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Kendo art

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” refers to the nascent form of what we now call kendo. Although mainly sword-based shows, bouts with other weapons also occurred, and women and even foreigners are also recorded to have taken part.

Gekken Kogyo, July 2013

On the 26th of April 1873 a 10 day event occurred in Asakusa, Tokyo, which had a direct influence in the development of modern kendo and possibly without which the fledgling kendo (then called gekken, gekkiken, shinai-uchikomi, or kenjutsu) could have faded into extinction: the first ever Gekkikenkai (撃剣会) – or Gekken Kogyo (撃剣興行). This was a public gathering of budo experts who fought each other in front of an audience and received money to do so. Many of the combatants of this first gekkikenkai were out of work ex-samurai, but it also included some women and – intriguingly – a couple of non-Japanese kenshi.

Three woodblock prints (Ukiyo-e) were commissioned to commemorate the event, the artist being Utagawa Kunitera the 2nd. After many years of fruitless searching for a printed copy of one of the prints, I was recently given a gift of an original 1873 print of my favourite one!

This is what the image looks like in full:

Gekken Kogyo

This is the actual three-pieced print laid out (not yet in a frame) next to a shinai for reference:

Beautiful isn’t it?

Over the years I could barely find any information on this particular ukiyo-e, leading me to believe that perhaps it was not a particularly popular one, or that few if any original prints even survived (remember, large swathes of Tokyo were bombed). I don’t know whether it was luck or fate that brought this print to me, but whatever it was I am not complaining! I plan to get a frame custom made for it asap, and hang it in my flat until such time as it can take pride of place in a dojo.

For comparison, here are the other two in the set. Again, I can find little about them online, and have never seen them in colour:

Let me briefly introduce the figures in my print, starting with the two kenshi before moving on to the judges, then finally finishing with a short discussion and video about how Ukiyo-e were/are made.

Ogawa Kiyotake (小川清武)

The kenshi on the left hand side of the picture is Ogawa Kiyotake. Originally from a different style, he changed to the study of jikishinkage-ryu and was listed on the banzuke (the link shows a sumo banzuke not a gekkikenkai one) as a first-class kenshi (一等剣士). He worked as a deputy instructor at the Kobusho (a short-lived military school in the 1850s-60s) and then as a police inspector in the fledgling Japanese police force between 1874-1883.

Ogawa Kiyotake

Akamatsu Gundayu (赤松軍太夫)

Akamatsu Guntayu stands in the middle of the picture wielding jodan. His dou has the first character of his name (赤) emblazoned on it. Although not a student of Sakakibara’s, he was listed as a first class kenshi like Ogawa above. Akamatsu was from the Choshu domain, a place noted for its strong kenshi. He was known for attending various gekkikenkai meets throughout the country.

Akamatsu Guntayo

Nomi Teijiro (野見錠次郎), 1827-1909

The shinpan (then called miwakeyaku or gyoji) standing between the two kenshi is Nomi Teijiro. Nomi was Sakakibara’s top student, and the Gekken Kogyo was said to be his idea: worried that budo was declining and was going to disappear, and also that many out of work samurai could not afford to eat, he approached Sakakibara with the idea. Nomi would later inherit both the jikishinkage-ryu* and the running of the official Gekken Kogyo from his teacher.

* The generally accepted main-stream inheritor is Yamada Jirokichi of-course

Nomi Teijiro

Sakakibara Kenkichi (榊原健吉), 1830-1894

Sitting on the far right of the picture holding a fan is Sakakibara Kenkichi. There is no one who has studied the history of kendo that has not heard his name. He was the man who promoted and ran the first Gekken Kogyo, the headmaster of jikishinkage ryu, an ex-kenjutsu instructor at the government run Kobusho, and later in life a kenjutsu instructor at the fledgling Keishicho amongst other things.

Sakakibara Kenkichi

How are ukiyo-e made?

Ukiyo-e was printing done on a mass scale for the general public. There were three main people involved in the creation of a woodblock print. First, the E-shi, or artist, the person who does the drawing. It is the E-shi whose name goes on the print itself. The second person in the process, arguably the most important, is the Hori-shi, the carver. They took the original drawing and carved it onto the woodblock that would be used to print from. The third person is the Suri-shi, the printer. They take the paper to be printed on, mix the colours, and do the job of placing the paper on the woodblock to produce the final print. The Suri-shi would produce many copies of individual ukiyo-e. Although produced in large batches each individual print was produced by hand and could therefore possibly vary in colour and texture.

Note that the particular style of ukiyo-e that I introduced today is called a Nishiki-e, a later style of woodblock print that uses many colours.

If all that sounds complicated, thats because it is! Please check out this video:

I actually have a small handful of other items that I plan to hang in any future dojo that I may build, including calligraphy by famous sensei such as Saimura Goro, as well as the odd art work, but I think the ukiyo-e I introduced here today might be the dojo’s centerpiece!

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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7 replies on “Kendo art”

Yes, this particular piece of work is a stunner. Ironically, I used it as the main art motif when I built my dojo’s website.

The fact you have an original copy is an envious one. Chodai?

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