The Keio University Athletic Association, founded in 1892, celebrates 125 years of varsity athletics in 2017. While a lot has changed in the world of sports since then, Keio students have always pursued the ideal of the "scholar athlete," excelling in both academics and athletics. Of the 43 official sports teams within the Keio University Athletic Association, the Keio Fencing Club has gained considerable momentum in recent years.
Fencing was first introduced as a competitive sport in Japan in 1932 when nobleman Tomokiyo Iwakura returned from studying in France and began to tell students at Keio about the sport. The Keio Fencing Club was established four years later in 1936, and since then, the club has been a pioneering presence for fencing in Japan, celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2016.
The club currently consists of 5 managers and 33 fencers, of which 27 are men and 6 are women. In addition to the now legendary rivalry between Keio and Waseda, the club competes in a variety of competitions that include the Kanto Student League, the Kanto Student Championships, and the All Japan Intercollegiate Fencing Championship. Individual matches are divided into junior and senior categories, and the best three out of four annual championships are reflected in an individual’s ranking.
There are three types of weapons in fencing: foil, épée, and sabre. The foil is the sword most commonly associated with fencing. In foil fencing, the target area is restricted to the torso, and a rule of “right of way” is enforced. This rule dictates which fencer receives a point when both land a valid hit at the same time. Épée fencing is the simplest of the three. The target area is the whole body—from head to toe—and with no right of way rule. Whoever strikes fastest gets the point. Sabre is much more dynamic and introduces the techniques of cut and thrust.
Sports—The Keio Way
Women’s captain and fourth-year student Natsumi Nishikubo (Faculty of Policy Management) happened to follow a friend to fencing practice one day and ended up being invited to join the club by a teacher while she was a student at Keio Shonan Fujisawa Junior High School. She continued fencing through junior high and high school, and is now a star of the Keio Fencing Club, having placed eighth in the country in the women’s épée division at the 2016 All Japan Intercollegiate Fencing Championship. “Learning to fence takes time, so training was frustrating when I was in junior high and high school, but that foundation has allowed me to succeed at the university level,” Nishikubo explains. "I train every day to increase my physical strength, but I also try to hone my mental game by improving my concentration in life outside of fencing.”
Second-year Yuya Hirano (Faculty of Policy Management), a finalist at the Japan Junior Olympics and participant in the World Junior Championships, first came to Keio as a university student. “When deciding on a club to join in junior high school, I chose fencing because I thought it was a difficult sport that would be fun to try. Training gave me the unique—and sometimes painful—opportunity to exercise muscles that you wouldn’t otherwise use, and because the fencing population is quite small, I was able to compete in major tournaments relatively quickly,” he says. “You get plenty of chances to see top-level athletes competing up close, which is different from other sports."
Hirano helped the Japanese team win the men's épée division at the 2017 Asian Junior and Cadet Fencing Championships, held in Thailand this past March. “Standing on the piste in Thailand helped sharpen my mental focus considerably. But I also realized that you can’t win with mental strength alone,” he says. “And so I am now trying to first set big goals for myself and then work backward, setting smaller day-to-day goals to help me reach them.”
Pictured from left: Natsumi Nishikubo (Fourth year, Faculty of Policy Management), Yuya Hirano (Second year, Faculty of Policy Management)
Nishikubo and Hirano, who both attend classes at Shonan Fujisawa Campus, rush to the Keio Fencing Club at Hiyoshi Campus every day, as soon as they finish their classes. Hirano says that the club has a sense of solidarity and purpose where everyone unites behind a common goal to grow and win. “We cherish the process of training and working to achieve a desired goal,” he says, speaking of the benefits of being part of an official Keio team. Nishikubo notes that many people on the team give the same dedication to their studies that they do to fencing. “There are quite a few of what you’d call scholar athletes.” She adds that many teammates study abroad, and there are plenty of opportunities for international exchange. The club seems to truly embody the timeless ideals that have characterized the Keio University Athletic Association since its founding.
The strong senpai/kohai relationships between junior and senior members is another attractive aspect for many students. “Even alumni come to our weekend practices to cheer us on,” Nishikubo says. “Seeing them, I feel like the connections that I make at Keio will continue long after I graduate.”
Looking Toward the Tokyo Olympics
With two new fencing medals to be added to the 2020 Summer Olympics, expectations are high that the Japanese fencing team will go for the gold. One fencer who has been attracting attention is third-year student Karin Miyawaki, a member of the Keio Fencing Club and the Women’s National Foil Team.
Karin Miyawaki (Third year, Faculty of Economics)
Miyawaki showed a love of sports at a young age and has been playing them ever since. She discovered fencing thanks to her older sister. After my sister started elementary school, she said that she wanted to learn kendo. There was nowhere to study kendo, but there was a fencing studio nearby, which my mother suggested as a kind of alternative, albeit foreign, version of kendo. “I would go with my mom to take her to and from practice, and I had probably picked up my first foil by the time I was five,” Miyawaki recalls.
