Fujimoto Kaoru 藤本薫

(Edit: originally published October 2009, updated in July 2015)

So, Fujimoto Kaoru… have you heard his name before? Probably not. I hadn’t until quite recently. But like myself, almost everyone reading this website has seen his picture (above). So who was he and – if he was was strong enough to fight in front of the Emperor – why isn’t he more widely known today (in Japanese kendo circles at least) ?

Fujimoto took part in the second of three Tenran shiai (competition held before the Emperor) in 1934 as a Kagawa prefecture representative. In the final he fought – and lost to – the famous son of Kodansha publishing company’s owner Noma Seiji, and one of the countries strongest young kenshi: Noma Hisashi.

Despite coming in 2nd place, and only 21 years old at the time (and in face of supposed opposition to his use of gyaku-nito-ryu), his standing in the kendo community was secured. However the times were turbulent, and he died in 1942, at the age of 28, whilst serving as a soldier in Burma.

(Note: Noma Hisashi is mostly known in the English speaking kendo community as the writer of The Kendo Reader)


Early Life

Fujimoto Kaoru at the tenran shiai

Fujimoto Kaoru was born on January the 1st 1914, in Hiroshima, as the first son of Fujimoto Toshio. In 1925 the family moved back to their original hometown of Takamatsu city in Kagawa prefecture, where Toshio became the manager for a local post office. A year later Kaoru graduated from primary school and entered Takamatsu high school, where he entered the kendo club.

Gyaku nito

His interest in nito seemed to start extremely early in his kendo career. Why he chose to fight in nito is unknown, but at the time it was a fact that nito kenshi were not rare. His choice of gyaku nito (3.6 daito in his left hand and 2.6 shoto in his right) is usually attributed to the fact that he was left handed.

At this time he had no nito teacher, and he began to train himself by swinging sand-filled bottles and reading as much as he could about nito theory. Even though nito was more popular in kendo circles back then than it is today, it seems that its use still caused some resentment amongst the more traditional crowd, even more so when you chose to study it without an instructor. In fact it was said he was ordered by the kendo club sensei:

君は二刀を遣ふだけの軆力を有つて居らない、やめよ』

“You’re not even strong enough to do nito. Give it up.”

Continuing despite warnings from his kendo club teacher (and other sensei that he practised with) he had an upward struggle.

After a time he began to practise not only in school, but at the Dai Nippon Butokukai’s Kagawa branch. Here he would meet the biggest kendo influence in his life: Ueda Heitaro hanshi (a famous kenshi in the ranks of Mochida Seiji, Saimura Goro, and the likes). Ueda hanshi’s interest in the boys kendo combined with the fact that he soon started to have competition success, eventually led to Fujimoto’s being allowed to practise gyaku nito without prejudice.

Heading to Waseda

In 1931, Fujimoto’s school entered the Waseda University sponsored School Championships. There were three teams in the league round of tournament and only one could proceed. Fujimoto faced the (later to become famous) prodigy of Noma Seiji, Mori Torao (aka Tiger Mori). After a closely fought match, he lost to Mori’s well placed katatezuki. Due to the results of the three teams, Fujimoto’s and Mori’s teams had to have a rematch to decide who went forward. Mori’s team won, but not without a hard replay of the earlier match, Mori again winning by katatezuki.

Although Fujimoto’s teams dream of the title were finished, Fujimoto’s kendo caught the eye of people there, and when he graduated from high school he went on to Waseda University. Its kendo club had over 80 members and its head teachers were Takano Sasaburo and Saimura Goro.

Unfortunately for Fujimoto, his time in Tokyo was limited to a single year. His father contacted him and ordered him to come back to Kagawa to help in the post office. That would have spelled the end of most people’s kendo careers, but not for Fujimoto.


Sainekan

Tenran shiai

There were three tenran shiai held in the Showa period, Showa 4 (1929), Showa 9 (1934), and Showa 15 (1940), and they were held in a background of an increasingly militarised and aggressive Japan. The shiai that Fujimoto took part in – the second one, held in 1934 – was ostensibly to celebrate the birth of a male into the royal family, and was cause for nationwide joy (up until 1933 there had only been four daughters, so the birth of a male heir – Akihito, the current Emperor of Japan – was welcome news).

