By Laura Ohata
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“When searching on social media, if you type in general things (about kendo), male competitors come up,” said Jane Higa, a third-degree black belt in kendo and a student at the University of Washington. “Once you look deeper, women are represented.”
Higa’s day-to-day experiences in the dojo are quite different than what she finds in the media. “There is this strong community of women, and men who respect women…I’ve never felt inferior…just because of my gender.”
For the first time, Higa will attend this year’s North American Women’s Kendo Tournament & Seminar in Seattle from July 6–13. As a teenager, she spent summers in Japan with her family. But this year, as a young adult, at age 20, she could finally plan her own schedule to attend the event.
The seminar and tournament, attracting high-ranking female martial artists from Canada, Mexico, Japan, the United States, Aruba, and elsewhere, will study with Chinatsu Murayama, a five-time All-Japan Women’s Kendo champion.
Higa said, “I’m excited to meet Murayama-sensei. She is so tall. Her kendo is super pretty and straight. I’m excited to be able to practice with her this time.”
Higa started studying and practicing kendo at age 11, when her mother showed her a flyer and asked her if she wanted to try out the sport. She had seen videos of kendo before, but never in real life. She thought she would be able to wear the uniform and armor right away, but it took many months to work up to that level.
When asked why she likes kendo, Higa said, “You’re fighting with a sword, so that’s pretty cool. The passion you feel when you play sports, I don’t think it’s any different. It has this whole cultural background from Japan, how the samurai trained. The respect and the discipline make it really different.”
Modern fighters use bamboo swords to score points by striking the top of the head, the wrist, and the chest. Once a black belt is attained, they are allowed to target the throat. In spite of the protective helmet, gloves, and breastplate, kendo practitioners often go home bruised and sweaty.
Higa competes at local and regional tournaments, and wins against men and women. She took second place in individuals at the Rose City Taikai in 2018. More recently, she won second place at the 14th Annual Pacific Intercollegiate Tournament in 2019. Her team, the Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation (PNKF), won first place at the 2016 Junior National Championships in Detroit, Mich.
“When I was training for the girls’ team…all of the sensei helped me. They gave me advice and pushed me, whether male or female. They gave me feedback and compliments when I really deserved them.”
Seventh-degree black belt, Jeff Marsten, founded the North American Women’s Kendo Tournament & Seminar because he wanted to provide more support for his daughter, Elizabeth.
“I had the idea that since nothing really existed outside of Japan, this would be a really good opportunity, not only to unite women kenshi (martial artists) in North America, but really build the PNKF women’s team.”
Marsten started focusing on his women’s and girls’ programs after he started experiencing more success.
“It has really paid off. Not only have they won in competition, but they pass their promotion tests.” Over the years, his students have earned fourth, fifth, and even sixth-degree black belts. Higa is one of Marsten’s long-time students.
While Higa gets lots of attention from her coaches, she still appreciates the opportunity to attend the North American Women’s Kendo Tournament & Seminar.
Higa said, “I think it’s special because it’s all women.”
Athena Epilepsia, a first-degree black belt, who trains with Higa, agrees.
“Seeing…rows upon rows of ladies, sitting with their bogu [armor] out waiting to start practice,” said Epilepsia. “It gives me this kind of pride. It makes me proud to continue doing kendo.”
This time around, Higa will finally get to attend the event in person, and see it for herself.
For more information on the 7th North American Women’s Kendo Tournament & Seminar, go to womenskendo.com.
Laura can be reached at email@example.com.