dojo history kendo

Eikenkai @ Wakayama Butokuden

In August of 2015, my fiends and I got together and held one of my Eikenkai sessions at Nara Butokuden. After the main HQ Butokuden was built in Kyoto in 1899, the next to be constructed was this Nara one in 1903. Little did we know, however, that when we visited it in 2015 there was already plans to knock it down: this historical and beautiful dojo is scheduled to be demolished this very summer. The reason? Cost. It costs too much money to maintain and keep it up to anti-earthquake standards of the modern age. Such is the money-centric world we live in today.

Not having the resources to buy the land and the building, there’s nothing I can do but share some pictures and information about it. However, I am glad that I got to keiko there before it was destroyed (unlike the Shiga Butokuden, where I didn’t manage to practise, or the Kyoto branch Butokuden, which is now re-purposed). What a waste.

With this experience in mind, I decided that I would try and visit, practise in, and study about the Butokuden and older dojo that are within travelling distance from where I live here in Osaka. Which brings us to this recent Eikenkai keiko-kai, held in Wakayama Butokuden on the 30th of July 2017.

Wakayama Butokuden: a brief history

As mentioned above, Wakayama Butokuden was built in 1905 but, unlike most Butokuden, survived throughout the war years (when many buildings were lost to American bombs) and the 60’s and 70’s (a time when the old parts of the culture were being ignored or simply disposed of). The current building is located in a small park just south of Wakayama Castle, where it was relocated to in 1961. It was moved from it’s original location, just 1km to the east, due to the construction of a road. We are lucky that it wasn’t in it’s current position in 1945, for if it had been it would’ve been destroyed or burned down due to bombing along with Wakayama Castle.

Finding information about who taught and was active at the Wakayama Butokuden has been difficult, but let me tell you about an important character in the dojo’s history today (more to be added as research continues).

An old picture in the original location

Higashiyama Kennosuke sensei

Higashiyama Kennosuke was born in Wakayama city in 1893, and began keiko at Wakayama Butokuden. In 1913, at the age of 20, he went to the Butokukai HQ in Kyoto and became a koshusei (like a “part-time student”) at Busen, where he would have studied under Naito Takaharu sensei. Five years later, in 1916, he retuned the Wakayama Butokuden as a kendo instructor. He was awarded Seirensho in 1918, and Kyoshi in 1927. After this his status increased and he became the head kendo instructor for Wakayama Police Dept., the Butokukai Wakayama Branch (and thus, for the Wakayama Butokuden), as well as various other kendo and sports education roles.

In 1940 he was somehow involved in a train accident, causing the loss of one of his legs. Since his house and the Butokuden were next to each other, a corridor was built between them to allow him to move between both buildings with ease. It’s interesting to note that after the war (50s/60s) another one-legged kenshi – Gordon Warner – visited Higashiyama sensei and Wakayama Butokuden (I have a picture, but it’s not clear).

There is no information available about exactly who ensured the preservation of the dojo (by having it moved in 1961) but I think we can safely bet that Higashiyama sensei was involved.

Higashiyama sensei died in 1968 (he was hanshi 9th dan at the time).

Higashiyama sensei

Wakayama Butokuden today

Today, amazingly, the dojo is still actively used: iaido, aikido, and shorinji-kempo groups use it on a regular basis… but what about kendo? Unfortunately, it seems that kendo people stopped actively using it perhaps one or two decades ago, though we did meet someone who said they remember using it once about 15 years ago (but were unsure). Although I am glad that it is being used, I’m sad that it isn’t being used for kendo, which is what it was built for after all.

I used the word “amazingly” above because the dojo is not a registered cultural asset and thus could easily be written off by the current owners, Wakayama City (which is what happened to the Nara Butokuden and many others). So, although kendo people aren’t using it, I’m happy that it is being used and kept for posterity.

