This years All Japan Championships were won by 21 year old Takenouchi Yuya, a 3rd year student at Tsukuba university, one of the top kendo universities in the country (not to mention the direct descendant of one of the most famous kendo establishments that ever existed: Tokyo Shihan Gakko). It’s only the 2nd time in the competitions 60+ year history that a student has taken the title (it’s important to remember here that there were grade restrictions for part of that time) and the first time since 1988 (and before that 1980) that it hasn’t been won by a policeman. His road to success in the shiai – though a lot faster than most – follows a familiar pattern (YMMV):
1. Start kendo very young.
2. Attend a good kids (shonen) kendo club.
3. Achieve (some) junior high school kendo success.
4. Go to a well known kendo high school (possibly scouted).
5. Achieve (some) high school kendo shiai success.
6. Go to a well known kendo university (possibly scouted).
7. Achieve (some) university kendo shiai success.
8. Join a regional police dept. or Keishicho (recruited).
9. Spend a few years training very hard and competing in police competition, perhaps even making it to the All Japan Champs themselves.
10. Win the All Japan Championships (possibly after multiple attempts).
This is pretty much the usual route of most if not all modern All Japan Championship winners (male) for as long as I can remember (again, YMMV). Even if a particular competitor gets to step 9 success in the All Japans itself doesn’t come to everybody, especially when there is a some dominant competitors around making things awkward (e.g. Miyazaki Masahiro and Uchimura Ryohei). Note that shiai success as a policeman is one of the most important keys to a possible professional kendo teaching position post-tokuren (mid 30s).
Takenouchi is in the unique position of achieving number 10 while still being on step 7. What this means for him personally I have no idea, but I can guess that recruitment offers will increase (which is awesome for him as most Japanese university students struggle to find a job after graduating).
But anyway, discussion of the All Japan championships is not really the point of this article and, honestly, I’m not too interested in who wins or who doesn’t anymore. Personally, I’m far more interested in the process that people went through to achieve “success” in their kendo lives, whether this be in shiai or what not. As such – and to serve as a counter to Takenouchi and the pattern described above – I’d like to introduce kenshi 24/7 readers to the story of Asagawa Haruo sensei, winner of the 4th All Japan Kendo Championships way back in 1956.
The following is a highly abridged and freely adapted version of an interview from the very late 70s (published in 1981, I’m not sure of the exact interview date).
Asagawa Haruo, kendo hanshi 8dan, iaido kyoshi 8dan
“My family were descendants of Heike warriors who fled defeat in the wars. Originally they worked the land selling many types of products. Eventually, however, the business collapsed and the family moved onto other work.
My father was a barber and had 5 kids. From 8-14yrs I learned kendo from a very unique school teacher called Taika sensei. Although we only had 12 kids in the kendo club he was a really good teacher and he helped me develop quickly.
However, my family were so poor at the time that I shouldn’t really have been spending my time doing kendo. When I got home I had to look after my younger brother. If I said I had been doing kendo my father would scold me.
There were times when I’d carry my baby brother on my back and take my other kindergarden-aged brother by the hand and lead them to school. Taika sensei would tell the girl students ‘Asagawa is going to do kendo, so look after the kids’ and off I would go to practise. When I returned home my father would scream at me.
I continued to practise secretly like this during my youth and was berated countless times by my father.
After doing this for about a year or so our school won a prefectural level school competition. News of it appeared in the newspaper, and the bicycle shop owner – whose shop was next to my fathers – walked round with the paper and showed my father: ‘Look, Haruo is in the paper!’ My father react as a pigeon does when hit by a peashooter, he was shocked: ‘When did this happen? Where?’
After winning this competition my father started to understand a little bit more and he allowed me to practice kendo as well as relieving me of having to look after my younger brothers. I went on to win many competitions at this time and my nickname became shobu-Asagawa.”
After graduating from elementary school (at 14) various junior high schools tried to recruit him.
“My family was too poor to think of continuing education even though I was being recruited. My father wanted me to continue the family business but I was dead-set against doing that.
There was a kendo/jukendo teacher called Yoshida (a military school instructor) at one of the schools who basically demanded that I attend his school. ‘You don’t need to pay a school entrance fee, you don’t need to pay tuition fees… in fact, we will give you some pocket money’ he said. Taika sensei went to my father and beseeched him ‘It’s such a waste for his kendo career to end before it started’ he said. Eventually my father relented and allowed me to go to junior high school. This was the start of my real kendo shugyo.
Yoshida sensei was a strong teacher and training was hard. I attended practice those 3 years whether it rained or shined, travelling 40 minutes by bicycle to school. We trained everyday until the sun set, even the long summer days. As he was from a military school, the training was regimental. Over the 3 years he gradually increased our skill so that we were able to win many tournaments including the prefectural tournament and becoming 2nd in All Japan Junior High School championship (editor: at this time the shiai were kachinuki style, Asagawa was the sempo and beat 4 teams – 20 people – himself).
After Yoshida sensei finished his 3 year position at the junior high school he became a kendo/jukendo teacher for the navy and eventually died during the war in Shanghai.”
