Austen Samkange: Kyodai Kendo

            My experience with Kyoto University’s kendo club over the past few months has been an interesting one. Unfortunately, I was unable to practice as much as I would have liked. However, simply by participating in the club’s practices, I observed several interesting differences between Kyodai’s kendo club and my own.

For instance, while I was accustomed to the senpai-kohai relationship, it was never as strongly enforced as I have seen it here. Perhaps this is because the Kyodai club is largely run by the students, with instructors coming in only occasionally to participate in sparring practice. Instead of formal instructors, leading practices, organizing mock tournaments, and giving club members advice is the responsibility of the most senior club members. Thus, the club hierarchy, at least at the top end, seems to be extremely structured and enforced.

Unfortunately, my low-level speaking skills made it difficult for me to hold a lengthy conversation with many of the other members. Yet, I was able to talk with a few, one of whom was part of the upper echelon of club leaders as evidenced by his seat on the side of the dojo traditionally reserved for instructors. After one practice in which we had a mock tournament, I came up to him afterward to ask for his thoughts on my match. Even though he was a club member and a student, I was surprised at both the formality of his tone and the detail that he went into recounting my match and suggesting improvements to me. It was clear that he saw himself as a leader within the club and took it upon himself to observe all of the lower-level members, even if he did not normally associate with them.

The dedication that this particular senpai had with regards to the club was both impressive and inspiring, and I hope that I can serve as a similar example to my kohai when I return to the States. Last year, a few friends and I had formed a kendo club at Stanford, and while I was not there during fall quarter, I can only assume that I will have some sort of leadership role upon my return. For this reason, I hope to draw upon my experiences with the Kyodai club to help our newly-formed one succeed.

4 thoughts on “Austen Samkange: Kyodai Kendo

  1. I had a similar experience in the Kyodai Judo club. The senpai-kohai relationship and the strict hierarchy surprised me as well. It was definitely interesting to see the differences between an American and Japanese martial arts club. Did you find that the strict enforcement of the senpai-kohai relationship made it easier for you to practice with the club?

    • It was a bit off-putting for me, actually. I felt that there was a sort of barrier between senpai and kohai, since people of the same relative status in the club seemd to interact with each other almost exclusively.

  2. The senpai-kouhai relationship surprised me too, especially when seeing it outside the context of a club and such. I’m completely unaccustomed to the idea of senpai-kouhai, so whenever I’m with Japanese students and one of them defers their opinion to a senpai simply based on their age, it really strikes a strange chord in my head. It’s those little things in the interactions that make me think “Japan and America are quite different…”

    • Yeah, there’s definitely a clear hierarchy in Japanese clubs. Everybody in my dojo back in Palo Alto is aware of their status relative to everyone else, but we all get along pretty well and interact in ways that would completely go against the traditional senpai-kohai relationship.