PALISADES PARK — Barefooted, their wrists, chests and waists protected by guards and their faces covered in caged masks, the competitors thrust their bamboo swords at their opponents.
Around 225 practitioners of the traditional Japanese martial art — Kendo in Japanese, Kumdo in Korean — of all ages and skill levels competed Sunday at the 20th-annual Fall Eastern Kumdo Championship in the Palisades Park High School gymnasium. The tournament, held at different sites each year, drew competitors, many of them Korean, from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Illinois.
Devin Beyer, 16, of Teaneck won his match by striking his opponent twice in the head.
“It’s a big target, and my arms are long,” he said.
Melissa Beyer watched her son compete for the first time. Of his interest in the sport, she explained, “It all stems from Star Wars.”
Myung G. Min, head instructor at Dumont’s Kendo Academy Sung Moo, which hosted the tournament, said Kendo’s popularity is growing in North Jersey. Bergen County in particular is fertile ground for expansion: It is home to more than 60 percent of Koreans in New Jersey. Korean-Americans constitute 6.3 percent of the county population, according to the 2010 Census, the highest of any county in the country. In Palisades Park, the number is 52 percent.
The goal in Kendo is to strike one of three or four body parts. Each hit must be accompanied by a clear signal of one’s aim, including forward movement in proper form and a call — in Korean or Japanese — for which body part is being targeted.
For children on Sunday, that meant yelling “head,” “wrist” or “waist”; for some adults, “throat” was added.
The competitors were constantly yelling, shifting their feet and clanging their bamboo sticks together. The loud noises echoed in the gym. When a hit was made, three judges dressed in suits, who circled the duelers from a distance, waved a white or blue flag to indicate who hit their target.
Whatever the outcome, the duelers ended by facing each other, withdrawing their swords, retreating and bowing.
“Manner is very important,” said Hu Am Chon, CEO of the Korea KumDo Association’s U.S. branch, the event’s sponsor, as he watched the fifth- and sixth-grade age group.
To some practitioners and parents, the mental discipline of the sport appeals to them as much as the workout.
“It’s also about building character, courtesy, manner,” said Daniel Kim, 28, who flew in from Chicago.
Jason Goodman, 36, a member of a Kendo club in New York City, said: “You learn to respect your opponent, and you learn to apply that to the rest of your life.”
As a bonus, students not of Korean or Japanese heritage also learn numbers and the names of body parts in a new language.
Frank Woolf of Teaneck said his 8-year-old son is not into sports — Woolf had taken him to a Karate academy to be told, “I don’t think this is for him” — but was swayed by Kumdo because the swordsmen in Dumont‘s Kendo Academy Sung Moo brochure looked like Star Wars characters.
Now in his second year, his son is learning some Korean words, adding to his English and Mandarin — his mother is from China. “I have no problem with him being trilingual,” Woolf joked.
For some, Kendo is a release valve.
Devin, another member, added: “I just kind of enjoy screaming, and we do that a lot.”