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Preserving Cultural Ties

Elaine Wan

Kendo is the way of the sword. Last Wednesday, eighteen people and I attended a kendo practice in which we repeatedly struck our imaginary opponent's head with a shinai and screamed out "Men." We steadily jumped back into ashi-gamae, a stance in which the feet are positioned slightly apart, tightened our arm muscles and gradually but forcefully, swung our shinai from our foreheads to our torso. "Men!"

In kendo, the weapon is a batch of bamboo sticks, known as shinai, which emulates a sword. Our target for attack is not members of the male sex, but our opponents' heads, called "men" in Japanese. This was the fourth kendo meeting I attended, but the first in which I observed femininity in the clouded air of Japanese culture and male egos encapsulated within navy blue, wire framed masks and heavy armour known as bogu.

Kendo at MIT is currently being instructed by Sensei Junji Himeno, a 7th dan master at the martial art and a visiting scholar at Harvard University. It was upon his last visit to MIT, in which I had the pleasure of meeting his daughter, Masako. She calmly explained in short fragments of English that she was visiting her parents from Japan for spring break. She had practiced kendo for three months, and she was just as capable as her male counterparts in taking the correct stance to attack and block her opponent, although she screamed out "men," at a slightly higher pitch.

Today's national and international societies have been greatly modified with the increase in equal rights and civil liberties. The financial and political power of women are slowly increasing. Ninety percent of the women in the U.S. have had jobs outside of the home. When Bill Clinton was on trial for his sex scandals, the Democratic party was afraid that it would lose the support of women. The media has promoted Xena, "the warrior princess," and Disney's Mulan, "the legendary, Chinese, filial daughter who went to war for her father." Although most third world countries in Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East still prefer their women to stay in the household, there have been increased rights and respect for females.

Many females today believe that with the increased rights for females and the opportunity to have a career, women are expected be even more accomplished. They say it's a conspiracy. We are now expected to graduate with a college degree, work an 8 hour job, maintain a balanced family life raising two kids and a dog, while we maintain fair skin, silky hair and a hugable waist. And the New York Times reports that females from more traditional and conservative backgrounds fear that the advance of feminism means that they will be losing their cultural ties. The truth is that feminism is not a radical phenomenon that happened overnight, that women can maintain careers and still remain beautiful, and that our attachments to our culture are not severed.

Throughout history, feminism has been a part of all culture and has many times helped further develop it. Molly Pitcher manned a gun at Valley Forge in 1778 and risked her life to tend to wounded soldiers. With her amaxing story-telling power, Scheherazade saved the lives of many maidens and transformed the character of the sultan through many "Arabian Nights." In China, there are ancient historic accounts of the four patriotic women who sacrificed their lives and happiness for their country. They were all later named the four most beautiful maidens in Chinese history.

I was drawn to kendo to strive to do what men do, and learn more about the Japanese culture, which has many strict formalities and a defined female societal role. Masako has shown me that it is possible to be a feminist, cultural and "beautiful." But beauty isn't something always focussed upon. Under the bogu in kendo, your opponent can hardly distinguish your face and bodily figure. The only thing that will help you win a match is your concentration and technique. It is necessary to learn from your sensei ji-geiko, the training needed to build a solid foundation and for yourself to develop confidence and self-worth which is only embellished externally.

Today, women are fortunate enough to have a chance to gain a broader education and better ourselves. It would be a loss if we let the opportunity to enhance our education, experience and cultural ties just because we believe that this will make us less attractive, or be more tasking on our personal lives.