This year Kanagawa-kenkei’s (Kanagawa prefecture police force) Shodai Kenji won the 56th All Japan Championships. As a young policeman on his prefectural A-team, a 4th time entrant to the competition, and an extremely serious contender for being in the Japan national side for next years World Championships there is nothing surprising here. What might be surprising, however, is that he is a JODAN kenshi, and is the first to win the title using this kamae since 1983. Thats 25 years.
Some of my friends have said “if he wins, it will be the start of a new jodan boom” and the such like, but as someone on the ground here in Japan who goes to many shiai, i’d say we are well into a boom as we speak. For the last few years I have been noting that in shiai here – from high school level up – there are increasing numbers of jodan people, both male and female. Shodai’s win might help to accentuate things (or to validate peoples selection of the kamae) but I suggest that he is not the reason for it.
So what is? And why have I chosen to call it a “renaissance” rather than an “emergence?” Well, the second question is much easier to answer than the first, so let me start with that.
Back in the day (lets go back a 100 years or so) it seems to be the case that many kenshi learned to fight in jodan as well as chudan. This is not something I can say for definite, but its something that I get a strong impression on, be that from reading articles in kendo magazines, or chatting to older kenshi about it. Also, the fact that just about all the leading kenshi of the pre-war era were a member of individual koryu ryuha(s) suggest that they were not unfamiliar with other kamae including jodan of-course. At any rate, there is a definite history of jodan as part of kendo from the earliest recorded times (well over 100 years ago!). But what about the kendo we do nowadays?
Between the years of 1961-1975 the All Japan championships were won 10 times by jodan kenshi. Chiba sensei three times, Toda and Kawazoe sensei twice, and Iho, Hotta, and Yamazaki sensei once each. During this time the largest proportion of jodan kenshi to enter the All Japans was in 1973 when, out of 56 competitors 21 were jodan fighters.
At this time people were worried about the direction that kendo was going in (partly due to this jodan boom): i.e. that kendo was turning into just hitting something (somehow) and scoring a point is enough. Jodan, which relies on speed and surprise to a certain extent was partly blamed for this. To combat this two things came into effect, and each contributed to the demise of the popularity of jodan. First was the creation and publication of the Kendo Rinen (the Concept of Kendo) in 1975, and the second – more damaging for the jodan specialist – was the introduction of munezuki as a Yuko Datotsu (a valid point) in 1979.
The Kendo Rinen explicitly states what kendo is for and why you should be practising it. Shiai exists inside our kendo shugyo but it is not – and should never be – the reason we do kendo. Many people were supposedly choosing the kamae (or sometimes forced into it by zealous high school teachers) because it was advantagious in shiai.
Munezuki as a valid target vs jodan was introduced to remove the perceived advantage jodan has over chudan in a shiai situation. This rule remained in force until 1995 and – in fact – right up until Shodai’s win today, only 1 jodan kenshi ever won the All Japans after the rules enforcement (Higashi sensei in 1983, during which time the rule was still enforced).
Even after the ban was lifted – and even now – many shinpan judge jodan quite strictly, especially in regards to katate-waza (1 handed techniques). This has also led to the decline in favour of the kamae.
Despite this, however, I definitely have seen a much stronger presence of jodan in the high school and university scene over the past few years, and there also seems to be more people getting into the All Japans, Todofuken, Kokutai, and other adult top-level shiai over the past while as well. Osaka sent 2 jodan kenshi to Tokyo for the championships this year, and it was Shodai’s 4th straight year in qualifying for a Kanagawa spot, arguably one of the hardest places to get in Japan (after Osaka and Tokyo). Even at the last World Championships Japan has a jodan kenshi as its taisho, and many non-Japanese teams also sport jodan people nowadays.
Based on all of this, I do think we have been edging towards and are now perhaps starting to enter a “jodan renaissance” period. In the near future we might see more and more jodan people coming to the fore.
My first – and more difficult question – was to question the rationale for this: why do we now have more jodan people active in the competitive scene? This is tricky to answer i’m not even sure I can make a decent stab at it!!! I will however mention two things: 1. unfamiliarity; 2. tactics.
Unless you practise with jodan people regularly you might find yourself out of your depth when you meet one. This is fine in keiko, but can be deadly in shiai. Many people now have little experience in fighting jodan (especially younger people) so it might be good time to be the odd-one-out. This unfamiliarity goes well with my second point about tactics. This is vital especially in team shiai. If you need someone to pull out a hikiwake there is probably nobody better than a jodan guy (nito would be better!). If their opponent is strong then a good jodan person can shut them down and go for the hikiwake. Moving your jodan members fighting position depending on the opposing team is not an uncommon tactic I believe.
(I have a third rationale but its a bit lame: 3. Musashi no ken!!! It was a popular anime/manga back in the early 80s and I could name at least one famous jodan kenshi who was inspired by it to do jodan. As many non-Japanese people cite Star Wars as the reason they got into kendo, I don’t think we can fully dismiss the impact that this cartoon may have had on the minds of young Japanese kenshi 20-30 odd years ago!!!)
At any rate, i’ve rambled too much: was the win today of a jodan kenshi something that was inevitable, and will it inspire a new generation of jodan competitors? Will it add impetus to the current one? Will an upsurge of the numbers of jodan players see the case for the re-introduction of munezuki as a yuko datotsu? I guess only time will tell.