One wrong move and you’re whacked

by Yuko Naito

What would you do if you were suddenly assaulted on the street? Could you defend yourself even if the attacker had a knife?

Though Tetsundo Tanabe is a master of several kinds of martial arts and the president of a security company, he insists it would be difficult for anyone to fight off an armed attacker empty-handed.

“However strong you may be, and however weak the attacker looks, you’d better run away,” he says. “I would do so with no hesitation.”

From his long experience teaching self-defense techniques to security guards, policemen and SDF members, Tanabe, 58, says he has realized that many traditional martial arts are not particularly well-suited to real-life fighting.

“In kendo [traditional stylized Japanese swordplay using bamboo swords], for instance, there are certain ways of hitting your opponent. If you strike parts you are not allowed to, it will be judged as a foul,” says Tanabe. “But in real life, what kind of attacker follows rules?”

Wanting to teach a more practical set of skills, in the early 1970s he came up with kodachi goshindo (short-sword self-defense techniques). As others became interested in these techniques, which were practiced using swords made of Styrofoam, he drew up a rule book for what he called supotsu chanbara (sports swordfight). He first started teaching it at the dojo (training gym) he runs under his company’s office in Yokohama. As it grew in popularity, he designed specially made air-filled sticks and had them put into production.

Whacking each other with soft sticks may sound silly, but sports chanbara is actually a serious sport that demands speed, stamina and quick reflexes.

The sport’s objective is simple enough for a child to comprehend: The first fighter to hit any part of the opponent’s body with a soft, air-inflated sword is the victor. Fighters can use their swords freely.

“There are no rules in actual fighting. You can even fight lying on the floor,” says Tanabe, now the chairman of the International Sports Chanbara Association.

Despite the simplicity, a bout can be surprisingly complex. To see skilled opponents slugging it out as if their lives depended on it is an impressive sight. Though their weapons are only filled with air, there is obviously a lot of force behind the blows, which land with a loud “thwack!” The fighters move around quickly, sometimes jumping in the air or suddenly crouching to dodge a blow.

Given the fast pace of bouts, a first-time spectator might find it difficult to follow the action. What makes it harder is that there are six kinds of weapons of various lengths — from a 45-cm dagger to a 210-cm-long spear — and fighters can use whichever they like. If they wish, they can even use two different weapons simultaneously.

However aggressive sports chanbara may look, there is no need for heavy protective equipment, except for a face mask to protect the eyes and ears.

“You can get seriously or fatally injured in some sports, but I think sports should be enjoyable and improve your health,” says Tanabe. “Safety is more important than anything else.”

Being safe, and using relatively cheap equipment — 7 yen,000-22,000 yen per weapon depending on the kind — sports chanbara is now enjoyed by both sexes across a wide age range, from kindergarten pupils to seniors over 80.

At present, Tanabe says approximately 150,000-160,000 people enjoy sports chanbara in Japan, and there are about 40,000-50,000 participants in around 38 countries worldwide, including the United States, Australia, Italy, Iran, Mexico and Israel. An international competition is also held every year in Yokohama.

One longtime devotee is Makoto Sasaki, 29, who started doing sports chanbara when he was a fourth-grade elementary school student and a friend asked him to come along. Even after the friend stopped going to the classes, Sasaki continued going to a dojo regularly. “This is a good way to release stress,” Sasaki says. “I like the sport because I can hit others, which is usually prohibited in society. I sometimes get beaten, but it’s not so painful.”

Michio Shibata, a 32-year-old sports instructor at a municipal gymnasium in Yokohama, started sports chanbara five years ago. His initial interest was job-related, but he soon became involved on a personal level.

“I have practiced kendo, but sports chanbara is different,” says Shibata. He likes the fact that you are free to attack your opponent from any angle and that you are equally vulnerable. “It is difficult, but fun,” he says.

Tanabe emphasizes that he considers sports chanbara to be a recreational sport, rather than a martial art or competitive contact sport. Yet, it can help you learn how to react promptly against attackers, he says.

Chances are that you won’t have a 45-cm dagger at your disposal, but you still stand a fighting chance. “If you can find anything handy — such as a high-heeled shoe or a rolled-up magazine — and swat the attacker’s face with it without hesitation, you have a higher chance of survival.”