The View from The Niagara Guide

General observations and musings on how we can make Niagara a better place.

Building Character Through Combat

Mark Kawabe - Monday, January 22, 2018
Kendo builds character through combat

It's 7:35 on a Thursday evening in Welland. The kids karate class is starting to leave the dojo. As they exit, the kendo students enter. It's easy to see who's in kendo and who's in karate. The kendoka (kendo students) wear indigo coloured uniforms, which are a sharp contrast to the white uniforms of the karate kids. In addition, the kendoka are wearing armour, carrying their helmets and shinai (bamboo swords). While they're friendly and polite, they're also focused. They know what's coming.

After a few moments of pleasantries, the senior student announces the start of the warmup. Depending on the day, warmups are the traditional sets of stretches you'll find in almost every dojo, or a set of dynamic stretching exercises created for the Canadian Kendo Team by a sports conditioning specialist. Either way, the students loudly count from 1 to 10 in Japanese, stretching in time, knowing that they need to warm up well. When you come to kendo, it's best not to start off cold.

Rows of kendokaSEIRETSU!!! The instructor's call echoes through the dojo. Quickly, the kendoka assemble their kit and line up, ordered by rank, more senior students to the left. On command, they kneel into seiza and arrange their shinai, helmets and gauntlets so they line up neatly with the senior student's, aware that their instructors eyes are on them, ensuring proper etiquette is being observed. When you come to kendo, you'd best be mindful and respectful.

MOKUSO!!! A loud call from the senior student announces the start of the pre-class meditation. A cluttered, unfocused mind is an unnecessary distraction, so the meditation is meant to give students a chance to clear their heads of the problems they face outside the dojo. In the time it takes to breathe in deeply and exhale 7 times, students are encouraged to put their focus towards positive thoughts, on the techniques they intend to improve today, on being present in the moment. Newer students not used to kneeling in seiza begin to shift and sway slightly. More seasoned students power through, knowing any discomfort they feel now is just a taste of what's to come.

At last, the senior student gives the command to open one's eyes and as a group, the students and instructor bow, first to the dojo's shomen area, then to each other. Again, proper etiquette must be followed. Bowing to shomen shows respect to the purpose and principles of kendo. Bowing to each other demonstrates both respect and gratitude. One can't do kendo alone. A partner is required. Anyone who is willing to participate in kendo deserves respect from their fellow participants.

Another command rings out. This one informs students to ensure their bogu (armour) is tightly secured and to put on their helmet (men) and gauntlets (kote). Senior students help newer students to properly tie their head towels. It looks simple, but a loose head towel won't absorb sweat or cushion blows as well as a well tied one. Attention to detail is important. Tying on the helmet is also given a lot of attention. When you're going to receive a hundred or so strikes to the head, wearing your helmet properly is essential for safety and comfort. Well, relative comfort, anyway.

Basic drills in kendo quickly sharpen your senses. The first drill, kirikaeshi, involves one person making 21 strikes against a partner, who in turn must parry, keep a proper distance, and coordinate with their partner's movements. It's a quick drill. The first person in the pair usually finishes their strikes in 20 seconds or less. They then become the receiver. In under a minute, 42 strikes are delivered, 36 parries are made, and everyone's blood is flowing vigorously. Spirits rise as the kirikaeshi drill is repeated three to five times in as many minutes. It's a fast start to the rest of the drills which feature large, small and combination strikes to the head, wrist, and torso. By the end of the basic drills, most students are sweaty, breathing hard, and totally pumped and ready to spar.

Sparring in kendoSparring is where each player's skills and style are tested, because at its root, kendo is combat. It's highly stylized, even ritualized combat, but it's combat nevertheless. For all of its simplicity, it's not easy. One might think that hitting someone in the head with a stick doesn't require any particular skill. That's true if your target is standing still, defenseless, but your sparring partner is neither remaining still nor defenseless. They're looking to make a valid strike on you, probing your defenses, looking for weaknesses, finding opportunities and exploiting them. All while maintaining good form, a strong focus, and striking with determination, intent, and spirit.

An outsider might watch a kendo match and merely perceive two people hitting each other with bamboo swords. That would miss the point. There’s more to kendo than is apparent to a casual observer. How you hit is important. A strike's accuracy, control, distance, timing and intent are all factors that go into determining whether a strike is valid. An accidental strike is not counted. Nor is a strike that is not followed by a display of zanshin, a state of remaining spirit and awareness. Kendo requires you to unify your mind, body, and spirit in expression of a valid strike.

