Interview with Kenshi Joshua Bogin: The Virginia Tech Kendo Club

Joshua Bogin found his way into the Virginia Tech Kendo Club through his practices at Koryo in Richmond. From there, he became a critical part of the club, even after his graduation. Throughout his years in connection with the club, Joshua began hearing stories of an earlier time, when the club first started. Today, he shares those stories along with his experiences in the club.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Joshua and thank you for joining us to talk about the Virginia Tech Kendo Club!

Joshua Bogin: Thanks for having me and I look forward to your questions.

MAYTT: How did you find kendo on the campus and at what moment during your training made you know that kendo was for you?

JB: I had a bit of a different experience from the club because I actually had prior experience doing kendo before I had come to college. That can be sort of topic, but if we want to talk about specifically the club, I found out about it because a previous president of the club visited my dojo right after I had finished my senior year of high school and I told him that I was going to Virginia Tech. he let me know that there was a club there and I knew that I was going to join from the get go.

MAYTT: Where did you start training prior to the kendo club?

JB: It is a dojo in the Richmond area called Koryo and it was located right near where my mom used to work. I would visit her on Wednesday evenings because that was the day that she would work late, and we would bring her dinner and stuff. I would see them training because Wednesday would be the day during the week, they would have practice and I would just stand in awe of them, in their armor and yelling. One day I got brought into the dojo by my mother because she knew the sensei and signed me up without my knowledge. From that point, I’ve been doing kendo consistently and I’ve loved it the entire time.

MAYTT: That is awesome! Who was the then club president that visited the dojo?

JB: His name is Joshua Kim. He graduated in 2016 I want to say. This was back years ago. He was the president for a good few years before I came to Virginia Tech and then he was president for my freshman year before stepping down.

MAYTT: How does the Virginia Tech Kendo Club conduct their practices? How would you say the club’s practices compare to non-collegiate schools?

JB: Currently, the way that we have it set up is we try to make it as similar a real dojo practice as possible while also maintaining a little bit of the informality that would come with a collegiate club. But that has changed throughout the years depending on who’s in charge and the kind of principles they want to instill within the club. I feel that currently it is based on how Koryo does their practices. It’s kind of a halfway between fun and super serious actual practice.

The big reason behind that is partly because of the fact that no one in the club currently is high enough rank to be considered a sensei because you have to be fourth dan or higher to be considered that. None of us are close to that so it would feel a little awkward and a little self-aggrandizing to take it super seriously.

MAYTT: With that said, who fulfills the teacher role since no one technically fourth dan yet?

JB: In the past, I have taken on that role when I was a student there. There is also an international student from Korea named Sun Jin, who also took on that role when I left. Now, it’s diffused between several of the officers because they’re the ones who have the most experience in time spent doing kendo. The way that it’s set up is that they have lesson plans that they will create together so that they’re on the same page with what they’re trying to do. If they have any questions about things, they will text me something. If they want clarification or tips on how to teach a certain topic or technique, they’ll reach out to me. It is kind of a group effort.

MAYTT: Do the students have an issue with a group of peer teachers or they don’t mind because they want to learn kendo?

JB: No, especially with some of the newer students who don’t have their armor or anything. From what I have seen from the times I have been able to go and visit, they seem to be there and having fun. Part of it is probably because they don’t have any other experience with kendo than just in the club, but also, it’s a very friendly atmosphere, so I don’t think they would mind even if they did know more about how a kendo is usually run.

MAYTT: When you were still a student, how did you and the club advertise to the student body or differentiate yourselves from the other clubs on campus?

JB: The big one that we had was this event that is around Labor Day weekend every year, it’s called Gobbler Fest. All of the clubs get together on the drill field. The thing that we would typically do to get people to come by is have one or two people dressed up in the armor and say, “Hey! You want to come over here, we’ll teach you some basic stuff, and we’ll let you hit this person with the shinai and feel what kendo is like?” We also were in close contact with some of the other Asian organizations on campus, particularly the Japanese Cultural Association. They would invite us to their big events, like Matsuri Festival every fall, during the October/November timeframe. We would go there, put on a performance as part of their event, and just have fun and do demonstrations on the side, even after the main performance is done. We’ve pulled in some people that way. Also, if we have practice, we’ll sometimes just keep our uniform and armor on. It’s a very unique look and you’ll have curious people come over to see what it is all about. They’ll ask us if we do cosplay and if it’s a club. We kind of pulled people in through the spectacle because it’s so out of the ordinary.

MAYTT: That’s actually really cool, and to me, that sounds really smart using the art’s uniqueness to get inquiry!

