2012 All Japan Naginata Championships

By Hughes.

The All Japan Naginata Championships (AJNC) was held on Saturday December 1 and Sunday December 2, 2012, in Yokosuka, not the most beautiful city in Japan. The men’s event on Saturday was rather like an appetizer as it was much less attended that the women’s contest the following day. In actual fact, the spectators’ seats were far from full on both days. Compared to any high-school naginata event, it seemed like the All Japan Naginata Federation (AJNF) had kept the event and venue secret. I think that if kendoka came, expecting something of the scale of the All Japan Kendo Championships, they would be quite surprised.

The men’s event has both engi and shiai, and the array of skill on show was wider than the women’s event as participants from shōdan onward were able to register. Because men do not usually focus on engi practice, at least no more than what is necessary, we did not see any exceptional demonstrations. For instance, fellow practitioners from my home dojo trained only once a week, from three weeks before the tournament. The fact that they even finished on the podium illustrates the level of engi on show. On the other hand, it is not rare to see women teams doing the same three shikake-ōji over and over again, for months, before a competition. The men’s engi therefore lacked the polished perfection of the women’s, but they did show shikake-ōji as what they were intended for: sets for learning basics. Most of the teams were made of a notably stronger shikake than their ōji counterpart. These somewhat unbalanced pairs let teams from Saitama, Nara and Wakayama go for the podium.

The second part of the tournament was the men’s shiai. 52 contestants from shōdan to renshi, were here to wrest the trophy from Tanaka Kosuke’s hands. Unlike the year before, the AJNC this year saw the participation of no less than three internationally famous members, or ex-members, of the Japan national team: Tanaka, Itagaki and Suzuki, who is now manager of the Japanese team. In 2011, Tanaka easily surpassed the competition to take the title, but this year would maybe prove to be more challenging. This championship was like three sharks swimming in a small pond. I mainly watched the second shiai-jō, where Tanaka and Itagaki fought against some good competitors like Kohashi, impressive in last year’s West Japan Nagainata Championship (WJNC), or Masuda, who managed to strike twice on Itagaki but without earning an ippon. However, their opponents were clearly no match for the national team members, and Suzuki also ruled the other shiai-jō. Older and more experienced, these competitor’s mastery was such that an experienced eye could guess the victorious contestant after less than a minute of the fight, even without an ippon being scored.

In brief, the day ended with Suzuki, Tanaka and Itagaki on the podium. The semi-final between Tanaka and Itagaki was quite a show, and the referee’s decision (hantei) giving Tanaka a ticket for the final, was surely not an easy one to make.

On a bright Sunday morning the following day, it was time for the big show: the Empress Cup (the name for the All Japan Naginata Championships). Male naginata is still viewed by many in Japan as an “accessory”, and when the women’s event started, you could feel the impression around the arena that “now it is serious”. Still, there were not as many spectators as one would expect. Also there were no TV cameras and not even a single commemorative tenugui on sale in the stalls. Also, there was no engi here – it was only shiai. 54 women from 3-dan to renshi fought for the trophy.

I mainly watched shiai-jō 2 again, where Ajiki (title holder and World Championship runner-up), Tanaka (WJNC champion), Yamamoto (WJNC 3rd place, and a personal favorite) and Kiyomizu (another personal favorite) were fighting. On shiai-jō 1, stars like Ikemi (reigning World Champion) and Satō (3rd place in the World Championships) were also competing. Unlike the men’s event, there were some surprises. The first big ones were Satō (national team member), falling in the very first round, and Ikemi, losing in the second round to Satō Mihoko, who would place 2nd at the end of the day. I would like to especially mention Inenaga from Fukuoka, who not only succeeded to score the only hiki-men I have ever seen awarded in naginata, but who had an immense presence all the way until she lost to Tanaka via hantei. But in naginata hantei, strategy is often rewarded more than anything else. Competitors like Ajiki or Tanaka can be distinguished from practitioners like Inenaga or Yamamoto. Tanaka surely knows her job, does it efficiently and knows well how to gain the favour of the referees. Ajiki is one notch above. With no impressive shouts or fancy moves, she keeps a total hand over all her opponents, tricking them into wrong moves and then striking back. Ajiki is with no doubt at the top of the world’s competitive naginata right now. The last surprise came from Hasumi (Saitama), who took 3rd place by defeating Tanaka with two splendid kote. That was so rare in a competition where half the matches were won by referee decision. At the end of the day, Ajiki, Satō and Hasumi were on the podium.

