Vicki Lau fiercely struck her opponent with her shinai, a bamboo sword, and let out a strong yell. The shinpan, or referees, raised their red flags, awarding Lau a point. A section of the crowd erupts. It’s over. The final match in a long day at the Ninth Annual Yuhihai Intercollegiate Kendo Tournament.
She has sealed the championship in the women’s team division, but can’t celebrate just yet. The two teams line up on opposite sides of the court and bow to each other. A traditional display of sportsmanship.
Then the team can celebrate.
At first glance, the tournament hosted by the UCLA Kendo Club appears to be both a sporting competition and the offspring of a long martial arts tradition.
Fitting Yuhihai into these one-dimensional sockets, however, would be a mistake. The event is not simply defined by competition nor is it defined by tradition.
For one thing, Yuhihai focuses on individual growth.
“It’s not just about strengthening my body or technique,” said tournament director Nathan Chen. “It’s about constantly moving forward.”
The competitors from 11 different schools in California, including Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UC Riverside and UC Irvine, came to win medals or take home the team trophies, but they also came to learn.
“From competing in kendo, I’ve realized you need to find the right mindset,” Chen said. “You perform better in matches and it really helps in other aspects of life.”
As an offshoot, those involved in overseeing the tournament are constantly striving to create a bigger, better event.
“Yuhihai is getting bigger every year,” said Jenny Chim, UCLA Kendo Club president. “In terms of participants, it’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest collegiate kendo tournament in North America.”
UCLA coach Nathan Makino
, who also served as the master of ceremonies for the day, put the annual tournament’s growth in context.
“Our first year, we had roughly 100 competitors,” said Makino. “In the past two years, we’ve had around 200.”
In nine years, participation in Yuhihai has doubled, making it a major event for the world of collegiate kendo. Even so, there are plans for continued expansion.
“We’re trying to see if we can make it a two-day event and figure out when to hold it,” Chim said. “That way we can attract more schools from across the country.”
Then there is another major aspect of Yuhihai – community. The bonds forged in the UCLA Kendo Club do not end when a member graduates. They continue to help out when they can.
“It’s a really big community event,” Chen said. “We always depend on our alumni and the local dojos to make it work.”
In this case, the alumni gave up their Valentine’s Day to undertake multiple logistical functions.
On top of that, the sensei from the Los Angeles area dojos serve as referees. They all donned navy blue sport coats, red ties and black socks to judge the sport they devote a majority of their time to teaching.
Makino summed it all up.
“Everything has improved,” Makino said. “The level of competition, the administrative side and the help from the community has made that possible.”
Now that the ninth edition of Yuhihai is in the books, some are already starting to look toward the 10th.
“We’re proud of the way the tournament turned out this year,” Chim said. “This is our motivation to improve for the next one.”