Budo in schools in the early Meiji period – pros and cons

About two weeks back I was looking through a friends small book collection and noticed a budo book in English that I hadn’t heard nor see of before: “Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan – An innovative response to modernisation” (produced by the Kodokan and translated by Alex Bennet). Not being a judo/jujutsu person, I must confess to not knowing too much of the early history of judo. I have, however, always been aware that Kano’s influence was very wide, and that his personal philosophy (of budo et al) impacted many a kendoka back in the day (not in the least, Takano Sasaburo). So I borrowed the book from my friend and had a good read.

Obviously the book is judo-centric, with not much explicitly said about kendo, but for people interested in the era (also a new one for kendo), it makes for a informative read. One thing that did catch my eye – something that directly involved kendo – was the very early lobbying to include more Japanese arts into the physical education system, i.e. kendo and judo specifically.


– in 1889 a government backed physical education institute was charged with researching into the pros and cons of teaching kenjutsu and jujutsu (i.e. the modern kendo and judo) in schools.

– the kenjutsu schools that were examined were Shinkage-ryu, Tenshinden Muteki-ryu, Hokushin Itto-ryu, and Tamiya-ryu.

– The results of the research were sent to the Ministry of Education in 1894.

Results of the 1894 investigation

The merits of the study of martial arts was cited as follows:

1. Contributes to children’s growth.
2. Enhances physical endurance.
3. Augments enthusiasm and mental health.
4. Encourages valour and expunge cowardly behaviour.
5. Provides a basis for self-defence in the case of unexpected danger.

But they concluded that the demerits outweighed the positive aspects:

1. It might adversely affect the body during the child’s growth period.
2. Injuries may occur during training.
3. It is difficult to determine the appropriate level of training for children of different physical strength.
4. Children may become easily excited and develop violent tendencies.
5. Students may become overly competitive and persist in their efforts to win at all costs.
6. Children with an overly competitive spirit may become involved in improper competitions and fights.
7. It would be difficult for one teacher to supervise a large number of students at once.
8. Ample space is required.
9. Jujutsu practise only requires training clothes, but kenjutsu needs more equipment, which is expensive and difficult to keep hygienic.

(excerpt from ‘Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan’)

The cons outweighed the pros and so neither kenjutsu nor jujutsu were introduced into the mandatory school curriculum. However, many schools started their own independent kendo and judo clubs anyway, and eventually both were accepted into the official school curriculum in 1911 (resulting in the need for a standardised kendo kata to be created).

Reading it now – almost 120 years later – it struck me that many of the merits and demerits of budo (kendo) practise remain the same. Demerit number 5 in particular is something that is continually echoed in kendo circles, specifically about high school and university kendo. It may be possible to add that not a few adult kendo clubs outside of Japan seem to practise for the sake of competition as well.

One of the major differences between the evolution of kendo and judo over the past 120 years is the fact that Kano pushed the internationalisation of judo from the very start. Judo practitioners were soon found abroad in droves, whereas kendo tended to be restricted to Japanese people who emigrated and their descendants. This is probably one of the greatest factors in the speed of change in the judo community over the time we are talking about. Due to kendo remaining Japan(ese)-centric, I’d posit, it has managed to keep its roots better, and hasn’t descended into a purely sportive activity… yet. I hope that non-Japanese kendoka continue to look to the roots of kendo and resist the urge to do kendo as purely a point-getting activity (judo seems to have lost both to a certain degree).

For people who are who find this topic interesting, I’d suggest having a read of the book quoted above to discover Kano’s original philosophy and, considering this, have another look at how judo is currently practised and portrayed. After this its time to reflect on kendo.


Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan: an innovative response to modernisation. Kodokan Judo Institute. March 2009.

Eikenkai July 2013

Yesterday morning it was absolutely boiling in central Osaka. As people that have been to Japan in summer know, its not just the heat thats a problem, but the exceptionally humidity. Steeling myself for a sweaty keiko, I ate a large breakfast, drank buckets of water, and headed to the dojo. In the judojo next to the kendojo there was a childrens karate practise session going on and due to that the air conditioning was switched on!! I’m glad it was because we did our normal hard session of 40 minutes kihon, 30 minutes waza practise, and 40 minutes of jigeiko. In spite of the air conditioning, it turned out to be a sweaty practise after all.

This session saw a few of our normal members absent, but a good collection of kenshi took part, representing 6 countries, from Argentina to Canada, Vietnam to Scotland. After keiko we showered and headed to the usual restaurant for okonomiyaki and beer.

Our next session is on September 29th. Please have a read of the Eikenkai section of the website and consider popping along if you are in town.

