2022 Seminar for Women in Kendo & Iaido
Fight like a girl! – a seminar to lead the way
On the 24th of April, our internationally oriented 2022 Seminar for Women in Kendo & Iaido was held, organised by Sherita Lalji (Shin Nakada).
It was a beautiful sunny day and 20 participants had come together to train and discuss, under the inspiring leadership of two female sensei whom I greatly admire: Donatella Castelli and Elaine van Ommen Kloeke. I wrote a personal reflection on this seminar for Zanshin: “Fight like a girl! – a seminar to lead the way”.
Disclaimer: the following is a and some of the topics discussed and does not necessarily represent NKR points of view.
What I like best about the budo world in general and especially the iaido and kendo world, is the strong sense of solidarity and support I often experience there. I don’t know how it came about, but at this seminar, I might have felt that even more than during ‘normal’ trainings and CT’s. Even before the seminar had properly started, on our way from the train station to the gymnasium, we were already engaging in lively chatter. I stumbled over my French to talk to our Walloon participants, and not much later this scene repeated itself in the dressing room, when I tried to speak Russian with the women from Ukraine. Our language and cultural differences were however no barrier to us feeling comfortable with each other, and as a group, we had a nice and warm atmosphere from the very beginning. In my experience, an interest in budo is often the tip of the iceberg and once you are in contact over that, you’ll often find that you have much more in common. A love for other aspects of Japanese art and culture, for example, or a hobby like baking and/or drawing. Vanessa and I bonded immediately over our pets, when I showed her pictures of Boris (the Bengal Tiger Cat) and she told me all about her adorable Shiba Inu named Tenko. It was pleasant and relaxed, and I felt at home right from the start.
The first few minutes, the two sensei talked together about the hakama and gi and how to tweak them to better fit a woman’s body. From my own experiences, I can tell that the measurement charts on websites for Japanese attire often do not take into account my curves – a thing recognized by many of the more curvy participants. The atmosphere around these discussions was friendly and rather informal, our group could ask sensei all our ladies’ questions – what kind of bra is useful, how do you make sure you don’t pierce your chest during kata four etc – and help each other with tips and tricks.
2022 Seminar for Women in Kendo & Iaido started with iaido, taught by Elaine sensei. We started with footwork – okuri-ashi, ayumi-ashi and suri-ashi in various ways, with and without cutting. Some of the exercises Elaine sensei had us do I had already tried before in our own dojo. But they were no less challenging for me as they were for the others! After that we practised kata 10 with “real” opponents and Elaine sensei gave an amazing performance of some kuryu kata. Far too soon, the lesson was over and it was time for a break, with discussions, tea and “cake-o”.
After our tea break, we did kendo. First Donatella sensei started exploring with us whether there is such a thing as “female kendo”, which led to many remarks and comments about pushing in tsuba-zeriai (luckily, with the new Covid rules, these will soon be a thing of the past). As a group, we agreed that while kendo itself is no different in male vs female competitions, our approach to it might differ. As sensei explained: “Your technique should be precise and correct – and violence is not an option”.
We started with haya suburi painfully slow, while the left foot must kick the floor, and then ten times as fast as you can! It was terrific to see the speed of our Ukrainian participants and some other fourth Danners up close. Then it was kirikaeshi for the ladies who already knew it and big men for those without bogu: “When you go for men, aim for the tsuki as long as you dare and don’t stop moving!” . We also trained tai sabaki men and kote – ” which does not exist in nature – you have to create the opportunity ” – and we learned about the beauty of nuki do and the laws of physics to accelerate the point of your sword.
After this we had another small break and as the last part we did a workshop called “Battodo” which was tameshi giri, and led by Alphons Metselaar (Shin Nakada). We took turns trying to cut through the tatami while cheering for each other. It was the first time I did something like this, so I found it exciting, and was very proud that – thanks to all the instructions of Elaine sensei – I succeeded in cutting the tatami.
