By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
Some of the most amazing sports moments of my lifetime happened last summer in Beijing.
The Olympics have a level of spectacle that just can’t be matched with pro sports in America. International competition literally brings with it the weight of the entire world.
It’s the idea of truly competing against the rest of the world, national anthems being sung, flags being waved, patriotism professed. And on the one-year anniversary of the closing of the Olympic Games in Beijing, another Team USA will have an opportunity to represent America at the pinnacle of global competition.
The 14th World Kendo Championships will take place this weekend in Sao Paulo, Brazil with over 40 teams from around the globe coming out to compete in the triennial event that features masks and bamboo sticks called shinai. While still a relatively unknown sport here in the States, kendo has found international popularity in places that would surprise—Russia, Canada, Brazil.
“I always tell people it’s like a modern day samurai fighting sport,” Yuji Onitsuka, who is coaching this year’s men’s team, told the Rafu Shimpo.
Onitsuka is a five-time member and two-time coach of Team USA and was the coach three years ago when the U.S. men’s kendo squad pulled a Tom Cruise and completed what many believed to be a mission impossible.
The World Kendo Championships began in 1970 and for 13 consecutive
tournaments spread out over 36 years, the Japanese team had never lost.
“It was pretty incredible,” Onitsuka said. “It’s a five man team. They won the first match. We won the second match. They won the third match. We won the fourth match… We were preparing for a tie-break, but our captain, he won that fifth match.”
Onitsuka explained that in kendo one doesn’t show anger or excitement like in any other sport. You don’t dance in the end zone like Terrell Owens or pump your fist like Tiger Woods.
“In kendo, you’re not supposed to do that stuff,” Onitsuka said, “but when we beat Japan we started cheering. Everybody was pretty surprised, but it was a once in a lifetime happening.
So we were jumping, the whole crowd was jumping, everyone was jumping. It was a sight to see.”
All streaks must come to an end, all records are meant to be broken. And though they finished second to Korea three years ago, it was Team USA who ended Japan’s reign.
Which means, of course, that this year, no other country has bigger shoes to fill then the USA men’s team. Not only will Japan be looking to regain their crown, but Korea, the 06 champions, enter this year’s competition feeling slighted by their victory because it was not them who ultimately broke Japan’s win streak.
Japan and Korea are traditionally the big two when it comes to kendo.
They both field professional kendo athletes who are selected and then paid to practice and train in kendo, eight hours a day, five-days a week, to earn a living.
On the flipside, the US and many of the other participating countries bring players who practice kendo as a hobby. For example, the US team, which is made up of Northern and Southern California members (and one from New York), for the past year and a half, has only been able to get together for practice twice a month. In between those meetings, it has been left to the members to not only practice the menu the coaches have prepared for them, but also find dojos that will accommodate their practice schedules—many times those dojos not being in the same city.
“For us, it’s tough because we do kendo as a hobby,” Onitsuka said. “We don’t get paid for it. There’s no real big incentive as opposed to Japan and Korea. Those guys are actually professionals. We’re doing this because we want to. So, that’s why, I would think, we probably came up on top of Japan because we want to do it and they’re like, we have to do it.”
But, as mentioned above, there are other countries that “want to” now as well.
“Canada is pretty tough. Brazil is pretty tough. France is pretty tough,”
Onitsuka said. “Mostly their attitude has been like, if they take third they’ll be happy. But since we beat Japan, those countries are thinking, ‘If they did it, we can do it.’ So they’re gunning for number one as well.”
“It’s not just to beat the Asian countries or to do as well as the Asian countries,” added Tim Yuge, head sensei of Torrance Kendo Dojo who will be a referee in Brazil this weekend. “But now they have to compete with the European countries as well too. That’s why training is very important. We have to practice even that much harder because the world knows that the U.S. has the ability.”
And that ability and hard work extends to the USA women’s team as well.
“They didn’t do too well three years ago,” said Team USA women’s head coach Spencer Hosokawa, a three-time member of Team USA himself.
“They didn’t make it to the red robin. Therefore, this time around, they are really into it. They want to prove to everyone that they are just as good as the men, hopefully. They can beat Japan or Korea.”
This weekend represents the moment of truth for both the men and women’s squads. The men are looking to make sure that their victory in 2006 was no fl ash in the pan. The women are looking to prove their mettle on the world’s biggest stage.
Japan wants redemption. Korea wants legitimacy. Canada, Brazil and France all believe. And America is roaring with confi dence. Can you feel the excitement? Feel that patriotism coursing through your veins?
And just maybe, the next great American sports moment will happen this weekend.