Kendo Interview: The History of Prairie Kendo

Kendo Interview: The History of Prairie Kendo

Budogu Zen had an opportunity to interview Neil Gendzwill Sensei from Saskatoon Kendo Club. He has been actively practicing kendo in Saskatchewan and he is one of the highly dedicated sensei in Canada. Not only that, but Gendzwill Sensei has been the secretary for the Canadian Kendo Federation for a long period of time. We are very honoured to be able to interview him.

Q: How many years you've been doing kendo, current rank, dojo, and your occupation.

A: I started kendo with Saskatoon Kendo Club in the fall of 1983, so it is 40 years now.  Except for a couple of years in Calgary in the late 80s I have always been with the Saskatoon Club.  My rank is renshi rokudan.  I work as a senior embedded software architect for Calian Advanced Technologies.

Saskatoon Kendo Club Team Photo

Q: Why did you start kendo?

A: I did judo all through high school but gave it up when I went to university.  After I graduated, I noticed a poster advertising kendo.  I had always had an interest in knives and swords, and so I joined up along with several friends who no longer practice.  I have now been a member of the club longer than anyone else aside from the founder, Miyaoka-sensei, who founded it in 1981.


Q: We've seen all the trophies that were presented/donated by many senseis during the Saskatoon Taikai. If possible, may we ask you to explain the history of the taikai as well as the dojo in Saskatchewan?

A: Miyaoka-sensei emigrated to Canada in 1979.  He originally lived in Vancouver where he met his wife, Machiko, and practiced at Renbu Dojo.  They decided to move out of Vancouver in 1981, loaded up their truck and headed east.  They stopped in Saskatoon on a beautiful day in the fall and decided to stay.  Had it been winter, they probably would not have stayed.  Miyaoka-sensei got a job as a teppanyaki chef at a local restaurant. One of his customers saw him flipping the knives around and asked if he did kendo.  From that chance encounter Saskatoon Kendo Club was born.  We originally practiced at the University of Saskatchewan but eventually ended up at the YMCA where we have been for many years.  In 1985 myself and two others became the first people in Saskatchewan to earn the rank of kendo shodan. 

In 1990 I was living in Calgary but still in touch with Miyaoka-sensei.  He had decided that we needed to elevate the technical level of kendo in Saskatoon by holding a seminar, and invited Asaoka-sensei to teach.  I helped organize the seminar remotely, and then moved back to Saskatoon late that same year.  We have held it every year since except for 2020 and 2021.  Asaoka-sensei taught for the first 7 years, and then we decided to invite a different sensei.  Koike-sensei from Seattle came, and asked to come back for at least 2 more years so he could see how we were doing. From that our tradition of having different sensei every 2 or 3 years was born.  We also ask the sensei to recommend 2 younger players with competition experience to assist.

I have had to travel to challenge every one of my grades, but not everybody has the resources to do that.  As a result, I lobbied CKF to allow us to hold a grading for ikkyu and shodan with a limited panel, and the first grading was held in 1994 as part of the seminar.

Some people were concerned about the quality of the grading, but visiting sensei always reported back that it was conducted according to the same standards as Vancouver and Toronto.  Eventually the grading was expanded to a full panel grading up to sandan.  I am proud to say that we now can fill that panel with prairie sensei, and that certainly was not the case in 1994.

We had many requests for a tournament, and so we added that also in 1994. From the start it was intended to be a learning experience both for the players and the referees.  The mudansha division uses 3-person round robins feeding an elimination draw so that people have at least two matches in their first tournament.  We had an open division that was originally intended to be a showcase for the visiting sensei so that people could be inspired by a higher level of play.  Since then, it has become the 4+ dan division and the level of kendo in the prairies has risen to make it quite competitive.

We have tried to encourage women’s kendo by allowing the women to compete in either the appropriate dan division or the women’s division or both.  The women’s division in some years has contained past and present national team members and has been very competitive.  Usually, one of the visiting instructors is a current or past member of the women’s team.

