By Jeff Broderick.
To students of the martial arts, one of the best things about living and training in Japan is the opportunity to immerse oneself in traditional Japanese culture. Although the modern landscape here, with all its concrete, traffic jams, Pachinko parlors, and fast-food restaurants, does nothing to conjure up the spirit of bushido, we are occasionally given the opportunity to attend cultural events that remind us of Japan’s illustrious warrior past.
One such event is the annual Nihon Kobudō Embu Taikai, a gathering of many of the recognized traditional styles of martial arts in Japan. The event is held on an alternating basis between Tokyo, and other host cities around the country. This year was the 33rd event, and it took place at the Nippon Budōkan, located on the former site of Edo Castle in the center of Tokyo.
The day began with an opening ceremony and speeches from representatives of the Nihon Kobudō Kyōkai. Then the demonstrations themselves began. There were 35 ryūha or traditions represented, and each was given an 8-minute timeslot. That translates to almost 5 hours of demonstrations, so the event proceeded with only a small break from late morning to well into the afternoon.
In past years, the demonstration schedule has been divided by specialization – in other words, archery, followed by kenjutsu, then jūjutsu, iaido, spear and naginata, then karate, and so on. This year, the organizers mixed the demonstrations to alternate between weapon arts and jūjutsu or empty-hand arts. It was a good decision, and made the 5-hour demonstration more interesting overall. (If you’re not very interested in a particular kind of martial art, it is hard to sit through a solid hour of it!)
The pride of place for opening demonstration went to Ogasawara Ryū Kyūbajutsu, or mounted archery, which was founded in the 12th century and is certainly one of the oldest unbroken martial traditions in the world. Ogasawara Ryū performs both mounted archery (also called yabusame) and shooting from a standing position. Archery is not only a martial art, but is also regarded as a form of offertory ceremony, which brings good fortune. Dressed in magnificent kimono and wearing formal eboshi headdresses, the demonstrators solemnly paraded out, lined up, and fired arrows in succession at a paper target. Japanese archery approaches the Tea Ceremony in the degree of formality and the precision required for every movement at each stage of shooting.
Of the other ryūha, it is impossible to give a full description, but here are some of the highlights:
The practitioners of Sho Shō Ryū Yawara (jūjutsu) wear a protective body armour resembling a heavily-padded kendo doh and a face mask that looks like nothing so much as a baseball catcher’s mask. They performed seated techniques using daggers, and standing techniques with many interesting reversals.
Next was Kashima Shintō Ryū Kenjutsu. Old woodblock prints of fighting samurai come to mind when viewing this style because of the many unique stances, and the special use of over-the-shoulder blocks. Also notable was the extensive use of a hand placed on the back of the blade at the midpoint, to assist with close-in fighting and blade-trapping techniques. Demonstrators used wooden bokutō, fukuro-shinai, and metal blades.
Hyōhō Niten Ichi Ryū is the legacy of Japan’s most famous swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. Short-sword techniques and 2-sword techniques were both demonstrated. The kata are very short and direct, seeming to reflect Musashi’s no-nonsense philosophy of combat. For video of this demonstration click on our YouTube channel in the left sidebar.
Of course Niten Ichi Ryū is famous for its use of two swords, but it is certainly not the only school to teach their use. Tendō Ryū Naginatajutsu demonstrated the use of 2 short swords against a long sword. As Tendō Ryū (and most styles of naginata in general) was considered a martial style for women, 2 short swords are used (as it was not supposed that a woman would carry a long sword). This was the first time that the Tendō Ryū 2-sword techniques have been demonstrated at the Kobudō Taikai. They also demonstrated techniques that appear to use a jō, but are meant to represent the case where the blade of the naginata has broken off and so the haft is used. The naginata techniques themselves highlight the enormous power, range, and versatility of the weapon.
Araki Ryū Kenpō makes special use of chain weapons, including the kusarigama (sickle and weighted chain) and the chigiriki (a staff with a weighted chain). Their dynamic techniques, executed against sword-bearing opponents, look very effective and even painful, especially when the chain is wrapped around the swordsman’s neck and he is thrown over the shoulder, onto the hardwood floor.
Hōzōin Ryū Takada Ha Sōjutsu (spear) from Nara (near Kyoto) celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2008. The techniques feature long, straight spears against the Hōzōin Ryū’s jūmonji (cross-headed) spear. The short wings forming the cross blades give leverage and enable the spearman to trap or throw down the enemy’s spear.
One of the most unique styles of kenjutsu on display was Nodachi Jigen Ryū. Participants use actual sticks (i.e., tree limbs) with a woven basket of rice straw as a handguard, and strike bundles of sticks repeatedly and with full force while making a very loud kiai. Although somewhat strange to see, this technique builds strength and stamina, and Jigen Ryū was notoriously effective on the battlefield.
