it. They had a lot of pride in being one of the best kendo schools in the area.
(* veteran players; seniors; older students who had trained longer)

So I saw that too. And I saw it everyday. But I always thought that that kind of passion was something I could never have. For example, being really proud of what they were doing. Ten girls and thirty boys joined that year so there were forty players in all, practicing at the dojo. Just to look at those numbers discouraged me.

Question: Why?
Matsuhashi: Because I knew that I wasn’t going to be one of the players going to compete at the tournaments to represent our school. So that held me back and made me not so passionate about it. So I basically said to myself “OK, whatever” because no one had any expectations of me and I did not have any expectations of myself. That’s basically how I started kendo.

Question: So what happened next?
Matsuhashi: Well, let me give you some background information. My sensei joined our school at the same time that I joined. Before my sensei came, the school did have a really well-known and well-respected teacher; he was respected by the school, the students, and the parents. But he was transferred to another school* at the end of the last school year** so my teacher replaced him as the kendo teacher of our school’s dojo.
(* a common practice, teachers rotate amongst schools within a Board.)
(** In Japan, the school year ends in March and the new school year begins in April.)

He was 29 years old, newly hired, and he wasn’t from the area so no one knew him. And because he was young and new, the sempais did not listen to him and treated him in a very disrespectful way. For example, even when he gave instructions, they would walk away. This is totally unacceptable in budo.*
(* i.e., lack of respect; disrespectful attitude. Respect is one of the 7 virtues of Bushidō, the Japanese warrior’s code of ethics.)

He had to establish his position in the dojo and in the school. So he had to put up with the sempais until they graduated in a year or two. But for the first grade students like us, we knew nothing about the old teacher who was there previously. So, my teacher put more than 100% effort into teaching us, the young group, because he could start from the beginning with us. In six months or so, the first grade students, us, went to our first tournament. There were only a couple of girls on our team that had some previous experience in kendo and there were also a few other girls on our team who were just generally athletic so maybe there were some expectations of these girls to do well. But in my case, I was completely invisible in the club. No one took any notice of me.

But in that tournament, I went all the way to the finals! I couldn’t believe it. No one could believe it. It was really unbelievable! And on the way to the finals, I had to face those two girls with the previous kendo experience from my school.

Question: So what happened?
Matsuhashi: Well, I defeated those two girls on the way to the final. If I had won the final, that would be the greatest story to start with but I didn’t. And even though I lost in the final, I should not be disappointed because being at the final was much more than anyone expected of me. I was so shocked myself! The girl I had to fight against in the final was from another school, BUT… her father just happened to be the old teacher of our kendo club! Imagine the coincidence! And she had been doing kendo ever since she was very little. So I was to face the daughter of the famous kendo teacher who had consistently brought our previous teams to the finals. My sempais told me all this information before the match. And knowing all this background, about her father, and her experience in kendo, and myself starting kendo with no capability, all this did not help.

So when I had to face her, I can clearly remember the moment. I was scared to death. Nervous, shaking, because I was facing someone bigger than me. Not physically. But she seemed like someone I could never defeat. So I lost and I finished that match. She got the gold medal and I got the silver. But from that point onwards, all the sempais and my club-mates, their attitudes towards me changed. They came up to me, gathered around me and congratulated me. “Wow, you got the silver!” they would all say. But that didn’t mean anything to me.

Question: What do you mean?
Matsuhashi: I should probably have been very happy because it was a big surprise; something that I thought I could never achieve. No one expected this kind of result. But in a way, I was not satisfied. I thought about it for a while afterwards and I came to realize that it was not because I could not defeat her.

I was not happy because… I could not defeat myself. So, as of that day, I was determined to better myself. As of that day, I started to put more passion in my kendo.

Satomi Matsuhisha, champion
Satomi Matsuhashi, champion, (Gunshi Shinjin Kendo Taikai).

Author’s post-script:

Ms. Matsuhashi would eventually go on to win local area and district championships at the junior high school level. She was the two-time champion of her local district kendo championship and the three-time, consecutive undefeated champion of the tri-county high school kendo championship in her region (northern part of Akita Prefecture). This is similar in organization to other tri-county athletic formats in the USA. For example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tri-County_Conference

In the tri-county high school kendo championship in her region that she won, 20 high schools participated and sent their best players. This is quite an accomplishment.

Satomi Matsuhashi
An old photograph of Ms. Satomi Matsuhashi. As she relates, one of the teachers at her school wanted to take a photo for a photo contest and decided to come to the kendo club to do some photo shooting and thought this was a good “moment”. The teacher actually won a prize for this photograph. Incidentally, the trophy that is seen in the lower left corner is one of the three trophies which Matsuhashi senshu* won as champion of the tri-county high school kendo championship in her region.
(* “senshu” translates as “player” and is used as a formal title at tournaments following a competitor’s surname.)


 Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at: dtong@tokumeikan.com

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