by Alex Bennett. Originally published in Kendo World 5.4
Following Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, the martial arts were banned by Occupation authorities as they were considered to be “undemocratic” and conduits for imparting “ultra-nationalism” and “militarism”. All the budo arts were subject to the ban, but kendo was viewed as being particularly unsavoury due to the symbolism of the infamous Japanese sword. In reality, there were many diehard kendo enthusiasts who continued practising away from the wary eye of the authorities, but kendo in schools was absolutely prohibited.
The eventual reintroduction of kendo into the education system and the community involved a prolonged period of justification and reassessment of its objectives. A number of concerned individuals and groups sought ways to facilitate kendo’s resurrection. In 1946, alumni from various university and vocational school kendo clubs in Tokyo came together and created a group called the Nijūnichi-kai (Twenty-day Society). They congregated on the twentieth day of each month to discuss what could be done to promote kendo in the community. Their meetings culminated in the formation of the “Tokyo Kendo Competition Union” (Tōkyō Kendō Kyōgi Rengō-kai).
The inauguration of the society was marked by a couple of kendo tournaments.1 They investigated ways of making kendo permissible in the community and schools and developed a hybrid sport which they called “shinai-kyōgi” in which fukuro-shinai (bamboo sheathed in leather, similar to the early-modern practice swords used by the Yagyū-ryū) were used along with equipment that resembled that used in Western fencing.
The All Japan Kendō Competition Federation (Zen Nippon Kendō Kyōgi Renmei), later changed to All Japan Shinai-Kyōgi Federation, was established in March 1950. Shinai-kyōgi was invented as a way of circumventing occupation-imposed restrictions by retaining certain elements of kendo, but making it more akin to a “pure” competitive sport in a form that could ultimately be introduced into schools.
According to the guidebook published by the All Japan Shinai-kyōgi Federation, the sport had the following characteristics: First of all, the match area was a rectangle measuring 7m in length and 6m in width, and was marked by white line tape. This was not the case in pre-war kendo competitions in which courts were not defined at all. Also, the apparel worn by practitioners consisted of a “durable material top and trousers.” These could be “any colour other than black.” It seems that most practitioners chose to wear white, and shoes were permitted in outdoor events.2
The shinai used was 1.5m in length consisting of four slats of bamboo joined at the hilt, which were split into eight and then sixteen slats at the top third and inserted into a leather sheath. The shinai was not dissimilar to the early fukuro-shinai used by the classical school of swordsmanship, the Yagyū Shinkage-ryū. They were considerably more pliable than the standard shinai used in kendo, which is why the sport was referred to in English as “pliant staff sport”. The shinai weighed from 300g up to 450g.
The protective equipment was particularly distinctive. This design was undoubtedly made with the purpose of appealing to SCAP authorities, and to highlight a move away from traditional kendo to a modern democratic sport.
Another important introduction into the match rules that differed from pre-war kendo was a designated time limit for bouts. Although kendo matches usually lasted for around four or five minutes before the war, match suspension ultimately depended on the referee, who would keep the match going for as long as he saw fit. Also, instead of one referee as was formerly the case, shinai-kyōgi instigated a system in which three referees adjudicated each match, all with equal powers of judgement. Matches were not decided by ippon-shōbu (first point scored wins) or sanbon-shōbu (best of three points) as is the case today. Instead, each competitor vied to score as many valid points as possible within the time limit, and the one who accrued the most points at the end of time was deemed the winner. The target areas for striking were the head, both wrists, and torso.
Shinai-kyōgi rules also made a conscious move away from the aggressiveness that was characteristic of kendo previously. Any vocalisation (hassei or kake-goe) other than a natural grunt when striking was prohibited, as were foot trips (ashi-garami) and body clashes (tai-atari), all features of pre-war kendo.
In an appeal by Sasamori Junzō to have shinai-kyōgi included in the National Sports Meet, he outlined in a handwritten letter the benefits to be gained from participation in the sport which he translated as “Pliant Staff Play” and defined as not being “Kendo nor Occidental Fencing.”
