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In Memory of Hirata Fuho-sensei

It is with great sadness that we have heard that K8-dan Hirata Fuhō-sensei passed away on Sunday April 2, 2023, at the age of 80, after suffering a heart attack at the Tokyo Kendosai. Hirata-sensei was well-known to the members of Kendo World and was kind enough to participate in the Kendo World Keiko-kai on a number of occasions.

In late 2012 Kendo World conducted an interview with Hirata-sensei and published it in KW 6.3. In the interview, Hirata-sensei spoke about his kendo journey and his links to the legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. In memory of Hirata-sensei, here is that article.

An Interview with Hirata Fuhō-sensei

Musashi’s DNA Lives On

Hirata Fuhō was born in Mimasaka City, Okayama Prefecture, in 1942. Those of you familiar with the history of Miyamoto Musashi will notice an interesting connection: Musashi’s grandfather was Hirata Shōgen (Musashi’s original name was Hirata Takezō); and Musashi is thought to have been born in Mimasaka. Could it be that Hirata-sensei is a direct descendant of the great Musashi? Well, the answer is in fact, yes. Hirata-sensei is the 17th generation head of the Hirata family, and as an 8-dan kendo master, he carries on the legacy of great swordsmen in the family.

Hirata-sensei joined the Keishichō (Tokyo Police) and studied under some of the greatest post-war kendo teachers. Retiring from the police in 2001, Hirata-sensei has dedicated himself to the study of traditional Japanese arts, martial and otherwise.

Apart from holding the highest rank in kendo, he is also an adherent of the Ono-ha Ittō-ryū and the Jikishin Kage-ryū. Interestingly, he is not a student of Musashi’s Niten Ichi-ryū, but after interviewing him recently in Kyoto, I found out that Musashi features highly in his outlook on budo and life in general.

Kendo World: When did you start kendo?

Hirata Fuhō: I have been studying kendo for almost sixty years now. I started not long after the GHQ imposed ban on the practice of the martial arts was lifted, and I was a year-5 elementary school student when I first picked up a shinai. Because of the Miyamoto Musashi legacy, the region where I was brought up and went to school was quite a hotbed for kendo. I continued practising though junior high school, and by the time I graduated from high school, I had attained the rank of 3-dan. This was considered to be a very difficult grade to take at high school level.

KW: Did you decide to join the police because of your skill in kendo?

HF: In a way, yes. I think that it was a decisive factor in where I was placed after joining the force, and as a result it made me more determined to excel in it. When I entered the Police Academy, I was the only one out of 250 cadets who held the grade of 3-dan. After graduating the Academy, I was first stationed at a police station in Ryōgoku [the sumo district of Tokyo]. The work was hard, eight hours a day with one 24-hour shift every three days, but I still managed to train in kendo. Because I was young and was 3-dan, my superiors seemed to take a liking to me.

KW: When did you enter the Kidōtai?

HF: At the time there were five Riot Squad (Kidōtai) divisions in the Keishichō. At the end of 1963, each division created a special unit for budo training. These Budo Units were made up of 15 judo and 15 kendo practitioners who were to study their respective arts for a year. All of the inductees were well-known within the police because of their skills.

The following year in May, 1964, I was transferred to the No. 3 Kidōtai Budo Unit after spending only 11 months on the beat. I was fairly confident in my ability before this, but I was in for a real shock when I met my sempai in the Kidōtai. They were so strong that it really took me by surprise. Until this time, I had pretty much cruised through kendo without much difficulty, but it was different now. This was serious stuff, and the trainings were unbelievably rigorous. It was nothing but kendo, kendo, kendo every day. We would do 30 minutes to one hour of kirikaeshi without stopping, followed by kakari-geiko, and then shidō-geiko in which we were summarily put to the sword all over again. It was so gruelling that we would start seeing black and pass out.

It was particularly bad after a night of drinking alcohol. It was a fait accompli that we would be throwing up in our men the next day during the kirikaeshi and kakari-geiko sessions. The instructors would thrust us on our backsides, and knock us all over the floor, and even out of the dojo! It was hell.

But, as a descendent of Miyamoto Musashi, there was no way that I was NOT going to endure it. This was always at the back of my mind. Actually, ever since I was a child, my father would drum this into me: “You are a part of Miyamoto Musashi’s bloodline. Don’t forget it. Grow some balls!” It was these words that always helped me grind through tough situations throughout my life and career.

In any case, my time in the No.3 Kidōtai was as hard-hitting as it gets, but that is where I formulated my ideas on kendo. Kendo is a martial art that derives from life and death combat. Training with the Kidōtai was as close to this as you can get in modern kendo. Every day was a battle for survival. It enabled me to realise the severity of what we were doing, and where kendo came from.