At the age of 18, Asagawa graduated from the junior high school in 1937 and became a substitute primary school teacher, despite not having any qualifications nor knowing how to teach.
“I had no dream of becoming a teacher, all I wanted to do was earn money (because my family was poor) and, as such, I studied to get a proper teacher license and would take on extra kendo instruction duties here and there for money. Eventually I realised that being a teacher was never going to make me rich, so I started to think about quitting and going to Manchuria or something. Eventually, in 1939, I joined the army. I was 20 years old.
During army training I did really well and I aimed at becoming an Company Commander. My superiors saw that I had enough ability and were keen that I get promoted to that status. However when they looked at my school record they found that I didn’t study enough and had bad scores. Because of this I couldn’t receive a recommendation and so could not be promoted. This shocked me and I decided to re-think my attitude, which was to change the direction of my life completely.
Upon completion of my training I worked for a year as a leader of an army education division, after which I was ordered to take a teaching position at a newly created army reserve officer training school. This was around the time of the start of the pacific war. Here I taught military drills, jukenjutsu, and kendo. At the time I had the highest available rank of 5dan in both arts (editor: note that he was issued his 5dan both by Toyama Gakko and the Butokukai).
When the pacific war started I asked to be sent to the front lines but was denied the chance. Eventually, however, I was ordered to go to Singapore in February 1944. At that time it was said that something like 80-90% of the boats heading that way were sunk. Luckily I reached my destination safely and upon arrival I was attached to a special group that gathered people with special skills together. My job was to teach kendo and jukenjutsu to officers from various battalions. I was 25 at the time.
People who practised with me then came from Busen, or had graduated university, however, I never lost to any of them. The time I spent in this job was highly beneficial to my kendo shugyo.
As things worsened we built caves and stayed in them until the end of the war (editor: as you can imagine, there is little discussion about combat or anything in the interview). “
Asagawa returned to his hometown in 1946. It was a time of great hardship throughout Japan.
“After being demobilised I returned a different man to a country where the fields were burned, kendo was banned, and living an ordinary life was difficult. Even though life has become better since then, the mental scars of living through such a tough period are still with me today.
Ono sensei, who currently (at the time of the interview) is a director of the ZNKR and in the past was the director of both the imperial guards and national police, used to bring people together and secretly practice kendo in the local Butokuden. His (brave!) excuse was that even though it was banned in schools, there was nothing stopping people from privately practicing.
When shinai-kyogi came around I also practised that, and won the National Athletic Meet, after which my nickname became ‘shinai kyogi Asagawa.’ I didn’t like this at all so I decided to work hard at practising iaido (I already knew Toyama Gakko battojutsu). Although I started serious practise of iaido in order to clear my name, I kept going at it and am currently kyoshi 8dan. I believe that kendo and iaido are two sides of the same coin, and I know that Kamimoto Eiichi sensei (iaido hanshi 9dan, kendo hanshi 8dan) thought the same way. Whenever we did an iaido seminar we told everyone to bring their bogu, and we’d practise kendo no kata as well.
After this I was commissioned by Gifu city police dept. to teach kendo, but as I couldn’t earn enough to live, I also started a commercial industry side job as well. However, doing 2 jobs at once wasn’t working well, so I decided then to concentrate solely on kendo. I was working at police dept and teaching at a high school, but it still wasn’t enough. My wife then helped out by finding work in a traditional dance troupe. From the ages of 26-29 all I did was kendo and, my father getting sick of it, kicked me out. I ended up living in a primary school gym’s night guard station. There were only 2 rooms there, and it was when my son was about 6 or 7 years old.
Despite working multiple jobs (police kendo teacher, high school kendo teacher, and as the attendant at the primary school gym I was living in) plus my wife’s dancing, we still didn’t have enough money to live. At the time the police system was under reform and I wondered if I couldn’t get a proper full time job as a police kendo shihan. At this time the idea came to me that if I won the (recently begun) All Japan Kendo Championships then I’d get offered a full time position somewhere. With this in mind I took the money we had saved for my son’s school tuition, and embarked, in 1955 at the age of 36, on a musha-shugyo.
The first place I went to was Keishicho in Tokyo and after that I walked around Kanto for a month doing kendo here and there. The last place I arrived at was Mito Tobukan. I spent a week in the dojo practising multiple times a day. Kowaza sensei would ask me ‘Don’t you miss your wife?’ ‘Of course I do’ I said, ‘I am fighting hard to continue this hard shugyo.’ Kozawa sensei said ‘What you are doing is admirable, but you must look after body more carefully. It’s about time you went home.’ The next day, after a warm friendly handshake from Kozawa sensei, I headed home. I was resolved to use this experience in challenging the following years All Japan Championships.”
The following year Asagawa sensei qualified as the Gifu prefecture representative to the 4th All Japan Kendo Championships.
