history kendo

The Sword of the Samurai in the Hands of Americans

“Another new fad has come to New York – Japanese fencing. If you hear the clash of armor and clang of steel as you saunter through the brown stone districts uptown it’s wealthy young men taking lessons in palace stables and studios where the famous two handed swords to the samurai are at work. The weapon always has been described as formidable in the hands of an expert. The word “samurai” means knight, and for three thousand years he has been the ideal swordsman of Japan – always using the terrible two handed blade of his fathers.”

I get an awful lot of correspondence from readers, most of it asking me about this and that, but occasional people volunteer ideas or information. This was one such case: a Canadian gentleman by the name of Maxime Chouinard who practises koryu/iai over in Quebec, got in touch and passed me the following newspaper clippings about early kendo practise in America. Wow, I thought, this is reeeeeeeally fascinating information, specifically as an important look into a) how the general America society viewed the art and b) as an insight into some Japanese ex-pats thinking.

At the end of the Edo period when Japan finally opened up there was a large influx of people from various nationalities that went to seek their fortune in the yet undeveloped country. It’s uncertain exactly how many non-Japanese people were working in Japan, but the government hired hundreds and we can assume there were probably thousands more working in private enterprises. Through historical records we know that some of these people did study kendo (gekken/gekkiken/kenjutsu as it was variously called at that time) while there were there. In fact, some of the men that went over were charged with re-developing the Japanese military, swordsmanship included. Around about the same time – and I admit that my knowledge is a bit vague on this matter – many Japanese people also started to go abroad, whether it was to study, on business, or indeed to make a new life.

It’s probably at around this point that kendo first travelled abroad: either taken back by the non-Japanese people who had been in Japan or transported by Japanese people themselves. Maybe a bit of both.

This interesting topic is large and deserves some serious attention… unfortunately not something I have the time or resources to do so at the moment. The purpose of this article is simply to introduce the subject and hope that it creates more interest. I’m sure there are hundreds of more newspaper articles out there on this topic, probably spanning quite a few countries as well. If you have any links, please post them on facebook or comment here.

Maxime and I talked back and forth about what to do with the information here and we decided to leave writing a more in-depth, fuller article on these clippings and this subject to him. Make sure and check out Maxime’s own fascinating blog which has covered and I’m sure will cover some of the issues raised above.

For starters, please check out the quotes and corresponding articles below:

A fencing and kendo demonstration with Mark Twain in attendance, New York, 1893:

“Dueling swords were now in order… the bouts ended with a side-splitting scrimmage with Japanese singlesticks between Mr. Charles Tatham and the samurai Shilo Sacaze (sic) of Nagasaki. This epic combat showed the samurai extremely quick and clever with the peculiar bamboo stick of his native land. His odd movements and loud shouts delighted the audience with screams of laughter and applause when the samurai closed with Mr. Tatham and began to wrestle with him on the stage.”

– The New York Times, November 21, 1893 (full article)

The Japanese fencing club “Sunrise” in Honolulu, 1896:

“By way of introduction the combatants removed their kimonos and donned loose skirts and a helmet with strong iron bars across the face. Then they sheathed their bodies with stiff bamboo breastplates. Heavily padded gloves with gauntlets finished the costume. The “short sticks” are about five feet long, and are made of several pieces of bamboo fastened together. There seemed to be no call of “time” by a referee. The men stepped to the center of the room and saluted each other by a motion of the arm, and then one uttered a guttural sound signifying his unwillingness to begin the fray and they crossed sticks, the point of each being held on a level with the neck and the handle grasped with both hands. Yajimai led, and throughout the bought was acting on the offensive, while Karikawa braced himself so as to resist and ward off any blow that might be directed toward him. Once he was thoughtless. Yajimai gave him a crack on the helmet that resounded throughout the room. All the time the men were fencing they were shouting as if warning each other to look out for what might be coming.”

– Kentucky new era, 1896 (full article)

A Japanese fencing club for ex-pats (the picture at the top of this article is from this piece) from 1897:

“Everywhere in Japan since the late war they are teaching this fencing. The clubs are formed throughout Japan and they teach it in all boys’ schools. It is not merely for sport. During the late war with China the government found that it would be necessary for the people to understand how to use a sword. Japan cannot keep a standing army of any size, so her subjects have to be trained.”

– San Francisco 1897 (full article)

Annapolis 1906:

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The quote at the start of the article matches the pictures here.

– Omaha Daily Bee, 1906 (full article).

By George

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