Prior to being able to take part in the main competition in Tokyo, regional selections were held. Fujimoto – now a post office clerk – took part in the Kagawa qualifiers, defeating his close friend and rival – Ueda Hajime – in the final to secure his position as Kagawa representative.

The competition was held over two days in May 1934, and took place in Saineikan, a budojo inside the imperial palace in Tokyo.

The first and second rounds would be held during the first day, and semi-finals and finals on the second. The emperor would only be in attendance on the second day.


1934-tenran-07

Day 1, May 4th

The first round of the competition saw the prefectural kenshi split into 12 groups of four competitors. Each kenshi would fight each other, and and the man with the best overall result would go through to the next round.

Fujimoto’s first round results were:

vs Koga (Nagasaki, Renshi 4dan) – kote, men
vs Machida (Nagano, 3dan) – men, men
vs Otomo (Taiwan, 3dan) – men, do

Fujimoto defeated all his opponents 2-0 securing his advancement

In the second round the remain 12 kenshi were put into four groups of three and each fought the other. Again, only one person could go through.

Fujimoto’s second round results were:

vs Matsukai (Oita/Kumamoto?, sandan) – do, kote
vs Ogawa (Akita, 3dan) – do / do, men

Fujimoto won both his fights, but lost his first point (gyaku-do) to the competitions youngest entrant – 19 year old Ogawa from Akita. At any rate, it was enough for him to win his group. This meant on the next day he would fight in the presence of the emperor.


Emperor Showa watching the shiai

Day 2, May 5th

The two semi finals that were held in the morning were Fujimoto (Kagawa, 3dan) vs Ogasawara (Aimori, 4dan), and Noma (Tokyo, renshi 6dan) vs Seijima (Kanagawa, renshi 4dan). Fujimoto defeated Ogasawara 2-0, men and kote, and Noma beat Seijima 2-1, losing his first point in the entire competition.

That finals were decided: Fujimoto Kaoru, a 21 year old postal worker and gyaku-nito-ryu specialist from Kagawa prefecture would fight Noma Hisashi, the 26 year old renshi 6dan son of the infamous publisher and builder of Noma dojo, Noma Seiji.

At this juncture there was a break for the competitors and the preliminary rounds of the second kendo shiai – consisting of specially selected kenshi (shihan from keishicho, the army, the imperial guards, busen, etc) got underway, as well as a small kakarigeiko session (the youngest person being 12).

The final

At 2:30pm the taiko was sounded and the final began. The omote-shinpan (omote/ura are not used today, rather chushin and fukushin) was Nakayama Hakudo, and the ura-shinpan were Ogawa Kinnosuke and Saimura Goro, none of whom need an introduction.

Within a minute of starting Fujimoto landed a do-ippon on Noma. Fujimoto kept the pressure up and backed Noma into a corner. Then, for an unknown reason, Fujimoto stepped back. At this point the until-then severely pressured Noma stepped in and scored a gyaku-do. The score was now even.

I say “unknown reason” above as it seems that to many who were watching (see sources) there was no reason why he would back up when he was in such a strong position. It wasn’t the kind of kendo that he was taught or normally showed on the shiai-jo (remember, he won all his fights by two points and had only lost one point thus far). One of Fujimoto’s kendo friends who was there watching amd would go on to fight in the next tenran shiai (and in fact had lost the chance to fight in this one by losing to Fujimoto in the regional qualifiers) commented on it like this:

“I went with the first two tenran shiai with my father (Ueda Heitaro hanshi), and as a competitor on the third. Shiai in front of the emperor – especially before the war – were not like they are today: you always had to be aware of your position to the emperor and never show him your back. This was the same for the shinpan as well.”

