Renbu Dojo: Next Generation Kendo Culture
Story and photos by John Endo Greenaway
Thirty-plus men, women and children, ranging in age from toddlers to seniors are gathered in a small community centre in Burnaby on a Sunday morning. Most of the adults and some of the younger ones are dressed in bogu, traditional kendo armour, emblazoned with the word Renbu and the participant’s name.
While some kneel and observe from the side, a dozen of them stand in pairs, facing one another, their shinai, or bamboo swords, raised in readiness. At a signal from one of the leaders the combatants lunge at each other. The air is instantly filled with sounds of bamboo striking armour and blood-curdling kiais (shouts). The fighting is intense but brief.
At another signal the sparring stops and all is quiet again save for breath being drawn into lungs. The kenshi (kendoists) bow to each other and return to their places along the wall while others take their place and the process is repeated.
The members of Renbu Dojo, ranging from beginners to high-ranking veterans, are in the midst of a thrice-weekly practice session. They have invited me to observe their session and take photos for this article.
Of all the martial arts, kendo has always struck me as the most mysterious. The men (face protector) renders individuals almost anonymous and provides a sense of menace. Watching the members of Renbu Dojo spar, it feels very ritualized, yet at the same time very primal, almost brutal. The kiais, with their various pitches, are like some kind of primal punctuation.
Renbu Dojo, one of a dozen or so kendo dojos in BC, was founded by Yukio Ara in 1977. Ara had emigrated to Canada from Japan ten years earlier—during Canada’s Centennial—looking for work. As the youngest of five siblings, prospects were not good in postwar Japan, and Canada offered the promise of career opportunities he would not have been afforded back at home.
At the time Canada was looking for technicians so he seized the opportunity, arriving with two suitcases and $200 to his name. He soon landed a job as a welder at a shipyard and once he was settled and stable he returned to Japan and brought back his wife Namiko.
He had taken up kendo in Japan but says when he started he was too poor to purchase the equipment needed to fully participate. He made it up to 3 Dan (3rd Degree Black Belt) in Japan and while he had no intention of resuming kendo in Canada, he was invited by the Vancouver Kendo Club to practice at their dojo. Before too long he found himself acting as Head Instructor of the club which was, at the time, one of only two kendo clubs in British Columbia.
He went on to represent Canada twice in the world championships—in 1970 and 1973—and won a Silver Medal for the Team Competition, the only time Canada earned Silver at the Worlds.
Ara retired as head of the dojo several years ago and Renbu Dojo is now under the leadership of his son Dean, who talked to The Bulletin about Renbu Dojo and kendo.
In His Own Words: Dean Ara
Your dad is a bit of a Canadian kendo pioneer, it sounds like, starting out a new life in a new country and helping shape kendo in British Columbia.
I can appreciate the challenges that new immigrants had. We have it so much easier now. But new country, new language, overt and implicit racism . . . those were all things he had to deal with. He was certainly a vocal proponent (and still is) of Japanese Canadians learning to speak, read and write Japanese and learning the culture. He found that many second and third generations were losing their ‘Japanese’ due to having to conform to societal pressures post-World War II
Now, he wasn’t here during the War when Japanese Canadian were treated like illegals and found themselves shipped to camps, stripped of property and forced to be “more Canadian” in order to survive. So without being in their shoes, you never know how you would act.
So he never faced that type of life changing situation.
Here is a story: I was around ten years old and went to play outside after school. My mom called me in for dinner and after dinner, I went back out to play. The other kids asked what I had for dinner and I responded very happily, “sushi!” After all, sushi was very expensive (and thus a treat) and it was rare that we got to eat it.
Most of the kids had no idea what sushi was. But one of the older kids, probably three years older than me, knew and he yelled out disgustingly, “raaaaw fish. ewwww.” All the kids felt grossed out and started making fun of me . . . ”who eats raw fish man? You’re an animal.”
I just stared at them blankly. I didn’t understand it. It tasted damn good, that’s what I knew.
I went home and relayed that story to my parents. My dad said, “You’re Japanese Canadian. You will be both Japanese and Canadian. It is up to you to understand both cultures, both different but both what you are.”
It was one of many stories that I could share with you.
And so at home, we always spoke Japanese, learned the differences in culture, and of course learned kendo as an extension of learning the culture.
When you took up kendo as a child, was this an expectation, or was it something that you yourself had an interest in?
I had no interest in kendo. Then one day I was doing it. It’s not like back then parents asked their children what they wanted to do. They said you’re going to do something, and it was simple, you did it.
Between the ages of 10 to about 15 I really didn’t care about it that much. I did like competition and winning, but that didn’t overcome my want to go outside and play with my friends on a lazy Friday evening instead of having to go to practice.
