history kendo kyototaikai

Kyoto taikai over the years

With April almost over and May looming ahead, the entire kendo community here in Japan gets ready for the most important season / event of the kendo calendar: the Kyoto Taikai.

The first Kyoto Taikai was held in 1895 to celebrate the completion of Heian Jingu (itself a celebration and part copy of the foundation of the ancient imperial capital of Japan, Heian-kyo), and has been held every year since, excluding the period of upheaval during and after WW2 and a couple of years for Tenran-jiai purposes (1898 and 1914). This year (2014) is the 110th taikai.

The Butokukai’s HQ dojo – the original Butokuden – was built inside what was then the grounds of Heian-jingu in 1899 and has been the venue for the Kyoto taikai ever since.

Long term readers of kenshi 24/7 know all of this already of course, so I thought I’d tackle the usual Kyoto-taikai theme a bit different this year by investigating what – or what hasn’t – CHANGED about the taikai during this time.

Note that a lot of what’s written below is speculative in nature as – obviously – I can’t go back in time. My opinions are based on extensive reading about the matter, including some first hand accounts of the taikai and it’s changes over the years. Please keep this in mind when reading.


Pre-war Kyoto Taikai

First of all, the taikai’s main function back in the day was to bring together budo practitioners from around the country in one place for a few days (kendo of course was core discipline of the event, but it grew to encompass most of the other modern budo of the time). In the beginning, of course, there weren’t really any professional kendo teachers around, so it was a hodgepodge of various sensei from different traditions.

From the very first taikai the Butokukai started to award those that fought well – they were given a Seirensho (the forerunner to renshi). This would expand and develop over the years into the shogo system: renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi. Both status and job-wise it was very important, therefore, to go to the taikai, show your face, fight well, and get your shogo.

Back to the early 1900s. After years of political lobbying, kendo became a required school subject for boys in 1908. Due to this happening organisations emerged that helped produce kendo professionals (i.e. school teachers). The earliest and most important of these was Busen (led by Naito Takaharu) in 1905 (or rather it’s immediate antecedent Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo), and we also cannot fail to mention the impact of Takano Sasaburo at Koshi (Tokyo Koto Shihan Gakko) from 1908, nor Saimura Goro at Kokushikan from 1917. Of course, other kendo teacher-training facilities/programmes existed, but these 3 were to have the largest influence. After people graduated from these places they were sent to schools all over Japan (eventually including Korea, China, and Taiwan) to disseminate a newer, more structured, kendo (these same early graduates would also go on to begin programmes at different universities and influence Keishicho).

The taikai, then, became a place where these widely spread kendo teachers could get back together for a short time. This served not only as a place/time where they could do kendo with other people of their own level and above, but also as a chance to exchange information and disseminate ideas (for example Butokukai shinpan methodology). Since kendo as we know it was basically built/structured in the time between 1905-1940, this is a very important point.


Differences emerge post-war

Even today the Kyoto taikai keeps it’s main function as a place where people from all over the country get together, but some changes have emerged.

The change with the largest impact is – I believe – is the taikai’s role in senior grading decisions. Pre-war shogo were awarded after your tachiai was finished – your performance explicitly influencing the award decision. Post-war, the 8dan shinsa was held after the taikai and your tachiai performance was implicitly included in the decision making process. At some point (1980s?) the 8dan shinsa was moved to before the taikai (and out of the Butokuden itself, where it had been held). At this instant the meaning of the tachiai for 8dan challengers changed.

What spurred this change I wonder? Could it just be sheer volume of challengers? At some point as well, another 8dan shinsa was added into the yearly schedule (people in Kanto complained, as did people who wanted to take a holiday with their family during golden week) and the Kyoto taikai’s role in the senior grading process (i.e. tachiai performance) was essentially over. This year (2014) also saw the addition of a third 8th dan shinsa (Okayama in March). Why we need another 8dan shinsai seems to baffle myself and my kendo colleagues. The only answer we could come up with is that its a monetary decision (i.e. the ZNKR want more of it). Needless to say, shogo awards are also now divorced from the taikai.

Concomitant with the change above is the fact that all the top sensei in the organisation (be that Butokukai pre-war or ZNKR post-war) used to watch the entire taikai. Obviously if the tachiai had an impact on senior grades then those making the decisions had to watch. Nowadays – since the tachiai means nothing grading-wise – the seats reserved for the top sensei are quite empty. Even if the tachiai has nothing to do with any sort of award, doing it in front of less senior sensei or even a 1/2 empty table has, I believe, a subtle – yet important – impact on the people doing the tachiai.

Post-war kendo became much more democratic and it underwent a boom in the 1960s and 70s. This produced a large number of senior teachers who of course take part in the taikai today. It’s hard exactly to measure – this is just my feeling – but I wonder if its the sheer volume of teachers that has forced the tachiai to be not only timed nowadays, but be very short? Pre-war tachiai (especially hanshi’s tachiai) would continue until both sensei decided the bout was finished – they were not ruled by the clock.

