Tozenji Kendo Club
Striking the right balance between power + skill
When Toshihiro Hamanaka came to Vancouver in the early nineties, with his wife and one-year-old daughter in tow, he only intended to stay for three years. Having trained and worked as a landscaper in Japan for thirteen years, he wanted to take the art of Japanese gardening overseas, curious as to how it would be received in Canada. Twenty years later, having sold his house in Japan and been accepted as a landed immigrant, he remains in Canada, running his own business, Toshi Landscaping Ltd.
In addition to his skills as a gardener, Toshihiro brought with him a love of kendo, the Japanese martial art based on traditional swordsmanship, or kenjutsu. He had taken up kendo in Japan while in middle school and had a deep appreciation for the discipline and life-long skills that come with the rigorous training and competition. When Tsuyoshi, his Canadian-born son, was in elementary school and looking for a sport to take up, Toshihiro suggested he try kendo, and he started training at the UBC Kendo Club. Not only did the young boy have initial success and decide to stick with it, his older sister Misato began training as well. Soon, all three were travelling to UBC to train together.
Three years ago, wanting to spend more time practicing kendo, the Tozenji Buddhist Temple, located near their home in Coquitlam, offered them the use of a training room. At first, the three trained on their own, but soon got requests from other kendokas to join them. In January 2010, they formalized under the name Tozenji Kendo Club and joined the Canadian Kendo Federation (CKF) and the British Columbia Kendo Federation (BCKF).
The Bulletin talked to Toshihiro Hamanaka and Tsuyoshi Hamanaka at the Tozenji Temple about their approach to kendo, with Tsuyoshi translating for his father. Misato was in Japan training as a member of the Canadian National Team at the time of the interview.
Interview: Toshihiro Hamanaka + Tsuyoshi Hamanaka
Hamanaka-sensei, were you trained as a teacher in Japan?
Toshihiro Hamanaka: I never trained to be an instructor but when I was practicing kendo back in Japan I was an assistant instructor in the dojo. My rank was high enough to teach but I never had my own dojo back in Japan.
Do you enjoy teaching kendo to young people?
TH: It’s challenging teaching kendo because you have to understand each student’s bad habits and be able to point them out. Also, kendo is a sport that you can’t really have fun in the beginning, unlike baseball or swimming. With kendo you first start off with foot-work—no bamboo sword, no gear. You just practice foot-work for the first few weeks or even a month. So it’s really boring for the beginners to start. I am always concerned about how I can make an environment that’s fun for the beginners even though what they’re doing is really boring. If I start letting them hold the bamboo stick too early then their foundation isn’t too solid and they won’t improve as much as they’re supposed to, so we cannot rush. In kendo the basics are really important. So it’s really hard to balance everything out.
You came to Canada with the intention of returning to Japan after three years—what made you decide to stay?
TH: When I first came my daughter was one year old and then my son was born here and they started growing and entered elementary school. I thought that education in Canada has some advantages, so for our family I thought it would be better for us to stay here. I applied to immigrate and was accepted.
How do you compare the Japanese and Canadian education systems?
TH: In Japanese education, everyone has to be same—the marks have to be average or higher. Students have to be good at everything like science, socials, everything. However in Canada they evaluate and value each individual’s strengths. For example, in Japan when they’re hiring people they will start picking out people based on the highest marks, say the top ten, but in Canada they say okay, we will start looking at people who have an average of 80 percent or higher, and they will start evaluating them based on their individual strengths and interests, not who has the higher marks.
Tsuyoshi: The example that my father always used with my sister and myself was an orthodontist. An orthodontist is judged based on the skill with his hands, but he always says, do you prefer going to the orthodontist who has good knowledge but who cannot even build a Lego robot? or an orthodontist who can build a really great Lego robot? Because he thinks that’s the difference between Japan and Canada’s education system. In Japan they will always take the person who has higher knowledge, even though their skills aren’t that good. But in Canada, they take people with more skills because they can get more knowledge later on. He really appreciates the Canadian school system because they value each individual’s strengths.
TH: Of course there’s good things and bad things about Japan and Canada!
Is there a connection between kendo and gardening?
TH: When a Japanese gardener makes a traditional garden it’s related to kendo because with both it’s really important to have a basic knowledge and to take a long time to train yourself and improve everything. It takes probably thirty years doing kendo to understand the true meaning of it. For people like my children who have done kendo for five or ten years, they can just do kendo based on their reflex—hitting the target as fast as they can. But kendo is known as a sport that you can continue even when you get old. People think that once you’re old you probably won’t be able to compete with the younger people but the interesting part of kendo is if you understand the true meaning of kendo and practice properly, then you can still compete with the young people and be at an equal level or even stronger than them. Stronger doesn’t mean coming first place in the tournament, but having a stronger spirit and having strong, solid kendo. Japanese gardening is also like that, because you cannot just look at a text book and look at the map and just make a garden. You have to understand each yard and what it needs. To know how to make a proper Japanese garden also takes twenty, thirty years of experience and knowledge. That’s my personal thought anyway, other people may not agree!
What is your philosophy of kendo?
TH: Since kendo is considered a martial art it tends to become like, you have to win with power or you have to attack by being more aggressive or more violent in order to win the match. By doing that, you can probably win in the tournament or match right now, but in the future—five years later, ten years later—you won’t be able to win any more, you won’t be able to compete with other people. So our motto for Tozenji Kendo club is, don’t win with power, win with technique and skill.