When did it change for you?
In 1988 and 1989—I was 16 and 17—I spent the summers in Japan training at a very famous high school, PL Gakuen in Osaka, Japan. It’s known as one of the leading kendo academies that has produced many All Japan Men’s champions, the current women’s champion and the current 8th Dan Master’s Champion. It’s quite the program. I was only able to get into the school as a favour from a sensei in Japan that my dad had taken care of when she visited Canada. This sensei asked the head instructor of PL Gakuen if they would let me in for the semester. The sensei at first said no, they had never let any foreigners in and certainly had no intention of letting a Canadian boy in to train with their world-class high school kids. It’s a very prestigious school where they only let in 10 new kids every year into the kendo program and they were pretty much worried that I couldn’t keep up. Which was a very valid reason.
They relented though . . .
My sensei in Japan told the PL Head Coach, “do me favour and let him in and just leave it there. If he fails he fails and we’ll ship him back to Canada if he can’t take it.” The PL coach told her outright that I had no chance so he said sure. So they agreed.
My first week there, I lost about 15 pounds. Yes, in one week. I went from a casual training regimen of three times a week in Canada to training seven days a week, six-plus hours a day. It was two summers of around 35 degrees Celsius every day.
I started off as the worst of 30 boys. I was the slowest, heaviest etc. it was quite the shock. But what kept me going was that I knew people were waiting for me to fail. And no matter what, I knew I was not going to fail. So I adjusted to the practices and somehow I survived. I got back to Canada and my life changed. I couldn’t wait to practice and I began to enjoy it more and more.
Your father has retired and you have taken over as sensei. You were recently awarded 7th Dan in Japan and earned the shogo designation of Renshi—both awarded through the All Japan Kendo Federation. You were the first Canadian-born kendoist to achieve this high rank in Japan and the first to achieve the award on the first attempt. Without knowing anything about kendo, that sounds pretty impressive, and difficult to attain. To what do you attribute your success?
Definitely the foundation that I received at a young age in Japan is big. I can’t say enough about that. Training in Japan at PL Gakuen is my single best memory of kendo and I am externally thankful to PL Gakuen for giving me the chance to train. The second best memory is the moment that I walked over to the black board in a large gymnasium with a little under 1,000 people and seeing my number posted as one of those who passed 7th Dan.
My father earned his 7th degree (7 Dan) at the age of 39 in Japan. So for me, I really wanted to earn my 7th dan at 39 too so that I wouldn’t “lose” to him!
The support I got from my own club members—senior instructors who helped me train for it along the way was huge. They pushed me and helped me to get better. I owe them a lot. I could be a hard ass and they stuck with me all these years.
I’ve gone back to Japan to practice a number of times and each time get great advice from many senseis who provide so much insight. Just watching them, practicing with them, they can beat you in a match without trying. Within four minutes of practicing with a high ranking sensei, I am exhausted, literally huffing and puffing and meanwhile they haven’t broken a sweat.
What does it mean to you to pass on your skills to your student and fellow kenshi?
It’s the circle of life. It’s very, very important for me to give to my students in a way that I received from previous senseis. Just like how I was given the chance to succeed, in fact I believe that I have an important responsibility to pass on whatever I can to whomever is interested in learning more about kendo. And I hope that they, in turn, will help the next generation grow and get better at kendo.
Does your dojo have a particular philosophy behind it?
Hahahah. My intention is to make our dojo the “toughest” dojo to practice at in Canada. I have no qualms about this. When outside visitors come to our dojo to practice, I will frequently ask them how the found it, and if they respond, “it was great,” then I am disappointed. I want them to answer, “it was tough and I’m never coming back again.” If I hear that, I am happy.
But there are those that will come back. And to those that do, I open my heart and let them in. My rule of thumb is that anybody who wants to learn from me needs to withstand at least two hard practices with me. And if they are back for a third, I will do everything in my power and commit to that person to make them succeed.
I consider myself to be very understanding, and I am a teacher and coach first. My intention is to help teach and coach and help improve your skills.
At the same time, I have no desire to be part of the growing societal malaise of what I believe is the “entitlement” generation. Nothing replaces hard work. Nothing replaces perseverance.
And I don’t want to teach or coach anybody that feels that they are entitled to anything in society. So that means learning the value of hard work, achievement and winning and sometimes losing and failing so that they can experience that and pick themselves up from it and grow from it.
What has kendo given you as a person?
Everything above—the sense of hard work, the drive, the perseverance. The ability to pick myself up after failure.