JB: It has provided great success for us, especially a few years back, we had a few officers that had a really good chemistry together that would play off of each other really well and that would serve as a springboard to get people excited and make people curious about what’s going on and wanting to learn a little bit more.

MAYTT: During your time there, you acted as the club’s historian. What can you tell us about the club’s history and how it has remained a constant on Virginia Tech’s campus?

JB: I was not the historian, but because I’m the oldest one from the club, I just kind of picked up a lot of stories. I know I’ve been in contact with one of the older members from before I was there, her name is Christy Eickhoff. She has told me that the club has been around since 1999 or 2000. From the stories I’ve heard through osmosis, from when these older members have come to visit, originally there were a ton of people that got together and started this out of curiosity and there was no official-ness to it. It was just a bunch of college dudes and girls just goofing around and doing kendo. I’ve also heard from my dojo about how there were many people at Virginia Tech Kendo, and they were like a huge pool of people at tournaments. They were always this big name in collegiate kendo in Virginia. That was the first huge, big wave and it sort of died down as the members started to graduate. Then there was a second big wave my freshman year with Josh Kim as president. That’s where a lot of the veteran members that I know and have also continued on to do big things in kendo got their start. There’s currently a third wave that’s going on with big support from the kendo club with thirty people going on.

The way that club has persisted in a way that a lot of other collegiate clubs haven’t been so lucky in partially comes down to the timing of when certain people join because there always seems to be one or two people that will graduate later than the rest of the group that they joined with. There’s that little ember to carry onto the next generation of kendo people in the club.

MAYTT: So in this third wave, there’s about thirty-some people total?

JB: Yes. Thirty people total.

MAYTT: How many would you say during your time showed up for practice? Was it comparable to what’s happening now or was it a little bit more?

JB: My freshman year, I distinctly had a consistent of at least twenty people at a time. After Josh Kim graduated, a lot of people left, and it became very small. Like there were nominally about twenty people in the club but you would only see maybe five people at most at a practice for the next two years or so. Then my final year, it started to pick up again with fall of 2019 being huge. There were so many people that we did not have space for them all in the rented space we had for practice. It was quite a good problem to have. [Laughs]

MAYTT: I had the opportunity to talk with some representatives of the UCLA Kendo Club and they are members of the All United States Kendo Federation (AUSKF). Is the Virginia Tech Kendo Club associated with any larger kendo organization as well?

JB: When I had first started, we were sort of floating around independently because Josh Kim had learned kendo in a Korean dojo, and they didn’t associate themselves with the AUSKF, so he didn’t want the club to be either. He also didn’t like all the rules that would go along with it. Until my junior year, which was 2017, we weren’t affiliated with the AUSKF, but now we are.

The way that the federation works in the US, you have the AUSKF, which the All United States Kendo Federation is an overarching federation for forty-nine out of fifty states. Hawaii does their own thing. The AUSKF subdivides into regional federations. Virginia Tech is part of the Southeast United States Kendo Federation. We are affiliated with them, and we pay our dues through them, and we coordinate with them. It’s still an optional thing for club members; it’s contingent on whether or not they want to test for a rank or participate in some kind of tournament.

MAYTT: Speaking of American kendo, who would you say holds the title of pioneer of kendo or someone who spread the art in and around Virginia and/or in the Eastern regions of the United States? What did these individuals do that set themselves apart from their contemporaries?

JB: One name that comes to mind that is a big name in the East Coast of kendo is Shozo Kato Sensei. He has his own chain of dojos along the East Coast and they’re all under the umbrella of Shidogakuin. They have ones in Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C, Rutgers University, there’s one in Florida, and in New York. He’s a big name and he has a lot of clout in the American kendo world. He has a lot of friends abroad as well. He’s definitely a big name.

In terms of Virginia kendo, I feel like there’s not that many dojos in the state. I have been lucky to be in Koryo because it’s so centrally located that a lot of people around Virginia can congregate around in Richmond. There are the two Canada Sensei, they started the William and Mary’s Club years ago, which is on and off. We have both my senseis, Phuong K. Hoang Sensei and Yatsuki Sensei. they’re like a big power couple in Virginia kendo.

Any high-ranking person in kendo that has been doing it for a long enough time is going to have a big name within the community.

MAYTT: In speaking with other kenshi, many have emphasized self-cultivation over competition while others asserted that competition is slowly corrupting the art. What are your views on this issue and how has the Virginia Tech Kendo Club tried to balance competition and self-cultivation in its training?

