With the sizzling summer heat replaced by cool breezes and mild temperatures recently, it’s a great time to contemplate adding a new exercise to your weekly routine. If you are interested in a homegrown sport that is recreational and relieves stress, sports chanbara lets you kill two birds with one stone . . . or one sword.
Sports chanbara is an increasingly popular sport in Japan and abroad in which you try to whack your opponent using special air-filled soft sticks. It was invented in the 1970s by Tetsundo Tanabe, a security company executive from Yokohama. A longtime kendo teacher, he hit upon the idea of creating a new competitive sport out of chanbara, a Japanese-style sword fight often seen in samurai TV programs and popularly imitated by children using plastic toy swords.
Tanabe says he has worked hard to keep the sport — usually referred to by its nickname, “spochan” — free of rigorous rules or manners, after seeing many attempts to promote the highly regulated kendo fail overseas.
“The problem with kendo is that it has too many rules,” said Tanabe, 67, adding that in many countries, it is practiced only by a small group of fanatics.
“You are always told that you are not shouting hard enough, that your back isn’t straight enough and how you have to stick the bamboo sword in a straight position and so forth,” says Tanabe. “With sports chanbara, children learn basic manners such as rei (bowing) naturally while playing the sport.”
Indeed, to win a game in datotsu kyogi (hitting games), one of the two categories in spochan competitions, you just have to touch anywhere on your opponent’s body with your sword first. “You can lie on the ground if you want to,” Tanabe said. “You can wear anything you want, too.”
Spochan, unlike many martial arts events, does not discriminate against players by age, weight or sex. Therefore in competitions it is possible to see a nimble teenager dressed in a T-shirt and shorts jumping up and down frantically, walloping an adult opponent attired in full kendo gear.
The datotsu kyogi has many sub-categories, depending on the size of “weapons” — from a 45-cm tanto (dagger) to a 2-meter yari (spear). All of the tools are extremely light, as they are made partly of Styrofoam and inflataed with air at the tip; they are so soft you can’t get hurt.
The other category of spochan is kihon dosa (basic movement), in which players compete to see how swiftly and earnestly they can respond to commands.
Tanabe quickly demonstrates the basic movement by lining up two of his students side by side at a Yokohama gym. He shouts, “Ki o tsuke, rei! (Stand upright, bow!)” the two barefoot male students stand with their backs straight before tilting their upper bodies to bow at the teacher, and then assuming the upright position again.
“Kamae tou! (Aim your sword!)” The two men, looking dead serious, swing their swords, aiming them at imagined attackers, and then step forward at Tanabe’s command.
Tanabe says the judge must quickly announce the winner by raising a flag.
“Tell me, which one looks better?” he asks.
“What are the criteria for choosing between the two?” I reply.
“Just the look,” he says. “Imagine you are interviewing the two for a job. Which one do you think looks more appropriate as someone entering the business world?”
I reply, instinctively, that I would choose the student on my left. This young man turns out to be Kenichi Tanabe, Tetsundo’s son, who has won world championships in the past.
Of course, in actual competitions, winners aren’t decided by mere gut feeling. The International Sports Chanbara Association, for which Tanabe serves as president, also accredits judges, as the sport has spread worldwide to boast 400,000 students in more than 30 countries.
In Germany, which boasts 30 member schools and 8,000 registered students, enthusiasts say they enjoy the game because it is safe, fast-paced and there are a variety of weapons to choose from, according to Oliver Drexler, head of the German Spochan Association.
Drexler, also a Taekwondo competitor, thinks the biggest attraction of the sport is that anyone can enjoy it and be good at it, whether you are young or nonathletic.
However, Drexler concedes that when he first learned of the sport in 2001, he found it somewhat “funny.”
“I was at a martial arts convention in the United States and saw some guys fighting with a kind of sword,” he said via e-mail. “It looked funny and I bought two of the kodachi (short swords) to play with my son.”
But as he learned more about the sport and started training for competitions, he realized that “it was not only a funny sport.”
Onetime Mexican champion Rene Alejandro Padilla Calderon says he has found spochan to be “more realistic” than other combat sports.
“You need to be fast and strong, and most importantly, you need to be honest for improving,” the 19-year-old said. More than 100 students practice the sport in Mexico.
“Many people get interested (in spochan) because it looks easy,” says Tanabe. “Then after they start playing, they realize it’s actually much deeper than it looks.
“Everywhere in the world there has been one form of fencing culture or another. And whether you are a woman or a child, you have only one life and you have to protect it yourself.
“We’ve sought a nonmilitaristic version, where it’s safe, useful for self-defense, and most importantly, fun.”