History of MUKEN
2006 Australian University GamesAdelaide September 24-29
by Lisa Zhuang
Kendo – the way of the sword – isn’t usually a sport we associate with the Australian University Games. Most people have only vague impressions the martial art that has its roots in ancient Japanese swordsmanship. So if you don’t know your shinai from shimpan, never fear! Lisa Zhuang follows Melbourne University’s kendo team to Adelaide to track down just what a university kendo competition is all about.
The dull whacks of clashing bamboo swords pierce the early morning quiet. You hear the faint rumblings of the ground shaking under someone’s feet. Occasionally, someone lets out a loud, bloodcurdling shout like a battle cry. It strikes a little fear into your heart, and you approach the collective noise with deliberate caution.
To those familiar with these sounds, though, they know that it’s not just a random fight going on. It’s the sound of kendo, the Japanese art of fencing that has become an established sport and martial art around the world. These battling kendoka, as kendo players are known, are students participating in the Australian University Games (AUG), coming from all around the country to represent their university kendo clubs. They hail from the major Australian cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and of course, Adelaide, which plays host to this year’s University Games.
Stepping into the venue, spectators can easily forget that they’re in the Sturt Gymnasium in Adelaide’s Flinders University. The gymnasium has been split into two courts known as shiaijo, and kendoka in their full armour and gear are crossing swords on either side. Faceless behind their helmets, the competitors bear more resemblance to Japanese warriors than university students at a national competition. They are clad in traditional Japanese gi and hakama, which resemble the well-known kimono but allow more room for movement. Their armour consists of a helmet (men), fencing gloves (kote) and a chest/waist protector (do), and they fight with bamboo swords known as shinai. In sharp contrast, the judges or shimpan are smartly attired in business suits, complete with crisp white shirts and maroon ties. For the unacquainted, it feels as though the gymnasium has become host to Japanese medieval combatants from the past, though the presence of the suited shimpan is a bizarre reminder that this is indeed the twenty-first century.
In Australia, kendo has been practiced since the 1960s. The official governing body of Australian kendo, the Australian Kendo Renmei (AKR), boasts over 35 kendo clubs across the nation, and has been one of the founding members of the International Kendo Federation (IKF) since 1970. It is the AKR who is overseeing today’s tournament, having long been involved in introducing kendo as part of the Australian University Games
At present, the event on is Kyu Championships, which are open to competitors holding kyu or junior grades. Since most competitors are at kyu level, this will be the longest event of the day. Most of them are already in their gi and hakama, and are warming up with some practice swings of their shinai. At first glance the kendo competition seems a very solemn affair, as the gymnasium is almost deathly quiet, save for the explosive sounds of competitors clashing, and the shimpans’ announcements.
Beyond the shiaijo, though, separated by yellow-and-black tape, is the spectator section of the gym, which is bustling with excitement. Team mates from university clubs pat each other on the back, do some friendly jostling, and wonder aloud what their opponents will be like. And of course, there are the spectators themselves, university students who’ve travelled interstate to cheer for their teams. Ironically, the most supporters don’t hail from Adelaide, but Melbourne. Students from the University of Melbourne Kendo Club (UMKC) are all outfitted in sea of bright blue club jackets, overwhelming the small gymnasium. Since there are so many supporters, they refer to themselves jokingly as “the groupies”, who’ve proven their dedication by driving eight hours from Melbourne just to cheer on their friends.
“It’s a great experience coming here,” says Alex Lee, one of the beginners from UMKC. “Just watching the competitors fight hard makes me want to train really hard to get into the team next year. It’s truly a 'spirit lifting' experience. From a groupie’s perspective, it’s fun cheering on the team and giving our best to boost their morale… looking from a competitor's perspective, it’s even greater to have your morale boosted just when you need it.”
Indeed, the UMKC supporters are cheering on their friends with youthful energy. It soon becomes obvious when a UMKC team member is fighting in the shiaijo, as the blue-jacketed groupies go wild with their shouts from the sidelines. Often, they call out, “Gambatte!” which means ‘do your best’, and “Fighto!”, Japanese slang for ‘fight’. They burst into applause and cheers as the UMKC team members score points, and sigh collectively when they lose. Though there are 6 other universities represented today, they are pretty reserved for the most part, only cheering occasionally. When the winners are announced for the Kyu Championships, 5 out of the top 8 competitors are from UMKC, including Thomas Mendelovits, in first place, and Ivan Chen, the runner-up. Thomas, who is also UMKC’s President, is given the additional honour of being selected for the Australian University Team as its only kyu-grade player.
“It's about time! Finally!” he laughs when asked about how he feels about these accomplishments. “No no no... a kendoka must always be modest and devoid of ego... In a way I feel I was experienced enough to expect a good result, although I don’t feel I really played my best kendo today. Still, I hope I didn't win by any cheap and dubious techniques. Having so much support may have helped indirectly… besides our chief instructor Yakov Macak, we have almost 20 Melbourne Uni people here, far outweighing the support of any other single club.”