One reality kendo students must face is that they will be hit. A lot. Every student who dons armour will be hit repeatedly in the head, wrist, torso, and occasionally, the throat. Sometimes those hits are made by students still developing their accuracy or control. Poorly controlled or wayward strikes can leave bruises, even with armour. Especially when people strike unarmoured body parts. It hurts, but kendo students move on. While they may receive an awkward strike, they've also made them. It's an inevitable part of training. Learning to let go and focus on what's next despite one's own discomfort is an invaluable teaching of kendo. Continuing on in the face of adversity helps create an indomitable spirit.

When the sparring's over, the senior student gives the command for everyone to bow to their partner to finish the practice. Sweaty and exhausted students now line up by rank and remove their armour, arranging their kit in proper form. Another short meditation gives students the opportunity to reflect on their training, their strengths, and what needs to be improved. Finally, after a bow to the instructors, practice is over. One hundred and twenty minutes have flown by. Students share stories and show off bruises and welts as they stow their armour and fold their uniforms, paying careful attention to each knot, crease and fold. While practice is over, training the self doesn't end.

Kendo’s tough, and it should be, because one of its main benefits is the development of a strong character. It is through enduring, withstanding, or overcoming adversity that one's spirit is forged. If kendo were easy, it would be pointless. Despite being a less practical martial art, earnest kendo training improves your mind, your body, and your spirit.

Through kendo, you’ll improve your your aerobic and anaerobic fitness, your breathing capacity, balance, coordination, posture, and your overall health. In addition to all that, you’ll gain internal strength, improved self-esteem, confidence, discipline, and respect for yourself and for others. Changes don't happen overnight, but changes will occur. You may not notice them happening, but others will. Self-improvement inevitably leads to changes around you, as you adjust how you deal with your environment, your peers, your life.

Overcoming challenges in the dojo develops internal strength of character. Kendo requires exertion on all levels, thus making it an ideal way to develop all parts of one’s self, in the relative safety of the dojo. If you are looking to improve your life, you first need to improve your self.

Kendo is the "Way of the Sword". It is also a way to create a better life for you and everyone around you. Improve your self, improve our world.

Kendo for Life

Litmus Test

Mark Kawabe - Monday, September 19, 2016

A litmus test for social justiceThere are lots of "marginalized" people in our society. What makes someone marginalized? In general, if people are part of society but aren't welcome by the majority, they are considered marginalized.

If you think about the news headlines, you'll probably be able to think of many marginalized groups in our society. Women. Visible minorities. People with disabilities. Indigenous people. The LGBTQ+ community. The list goes on, and on, and on.

There are those who've said that marginalized groups should just "get over it" and get on with bettering their lives. It's easy to say, but it doesn't recognize the reality that the structures of society weren't created to give those groups equal opportunities. This is why we often hear discussions about institutionalized racism, sexism, rape culture etc.

I watched an interesting video about racism that I think applies to many of societal issues. Here's the link to the video. In short, the audience (predominantly "white Americans") was asked to stand up if they would be happy to receive the same treatment as the black population is generally treated. Nobody stood. The question was repeated, yet nobody stood up.

It was then pointed out that every audience member obviously knew African-Americans are treated worse than white people in American society. The question was then asked why everyone was willing to accept the situation and allow others to be treated that way. Silence.

If you find yourself wondering why a group is complaining of how they're being treated, you can ask yourself a similar question.

Are you willing to be treated the same way women are treated in society?

Are you willing to be treated the same way the poor are treated in society?

Are you willing to be treated the same way indigenous people are treated in society?

Are you willing to be treated the same way people with disabilities are treated in society?

Are you willing to be treated the same way LGTBQ people are treated in society?

And, if you're not willing to be treated that way, are you working to change the status quo for everyone's betterment?


Here We Go Again

Mark Kawabe - Friday, June 24, 2016

The British people have spoken and have voted to leave the European Union. 52% of the population have chosen the uncertainty of leaving vs. the uncertainty of remaining. The one thing the two sides have in common is fear.

The fear of staying in the EU, with its perceived bureaucracy, ability to impose rules on its member states and unaccountability was enough to convince a majority of Britons to vote to leave. The fear of economic uncertainty was an major factor in why almost an equal number voted to stay.