Regarding hantei, there is a fuss, both inside and outside the naginata world. Many question that practice, especially when the AJNC finals are decided this way. Although that system surely saves time (many bouts would go to enchō without it), there are also consequences. Like every rule, it influences the fighting style of the competitors, as they adapt to the rules in order to win. Therefore, with the referee’s decision coming after only four minutes of shiai, earning that decision may be more vital than scoring an ippon, hence the matches where contestants try to attack as many times as possible in order to make a good impression on the shimpan, instead of attempting plain, full, and large strikes with sutemi.

Having witnessed a lot of naginata competitions of all levels lately, I have thought about a few things. I wrote above that you could, most of the time, guess the winner of the bout after not even a minute. A player gets the upper hand, and the rest of the match will only confirm his superiority, sometimes crowned by a ippon. Well, this is budo! The way the big sharks control their opponent, so they can get flags in hantei, is after all what we are supposed to pursue: mastery of self, composure, and reading the four sicknesses in the opponent. Facing such an opponent, even a skilled or fit, but less polished player will lose his composure, break his kamae and so on. How can that person, who started naginata when he was six years old and now in his twenties, drop his weapon while assuming hassō? Why does this guy hesitate while launching a mochikae-men and then miss completely the target?

In fact, I came to realize that naginata training, in most cases, does not focus on seme or composure of the mind, but mainly focuses on technical perfection. How can one regain spirit when dominated? How can one use seme? How can one cultivate composure and presence in shiai? I think that naginata still has many things to learn from kendo, where these aspects are foremost. Indeed, it takes much time to learn how to properly wield a naginata. But still, something is missing. Maybe the problem comes from the birth of modern naginata, as it was devised as an education system for kids, and later converted into budo?

Finally, I would like to give a respectful but strong “what the heck!” to the AJNF regarding the promotion of the art. Let us do the AJNC in a backwater shipyard city, that will be quite a trip to get to. But no TV, no official video-recording of the matches, (almost) no press, and not even any merchandising related to the federation or the event? Naginata is not in a such good shape in Japan and around the world, so it really needs to be promoted well.

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Marija Landekic’s point of view.
February 2013

It’s true, if the AJNF was actually serious about making Naginata available for people to see, and therefore possibly take an interest in doing it, they have been failing abysmally. Quite frankly most of the time it is so inaccessible that it seems like they purposefully make it difficult to gain access to. The only reason I doubt this is the case is because I do not see any benefit in it. Tournaments like the All Japan Championship are perfect showcases of top-level Naginata, and as Hughes states in his article, it was almost impossible to get information on the event. I myself asked a competitor directly for information and no one else I spoke to who was not directly involved went to watch. In fact, most people within the Naginata world were surprised that I would go all the way to Yokosuka from Osaka (8 hours by bus, or 3 hours by train) just for the All Japan Champs. This mentality itself is very telling.

An event like this is a great learning tool for younger or more inexperienced practitioners, and it is the perfect opportunity to get the public involved and aware. I have gone for the past three years, and every year this opportunity is wasted. This is not a question of merchandising the competition, it’s about the power of the competition to grab hold of people’s imaginations and function as a source of inspiration and insight into Naginata for practitioners. Kendo practitioners watch the All Japan Kendo Championships because it showcases the best of kendo in Japan. Seeing a match at the highest level has the power to impact a person’s own kendo, either by seeing technically beautiful waza or being inspired by the kendo of the competitors. So why does the AJNF keep their top-level competition in relative obscurity and deny that inspiration to thousands of Naginata practitioners? A great rhetorical question now, but one that needs to be literally addressed if Naginata has any hope of a future.

Getting to the actual meat of the AJNC now, it is my belief that the men’s competition is often underrated in its importance because of long standing gender discriminations within Naginata. At a systematic level this keeps the overall level of men’s Naginata low, and at the AJNC this is reflected by the empty seats in the spectators’ section. Most of the teams competing in the women’s division either did not bother to come early enough to catch the men’s division or, if they arrived in the city in time to watch, simply chose to be somewhere else. This reflects poorly on the Japanese Naginata community as it speaks to a lack of respect for the competition as a whole. If the community itself does not respect its top-level competition, it devalues not only the tournament, but also the endeavor to do Naginata at a level worthy of such an event.