After a year in the unit, I really started to understand what kendo was all about, and sometimes even managed to strike my sempai! From April, a new influx of trainees for the Budo Unit was decided. I hoped that I would be able to stay on as an assistant, but this was not to be. I will admit that I was bitterly disappointed at being transferred to another unit, but I used the opportunity to go to Nihon University night school classes and continue to study while I worked as a policeman.

KW: Who were some of the kenshi that you admired in the Kidōtai?

HF: I was able to train with incredible kendoka such as Nishiyama Yasuhiro, Taguchi Eiji, and Ōta Tadanori. They all became Keishichō Head Instructors, and their skill was formidable. They were a great inspiration to me, and I aspired to be like them.

Nishiyama-sensei passed away a few years ago, but he was famous for his kendo [he was 1965 All Japan Kendo Champion], his penchant for alcohol, and his amazing artistic ability. His paintings are sought after items now. He was also famous throughout the police, even when he was a cadet in the Police Academy. Every night before he went to bed, he would do 1000 suburi without fail after a day of bone-breaking boot camp. People still talk about it today. I remember just before he died on May 6, 2004, he said, “This is the end. I have no regrets.” A truly great man.

KW: How was your kendo life after the Kidōtai?

HF: I spent the rest of my career working my way up the ladder in the police force, and continued to train as much as I could. Whenever there were any police tournaments, I would usually be entered as the captain of the department I was in, so there was a lot of pressure not to lose. I therefore trained a lot.

When I was the Chief of the Ōtsuka Police Department, I was able to practise at the famous Noma Dojo every morning between 7:00 and 8:00. Apart from ten days at the end of the year, Noma Dojo was open every day of the week, so I trained there each day, and after that would go to keiko at the police department as well. In total, I was able to train over 500 times in a single year.

I would also do the rounds at various police dojo and sometimes back at the Kidōtai. I always had a set of armour and shinai in the trunk of my car, and would pop in for a fence at a police station somewhere, or a community dojo whenever I had a spare moment. When I retired from the police, I had the rank of 7-dan.

KW: So you passed the 8-dan examination after you retired?

HF: Yes, that’s right. It actually became an important goal for me after retirement. It kept my head in the game, and I stepped up my training even more. As you know, the pass rate for the 8-dan examination is very low, but if you are going to do something you might as well aim for the top. The harder the objective, the more determined you become. That’s all I thought about. I left eight sets of armour in dojo throughout Tokyo, and trained every morning, and at night when I could. I would manage to get up to 14 training sessions a week.

I also trained conscientiously in the Ono-ha Ittō-ryū and the hōjō kata of the Jikishin Kage-ryū for quite a few years. I found that studying the classical styles of kenjutsu offered important insights into the techniques and philosophy of modern kendo. People often wonder why I don’t study Niten Ichi-ryū. There is no reason in particular, it’s just that I have never been in a place or a situation where I can learn it properly. Of course, I do read the classic texts written by Musashi, and believe these to be true treasures in understanding kendo. In that sense, I consider myself to be a student of Musashi.

So, all in all, I don’t think many people were training more than me. Of eleven attempts, I was successful in passing the first round of the examination five times. This is usually a 10% pass rate so even that is very difficult to achieve. However, I never made it beyond the second section of the examination. So close, yet so far away.

Still, I was never going to give up, so I kept up the intensity of my training. Then on my twelfth attempt, at the age of 67, I was able to achieve my goal and pass. Actually, I was in the worst shape I had ever been in on this attempt. I had a foot injury through overtraining, and to top it off, I had a dreadful cold. My nose was blocked, I found it hard to breathe, and my build up to the big day was far from ideal. I guess it was the experience that I had gained from my previous eleven tries that pulled me through.

Now I realise after achieving this milestone that here is still so much more to learn. Once I reached the mountaintop that I thought 8-dan would be, I see so many more peaks to conquer in the distance. Kendo really is a deep and profound Way to follow. There is no end to it.

KW: In summary, after all those years of dedicated training and study, what is kendo to you?

HF: Kendo to me is my life, and it is a blooming flower of Japanese culture. By training with the shinai with as much solemnity as if it were a real sword, I believe that kendo can be used as a way to develop one’s character and humanity. This means that through kendo, we can become better human beings. There is much symbolism in kendo, and even the official badge of the All Japan Kendo Federation is a reminder of the high ideals that we seek. The badge has the three colours of red, blue, and white. Red symbolises “wisdom”, blue is “benevolence”, and white is “courage”. These are qualities that lead us to a higher level of humanity. I think that the ideal person embodies honesty, kindness, sincerity, courtesy, physical and mental strength, intelligence, assiduousness, and perseverance. To me, kendo is a Way to nurture these virtues. This is what I have learned.

KW: Hirata-sensei, thank you very much.

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