The Open Individuals are next, and the players are much fewer as only dan-grade competitors are entering. This is the more senior level of kendo, and the differences in standards are perceptible as one observes the matches. Whereas many kyu-grade players are prone to clash repetitively, the dan-grade kendoka exhibit more ease and control, and their movements are less predictable. In the final match between Joseph Tan from Macquarie University and Daniel Yang, from the University of Sydney, both players are visibly exhausted, but still put up a very strong fight. Midway through the match, Joseph’s shinai suddenly cracks under the force of impact, and he has to borrow another from his team mate. The tension is palpable as the two continue to fight in the shiaijo, and the Macquarie and Sydney team are hanging onto every movement while urging their friends on. In the end, it is Daniel who wins the Open Individuals 2-1, to great applause and whoops from the crowd.
“Daniel is absolutely good, he’s so accurate and fast,” gushes Li Yuen, a Macquarie student from China who came in third in the Open Individuals. “Joseph, my team mate, is really strong as well… we’re like brothers. I’ve got a lot of respect for these two guys. And it’s fun to be here in Adelaide, it’s like a huge party,” he adds with a smile.
Joseph Tan, who comes from Malaysia, readily shows us his battle-scarred shinai on request. “Check this out!” he says, displaying the splintered bamboo slat in the shinai that will have to be put to rest. Asked what he thinks of his opponents, he muses, “I’m surprised that there aren’t many other competitors this year. But everyone fought really strong today, especially Daniel! He was so tough during that final match, because he’s got such good timing and form. He definitely deserves to win.”
Daniel Yang is surprisingly soft-spoken for a kendoka who’s just won the Open Individuals and wowed everyone with his skill. The medicinal science student from Korea is humble about his achievements, and is shy to have his picture taken. “My opponents were all good, they gave me a tough fight,” he tells us while removing his armour, his face flushed from exertion. “I stopped training for 5 years when I came to Australia because my boarding school wouldn’t let me go for kendo at night, and I’ve only been back at training in the last year because the University of Sydney club is very new. Given that, I feel lucky that I managed to do well today.”
After the Individual championships, the Team events pass very quickly. The matches are still one-on-one, with 5 members from each university team matching up against each other. Most players are still tired out from the Individual competition, but still give their best as their supporters have saved their loudest cheers for the team events. The UMKC team in particular goes wild with their rendition of the infamous YMCA chant, cheekily replacing ‘YMCA’ with ‘UMKC’, forming their arms into the letters with great gusto. The onlookers look both amused and puzzled by this display, but it seems to work for UMKC, who end up taking the top honours in the Kyu Team category and settle for second place in the Open Team category, after the University of Sydney. Other university clubs that distinguish themselves are Macquarie, which comes in third in the Kyu and Open Teams, and Monash, which achieves second place for the Kyu Teams and fourth in the Open Teams.
Of course, it’s not just the teams who are getting all the attention. Standing out from the crowd of competitors are two students who are the sole representatives for their respective universities – Reiko Takahashi from the University of South Australia, and Ian from the Australian National University.
“Being the only one from my uni here? It’s not all that bad!” Ian laughs. “It made no difference, really. The only problem with being a solo member is that I couldn’t enter the team events, so I just sat there bored half the time!”
With the tournament section over, though, those itching to get a piece of the action get their chance at last. As is customary, free jigeiko, or sparring, takes place in the gym, which gives competitors a chance to spar with old friends from other universities, or form bonds with new kendoka. The socialising continues over dinner at Spargo’s in Westfield Mall, where everyone chats freely over pasta and pizza.
“We’re very happy with how the AUG turned out this year,” beams Brian Balshaw, the Kendo Competition Manager for this year’s Uni Games. “We did have some hiccups with the line-up and judging, but it’s mostly gone pretty well.”
Fiona Laughton, the President of the Adelaide University Club, agrees. “It’s definitely a huge improvement from the last time Adelaide hosted the tournament 4 years ago, which was really disorganised,” she says. “There aren’t as many competitors this time because the number of actual students in university clubs has dropped, especially here in Adelaide. It’s something we’re concerned about, but hopefully the next tournament we have will see more kendoka competing.”
As we head back to our hostels for a well-earned rest, we’re stopped by some students who’re also in town for the AUG.
“What are you guys here for? Oh, kendo!” they gasp, visibly impressed. “So we’d better not mess with you eh, or you’ll beat us up good!” they guffaw, jabbing at the air with imaginary swords.
You smile a little as you go on your way. It’s so much more than bashing people up, you think. If anything, the fight is only a small part of what it means to do kendo. It’s about training your mind, spirit, as well as your body, for strength. And of course, it doesn’t hurt to have your best mates – your kendo family- there for you too, crazy cheers or not.
Australian University Games – Kendo Results
1st - Thomas Mendelovits (University of Melbourne)
2nd - Ivan Chen (University of Melbourne)
3rd - Adam Corbett (University of Sydney)
4th - Michael Dunn (University of Melbourne)
1st - Dong Huek Yang, Daniel (University of Sydney)
2nd - Tan Zhong Zhi, Joseph (Macquarie University)
3rd - Li Yuen (Macquarie University)
4th - Reiko Takahashi (University of South Australia)
1st - University of Melbourne
2nd -Monash University
3rd - Macquarie University
4th - Flinders University
1st - University of Sydney
2nd - University of Melbourne
3rd - Macquarie University
4th - Monash University
Special Award: Green and Gold Australian University Team
Dong Huek Yang, Daniel (University of Sydney)
Tan Zhong Zhi, Joseph (Macquarie University)
Li Yuen (Macquarie University)
Shunsuke Yamagata (University of Sydney)
Thomas Mendelovits (University of Melbourne)