Samurai swords have become an “it” item for many Japanese women in their 20s and 30s, giving rise to the term “rekijo” — girls with a fetish for Japanese history. The term rekijo first emerged in 2009 after a number of successful NHK historical TV drama series. rekijo was also crowned one of the top 10 buzzwords of the year at U-Can’s 2009 Buzzwords Awards. However, the hype surrounding the history fetish did not end in 2009.
rekijo are mostly obsessed with Japan’s sengoku, or warring states period, from the middle of the 15th century to the start of the 17th century. These women are attracted to the masculine samurai and Bushido themes of the period’s warrior class, which has in turn led to a boom among women in learning the martial arts practiced by samurai.
“When the sword strikes the enemy’s shoulder, take the sword down diagonally,” instructs an iaido teacher, a master in the art of drawing a sword. The students, dressed in traditional hakama outfits, obey and slice the air in unison.
“Isoukai” is a Tokyo-based iaido school with more than 150 members. As of February, a quarter of its enrollment were women and their numbers continue to swell.
Mitsuyoshi Sekito, a representative of Isoukai, says, “We are getting lots of women in their 20s or 30s who are mostly rekijo.”
Maki Fukaya, 35, is one of those rekijo and she harbors a major crush on Okada Izou, a samurai from the Edo Period known for his skill as an assassin.
“During the Edo Period, Izou Okada used swords as a means of defending or taking life,” she says. “I want to learn the actual moves and techniques of that time from a professional. I don’t want to be a poser.”
The dummy sword used for practice sessions weighs about 1 kg, which can hang heavy in some women’s arms.
“Once the body learns how to use a sword, women can be speedier than men,” says Sekito.
According to the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF), as of 2009 there were 1,270 newly registered members, and 30 percent of them were female. AJKF representative Chihiro Kishimoto, 76, says, “Even at colleges, many girls are choosing to join the iaido club, something that would have been unimaginable in the old times.”
“Die!!” A woman’s scream pierces the hall at “Japan Entertainment,” a Nagoya-based satsujin (dramatized combat) school. Inside, a woman holding a dummy wooden sword attacks a man. The woman is supposed to be a “bad ninja.” The scenario being practiced involves villainous assassins attacking a royal prince. However, the ninjas’ attempt fails miserably, and they end up groaning on the floor. The role of the main villain went to 42-year-old Masami Nakao. She is from Mie Prefecture and she drives about 1 1/2 hours each week to attend the class. Nakao is a big fan of historical theater plays, known as jidaigeki.
“I always wanted to perform the actions myself. At first I was attracted by the swords’ cutting moves, but now that I am taking a part in it, I also understand the fun in being the one who gets cut,” giggles Nakao.
At Japan Entertainment, 70 percent of the students are female.
On another note, swords are also being reappraised as art objects. Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum in Okayama Prefecture says that compared to two years ago, the number of female visitors has greatly increased.
“Before the rekijo boom, almost all the visitors were male. We only saw women on rare occasions,” says Takumi Katayama, president of the museum.
Asked his opinion on why there was a history/sword boom among women all of sudden, the AJKF’s Kishimoto says, “Modern women are not weak. They are ready to defend themselves, and maybe that kind of psychology is reflected in iaido or combat classes.”