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Japan in Focus / Kendo traditions thrive at fabled Kyoto hall

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Children practice kendo at a training hall with a long history in Kyu Butokuden.

By Yasuhiro Fujimoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer KYOTO — People practicing Japanese martial arts anywhere in the world should visit the Kyu Butokuden building in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto.

It is a wooden single-story building that is about 56 meters from east to west and about 27 meters from north to south. The building’s exterior has remained unchanged from the time of its construction in 1899.

Programs to foster the young people who will carry on the future of Japanese martial arts are conducted in its Enbujo training hall, where history and tradition are palpable.

Modeled after Heian-period building

At Kyu Butokuden on an evening in early November, the cheerful voices of children shouting, “Yaaa!” and “Meen!” could be heard.

They were taking part in the kendo lessons that the Kyoto Kendo Federation has continued for more than 50 years in the famed martial arts building. That day, about 30 elementary and junior high school students were swinging shinai bamboo swords with serious expressions on their faces.

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    A pillar with scrapes and scratches on the surface is evidence of intense practice sessions in the past.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

Instructors said that the policy of the lessons is to make sure children firmly acquire fundamental motions rather than acquiring skills for winning matches.

Seiko Tomiyama, 56, one of the instructors, had also learned kendo at the place in his childhood.

He said, “I have always been told by my friends living outside Kyoto Prefecture, ‘I’m jealous of you because you can practice in Kyu Butokuden.’”

Shu Negoro, 14, a second-year student of a junior high school affiliated with Kyoto Prefectural Rakuhoku High School, has been taking kendo lessons there since he was a third-year elementary school student.

He said with a smile: “The floorboards here are soft, so I can move smoothly. I’m proud that I can practice kendo in this place with history and tradition.”

Originally, a building named Butokuden was built by Emperor Kanmu (737-806), who constructed the capital of Heian-kyo (now Kyoto). His Butokuden was northwest of the Daigokuden imperial palace. It is believed that mounted archery and other events were held on horse-riding tracks in the original Butokuden.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai organization built the current building as part of projects to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the capital’s relocation to Heian-kyo.

The organization aimed to revive traditional Japanese martial arts and thus built the new Butokuden in the northwest of the Heian Jingu shrine based on historical facts.

One characteristic of Kyu Butokuden is a seat for the emperor to watch martial arts matches. Takeharu Oda, 68, chief of the secretariat of the Kyoto Kendo Federation, said, “It is rare nationwide that a martial arts training hall has a seat exclusively for the emperor.”

In 1905, the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai opened a school to foster instructors of such martial arts as kenjutsu swordplay and jujutsu wrestling in the Butokuden building. The school later became Budo Senmon Gakko, which specialized in teaching Japanese martial arts.

A large number of young people trained at the school. The surface of a pillar in the training hall has chipped-off spots and many scratches, showing how hard training was in the past and how long the training hall has been in use.

After World War II, the building was impacted by the changing times. The General Headquarters of the Allied Powers regarded Japanese martial arts as militaristic, and ordered the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai to disband. Practicing kendo was prohibited and Budo Senmon Gakko was closed. The Enbujo training hall was confiscated by the occupation forces and then used as a dance hall.

After that period of hardship, the Kyoto city government purchased the training hall in 1951. The hall was used as a training facility of a police academy of the city and then as a facility for the Faculty of Music of Kyoto City University of Arts.

When there were plans to relocate the Faculty of Music, demolition of the Butokuden building was considered, as the building was getting old.

The All Japan Kendo Federation and others opposed the demolition plan, saying that the historical building must not be lost, and asked the city government to preserve it.

As a result of the persistent activities of concerned people, it was decided to preserve the building in 1980, and the crisis of imminent demolition was avoided. Later, restoration work was done with money donated by kendo enthusiasts nationwide.

In 1983, the Butokuden building was designated by the Kyoto city government as a tangible cultural asset. At the time, the building was registered with the name Kyu Botokuden, because there is a custom that when facility owners change, the names are modified by adding “kyu” — meaning “former.”

Since then, the building has been called by its current name. In 1996, it was designated by the central government as a national important cultural asset.

3,000 participate every year

Currently, major competition events of various Japanese martial arts, including aikido and judo, are held in Kyu Butokuden.

The most noteworthy is the All Japan Kendo Enbu Taikai — a demonstration championship event of kendo and similar sports — which is held in May every year.

Last year’s event was the 114th. It is the top-class championship event of its kind, in which only the highest-level competitors, with at least a sixth-dan rank, are eligible to participate in the categories of kendo, naginata long-handled sword and iaido — the last being the martial art of quickly drawing a sword to respond to sudden attacks.

Practitioners of kendo and other martial arts not only in Japan but also from abroad participate in the demonstration championship. Many from Western countries, such as the United States, Greece and Belgium, compete in the event.

Every year, more than 3,000 martial artists come to Kyoto to participate in the event. Officials said there was even a kendo player who participated beyond the age of 100.

Oda of the secretariat stressed, “Even for people who have practiced kendo and others for many years, it is a special opportunity to show their skills in this place.”

There are many sports in which required skills and rules have changed with the times, but Japanese martial arts have placed importance on long-inherited traditions in manners, mental preparedness and honing one’s physical and mental condition, rather than focusing on wins or losses in matches. The quiet, sedate atmosphere in the Kyu Butokuden is also a symbol of the traditions.

Tomiyama emphatically said, “It’s our mission to firmly take over the things that our predecessors have preserved.”

The oldest martial arts training hall in Japan seems to silently watch new generations of martial artists develop.

■ Access

Kyu Butokuden is about 20 minutes on foot from Higashiyama Station on the Tozai Line of the Kyoto city subways. The facility is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Kendo lessons for elementary and junior high school students are from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays. Those for adults are from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. every day, except for Sundays and national holidays. For more information, call the Kyoto Kendo Federation at (075) 761-8288.Speech

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