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Japan martial art women

Detail from "A Night Attack on the Horikawa" by Yoshitora.
Women often became part of the last line of defense when a castle or manor was under attack.
Courtesy of the Tokyo Central Library

Japanese Women
in the History of
Modern Competitive Martial Sports

Японские женщины
в истории современного соревновательного боевого спорта

From the article "The Role of the Arms-Bearing Women in Japanese History "
by Ellis Amdur.

The entry of Asian martial arts into the Western world has happened to coincide, through no particular design, with the transformation of women's role in society. Women of the late twentieth century have risen into prominence in business, science, and as players on the political stage. The victimization of women in domestic violence and sexual and physical assault is still rampant, but it is increasingly countered through legislation and political activism and, on a personal level, through women's pursuit of fighting skills to defend themselves. Ever greater numbers of women are involved in martial arts and self-defense training.

In the second part of the XIX century Japan became a centralized state transforming into the Empire. Since that time martial arts, which had been a prerogative of the warrior class, were cultivated for the entire populace for its unification. Raising of loyalty to the Emperor and denial of personal desires - the basic reasons why general martial arts education was established in Japan. As a matter of fact, it was the birth of modern competitive martial sports for men and women.

Tomoe Gozen

Tomoe Gozen from Kuniyoshi's "One Hundred Heroes" story. As is usually the case, Tomoe Gozen (12th Century) is portrayed bearing a naginata, although there is no record of her ever having used this weapon. Nonetheless, this portrait clearly gives evidence of the admiration with which the Japanese regarded this legendary woman. Photo courtesy Tokyo Central Library.

The late Meiji era (1868-1912) of the Japan history was the first time the Japanese thought of themselves as having a national identity. Before the Meiji period, one's feudal domain was, in many senses, one's country. The government began to manipulate the doctrines of bushido* to make them apply to the entire populace rather than just the warrior class. Through this, the government encouraged the development of a regimented and obedient society. Language, religion, and education were brought under centralized control. The dogma of the day elevated the Emperor to the status of a god. Shinto was also perverted into a state religion, professing a pseudo-history that was used as a rationale for the "manifest destiny" of Japan as the ruler of Asia. Following the same pattern of activities as the European and American imperialist powers, these sentiments carried the country through a war with Russia, the rape of northern China, and the horrors of World War II. Loyalty to the Emperor replaced loyalty to a daimyo*.

Used as a rallying point, this loyalty created an entire nation that was willing to live and die in the service of any cause deemed worthy by the government. The newly created grammar school system became a great propaganda machine. The primary emphases were on submission to the Emperor and gaining skills and knowledge for the good of the state. Students were taught that cooperation, standardization, and the denial of personal desires were the most productive ways of serving the nation.

Around 1910, martial arts practice was made a regular part of school curricula. The classical disciplines, however, were not considered completely suitable for the training of the mass population. The older martial traditions encouraged a feudalistic loyalty to themselves and their teachings and, in addition, often focused on somewhat mystical values not directly concerned with the assumed needs of modern Japan. For this reason, judo* and kendo*, both Meiji creations, were taught in boys' schools. Kendo had been standardized by teachers of some of the major traditional systems of sword fighting for the purpose of specializing in competitive training.

Naginata against shinai

A match at the dojo of Chiba Shusaku between naginata and shinai (late 1800s). Chiba Shusaku of Hokushin Itto-ryu was one of the pioneers of competitive fighting sports.

In the early Meiji period, there was another impetus for the development of competitive martial sports This was the phenomenon of roving martial "carnivals" known as gekken kogyo*. Some former samurai, down on their luck, joined forces in traveling exhibitions, giving demonstrations and taking challenges from the audiences. Mounting the stage, fighters would challenge all comers from the audience, using wooden or bamboo swords, naginata*, spear, chain-and-sickle, or any other weapon selected by the challenger. These fights were very popular and well written up in the newspapers. Although the fighters probably tried to exert some control, there were many injuries. In addition to challenge matches, members of the troop would engage each other in "combat," and among the most popular would be a woman with a wooden naginata against a man armed with a wooden or bamboo replica of a sword.

