A few months ago I was sitting down in an izakaya with Yano sensei discussing the upcoming Edinburgh Kendo Seminar. Over food and beer we discussed this and that, including of-course lots of kendo related things. During the conversation, in a rather off-hand manner, Yano sensei asked (because he knows I am a kendo history nerd) had I ever read much about suburi in pre-war kendo books, specifically in relation to the Budo Senmon Gakko (Busen). I had never even thought about that question before but I immediately knew the answer: no.
Over the last few months, whenever I could get a few minutes away from my super genki wee daughter, I would flick through my pre-war (and immediate post-war) kendo books searching for references to suburi. Although not exhaustive research by any means, today I want to briefly address the subject.
Kendo, as it existed, prior to 1868 was almost certainly a hodgepodge random affair. Sparring with a shinai using bogu had various names at that point, usually simply “kenjutsu” but sometimes “shinai uchikomi” (later the term “gekken/gekiken” became fashionable). Bokuto-only kenjutsu also existed, but was allegedly in a sorry state of affairs by the middle of the Edo period, hence the development of and research into bogu and shinai from that time.
The randomness of shinai-uchikomi practise was eventually tackled by the Butokukai and, with impetus from the government (see below), eventually became the art we practise today known as “kendo.”
Before 1868 it is hard to say with great certainty this was how something was done, but I think it is safe to assume that at least some people practising shinai-uchikomi as well as some practitioners of bokuto-only kenjutsu probably did suburi. However, it is extremely difficult to presume in what manner it was practised. Some people might be tempted to conclude that because they do suburi within their koryu keiko sessions today their forerunners 150 years or so ago also did some (and in the same manner), but I don’t think that is necessarily true. Then there is the reverse-impact of modern kendo on traditional koryu to consider.
Anyway, as you’ll guess from what’s written below, there is little evidence of suburi having been common in koryu at all, otherwise we would’ve seen more of it in the emerging “kendo.”
Post-Meiji restoration: sport in the Japanese education system
After the collapse of the Shogunate and the installation of a new government system in Japan, many aspects of the Japanese way of life were to change radically in only a few short years. The changes enacted in the education system, particularly the handling of physical education, were to have a massive impact on all budo in Japan, especially judo and kendo. It is not too much to say that it was the inclusion of both in the schools that kept budo alive to this day.
The following is from “The Educational Policy of the New Meiji Government” by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology” :
The new Meiji government founded on the premise of restoring the Imperial institution was faced with a complex task. Both reform and reaction played a role in the effort to develop a national policy and a modern nation which could adapt to the conditions of the outside world. The basic policy of the new government was made clear in the Imperial Oath … [which] had an important bearing on education, and Article 5, “Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world in order that the welfare of the Empire may be promoted,” clearly specified the goal of modernizing national education through introducing modern Western civilization.
The new government wished to develop education for all the people based on the concept of Civilization and Enlightenment so as to create a strong modern nation … the government planned to found higher educational institutions as a means of introducing Western culture … In 1871 … the new government established the Department of Education and placed it in charge of all the nation’s educational activities.
What has this to do with our discussion today? Well, to keep things reeeeeeeeeeally short, the eventual creation of a modern (= Westernised) eduction system included physical education. In the beginning this completely discarded Japanese methods (of which there didn’t seem to be much of anyway) and focused on sports and methodologies from Europe. For example, something called “Denmark Taiso” (a type of gymnastics developed by Elli Björkstén and Niels Bukh) was to become highly popular and, as you probably know, baseball went on to dominate Japan.
In amongst all this change were local people – prominent amongst them was Kano Jigoro – who pushed for (and established) a more “Japanese” method of physical education, the result of which was judo and, eventually, kendo in the school system.
Around about the first decade or so of the 1900s, before kendo was allowed in schools, some some curious exercises methods using bokuto and based on “kenjutsu” (including shinai-uchikomi) started to emerge. These are kind of like a Japanese-y callisthenics method, usually done by oneself, but also in pairs. Other weapons were sometimes used.
(Note that “atarashii naginata” that was created in the 1930s was exactly this: a newly constructed callisthenics method for girls with a cultural [nationalistic] element embedded.)
Nakajima’s “bokuto exercise method” (published 1906):
Koyanagi’s “Kenjutsu exercises: kenjutsu for P.E.” (published 1911):
These methods never seem to have taken-off, but the research and trials done are said to have influenced the eventually teaching of kendo in schools in Japan, which is where we turn to next.
Apologies for the briefness of this part – The education reforms of the Meiji period are super complex and way beyond my ken and the scope of this article. If you are interested, please check out the official run-down here.
