The window for applying for this years Kyoto Taikai has finished. I have been attending now for over 15 years, taking pictures and cataloguing my experiences here on kenshi 24/7. Unexpectedly, my first experience of actual participation was in the koryu section, not the kendo one… way back in 2009 I think it was. Day one (the koryu, iaido, jodo portion) of the taikai usually falls on a weekday, and isn’t part of “Golden Week” per se, so with my job it has been very hard to attend more than a couple of times over the past few years. The kendo portion, on the other hand, is always on a national holiday, so I have been and aim to participate every year I can. Even if I eventually leave Japan, I still plan to return every year to take part. Anyway, this year, due to the crowning of a new emperor, the national holidays have been extended, so I can take part in both sections.
The actual official name of the taikai (post-war) is the “Zen Nippon kendo embu taikai” or “All Japan Kendo demonstration” (pre-war it was “Dai Nippon Butokukai Butokusai Dai-Embukai”). “Taikai” in Japanese basically meets “gathering of people” and “embu” describes displaying of martial discipline. Kendo, as the official name suggests, is the main event, and other arts are shunted to the non-national holiday on the 2nd. This includes both iaido and jodo, the other arts under the ZNKR umbrella (in the pre-war taikai kendo was also the main discipline, but only one of many).
Todays post will attempt to answer a couple of questions: “What is the the Kyoto embu Taikai for?” and “What are embu anyway?”
The origins of the Kyoto Taikai and it’s place in kendo today
From the very founding of the Butokukai in 1885, there has always been a gathering of budoka in Kyoto once a year for a Butokusai, or a martial arts demonstration. This included not only kendo, but (events changed over time) kyudo, judo, marksmanship, swimming, sumo, naginata, koryu (see below) etc. This has continued over the past nearly 135 years except for exceptional circumstances (Tenran-jiai or war).
Although the main art demonstrated has always been kendo (judo being a close second), nowadays it has become an almost exclusively kendo event (with some ZNKR iaido and jodo).
In the past, the Kyoto Taikai served as THE event that brought disparate and far-flung groups of practitioners together. It was there that shogo (seirensho/renshi, kyoshi, hanshi) were awarded and grades decided (pre-war that would have been up to godan, post war up to judan). Nowadays there are far more people doing kendo, and gradings and shogo are decided across the country, so the Kyoto Taikai’s influence here has been vastly reduced (in the past, shogo and grades were awarded AFTER your tachiai, nowadays it is before).
Today, the Kyoto Taikai serves as a central event for experienced practitioners to meet, do kendo, and socialise. People who are not yet eligible to do a tachiai not only have the opportunity to watch famous kenshi from across the country (world) do their tachiai, but they may even get the chance to keiko with them.
Money-wise, the taikai is a massive source of income for the ZNKR. Thousands of people compete, each paying around 3,000 yen for the privilege.
When thinking about the culture of kendo, however, talk of money goes out the door: doing a tachiai (whether kendo or whatnot) in the Butokuden is a direct link to the history of kendo, and being part of the taikai itself is seen as an honour.
The point of embu
As stated above, initially this particular embu was one to not only friendship and to show your skills, but also served as an event where you could be promoted within the organisation (Butokukai). This has changed over time as gradings have become more democratic, have been moved to other locations as well as placed before the embu itself in Kyoto,
However, some people reading this might think of an “embu” as something where koryu are demonstrated rather than kendo, and usually – but not always – in a shrine or temple. As this is the norm nowadays I can understand why people believe this, but in fact, the whole concept of “koryu” or “kobudo” really only started in the 1920s and 30s in Japan, a good 30-odd years after the Butokukai began it’s embu event. Koryu embu were for self-promotion, that is, to attract people to study the arts so that they didn’t die out completely. They also served as motivation to study about and polish your own ryu-ha’s skills (seemingly, the state of koryu at that time was dire).
So, kendo-wise the point of holding the embu in Kyoto has, since the grading element has been removed, become more of a traditional event. People from all over meet up, do some kendo, and socialise. Koryu-wise, the initial motivation was to basically ensure the survival of the arts (they were about to be eclipsed by kendo, judo, et al), but expanded to include serious historical and technical study.
The following is a small gallery of a handful of kendo and non-kendo embu pictures I took over the past decade or so. If you want to see more, check out the Kyoto Taikai category, this image-heavy past post, or an old-friends flickr album.