By Annelie Hyatt
To set foot in Aerobics Room 4 is to stumble past people retying the strings of their uniforms while shinais (kendo practice swords) lean on the ledges that separate the corridor from Dodge Gym’s running circuit. People are already inside, claiming a section of the open floor where they can stretch their limbs. In an effortless motion, fast and light, they lift the shinai above their heads while stepping forward. Their feet move apart for a moment, then snap shut. For all the light banter that floats around the gym, the air thickens with concentration: All that can be heard is step, swoosh, step before Alice Choi, CC ’22, hurries inside, heading to the front of the room. “Let’s get started,” she says, clapping her hands. The motion in the room halts and shifts to reverent attention.
Kendo is a modern Japanese martial art descended from kenjutsu, an umbrella term that encompasses all of the schools of Japanese swordsmanship that originated within the samurai class in feudal Japan. During modern-day matches, kendo players, referred to as kendokas, wear armor (bogu) to protect their head, chest, waist, and wrist areas, and use bamboo swords for combat. Players gain points for delivering blows on the head, wrist, abdomen, and throat area.
Choi has been the president of the Columbia Kendo Club for the past two years. While she had briefly heard about the sport before coming to Columbia, she never imagined that it would become such a significant part of her college experience. When I met her on Low Steps on a warm mid-November afternoon, we began by talking about her childhood in Jamaica, Queens. I was surprised, not for the first time, by how soft-spoken she is. Her soothing voice contrasts with the cacophony of kendo practice that can transform a room into an ocean of sound, of stomps and screams and the swoosh of shinais.
“There weren’t many activities,” she told me, of her athletic exposure at school. “The school system there wasn’t very well-funded, so in elementary and middle school, school was basically just doing classes and then going home.” But Choi’s brief experience wrestling in high school convinced her that she wanted to continue her athletic pursuits in college—particularly in niche sports. “The community is much more close-knit,” Choi said. “It’s harder to be lost in the crowd.” It was also important that the club be as accessible as possible, without the hassle of tryouts that often repel other students from the majority of Columbia’s club sports. Choi trundled these criteria to the club fair her first year and found the perfect match in the kendo team.
“One of them asked, ‘Hey, do you want to hit people?’” Choi said with a chuckle. She thereupon decided to brave the first practice, where 30 to 40 people crammed themselves into Aerobics Room 4 to try their hand at swinging shinais. It wasn’t long, however, before Choi was one of only two first-years attending practice.
“That really showed me that kendo was something that you need to have a certain mindset or a certain amount of determination to do,” Choi said. “It’s definitely not for everyone. It made me even more determined to stay, seeing everyone leave, because it was a challenge.”
At first, Choi recalled, “when you do it, you’re just a trembling mess.” But Choi was inspired by the “relaxed and natural” movements of her senseis—particularly that of Alex Lin, one of the team’s coaches: “When Alex swings his shinai you can hear the whistling of the air as it moves so fast, I don’t know how you do that! I still don’t know how he does that.”
Perhaps one of the most glaring differences between kendo and other sports is that it’s practiced solo. But when I implied that kendo was an inherently solitary activity, Choi disagreed: In her experience, the sport has always been more interpersonal than individual. “When you’re doing a one-on-one sparring session, you feel closer to the person,” Choi said. “They’re your sole focus for a full three minutes.” The kendo gear enhances this sensation, particularly the men, the part of the kendo armor that covers the whole head.
Perhaps one of the hardest challenges that Choi had to face was the kiai, an unintelligible shout that a kendoka voices before a match and at the moment of the strike. “I was fairly introverted and more comfortable with just keeping to myself, and with the kiai, I was like, ‘Wait, we have to shout?’” Choi said, laughing as she remembered flushing when she had to kiai for the first time in front of her senseis and peers.
“The kiai is a representation of your state of mind,” Choi said. Indeed, her shame was transformed into courage once she integrated the practice into her rituals of combat. “If you’re ready, you have to show the world your spirit,” she said. “The kiai to me is saying, ‘I’m alive. I’m ready. Here I am.’”
Four years later, Choi is still not the loudest at kiai. While she experimented with it, her sound remains soft and simple compared to the deep, ornate bellows of her peers. For all of its gentleness, though, Choi’s kiai is far from small. Even as the club’s size has increased since the pandemic, her sound cuts through the air, short and sharp—signaling that she is ready for combat.
Choi’s diligent efforts to create a sense of club community are largely responsible for the club’s recent increase in membership, to about 30. Previously, she explained, beginners rarely had the chance to befriend more experienced members and relied solely on their senseis for guidance. As president, Choi recounted, “I wondered what I could do to make it feel more like a club and less like going to a lecture about kendo and then going home.”
This extended to Choi’s leadership during the pandemic. “Not to sugarcoat things, but it was rough,” she said. She and the rest of the board would run a weekly hour-long Zoom session, where they completed kendo exercises that were modified to accommodate members with small living quarters. “My priority at that time was to make sure that people who had already had experience would at least think about it during the pandemic,” she said. “My goal was to make sure that we were not totally forgetting kendo.”
When sports clubs returned to holding in-person practices, Choi made it a point to provide as much support to beginners as possible, carving out time during the week to hold additional practices and hosting weekly post-practice lunches to bond. In the spring, if pandemic regulations permit, she and the rest of the board hope to plan club-wide trips to compete in tournaments.
On a brisk day a week before I met with Choi, the kendo team congregated near the sundial for headshots, shivering in their uniforms. Shinais and puffer coats rested on the concrete benches as the team members made light conversation, turning their heads periodically as the board members posed for pictures in front of Butler Library. Naturally, Choi was in the middle, her arms around her teammates’ shoulders before, to her surprise, they lifted her up by the shoulders and reached up seamlessly to support her legs. All of them laughed out loud; the configuration wobbled, at first, until they laughingly found their footing.
After the photoshoot, Choi led most of the club members to Dodge Gym, where practice was about to start. Many had to resuscitate frozen limbs. It’s easy to forget that this place that they were heading to didn’t quite exist four years ago. But through Choi’s efforts, the Columbia Kendo Club has bloomed into a space more vivacious than it’s been in recent memory. “Here I am,” the club seems to say—its kiai will ring across campus long after Choi’s graduation.