I rolled out of bed at 4am last Saturday on a mission. My shinai and bogu bag were pre-packed the night before, and my clothes were lying on the sofa prepared. After a super quick shower (to wake up) I was out of the door and on my bike heading to the station to catch the earliest train.
A few days earlier an old kendo friend had gotten in touch to tell me that the dojo he had been a member of for over a decade was on the verge of being forcibly closed. He wanted my help to raise awareness.
The dojo in question – Shingikan – was opened in January 1961 on the grounds of Kishiwada castle (reconstructed in 1954) as a municipal dojo for the city. The grounds themselves were donated in 1945 to the city by the eldest son of the last feudal domain chief, Okabe Nagakage (considering the period, I am not sure if it was a donation or something else). When the dojo was opened Okabe gifted some calligraphy to the facility (pictured below written right -> left) which reads 養心練技 (YO-SHIN-REN-GI) from which the dojo name was chosen: 心技館 (SHIN-GI-KAN). Yoshinrengi literally means “cultivate the spirit through polishing technique.”
Over the past 60 plus years the dojo has served as a public space for budo practice, not only kendo but also iaido, karate, as well as other arts.
Kishiwada city announced that as part of a drive to solve fiscal difficulties it would close all public facilities that were over 64 years old or/and those that couldn’t be maintained to current earthquake-safety standards. It is 62 years since the dojo was built, and it has no earthquake proofing done to it all in that time. Thus, judged as potentially dangerous, it is up for closure and demolition.
Upon hearing this I simply sighed: it is not a new story. The same thing happened to the far older Nara Butokuden, and the far larger Shiga Butokuden. There are other dojo throughout the country that face similar situations. There have been dojo that for no real reason other than economic, have been torn down. Yes, it always comes down to money.
Japan, I am afraid, is not the shiny beacon of “tradition” it makes itself out to be. A highly consumer-based society, if something doesn’t make profit it is discarded. It requires quite a bit of effort (as well as good-will and money) for older dojo to survive.
What can I do?
After my friend told me the info once of my first questions was of course: “When is the planned closure?” When he replied “The end of December” my heart sank. Even if I could somehow help (by taking vid, pics, and leveraging what few contacts I have) there is simply not enough time. Let’s face it, there is no way I could realistically help anyway.
My friend had first invited my to keiko years and years ago, but it was so far away I just never managed to get up and go. This time, however, the clock is ticking. So I got up at 4am and travelled 2 hours one-way for a 1 hour practice. I am glad I did.
(additional thoughts after the initial posting)
1. Things in Japan happen top-down: “important” people decide stuff and less important people have to accept or and do as told. “It can’t be helped” is the usual mantra in this case. This is one reason why there is no ground mobilisation to fight the closure (or any political decision for that matter).
(None of my friends in the kendo community here in Osaka knew anything about the planned closure.)
2. If you have ever been to Japan you know that there are millions of unsafe structures everywhere: ramshackle wooden houses, poorly constructed concrete apartment buildings, and thousands of old wooden temples all over the place. What is different in this case is that it is a municipal building built on public land. All such structures must adhere to the latest building codes as much as possible.
The only municipal dojo on public land that was saved that I know of is the Kitano Butokuden. It was only saved because a private (religious) corporation bought it, dismantled it, moved it to a totally different location, then rebuilt and re-purposed it.