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Kendo Tokuren

I recently received a question about kendo tokuren and decided to do this short article explaining what I can about the system. As the information isn’t generally available, I can only give a brief/rough outline about how the system works based on what I know about things here in Osaka, or what I have inferred through discussions and reading stuff over the years (I know or have known many tokuren members, and pretty much all my kendo teachers are police pros).

First of all, prefectural police departments have a physical education and technique training dept. called “jutsuka.” Here, full time teachers instruct policemen and women in kendo, judo, taihojutsu (arresting techniques), and marksmanship. All of these disciplines have “special training” or “tokuren” squads where specially selected young police men and women gather and do extra training. Getting into the squad, the number of members, and how long they spend practising, depends on the prefecture and discipline.

Taihojutsu and marksmanship members are selected AFTER people become police men and women. These people don’t really concern us except to compare them with kendo and judo, members of whom apply with the purpose of joining the tokuren and, if they are successful, are specially appointed. Unless you have a long list of competition titles and successes to your name, especially at high school and university level, it’s obviously pretty hard to pass this first barrier. Some people are scouted and encouraged to apply, which can only help.

(If you decide that you want to do kendo professionally, it would be better if you decide early on: picking the right high school and university can increases your changes massively in terms of technical skill acquired as well as opportunity for shiai success.)

Future Osaka Tokuren member Yamamoto Mariko in the 2006 All Japan High School Championships

Acceptance into the kendo and judo tokuren usually means being given a post in the riot-squad police (kidotai) with the goal of becoming a jutsuka instructor in the future. Most of a tokuren members days will be spent practising their discipline constantly, but they also have to learn other aspects of police work. Riot-squad police remit also includes helping out in disasters (earthquakes, tsunami, etc) as well as protection services during large international events or when foreign VIPs come (e.g. 2007 World Athletic Championships or the upcoming Osaka G20 summit), but in most cases a lot of their time will be spent in the dojo.

Please note that only a small handful of prefectures have large full-time kendo tokuren squads (I don’t know about judo) – Tokyo (Keishicho), Osaka, Kanagawa… I’m not 100% sure (if you have any concrete information please comment below). Many prefectures tokuren quads are smaller than the prefectures listed above, and their members do more “normal” (non-budo related) police work. Osaka, for reference, has about 30 members, with men making up almost the entire squad.

(I’ll point out here that – in the case of Osaka, and I’d assume all the other prefectures – women don’t seem to be able to become instructors. Since there is no way to be promoted through the system they participate in the tokuren activities whilst doing a normal police job. Japan is still very much a patriarchal society I’m afraid.)

Osaka police championships

Tokuren members most important aim is shiai. For the Judoka that means aiming for the olympics; for the kendoka it is the All Japan Championships (police and non-police) and, increasingly, the world championships. Other major shiai including the todofuken, kokutai, and tozai-taiko.

Over the course of their tokuren career, if someone is unable to make the physical or technical grade, cannot perform on the shiai-jo, or something happens to them that makes them unable to physically withstand the training, they face the danger of being removed from the squad and re-assigned to some other department. And note that the tokuren “career” is fairly short: until about 36 years old, that is, 15 years in total (if you join straight from high school you’ll have an extra 4 years).

At this point tokuren members have already had a tough life: getting accepted into the tokuren in the first place, surviving years of harsh training, pressure to perform at shiai, terrible civil-servant salary, etc. etc, but the worst is to come – lack of career advancement. There are only a certain number of kendo teachers spots in a prefecture and in order for you to get a spot you must not only have had success at shiai over your tokuren career, but there must be an opening for you.

At this point your average ex-tokuren member has three choices:

1 – stick it out and attempt to become a teacher;
2 – return to normal police work (I say “return” but for some tokuren members this will be their first “real” police work);
3 – quit the police force entirely and do something else.

Assuming a tokuren member gets a teaching position they will then be dispatched to Keishicho to learn how to instruct kendo (this lasts 6-12 months I hear). During their time there they study not only kendo, but iaido, jojutsu, keishi-ryu, and Ono-ha Itto-ryu. On completion of the course they will return to their home prefecture and be assigned a teaching position. General teaching positions are at police stations training the police men and women posted there (and more often than not, some sort of local community kids class), but there are also more specialised positions at police academies (teaching recruits) and back at the riot-squad police (coaching the tokuren). As civil servants here in Japan are routinely rotated around positions, professional kendo teachers will more than likely experience all these situations (the majority of the time being at police stations).

Getting into the tokuren system is hard, surviving it is tough, and actually advancing to become a professional teacher is only for a select few.

This brief article was deliberately written in broad strokes. I know many police kendo people, both tokuren, professional teachers, as well as non-pro police people (my main dojo is a police station), however I am not privy to the actual inner workings of the system per-se. However, I am pretty confident that I have the gist of the matter! If you have more information, please comment away.

Please remember that I am bringing a police kendo professional instructor (who obviously went through the process described above) to Scotland next month to teach a seminar. If you are interested, please come along!

Here are some videos showing Tokuren keiko and/or demonstrations. The Osaka ones are mostly by yours truly. Enjoy!

Hokkaido tokuren:

Kanagawa tokuren (demo):

Aiichi tokuren:

Osaka Tokuren

Fukuoka tokuren:

Kumamoto tokuren:

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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4 replies on “Kendo Tokuren”

Thank very much for one more awesome article.

Now i understand why some AJKF champions disappear from public eye after their winnings they were probably being transfered to other prefectures or doing police job or trying to make weeks end.

Reading this article i just kept thinking how miserable must be the life of a former tokuren (except the ones who won lots of championships) who can”t find a job as a instructor after “retirement”. If i devote all my life to kendo and cant get a job on it after so many years of devotion i”d be pretty depressed.

Glad you enjoyed it !

Retired tokuren don’t get transferred to other prefectures.. though I’m sure they could move to another prefecture if they became a normal police person. But, yeah, you are right about the fact that most disappear from view… they are back at the grind or their jobs have changed.

Now you realise why police championships can be quite aggressive – there is more on the line than just a trophy. The entire tokuren life is highly competitive. Within the police kendo system it there are also cliques… and Japan is a vertical society… so you’d better be friendly with the right sensei…

Plenty of great kendo people avoid the police system entirely for obvious reasons – most either choose to become a teacher or join a company that supports kendo. There are other routes to do kendo your entire life.

Where I reside we don’t use the word 特練 (tokuren), but rather 機動隊 (kidoutai = riot police?). Now I wonder if Osaka 特練 folks are formally in 機動隊 and that’s their 部署. The 機動隊 members here practice kendo day in and day out and are not walking the beat. However they “retire” in their 30’s just like you mentioned in the article. I’ve know many of them now, since I’ve been here for over 20 years. The oldest ones were from the time when I first new them as high school students. They graduated and went right into 機動隊. Some actually became normal police officers first, and then were recruited into the 機動隊. It’s a decision that’s not taken lightly, because you’re back to doing competitive kendo. So I think it’s the same, but certainly not on the same level because really the best go somewhere else i.e, Osaka, Tokyo etc. Which in fact, some of them do. For example, there’s one woman originally from here, who graduated from 東奥義塾 (Tōō Gijuku), who temporarily practiced with her home prefecture squad but changed after 国体 (Kokutai) was over. She then transferred to Osaka as is now a 特練 member.

Oh hey, I never noticed your comment until now. Thanks for sharing your experience.
Yes, being a member of the “tokuren” means you will be moved to the “kidotai” … I think this is the same in all prefectures.

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