FEATURE: Taiwanese kendo master still going strong at age 90

By Chiu Shao-wen and Jake Chung  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Thu, Jul 25, 2013 - Page 5

Wu Chin-pu (吳金樸) still visits the kendo dojo at Tamkang University in Tamsui District (淡水), New Taipei City (新北市), every Wednesday to teach students the way and spirit of kendo, as he has for decades.

The 90-year-old Wu is still the holder of the best kendo score record in Taiwan’s international kendo competitions.

He first came into contact with kendo when he was 12, and has been in love with it ever since.

He said that not a day goes by without him doing his best to become more adept in the martial art, despite having achieved hachidan — the eighth and highest rank — in kendo decades ago.

He rose to shodan (first rank) by the time he was in his third year of junior-high school. That was the year he took the championship in a kendo competition in Taipei by defeating 18 opponents.

It was that competition that provided him with the cornerstone for his success in future competitions, Wu said. Not only did it give him confidence, it also helped him realize that the key to kendo was “daily practice of all the elementary movements.”

“Self-confidence is one of the major factors to winning when going up against an opponent, but the only way to maintain that self-confidence is to practice the basic moves on a daily basis,” Wu said.

“The Japanese sensei that taught us was very strict about the training regimen, and at first it was a very painful process,” he said, recalling that swollen wrists often made practice so painful that many students thought about dropping out.

However, Wu said he always resumed training after the sensei gave his wrists a consolatory rub.

To improve his training, Wu ordered three custom-made bokuto, or wooden swords, of different weights. The lightest, at 400g, was for practicing the speed of his swings, the second and third — weighing 800g and 925g respectively — were used to improve his physical conditioning, he said.

He used the heavier swords in his joge buri exercises, in which the kendoka (a kendo practitioner), swings the bokuto from high to low.

Wu said he would practice his swing more than 1,000 times a day.

Wu had represented Taiwan for eight straight years in the International Kendo Competition, the predecessor to the World Kendo Competition, by the time he was 41.

In 1967, Wu, then a rokudan (sixth rank) kendoka, was just one point away from the championship when he took on a nanadan (seventh rank) kendoka, in the individual finals.

Although he came in second, Wu shocked Japan, which had won two consecutive Kendo championships, because no other Taiwanese had ever won an individual match.

Wu’s accomplishments in international competitions have yet to be surpassed by other Taiwanese kendoka.

After retiring from competitions, Wu turned to teaching. He has spent the past 34 years teaching kendo to Tamkang students, as well as doubling as a kendo sensei at the dojo sponsored by the Taipei Medical University Hospital and the Taipei City Government.

“One sees many bruises because the young are eager to swing their bokuto, but it is a start if they have the dedication to continue,” Wu said.

Students often ask Wu what they should do when they have hit a bottleneck in their practice. He said he always tells them to keep practicing.

That simple answer is based on the philosophy that a kendoka does not really know what kind of strike or move will succeed, but if they keep practicing the basics, sooner or later they will find that the problem has vanished, Wu said.

He said that not being able to wield a sword and continue to spar would be more of a setback than losing a bout.

Wu said he almost died in a car crash when he was 64 that left him with a badly broken right leg. The doctor had to put a pin in his leg, and Wu said he told him: “You must fix my leg. I want to participate in the next World Kendo Competition.”

Despite the long road to recovery, Wu returned to the top.

Like his own sensei, Wu is a strict teacher and often corrects the slightest error in posture or movement with a prompt thwack of his bokuto.

After a class ends, he is more of a grandfather, his students said.

“It is common for one to feel some measure of difficulty when pursuing a hobby or interest,” Wu said.

However, “kendoka should always try to remember what it was they wanted when they started learning kendo,” he said.

“Kendo is not just a sport that trains one’s body physically, it also seeks to discipline the mind,” he said.