On the last Saturday of May, and the first weekend of June, my students and I took part in the largest high school kendo competition in Osaka prefecture. It took three days: the first day being the individuals competition (boys and girls), the second the boys team, and the last day the girls teams. Each school can send a maximum of four students to the individuals – two boys and two girls – plus a seven-person boys and girls team (included in the seven are two spare competitors). Note that other prefectures with lower kendo populations may allow more participants in the individual section.
Looking at the warmup videos I posted on instagram you’d be forgiven for thinking that the free fall situation I spoke about last month was nonsense. The sheer amount of students that attended felt like a lot, and certainly sounded as such. However, on closer inspection you’ll see that not everything was as rosy as it might seem.
Kneecapped from the get-go
The image below shows the initial shiai order for court number 6 (all the competitions used 8 courts) for the girls team. Teams that can’t field five competitors were marked, either with a circle, or a double circle. A circle denotes a four-person team, a double circle a three person team.
As you can see in the image, out of the nine teams who competed in this court, only three could field a full five-person team. One team (#49) was initially a four person team but, for whatever reason, only three students could make it to the competition that day. One of the teams (#48) that started with only three people pulled out on the day.
Obviously it is a massive advantage if you can field a five person team in this situation. Perhaps it’s understandable for teams to pull out when their chance of going forward is negligible, and winning miniscule. Needless to say, both the winning boys and girls teams had five competitors.
As mentioned above, this is an example of one of the courts on the girls team competition. The other courts on the day were not as bad as this, but there were plenty of teams, both boys and girls, that couldn’t manage to field a complete team. It was, however, far more prevalent in the girls competition.
New rules in response
As mentioned in a past article, this drop in numbers has been happening for a while. In response, from this year, the high school kendo association created new rules for situations when teams face each other with different numbers of students.
Up until this year if you had a four person team, then the sempo position was to be left empty. A three person team would leave both the sempo and fukusho empty. From this year, however, what happens is that four or three person teams push everyone “back.” That is, a three person team would field a chuken, fukusho, and taisho, leaving the sempo and jiho as “empty” spots. A four person team would add in a jiho, meaning that only the sempo would be “empty.”
When two teams of different compositions meet the team with more members can choose which of their plays faces the “empty” position, that is, they can choose who gets a two-point win (as long as their order – not the positions – doesn’t change).
This immediately raises a couple of concerns: it can affect the tactical decisions often made when considering a players position and, potentially, fully-manned teams might see some of their players being left unused.
To illustrate, imagine we have two teams, A and B:
Team A only has three competitors so their positions are set (Chuken, Fukusho, and Taisho). Team B with five people, can choose who will compete and who will get the “fusengachi,” that is, win by default. In the scenario above team B decided to field Taro (moved from Sempo to Chuken), Ren, and Shin against team A. Ken and Akira will get “free wins.”
The only caveat is, as I mentioned above, that the initial order of the fielded competitors cannot change. Team B chose Taro, Ren, and Shin in the example above, but they could have chosen Ken, Akira, and Ren, or Ken, Ren, and Shin. What they couldn’t do is, for example, choose Shin, Ken, and Ren in that order. I hope that makes sense.
The reason for this is simply a practical one: once the decision has been made as to who to field, the piece of paper with the order written on it is folded in a way so that the competitors names are displayed on the board (fusengachi peoples names aren’t shown). In other words, it is like this because the order is written on a long piece of paper. If they used a digital display there would be no such restriction.
BTW, in our five vs three situation above two odd things happen: 1) The fusengachi players must go into the court wearing their bogu, sonkyo, stand up, get “shobu-ari” announced, and go back. In the very initial line up, when shinpan and teams bow to each other, the five person team will have four of its players in bogu at one time, and the three person team two people; 2) Due to the folding of the order paper of the larger team the fusengachi players names are not shown. However, you must still display their win (and two points) on the board. At the moment, their win and points are written underneath the team name. These oddities are easily solved however: don’t require the fusengachi people to go out on the court for their win to be called, and exchange paper order lists for something digital.
The rule change mentioned above is really just a slight one done in response to falling competitor numbers, it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. As such, unless something unexpected occurs, numbers will continue to fall and teams, especially girls teams (at least for the moment), will struggle more and more over time. As such, I predict that in the very near future large competitions for older school age students (junior and senior high school age ranges = 12-18) will revert to 3-person teams. This will start with girls competitions perhaps within the next 10 years, with boys competitions following eventually. Over time, of course, this will influence university competitions.
Another possible alternative worth exploring is to create five-person and three-person divisions within each competition. Although I think this is generally fine, it would become less obvious who THE best team in the country is… which is the goal that most students are aiming towards (being number 1).
Adapt and reshape
It is not too much to say that there has been a flurry of adaptions and a reshaping of kendo competition here in Japan over the last three years or so. Perhaps, these short handful of years have seen the most changes in kendo since the 1950s.
Adapting to pandemic is one thing though, not tackling a long-predicted fall in the kendo population is another. Hmmm…
Working as a coach I didn’t really have time to take any pics, still, I did manage to take a handful of snaps. Enjoy!