Pre-war kendo education and suburi
Once kendo was finally accepted into the education system, in 1911, there was a need to not only create methods of instruction, but also to train qualified instructors. The immediate result of this was the creation of kendo-no-kata, the holding of seminars around the country, and the formulation of curricula and textbooks.
The Butokukai already had it’s foot firmly in the door at this point, as it had been training kendo instructors since 1906 (at pre-runner to Busen, the Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo) under Naito Takaharu sensei. Later another school was to enter the fray: Tokyo Koto Shihan Gakko (“Koshi”) whose headmaster was Kano Jigoro, and it’s kendo teacher Naito’s rival, Takano Sasaburo sensei. (For more on Busen and Koshi please see this article.)
So, suburi. Over the period from 1911 until the war started, countless kendo manuals were published, schools started kendo clubs, and various institutions started to teach kendo instructors. Looking through various books (obviously not exhaustive) we can deduce that suburi was something that was either not taught, or taught only in a limited capacity. This conclusion is reached by the absence of mention of suburi in just about every manual I looked at.
Let’s have a look at Takano’s “Kendo” and “Kendo Kyohon” (the former was published in 1915, and the latter – basically a renamed, revised, and extended version of the former – in 1930). Although there are pictures of Takano demonstrating cuts in what looks like a suburi fashion in the latter book, there is no mention of suburi itself. However, within the books there are descriptions and pictures of cutting practise with a partner. This, it turns out, is common in most other kendo books of this time period as well – partner, not solo practise.
How to strike men
Bring both hands up high enough so that you can see the enemy through the space between your elbows then, moving out with the right foot and with the left foot following, step forward and strike men. Make sure that both elbows are stretched out enough.
– Takano Sasaburo, Kendo Kyohon, 1930
Looking at the Butokukai related books I have access to, I have yet to find anything that references suburi explicitly. A good example would be Ogawa Kinnosuke sensei’s 1932 (revised 1937) Teikoku Kendo Kyohon which follows the exact same format as Takano’s (and most other) manuals.
Command: sho-men o utte!
Upon the command swing the sword up by raising the left hand high enough so that the opponent can be seen. At the same time step forward on the right foot and strike the opponent directly on their sho-men. After the strike step back on the left foot and return to chudan.
– Ogawa Kinnosuke, Teikoku Kendo Kyohon, 1937
Note that one Butokukai related figure – Sato Chuzo sensei – was a bit of a suburi fanatic. In his writing’s he explicity states that a sempai taught him suburi casually at Busen, i.e., he wasn’t taught it within class time. I’ll attempt to translate and introduce his views on the subject in the future.
In amongst the books I have access to, however, I did find a couple that do refer to suburi: Hotta Sutejiro’s 1934 “Kendo Kyohan” and Tanida’s 1935 “Kendo Shinzui to Shidoho Shosetsu.”
In both of these books the use of suburi is seen in two ways: one, as part of the warmup process prior to putting on men, and two, as an exercise to help acquire both tenouchi and ken-tai-ichi (moving the body and sword in unison). Suburi is not treated at much length in either book though, and doesn’t seem to be regarded as that important.
First, here are a couple of small quotes from Hotta’s book. Note that he doesn’t use the term “suburi” but instead uses “undo” (運動) or “junbiundo” (準備運動) which mean “exercise” and “warmup” respectively.
The procedure for two handed exercises
“Two handed exercises” are warming up strikes and thrusts that train the grip, elbows, and shoulders accurately as well as help speed up cutting action and and correct the swords flight path.
Training methods to bring the hands and feet in unison
Cutting shomen by moving forward and back. When moving forward do so with the right foot and left foot following, and the opposite when moving back. At the same time lift the hands up into the jodan position and strike shomen. When doing so don’t put any power in the hands or legs, move lightly. Ensure that the the right hand and shoulder are in line with each other upon the strike. Learning the knack of this is through repetition alone.
It is with Tanida’s book that we finally discover a section entitled “suburi.” Note that before this section is one with the strikes executed in the exact same manner (under command) as mentioned above.
Using a bokuto or shinai and imagining the enemy standing in front of you, suburi is a cutting practise method executed with full power.
It then goes on to give not only a detailed explanation of what suburi is for (tenouchi, ken-tai-ichi, etc.) but mentions some people who were known for doing a lot of it, for example Yamaoka Tesshu.
What is crucial to mention here is that all these books and new training methods had one thing in common: the move away from the traditional one-to-one method of training into “group teaching” exercises. This is obviously because for the first time in kendo’s history you had one instructor running a class of x number of students. This method of training was to change kendo training irrevocably and it is what we do today.
The paired suburi-like exercises described in Takano’s books (and in most other books) was done at the command of the teacher: “ICHI!” (lift up hands) – “NI!” (strike) – “MODORE” (go back)… etc. This command-based group teaching style seems to have been the norm in school/instructional situations prior to and throughout the war, and can still sometimes be seen in children classes today. This method lent itself easily, as we shall soon see, to the addition of group suburi practise.
