When Nick Watanabe isn’t busy with his job as an assistant teaching professor in the School of Natural Resources, he can be found wearing armor and wielding a shinai, a sword made of bamboo slats.
Watanabe practices kendo, a martial art in the tradition of the samurai. He got his start in the martial art as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois in 2002. He said he went to a kendo club practice and became hooked.
Kendo is a full-contact activity, strict with ethics and etiquette, and it is historically derived from swordsmanship in Japan.
Advancing in kendo takes more time than advancing in other forms of martial art — after passing the first-degree black belt test, the second-degree test may not be taken until a year later, the third-degree test may not be taken for two years, etc.
“I think the thing I enjoy most is it allows me to focus on something and work on improving it,” Watanabe said. “So before we start practice we do a little bit of meditation. What it’s supposed to do is help you remove all the thoughts of the day, all your other worldly problems, and then focus on this task at hand.”
Watanabe became a second-degree black belt in 2008, and he still holds the title. Despite his standing as a second-degree black belt, though, Watanabe said he has a lot of room for improvement.
“In the U.S., we say, ‘Oh, you’ve become a black belt, you’re so good,’” Watanabe said. “But in Japan, black belt is called shodan and ‘sho’ means ‘beginning.’ So really it’s almost beginning-level.”
Over the years, Watanabe has practiced kendo and performed in 10 or 15 competitions. In 2006, he earned a bronze medal in a regional Midwest kendo competition.
“I think it’s really helped in terms of focus, discipline,” Watanabe said. “It teaches you to try to do things the right way. It really helps me work on improving everything I do, always being able to be self-reflective.”
Watanabe no longer competes in kendo due to a knee injury he suffered in another sport. He said he still practices, but now it’s more as a hobby, or what he calls “serious leisure.” It’s an enjoyable activity but something that’s very serious and focused, he said.
“As a professor, you’re very busy, but it’s just something I have to try to work around,” Watanabe said. “(Kendo) is something I want to continue to work on, but I think I have to focus on how to approach it.”
It might be time for a different kind of kendo, he said.
“I used to make jokes about old man kendo, which is when you wait until a faster guy tries to attack and you block and hit him back,” Watanabe said. “Maybe I need to think if it’s time for myself to go into old man kendo.”
Watanabe said he applies the ethics and values he’s learned in kendo into all ethics of his life, which he finds very beneficial.
“Having the etiquette part and the respect part teaches you sort of something about how, whether you’ve been beaten by an opponent or if you’ve beaten an opponent, there’s always something you can learn,” Watanabe said. “Even as you age, as you progress through life, you can continuously work and try to bring something out that you haven’t brought out yet, something new in your life.”