10 years

July 27th 2003, exactly 10 years ago today, was when I stepped of the airplane in Tokyo and started my vague “move to Japan to study kendo and learn the language” experiment. That I’d still be here all this time later is… I don’t know, surprising? Stupid? Crazy? Probably all of the above! Like the vagueness of the initial experiment, I’ve no real plan for this post, so let me run with it and see where it goes.

Although now I’m in what many people assume to be an envious kendo situation, needless to say it hasn’t come without a lot of sacrifice and hard work (not to mention luck), and it continues to be both physically and mentally hard even now. I’ve thought seriously countless times about giving it up and heading back to Europe, but somehow here I still am. I’m not sure exactly how much longer I can keep it up!

I arrived in Japan about 2 weeks after taking part in the 12th World Kendo Championships, held in my home country of Scotland. I was sandan at the time and I knew what I was talking about (actually, I was clueless). One of the first keiko’s I was invited to was a combined primary and junior high school one. With my faltering Japanese I explained my background. I still remember the sensei looking at me and saying “World Kendo Championships? Where was that held? Last year wasn’t it? Who won?” Yeah, the most prestigious competition of the international kendo community meant nothing to your *average Japanese 7dan. Suddenly I was disarmed. The sensei then asked did I want to join the junior high schools kihon routine. Yes, I said, and joined in only to be removed after about 15 minutes into the practise – I couldn’t keep up with the kids pace, I couldn’t understand the Japanese instructions been given, and – frankly – I was so unskilled compared to the students that joining in ruined it for my partners. I’d just been force fed a dose of reality.

Over the next 10 years I’d be force fed on a number of occasions. Getting a hard beating I can take, but its the mental challenge of doing kendo over here that can be the hardest thing to overcome. The fact is, integration is nigh on impossible. This isn’t just in the dojo of course, but a larger barrier that exists at the core of Japanese society. This is assuming of course that you don’t want to stick out, that you want to be treated like your other Japanese kendo friends as much as possible, and that you don’t try to use your awkward non-Japanese ‘special’ status to get some sort of preferential treatment. Even if you manage to fit in pretty well, if you go to a new dojo, take part in a shiai, or join some sort of godo-geiko, many people who haven’t seen you before will assume that you a) have bad kendo; b) you can’t speak the language; and c) you don’t understand what kendo is really about. This is, even for people who do want to stick out (not me btw) a very frustrating experience. Ultimately, this is not something an individual or even a group of individuals can change, and – for me personally – it has been the most disappointing part of my kendo experience in Japan.

I receive emails on a semi-regular basis that start “I love kendo. I want to move to Japan and study it seriously. What should I do?” My advice is almost always the same – “if you are in your early/mid 20s then come over for a year or two, learn the language as much as you can, and enjoy/explore Japan… all while getting in as much keiko as you can. After that, get out of dodge and go back to wherever and focus on your job/career and friends.” The reason why I say this is not only because of my personal experiences, but of those around me: I’ve yet to see a single non-Japanese person balance a successful kendo life and career (of course I don’t know every non-Japanese kendoka in the country). I guess those that do come out the most successful are the people that manage to get professional jobs and still manage to get to the dojo twice or three times a week. Honestly speaking – if your mind is set on coming to Japan – this is probably your best bet…. just remember that you may only do kendo 2 or maybe 3 times a week and you’ll probably have to live in or around Tokyo.

When all is said and done, I speak Japanese pretty well and I’m doing kendo a lot. I study under really strong teachers, great kendo friends, nice dojo’s with beautiful floors, etc etc. Sounds great doesn’t it? I guess it is!!!!!!!!!

* this attitude has changed slightly since then, but not as much as you may imagine

Gekken Kogyo 撃剣興行

Sometime in the very early 1990s, Britain’s Channel 4 TV station started broadcasting Sumo on terrestrial TV. I don’t know why they took the chance of broadcasting such an exotic sport, nor did I care – it was on, it was Japanese, I must watch it.

I not only watched it, but I studied it: every Japanese sounding word I heard I wrote down on a piece of paper as well as the English translation. At that time I thought “Chiyonofuji” was Japanese for wolf, “Terao” = typhoon, and “Mitoizumi” = salt shaker… all pretty embarrassing mistakes to admit nowadays considering!

At this time, I hadn’t yet began kendo, I had played around with aikido and judo and thought that karate (what I currently practised) was the epitome of Japanese budo.

Fast-forward 20+ years on and now I live in central Osaka, under 10 minutes walk from the Prefectural Gymnasium where the spring Sumo tournament (basho) is held every March. Not only that, but one of my dojo (Yoseikai) is in the basement of the same building.