– Ueda Hajime, hanshi 9dan, honorary president of Kagawa Kendo association

Perhaps Fujimoto’s nervousness in front of the emperor and his mindfulness of his position in the shiai-jo in relation with the monarch caused him to lose concentration, allowing Noma an opening? As kendo people well know, a split second of indecision is all it takes to lose a point. We will never know of-course, but Ueda hinted that it could have been so.

(Ueda was not the only person to make the observation, but serves as an example here. Please see the sources below for further reading.)

Shobu

As the third and final point began Noma took hidari jodan. Fujimoto kept up the pressure making seemingly good strikes to both kote and do, but no ippon was given. Noma went back to chudan and the battle continued. At the final moment Fujimoto tried to knock Noma’s shinai away with his kodachi and attacked men, Noma went for men as well…. omote-shinpan Nakayama Hakudo raised his right hand signaling Noma’s men. It was over.

After the finals of the specially selected kenshi his sensei (Ueda Heitaro hanshi, who had been a competitor in the second shiai) said to him:

「よくやった。勝負は時と運、君の剣は心があった。負けたといってなんら恥じることはない。胸を張って香川に帰ろう」

“You did great. Winning a fight is dependent on luck and the briefest of moments. Your sword showed heart. There is no shame in saying that you lost. Fill your heart with pride, and lets head back to Kagawa together.”

Here are a couple of newspaper quotes from the finalists taken in the changing room directly after the competition ended, first Fujimoto:

「勝敗は問題にせず只捨身で戦ひました。負けても少しもかまひません。晴れの天覧試合決勝に出場出来たのみで喜んで故郷へ帰ります」- 昭和九年五月六日香川新報

“Without worrying too much about winning and losing I fought with all my heart. I don’t mind even a little that I lost. Simply to have been able to fight in the final of the Tenran shiai (i.e. in front of the Emperor) I can return to my hometown happy.”

– Showa 9, May 6th, Kagawa Shinho

Next, Noma:

「ただ夢中でやりました。きのふとけふは運がいいと申しますか楽に試合が運びました。しかし、決勝ではかなり苦心しました。そして途中でもう駄目かと思ひましたが。。。藤本さんが残念ながらうとお察ししてをります。最後の決勝ですから出来るだけ綺麗に戦はうと思ひましたが、なかなか藤本さんには隙がなく辛うじて勝つようなわけで今の気持はなんらと現はしていいわかりません」- 昭和九年五月六日大阪朝日新聞

“I was fighting as if in a dream. Yesterday and this morning you could that maybe say that my lucky was good, or that I advanced with ease. However, the final was really hard work. Half way through I though ‘aah, thats it… I’m finished’ … but – unfortunately for Fujimoto – I managed to win. Because it was the final I wanted to do the best/cleanest kendo I could, but Fujimoto had no openings and the fight was really hard so, at this moment, I don’t really feel that that I have won.”

– Showa 9, May 6th, Osaka Asahi Shinbun


1934-tenran-24

Controversy

Fujimoto Kaoru was a country bumpkin who worked in his fathers post office and fought in gyaku nito-ryu, wielding two home made shinai. Noma Hisashi, renshi 6dan, was the prodigal son of an influential public figure, and the favourite student of Nakayama Hakudo, the omote-shinpan.

「藤本さんは勝てなかったのですよ。相手が野間さんでは。。。」ー 藤岡順

“Fujimoto-san didn’t win. His opponent was Noma-san (after all)… ”

– Fujioka Jun

The above quoted Fujioka was born and bread in Tokyo, when to a Kokushikan university affiliated high school before going on to university at Chukyo. His kendo teachers were Saimura Goro and Nakayama Hakudo respectively. In other words, he came from a high quality kendo background and was associated with Noma dojo and its family as well. Yet, even he seems to suggest the possibility that the shinpan could have been bias.

Its not just Fujioka who held this opinion, but there are suggestions from other sources (newspapers, eyewitness accounts) that Fujimoto was hard-done by, referee-wise.

It had even been suggested that it was more correct that a kenshi wielding one shinai should win a competition held in front of the Emperor than someone wielding two (thus showing kendo in its true form).