However, what began as an after-school lesson developed into a passion, and Miyawaki gradually began to distinguish herself, winning at nationals when she was just 10 years old and representing Japan at international championships by the age of 11. Miyawaki looks back, saying that was when fencing went beyond being just a hobby. It was also at this point that she decided to focus all of her energy on fencing. “I was quite competitive, so I enjoyed the matches,” she remembers of the time when she first immersed herself in the sport.
And fencing is also what led Miyawaki to go onto Keio Girls High School. “I went to a school that wasn’t affiliated with Keio, and it was a school I really liked, but I wanted to go to a high school that would let me fence instead of making me study for university examinations. So I studied hard to get into Keio. I saw my sister, who went to Keio Yochisha Elementary School, and envied the freedom the school gave her.”
As a second-year high school student, she was chosen multiple times to fence abroad for the Japanese national team. Every day after school, Miyawaki would go straight to the Ajinomoto National Training Center in Tokyo’s Kita Ward and practice. She says that she first seriously considered competing in the Olympics after seeing fencer Yuki Ota win silver in the men’s individual foil at the 2008 Beijing Games and again in the men’s team foil event at the 2012 London Games.
“At the time, I thought that the Olympics was a world of high risk and high rewards, so I was scared to admit that I was trying out for them. But it was seeing Ota talk about his daily training regimen—how he planned to win the gold—that made me realize how naive I had been. I wanted to keep growing as a fencer, so I set my sights on competing at the Olympics.”
Ota advised her to write out, on paper, the specific goals she wanted to accomplish in the limited amount of time she had until the Olympics. “I’ve always been inspired by the people who win medals because of the amount of work they put in,” Miyawaki says. After she went on to win silver at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing in her third year of high school, Miyawaki was second in the world junior rankings. And the world started to take notice.
At university, Miyawaki chose to study economics because she wanted to deepen her understanding of her favorite subject—mathematics. She also needed an environment that would encourage her to devote time to fencing. She continued to train alongside her studies in hopes of going to Rio but dropped out during the selection trials.
“I was unable to maintain a lead in the early stages of the trials. I kept trying new tactics but was unable to gain any traction,” she explains. “It was only just before these trials began that I made up my mind to go to Rio, and looking back now, I realize that I wasn’t prepared and didn’t have enough experience.”
But the bitter experience of failure has been a step in the right direction, and Miyawaki is now training for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the Rio De Janeiro Olympics she cheered on Ota from the stands, but when Ota lost in the first round, she realized how different the stakes are at the Olympics compared to other world championships. That’s why you won’t hear Miyawaki saying that she’s going for gold at the Tokyo Olympics any time soon. It’s something she doesn’t take lightly. She also says that she’s headed in a better direction now, under the guidance of a new coach. “I want to take my game to the next level come October when the new season starts,” she declares.
Miyawaki won bronze in the women’s individual foil at the 2017 Asian Junior and Cadet Fencing Championships, held in Thailand in March and had a contributing role in the women's team foil.
Making Her Mark at Keio
There are times when she can’t make it to class because of training or because she’s on the road, but Miyawaki doesn’t make excuses. “At university, you have to be responsible for yourself. I bear in mind that if I don’t exercise proper judgment, then there could be dire consequences.”
On the other hand, she enjoys reading and studying, so she savors the limited time she has for academics. “Being able to choose courses outside your major is part of the allure of a Keio education. Unlike high school, classes here are insightful and interesting, so studying for an exam doesn’t feel like a chore.”
Miyawaki adds that university was the first time she joined a club of any kind. “To tell you the truth, I had never experienced the hierarchical senpai/kohai relationships that characterize clubs in Japan. It’s refreshing to have friends who cheer you on during competitions, and it’s encouraging to have somewhere to call home,” she says.
When asked about the virtues of Keio University, she quickly responds with her top three. “One is the freedom that it gives you to take control, so you can focus on the things that mean the most to you,” she says. “Second is the ties that Keio gives you with your peers, both junior and senior. Students at Keio have a strong sense of belonging, so it really feels like your friends are supporting you. The third and final reason is the pure joy of being celebrated by your friends when you win and the feeling of giving back by winning.”
The sport of fencing gets more complex the farther you go. “I’m not the biggest or the strongest, and I don’t have the best hand-eye coordination either. But with fencing, you can use strategy and mental strength to your advantage in order to win. Fencing has fairly obscure rules like right of way as well as many other elements that are complexly linked to one another, so anyone can fight on their own terms and focus on their own strengths.”
Her Olympic aspirations aside, Miyawaki hopes that fencing will become a more popular sport among students in Japan. “I really hope more people will start to pick it up.” In closing, she says, “It’s hard to understand fencing just by watching. You need to actually try it to truly enjoy it.” The Keio University Fencing Club is bound for great things with Miyawaki on its side.