The Peaceful Warrior

Sensei George Graham give a lesson in Kendo, "The Way of the Sword."

By: Jodi Thompson
   It’s every 13-year-old’s dream: to face off his mother with a sword. Don’t panic. We’re not Bucks County’s answer to the Osbournes. The swords are blunt-edged bamboo, and we don protective gear. He’s not pierced, tattooed and his hair isn’t pink, but this teen-ager definitely has the upper hand. He is quicker, more coordinated and certainly enjoying it more. My son and I take a mini lesson in Kendo and finish with a face-to-face bout. He wins, hands down.
   Our teacher, or "Sensei," is George Graham, a World Karate Union and American Federation of Martial Arts Hall of Fame Inductee. Mr. Graham’s pseudonym is "Gaijin Bushi," or Peaceful Warrior. The oxymoron fits him. He is soft-spoken and gentlemanly, but I wouldn’t want to threaten him in a dark alley. His compact size and ego belie his ability to defend himself. Mr. Graham is a 10th degree black belt in three martial arts styles: Kung-Fu, Tai-Chi, and Kendo, "Way of the Sword."


Staff photo by Jodi Thompson
Morrisville resident Dylan Thompson spars with Sensei George Graham.

   I don’t have a clue as to what Kendo is, but my son knows. He greets my invitation to a Kendo demonstration with enthusiasm. Unbeknownst to me, Dylan has studied up on Kendo. He knows what the "shinai" is when Mr. Graham produces several of them. It’s a practice sword made of 36-inch bamboo slats bound together with leather strips at the tip, halfway point and the hilt. The hilt is the sword handle — this I know from my foray into fencing. Mr. Graham indicates the yellow string running the length of the shinai. That represents the dull edge of the blade. We are to keep it up and toward our bodies.
   We learn the right hand is the guide hand, high up on the hilt. The left hand is at the heel of the handle. We don’t learn much else, until Mr. Graham gives us a brief history lesson. He explains his dress. The blue shirt is a "keikogi," the floor-length, black divided skirt is a "hakama." We learn the purpose of Kendo is not to bash your mom with a stick without consequences, but instead, to discipline the human character. Kendo’s goal is to develop the physical, moral and spiritual aspects to help participants better cope with life. Basically, it’s a traditional Japanese fencing art, and we are in the company of an artist.
   Mr. Graham first became interested in martial arts in 1960, when he stopped in "The Preying Mantis" Kung Fu studio in Philadelphia on a whim. He’s been training ever since, including seven years in the U.S. Army National Guard. Tommy Otani, coach of the Great Britain national team in Kendo, was Mr. Graham’s teacher. Kenshiro Abbe Sensei, the founder of modern Kendo, instructed Mr. Otani. We are in capable hands. Mr. Graham has taught ages 7 through adult for some 20 years.
   "In the class, they’re all equal," he says of his students.
   Mr. Graham says his technique of teaching eliminates body contact and the fear of injury. He includes a history lesson of the samurai and ninja within the aerobic workout.
   Dylan tunes-in to the history lesson. The samurai were the warring class, well-trained guards. The ninja lived in the forest and followed their own religion. They were the guerilla fighters of their day and the only group the samurai couldn’t beat.
   Tell me again about eliminating the fear of injury. I bruise easily. We put "kote" on our arms. It looks as though we put soccer shin guards on our forearms. This is enough protection for now, Mr. Graham tries to assure me. Does he know how strong Dylan is, I wonder. In more formal bouts, we’d wear a "men," "do" and "tare," or mask, breastplate and apron. Inside, sparring is done barefoot, outside in lightweight sneakers.
   We learn the different positions of the shinai and go through them repeatedly as Mr. Graham calls out their names. It’s almost like ballet class, first position, second, plié, except I can’t spell these. Once we get that routine down smoothly, we learn the footwork. Then, we do a series of nine movements as Mr. Graham counts off one to nine in Japanese. It feels rather meditative to go through the routines. I can imagine an entire room full of people doing the tai chi-style motions. I could go for this, I think. When I’m getting nice and calm, Mr. Graham announces it’s time to try sparring.
   He teaches us that partners face each other, bow and cross their shinai. One person calls out "hajime," which means they are on the offense and will go forward as their opponent goes backward, crossing swords. We’re not going for points now, just getting the feel of it. When you see that your partner is about to hit the wall, you’ve got to remember to call out "yame" to let him take the offense, hoping he’ll remember to yell "yame" before you fall over the exercise equipment behind you. Yame also stops the bout.
   I let Dylan face off against Mr. Graham at first, thinking I’m wise to get myself out of combat with a competitive teen-ager. He does a great job, a natural. Then it’s time for Dylan and me to face off. Now I realize my mistake. He’s had practice. I feel terribly overmatched. He’s too quick and powerful, but it just forces me to keep up. "Yame," I yell, thrilled that I remembered the word. I’m done.
   Dylan’s ready to learn how to earn points and Mr. Graham obliges. He shows him techniques to get and block points earned by touching the arms. With armor he’d be able to earn points touching the head, neck and chest, too.
   There’s a lot of strategy involved in learning to make points and block. Mr. Graham shows Dylan some tricks to make and block points. When Dylan catches on, Mr. Graham turns to me with a smile I see reflected in my son’s eyes. I liked the tai chi-type stuff better.
   Perhaps Dylan’s favorite part is seeing Mr. Graham’s collection of swords. The black dragon samurai sword is 30 years old. Dylan takes and gives it a run through the steps we learned earlier.
   The highlander swords are not for practice. These stainless steel blades are extremely sharp. The handles are carved to resemble a dragon complete with a "jeweled" eye.
   "It’s like magic when I get my hands on a sword," Mr. Graham says. Dylan doesn’t have any trouble believing that. Mr. Graham actually gives him a chance to hold the razor-sharp pieces of art. I’m not enjoying this at the moment. Maybe it’s time to give it back, before something happens to it — or you.
   "It’s a sport and learning skills," Mr. Graham reminds me. "It’s good to learn to put them away, too," he says as he sheathes the swords. I exhale.
George Graham will offer a free demonstration of Kendo, The Way of the Sword, to all ages at the Movement Studio, Newtown Depot Shopping Center, Newtown, Pa., June 7, 7-8 p.m. For registration or information, call (215) 968-2345.