Koji Lau-Ozawa bows as he enters the dojo for Monday night kendo practice. Rei, a sign of respect, is how kendo begins, he explains.
To the untrained eye, a kendo match might appear fearsome and intimidating. Screaming fighters race toward their opponents with bamboo swords (shinai) slashing through the air.
But Lau-Ozawa, head instructor of San Francisco Kendo Dojo, would disagree.
“When you watch it, you see people shouting and you see explosive movement,” Lau-Ozawa says.
“But there’s a lot going on underneath the surface. Kendo is about your mind and your body and your spirit. It isn’t just about strength; it’s about getting to know yourself. It’s a long journey of self-development.”
Kendo translates, literally, to “the way of the sword.” Its basic rules are fairly simple. You can strike just five places on your opponent: the head, the wrists, the throat and the waist. In most matches, the first to get two hits wins.
While kendo may call to mind lightsaber battles or “The Last Samurai,” Lau-Ozawa says the sport is more akin to a chess match — but with a quicker pace. While you’re pushing yourself physically, there’s also a mental battle going on as you try to stay one step ahead of your opponent.
“It’s fairly simple,” Lau-Ozawa says. “Yet it takes a lifetime to master.”
Lau-Ozawa was drawn to the philosophy behind kendo, along with its place in Japanese and Japanese American history. In 2007, while studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, he joined the university’s kendo club to get in touch with his heritage. After returning to the Bay Area, he continued practicing the martial art at the San Francisco Kendo Dojo, working his way up to lead teacher.
In doing so, Lau-Ozawa has become part of the dojo’s long history, with a tight-knit community that dates back decades. At a rainy Monday night practice, about 20 students of all ages gather downstairs in the Buddhist Church of San Francisco in the city’s Japantown. They practice footwork and sparring, ducking with their shinai held high, shuffling quickly across the floor — new members alongside those who have been with the dojo for decades.
“We have a really strong bond,” Lau-Ozawa says. “We celebrate together, we practice together, and our defeats in tournaments feel less stinging because we do it together.”
This sense of community is a big part of what keeps Lau-Ozawa energized about his kendo journey.
After 16 years of training — which he is quick to say is not actually very long — Lau-Ozawa has reached the fourth of eight dan levels, which he likens to levels of black belt in karate. Moving up higher in the ranks is challenging, and he doubts he’ll ever make it to level eight. But he’s eager to keep growing his skills alongside his students and peers.
“It’s a very simple martial art, but there are an infinite number of ways to connect with people,” he says. “The encounter between person to person is unique, and so every time it’s a surprise.”
This sense of connection, and mutual respect, is palpable among the dojo members throughout their training session as they partner to sharpen their skills and hone their techniques.
“Kendo can’t be practiced alone, so you develop a relationship,” Lau-Ozawa says. “Kendo begins and ends with rei, which is respect, and so it begins and ends with how we respect each other as we practice.”
To learn more about the San Francisco Kendo Dojo, visit sanfranciscokendo.org. Practices are held Monday and Thursday evenings in San Francisco Japantown, and beginners are welcome. The next enrollment period is in June.
Beth Hillman taught English in Japan for four years. She’s the co-founder and co-organizer of Joshikai San Francisco, a networking group for women with a connection to Japan.