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I joined Otobe’s kendo club in August, which has been fun. Even though I have a black belt, it’s been 4 years since I swung a sword, so the teacher had me on remedial individual lessons for over a month. Some of it was to remind my body of what to do and some was to adjust to his particular style (that grated, I had to remind myself that even he said that it wasn’t ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, just how they do things here). I gave myself a honking big blister on the bottom of my right heel from smacking it against the wooden floor.

Kendo helmets waiting for the beginning of class.

Otobe’s kendo club is technically for elementary and junior high school students, plus grown-ups who can contribute a bit to training. High school students stick with their own school clubs, but Otobe’s schools are too small for that, so the club includes kids from first through eighth grade (no ninth graders this year). There are five junior high school club members – four seventh grade boys and one eighth grade girl. It’s weird to think that the boys are right where I was when I started eleven years ago.*

After a few months, I graduated from individual practice to working with the younger elementary school students. They all barely come up past my hip, so it’s kind of hilarious to see them wandering around in full armor and yelling at each other. A week or two after that, I was allowed to put my own armor on and move up to working with the junior high school students.

It’s been an odd experience. I’m practically deaf with my helmet on and the teacher only speaks Terse Japanese. Thankfully, the seventh grade boys have lost their shyness over dragging me hither and yon when I miss an instruction.

An unanticipated side benefit has been the parents’ association. Each child in the club has at least one heavily involved parent, usually their mother. They come to end of each class to watch and coordinate trips to tournaments in other towns. They were quick to involve me and I’ve become a sort of traveling cheerleader for the club (these tournaments are only for elementary and junior high students, not adults). This has really helped with the growing contingent that treats me as actual teacher of their children, rather than just a visiting oddball.

Also, they all feel compelled to feed me.

The first match of the junior high school boys’ division (team). Flags from the clubs present hang in the background; Otobe’s is the maroon one in the middle.

The tournaments are pretty fun. The club travels all over the peninsula to participate in these all day affairs. There are team events in the morning and individual events in the afternoon. Depending on the size of the tournament, events may be divided by sex. For example, one tournament had mixed teams for both elementary and junior high school, with an age limit of 4th grade, so our club was able to field two mixed teams in the elementary division, and one in the junior high division. For the individual event, the under 3rd grade set wasn’t divided by sex, but the 3rd/4th, 5th/6th, and junior high divisions were (even though there were only four junior high school girls).

A third grader watches her teammate in the semifinals of the elementary girls’ division.

However, for a much larger tournament earlier this month (from whence most of these pictures are from), the team events were all divided by sex, so we only had two teams in the elementary girls’ division (Otobe’s club is predominantly girls, especially in the middle level). However, the division isn’t strict – teams with only a few girls were allowed to field mixed teams in the boys’ division. Likewise, we had a team in the junior high boys’ division, even though one of our five is a girl.

The team division was for 3rd-6th graders…which lead to some disparity in the competition.

We do pretty well in some areas – we have five 5th/6th girls who tower over their competition, so we’ve won the elementary team division at all of the tournaments I’ve attended. The junior high schoolers have a rougher go of it – the seventh grade boys are growing, but they’re still kind of skinny, and going up against ninth graders six inches taller than them and thirty pounds heavier.** They persevere though – we had an exciting tie-breaker match that went into overtime (regulation match time is 2.5 min) for over ten minutes before our kid got in a good hit, sending the team onto the semi-finals.

Ten minutes into what should have been a two minutes match, an Otobe seventh grader paces his opponent.

Of course, with all of the small towns and accompanying small schools, it’s hard to avoid running into the same people over and over. I gave one girl from Okushiri a start when I recognized her at the speech contest – she had been in the kendo tournament a few weeks back. One of the club’s seventh grade boys has a sister who won that same speech contest. Another two of the boys are embarrassed because I know their parents quite well – one’s mother works for the Board of Education and another’s father is the English teacher at the big elementary school. Oh well.

Otobe Kendo Club’s only junior high school girl takes on a boy from Mori town.

*The teacher cracked up when I pointed out that I had been doing kendo since before they could walk. Of course, he’s probably been doing kendo since before Regan took office.

**Funny story – all of these boys are in the home economics club at school. Since joining a school sports club might result in conflicting tournaments, they decided to learn to sew and bake instead. The teacher in charge of the club said that all she had to do was say ‘bake cookies’ to lure them away from joining the computer club.

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