However, a wooden building of this age isn’t particularly earthquake-proof, so perhaps it will only take one or two semi-large earthquakes to make the thing unsafe. As it is at the moment, the roof is sagging.

Standing in this beautiful dojo in a lull during keiko I wondered what it would take for me to buy it, dismantle it, and move it to Scotland ….

The pictures here are from a short reconnaissance mission to make sure we could hire it, and that the floor was useable.

Eikenkai keiko at the Wakayama Butokuden
(30th of July 2017)

So, we rented the building, called a deliberately small handful of friends, and gathered at 1pm on a sweltering hot Sunday afternoon. First thing was first: as it’s not used for kendo nowadays we had to lift the tatami up then clean and inspect the floor. The floor was not in a perfect state but, despite not being fumikomi-ed on for a decade or two, it was a proper kendo floor, unlike most modern builds.

Like all old Butokuden, the floor space itself wasn’t generous. In fact, most Butokuden had to expand over time as kendo became more popular during the 1920s and 30s, so it’s amazing that this one is still the original 1905 size. It made keiko a little bit awkward, but nothing we couldn’t handle.

For the session today I only called a handful of friends (because I knew floor space would be at a premium) plus their kids. It was stifling hot and super humid, so we did a shorter session than normal: 35 mins of kihon, 15 mins of waza, and about 45 mins of jigeiko spread over about 2.5 hours.

I must be totally honest with you: I totally love this building. Floorspace is limited, but what there is of it is great. The design, all the wood, the history … THIS is the kendo-jo of my dreams!!!

After keiko we cleaned the floor, put down the tatami, and tidied up the whole dojo. There is no doubt in my mind that we left the dojo in better/cleaner condition than what we found it in! I hope the people that use the building constantly do so with a little bit more … love!

I’m pretty certain I will do kendo in this dojo again in the future.

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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4 replies on “Eikenkai @ Wakayama Butokuden”

“Wakayama Butokuden was built in 1905 but, unlike most Butokuden, survived throughout the war years (when many buildings were lost to American bombs) and the 60’s and 70’s (a time when the old parts of the culture were being ignored or simply disposed of). The current building is located in a small park just south of Wakayama Castle, where it was relocated to in 1961. It was moved from it’s original location, just 1km to the east”

I find it strange and contradictory that they had the wherewithal to move the building. That is not an easy or cheap task to endeavor in, especially at a time when Japan was still growing out of the ashes of WW2.

As you mentioned, this was at a time when Japan was in, amongst other things, doing “cultural do-overs” by scrapping this and that in order to remake itself and modernize for the sake of showing it had become a peaceful nation. It could have been easily been demolished, but someone (as you have suggested) or some group of people had the fortitude to relocate it. That to me, would set a precedence to save the building today and base an argument to petition the building for cultural property status. Though it might be an anomaly during a time period when it was moved, it should still be seen as an asset worth protecting as a symbol of Wakayama history and Japanese budo culture.

(As an afterthought, this building was moved approximately during the same time period when the Kyoto Butokuden was being transferred to the Kyoto City University of Arts. I wonder how much influence they had on each other when the question of what to do with them came up as an issue. There might be some interesting finds by doing some cross-analysis of primary source data.)

I have no idea why it wasn’t demolished, it may be because some wealthy person helped, or perhaps because a politician was an kendo person or whatever. But whatever the reason, I’m glad it was saved. And I agree, it should be given some sort of cultural status. That didn’t stop the Nara Butokuden from being destroyed though.

I think how individual prefectures handled there buildings probably had little or nothing to do with each other. There doesn’t seem to be (nor is there today) any organisation of body of people that care for these disparate buildings…. except for me and my friends!

I learned the Goju-ryu Karate Way from Master Shozo Ujita at his Kenbukan dojo in Wakayama. Which he founded in 1946 after the war. He also taught the Way of the Sword at his dojo. What do you know about his sword lineage and affiliations?

John “Jack” Griffin

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