“When someone secured their position as a prefectural representative there would usually be gifts and celebratory parties. However, I refused all of these things and set off towards Tokyo secretly in a late night train one week before the shiai. Nobody saw me of at the station but my wife. I got off the train in Kanagawa and practised with the police department. I was in amazing form, as if the ‘shobu-Asagawa’ of old had come back! However, even though I was in great form I couldn’t relax. I played some pachinko and I couldn’t relax. I visited Hachimangu shrine in Kamakura and still couldn’t relax. Lastly I visited the Kamakura Daibutsu. There I sat facing him until the sun came up.
What I realised during that night was that I desired to win to much; I was trying too hard. I decided then to just give up, to stop thinking only of winning. Then, finally, I felt clear.
So I had thrown all thoughts of victory out. It was my first time in the competition after all, and there were famous competitors such as Nakakura Kiyoshi and Iho Kyotsugu taking part. Probably because of being known as ‘Shinai-kyogi Asugawa’ nobody thought I had a chance. At the party before the event when all the competitors were in attendance, one of the top sensei stood up and said ‘Good luck Nakakura, good luck Nakamura (Nakamura Taro was the previous years winner. He won the title twice and was runnier up a further twice)!’ but nothing to me. ‘What about me?’ I asked, to which he replied smoothly, half in jest ‘Oh yeah, good luck Asagawa!’ Thoughts of ‘I’m going to beat you all tomorrow’ started to swim in my head but I tried not to think about it and jinx my chances.
The next day I met last years winner Nakamura and his friends travelling to the venue. ‘Hey Asagawa’ said Nakamura ‘Please carry the winners flag for me’ he demanded in jest. I carried if for him from the station to the venue. Little did I think I’d meet him in the final of the competition later that same day.
My first round fight was a no-show, but in the 2nd round I faced difficulty versus Takano from Kanagawa. This was the only difficulty I was to face that day until the final. After this fight I sailed smoothly through the rounds until I faced last years winner Nakamura in the finally.
Actually, a few days early when I practised at Kanagawa police dept. Nakamura was there. I asked him for a fight and – because I was on excellent form that day and he saw that – he refused. This decision of Nakamura’s, I believe, changed my life. Had he accepted that challenge that day and we keiko-ed together then perhaps there would have been no strange feeling during the final that day. Perhaps I might even have lost. However, he had refused due to fear, and now he must face it. He had too much pride and was scared to lose to someone such as me.
When the shiai started I thought I’d attempt a kote-dou, hoping that my kote strike would take the mind of his dou just enough so I could strike it. However, when I went for kote I raised my hands too much and he struck my dou immediately. Ippon. Nihon-me. I changed my tactic and started aggressively attacking his kote. His movement was fast so every time I’d attempt to get debanagote we’d do ai-uchi and end up in tsubazeria. This happened a number of times. However, when he tried kote-men I was able to strike his kote successfully. Ippon. Shobu. Nakamura was strong in shiai and would strike me the minute he saw any sort of opening. However I was ready for him and struck his dou. Shobu-ari. Everyone on the venue was clapping and so were the shinpan.
When I returned to Gifu there was a big reception awaiting me at the train station: my wife’s dancing students, policemen, members of the public, and even an open roofed car. I tried to avoid all the fuss by getting off at the other side of the train, but I was soon discovered and pointed towards the celebrations. At 37 years old, it was the first time I had ridden such a fancy car in my life.
However, even though I trained hard, devoted myself to getting a full time police kendo teaching post, and won the All Japan Championships, I wasn’t given such a job. ‘There is no quota for such a position in Gifu police department’ they said.
Although my economic situation didn’t change because of the win, I started to become known amongst the general public. Due to this some nefarious people would drop my name when trying to make deals to build gyms and such like. Tiring of all this, at 39 years old I decided to rid myself of kendo once and for all. I planned to rip up my All Japan Kendo Championships winners certificate and go into some sort of business to make money.
Just at that time a city council member said he had some land near where I live. He offered to rent it to me and suggested that I should build and run a dojo on it. However, I had no money at all. My friends and my wife’s students got together and worked out the details: ‘lets get together and build a dojo’ they said. The ‘Asagawa dojo support group was founded with 60 starting members. It was settled then, my destiny, my life, was to be kendo. We built a dojo called ‘SORYUKAN’ (雙柳館) to teach kendo and traditional Japanese dancing.”
Asagawa sensei would go onto run multiple dojo’s and be one of the starting members and serve on the executive committee of the All Japan Kendo Dojo Renmei (an association of childrens dojo that exists beneath the ZNKR). He was awarded 8dan in 1969 and hanshi in 1974. In 1979 he attained iaido 8dan.
Note that Soryukan still exists in Gifu today. It looks like it’s run by Asagawa sensei’s son and maybe grandson. It seems – at least to me – then that his kendo life was extremely successful.
I’ll end this article with a last quote from Asagawa sensei:
“The educational objective of kendo for me is this. Even if you become the best in Japan it won’t allow you to eat. Kendo itself is useless. The point is that the kendo spirit is the means to forging the self, and it’s through this that you can lead you to become successful in todays society.”
Pictures from 雙柳舘 淺川道場.