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Nito-ryu kendo – a brief discussion

A serious discussion of nito-ryu kendo is something I’ve deliberately avoided over the last few years but the passing away of the most famous nito-ryu kenshi in the country in late December, Toda Tadao hanshi, I thought it was time to tackle the subject… at least very briefly as well as share some pictures. For a more detailed discussion on the matter you have to sit down with me in the pub!

First, here is the highly popular picture I uploaded to Facebook in December to pay tribute to Toda sensei. I took this on the 5th May 2009:

Next, I will give a brief overview of the background and culture of nito-ryu kendo from a historical perspective, followed by a my personal comments at the end.


1. Nito-ryu before shinai kendo

There are a number of extant koryu out there whose curriculum includes simultaneous use of two swords. The most obvious is of course Niten-ichi-ryu, the style allegedly created and passed on by Japan’s most dramatised swordsman: Miyamoto Musashi. Other schools that include the use of two swords include Yagyu shinkage-ryu, Shingyoto-ryu, and Katori shinto-ryu. It is important to note that two-sword kata sets, even when they do exist, make up a very small part of a wider series of kata.

2. Nito-ryu in nascent shinai kendo

The prototypes of today’s shinai and bogu were developed and experimented over many years from at least the mid-18th century up until the very early 20th, where the shape was basically completed. The two schools often mentioned at this point in the discussion – Jikishinkage-ryu and Hokushin Itto-ryu – have no nito element in them at all. However, we can surmise that people may have tried to pick up two shinai and spar at some point, it sounds like fun after all!

Gekken Kogyo

3. Gekken kogyo

It is probably the mid-late 19th century, with the introduction of the short-lived and public pay-to-see Gekken-kogyo, where nito first came onto the scene. These shows included a variety of weapon combinations as well as female competitors.

After shinai-kendo was eventually introduced as a physical subject for the new Tokyo Police Force (Keishicho) all the truly skilled exponents found work there and Gekken kogyo, becoming a shadow of what it used to be, eventually faded out.

4. Early standardisation of kendo: Busen and Koshi

The early standardisation of kendo went through two main centres: the Dai Nippon Butokukai (it’s original training facility the Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo eventually became the Budo Senmon Gakko, or “Busen”) and Tokyo Koto Shihan Gakko (“Koshi”). The two most influential teachers were Naito Takaharu and Takano Sasaburo. Neither of these sensei practised, taught, nor really even discussed nito-ryu kendo, which of course influenced their senior students and facilities that grew from them.

Muto-ryu kenshi Nishikubo Hiromichi, became the headmaster of Busen in 1919. In budo circles he is often remembered as the man who forced the renaming of “jutsu” to “do” but there was one another strong influence he had on Busen: the hated one-handed shinai waza complaining that such techniques were “unrealistic” and “weak.” This was almost certainly Naito’s option as well (although Naito’s favourite student and Busen teacher Miyazaki Mosaburo was renowned for his super strong katate-men waza). When Naito became sick and passed away Ogawa Kinnosuke (whom Nishikubo was especially fond of) became the head teacher of Busen until the middle of WW2. In this environment it’s easy to see why Busen never produced jodan, never-mind nito practitioners.

Saying that, however, it’s important to note that one of the earliest and most senior Butokukai members, Mihashi Kanichiro, was renowned as a nito-ryu master. A student of Momoi Junzo, he was one of the skilled exponents who was scouted from the Gekken Kogyo for professional kendo teaching at Keishicho. In 1899 he became a Butokukai kendo teacher (the Yoseijo was not yet operation at that time) and was awarded the first ever “hanshi” title in 1903. Another famed nito-ryu exponent, Okumura Torakichi (son of another nito-ryu master Okumura Sakonta), trained under Mihashi from 1900 until his death in 1909. Tarakichi was both the successor to his fathers “Okumara nito-ryu” and Mihashi’s “Musashi-ryu.” Both of these (almost certainly shinai-centric) styles were new inventions based on experience, not something that was passed down from the past.

As far as Koshi is concerned, whereas Takano would force all of the kendo students there to learn jodan as part of the kendo curriculum, nito seemed to be something largely ignored.

* Note: it’s almost certain that kenshi who studied at both Busen and Koshi went on to experiment with nito, but they were not explicitly taught it by the senior teachers there.

5. Nito-ryu kendo appears: mid-Taisho/start of Showa

Competitive kendo was never a “thing” until the 1920s, and even then it was still a rare event. Kendo as a school subject had been an elective for a few years and had just started to gain popularity in universities at this time. Being young, the students also enjoyed the thrill of competition. Older, more seasoned sensei, however, continued to frown upon shiai. Busen, especially, did no shiai training nor actively competed in many shiai until after Naito’s death in 1929 (students would sometimes do shiai practise in secret out of ear-shot of the sensei!). Competition at this time then, was generally started and run by university students and people in those circles. It is here where we first see nito appear.

