An embodied experience of aiki and the self reflexive enquiry into why I felt an overwhelming admiration for the Japanese Women’s Team at the 14th WKC in Brazil inspired me to undertake an honours paper researching the practices and culture of Japanese women’s kendo in Japan.
Little is known about the practises and culture of Japanese women’s Kendo outside of Japan. This may be partly due to the shorter history of women’s participation in kendo, mostly with beginnings from the post-war period (Shinzato, 2010) and likewise the fact that men’s kendo has a much longer history with connection to Japans’ feudal past (Ozawa, 1997). Due to these reasons perhaps the present 8th dan kendo model is a reflection of traditional Japanese masculinity in the image of male samurai. As the model, this may explain the presence of male 8th dan sensei at international seminars and competitions. The overwhelming presence of men in kendo outside of Japan can erroneously give the impression that kendo is more suitable to men and that women’s kendo is insignificant and should be less prestigious.
During my research period in Japan from April – November 2010, I discovered that Japanese women’s kendo is developing in a promising direction where participation and leadership opportunities are improving for women. In addition, these developments are greatly supported by men and the All Japan Kendo Federation. It seems that Japanese kendo is negotiating the ongoing task of promoting women’s kendo whilst preserving some traditional practises, practises which arguably may be perceived as patriarchal. Although the status of women is improving in Japan, the traditional structure of gender hierarchy which places men in in the public sphere and in leadership roles still persists in Japanese society (Sekiguchi, 2010; Spievogel, 2003; Manzenreiter 2008). As kendo is an activity connected to Japans’ traditional past, perhaps the status of women in kendo remains constrained by these traditional values more so than in other, more ‘modern’ sports.
Due to the generosity and support of many Japanese male and female sensei in my research, I was able to physically experience the culture and practises of Japanese women’s kendo on many levels. I trained with women who were 7th dan sensei, police, national team members, students from university, high school, elementary schools and neighbourhood dojos. I attended and competed in women’s seminars, gasshukus and competitions. Through these opportunities I was able to see some examples of how opportunities for women are improving. Other improvements may be occurring but the following points are insights I directly experienced via interviews and observations whilst in Japan:
• There are Female University Kendo Coaches (Nippon Taiiku Daigaku and Kanoya Taiiku Daigaku)
• There are Female Police Kendo Instructors (Osaka Police)
• There are Female Prefectural Team Coaches (Kyoto)
• The All Japan Housewife Competition has been replaced by the All Japan Interprefectural Team Competition
• There is a 65% increase of women achieving the highest rank of women, 7th dan (AJKF, 2010)
• Female national team members have featured in articles and on the covers of Kendo Nippon and Kendo Jidai
• Women’s kendo seminars are occurring more often and are led by female 7th dan sensei
• There is a ratio of 2 female 7th dan sensei shimpan and 1 male 8th dan sensei shimpan umpiring at the All Japan Women’s Competition
• Women are returning to kendo sooner after child birth (in some cases within 6 months)
• The All Japan Women’s Championship competitor age range is 17 – 40 years of age.
• Many male 7th and 8th dan sensei are unequivocally encouraging women at all levels to develop their kendo
As mentioned above there are many developments within Japanese women’s kendo occurring, yet kendo in Japan remains led and controlled by men. There are approximately 110,000 registered female kenshi in Japan, (AJKF, 2008) however very few women hold official teaching or leadership positions in Japanese kendo. Only 2% of executives within the main kendo organisations in Japan are women (JSSGS, 2010). Furthermore, although there are a few women attempting the 8th dan grading, none have yet successfully passed. The general consensus is that women do not embody the physical strength and technique to obtain 8th dan. This is mainly because the 8th dan model is fundamentally the male model and due to the prior expectation of social role fulfillment of mother and wife, women have not continued kendo in order to maintain their strength and further develop their technique. In addition, there remains some aspects of the cultural belief that strength and power is a result of biological determinism. Likewise, the idea of strength and power does not appeal to traditional notions of femininity.
Bearing in mind the aforementioned developments in women’s kendo, will we see a successful female candidate pass the 8th dan grading in the near future? Currently in Japan there are discussions of holding an 8th dan grading for women only. There is a mixed response to this issue. Some women do not think it is important to achieve 8th dan and some are not interested in attempting 8th dan if it is segregated. The question is - will women who achieve 8th dan in a segregated grading achieve equality in status to their male counter parts or will a segregated grading actually perpetuate the gendered positioning of female kenshi? I propose that, in order to show faith in the women approaching their 8th dan, the 8th dan grading needs to remain non-segregated. I also suggest that the qualities inherently ‘natural’ in Japanese women’s kendo are taught by female sensei to male and female kenshi. Teachings that emphasise aiki, flexibility, skill and timing (typically feminine chatacteristics) may lead to improving the level of over use of physical power in ‘foreign’ kendo. Lastly and most importantly, an increase in access to Japanese female sensei as role models may also improve the level, participation and experiences of women kenshi outside of Japan.
This is the abstract of the honours paper - Samurai Women: The Construction of Gender in Japanese Women’s Kendo.
ABSTRACT: This paper investigates the embodiment of gendered identity through the practice of kendō in Japan. In particular it engages with the construction of feminine identity within a traditionally masculine activity. The paper examines the complex hierarchical relations and feminine role within a Japanese kendō club. Martial arts such as kendō provide women with an opportunity to practice sports that have the potential to challenge traditional gender roles and constructions of the body. Conversely, a kendō club can in some ways reflect pre-modern Japanese society where cultural practices that can emphasise etiquette, spiritual strength, hierarchy and lower positioning of women are performed. Significantly, in the case of Japanese kendō, the opportunity to challenge one’s gendered identity is simultaneously in conflict with the expectations of upholding traditional notions of identity. In this way kendō becomes a site where individuals perform resistance to, and reproduction of, gendered identity. To be a successful competitor in kendō a female needs to embody typically outwardly expressive masculine characteristics of physical assertiveness, aggression, and seishin (spiritual power), whilst outside of practice there is the social expectation to exhibit traditionally feminine virtues of grace, modesty, correct etiquette and restraint. Hence, Japanese kendō provides a rich and complex environment to examine how martial arts may liberate and restrict opportunities for the development of women.
For pdf version of honours thesis please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Manzenreiter, W. (2008) ‘Football in the reconstruction of the gender order in Japan’,
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Shinzato, C. (2010) Sengo nihon ni okeru joshi kendō shi no kenkyū (A Historical Study
on the Development of Women’s Kendo in Japan after World War II). Master’s thesis. Unpublished.
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