Also, I have a lot of great memories from practicing and competing abroad . . . and lot of friends worldwide who do kendo and who share that common bond . . . lots of great memories here with my kendo friends with whom I have practiced hard, played hard . . . and did a lot of other things hard!
It’s been rewarding. I have represented Canada three times as a national team member (2000, 2003, 2006). In 2006 I was the Captain of the Team. And in 2009, I became the Head Coach of the Women’s Team. I am not currently involved in the national program.
Watching kendo I sense a kind of contradiction. There is a something very ceremonial and ritualistic about the way you approach it, yet once you start sparring it feels very primal, brutal almost, with the kiais and the hard strikes to the body.
You are so very correct—in fact 50% absolutely correct. The art is very aggressive, primal, as you say. But the other 50% that you do not see is that kendo is also very much an art. Based on honourable principles, rei-ho (etiquette) is huge, as are ceremonial customs—sensei/student relationships, lining up, bowing, sparring rules etc.
It’s certainly a dichotomy: what you see on the outside, and what you may not see and experience until you actually study kendo.
You mention the ritual aspects—that’s very true. There are lots of customs and rituals. And a lot of rules that you can’t break—so it’s very orderly.
Yet when we practice it is, as you say, primal. They say kendo shows your character. It shows your true self because it IS so primal. The real us comes out.
Watching two combatants go at it, it’s difficult, as an outsider, to make any sense of what is happening. What are the objectives and what makes one kenshi superior to another?
The simple objective is to score a point by connecting with either the head, arm, throat or body. Two points and you win. But the points are tough to score.
They say that you can kendo from the age of 8 to 88. What this means is that your kendo will change as you age. For a young kendoist, up to about age say 20 or so, what we’d like to see is quick movement, sharp hits, athleticism, lots of techniques, and lot of spirit.
As you enter your late 20s and 30s, what we see is still a lot of fire and spirit but more controlled. We want to see some smarts and outsmarting, less frequent hits, more sizing up the opponent.
As you move into your 40s and through to your 80s+ what you look for is the ability to manipulate your opponent – that is, your spirit, your presence, overwhelms so much that by just your ki-haku, kaiai, some small movements of the shinai, your opponent makes an impatient strike that you quickly counter, or that your opponent’s concentration lapses and you sense that and quickly capitalize. What this means is that when you stare at your opponent, the “battle” has begun, even without any strikes. You try to project your spirit onto your opponent—make them do something you want them to do, but they themselves don’t want to do. It’s a chess match. But the time the actual strike is made, you’ve already won the battle.
Is there a catharsis in striking your opponent? Is it a way of letting off steam, or is that not what it’s about?
Hmmm. In kendo they say that “when you make a hit, reflect and learn and when you get hit, be thankful.”
What this means is that when you get struck by your opponent, be thankful. Your opponent showed that you’ve got much to learn and that you have flaws in your kendo. And so having him/her strike you showed that you have a ways to go in your study of kendo.
Conversely, when you strike your opponent successfully, reflect and think as to whether in fact it was a perfect strike or if you could have made the strike better. So even though you were successful this time, did you over-extend? Were your thoughts wavering? Was it a lucky strike?
So I would say, that striking your opponent is satisfying (to be completely honest) but that we realize that it’s just one strike and that in our pursuit of perfection we need keep learning.
Would you characterize kendo as a spiritual practice?
Yes. See above in all the many examples!
In the end, it’s a man vs man scenario. And what it comes down to, often, is a test to see whose personal spirit wins out.
There are so many different martial arts, just in Japan alone, what makes people pick kendo over the others?
Hmmmm. I think it’s the spirituality, the reiho, the etiquette. This is what separates kendo from other martial arts. Kendo values these elements greatly more so than others. We all have had many of our teachers say to us: “It doesn’t matter if you win in tournaments. If you can’t display proper etiquette, your win is meaningless.” This is very, very common in kendo.
You have quite a few smaller kids in your dojo, and some older members as well. How do they fit into the dojo?
Everybody has a purpose for learning kendo. The older members are there for a number of reasons that include but not limited to learning Japanese culture, learning samurai (and sword) culture, exercise, etc. For kids they probably don’t have a clue what kendo is except that their parents brought them to the dojo and they enjoy (to a certain extent) being able to run around and scream and be active.
My goal is to create a program that meets everybody’s needs. For different age and experience levels, I will stress different things ranging from energy to technique to confidence to etiquette to character development to learning proper customs. There is always a little bit of everything for all students but in the end, I want to know what each student is trying to achieve and help them get there.
On our official tenugui, the eight pillars of Renbu Dojo are listed. They are Faith; Loyalty; Humanity; Courtesy; Friendship; Consideration; Responsibility; Tolerance.