The vast majority of pre-WWII competition were team events in the “kachinuki” style, a style where, if you win, you continue to fight the next person in the opposing team. A particularity of this type of shiai is that a draw causes both competitors to step out in favour of the next person in their team. It is here that nito-ryu found a use: if the opposing team had a very strong competition you would use a nito-player to force them to a draw (easier to do as it is a more defensive by nature), thus taking that strong kenshi out of play. Reading kendo anecdotes in particular, you can see that this was a fairly common strategy at the time, so much so that, in fact, some university competitions banned the use of nito entirely.

But where did these nito-ryu kenshi come from? Who taught them? I can make a good educated guess for both questions, but first I’d ask that you re-read the article about Fujimoto Kaoru that I published back in 2009 (apologies if it’s not up to current kenshi 24/7 standards!).

Although it’s pretty obvious, my guess is that at this time, similar to Fujimoto above, the vast majority of nito-ryu kenshi came from the young university kendo population (as apposed to professional kenshi) and were (surprise) self-taught. i.e. they were outliers. In professional kendo circles, nito-ryu was basically non-existent.

The success of two nito-ryu kenshi Fujimoto and Kayaba Teruo during the Showa Tenran-jiai (1934 and 1940) suggests that nito-ryu kendo was perhaps more popular than it actually was. Although there is no doubt that Fujimoto’s success in 1934 would have inspired others, by looking at lots of source material from the 30’s it’s easy to show that nito-ryu was – apart from kachinuki shiai for university level shiai – an afterthought. It wasn’t the business of serious kenshi. And anyway, as Japan fell into war in the 30s, kendo itself was forcibly changed to become more “realistic” which, needless to say, didn’t include simultaneous handling of two swords.

* Note: there were other nito-ryu kenshi that took part in the Tenran-jiai as well, these were just the two most successful.

Post-war

Once kendo restarted proper after WWII the newly incorporated All Japan Kendo Association decided to completely ban nito-ryu at school and university level shiai (it was also not part of shinai kyogi either). This ban remained in place until late 1991 and resulted in the almost complete eradication of nito-ryu kendo in Japan. Of course, the odd adult continued to practise during this time and even a tiny handful of high skilled practitioners actually competed in the All Japan Kendo Championships. These people were, as you can imagine, largely self-taught.


The current state of affairs: a mini rennaisance?

Over the past few years I’ve seen nito-ryu kendo explode. The explosion seems to be going on mostly outside of Japan than inside, but there are certainly more nito-ryu people around than when even I first came to Japan. What is behind this explosion?

1. Musashi-kai: for the first time in kendo’s history we have a group that actually practise and – more importantly – teaches nito-ryu in a systematic manner. The group first gained popularity in the early 2000s as a semi-commercial online dojo catering to the needs of scattered individuals in Japan, but has grown into a much larger organisation with a bunch if inter-connected groups and even students abroad.

2. Exposure: in 2007, for the first time in almost 40 years, nito-ryu kenshi Yamana Nobuyuki from Tokushima, took part in the All Japan Kendo Championships. Sticking out a mile, this caused a lot of (positive) debate and discussion about nito-ryu here in Japan. He also plays an important role as a good model for younger/aspiring nito kenshi to look up to which, I believe, is no small thing.

3. University level: the removal of the nito-ban on university level shiai has made it easier for students to take up the style but it seems like, at least initially, few bothered. With the combination of numbers 1 and 2 above though, there seems to be a lot more interest nowadays, and you can routinely see university level nito people competing. Perhaps the top nito-ryu sensei of the future, coached by Musashi-kai sensei, will come out of this generation.

4. The All Japan Kendo Association (ZNKR) textbook: there’s nothing like a textbook to make something official, and that was what the ZNKR did by publishing there own set of standards and rules. Although it doesn’t completely remove the stigma of choosing to do nito-ryu kendo, it does at least give a sheen of acceptability.

5. Interest from non-Japanese kenshi: I’ve left this point until last, but it’s probably one of the most interesting areas of discussion when it comes to nito-ryu kendo. It’s also an area that I’d prefer to tackle more in-depth at a later time… alternatively, you could buy me a beer!

Finally

Please note that this article is not some sort of comprehensive guide, but rather a brief look at nito-ryu, particularly it’s history, and a tiny discussion about the recent popularity of nito-ryu kendo from my perspective. I am not qualified to discuss the technical aspects, but it’s history is actually quite simply explained.

To summarise:

– Apart from a smallish boom amongst university level students in the 20s and 30s, nito-ryu kendo existed (barely) on the very fringes of kendo until very lately. One could argue that it’s still a fringe activity, but theres no denying it’s increased popularity over the last 10 years or so.

– Before the spread of the Musashi-kai group in very recent times, nito-ryu kendo practitioners were few and far between, and almost always self-taught.

And, one last point: at the very top of this article I stated that a “serious discussion of nito-ryu kendo is something I’ve deliberately avoided over the last few years.” The reason for this is not due to lack of interest, but because I suspected I would receive complaints from nito-ryu kendo practitioners who would resist my analysis. The fact of the matter is that, from the historical perspective, things are really quite as straightforward as discussed above.

Personally, I am glad that nito-ryu kendo is becoming more organised, less random than it has been in the past. It adds something interesting to the mix, and I am happy to engage in keiko with my nito-ryu friends whenever I can, because it aids me in my own shugyo.


Random nito-ryu pics

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