Oni-gote, or oversized padded gauntlets, are characteristic of several branches of Ittō Ryū Kenjutsu, including Mizoguchi Ha Ittō Ryū. These heavily padded kote enable the shidachi to strike the wrist with full power using a solid bokutō. The upright techniques and linear attacks are very reminiscent of modern Kendō no Kata, and show the profound influence of the Ittō Ryū on kendo. One interesting technique which is used extensively is to avoid the opponent’s charge, and then attack his back as he retreats – something that is not allowed in modern kendo.
Yagyū Shinkage Ryū Heihō is the style famously taught to the Tokugawa family by Yagyū Muneyoshi and his descendents. It features the use of fukuro-shinai (split staves of bamboo encased in a leather sleeve), which was the precursor of the modern kendo shinai, as well as a small kote worn by uchidachi in some kata. The techniques are very upright, and seem highly rational and precise. One spectacular kata has a lot of back-and-forth, with shidachi and uchidachi testing the combative distance and trying to draw the other out, but ends with uchidachi actually throwing his sword at shidachi, who deflects it, knocking it aside.
Higo Ko-Ryū Naginata features large, sweeping attacks with the polearm, that seem quite slow until you realize that this school utilizes maybe the heaviest naginata of all ryūha – half of the 3 meter long weapon is blade! The wooden stand-in weapon is therefore wielded rather slowly so as not to misrepresent the weight of the real one.
Unkō Ryū Kenjutsu was a very impressive demonstration of swordsmanship pared down to its bare, essential principles. Each technique was extremely simple, consisting in most cases of a single movement, executed with extreme precision, seme (pressure) and zanshin (awareness).
There were many, many other fascinating demonstrations which space does not allow us to mention. The final demonstration of the day was by Yō Ryū Hōjutsu, a gunnery school that fires a large-bore harquebus filled with black powder. First, the gunner takes her position, then blows out a lit fuse. The still-smoldering fuse is carefully placed into the matchlock mechanism, and then the gun is shouldered and fired – with an enormous report, a substantial concussive impact, and a huge cloud of white smoke. The first shot even produced a very impressive smoke ring, 2 or 3 meters in diameter, which traversed the breadth of the arena.
So, the day ended with a bang (many of them, in fact) and the audience left with a sense of having come into contact with the living traditions of Japan’s samurai past. These traditions are fragile, and some of them are only barely surviving with a few members. But, thanks to events like these, more and more people are becoming exposed to these arts and efforts are being made to support and revive them. If you live in Japan, or plan to visit, do what you can to watch the next Kobudō Taikai. It is truly an unforgettable experience.
Full list of demonstrators:
1. Ogasawara Ryu Kyubajutsu (Kanagawa)
2. Sho Sho Ryu Yawara (Iwate)
3. Kashima Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu (Ibaraki)
4. Okinawa Goju Ryu Bujutsu (Okinawa)
5. Hyoho Niten Ichi Ryu Kenjutsu (Fukuoka)
6. Yagyu Shingan Ryu Taijutsu (Tochigi)
7. Kingai Ryu Karate (Ibaraki)
8. Takagi Ryu Jujutsu, Kukishin Ryu Bojutsu (Hyogo)
9. Tendo Ryu Naginatajutsu (Kyoto)
10. Araki Ryu Kempo (Gunma)
11. Shindo Munen Ryu Kenjutsu (Tokyo)
12. Shibukawa Ryu Jujutsu (Osaka)
13. Hozoin Ryu Takada-ha Sojutsu (Nara)
14. Nodachi Jigen Ryu Kenjutsu (Kagoshima)
15. Wado Ryu Jujutsu Kempo (Tokyo)
16. Mizoguchi-ha Itto Ryu (Fukushima)
17. Kanshin Ryu Iaijutsu (Shimane)
18. Yagyu Shinkage Ryu Heiho Kenjutsu (Aichi)
19. Enshin Ryu Iai Suemongiri Kempo (Osaka)
20. Toda-ha Buko Ryu Naginatajutsu (Shizuoka)
21. Shingetsu Muso Yanagi Ryu (Hyogo)
22. Tennen Rishin Ryu (Tokyo)
23. Shindo Muso Ryu Jojutsu (Fukuoka)
24. Takeuchi Ryu Jujutsu (Okayama)
25. Araki Ryu Genyo Kogusoku (Saitama)
26. Shojitsu Kenri Kata-ichi Ryu Kenjutsu (Okayama)
27. Kashima Shinden Jikishinkage Ryu Kenjutsu (Chiba)
28. Higo Ko-Ryu Naginatajutsu (Kumamoto)
29. Iga Ryuha Katsushin Ryu Jujutsu (Ibaraki)
30. Unko Ryu Kenjutsu (Kumamoto)
31. Kanemaki Ryu Battojutsu (Okayama)
32. Fuden Ryu Sojutsu (Osaka)
33. Hokushin Itto Ryu Kenjutsu (Ibaraki)