But be that as it may, the men’s engi division was a disappointment again this year. As Hughes said, for whatever reason, as a group the men do not take it seriously and consistently do not practice for it seriously. As a showcase of the current state of men’s Naginata, it would paint a dismal picture, though I do agree with Hughes that it seems shikake-ooji itself is fulfilling its intended purpose as a set made to learn basics. From the display at the All Japan Men’s Engi-kyogi, they seem quite necessary. It is interesting to note however, that a competition at the national level does not exist for the All Japan Kata, a set that is even difficult for long-time practitioners. Would the mentality and spirit of the All Japan Championship change if the expectation was not a demonstration of basics, but a demonstration of a deep understanding of them as shown through their application in the more challenging All Japan Kata? If a switch like this were to occur, you would also expect a women’s division formed for the event. In fact, considering that doing kata does not involve the application of physical differences between the sexes, it is interesting that there is a separation between men’s and women’s Engi-kyogi in the first place. Thankfully, this separation does not exist at the international level, where you often see co-ed teams compete.

But moving back to the 2012 AJNC, it is interesting to note that the shikake was always more polished than the ooji during the Men’s division. Is this caused by an overall level bias? Shikake side is often the less experienced practitioner, so an overall trend in stronger shikake could reflect a tendency to be placed, or to place oneself, as shikake during everyday training, especially if, as Hughes states, little concerted effort is placed into preparation for engi-kyogi right before the competition. It could also reflect the instruction being given, or not being given as it were. If more instruction and attention from sempai and sensei is given to strengthening the shikake skill set at the expense of time and energy for ooji skills, this could also explain the overall trend seen at the All Japan Championships toward polished shikake and shaky ooji.

It would be interesting to survey the experience of male practitioners during their regular training and compare it to pre-competition training. Still more interesting would be to compare it to the training of those competing in the Women’s division over time. As men remain a minority group within Naginata dojo in Japan and almost no information is available on the topic, it is hard to say how much of what was seen at the All Japan Championship is a lack of personal endeavor and how much is instructional bias. In either case, those competing in the men’s division for engi need to step up their game or risk humiliation again next year.

That being said, I would like to spend some time discussing the men’s shiai division. Hughes covered the women’s shiai quite well in his article, but I want to go into a little more depth where the men’s side of things are concerned. I was watching the opposite court from Hughes, where Suzuki-sensei dominated. I have also been watching the men’s competition for a number of years, and have followed the tournaments leading up to the All Japan in the western part of the country.

The “Big Three” have competed against each other for 10years or more, and yet each has their own unique style and sense of Naginata, tempered by their individual training and spirit. And while Hughes’ metaphor of sharks in a pond is apt, I believe he has overlooked a lot of the potential to be found within that pond. The three giants of men’s Naginata made an impervious wall that kept the younger generation of players from advancing within the tournament, but in return every competitor they fought gained something: a faithful account of what was lacking in their Naginata.

The day started slow on court two as the first round of matches came and went with the only thing of note being a player who had his men tsuki’ed off his head twice in a single match. But the thirteenth match brought forth one of those little fish in the pond that is quickly growing teeth: Nakamura from Nara is a fighter worth watching. His attacks are quick with smooth transitions between kamae and stable footwork that lets him stay dynamic. He caught my eye at previous tournaments, and I highly suggest watching his matches for anyone that has access to them. It took him ten seconds to score a clean sune in his first All Japan Championship. He has balanced footwork, a Naginata that never strays far from his body, and great control; all are aspects that make him a unique competitor, even at the All Japans. As much as the old sharks rule the waters today, this is just the beginning for Nakamura. Competitors like Nakamura show us that there is great potential within the men’s division; it just has to be cultivated. But he is young and lacking in one thing: experience. Cultivation often means painful growth, and Nakamura’s next match would be one of the Big Three: Suzuki.

Suzuki-sensei had one match before he would face Nakamura however and he promptly exhibited what was lacking up until that moment of the proceedings: kiai and decisiveness. I had not realized up until then how quiet the men’s competition was, but Suzuki gave me something to compare all the other kiai with. When a giant raises the bar, everyone else can do nothing but grasp at air. Or gasp for air, as his opponents would end up doing. His kiai comes from a deeper place in his gut than all the rest; it resonated and filled the gym where his opponent’s dissipated quickly. And Suzuki is that rare player in Naginata that strikes only when he decides he will take a point. This is the single biggest difference that set Suzuki apart from everyone else on his court, especially younger players like Nakamura. Suzuki does not just hit targets, he decides to take your leg or your hand or to split your head in two. It is a level of commitment to an attack that all of the Big Three have, that most of the smaller fish do not, and it is this full commitment to your decision to strike that often marks the difference between mature, All Japan level Naginata, and high school sport Naginata. These two styles can be seen contrasted in the match between Nakamura and Suzuki: Nakamura, as a player full of potential and inexperience, verses Suzuki, a player who combines both experience and spirit. Suzuki schooled Nakamura in how to control oneself, one’s opponent, the timing and pace of a match, and above all, how to see the match. While Nakamura spent the entire match reacting and over-reacting, Suzuki spent it in control, watching his opponent, analyzing it all with his head yet attacking with his gut. Everyone can learn something from matches like this, and it is a shame that (since most of the Naginata community in Japan was not present) most will never see it.