One of the most remarkable of these women was Murakami Hideo, who traveled through Japan learning various martial art styles. Imagine a tiny, young woman, little more than a girl, marching through the Japanese countryside, alone, without employment, walking from one dojo* to another. This was a time when women were severely restrained in their choice of lifestyle and employment, but Murakami went her own way, inviolate. Eventually, Murakami became very strong martial artist and was awarded the menkyo kaiden* in the school while still in her twenties. She opened a dojo in the Kanda area of Tokyo called the Shusuikan (Hall of the Autumn Water).
Murakami Hideo and Kobayashi Seiko

Murakami Hideo and Kobayashi Seiko of Toda-ha Buko-ryu, teaching at a young girl's academy, probably in the mid 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Kobayashi family.

At some time, then, she joined the gekken kogyo. Fighting with a chain-and-sickle or naginata, she took all challenges from the audiences. There are no reports of her ever losing. In her later years, she was able to make ends meet as a teacher, but she was always poor. According to those who knew her in her old age, she was a tiny, kind, but wary women, always ready to invite you to supper. She could drink anyone under the table. As far as is known, she lived alone and she died alone. As these matches were for the entertainment of a paying audience, they soon degenerated to what must be considered the pro-wrestling or "Ultimate Fighting Championship" of the Meiji period with waitresses serving drinks in abbreviated kimono and drunken patrons cheering in the stands. Matches became dramatic exhibitions, vulgar parodies of the austere warrior culture from which they had emerged. Discouraged by the police who regarded them as a threat to public order, the gekken kogyo disbanded within a few years. Nonetheless, they can be regarded as the first precursors of modern martial sport in Japan--competition for the sake of comparing skills and entertaining an audience. As martial arts continued to be integrated into public education during the first decades of the Showa period (1926 to 1990), the practice of naginata came to a crossroads. Judo, kendo, and, later, karate were made to be practiced in a standardized form. Naginata training, however, was still confined to the adaptation of specific ryu* to physical education classes. Naginata practice began to develop into something new - a competitive sport.

 Tendo-ryu kusarigamajutsu

Tendo-ryu kusarigamajutsu*

During the Second World War, some naginata teachers, notably a lady named Sakakida Yaeko, in conjunction with the Ministry of Education created the Mombusho Seitei Kata* (Standard Forms of the Ministry of Education). Sakakida had been, and remains, a practitioner of Tendo-ryu* and was an avid competitor in naginata matches against kendo students. She states that she found that the different styles of the old ryu were not suitable to teach to large groups of schoolgirls on an intermittent basis. Given the conditions in which she had to teach, she felt, also, that it was too difficult for the girls to learn the sword side of the kata, so she began to emphasize solo practice with the naginata. Finally, she was concerned that they might study one ryu in primary school and another in secondary school, thus being required to relearn everything each time they switched schools.

Something however, seems to have been lost in the process. Geared for children rather than warriors, these forms are, as a result, simplistic and somewhat lacking in character. The singularity that made the old ryu strong was sacrificed in favor of a generic mean. Teachers and students of the classical ryu received scant instruction in these new forms and were assigned "territories" made up of several grammar schools. As part of their preparation, the teachers were instructed in how to give "pep talks" to the girls. These talks included warnings about the barbarism of invading armies and the need for girls to protect themselves and their families. But the protection was not intended for the integrity of the girls themselves, but as "mirrors of the Emperor's virtue."

Nitta Suzuyo, nineteenth-generation lineal successor to Toda-ha Buko-ryu* recalls teaching these forms to girls from twelve to seventeen years old. Still a young woman herself, she was dispatched to instruct as her teacher, Kobayashi Seiko preferred to continue to teach her traditional ryu in private. As part of the training for teachers, Nitta was told that the most important thing was to boost the girls' morale and strengthen their spirit in case of an enemy landing. She said that the girls liked the training, which was done in place of "enemy sports" such as baseball or volleyball.

Mitamura Takeko and Sawada Hanae

Perfect combat spacing between Headmistress Mitamura Takeko (right) and Sawada Hanae (left) of Tendo-ryu. Photo courtesy of the Nippon Budokan.

Women were said to personify the spirit of bushido because their "nature" was to be selfless and nurturing. They were believed to be the basis of society because of their place in the education of children. It was claimed that martial arts training would develop the attention to details needed for housekeeping, food preparation, caring for the sick, and making a "friendly atmosphere." A woman trained in naginata was supposed to be soft but strong, willing to be selfless but decisive, and above all, patient and enduring. The strong body she developed from training was necessary to keep healthy and active to carry out all her work. She was said to have a "full spirit" and strong beauty. One teacher's manual, written in the middle of Japan's war years, states, "The study of naginata, home economics, and sewing would develop the perfect woman."

Three trainees

Three trainees of modern-day Toda-ha Buko-ryu.

