by Robin Jakuen
On Christmas Day 2022, a post from France was received on the Facebook group Ladies Kendo Only by Johanna Nowark (Bordeaux, 2-dan). “Yet again, at the France Kendo Open 2023, women 7-dan are expected to fight alongside women 4/5/6-dan, while men 7-dan have their own category apart from the rest of the competition. Also, the shiai between men 7-dan will take place at the end of the day, so everyone can watch them fight. It seems to me that this is an absolute lack of respect toward high-ranked women. The French National Kendo Committee, which organises the competition, refuses to answer any questions. I’m interested in hearing your opinion on this.” Many comments were received in response to this, and the post was also spread by several individuals, causing a rapid stir. At the time of writing this article, the comments had escalated further. The main comments were: ‘This is discrimination against women’s kendo’; ‘The organisers should either make the 7-dan division mixed with men and women or make the women’s 7-dan division as independent as the men’s’; ‘This decision is disrespectful not only to women 7-dan but to all women kendoka’; ‘Was Europe not gender-advanced?’ ‘I am outraged by this blunder’. Critical comments also came not only from women but also from men. However, this heat did not last for three days.
France Kendo Open and Paris Taikai
The France Kendo Open has a long history, starting in the late 1980s. At the time, the only international kendo tournaments were the World Kendo Championships and the European Kendo Championships. This is one of the reasons why Paris has become the Mecca of European kendo. The Paris Taikai started in 1998 as the antithesis of this competition and other competitions that puts importance on the sportive nature of kendo, according to Yoshimura Kenichi sensei, the founder of the Taikai. The Paris Taikai was a strong cultural exchange event, with koryu demonstrations such as iaijutsu, naginata, kyuho, kusarigamajutsu (chain sickle fighting) and kenjutsu. There were also mixed matches, such as kendo vs naginata and kendo vs kusarigamajutsu. First-class Japanese martial artists were invited to perform, captivating the audience and making the essence of Japanese budo known not only to European kendoka but also to the general public. The famous Narazaki Masahiko 9th dan Hanshi was also there to be the witness for the 7th dan matches and 8th dan matches. In fact, I also participated in the first Paris Taikai. I remember seeing a demonstration of Nito Shinkage-ryu Kusarigamajutsu in front of me, and I was shaken by the realism of the performance. The Paris Taikai was held every three years, with the France Kendo Open being held for two years in between. The Paris Taikai ended after the fifth edition in 2012, and the France Kendo Open has been held yearly since then.
Divisions History of France Kendo Open
From its inception until 2012, the Open Taikai had mixed categories for both men’s and women’s individual and team (three-player) competitions, with divisions for individual competitions based on dan grade. The women’s individual competition started in 2013, and a new junior division was established that year. The men’s individual tournament 7-dan category started in 2016 and the women’s individual tournament 7-dan was added to the 4-dan and above division in 2018. In the same year, a new women’s team competition was established, which was discontinued the following year and the team competition returned to its original mixed-gender format. From these developments, it is clear that the organisers of the Taikai are trying to meet the needs of the athletes, i.e. the changing kenshi class, by changing the divisions opened in line with the times.
The categories for individual competitions in 2023 are as follows, according to the official website of the French Kendo Federation (CNKDR).
Category A: 1-dan to 3-dan (under 45)
Category B: 4-dan to 6-dan (under 45)
Category C: 1-dan to 6-dan (45 and above)
Category D: 7-dan
Category A: kyusha to 3-dan
Category B: 4-dan to 7-dan
This division of categories is exactly the same as in 2018 and 2019.
Why the problem now?
The issue of women’s 7-dan this time around is probably due, in part, to the fact that three female 7-dan were created in France in 2022, making the presence of women 7-dan in France closer to their hearts. Also, this issue was discussed among participants at a women’s kendo seminar in France in November 2022 under the rumour that there would not be a section for 7-dan women like there was for men, but that they would be lumped into the section for 4-dan and above. They were waiting for the official announcement of the section for the 2023 tournament. With the increasing number of women’s 7-dan in Europe, there seemed to be an expectation that female kenshi would like to see 7-dan women’s kendo in the France Kendo Open.
On 20 December, the above categories were published on the official French Kendo Federation’s Facebook group Les Escrimes Japonaises – CNKDR, along with the programme and details of the competition’s accommodation and venue access. Johanna and others were disappointed when they saw the divisional split and continued to write comments, complaining that the women’s section was unfair. In this group, some people agreed, while others disagreed, i.e. defended the organisers. The organisers only commented that only 20% of competitors are women. However, we were also told that the organisers publicly responded that they were considering the number of competitors and adding them to the 4-dan and above category because there are currently only a small number of female 7-dan in Europe (14 as of January 2023).
A proper explanation might have convinced the French women. However, the problem seems to be that the administrator of the French Kendo Federation’s Facebook group page refused to post the article shown at the beginning of this article, which meant that it could not be posted where it should have been and that the organisers refused to reply when the author of the post contacted them directly about the matter. As a result, she and others have yet to receive a satisfactory response to their comments on Facebook. We also heard that, under pressure from above, the matter has become “something everyone knows about but is not allowed to talk about” in the country, and everyone is keeping their mouths shut. Is there anything we, as outsiders, can do to help?
The organiser, French Kendo Federation’s view
The FLKW team contacted the French Kendo Federation on 28 December and received a direct reply from Eric Malassis, President of the French Kendo Federation, on 2 January and was told he would be available for an interview. In addition to the history of the divisional organisation of the France Kendo Open to date, he answered the following questions:
FLKW: What is your opinion on the possibility of a separate women’s 7-dan division?
