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Cambodian Kendo

Colin Grafton Share:
Kendoka or kendo students, face off during training. Colin Grafton

Jeff remembers the glorious moment when Veejay’s kiai transformed from a shout to a full on battle cry. It was an epiphany. At last, her blood-curdling screech would send chills to cut into the hearts of her opponents. The “kiai,” a battle cry, or more exactly, a release of energy that bursts from the “hara,” the abdomen, comes out just before you strike someone on the head with your shinai (bamboo sword). Veejay, who hails from the Philippines, first took up Kendo, the “Way of the Sword,” in October 2011, two years after the Phnom Penh Kendo Club (PPKC) was formed.
The founders, a group of kendo enthusiasts, included two Japanese and an Australian, and the first teacher, Victor, was a sandan (third-rank) kendoka. In 2012 they received donations of “bogu,” the kendo body-protection from Japan. Veejay found the bogu so hot and uncomfortable to wear that she almost quit, but she returned to full-time practice at the beginning of 2015. Since then she has taken part in three international kendo competitions.

Originating in the samurai era as a martial art, kendo could be loosely defined as “Japanese sword-fighting”. Many Japanese boys learn Kendo at school as a competitive sport. Instead of swords they use bamboo sticks which make a loud crack on contact with the helmets. 

There are three basic moves: “men,” a vertical blow to the head; “kotei” (literally “small hand”), a blow to the forearm; and “doh,” a sideways strike to the abdomen. Reflex and anticipation is crucial in knowing which move your opponent is going to use.

Osuga-sensei, the present teacher, has a special concept of the art of kendo. He believes in refraining from unnecessary strain on the body and concentrating on flexibility of movement. Many Japanese students come back to kendo after a lengthy hiatus from their high school days. 

Jeff, a 4-dan kendo man from Chicago in the US, second in rank to Osuga-sensei, is also a musician. He thinks that music has helped his kendo through his sense of rhythm. He says in kendo you don’t really learn to fight, but rather to ascertain your opponent’s intentions – and his rhythm. Using a different syncopation to your opponent’s, you can confuse him and penetrate his defenses. Conversely, the kendo “kiai” has helped Jeff to develop and project his voice as a singer.

Osuga-sensei always counsels Jeff and his other students that kendo can be accessible to anybody, regardless of age or gender. His own teacher was still practicing the art at the age of 93. He teaches his students to recognize the need to lighten the demands on their bodies to avoid injury. 

Osuga-sensei’s philosophy stems from his own personal experience. He has traveled the world, working for the World Health Organization. He lived in Fiji, where he scuba-dived.

 “Much more fun than Kendo” he dryly observes.

 He was also in Nepal for four years, and it was there in 1998 that he began to feel a numbness in his hands and feet, and an increasing weakness in his muscles. He had contracted Guillain Barré syndrome, a rare and potentially lethal illness which attacks the nerves, particularly in the arms and legs.

He returned to Japan for treatment for one month. His doctor, a kendo practitioner, recommended he take up the practice as rehabilitation therapy. He returned to Nepal, where he initially started practising tai-chi, and then kendo. He had practised kendo in his youth and had attained 4-Dan, but now he was an older man in a different body. 

He followed the advice of a visiting kendo instructor to think of the art more as a way than a martial art. He made his debut as a teacher when he started instructing his daughter. Then the Japanese ambassador and his wife joined the class, and the dojo received donations of “bogu.” Finally, he gave a demonstration performance before the Nepalese royal family.

Heng Hocklee has been doing kendo since 2011, and feels that it has had a great influence on his attitude to life. He used to feel frustrated and aggressive under stress but has found Kendo to have a stabilizing effect on his personality. He went to the United States on an internship for a year, taking his bogu with him, but ironically he could find nowhere to practise kendo there.

Srey Nuth, who works in the Culture Section of the Japanese Embassy, says she took up Kendo because it looked like a man’s sport, and she wanted to be the first Cambodian woman to accept the challenge of mastering it. She also admits to thinking the robes were pretty stylish. She soon found that kendo was also a great stress-reliever, and she feels that it has had a beneficial effect on her “bad character.” Although it has been hard to endure the rigorous training and muscular pain, Srey Nuth has persevered because of the inspiring examples set by her teachers. Both she and Hocklee are looking forward to the next international kendo event in Indonesia in three years’ time.

In August 2015, PPKC brought home its first ever trophy in the 2nd Vietnam Kendo Open Championships held in Ho Chi Minh City, winning third place in the three-woman team event. Veejay was part of the team, the others being Japanese, Ishimoto-san and Kaneko-san. Veejay says one thing that makes kendo so attractive to her is the socializing that goes with it. 
After the kendo practice, the kendoka and their sensei often go for “Zanshinkai” in a local Japanese restaurant where they eat spicy noodle soup and gyoza, down a few beers, and talk about what they learned that day. The “Zanshinkai” is a social get-together, but it also has implications of ‘the last drop, the space between substance and nothingness, the aftertaste, the last savourings of the evening’. With these people, even as an outsider, there is a tangible warmth in their company. It may be partly the spicy soup, but it is also the aroma of “Shogai Kendo” – a lifetime of kendo. 

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