Old style 古めかしい

Takano Sasaburo
Takano Sasaburo

As long term readers of kenshi 24/7 may have noticed, this site strongly emphasises the traditional and historical aspects of kendo. I also find myself – both online as well as off – thinking about and having discussions about how kendo has evolved through the years, for both good and bad. Although there is a lot you can find on the site that is my own thinking or heavily influenced by the sensei and sempai that surround me, most of what is presented here is informed through historical analysis, in particular through lots and lots of reading. Over the years I’ve also harvested a wealth of older kendo videos and images from the net as well (though often these are without context), whose availability adds something to the greater kendo knowledge base.

Looking through older books, pictures, and videos, I often find myself wondering about why is it that, as the movement we use in kendo has changed a lot over the past 100 or so years, bogu hasn’t changed much. Sure, different materials are used over time and fashions go in and out, but bogu generally looks the same as it did in 1915. One picture (shown above) of Takano Sasaburo caught my imagination in particular and – when I saw it at first – I studied it intently.

Bogu-wise, what this (undated, but possibly sometime in the 20s?) photo shows us is that bogu pretty much looked then as it does now. The only difference is the absence of a zekken (a post war invention), the colour of the kote (of the kobushi/kotegashira plus a stripe), and, to lesser extent, the colour of the front stripe (menboshi) of the men. Looking through a variety of material over the years I come to the conclusion that the style (or fashion) of the bogu worn by Takano sensei in the picture above, was not only relatively common, but lasted for a long time.

Check out the pictures in this gallery:

And these videos (the first is from 1914, the second from 1932):

See what I mean?

Although on rare occasions (for example at the Kyoto Taikai) I caught a glimpse of people wearing (sometimes only parts of) what seemed like older-fashioned bogu, it wasn’t until a year or so ago that I actually got my hands on some: one of my sempai whipped out a pair of kote that looked exactly like those Takano sensei is wearing in the top picture. Obviously, my attention was immediately caught. I discovered that a company in northern Kyushu still made this old style but – after further inquiry – found out they were very pricey. I hummed and hawed for a bit (mainly because I generally don’t like to wear anything that stands out … and these kote definitely do!) but eventually I decided to ask my friend Andy at All Japan Budogu whether he could custom make a set. He said he could, so I set him on it and waited.

After a few months I was genuinely surprised when Andy not only made me some kote, but he started offering them online to the public as well !!!!! Here are two pictures of my kote plus one of Andy’s product images (which may be of my set as I think it was the prototype – the difference in colour is in the lighting, image processing and background):

So, I got what I wanted and – I must admit – I was secretly delighted!! Although I only have the kote at the moment, I think I’ll probably extend my range of anachronistic looking bogu parts in the future.


Review: Mugen brand, Renma Type 2 Cho-Mamorigata kote

Although I didn’t set out to write a product review in this piece, I think it’s only fair to write something here about my opinion on the kote after using them for a few weeks.

Feel: well, there’s not really much I can say here – the kote fitted perfectly and – although I was worried that they might have been too large at first (they are sold as a practise/protective kote and are hence thicker and more reinforced than normal) – within 10 minutes of using them in keiko for the first time they were already comfortably sitting in my hand. This is no different to how the other kote I’ve gotten from All Japan Budogu have behaved and I’m extremely happy with them. As pointed out above they are kote that are meant for use in hard, daily practise, and this is exactly what I’ve been using them for. They feel great!

Look: they look super distinct… you will stick out a mile! If you have any deficiencies in your grip you will be unable to hide them from your sensei and sempai anymore – they will spot it from across the dojo. btw, My students reactions ranged from “What the hell are those!?” to “Oh wow, your kote are cute!”

Kote lining: I didn’t think about the kote lining choices that All Japan Budogu give, so I guess Andy just picked for me. I must admit that I probably wouldn’t have chosen what I ended up with (as it’s not inline with my more traditional approach) but, truthfully, I have no problems with it. It’s a pleasant wee touch actually.

Smell: everything that looks beige, as well as the kote palms, are made from smoked deerskin, which means that the kote smell strong. I don’t mean a little bit, I mean they smell strong. If you leave them lying out in your bedroom your entire room will quickly smell. Your non-kendoka boy/girlfriend, your parents, and your pets may all have a problem with the kote. Through time the strength of the smell will diminish, but until then you may want to keep them in a couple of plastic bags or outside on the balcony.