Originally, we had just one trophy and inscribed the winners of all 4 of the original divisions on it.  Over the years more trophies were donated or purchased.  Asaoka-sensei donated a trophy which is now given to the winner of the 1-2 dan division.  We created a trophy in honour of Asa-sensei’s 30 years of service as CKF president which is now given to the winner of the open division.  We created a trophy in honour of Takagaki-sensei, who came to our seminar as well as other prairie events many times before he passed.  That trophy is given to the winner of the sandan division.  The original trophy is now handed out to the winner of the mudansha division. 

Prairie Kendo Taikai TrophyPrairie Kendo Tournament Takagaki Trophy

Q: Your personal goal from now?

A: We are sending a few of our senior members to Toronto this year to challenge the grading, and I will try nanadan along with them.  I am mainly interested in their success, and the growth and success of our club in future. As far as personal goals are concerned, mainly I just want to keep training and hopefully improving, although this becomes difficult as I get older and face various physical challenges.  I see people like Tsumura-sensei and Asa-sensei who are still actively training into their 80s and I find that inspiring.

In a few years I will retire from my job with Calian and will have more time to devote to kendo.  Perhaps at that time I will do more work for CKF.

Saskatoon Kendo 20th Anniversary Kata Demonstration

Q: How was your experience as a Secretary in CKF?

A: I was brought on to the board in 2009 under Okusa-sensei as president.  After about a year Wakabayashi-sensei resigned as Secretary and I took over.  Since then, I have served under presidents D’Orangeville-sensei, Tizzard-sensei and Choi-sensei. 

I think most people don’t realize the amount of work done by the executive.  The President, Treasurer and Secretary all take on quite a heavy workload.  The VPs job is what you make of it, but our current VP Makiko Ara-sensei works very hard at it.

The job of the secretary as I see it is to keep the organization running smoothly. There is a lot of work in keeping contact with the membership, handling problems with their accounts, organizing gradings, dealing with foreigners coming to grade and so forth.  I was happy to make a contribution, but it was time to hand over the job to another person.  Patrick Suen has taken over and he will do an excellent job.

For now, I will keep the job as chair of the Kendo Written Examination Committee, so people are not entirely rid of me yet.

Kendo Seminar Group Photo

Q: As a secretary and one kendoka in Canada, did you experience/see any changes?

A: Under Okusa-sensei we completely revised the by-law under which the organization operates.  The key change which I insisted strongly on was the introduction of electing the board of directors.  Previously the board had been selected by the previous board along with senior sensei.  I wanted to see a more democratic, transparent process.  I believe that this change has led to a more active board that is working hard to improve the organization.

Starting with Okusa-sensei and continuing with D’Orangeville-sensei, we upgraded the grading policy.  Largely at D’Orangeville-sensei’s insistence, we introduced written exams for up to godan.  Our written exams are different from Japan’s in that there is no book of correct answers available: we expect people to do a little research and answer the questions based on their own understanding.  In this way they can learn a little more deeply about the art that they are studying.

Under Choi-sensei, the organization is modernizing and moving towards recognition as the National Sporting Organization (NSO) for kendo, iaido and jodo in Canada.  Not only is this potentially going to result in some government funding, but it is resulting in necessary changes for these times.  Instructors must have certifications and background checks, and sound policies in place to deal with all the issues that other sports deal with.

Finally, we have moved away from the old membership system.  It was written by a volunteer and served us for a long time but was aging and badly in need of replacement.  The maintenance of this system formed a great deal of my work, and so switching to the new system was the ideal opportunity to pass the torch.  Suen-sensei was instrumental in developing the new system and he will carry it forward as the new Secretary.

I think the board of directors we have today is very solid.  Every person there is working hard to make the organization serve its members better.  I wish them the best of luck as they move forward with their ambitious agenda.

Saskatoon Kendo Club Team Photo