In 1945, the war finally ended. The occupation forces were fearful of anything that seemed to be connected to Japan's warlike spirit and they banned martial studies. Thousands of swords were piled on runways, run over with steamrollers, and then buried under concrete construction projects. Donn Draeger recounted to me the sight of those swords, flashing in the sun in shards of gold and silver, crackling and ringing under the roar and stink of the steamrollers. After eight years, however, these bans were lifted and the first All Japan Kendo Renmei (Federation) Tournament was held in 1953. At a meeting held afterwards, Sakakida and several of the leading naginata instructors of Tendo-ryu and Jikishin Kage-ryu made plans for the institution of a similar All Japan Naginata-do Renmei. It was decided to adopt the Mombusho kata as the standard form of the federation, with only a few minor changes. They also decided to eliminate the writing of naginata in characters (long blade) and (mowing blade) and, to indicate their break with the past, spell it in the syllabary whose letters have only sound values. This martial sport has come to be called atarashii naginata (new naginata).

I believe that competitive martial sports can be wonderful activities. My own rather limited years of experience in judo and Muay Thai and ongoing cross training in modern grappling systems have certainly brought that home to me. Competition can impart a sense of trust in one's ability as well as expose one's weaknesses. Such study can create a more self-aware individual, a person far more valuable to a community than one would imagine a mere sportswoman or sportsman to be. Thus, martial sports are not mere sports.

Atarashii naginata is a significant part of the lives of probably several million women. Something of such consequence cannot simply be shoved aside in a disdainful conservative critique that it is degenerated, watered-down martial arts. Like any other activity, martial training must continue to grow and develop if it is to remain appropriate to the times in which it exists. For the men and women in most modern martial sports, and, specifically, for the (mostly) women who train in modern sports naginata, I believe that despite all the fine things they may have gained in the abandonment of traditional martial practice, they may have lost even more wondrous things. To wish that history were different is ultimately foolish. But foolish as it may be, I wish that they could have both.

Ellis Amdur

The Role of the Arms-Bearing Women in Japanese History,
Part 4; Part 5

Ellis Amdur

Ellis Amdur, a crisis intervention specialist in Seattle (Washington, USA), began his martial arts training in 1968. He spent 13 years in Japan, and currently holds instructor's licenses in the Araki-ryu Torite Kogusoku and the Toda-ha Buko-ryu naginatajutsu. He is teaches these two martial traditions in Seattle. Amdur extensively cross-trained in judo, hsing i, Ch'en family t'ai chi ch'uan and Muay Thai. He began aikido training in 1973 with Terry Dobson in New York City, and continued his training in Japan with a number of instructors, most notably Yasunori Kuwamori and Yoshio Kuroiwa. He is the founder of "Edgework", which offers trainings and consultation to law enforcement and social service personnel for the de-escalation and management of the behavior of emotionally disturbed individuals.

Some basic terms:

Bushido: Japanese military code of behavior prevalent in feudal times formulated during the Tokugawa Era (1603-1868). Sometimes known as "The Way of the Warrior" or "The Way of the Samurai". The premise of the code was to advise a samurai how to conduct himself in battle and how to find a meaningful place in a peacetime society.

Daimyo: clan leader.

Kendo: "way of the sword".

Judo: "yielding way". Founded by Jigoro Kano, as the "perfect form of Ju Jutsu". There are no kicks or strikes and locks can only be applied to the elbow. Chokes and strangles can be applied to gain submissions.

Kata: sequence of techniques performed individually, or in a group, designed to teach basic movements.

Naginata: weapon used in feudal Japan consisting of an ovate wooden shaft measuring approximately 6-8 feet in length with a curved blade on the end of it. The blade measured between 1 and 3 feet, and was sharpened on one side (the convex side).

Ryu: martial arts school.

Menkyo kaiden: highest license for a martial art teacher.

Gekken kogyo: "show of attacking sword".

Dojo: training hall.

Koryu: old martial art style.

Toda-ha Buko-ryu: ancient koryu that focuses on the use of a long naginata.

Tendo Ryu: classical naginata style.

Kusarigamajutsu (kusarigama; cho-e kama): (chained sickle) is a unique Japanese weapon that has its roots in agriculture. The shape differs according to school. The most common one is a double-edged sickle with a 2- or 5-meter long chain attached to the handle. The other end of the chain has a weight that can be swung at an opponent to immobilize him or entangle his sword. The sickle blade has an offensive role.

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