Use of nito

A few issues were raised over Fujimoto’s use of nito-ryu in the shiai:

1. His shinai were thought too light;
2. It is in doubt whether he had a nito teacher;
3. Nito is an unrealistic form of swordsmanship.

Let me expand on item 1 alone.

For more on the controversial issues surrounding this please check the sources. There is a lot more argument on both sides available to read there.

Light nito shinai?

Although the length of Fujimoto’s home-made shinai are recorded (3.6 and 2.6) the weights are not. Lets at least put size into modern perspective (at that time were no set rules for nito shinai as far as I know, and none specific for this taikai):

3.6 (3 shaku 6 bu) is approximately 109cm and 2.6 is 79cms. The rules for nito length (according to the ZNKR) is the daito must be less than 114cms and the shoto less than 62cms in length.

The only disparity here is that the shoto is a a whopping 17cms longer than is allowable nowadays. Of-course, its hard to guess whether Fujimoto’s shinai were very light – especially the long shoto – but a number of sensei watching the shiai commented on it.

His kendo friend, Ueda Hajime (later hanshi 9dan), was quoted as saying the following on the topic:

「藤本君の使っていた竹刀が特別軽かったということはなっかたと思います。むしろ彼は頑丈なものを使っていました。藤本君は力が強く二本の竹刀を軽々と振り回すので、そう思われたのかもしれません」

“I don’t think we can say that the shinai Fujimoto used were especially light. Rather, they were quite solid. He was a strong guy and used the shinai as if they were light, perhaps thats why some people believe the shinai themselves were light, I don’t know.”


Fujimoto is on the far right.

Death

Whilst working as a kendo instructor at his old high school in September 1941, Fujimoto received his draft papers for the Japanese army, and was sent as a soldier (attached to his battalions HQ) on the armies Burma Campaign.

During a jungle campaign in 1942 he was shot through his left shoulder and into his chest during a guerrilla ambush. An old kendo friend that was there at the time reported speaking to him not long after the incident, Fujimoto was crying as he said:

管さん、腕落としたら、剣道ができんよなる

“Kan-san (his friends name), if they amputate my arm I will be unable to do kendo anymore”

It is reported that a week later Fujimoto died from complications related to the amputation, possibly a gangrene infection. At the time of his death he was 28 years old and kyoshi godan.

One can only imagine his impact on kendo (and nito in particular) had the tragedy of war not engulfed the world as it did. Of-course, its impossible to guess what the future would have been like – in all spheres of life – had countless people been spared the horrors of war.

Note: there are a few different versions related to how exactly he died. Please consult the sources listed below for more information.


Summary

This is a rather long article and it took quite a while to complete. I say “complete” but I think its not quite in its final stage yet. I would like to do a lot more research on Fujimoto and create a more accurate and complete description of the man, but having a busy schedule and little access to resources makes this hard to do. I hope that whats presented here – even if incomplete – is of interest to kenshi247 readers.

This article is based primarily on a single source – 昭和の二刀流ビルマに死す (Tennranshiai no nitoryu biruma ni shinesu) – which seems to be very well researched. Unfortunately this book is available only in Japanese, and there is next to zero information about the man available online. A few more sources would have been welcome.

Although a video was shot of the 2nd tenran shiai, it seems to have (according to the book) mysteriously been lost. Perhaps Noma Seiji and Nakayama Hakudo got together and disposed of the film…


Sources

昭和の二刀流ビルマに死す—天覧試合の花形 藤本薫の生涯 – 南堀 英二
武蔵の剣—剣道二刀流の技と理論 – 佐々木 博嗣 (著), 中村 天信

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Published by

George

I'm the founder and chief editor of kenshi247.net. Amongst other things I am a high school kendo club coach, an avid practitioner of classical swordsmanship, a history student, and a vegetarian.

25 thoughts on “Fujimoto Kaoru 藤本薫

  1. I think there’s no better way to teach history than with a good story.
    Maybe because in my native language History and Story, are written the exactly same way. Don’t know.
    But this is a great story/history. I don’t know who to congratulate because I can’t seem to find an author in this piece so, whoever you are: thanks for sharing.

