In mid-April I took my kendo club to Osaka prefectures public high school kendo championships. A boys and girls team competition, it – somewhat surprisingly – started only 16 years ago.
Here in Japan all the major high school competitions are dominated almost completely by private schools. They have superior facilities, longer training times, better support, and may have permanent (and sometimes headhunted) kendo teachers. In some cases students go to a particular private school for the purpose of doing kendo (or judo, American football, dance, and so on) rather than for any particular academic reason. Some students are even scouted and their tuition waved (scouting is banned in the public school system). As such it is no surprise that we in the public school system can’t compete.
Public school competitions, like the one I attended above, are a way for students to compete together on a more-level playing ground. This, very importantly, gives them a more realistic chance of placing higher in the field that they might have if the private schools were in the mix. A few years ago my boys got second place in our prefecture (Osaka), and this year we finished fourth but could’ve (should’ve!) made at least third. Anyway, that’s not the point of todays article.
Over the last few years it has been apparent that the school kendo population is in free fall (not only in Osaka, but all over the country). Sixty schools sent teams to the mid-April public high school competition here, but only twenty three schools could make a full 5-person boy team and eleven a 5-person girl team. Five schools didn’t send any boys at all, and seventeen no girls. The rest of the teams (15 for boys and girls) were combined ones. I predict that, in the not too distant future, girls team competitions will return to 3-person teams (it used to be this way in the past).
Falling student numbers
As everyone knows, Japan is in population decline. Personally, I think less people on the planet can only be a good thing, but it does affect a myriad of things, including kendo. Schools are closing all the time in every prefecture across the country, scores of them. Fewer students going through the pipeline is not only a disaster for the less popular club activities (such as kendo) but also affects society as a whole. That discussion is far beyond the remit of this blog however.
More choice, easier activities, smartphones, and so on…
When students do make it to high school they are (nowadays) blessed with a cornucopia of choice when it comes to clubs. Years ago schools may have offered only a small handful of choices – baseball, tennis, kendo, judo, calligraphy, student council, and so on – but nowadays, even in small schools, students have a wide variety of clubs to choose from. In my school, for example, there are over 80 different active clubs. As such, most clubs (apart from the super popular ones such as baseball, track and field, and the brass band club) are small.
A lot of the activities nowadays are also less intensive – just one or twice a week or something – whereas kendo clubs tend to practice a lot (mine practices in bogu five times/week, and does physical training once a week). Obviously the “easier” clubs are more attractive, especially in academic-leaning schools.
Also, smartphones. What can I say? Recently we discovered some football club members that didn’t attend training often because they preferred to sit in their classroom and play football games on their phones. Clubs nowadays have to compete against phones and social media addiction as well.
Junior high schools (JHS)
In theory, JHS kendo clubs should be feeding students to clubs like mine at (senior) high school, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Falling student numbers and more choice are a factor, but so is – I believe – the lack of cohesive PLAN to connect JHS kendo with Senior HS kendo (in public schools). That is, they exist as two different disconnected worlds, with nobody really looking over both and shepherding students from one to the other.
This year (in April 2023) I had three students enter my school from a nearby JHS kendo club. I know the kendo teacher quite well and she told me their names. Two weeks after the start of the academic year none of them had turned up to the dojo so I sent my students to go and chat to them. After that, two of them did pop in to have a a cursory look, but none joined (I think they felt obliged to at least have a peek). Had we not directly spoken to them, I don’t even think they would have come to take a look. Talking to other high school kendo teachers, this situation is the norm nowadays.
Another factor that I believe has made a negative impact was the introduction of “Budo” (or traditional dance) as mandatory at JHS in 2012. It took many years of lobbying before that for its inclusion, but once the go-ahead was given it was obvious there was no solid plan (and certainly not enough people able to teach) in place. Schools that opted to teach kendo as their “Budo” ended up doing silly things like having the kids cut newspapers with bokuto and what have you. Since the inclusion of “Budo” in JHS I have chatted with many students about their experience of the classes and I never once heard anything positive. One boy (who joined the Aikido club) said to me: “Oh, I did kendo in JHS class. I don’t need to do it in senior high school now.” That is, he felt that his JHS class experience meant that he now “knew” kendo and had no need to learn more.
So, in short, if students experience of kendo at JHS – whether in class or as part of a club – isn’t positive, then we are kind of dead-in-the-water from the start at senior HS.
Data for Junior high schools (public and private combined)
The data below shows the number of JHS boys and girls participating in kendo club activities between 2017 and 2022. You can also see the number of schools that were a member of the JHS kendo association during that period (for 2017 and 2022 I also showed the % of total schools). Note that this does include private schools as well.
In 2017, for example, 51.1% of all JHS in the country that had male students (some private schools could be male-only) registered 5,323 members. Five years later, by 2022, 169 schools had left the kendo association and the total number of registered boys was down 10,607. In the same period female students went down by 2,915 but there were 260 less schools with kendo clubs that girls participated in.
Seismic shift in public school policy
After a few years of debate (culminating with a recommendation in 2018), on the first of April 2023 the entire public junior high school club system started its move to a “local club” system. What this means is that “school clubs” technically no longer exist. Instead new “local” clubs were created that are run on school (i.e. public) premises. This means that students from outside that particular school (for example a school in the area with no kendo) could potentially join. The instructor, also, doesn’t need to be a school teacher – they could be someone sent from the local federation or some retired person who lives near the school. Also, in the case where a local club exists in the area, students could be funnelled towards that instead.
The rationale behind this is two-fold: 1. reduce the work burden of teachers (who may or may not know anything about the particular club activity); 2. due to falling population numbers many (sports) clubs can’t put together full teams – this helps to alleviate that by funnelling or combining groups.
JHS is where many (most?) students start kendo so this shift could potentially cripple kendo, and other clubs, in the long run.
The kendo population in Japan is going down. Rapidly. There seems to be no way to stop it. Sure, there are some YouTubers and what have you approaching kendo from different angles at the moment, but as someone who is in the trenches, as it were, of kendo in Japan, it is obvious to me that we are in a sort of free fall situation.
If school numbers plummet in JHS and many of the students who do join a kendo club (but “clubs” no longer exist…) don’t even consider continuing in senior high school, then you will see less numbers at the university level. For decades and decades most people who quit kendo did so after graduating university (especially women), and this is still true today… if they even make it that far.
This might not necessarily be a bad thing, however…
What does this have to do with me?
Readers of kenshi 24/7 (assuming they do kendo outside of Japan) will feel no immediate impact. Even if you casually visit Japan now and then you will still feel impressed by the general numbers and average skill level of kenshi practising here… for a few decades more at least. If the kendo population outside of Japan continues to increase at the same time, well, then we could be potentially entering a new kendo era. Let’s see.