JB: It’s actually not that much of an issue for us because most of the people in the club have never participated in a competition before. They don’t have any sort of experience doing competitive or shiai kendo. We also have a few members who are part Japanese, so they have strong affinity and affiliation to the more cultural and spiritual aspects that come with kendo. One of our founding principles from years ago is the idea of molding the mind and spirit to cultivate yourself – to create a better kendo, to create a better person.

MAYTT: I see. Do students have the desire to compete in at least one competition or is it solely based on the self-cultivation idea?

JB: There are definitely people who want to compete. Part of it is the unfortunateness of timing. There haven’t been any tournaments in the past two or three years because of the pandemic, so there hasn’t been an opportunity for a lot of these people who have been only doing kendo since about 2019 or 2020. In practice, we do like to emphasize the idea that kendo isn’t just hitting people with sticks. There is a deeper aspect to it; there is a purpose to it that if you were to take out of kendo, then it would just be two people hitting each other with sticks. It takes a lot of the art out of it and the specialness that comes with the sport.

MAYTT: Speaking of competition, the club is an active participant in intercollegiate kendo, facing off against teams from Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and others. Was there a process to join the Shoryuhai and, if so, what was it like? When was the club finally able to compete on a national level?

JB: Not to my knowledge. Honestly, this is the first time I’ve heard the word. I don’t think we’ve ever been invited, at least in my time, to the Shoryuhai. Oh, it’s the Harvard Invitational Shoryuhai Intercollegiate Kendo Tournament. I don’t know the requirements to get in, but I would think that it would be based partly on your famousness and a dojo. Partly, I would imagine, is to get on their radar and talk to them about it. I have never really known about this until now and now I have a goal for the club to get to Shoryuhai! I’ll make sure, if we get in, to thank you personally. [Laughs]

That might be part of the downside of having spent most of my time at Virginia Tech Kendo, having somewhat of an insular community in that we weren’t officially part of a federation, and we didn’t have close correspondence with other dojos as a result of that.

MAYTT: Do you have any plans to create contact with kendo schools within the Virginia Tech area?

JB: We have contact with several different dojos or colleges. There is a sensei who teaches in Staunton, Virginia, who is John Smitka. He makes the rounds of University of Virginia and Virginia Tech and has his own place where he does kendo. He acts as a bridge for several different places in Virginia. We actually had a meeting with people from UVA Kendo yesterday talking about trying to have a joint practice or even having an intercollegiate tournament with each other for fun. Also, we’re closely associated with my dojo in Richmond because of me and there’s an open invitation to come and practice in Richmond. In the past, I’ve had my sensei come and teach practices at Virginia Tech. So, there’s a lot of mixing that goes on, in part because kendo is such a small community that everyone almost has to know each other and has to get along with everyone else. It’s always nice to have common bonds.

MAYTT: Thank you and I’m glad I could be of some help for the club’s future! How well received is kendo at the collegiate level? Do you feel that colleges and universities are the next domain for the way of the sword to enter?

JB: Oh yes. Partly it’s because of coincidence that the zeitgeist, or the popular culture, now is really into anime and other Japanese cultural things. People get exposed to kendo through that cultural diffusion and when they find out that there’s a kendo club on campus, the curiosity takes over and they want to see, at least, what’s that about because you’re living your anime fantasy basically. What college kid wouldn’t? [Laughs]

You have some people coming into the club and they’re pretending like it’s a shonen anime. You have to give them a little bit of a reality check up front so that they have a more realistic expectation of what it’s going to be like. I feel if you’re up front with them, it mitigates the immense disappointment that will come later. From our experience, they typically stick around, at least for a little while.

MAYTT: Final question. With COVID restrictions slowly receding from both public and college life, what is the future of the club, both in the short term and the long term? How do you think the club will rebound from the recent pandemic?

JB: Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been lucky that we’ve had a strong base of people that are in the club and are dedicated to it and are part of the community. That never really affected us as much as other places. Taking that into account, I feel that once the next Gobbler Fest happens, we will get a lot of new people and having the ability to practice more openly with fewer restrictions will result in being able to really propel the people in their practice so they can achieve better mastery of the techniques faster. As it stands right now, it’s a little slow because we have reduced amounts of practice time and everything else combines to make it hard to really progress in a “more normal” amount of time. But there is no set timeframe for reaching a certain skill level. Assuming the pandemic recedes, and life can return to something resembling pre-Covid, the club will be a lot stronger coming out of it and they’ll be able to become a real force to be reckoned within the local collegiate kendo, maybe even outside the small local area.

MAYTT: Thank you again for the conversation on collegiate kendo at Virginia Tech!

JB: Thank you again for having me!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s