The Sword Is The Mind: Penn State Kendo Club Fuses Discipline & Sport

In the bowels of the White Building, Penn State Kendo Club is hard at work improving its mental and physical capacity.

Upon entry, you’re greeted by students dressed head to toe in an all-black kendogi uniform with bōgu protective equipment and a slender bamboo shinai sword in hand. The quiet room is intensified by fighting shouts, or kiai, and the patter of bare feet on the ground.

Kendo is a modern Japanese martial art most comparable to the sport of fencing, yet, it’s so uniquely sophisticated in that it unifies the spirit, sword, and body, or ki ken tai chi.

In the absence of their sensei, third-degree black belt, and second-year Ph.D. student, coach Eric Hasegawa leads the group in kendo technique.

“The most important thing is to try to make sure people are enjoying what they’re doing,” Hasegawa said. “It’s not like an arduous task that they have to do. Everyone comes here because they enjoy doing kendo, and I want to make sure that as the coach, I’m doing my job to continue that.”

Within the club, there’s considerable room for mentorship, too. Rather than focusing on internal competition, more experienced individuals advise others on technique and room for improvement. They grow together.

Fifteen to 20 people are involved with Penn State Kendo Club. While weekend practices focus on sparring, the other two practices during the week are rooted in fundamentals — footwork, coordination, and spirit.

“Another Japanese phrase that I find quite relevant is called ken to wa kokoro nari, which essentially means the sword is the mind,” Hasegawa said. “I think what’s important about understanding kendo is that you have to understand one’s mind before you can understand how one does kendo. It’s a very mental sort of martial arts.”

The split bamboo sword that is used in kendo is a shinai. It is grasped with both hands and used to strike point-scoring targets on an opponent. A strike can be made on the top of the head, wrist, and torso, and a thrust can be made to the throat. To score, one must display high spirits, correct posture, and continued awareness.

Kendo is a best-of-three-point match. Whoever scores two points first, or whoever scores first once a time limit is reached, wins. Members explained that respect and etiquette are components of kendo, too. You bow before and after a match and turn around immediately. The match isn’t over until the judge declares it.

The armor, bōgu, is protective yet pliable.

“Unlike some martial arts, we’re not trying to cause pain,” Hasegawa said. “It’s part of the learning experience.”

Speed and proper form are much more important than power. Whoever dominates the center line typically has the advantage, too.

“The shouting we do is an expression of your spirit and willingness to fight,” Kendo Club President Ethan Slear said. “It’s also a great way of healthily blowing off stress from the day.”

Penn State Kendo Club has traveled near and wide to work on its craft and compete with other clubs across the East Coast.

Recently, the club competed at the Harvard Shoryuhai, which is the oldest and largest Kendo collegiate tournament in the United States. As it competes with other schools, the group builds connections that last years. While it is in fact a competition, wisdom-sharing is emphasized, too.

“Even if you’re at the top or close to the top, there’s still stuff you could work on,” Slear said. “You can always get better. There’s always a learning process. Even if you’re at the top, you can still get better. And if you’re not, somebody better than you can teach you. Somebody that would be lower than you with rank could still teach you a lot of things.”

The women of Penn State Kendo Club emphasized their belonging in this martial arts because gender holds no advantage. Kendo isn’t about power or speed. It’s about how well you can control the situation with the skills you’ve learned. Everyone has access to the same strikes.

There are endless lessons to learn in such a seemingly simple martial art. Success is not possible without intention.

In kendo, a strike must be declared. It is not an accident. After all, when the mind is right, the sword is, too. After proper concentration and zeal, it’s important to follow through. Zanshin, or relaxed alertness, is necessary after any attack.

As Kendo Club puts on its man, its facemask with metal bars, the journey to mold the mind and body begins. One cannot contribute to the development of society without first cultivating themselves.

Those who are interested in Penn State Kendo Club can check out a practice at the beginning of each semester. Hasegawa encourages anyone with the drive to work hard and succeed to pursue it.

You can stay up to date with the club on its official Instagram page.

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About the Author

Colleen Nersten

Colleen is a washed-up biology grad and former associate editor. Her legacy will live on through stories like “10 Questions With State College Sensation ‘Hot UPS Bae’”. If you’re a STEM girlie, this is your sign to take the leap of faith and learn to write. It’s pretty fun. Colleen misses the hate mail and can be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

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