The start of the plunge at the top of a roller coaster

With all the uncertainty, one thing is certain: change is scary, but it's less scary if we seem to be in control. 52% of voters felt they would have more control over their futures by not being part of a larger entity. Thinking we have control over a potential outcome helps reduce fear.

The media headlines today are fear-provoking. They always are and they always will be. Fear is how the media get our attention and make their money. If there's one thing you have control over, it's your ability to recognize that despite the challenges you face, there are some things you control and some things you don't. Control what you can, then deal with whatever else comes your way to the best of your abilities.

We're on a big roller coaster. There's a build up, we go over the precipice and then are thrown around more loops, curves, swoops and hills. Ultimately though, we wind up in the same place as we were before, a little shaken up, our equilibrium thrown off, our hair a mess, and slightly changed for the experience.

Enjoy the ride as best you can and remember: we're all in this together.


Avoiding Business Erosion

Mark Kawabe - Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Change is all around us. It's in our society, in our technology, in our work, in our home. I think humans have a gene for change wired into their DNA. Unfortunately, we don't seem to have any genes that make dealing with change any easier.

Business Erosion

Your business is operating in an environment where new competition starts up seemingly overnight and old markets dry up and fade away. How are you adapting to this change? Are you like water, just going with the flow? Or, are you an island, trying to weather all storms with stoic resolve?

Welland native Anthony Lacavera certainly knows how to create and navigate change. He founded Wind Mobile in 2008 and took on telecom giants Rogers, Bell and Telus. His company was recently sold to Shaw Communications for $1.6 billion.

Niagara Falls business fixture Sunny Halani has shepherded his UPS Store through major changes in the printing industry. The internet has posed a double challenge to the world of print. Email and PDFs have reduced or replaced (for some) the need to print brochures. The internet has also allowed the creation and rise of low-cost, DIY services like VistaPrint whose low prices are very appealing. Sunny's built a business based on stellar customer service, exceptional product quality and of course, his Sunny personality. In a world where print material is often considered a commodity, Sunny's way of doing business is helping his business thrive.

Wind Mobile's innovations allowed it to prosper. Sunny's UPS Store's success is based on superior customer service and doing the job right. What will be the right approaches for your business to take for it to stand the test of time and stand up to the winds of change?

What if . . . ?

Mark Kawabe - Wednesday, April 21, 2010
  • Everyone was healthy: We might need 50% less doctors and nurses. Convenience stores might close because of lowered cigarette sales. There could be two or three times as many stores selling nutritional supplements, bicycles, running gear and sports equipment and less selling televisions and Lazy-Boys. Personal trainers would be able to make a very comfortable salary. Fast food restaurants would switch away from serving fat-bombs to healthier fare - or close completely. Our communities would have cleaner air and water. We'd probably know our neighbours as we'd see them while out for our evening walks. 
Getting rid of one problem could cause lots of problems - depending on which side of the fence you sit. This is why many people are happy with the status quo - problems and all. They're in businesses that exist because there are problems in society.

We "all" recognize that we should eliminate problems in our society. "Everybody" thinks its a good idea. Since you're part of that whole, what have you done today to make our society a better place?

Coming soon: "Feel Good Niagara" - helping people learn about how they can make their lives better.

Take Your Head Out of Your Ass

Mark Kawabe - Friday, March 05, 2010
You are so the same as everyone else that nobody cares.

"But wait - I'M DIFFERENT!!!"

So, how exactly are you different enough that people SHOULD care?

I'm waiting...

...still waiting...

...and waiting.

The truth is most of us are lousy at communicating our differences which is a shame, because it's the only thing that's really important. We let potential customers assume we fit the "standards" of our industry and since we've co-operated by colouring inside the lines like everyone else, there's nothing special about us to make people go WOW!!! Yep. Guilty as charged. Me too. Been there, done that. Perhaps I'm still doing it.

But today I'm taking a friend's advice and taking my head OUT of my ass, giving it a shake and looking at myself and my business with a more critical eye. Change is happening all around me anyway, whether I want it to or not. If things are going to be different and better, change had better begin with me.

Or in your case, you. I hope you're enjoying the view and the fresh air. Now get to work on making things better.

And, for those of you who are seeing this on a Friday afternoon and thinking change can wait until Monday, the good news is you're right. It CAN wait. The better time to start is now.

Make it a great weekend!


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