In summary: the kote are excellent. I love the combination of the more anachronistic design with the modern know-how provided by the All-Japan team. In the future I hope to ask for some more custom parts with the combination of traditional styling and modern skill and material from them as well.

The kote are available to preview and order here. In case you are not interested in the look of these kote, All Japan Budogu also do a type 1 version, which is the same kote without the beige deerskin.


Bonus

btw, here’s an image I have of Nakayama Hakudo’s bogu… mysteriously his left kote is designed like the one introduced here but his right one is different!

nakayama-bogu

And here’s one more. This picture (courtesy of 小林一心堂武道具店) is of kote from sometime in the Edo period, probably mid to late 19th century:

edo-kote


Update! (September 2015)

A Japanese kendo friend saw this article and gave me a set of vintage kote that he owned (after having them cleaned and washed of course). These are a 1978 model, so obviously a different style to the ones introduced above. Note that at some point (maybe in the 60s and 70s?) kendo fashion seems to have changed and these white/navy kote were relegated to use by beginners and children. There are, however, some places in Japan that still make them for adults. I personally think they are cool !

kote-white

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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.

14 thoughts on “Old style 古めかしい

  1. About bogus some time ago i realised one curious thing. If you notice the men made in the 70 and 80 had a more round shape in the mengane while the nowadays models have a more oval shape but more insteresting is that men before that had oval shapes as well (like the one in the sassaburo picture). I think maybe the bogu makers where trying some new ideias to made it more anathomical adn changed back, i don’t know, maybe i’m just tripping LOL

  2. I remember a story from Dr. Warner. He received his shodan in 1938 as I recall. He told me that his older sensei had actually been samurai under the Meiji restoration and the practice of kendo was more akin to kenjutsu at the time. It was sometimes common to employ some stand-up grappling waza and leg sweeps as well. He described being lifted off his feet by his opponents tsuba from under the mengane and having his legs swept from under him. A bit rougher than modern days.

  3. Awesome.
    As I fell in love with these kote immediately upon I’ve seen them, I am more then please to find you reviewing them here 🙂

    Anyhow,
    have you any information about bogu that has been made with 3.0bu stitching in the older days?
    I bought such a set as a spare set a few years ago, and people said it looks sort of ancient bogu due to the stitches?
    (Which is really awesome I have to say ^^)

  4. Hey Mat,

    It’s hard to get accurate information about bogu because construction is never really described in detail in kendo books (there may be books out there about bogu though that I’ve yet to discover), but I suspect your deduction is right (through 2.5bu might have been the tightest stitches went too). However, I do remember reading one time a comment from a craftsman that said that tight-stitching is a recent trend. I have a book by a craftsman with me now (the only book I know of to tackle the subject), so I’ll try and find some time today to reread the relevant part.

  5. I posted this on your FB page, but just wanted to reiterate how cool these are. My first pair of Kote were given to me by my sensei back in ’93 or so. They looked just like these. I still have them, but keep them as museum pieces really!

    Good stuff man. Go kit yourself entirely out in that old school look. Seriously, you can’t take the cash with ya.

  6. I really don’t like sticking out ….. so I don’t think that will happen!!! At the moment I’m using these kote at work only. I’m the boss there so …

  7. Sir,
    Now those are awesome. As an amateur historian anything old automatically gets cool points from me. Please forgive me if you’ve covered this before in another article but I’m wondering if you have or would delve into the evolution of shinai length in another article. The most blunt way of asking this is “why are kendo shinai so long when compared to actual sword lengths?” Thanks for all your work this far. You have done some truly fascinating research and analysis and I always look forward to each article.

  8. Glad you enjoyed the post Tim, and thanks for your kind words !!

    As for shinai length – that’s an easy topic to address as there has been loads of discussion on it over the years. Once I get the WKC out of the way I’ll look into summarising everything in an article.

  9. The left kote of Nakayama Hakudo seems to have another shape then the right one, too. The left kote buton has a cylindrical shape while the right one is conical.

    The do looks odd compared to todays do, too. It seems like that the parts protecting the sides nearly form a right angle to the front part. Is the do made of three parts (front and two sides) that are stitches together?

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