I remember every summer, my father would make us all pick pieces of paper from a hat. And on the piece of paper was one of those words. And then we’d have to write an essay on that and then present that essay in the dojo in front of everybody . . . in two languages or more!
We haven’t done that for a while, but I think we should bring that back!
How has your dad influenced your kendo and your approach to it?
My goodness. I could go on and on about this.
I have learned a lot from him, probably more than the average kid from their father. Just because a) I’m an only kid—so you could imagine the attention right?—and b) because he has a certain black and white way of thinking, which I truly admire and respect, he’s always got very strong opinions on things. And he’ll tell me.
I can say that I almost always agree with him but having said that, I’m a bit more pragmatic than him and let’s say . . . flexible . . . haha, so I can allow for a few other points and perspectives that he may not.
I can tell you one thing that he kept telling me . . . which is that kendo was a tool. A tool to learn and a tool to become a better person, a tool to test yourself, a tool to meet new people, a tool to practice all those eight principles above. And any tool has a time and place for usage.
What that meant was that kendo was not the be all and end all. He made me focus on going to school, getting a good job and having a healthy and happy family. And if that meant missing practices here and there, then so be it. So as much as I practiced kendo like a mad man in my high school years, my practice frequency lessened as I went to both undergraduate and graduate school. But after I was finished with school, I picked up the intensity again.
He lives and understands that we should live by the principles of kendo, but that at the of the day, what comes first are your life priorities: family, health, well being etc. I appreciated that balance as it allowed me to enjoy kendo at my own pace rather than having it stuff down my throat. And as such, I enjoy practicing a lot today.
Was it strange taking over as sensei from your father?
Not really. I started running practices here and there way before I became the head instructor. I would take the lead and run drills etc.
The only strange thing was being called “Ara-sensei” once. One of my students called me that and I looked around looking for him. He was trying to get my attention!
Actually a small tidbit. When we line up, we line up in order of rank. He lines up to the most right most spot, closest to the shinden. Even if he is not at practice, I leave that spot open. So I actually sit, in our dojo, what would be considered spot #2. I don’t know why I do, but I still do. That spot is his and I never take it.
The thing is, his presence still looms large in the dojo even when he is not there. I think “knock on wood” what would feel strange is the day he no longer was here and I shifted over to my right. I think . . . that would be strange, and after the initial sadness . . . hard to get used to.
What is his role in the dojo now?
He stands in the dojo at practice and watches now and occasionally complains to me if things aren’t perfect. Hahahah. He advises.
But to his credit, once in a while he does still have a nugget or two of wisdom that he shares. It’s good having him around. Most of the time!
You have children of your own now, will they be taking up kendo when they’re older?
Hahahaha. Yes. I get asked that question by around 98% of the people that know me. My wife does kendo too. She’s actually got a way better track record at the World Championships that I do and is probably more talented than me.
So I guess we know the answer to that question. I’ve already told my wife that our kids will learn from her as I don’t want the pressure of being their dad and also their kendo teacher. I’d rather just be their dad and let somebody else be there kendo teacher while I just cheer them on! Yes, I am taking the easy road!
Is kendo considered a self-defence art? i.e. can the skills learned be applied to real-life situations to protect one’s self?
No, kendo is not considered a self-defense art. I think its considered more of a self-discipline art. My friends always joked about me needing a broomstick if ever I was in a dark alley confronted by bad guys. I tell them, “broomstick, hah, fat chance. Heck, if I see bad guys, I’m running in the opposite direction” hahaha.
Kendo is about learning spirit, culture and etiquette. It’s about learning how to persevere. It’s about learning discipline and patience. It’s about friendship and consideration.
I was looking over your 2012 dojo booklet and I noticed a family section at the back showing the many families involved in Renbu Dojo—is that an important part of your dojo?
Absolutely. The dojo or the health of the dojo is about the triangle of people: a) students b) family and c) instructors.
All three of parties have to be on the same page, wanting the same things and striving for the same things. The dojo is just another learning environment and kendo is just another learning mechanism. What we learn is many things which include the art of kendo itself, the understanding of reigi and etiquette, Japanese culture (to a certain extent) and other intangibles like determination, perseverance and hard work.
Our parents help out every month because they know that being a student at our dojo is ultimately a great learning opportunity for their kids to learn things that they wouldn’t have exposure to in school or wherever else. They help out with tournaments, fundraising, events, etc. Without our parents, we couldn’t function as a dojo. We have a lot of great parents.
If someone wanted to try out kendo, what would be the best way to go about it?
Come visit our website www.renbudojo.com and come to our dojo to watch. We’d love to have you and we are always accepting new beginners!