As everyone knows, kendo went though a period of relative inaction after the war, only to be reinstated via way of the sportified Trojan Horse that was shinai-kyogi in the 1950s. However, the newly democratised kendo that arose was to be forever changed by compromising itself in such a manner. One such development was that, starting in about the 60s, we begin to see lots of scientific based books researching kendo as a sport. Some of these measured the physical aspects of the art in order to help performance, others looked at how to improve teaching methodology.
I used the word “compromised” above, but kendo’s teaching methods started to become far more logical and standardised (i.e. less random!) which was almost certainly a good thing. This included having warmups… which was were suburi was inserted.
There are literally hundreds and hundreds of kendo books that were published since then (I personally own maybe 20 or 30 manuals from the 60s-80s), and there is no way I could possibly go through them all and list all the mentions of suburi. So please believe me when I say – suburi became a normal part of kendo training during this period.
There are probably many possible reasons for the normalisation of suburi within kendo practise but it seems a safe bet to me that it was the combination of more logical training methodology with a kids kendo boom that sealed the deal.
BTW, check out the first 19 seconds of the following video to see where I am coming from. This scene would’ve been unknown before the 1960s:
Looking at the “Kendo instruction handbook” issued by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in 1980, we can see suburi is an integrated part of lesson plans. By the 80s, then, we can say that suburi was firmly established as a part of an orthodox kendo training session, along side kirkaeshi and uchikomi.
Rough conclusion/opinion and suggestions for suburi
Here in Japan and abroad, suburi is a normal part of a general keiko session. In fact, it is so normal that when I started doing research on this topic I thought “maybe it’s something so obvious that people just didn’t write about it in their manuals.” But the books are too comprehensive to have missed it out, so I came to the (relatively easy) conclusion that suburi wasn’t such a big deal historically.
Teaching kendo in school is great, but sometimes I don’t have enough time or something is on at the school and our keiko time is cut – when that happens the first thing that goes is suburi. “Do it at home” I say to my students.
The reason I chuck it out first – and this is what Yano sensei and I concluded, and what we think may have been the why it wasn’t a big deal in the past – is that actually hitting something is much more important. You simply cannot learn tenouchi solely by doing suburi (which is the usual the main reason given for doing it). Sure, you can practise ken-tai-ichi, and making sure your hasuji is ok, but nothing beats hitting something.
To sum up: group regimentation of kendo instruction, which started after kendo was accepted into the school system, changed the way kendo was taught fundamentally. This was influenced by earlier research and trials in Japan based on European sport/gymnastic training methods. Suburi was probably only a minor part of kendo prior to the war (actually hitting something was preferred). After the war came further sportification/rationalisation of practise (again, highly influenced by the West), and coupled with the democratisation of kendo (particularly, the opening up of training to kids) it is at this point where suburi became more common. It was added essentially as part of the warm-up routine, but also because it has other benefits as well (ken-tai-ichi and hasuji).
My personal opinion about suburi is: I love it! BUT, I think that once a basic level of execution is acquired, it is something you can do at home by yourself, or before/after keiko to check form, hasuji, or whatever you are working on. This is what I do anyway.
If your time in the dojo is limited, you are much better served by putting your men on and doing kirikaeshi or uchikomi, i.e. by hitting something. And you can learn ken-tai-ichi just as well by doing kirikaeshi or any of the basic cuts and strikes. In the adult dojo I attend, suburi is not part of the session, it is something done before and after by individuals who wish to do so.
If you do suburi as part of your normal sessions, think about reducing the number you do and the speed of which you do them. Try partnering up and hit each others shinai instead. When you have someone to work with, work with them! Surely it’s a better way to spend your practise time. Don’t you think so?
To finish let me quote, if you will, from my own Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills manual from 2013. In it, the suburi chapter is the smallest one, which tells me that I already unconsciously already knew:
In every dojo throughout the world suburi is part of normal practise. For many practitioners it’s also something we spend time practising out of the dojo as well, and many it not most of us become quite adept at it over time. However, there is a tendency for people to neglect it once a certain level of kendo is acquired. This can be for many reasons, including work and family life, but it can also be simple due to thinking that you don’t need it anymore, or that swinging the shinai 20 times prior to putting on your bogu is enough.
In other words, suburi is an important training tool but, being essentially a solo practise method, it is best done (at home) by yourself!
btw, please check out Andy Fisher’s “Kendo Rant” on the matter.
剣術形体操 : 一名・体育流剣術。小沢卯之助。明治44年(1911)。
Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan: an innovative response to modernisation. Kodokan Judo Institute. March 2009.