Then-sophomore Chloe Neighbor peered through her black-framed glasses at the end-of-the-year project list posted at the front of her EHAP class. Scanning for her name, a slow smirk creeps onto her face as she realizes she hit the jackpot.
Chloe Neighbor: The End of the Samurai
Neighbor has been training to be a samurai since she was fourteen years old. In the photo above, Neighbor is demonstrating a traditional samurai pose. Photo by Callie McPhail
Most students had no experience being Renaissance painters or protestant reformers. But Neighbor had a slight advantage over her peers; she has actually lived her project.
Senior Chloe Neighbor has been formally trained in the arts of Aikido and Kenjutsu, the two main disciplines of the Samurai warrior.
Since her freshman year, she has been spending more than 10 hours a week in her dojo sparring, learning how to flip someone twice her size over head and tearing tatami mats to shreds with her katana, reinforced with folded steel and forged just for her in Asia.
She and her friends spend hours burrowed into her brown leather couch, absorbing endless ninja and samurai movies. Her friends thought the feats were superhuman. But Chloe would watch, recognizing certain moves, and think to herself:
Wait, I just learned how to do that today.
“All my training has made me appreciate that you really never know people’s story.” Neighbor said. “And it took until second semester senior year for anyone to know mine.”
“WRONG. Try again”
Neighbor hesitates as she racks her brain for the fragmented Japanese vocabulary she’s learned over the years. It’s the student’s job to know what Japanese command calls for which action.
“Time’s up. 10 more backwards breakfalls”
Over and over, Neighbor and the rest of her dojo would try and fail to pass their sensei’s vocab pop quiz. Wrong answer after wrong answer brought the group’s total to 170 reps of back breakfalls, essentially a backwards burpee. Or according to Neighbor, “hell on earth”.
Drenched in sweat, Neighbor looks to her sensei for instruction.
“You must be better next time, or your next warm-up will be even harder,” said Sensei Mick Chambers. “Now, let’s start our first lesson of the day.”
Chambers, a fifth degree black-belt in aikido and master black-belt of kenjutsu, embraces the grueling physicality of the conditioning. After all, you don’t train in Japan and travel the world teaching martial arts by taking it easy.
Chambers stresses what he believes to be the most vital part about the samurai culture, teaching peace and serenity over violence and hotheadedness.
Neighbor explains what she is using to demonstrate her set of samurai skills and tricks. Photo by Matthew Bruyere
While aikido, a form of hand to hand martial arts, and kenjutsu, the art of the sword, are both means of physically and mentally breaking other human beings, the samurai culture is one of passiveness and honor.
“Samurai NEVER strike first,” Chambers said. “Cowards stab you in the back when they kill you; samurai look you in the eye.”
That being said, a trained samurai like Neighbor could break every bone in your body and sever your limbs without batting an eye.
While Neighbor is proficient in aikido, she is most comfortable with her katana in hand. When practicing their sword cuts, students soak straw tatami mats in water to add density and roll them up to their desired thickness.
One mat equals the density of a human arm.
Two the density of a human thigh.
Three a human torso.
With precision and grace rather than brute force, the students learned to chop up these mock body parts with ease.
Neighbor remembers the first time she mastered one particular cut.
“I thought I had missed the mat completely because nothing moved,” Neighbor said. “But my Sensei walked up and pushed the top half of the mat I had cut off over.”
Like something out of a Kill Bill movie, the folded steel of the katana is so sharp it cuts through the human body without the top half moving.
“I’m not a fearful person and self-defense was never my motivation for doing any of this,” Neighbor said. “But I must say, it’s nice to know I can protect myself.”
After all, Chambers knows the best way to protect yourself from an intruder with a gun.
“Just cut off his hand,” Chambers said. “Can’t shoot if you don’t have a hand.”
Neighbor essentially has all the skills to be a human weapon, capable of subduing someone twice her size with ease. But a passion for something other than violence kept her coming back to the dojo day in and day out.
Neighbor, who now is forced to take a hiatus from her formal training until she graduates due to her dojo moving locations, counts the days until she can come back to the training floor learning the way of the samurai.