Tuesday, November 04, 2008

All-Japan Iaido in Sendai

The good folks at Kendo World needed somebody to go up to Sendai to cover the 43rd All-Japan Iaido Tournament, so I bravely volunteered! It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. It was scheduled for Saturday, so I headed out of Tokyo after work on Friday night by Shinkansen, and got into Sendai in time to enjoy a late dinner of beef tongue, the local specialty up there. The folks in the bar were extremely friendly, and I was reminded (again) how nice people are once you get away from Tokyo. (Not to put Tokyo people down but they are, shall we say, accustomed to foreigners.)

I got to the gym in plenty of time but there was some kind of miscommunication, so I was led around to the wrong place, and then left to sit for a while, and then made to wait a little bit more, by which time the opening ceremonies had begun, and the guy in charge (i.e., the guy who was supposed to know I was coming and give me the thumbs-up) was busy; finally, they just felt sorry for me and told me I had carte-blanche and to go ahead and film whatever I wanted.

Unfortunately, by that time all the best seats were taken. Everybody in the front rows had already set up their video cameras and were busily recording the action. (What happens to these scores of video tapes? Are they traded on some kind of underground network of iaido enthusiasts?) Resigning myself to having a crappy angle, I settled in and set up the camera.

I was under instructions to film the finals, at the very least, but I had 4 hours of battery life and a couple one-hour tapes, so I indulged myself with a few "practice runs" and filmed some of the preliminary rounds when I knew one of the competitors. The team from Oita consisted of Kosaka Sensei (7th dan; has won 6th dan twice and come in 2nd or 3rd quite a few times; has gotten 2nd at the 7th dan level but never won) and Nishino Sensei (6th dan; has gotten 2nd or 3rd at the 5th dan level a few times, and done well at the 6th dan level, but never won) and a new member, Oishi-san (5th dan, 31 years old). In the end, Kosaka Sensei and Nishino Sensei were eliminated fairly early on, and it was Oishi-san who got the furthest, making it to the best 8.

As the day wore on, people left their seats, and I jumped into the vacancies, gradually moving closer and closer to the action. Eventually, with the words of my editor Alex Bennett ringing in my ears ("Jeff, just be ruthless and get in there, mate!") I ducked under the cordon and into the area reserved for the ZNKR cameramen, and just filmed from there. I figured that, since I was "Press" it was okay, and in fact, there were already some sneaky buggers in there before me anyway! So, in the end, I got some good angles.

In between filming, I wandered around and said Hi to a lot (but not all) of the teachers I have had the chance to train with over here. It was a great opportunity to shmooze. I was disappointed, though, that I couldn't seem to find some people whom I had expected would be there. Their names were in the program, but maybe they couldn't make it after all.

I also got a chance to speak briefly with Kawamura-san, the Kendo Nippon photographer who put out the fantastic "Iaido" photo collection in the early 90's. I told him I was a huge fan of his work (he seemed surprised by that) and I asked if he had any plans for an "Iaido 2". He said he had no plans; the original had been a labour of love that was actually very, very difficult to put together and to publish, and which lost money. He also said that many of the people in the original book had since passed away (definitely true; I would say about 80% of the people in there are now deceased) and that not enough time had passed to fill a new book with a whole new generation of iaido masters. I'm not sure about that.

Anyway, it was a great day and a great event. I was, as usual, just blown away by the caliber of the iaido on display, but at the same time, kind of sad (in a way) that the judging standards have become so narrow that everyone is doing basically the same kind of iai. There doesn't seem to be any room for "individual variation" as such. I remember Yokoyama sensei (MJER from Kochi, I think) telling us that we all had to do our own style of iai, in a way that suits our physical stature and our personality. I'm not sure if there's room for that in modern iaido; or if there is, it won't win you any tournaments. Which is fine, I guess. Everyone can enjoy skating, for example, but not everyone is going to make it to the Olympics.

Now, regarding my little "theory" ... well, first of all, Miyagi prefecture (the host prefecture) won the team competition as well as first place in the "prestige event", the 7th dan division. Sasaki sensei, who won for Miyagi, has done well in the past though, so it was certainly no stretch to imagine him winning first place.

There are probably a few reasons why the home team regularly wins. I'd like to keep an open mind about the whole thing, but here's what I imagine:

1) Judges have a (probably unspoken) understanding that, whenever it comes down to a close decision, they will favour the home team. And let's face it, at this level, it always comes down to a close decision.

2) The home team knows at least 2 or 3 years in advance that they will be hosting the event, so they train LIKE MADMEN and rise to the occasion. (I've seen how hard the Oita group trained for events in other prefectures, so I can imagine how hard the host team trains.)

3) Knowing that they are favoured gives the home team a certain confidence; we all know that iaido is a highly mental/spiritual discipline, so that confidence extends to their technique and gives them an intangible edge.

Having said that, here are the results from the past few tournaments as printed in the back of the program.

Tournament, Location, Winning Team

43 Miyagi Miyagi
42 Okayama Okayama
41 Hokkaido Chiba (2nd: Hokkaido)
40 Chiba Chiba
39 Miyazaki Miyazaki
38 Saitama Saitama
37 Osaka Osaka
36 Yamanashi Yamanashi
35 Oita Oita
34 Yamagata Yamagata
33 Hiroshima Hiroshima
32 Kagoshima Kagoshima
31 Ishikawa Tokyo (2nd: Kanagawa, 3rd: Ishikawa)
30 Kumamoto Kumamoto

And so it goes. But what's more telling is what teams have finished in the top 3 the most times. Since the 30th (I'm lazy and not willing to go back farther than that) we have:

Kanagawa - 8 times
Chiba - 5 times
Tokyo, Oita - 4 times each
Saitama - 3 times
Hokkaido, Fukuoka - 2 times each

And now, some photos.

Nishino Sensei competes in the 6th dan division, showing his commendable form.

Inoue Sensei taught me during the time I was living up in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima. Here he is in the 6th dan tournament.

Mitani Sensei from Kochi is, of course, one of the most respected MJER teachers in Japan.

Azuma Sensei from Oita (left) and Tanno Sensei from Fukushima (right). Both men have won the 8th-dan Hakone tournament. Tanno Sensei seems to have injured the fingers on his right hand, but I didn't get a chance to speak to him or find out what happened.

"If only I had a better sword I'd be out there competing right now..."
That was certainly what I was thinking when viewing all these swords on display. Alas, they had nothing in a 2-point-7.

There are videos and (hopefully) a full report up at Kendo World. Have I mentioned that you should subscribe, too?


Blogger Name: Noah said...

Sounds like a very interesting event! I hope to be able to see it, and many like it when I finally am able to travel to Japan. Nice blog, by the way!

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