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Student organization teaches ‘way of the sword’

By ANTHONY IRIZARRY | Assistant Features Editor

I awoke early in the morning at a sluggish pace, my feet dragging as I moved about my room fetching my clothes and getting prepared for what would be an interesting day. My pace hastened as I walked out the door and toward the Foy Fitness and Recreation Center.

As soon as I arrived, I made my way up the winding steps and toward the studio. When I entered the room there was a tall, slender man standing at the other end.

He was clad in traditional Japanese clothing, and from his hip dangled a sheathed katana.

The slender man was John Baker, head of the Iai and Kendo Club, a group of students who have decided to study the way of the Japanese sword.

After my arrival, other students trickled in. Baker handed me a bokuto, a wooden Japanese sword, and urged the class to form a circle.

My training in the Japanese way of the sword was about to begin.

Our bokutos were set behind our feet as we stood in a large circle. Brandon Vandermark, the senior student, took the lead as he instructed us to engage in stretches.

Once our muscles were loose, the class began. Baker moved to the front of the class and started his lesson by teaching us the proper foot positioning.

“You want to have your toes pointing forward,”Baker said, and continued, “the heel of your right foot should be in line with the big toe of your left foot.”

I held my bokuto only a few inches away from my stomach, tilting the edge upward. “You want to be in a threatening stance. The edge must be at your opponent’s eye-level,” Baker said.

Afterward, we were taught the rudimentary Iai slice. We brought our bokutos high above our heads and swung them vertically.

We were taught how to integrate footwork with the offensive move, sliding our feet forward with every slice and then sliding backwards as we sliced.

Halfway through the class, I had been taught how to properly position my feet and the blade, draw the blade, strike, cleanse the blade and sheathe it.

“Iai literally means ‘to draw’,” said Baker after the class ended.

The difference between the two disciplines lies in that Iai is focused on establishing proper form, whereas Kendo’s goal is about developing a strong spirit. Furthermore, Iai is a traditional discipline, which means it has a direct link to the methods of the samurai.

Baker remarked the samurai have been well renowned for their prowess in not only traditional melee combat, but also for their distinct training in assassination countering an assassination, and melding themselves to trees so as to appear invisible to the naked eye.

“Some people have been able to achieve a strong spirit strictly through Iai, but it’s rarely achieved without the balance of Kendo,” Baker explained.

The young teacher, reluctant to call himself a sensei, has been training in the disciplines for eight years. His interest had all began with his prior frustration with other sword disciplines.

Baker elaborated, “I had studied the European sword prior to this, but found it lacking. Like in fencing – it’s all about getting the touch no matter what happens, so there’s no concept of ‘I’m fighting to defend myself’,” Baker said.

He has been teaching these disciplines in Clarksville since November, when the first days of training officially began. The students are still learning the basics of Japanese commands.

Although Baker describes Kendo as a more sporty style of Kenjutsu — art of the sword — he said it differs from other martial arts in that even during competitions, people who are of a higher rank rarely ever act condescendingly toward others.

When competing in a Kendo match, there are only four hits that are killing blows. These are the hand, face, body and neck. However, Baker advises against hitting anyone in the neck, and not just for the more painfully obvious reasons.

“It’s considered very rude to hit someone there, especially if you hit your sensei,” he said.

The first week of the club’s founding had as many as 16 people come to the classes. While the numbers have fluctuated somewhat, a core of six people — including two faculty members — engage in these disciplines.

Brandon Vandermark, a freshman computer science major, is one of the senior members of the club.

Vandermark said, “I got into the class through genuine interest. I’ve always loved Japanese culture.”
The classes are being offered on Mondays and Wednesdays from 7-9 a.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8-10 p.m. and Sundays at 5-9 p.m. TAS

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