The second big fish in this tiny pond is Itagaki-sensei. To be honest, Itagaki is a bit of a mystery to me. I have not seen him compete since the 4th World Championship in Belgium in 2007 and I was surprised to see him at the All Japans. But pleasantly so. He definitely looked rough around the edges compared to the other two sharks, but one thing that set him above his opponents was his patience and solid mentality. His opponents tried all sorts of fancy waza, but he would simply pick his distance, watch patiently, and then devour his opponents when they were at their weakest. His first point of the day exemplified this beautifully. His opponent had weak footwork and tried to use waza that he could not control. Itagaki watched him calmly, chose this weakness to exploit, then attacked: he knocked the naginata out of his opponent’s hands with one end of his own naginata, then took sune with the other. While doing so, he literally brought his opponent to his knees. The calm collectedness Itagaki displayed almost made a farce out of the confused panic of his opponent’s Naginata. It was amazing to see the amount of control he had over the other man.

This strong mentality would be his saving grace in his match against Enomoto. Enomoto is a staple at any high level tournament and he certainly gave Itagaki a run for his money. In no other match did Itagaki look as rusty as this match. Enomoto has a lot of experience within the men’s division, but that also leaves a lot of room for growth. When he is at his peak, he is fast, accurate, and fights whole-heartedly. But against Itagaki, it all just would not click together. Instead of acting on opportunities, he would react to Itagaki’s pressure. Instead of making his own distance, he would find Itagaki always at an inconvenient distance, making a point impossible. Itagaki showed Enomoto how to manipulate distance and timing and why this can be more important than the strength behind an attack in Naginata. We will have to wait to see if and how Enomoto translates this lesson for himself in tournaments to come.

Another match of note was between Tanaka-sensei (the 2011 Men’s World Champion) and Kobashi (of Osaka). Kobashi is a technically gifted fighter and consistently places in the top four at tournaments, yet never first. He always comes up just shy of that first place title. Kobashi’s Naginata is all straight lines, smooth waza, and solid footwork, and against other opponents, this is almost always enough. But not against a player like Tanaka, who is equally as physically talented yet has that little something extra. They are of a similar build and have a similar fighting style, though Kobashi is the younger of the two. And yet there is one resounding difference, one that makes all the difference: Tanaka does Naginata as a budo, while Kobashi hits people with sticks. I have watched Kobashi fight for three years in all the top Naginata competitions in Japan, but never was that one fundamental fact so starkly highlighted as in the match verses Tanaka this past December. The first three seconds of the match were telling: Kobashi tried to surprise Tanaka by switching to jodan, a kamae that is rarely used, but Tanaka took a sune point without batting an eyelash. Kobashi then proceeded to fall apart at the seams: his kamae was weak, his tenouchi confused, and he could not seem to regain control of himself for the rest of the match. Tanaka gave no quarter and showed Kobashi exactly why he is the reigning World Champion. If Kobashi can combine his technical abilities with a more mature frame of mind and put his heart into his Naginata, I believe he is one of those players that can take down a giant. At the AJNC however, he hit the wall that is Tanaka Kousuke, and fell flat on his back. Kobashi is definitely worth watching but if the character of his Naginata cannot grow, no technical ability will compensate.

There were a great many frustrating moments during the tournaments, most of them occurring when someone fought a former member of the national team and completely fell apart against them. It is like the younger generation is missing that edge, that backbone, which would allow their Naginata to mature beyond the high school or university level. There is something of fear and hesitation, a lack of self-confidence, within the men’s division. If the division, just like Kobashi himself needs to do, can overcome these sicknesses of the spirit, then maybe the men’s division will begin to gain the respect it was meant to have as an All Japan event. The former national team members are trailblazers, and their boldness is reflected in the best of their Naginata. They need to find a way to empower younger practitioners like Nakamura, to help them mature and ensure a future for men’s Naginata in Japan.

Hughes is absolutely correct in his criticism that current Naginata instruction is focused on technical perfection and forgets the mind. Most sensei do not put on their bogu and face students person to person, giving them the experience of being in too deep and fighting anyway, losing physically but not mentally. It is an essential experience in budo and yet is becoming more and more rare within everyday Naginata training. The 2012 AJNC made that quite clear for anyone watching.

Unfortunately, most were not there to see it.
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