Another possible impact of the boom is that – even for many years in the post-war period – you would be called to your tachiai by your name and which dojo/group you were affiliated with whereas nowadays its by prefecture (or country for visitors). I guess this is because nowadays – because the community is much larger and less-centered around a handful of base institutions – we don’t know, haven’t heard of, or are just not interested in dojo from other prefectures.

One last point to note is that the taikai starts on the 2nd of May ever year…. not the 3rd. The 2nd hosts embu by various koryu, plus jodo and iaido. Nowadays this part of the taikai is the least well attended and seems to be treated by the ZNKR as an “extra” bit at the front. Proof of this is that there is two opening ceremonies – one on the 2nd and another (for kendo people) on the 3rd – and the fact that the ZNKR don’t even bother to make available a pdf of the participants on it’s website. This is very different from the taikai’s origins as for most of the early period of kendo existence every senior member had a kenjutsu background and there would be quite a lot of kata demonstration. Now the koryu embu are basically over in an hour, and the rest of the day is filled with jodo and iaido. A related point is that the ZNKR is built around the core discipline of kendo with iaido as adjunct art and jodo as something extra, whereas the Butokukai had – although kendo was still the core – a much wider remit regarding budo teaching and development as a whole. I think this is indicative of how much not only kendo practitioners have changed over the years, but of a large shift in the culture of kendo (and budo) itself. Needless to say, this change isn’t insignificant.


A tentative conclusion

Basically, the kendo format of the taikai hasn’t changed that much in the past 120 years except perhaps the “grading” aspect of the tachiai plus the very short time limit. The lack of emphasis or interest in the koryu section plus the exclusion of other budo deserves note, as I believe it’s evidence of something fundamentally different in kendo nowadays compared to 100 years ago.

An interesting subject, I think it deserves a lot more research. Perhaps, in a few years, I’ll make a more concrete effort.

At any rate, I hope you found this post interesting. I will be in Kyoto for the entire taikai again this year – if you see me, please say hello!


By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
For more information check out the About page.

7 replies on “Kyoto taikai over the years”

Great article!
The importance of other budo may have dwindled from the kendoka’s perspective, but I wonder about the opinions of those who specialize more in iaido and jodo? How has it changed for them? Naginata sensei also participate every year, and it’s a big deal to our community. One reason is that, lately, it is always a renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi that do isshu-jiai with a kendoka. Nowadays, sensei of this level almost never put on bogu and do keiko. After 5dan, there is no 6dan in Naginata, because the idea is that you are to focus on teaching and the non-competitative aspects of budo once you get renshi. So to see a Naginata hanshi put on bogu is a rare opportunity and the sensei chosen to participate in the Kyoto taikai take it very very seriously.
This is interesting from a kendo perspective, and I hope you write more on the topic! I’d also like to hear about the other budo that were – or still are – involved in the Kyoto taikai too.

I missed the ‘in’ of insignificant the first time I read this….makes a big difference lol. Thank you, as always, for the info.

Hey guys – glad you found it interesting! As I mentioned, it’s a wee bit speculative in nature and my conclusion is tentative …. so bear that it mind!!

always wanted to visit but I believe it’s Golden week too, how busy is Kyoto during this period George?


Sorry for the late reply — your comment got flagged as spam and stayed there for a bit.

Taking part in the Kyoto Taikai is a great honour still today for kendoka, but few kendoka now bother practising other arts. Not everyone is like this of course. If you chat to or research about senior iaido or jodo teachers you generally find that they got involved in their arts via kendo…. whether they still practise it or not is another matter, though many do.

You asked how it changed for those jodo/iaido people — I’d say (again, this is speculative) that they probably weren’t involved much if at all pre-ZNKR (i.e. before the war). It’s highly possible that naginata wasn’t much involved either, at least until the 30s, as the art was manufactured in the 20s as a callisthenics activity for girls (with a heavy nationalistic bent). What was more important would have been judo – but that’s now gone its own way.

The kyoto taikai nowadays is basically formatted like this:

Day 1 – koryu followed by jodo and iaido
Days 2-4 – 100% kendo. (iaido and jodo 8dan shinsa run during this time)

“koryu” basically means any ZNKR member with a renshi in any of the ZNKR arts (kendo, iaido, jodo) can demonstrate whatever ryu-ha they are a member of. I think some ryu-ha are given special dispensation, e.g. the sojutsu and naginata groups. Sadly, the “koryu” sessions lasts little than an hour (and many of the participants demonstrate jodo-related arts….) and the rest of the day is filled with jodo (a little) and iaido (loads) demonstrations.

btw, I wish kendo followed the same grading structure as naginata (or perhaps to 6dan) – I’d prefer to see abolishment of grades 7 and 8, and an increased importance and control of the shogo (renshi, shogo, hanshi). Thats a story for another day though!!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.