Starting this year, we will probably have the new beginners start competing in tournaments. But we don’t want them to think too much about winning or losing the match—we want them to do proper kendo. Because even if you win the match, if you look really ugly, like being aggressive or pushy, then it doesn’t look very nice. But even if you lose, if you were fighting properly, then everyone will be satisfied.
Tsuyoshi: In Canada, there aren’t a lot of people doing kendo, so in Junior—15 years old and younger—boys and girls have to compete together. My sister, she’s really short. And when she was 13 years old she would have to compete with somebody 15 years old who’s a boy, and there’s no way that my sister can win against him with strength. So she didn’t win any matches for the first four years. But my dad kept telling her, don’t worry about losing or winning, just do proper kendo, and then eventually you will win more. Like she does now. When she was 15 years old, the last year of junior, she went to the finals in every tournament. And then once she became 16 years old and older, there’s a category just for women. The number of women competing in Canada is small, so even a girl who is 16 years old has to compete against someone who is in team Canada in the first round. But my sister still didn’t lose because she was doing proper kendo.
My father thinks that it probably takes five years for kendo to become fun. As the instructor he lets students hit him in practice. So say one of the student hits twenty times against him. If there are twenty kids, he can be hit 400 times during a practice. So he gets pretty bruised up. As an instructor, he is sacrificing himself to teach and let all the kids improve, so he’s always telling everyone to take each strike seriously and appreciate it. So that’s one of his policies. It’s really fortunate that everyone in this dojo is really supportive so we’re able to continue our club and have a really friendly environment.
What is the membership of Tozenji Kendo Club?
TH: We have about twenty members from eight years old to 50-something but the majority of the members are teenagers. Many of them are half Canadian, half Japanese.
Would you consider your father a traditional Japanese teacher?
Tsuyoshi: Probably not, I guess. Of course depending on the circumstance, he will put it in the instructor/student situation, but most of the time he’s trying to make it equal so everyone is really friendly and able to communicate more easily. Back when he was practicing in Japan, the instructor was really strict and the seniors in his school were also strict, like a typical Japanese club. And he was trying really hard like everyone else—he would be lying on the ground after each practice. But his question was, was he able to improve a lot? And he didn’t. If the students want him to make it really strict and hard then he can easily do it, because he experienced that and can do it himself. But he thinks the really important thing is to explain things to them verbally not physically. That is how he trained myself and my sister. So far, we’re continuing to improve and it’s really successful. Some clubs, in Canada and in Japan, the parents may think, that is a really Japanese style club, and they put their children in that club but the results may not be good after all. So he thinks that that’s not the best thing, and he himself thinks that he’s not a Japanese-style instructor.
So is this a philosophy he developed living in Canada, do you think?
Tsuyoshi: Even if he was still living in Japan he probably would have had the same thought. When he was in high school he really loved kendo so even after practicing in the high school club he was going to one of the town clubs at night to practice. The high school club was really strict and really harsh about training and practicing but the town club was really good at explaining stuff verbally and so on. So there are two types of instructors, even in Japan. And he thinks that he improved more from the town club.
What have you learned yourself from doing kendo?
Tsuyoshi: Since I was born here and I grew up here, I would have not had the knowledge about respecting elders and so on, compared to the Japanese people who grew up in Japan, so from doing kendo I was able to learn respect for my elders and so on. And also by doing kendo, I was able to become more confident in myself. Even for school speeches and so on, I was able to be confident and not be nervous in front of the public.
Is there a long term goal—ten or twenty years from now for Tozenji Kendo Club, or are you just taking it year by year?
TH: In kendo it’s really important to have a goal for the next practice, for the next month, one year, five years, ten years. It’s really important to have a goal individually and also as a club.
It must be really hard to operate a club, how do you manage it?
TH: We weren’t really intending to start our own club but some parents were really motivating us and they have been really supportive, so that’s how we were able to start and continue on till now. So we do really appreciate the families, and everyone else who supports us with fundraising and in other ways. We really love the situation right now and I believe everyone’s having fun.
Misato is on Team Canada?
TH: Yes. She’s in Japan right now training with the whole Canadian women’s team. Winning is really difficult. She’s still young so she’s still winning with her momentum, her spirit. I thinks that it’s really good experience for her to compete in the world championship.
A long term goal for Tozenji—do not win with the power, win with the skills—is related to the world championships. Right now our space is really limited, so we don’t want to expand our club, we want to keep it small, but have high-quality members. I think that everyone has a chance to try out to be part of Team Canada.
How do they assign rankings in kendo?
Tsuyoshi: In kendo there are no belts, it’s just a rank that you get, a certificate. In western Canada they have a grading exam twice a year for three Dan and under and once a year for four Dan and up.
TH: One of the difficult parts of kendo is if you try to win in the tournament, then it’s really hard to get a higher rank. The judges doing the ranking are looking for you to do a proper, real true kendo, but in the tournament, as long as you hit the target you do get a point—but that’s not necessarily true kendo. In the tournament, if you get hit then you will lose, so you might end up bending your posture to dodge the attack and so on, which is not good for the true meaning of kendo. So if you get in the habit of bending your body or dodging, or attacking from the side, then in the grading exam you will fail.
So it’s not just that you hit but how you hit?
Tsuyoshi: How you hit, posture, spirit, and so on. So a really fun and interesting thing is that you can get a higher rank, even if you can’t win in the tournament. And some people can win the tournament but may not get the rank—but they still have fun winning in the match.
TH: The ideal is to do true kendo but still do well in tournaments, which is really hard.