Pliant Staff Play has many advantages; that will be able to [be] played irrespective of climate, weather, age, sex, physique, place, in or out of [a] building or length of time. This is a rationalistic healthy physical culture and interesting elegant amusement of ever changing active personal adversary play…3
He continues to summarise the “meritorious qualities” which justified shinai-kyōgi as a legitimate sport conducive to improving health and physical wellbeing among practitioners, particularly children, but ultimately for people of all ages.
a. Physical Qualities: Viewing (sic) from the standpoint of physical development, it calls for much leg movement of considerable tempo, contraction and expansion of the breast, and varied use of the arm muscles, all of which is extremely effective in developing the lungs and the chest, at the same time helping to build a strong heart, not to speak of its contribution to muscular development of the limbs.
b. Mental Training: Accomplishment in this sport is more dependent upon the psychological reaction and power of concentration of the individual rather than upon the physical differences of the participants. The exercise develops powers of concentration and decision and trains the mind to react without hesitation. It inculculates (sic) the ability to change perception into action instantaneously.
c. Qualities Favorable to Health: Although it calls for a considerable amount of instantaneous bodily movement, such movements are not necessarily continuous, there being frequent natural intermittences of action which, therefore, makes it a sport with the following favorable health qualities. Both sexes of all ages, from about eight years old to about eighty years of age, can engage in the sport.4
Unsurprisingly, we find absolutely no mention of “Japanese spirit” or “traditional Japanese culture” as is typically the case with reference to the physical and mental benefits of kendo. Furthermore, no allusion is made to reihō, or protocols of etiquette that feature in similar explanations of the values of kendo.
An aspect of his explanation that was revolutionary in terms of kendo culture is his inclusive stance of shinai-kyōgi being for men and women of all ages. Women had never been presented as participants in Japanese fencing before, and this symbolised a clear paradigm shift from traditional ideas of involvement for the sake of appealing to modern and foreign sporting sensibilities. Also, the elimination of “unnecessary and seemingly intimidating vocal exclamations”, and prohibition of “unnecessary roughness or use of purposed violence” enforced by “the imposition of penalties” represents the first move in “civilising” kendo in the post-war period.
The table on the left is an outline of the events and process that lead to the nationwide dissemination of shinai-kyōgi. With regards to the meeting convened by the MOE on December 18, 1951, the explanation for the proposal to introduce shinai-kyōgi was announced by MOE Secondary Education Bureau Secretary Sasaki as follows:
Recently, shinai-kyōgi has been widely disseminated throughout the country, and following a request by the All Japan Shinai-kyōgi Federation, a meeting was held on December 4 at the MOE attended by approximately forty representatives from university, high and middle schools, physical education administrators and instructors, and representatives from the Shinai-kyōgi Federation. A discussion was conducted regarding shinai-kyōgi in which all present agreed that with the meeting of certain conditions, “shinai-kyōgi would be suitable for inclusion in school PE classes.” Therefore, in this meeting, the following items need to be discussed: 1. Should shinai-kyōgi be considered to be a separate new sport distinct from kendo, or as a new form of kendo? 2. Should shinai-kyōgi be taught in schools? 3. Opinions concerning its introduction into schools.7
Following this introductory statement, representative members proceeded to offer their thoughts on the matter. For example the Saitama Prefecture chief administrator for physical education’s comments were representative of the general sentiment:
At the discussion held by the MOE there were two trains of thought with regards to shinai–kyōgi as new kendo, or as a completely new sport. This suggests that there will be some confrontation or confusion in the future. However, I am of the belief that in the process of change in sports, some aspects are destructed and then rebuilt. Thus, I see shinai–kyōgi as a part of the process of kendo’s transition, and it will become one entity again in the future without any clash. Considering the current situation with kendo, I am in support of including shinai-kyōgi in school physical education.8
Although some participants cautioned that vigilance was needed to ensure that “the good aspects of kendo are retained but all elements of militarism be eliminated”9, the chairman concluded at the end of the meeting “the MOE must make adequate research to ensure that shinai-kyōgi enhances the value of physical education in schools.”10 All present agreed without objection.
The MOE did just that, and in a notification published in April 10, 1952, the ministry announced that shinai–kyōgi was to “fill a gap” in the physical education curriculum, but with the condition that instructors were to undergo training at official federation or MOE seminars, just as was the case with kyudo and judo in schools.11
For a short period of time, shinai-kyōgi gained an enthusiastic following around the country, but it was always scorned by traditionalists who yearned for the total reinstatement of kendo proper. With the signing of the San Francisco Treaty in 1951, the All Japan Kendo Federation was established in 1952, and the Shinai-Kyōgi Federation was amalgamated into it in 1954. Subsequent to the eventual full resurrection of kendo, shinai–kyōgi was replaced as an event in the National Sports Festival (Kokutai) and in schools which essentially spelled the end of the hybrid version. It died a natural death with the creation of “School Kendo” in 1957, and in a way was swept under the proverbial carpet as if it had never happened. Very little mention of this chapter in the evolution of modern kendo is made in the literature other than it was a necessary evil to get kendo back on track. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that it did pave the way for kendo’s post-war development as a “pure democratic sport”. As such, its historical significance is greater than many scholars on the subject care to acknowledge.