Of course, I’ve been to see the spring basho a few times, and have marvelled at the size of the rikishi (they are massive… much bigger than on a tv screen) as well as the spectacle of the event as well.

As you can see, I’ve had an interest in Sumo for a long time. Coming to Japan, learning the language, and studying more about the lifestyle of individual rikishi has engendered an even greater respect in me for them. Of course, Sumo has been marred in recent times by match fixing scandals and (to a lesser extent) bullying… but in all honestly, neither has dampened my enthusiasm much.

So, its of no wonder that I am intrigued by the fact that there was a point in time where kendo nearly took the same route as modern Sumo… that is, there was a possibility that kendo may have ended up as a professional sport with payed/salaried athletes. This possibility was perhaps slight (and since it never happened, academic), but it existed nevertheless.

When the Tokugawa-Bakufu was dismantled in 1867/68 budo education was thrown into turmoil: gone were the domain schools as well as the short-lived Kobusho, and with that budo instructors suddenly lost their profession. Many (now ex-) samurai were suddenly jobless and facing destitution. One person that stepped up to help these people was the ex-samurai, Kobusho kenjutsu instructor, and Jikishinkage-ryu kenshi Sakakibara Kenkichi. He instituted what was called “Gekken-kogyo” – the highly popular public budo shows. “Gekken” (alternatively “Gekiken”) refers to the nascent form of what we now call kendo (“kenjutsu” was another common term for sparring in bogu with shinai). Although mainly sword-based shows, bouts with other weapons also occurred, and women and even foreigners are also recorded to have taken part.

Sakakibara used the already established Sumo-kogyo (now called O-Zumo) as the basis for this new sword-based show as we can see by the use of banzuke, dohyo, yobidashi, gyoji, shinpan, colourful clothes, and so on, as well as splitting the competitors into East and West camps. A comparison between the wood block prints of Sumo and Kendo at the time reveals an amazing similarity.

These shows gathered ex-budo instructors up and they took part in bouts in front of a paying audience. The swordsmen themselves were ranked and payed. I'm not sure if their rank and compensation was based on their performance, but it wouldn't be hard to imagine that even if they hadn’t at this time, that it soon would evolve in that manner.

The shows almost instantly became popular and more sprung up in different parts of the country, mostly connected with Sakakibara and his jikishinkage-ryu students, but some not. Due to its popularity, a larger, specialised arena was built in Asakusa to deal with bigger events.

At this point you can imagine it wouldn’t have been a large step for Gekken to have become more formalised and professional, especially since it was following an already tried-and-tested model (Sumo-kogyo), but it didn’t.

There was a couple of problems that followed the success of the shows:

  1. There was a sudden flood of competitors, most of whom were unskilled. This led to messy/scrappy fights where it became difficult to choose a winner;

  2. The new Meiji government was sensitive to groups of people gathering and discussing political matters under cover of the shows (the same had happened in dojo in Edo during the Bakamatsu period).

Due to number 2 above, Gekken Kogyo eventually were banned and – even when the ban was lifted – its popularity never returned. The main reason for this is almost certainly that skilled competitors ended up being hired as policemen in the newly created Keishicho (Gekken became mandatory in part due to the arguments put forth by Kawaji Toshiyoshi in the Gekken Saikoron). At the end of the day, as you can see, Sakakibara’s wish of helping destitute budo teachers was in fact realised. This system continues in a modified form to this day.

Although it never happened, the professionalism of kendo into something akin to Sumo is an intriguing thought. Had it been realised, what would the kendo community and organisations look like today? Physically, would it be more or less athletic? Would it even have spread outside of Japan? Would you or I even be practising it?

Next time you are watching a sumo bout (or even better, when you go to see one), its worth thinking over.


Please check out the small gallery of pictures below, showing Ukiyo-e prints of both Gekken and Sumo, as well as Banzuke from both. For more information about the first picture in the gallery please read this article. 

Eikenkai June 2013

On a hot and sticky day at the end of June, 24 kenshi got together at Sumiyoshi Budokan in central Osaka for the usual kihon keiko bash. Keiko was especially interesting as we had a lot of first-timers, 8 in total. Hopefully some will become repeat members!!

The menu was as usual split into three – kihon, waza, and jigeiko – split into 40, 35, and 40 minutes respectively. After keiko we went to the nearby okonomiyaki restaurant for food, beer, and kendo chat.

Our next session is only a month away, on Sunday the 28th of July. If you are in town, please pop along!