Coming to Japan to study kendo, the first thing you look for is a good dojo. In English as well as Japanese (nowadays) the word “dojo” also has the implied meaning of “group” or “club,” which goes beyond the mere physical location suggested by the word itself (see this article from 2011). Although there are many “dojo” in Japan that practise in school gyms or sports centres, I have always been lucky in that every group I belonged to have always had their own dojo (actually, one is owned by the prefecture and rented by the group – also not uncommon here in Japan).
Sadly, however, one group that I have been a member of for almost 15 years now, was forced out of it’s dojo in July of this year… which has inspired todays brief post.
In the 1960s and 70s there was, what many kendo people refer to as “kendo boom” here in Japan. A complicated time in modern Japanese history, we can suggest a web of interconnected reasons why this may have occurred:
- post war recovery (the Japanese economic miracle);
- a resurgence in interest in things “Japanese” (a reaction against occupation);
- a baby boom;
- the sportification of kendo (i.e. shinai-gyogi and rule changes, democratisation of the art, new teaching methods, etc).
- allowing budo back in to schools;
- kendo in popular media (TV drama, films, and manga);
- Widely reporting of the All Japan Kendo Championships on TV, radio, and in newspapers;
The democratisation of the art is, in particular, a key aspect that influenced the increase of the kendo population, the two main elements of which (in my opinion) were:
- Allowing girls and women to practise kendo and compete;
- Teaching children (boys and girls) from a young age rather than from their teens.
(Both of these aspects, while not unheard of pre-war, has been relatively rare, especially #1.)
In response to this sudden increase in kendo population there needed to be space for them to practise, and local dojo – called Machi-dojo in Japanese – sprang up all around the country.
Machi-dojo (local dojo)
“Machi-dojo” by definition are privately owned dojo built to serve a local community, with children making up the core membership base. Other than this loose definition, you’ll find that most have little in common with each other: size, quality of teaching, goals, cost, hierarchy, traditions, reiho, etc., can all differ greatly.
Many older (pre-war, adult-based), established dojo made the transition into this type of dojo during the 60s in order to survive.
Unfortunately, the success of local dojo on the back of the kendo boom was partially responsible for their decline. As more and more younger people took-up kendo, more and more junior and senior high schools started to accommodate students desire to run kendo clubs. The result of this over a few decades was simple: junior and senior high school aged students (13-18yr) stopped attending fee-based local dojo, and instead practising at free school kendo clubs. The result being that local dojo were left to teach only the primary school population.
While the kendo population was increasing, this was fine, but at some point in the late 80s/early 90s, the popularity of kendo started to decrease. Again, like the rationale for the kendo boom mentioned above, the reasons for this happening are complex. Oft cited is the slow-burning Americanisation (Globalisation) of Japan, which has changed the culture of Japan to it’s core: clothing, cuisine, hobbies, attitudes, music, sport… at any rate, whatever the particular reasons for it, there is no denying that kendo today in 2017 is nowhere near as popular as it was in the 1960s. The result of this has been the shuttering and closing of local dojo throughout Japan.
My dojo was one of these machi-dojo.
Land for the dojo was purchased by a well-known sensei, and he and his students hand-built the dojo themselves in 1970 (apart from the roof and, I think, the electrics). During the 70s and 80s it had a massive student population, and was visited by famous sensei from around the country. By all accounts, it was well ran and financially sound. However, when the owner passed away in 1990 the possession of the dojo was passed on to his non-kendo practising son. The son allowed the new head instructor (my teacher) to use the dojo as per his fathers wishes.
Over time, however, the kendo population decreased drastically, and the dojo was not making any particular profit. In the intervening years the surrounding paddy-fields have given way to houses and apartment buildings, and the area has become very built-up. So, sensing an opportunity, we were warned a few years ago that we might have to give the dojo up soon. Although we all knew it would come, it was still kind of devastating for all of us (especially my sensei who has been practising there for 40+ years) to face reality when the owner finally said he wanted it back.
Our last keiko in the dojo was on the 29th of July 2017.
Here is a small gallery of pictures from the dojo’s heyday back in the 1970s:
I only practised in the dojo for 15 years, but as an avid cameraman I took thousands of pictures. Here are a tiny handful:
We live in a throw-away society
Like all modern consumer societies, Japan (as a nation, and as individuals who live in it) also over-produces, over-consumes, and disposes of things without thought. Money and status are the key motivators of peoples actions. This is the same in America, the U.K., Saudi-Arabia, Italy, Poland, New Zealand everywhere (however, I do suspect that Japanese consumerism grips the country’s businesses and individuals firmer than in most other places). So, it comes as no surprise to me that my dojo would be torn down and the land used to build an apartment building or carpark. It has happened to far older dojo, larger dojo, and those with important cultural backgrounds.
Japan actively promotes itself as a country that respects and protects heritage, yet it only really seems to do so when there is profit to be made. Although there was no way my little 47-year old dojo could qualify as a “cultural property” it was still sad that we could do nothing to save it. Yet another thing used and disposed of, a casualty in the mad scramble for profit.
After the last keiko, we took some of the paintings, scrolls, bits and pieces from the dojo and shared them around the members. I took home, for example, some hand written calligraphy by Saimura Goro sensei.
Although the physical dojo no longer exists, the “dojo” as a group will continue for the foreseeable future. Perhaps it’s time for me to build my own?