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Title [Martial Arts Globe] Less experience does not always mean failure

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Image produced by the author.

Lee So

I write, draw and practice Kendo as a hobby. I also create content such as online texts - interviews and news snippets - as well as images. My content is inspired by my daily Kendo training. Although I work the front desk at my training center, I’m usually shy around strangers.

I remember when I first heard about the COVID-19 pandemic in the news. Ever since, wearing a mask has become a new normal in our daily lives. Gathering events such as face-to-face meetings and concerts were canceled one after another, and sports clubs and gyms were not an exception. A community center in my neighborhood where I used to spend my time every evening playing kendo was also shut down. It took about a year and a half for the center to reopen.


As less physical activity made me gain more weight and suffer from indigestion and fatigue, I had to find a new way to work out. Aside from being chubby, I could not stand other physical and mental changes. So I tried different exercises.


“You are doing great, keep it up!”


I once ran along the riverside in the neighborhood listening to a virtual coach on the running application.


“Face the pain and stay where you are.”

I also listened to a yoga class on YouTube shivering in pain whenever I tried to stretch out further.


But it turned out none of them was a right fit for me. Making one of these exercises a new routine was not easy. So breathing and taking a light walk were what I only did in a time of social distancing, which means I can’t introduce myself as a sports lover anymore.


After hearing about the reopening news I headed to the kendo studio at the center. Walking up to an uphill road to the center felt so strange. When I opened the door and entered the studio I saw other practitioners. They had a double chin and a big belly just like me. I was so happy to see them again. After sharing jokes, we started kendo practice right away. It was my first time feeling unnatural wearing protective gear over a kendo suit since my newbie moment.


News about an upcoming competition

During the practice, my body felt like a rusty machine. That’s when I heard about an upcoming kendo national competition for amateur practitioners. It was the first match in two years and six months since the pandemic began.


“Oh, my. I barely remember what a match is.”

I whined to one of my friends at the studio.


When you face your opponent in a kendo match you are under tremendous mental pressure. Then a bamboo sword in your hands feels heavier. I was not sure whether I could concentrate and fight my opponent after two and half years of break.


Most practitioners seemed not interested in the competition. Some of them were worried about catching a covid virus. Some others found it bothersome to travel to participate. Despite an atmosphere of indifference, a few, including myself, decided to enter the competition.


Usually, in a team competition for amateurs, a men’s team consists of five men and a women’s team consists of three women. However considering it’s been a long time since the last competition, rules have become loose allowing a men’s team to have only three members. So organizing a team was much easier.


In a team competition, two players from each team in the same position play an individual match to decide the winning team. Three pairs of players compete in order, and the first, second, and last players are respectively called senpou, chuuken, and taishou. In general, the most aggressive player becomes senpou to get a head start. A player in the chuuken position should be competent enough, at least, to not lose more points in case the previous player was defeated. Last but not least, the leader of the team takes taishou.


This is what’s written in kendo 101, but, in reality, we have only a few female members at the studio. My instructor was worried about deciding our positions. After a while, a middle-aged woman in the first grade volunteered for the senpou position. She had the least experience among us.


“We haven’t been in a match for a while. It’s okay not to win. Losing can be an experience.”


To be honest, although I was the one who encouraged others to participate in the competition, I didn’t expect us to win. As it was a national tournament, participating teams were likely to be previous winners in their regional matches. I thought we might end up playing a role of footing for other teams.


I didn’t expect our team to win even a single game. To be honest I was more interested in what we will eat when the game is done. But as many of you have realized by now, this piece of writing is about how we got a chance to play more than one game.


Our senpou player was definitely beyond our expectations. The whole team and our instructor were surprised by the unexpected result.



The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating.

The first round of the team match started with the main referee’s signal. I was nervous looking at our senpou player striding into the arena.


“The opponent looks so experienced.”

Both me—chuuken—and our leader—fourth grade—knew at a glance how experienced the opponent was. Assuming her proficiency I tried to come up with what I can do in my turn.


“If defeated by two points, I should at least make a tie or win by one point. Then I will be able to lessen our leader’s burden.”


Even though I was busy calculating the possibilities, I still believed there was no possibility of winning. Because I knew from my ten-year-long experience how hard it is to win or make a tie while enduring huge pressure.


But I was wrong. Our senpou player didn’t lose. The game ended in a tie, although it was obvious her opponent was far more experienced than her.


Maybe her instinct for survival worked. Her strong will to win might have helped her overcome her short experience. She never backed off in front of her opponent. When her opponent shouts out, she shouted back. Her posture was that of a first-grade practitioner, but her fighting spirit was second to none. During the three-minute-long match, she didn’t make a mistake such as stepping outside the defined boundary, or lag behind her competitor.


“You are doing just great! Your years of training were not a waste at all!”


I raised my voice to cheer her up. Our team member was taking a firm stand. Looking at her, I was somehow encouraged. Eventually, we won the first round, as both I and our leader won by two points. We could not make it in the second round, as the opponent team had an outstanding performance. But still, the joy of victory in the first round lives in my memory.


Our senpou player’s game that day still remains mysterious. On the same day, I even saw another high-rank holder lose to a lower-rank player. It is now clear to me that not only competency but also desperation matters in a game. Everyone has an instinct for survival. A competition is where professional and entry players express themselves in an equal position.

Every time I witness an unexpected result in a match between the strong and weak, I remember the saying “The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating.”

※ Views in this writing are the author's own.