Samurai may be known as a man’s pursuit, but feudal Japan produced a number of legendary female warriors who took to the battlefield with a sword that still holds a high cultural position today.
The image of the katana sword continues to draw interest from women, and enthusiasts in Tokyo are now learning ancient fighting techniques adapted into an energetic sports-like activity.
Katana exercise began life as a workout intended for men seven years ago, combining ancient virtues and practices in a gym session. It found surprising popularity among women, and as a result its inventor decided to limit apprenticeships to females only.
The program was created by Ukon Takafuji, successor chief of the Takafuji-ryu school of Japanese classical dance. Takafuji-ryu was established by Takafuji’s mother in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture.
He said women keep coming back as their interest grows in the ancient tradition, learning more and more about its origins as they practice. Takafuji works as the school’s main instructor.
The sword-fighting techniques on which the program is based have been incorporated into traditional Kabuki and noh dance.
Each lesson starts and ends with a bow, as mandated in the feudal warriors’ code of Bushido.
Students learn how to slash their swords across the air using half a dozen or so downward and upward diagonal or frontal cuts, facing off against an opponent.
Their posture improves through training, and with good balance they can strengthen their core muscles.
The women who attend the lessons wear “hakama,” traditional pants with deep pleats like those worn by samurai. A rigid section at the rear helps them maintain their posture and straighten their backs.
The swords weigh less than 300 grams and are made of wood covered with thick paper and special tape, resembling those used on stage. They are designed to prevent injury.
Tomohiro Tsunoda, head of Banlee Co. Ltd., which runs the training studio, said that although most women come to the class to shape up, many become deeply interested in the history and culture of feudal Japan.
Tsunoda said the sport’s rising popularity is partly attributable to sudden enthusiasm for an online game released in January.
Token Ranbu-Online, which translates as Wild Sword Dance Online, was developed by DMM.com and Nitroplus. It offers players a chance to train a group of handsome young swordsmen.
The game is set in 2205, but the lead character travels back in time to change the course of history. It enables players to learn about 46 historical types of sword, including straight swords — predecessors of katana — worn hung from the belt with the blade down.
Its popularity took off among women in particular, some of whom dub themselves “katana-joshi” (sword geek girls) and spend their leisure hours visiting historical sites, collecting swords, and sharing photos of themselves wielding a katana on social media.
“In June, we saw the highest number of people applying for a trial lesson,” Tsunoda said. “Half of them decided to continue the practice.”
The group also offers a variety of programs in English enabling foreign visitors to learn more about feudal Japan through training, offering them a chance to become a certified ninja or samurai warrior. Other events for women include having a geisha-style makeover.
Thirty-something Mio Baba was one student at a class in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward on a recent day a reporter visited. Around 100 women were taking part in the class at the venue, Studio Ikejiri.
“What brought me here was my interest in Japanese culture,” Baba said. She called it an easy way to come into contact with the culture at reasonable cost.
Fellow student Tomomi Sakamoto said she signed up for a trial lesson to see if it could help her to lose weight, after Baba had persuaded her to try it.
“But the lessons were really interesting, as just until last month, we learned how to fight like a ninja, playing with two short swords,” Sakamoto said.
Keiko Nakashima, who has been practicing for two years, said: “I’ve always been interested in Japan’s tradition and swordplay, often shown in scenes in jidaigeki,” a name for samurai movies.
“When I started practicing, I noticed the workout was really effective … and when I got more familiar with the moves, I got hooked.”