President Malassis: After July 2022, there are three female 7-dan in France, but there are still only 14 in Europe. In contrast, there are more than 100 male 7-dan. This division is unlikely to become independent in the foreseeable future. In addition, it is not possible to establish a new women’s 7-dan division for the 2023 competition as it is so close to the event. There are currently six divisions and it is practically impossible to add new divisions in terms of operation. It is difficult to find a venue in France that can accommodate six shiaijo; even if possible, we would need the number of referees to cope with this.
FLKW: If there are no operational problems, could we set up a mixed men’s and women’s 7-dan division in the future?
President Malassis: No, there is not. As with the other individual divisions, we would like to separate the men’s and women’s divisions. There is no reason why only the 7-dan should be mixed.
FLKW: What has been the average number of participants in the men’s 7-dan so far?
President Malassis: 12 (2017), 16 (2018), 15 (2019) and 12 (2020).
FLKW: What is the minimum number of competitors needed to make the women’s 7-dan division an independent division?
President Marassis: Eight.
French Female 7-dan’s view
So what is the opinion of women 7-dan in France? Izumiko Le Moign Shimada sensei, who has lived in France for 30 years, states.
“With the increase in the number of female 7-dan, more and more people may notice that 7-dan is treated differently by men and women in Open Taikai and feel that it is simply sexist. However, the perspective of the 7-dan women is a little different and they may honestly say that no division feels right to them.
In fact, there have been no 7-dan women who have participated in the 4-dan to 7-dan division. They are not motivated to participate because they are lumped together as women and moving on from kendo, which is all about winning and losing. Nevertheless, the number of women needs to be bigger to create a women’s 7-dan section.
A practical solution would be, for example, a short mixed-gender tachiai or a 7-dan tournament from the best eight or so survivors of the daytime qualifying rounds. In this way of thinking, the real challenge may be to improve the overall level of 7-dan.”
Coincidentally, the France Kendo Open has been blessed with a sister Taikai in the past, the Paris Taikai, which has a history of connecting the two poles of competition and demonstration. Incidentally, the Kyoto Taikai was a great inspiration for the creation of the Paris Taikai, as the Taikai programme explicitly states the following on the formation of the event.
“We came to the following conclusion: If we wish to improve kendo’s quality using this (Kyoto Taikai) image as a model, then it is essential to organise an event similar to that of Kyoto Taikai, an event in which we shall rediscover kendo as budo, back to its origin, have more understanding in the art, and finally work all together.”
At this time, what about making the 7-dan competition a tachiai format, mixing men’s and women’s, and reintroducing some of the Paris Taikai? There would be no need for referees, only the highest-graded tachiainin, which would not have a major impact on the operation of the Taikai. Both women and men might consider competing if it were in a tachiai format. It would create a sense of tension as if the 7-dan examinations were held in public. In fact, the examinations would be mixed with men and women, and there would only be a point in training if the kendo could be used with anyone. So I have great expectations for the future of the France Kendo Open.
Women’s Kendo in the Context of Europe – A Collection of Different Cultures
The European Kendo Federation is a grouping of different cultures united by the Japanese kendo culture. Still, the various forms of kendo that have been spread in each country are of a different nature and it would be extremely difficult to unify them. What binds them together is their passion and belief in kendo. If they clash, there will be conflict and possible division.
The nature of women, their social position, role and development differ from country to country, so of course, the way of thinking about women’s kendo will also differ in each country. There is always the situation that it is only possible to lump some countries together as ‘European’. However, French kendo is a leader in Europe in terms of kendo population and past performance in European and World Championships, and it was expected that the women’s section would follow the same schedule as the men’s section at the World Championships, which were to be held in 2020, as decided before the Pandemic. It would be a general trend to hope that the same would be true inside France, reflecting the leadership position with regard to the women’s section of the competition.
In Japan, on the other hand, the first All Japan Women’s Kendo Championship was held in 1962 as women’s kendo became more popular, and as high school and university competitions started one after another, the first National Kendo Tournament for Housewives was held in 1984 as the female kendo population rapidly increased. A preparatory committee was formed by the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF) for this purpose, and four out of the 15 committee members were female high grades. Since then, the Federation has been actively supporting the development of women’s kendo. The official Women’s Committee was established in 2019 within the AJKF and there is a sense that women’s kendo is becoming increasingly popular in Japan. Its existence is naturally accepted and many men have recognised and supported it. Of course, female pioneers have had to work very hard behind the scenes and have gradually built up the foundations. However, in the case of Europe, there is a strong sense that women must win their place.
In 2023, the battle to establish women’s kendo in Europe has just begun.
I would like to thank Eric MaLassis, President of the French Kendo Federation, who kindly agreed to be interviewed during his busy time at the beginning of the year and just before the Taikai, and who provided detailed information on the past sections of the Taikai, as well as the relationship and positioning between the France Kendo Open and the Paris Taikai. I would like to express my sincere thanks to Kenichi Yoshimura sensei, the founder of the Paris Taikai and the actual organiser of the 1st to 4th editions of the Paris Taikai, and Izumiko Le Moign Shimada sensei, who agreed to be interviewed on behalf of women’s 7-dan in France. I would also like to thank Johanna Nowak, the courageous female kenshi who gave me the opportunity to write this article and send her my best wishes for her future success.
(This article is a partially modified web version of an article published in FLKW Vol. 5, 28th February 2023.)