The Big Why
The weeks leading up to this event, Sherita and I had been very busy. We’d been thinking about the programme and talking to potentially interested people. Sherita had approached the two sensei and negotiated the sports hall, whilst I had been spending my time by designing attractive banners and flyers, and talking to the press. 2022 Seminar for Women in Kendo & Iaido appeared in three newspapers, as well as on all kinds of Japan-related websites, and I was even interviewed by a radio station in Leiden (about these “sword fighting women ” whom the hosts compared to Xena Warrior Princess and Viking Shieldmaiden Lagertha). Our efforts did not go unnoticed, and we received many responses. Twenty from the women who signed up, a handful from women who supported us but unfortunately could not come, and also: dozens of messages from male kendoka and iaidoka. Most of these men showed themselves to be true gentlemen. My own two male sensei, for example, who sent me compliments and well wishes, and let me know that they wanted to support and help Sherita and me wherever they could. Nevertheless, there were also a few counter-reactions.
In the context of the Covid pandemic, when we had been unable to hold seminars for so long, I could well understand that some men did not like the fact that one of the first events that could take place after this long break was explicitly not intended for them. Nonetheless, I was saddened and disappointed to receive messages saying “well, then I will just go and organise a men’s seminar!”. Literally, that is a positive statement. Just as we women try to create a safe space to talk about being women in budo, and how we can deal with all of our fellow kendoka and iaidoka in a healthy way, I would encourage the men to do something similar, to discuss how they approach each other as well as the women in kendo and iaido, and support one another in their specific vulnerabilities. But it did not seem as if that was the intention behind these messages. On further questioning, it often appeared that the men who responded in this manner failed to comprehend why it would be desirable – let alone necessary – to organise a women’s seminar.
Sadly, the truth is that around the world, women are experiencing sexism and mistreatment, and sometimes this also manifests itself in budo. At a masterclass, a karate sensei once made derogatory and sexist remarks to my best friend and me, and we had no response. Similar stories came up during this seminar as well. Of course, I cannot share what I was told in confidence, but I can testify that some participants had unpleasant experiences themselves. Someone also told a story about a male coach who had shown boundary-breaking behaviour with a women’s team. The story took place far away, in a country that was not mine nor of anyone else present. Yet histories like these frighten many women. Why?
On Instagram I once read a comparison that falls short, but perhaps it can still help: it is of a man vs a tick. As you probably know, ticks can transmit Lyme disease. Fortunately there is only a small percentage of ticks that actually give you Lyme. Nevertheless we are all careful in nature. We check our bodies and our clothes for ticks after being in the countryside despite knowing that by no means all ticks transmit Lyme. We are wary of every tick and its potential danger. Of course, men are not ticks, but here’s the thing: because we do not know, there is a potential threat. Fortunately, not many male budoka are assailants – most are not and I would trust my sensei with my life – yet many women easily feel nervous when we are alone with a man, especially if we don’t know the man in question very well yet. Because we can’t smell what he’s up to and we have too many collective experiences of trauma.
Of course, this is not to say that all problems of women are because of men, or that men in budo do not have problems. There are also many problems between women – often due to jealousy – and they are not always easy to deal with. At the seminar we therefore also talked about how we as women in kendo and iaido would like to be a sisterhood. Moreover we discussed some stories of men who have been falsely accused of sexual boundary crossing behaviour and how to prevent this. But smaller “inconveniences” were also discussed, such as the aforementioned clothing designed for men’s bodies – although there is now finally a women’s do on the market – and things like exercising while menstruating or when pregnant.
Looking back – and taking into account the reactions of the participants afterwards – I can conclude that the 2022 Seminar for Women in Kendo & Iaido was a pleasant and fun day. We experienced togetherness in a safe space as we discussed all kinds of quite heavy topics in a light-hearted way, and besides all these more serious discussions, we mainly had a lot of fun training!
With many thanks to Elaine sensei and Donatella sensei for their teachings and to Sherita for all the organisation!