A History of Contests - Parallel development between Karate & Kendo

During the feudal era in Japan, amongst schools of the classical Martial Arts it was often the case that contests were entered into between individuals or sometimes between rival schools. From around the 1500's contests such as these were conducted in great seriousness to show the superiority of one style over another or in some cases to humiliate an individual or school.

In such contests it was generally the case that real blades were not used - these were reserved for the battlefield or for the fulfilment of a duel. During such contests it was more usual for the Bokken or wooden sword to be used. These swords were made from a very hard wood such as oak and occasionally were reinforced with iron fillets. The overall dimensions were around the same as that of a real sword but to compensate for the weight difference between wood and metal, they were usually possessive of a thicker blade. In these contests, the combatants did not wear armour of any kind but fought with an unprotected head and body. It was not unusual for mortal blows to be struck and on many occasions the contestants lost their lives. Even if mortal wounds and disablement were avoided, the very least one could expect was severe bruising or broken bones.

Before such a contest was entered into the two protagonists would exchange a document which took the place of a modern day disclaimer and effectively stated that " I do not care for mortal wounds". In less severe and more friendly tests of skill, the opponents would pull their blows before actually making contact, and victory was secured by means of a points win. The technique of pulling one's strikes is known as Tsumeru waza and to be commended on one's ability to do this was one of the highest compliments a swordsman could receive. One result of Tsumeru waza however, was that it's use led to a rather strange looking and ungratifying encounter, and as a result a different weapon was developed which would allow for friendly matches to employ a higher degree of contact without sustaining such serious injury. At the beginning of the Edo period around 1600, the forebear of the Shinai started to appear and ostensibly was used by such systems as the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu. This was a sword made up form a number of strips of bamboo tied together and covered in a cotton sheath. In about 1712 the Jikishinkage Ryu began to use armour for the face and forearms during normal practice but these were abandoned for contests in favour of Bokken. The Maniwa Nen Ryu is an extant Ryu which still uses early examples of Shinai called White Sticks in it's everyday training.

Challenge matches frequently had ulterior motives however, and during the Sengoku Period, it was not unknown for this activity to be an excuse for bullying others or for theft or extortion. Whilst it was very much the case that Shugyosha (wandering Swordsmen) would roam the country seeking opponents so they could test their skills, other did so purely for personal gain. During this time throughout Japan there were many Ronin, or masterless Samurai who found themselves out of work. These men were sometimes of low character and would coerce others into contests, and arranged fights for betting to take place. This scurrilous practice used to be called Dojo Yaburi. There was however a far less disreputable and more popularly used connotation for this phrase however, and this relates to the practice of Shugyosha seeking fair challenges from others who genuinely wished to test their skill.

During the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868) around 200 different schools of martial arts were known to the military government, and amongst these schools were some very talented martial artists. This naturally led to a revival of Dojo Yaburi, but during the Edo period, only certain types of contest could take place and these had to occur at specific times and places laid down by the Bakufu. Dojo Yaburi became a fashionable thing to undertake and often Sensei would encourage their students to take part. However, even during these relatively peaceful times in Japan's history, it was not uncommon for fights to be fixed or for bribes to change hands. During the 1800's the Martial Arts in Japan began to lose much of their militaristic tendencies and started to become more akin to what we associate as Martial Arts today. Consequently, Dojo Yaburi took on a somewhat different nature. The practice of Fencing was no longer a refuge of the Samurai Classes, and ordinary people began to study it as self defence.

In addition to contests between individuals from two different dojo, the 1800's saw the arrival of some large-scale fencing tournaments which took place between rival dojo. One of the most memorable gatherings of this type took place at the Kaibashi Estate in old Edo (Tokyo) in 1857. Martial Artists from many schools came together to test their skills. However, it must be noted that a vast majority of the contestants were made up of the Shishi. These were young stalwart men who were intensely loyal to the Emperor and who in a few short years would help to overthrow the Tokugawa regime and restore the Emperor to power. The contests at the gathering were indeed between famous Kenjutsuka from all over the country but the literature from the contests proclaimed otherwise. Some hold the theory that the gathering was a cover to enable the Shishi to hold secret talks and planning sessions in preparing for the overthrow of the Shogunate.

The development of certain aspects and practices in swordsmanship have parallels in Modern Karate. We have seen how during the early part of this century that many well known teachers such as Kenwa Mabuni, Shinken Taira and others dabbled with the use of armour or Bogu, in order to indulge in more spirited practice. This produced mixed results and the more modern materials we now have at our disposal have led to far better equipment for those who practice this type of Karate. Similarly, the technique of Tsumeru is again something which has been transferred into Karate. We know that its employment can produce mixed results too as it is always difficult to control strikes in a contest and frequently accidents happen as they did during the Edo period. Dojo Yaburi still takes place although these days it is more akin to Dojo Arashi or storming a dojo! It is not unknown for rival Karate clubs in a small town to take a contingent to a neighbouring club in order to issue a challenge or to indulge in some spirited "contests". I have personally had several "visits" over the years at my classes and have hopefully provided satisfaction where the challenge has been a valid one. I do not recommend this course of action however, especially in a small town as it can sometimes get out of hand! After all, if you feel you have something to prove, then the tournament arena is the place to polish your ego!

As a final thought to leave you with, in many situations in the martial arts, what has gone before is generally the right way to do things in the future. Naturally there are exceptions but back in the feudal period, something either worked or it did not last. This principle of Martial Darwinism can be applied to techniques, principles, systems, weapons etc. etc. etc. For those who think they are "inventing" something new by coming up with a new technique , a piece of equipment or indeed even a new "style", the chances are something like it has been done before. This may be why those of us who study classical martial arts do so because it is a method which has been tried and tested through the arena of contests and through battle. The French have a saying which goes Plus ca change, Plus c'est la meme chose - The more things change, the more they stay the same;.says it all really doesn't it?

Copyright Phil Snewin 1998 All rights reserved