  2. Indeed a great story. I was suprised to read that the daito he used was only 3.6. I looks massive in the photo. I always though it was a full length shinai (who nows what (if) the regulations were back then).

  3. thanks a lot george, this page is a huge contribution for the non-speaking japanese person like me :D, and also because it help us to have a better understanding about kendo.

  4. This is very very abbreviated synopsis of the book listed in the sources. The hard work was really done by its author, not me. I would like to have expanded the article more, but it takes (it took!) a lot of time to do these things, and the article was already very long. Also, there are very few sources.

    Ueda Hajime hanshi is still alive (in his 90s, 9dan), and an interview with him would be nice, but I don’t see that happening.

    p.s. usagi, wheres the link to kenshi247 on your blog?!?!

  5. I don’t really get the final comment about the missing footage.
    Hum… I’ll say anyway, I’ve the showa shiai tenran DVD featuring a guy (non-japanese reader here, sorry) doing nito. With a HUGE shoto.
    Maybe it was fashionable back then and it’s not him.

    p.s.: well George, it’s there; just above the the portuguese kendo forum… how could you miss it?

  6. Very interesting article!! Good work!!
    I think that the photo you put in this entry is from the following footage:

    Here we can read that the nito guy in Kayaba Teruo from Miyagi prefecture in the 3rd tenran (1940).
    I think that in reality it may be the second, as is improbable to see in both taikai a very strong nitoka reaching the final, and your informations seems to be more complete than those of the author of the youtube video…….

  7. Usagi —> the footage is – mysteriously – gone. It was recorded. Combined with the fact that many people questioned the outcome of the final, its possible that the footage was somehow …. seen to. Considering the family involved, its not far fetched.

    The tenran shiai stuff you have seen is almost certainly the 3rd tenran shiai, not the 2nd.

    As far as the shoto goes — there were no rules governing either the weight nor length of nito shinai at the time…. so anything went. Assuming that longer is better than shorter, it stands to reason that a longer shoto was more beneficial in shiai.

  8. Kaiaba (the nito guy in the 3rd tenran shiai video linked above) was allegedly no way near as good as Fujimoto Kaoru.

    In all 3 tenran shiai nito kendoka received 2nd place. The 1st tenran shiai was sei-nito, the other 2 gyaku-nito.

  9. Again thank you for translating this piece of history for us, this makes me wonder what was the purpose of doing kendo back in those days because i don’t see any mention of nito practice being against the purpose of kendo nowadays:
    To mold the mind and body.
    To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
    And through correct and rigid training,
    To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo.
    To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor.
    To associate with others with sincerity.
    And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.
    Thus will one be able:
    To love ones country and society.
    To contribute to the development of culture
    And to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples.

  10. Raffa (sorry, just saw your comment) — the video you have linked to above is 100% the third tenran shiai, and not the second. As I said above, all three tenran shiai had nito kenshi getting top places.

  11. Oh, I see that in the end you purchased the book and readed through all of it.
    This article of yours is a good non-direct answer to my initial question: “Do you know this book and would recommend it?”.
    So I’m going to get it as well, even if I can understand only small parts. 🙂

  12. ha ha yes, Maurizio, this was the book that you asked me about a few months ago!! Personally, I didn’t expect it to be as nearly interesting as it was (and I had a little trouble finding it in the book store). Its an interesting account.

    Good luck reading it.

  13. Cheers!! We aim to please.

    There will be more in-depth historical related articles like this in the future… be sure to join our facebook page and/or syndicate the blog!

  14. George, while tanslating the article I found a “problem”: he fought Noma SEIJI in the School Championships and then he fought his son, Noma HISASHI, in the Tenran, 3 years later?
    It’s also HISASHI, in the School Championships right?

  15. I very much enjoyed the fact that he was discouraged from doing nito even back then. I guess things haven’t changed much! His example makes it easier to persevere for us modern nito players…

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