It started with a high school Japanese class, but ended up with Tania Butterfield on the world stage, fighting for a world title in kendo.
Butterfield has spent years training and fighting in the martial art, but her kendo career started with a fairly innocuous school assignment topic – a Japanese sport.
“Most people went for karate, but I like to be a bit different, so I chose kendo,” she said. Even then, it wasn’t until she went to Japan that she finally tried it.
She was in Shiga teaching English in 2013 when a colleague asked her what she wanted to try before she left Japan.
“I said kendo was something I’d always wanted to give a shot,” she said.
Kendo – or ‘the way of the sword’ - is a modern martial art, based on swordsmanship. Two opponents face off with each other, using bamboo swords called shinai. Within a shiai (match), points can be scored by striking one of four targets: the men (head), kote (hand), do (torso), or the tsuki (neck).
But within those simple rules there is a lot of complexity. Kendo can be a difficult sport to learn the intricacies of – scoring a point is much more than simply hitting your opponent; your spirit and respect you show comes into it too.
“In order to score a point, everything has to work in unison so the timing of the stamping of the feet and the sound from your foot as it hits the ground, the accuracy of where you hit, the voice that you use when you're hitting the target, and your spirit, they all come into consideration,” Butterfield said.
Hearing about Butterfield’s interest, the leader of a local kendo club invited her to join. He even sent a painstakingly written note, using Google Translate, to give her directions to the club.
That note was the tipping point for the early steps of her kendo career.
“I thought ‘he's gone to all this effort to write this note, to tell me where to go to do kendo, I guess I need to go’.”
Butterfield readily admits her first attempt was not the most endearing experience – hot, sticky and she was “not very good”.
She kept practicing though, going back to the club to show her students “you don't have to be the best at something to enjoy it” and because of the amount of support the kendo community showed her.
“So many people rallied around me to help,” she said.
“Leading up to my exams, one of my teachers took me to three different clubs around the region to get to know people. And because I'm a foreigner, I stand out, so people came to know who I was. I was the foreigner doing kendo.”
By the time she was back in New Zealand, she knew there was no way she could drop the martial art.
“So many people had invested time and effort into me, and my kendo journey and I wanted to show them it wasn’t a waste of time,” she said.
By the time she came back and joined the Sei Tou Ken Yu Kai Canterbury Kendo Club, she had earned her second dan – a rank that’s above the equivalent of a black belt – and brought her Japanese training with her.
Before long, she was working alongside other Kiwi kendo stars to qualify – and then train for – the 17th World Kendo Championships in South Korea in 2018.
“There was a two-year lead-up essentially: training, a lot of gym work in addition to kendo training, fitness and strengthening work at the gym, as well as work on balance and timing.”
Over in South Korea, she found the world champs an “interesting” experience. Along with the other members of the New Zealand team, she stepped into a highly competitive environment, where they were often up against opponents who had been training since they were able to walk.
Seeing the variation in techniques and styles of kendo that came from different countries also presented a real learning curve for the team.
“In the finals between Japan and Korea, I was sitting next to one of the girls on my team and she was sitting there going 'this is not kendo, this is not kendo’.”
“I think it was because there's kendo the sport and kendo the martial art and I think that distinction is something that going forward, New Zealand kendo and the rest of the world need to really think about. What are we - the art or are we the sport?”
While she didn’t come away with an individual win at the competition, the New Zealand women’s team finished in the top 16.
Despite hitting the global stage, Butterfield’s kendo career highlight came in 2019, when she won the South Island Championships in a clean sweep.
“The final was against a very experienced Japanese woman who I'd fought against a few times,” she said.
“I knew I had my own New Zealand kendo techniques that relied on my quirky timing. I won that fight with those techniques.
“Going in with the confidence was something new for me, but also a really good turning point in my kendo career.”
Kendo competitions have been hampered by Covid, but that hasn’t stopped Butterfield from looking forward. She has her eye on competing at the next kendo world championships, postponed until 2022.
- Asia Media Centre