Bamboo, Steel, Character Development
Two Houston attorneys showcase the Japanese sword arts of Iaido and Kendo
Interview by Eric Quitugua
LEFT: Mark Kerstein is a sixth-degree black belt in Kendo
and a third-degree black belt in iaido. RIGHT: Shamina Chang is a
fourth-degree black belt in
Kendo and a first-degree black belt in iaido. Photos courtesy of
Mark Kerstein and Shamina Chang.
With steel and bamboo in hand, Houston attorneys Mark Kerstein and Shamina Chang are carrying on a legacy in the city that goes back 50 years, when a man named Darrell Craig opened a multiple martial arts dojo called the Houston Budokan. It was there that Sensei Craig, as students know him, learned the Japanese sword arts from a man named Harutane Chiba, and it was there that Kerstein and Chang also picked up the arts: Iaido—“the way of harmony”—and Kendo—“the way of the sword.” While Iaido focuses on pre-choreographed movements against an imagined opponent, Kendo, with its quick bursts of sword-to-sword combat, centers on competition between very real opponents. But despite the duality of the two disciplines, their movements inform one another and it’s not uncommon for a person trained in Iaido to also be trained in Kendo. Here’s the sword and here’s the harmony.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE WHAT KENDO AND IAIDO ARE?
Mark Kerstein: At the most basic level, Kendo is the “way of the sword.” Iaido is the “way of harmony.” They are the traditional Japanese martial arts of swordsmanship. In Kendo, we wear armor and strike target areas with a shinai, a bamboo practice sword. We will also use bokuto, a wooden sword, to practice kata, pre-choreographed forms, with a partner. In Iaido, we practice kata on a kasso teki, an imagined opponent, with an iaito, a blunt steel practice sword, or, at the higher level, with shinken, a real sword.
Shamina Chang: For me, studying Iaido and Kendo is a way of life. As a kenshi, a student of the sword, I am not just learning how to wield a sword as a hobby or a sport. Through a lifetime of practice, I am working on being a better person. I am part of an international community of wonderful people. As a sempai, a senior and instructor, I am trying to help all types of people—kids, college students, adults with jobs and families—grow together and enjoy life.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO THEM?
Kerstein: I started karate training at age 15 in my hometown, where there wasn’t any Kendo practice available at the time. I studied seriously and was devoted to practice, attaining the rank of sandan, third-degree black belt, after 10 years of practice. While going through the police academy in my hometown, a group of visiting Japanese police officers arrived for a short tour and gave a Kendo demonstration. I was absolutely fascinated. Years later, when I moved to Houston, I checked out many of the local dojos and found the Houston Budokan. I walked in to watch my first full Kendo practice and Chiba Sensei was visiting. Chiba Sensei was from a samurai lineage that has existed for hundreds of years, and he was extraordinary at Kendo and Iaido. I watched his ability to seemingly move in anticipation of every move of the person he was practicing with. I was hooked. I started Kendo and Iaido practice shortly thereafter and have never looked back.
Chang: I didn’t know much about Kendo before I started it. I had a few years of experience in karate and judo from when I was younger, so I knew not to make any assumptions. One day, I decided to go watch practice at the Houston Budokan. When I showed up to watch though, I was invited to give it a try. I was thrown into practice and it was overwhelming. I was so out of shape, I couldn’t even walk the next day, but I decided to continue. I wouldn’t say I was hooked until a few years later, when Shozo Kato Sensei—Kendo hachidan, eighth-degree black belt, and Iaido nanadan, seventh-degree black belt—came to lead a seminar. He gave an awe-inspiring iai demonstration. Our Kendo practice during that seminar is still one of the most impactful moments of my life. Somehow, by crossing swords with Kato Sensei for just a few minutes, I was moved by his powerful, but gentle presence. Despite our very different backgrounds and abilities, I was able to experience a deeply profound, life-changing moment. I experienced how kendo is truly much more than killing or winning; it is about how proper practice and development of character can truly influence people’s lives.
ABOVE: “The presence of Kendo and iaido in Houston has influenced
hundreds, if not thousands, of lives,” Mark Kerstein told the Texas
HOW LONG HAVE YOU TWO BEEN PRACTICING KENDO AND IAIDO? WHAT DO YOU FOCUS ON?
Kerstein: I have been practicing both for 37 years. I am a rokudan, sixth-degree black belt, in Kendo and a sandan, third-degree black belt, in Iaido. I am also the president of the Southern U.S. Kendo and Iaido Federation and I serve on the All U.S. Kendo Federation Board of Directors. Kendo and Iaido, while physically very demanding, are for me much more of a mental, philosophical, and spiritual exercise. One concept that I focus on is similar to what is known in the military as “command presence.” In Kendo and Iaido, it is important to have a strong spirit and posture in which you are capable of attacking at any moment while causing your opponent to not want to attack you. This concept is applicable to one’s life. As an attorney, I have to be prepared to handle any situation and try to help my clients as much as possible. It is also genuinely rewarding to see my students gradually understand and utilize such a concept in their own lives and, therefore, help their families and communities as they grow.
Chang: I started Kendo and Iaido 14 years ago. I am a yondan, fourth-degree black belt, in Kendo and a shodan, first-degree black belt, in Iaido. I have been able to travel all over the U.S. and abroad for Kendo and Iaido and have met so many different and interesting kenshi. I think the most important aspect is having the development of deep, long-term relationships. Kendo and Iaido cannot be practiced alone. I train every day to be able to practice better for myself, for my dojomates, and for everyone who has helped me. I truly believe that through interactions with instructors, seniors, and juniors, we help each other have fulfilling lives. TBJ