Four wooden rifles that had been used for bayonet practice during World War II as part of military training in schools have been discovered recently in Konan, Aichi Prefecture.
One of the mock rifles bore the stamp of the old Tsushima Junior High School (present-day Tsushima High School) in the prefecture, and experts say the items are a rare historical find which offers a glimpse into wartime training programs for young students.
The tradition of jukendo (literally, “the way of the bayonet”) continues into the present day as a martial art. Practitioners argue that jukendo has moved away from its militant origins and is regarded in its modern form as a sport.
However, the recent discovery is likely to evoke memories for those who had experienced such martial training during World War II, and may revive concerns that the government’s recent approval to use mock rifles, called mokuju, in class could restart military-oriented physical exercises.
The government plans to include jukendo with the wooden rifles as part of budo (Japanese martial arts) under physical education in the new guidelines for junior high schools to be implemented nationwide in fiscal 2021.
The four mock rifles were 167 cm long and each one has a 5-cm-wide stock. The tip is covered with a rubber-like material. Branded on one of the four wooden rifles are the words “Belongs to Tsushima Junior High School, Aichi Prefecture,” while two others have “In Commemoration of the 38th Graduation Ceremony.” The last one is unmarked.
According to Tsushima High School, those mock rifles are believed to have been donated by graduates of 1942. They were stored in a warehouse of Kiyoshi Sugimoto, who used to teach at the junior high school and died in 2007 at the age of 86.
“I remember using those,” Koichi Saito, 91, a former student of the junior high school, said after he saw photos of the mokuju.
Saito was one year younger than the students who graduated in 1942. According to him, the wooden practice weapons were used twice a week during military training sessions. Back then, junior high school lasted five years, and students had to train with the mokuju from their third year onward. They would line up side-by-side and crawl forward on the ground while holding the wooden rifle. The atmosphere was very tense during the physical training, he said.
“Sometimes we practiced stabbing straw men, but we felt it was almost like a sports activity,” the former high school teacher reflected.
Saito now has a great-grandchild and felt uncomfortable when he learned that jukendo will be included in future school curriculum.
“The military training we received was education for war. We didn’t feel good about it,” he said.
“I’d feel awkward if I see children today doing the (mokuju) training. I think some people could feel” as if Japan was in wartime again, Saito said.
Another man, who is 89 years old and unemployed, still recalls that he and other students were instructed to jab at the opponent’s heart.
“Those who lost were made to fight in a match again and again. I wasn’t very good at it, so I didn’t like (the class),” he said.
“What is the point of practicing with a tool meant for killing — in peacetime?” he said, questioning the academic guidelines which authorize the use of mokuju at school.
In jukendo, players clad in protective gear lunge and jab at each other’s throats or bodies using wooden mock rifles. Jukendo has been included for the first time in postwar Japan as one of the nine styles martial arts approved in the new curriculum for junior high schools.
According to the Japan Sports Agency, the initial proposal only included eight forms. However, the agency later decided to add jukendo after it receiving many requests from the public to include it.
The All-Japan Jukendo Federation, based in Tokyo, has 31,000 members throughout the country, with Self-Defense Forces personnel making up 90 percent of the total. There are approximately 90 jukendo clubs and associations across Japan, according to the group.
The new curriculum will include techniques that had been taught in military training during the war. While some claim that the introduction of jukendo signals “a return to the prewar period,” Takeshi Suzuki, 68, the head of the All Japan Jukendo Federation, explained that “the bayonet fighting during the war and the modern-day jukendo have different purposes.”
The wooden mock rifles found in Konan have been donated to the Tsushima City Office and are being stored at the city library.
“This is evidence that war training was part of the daily lives of children back then,” said Sachiko Matsushita, 46, a curator at the Aichi Nagoya Senso ni Kansuru Shiryokan (Aichi-Nagoya Museum of War Artifacts) in Nagoya.
Old wooden mock rifles have been kept only at a handful of locations such as the museum in Nagoya and Shinshu Senso Shiryo Center (Shinshu War Artifacts Center) in Nagano.
This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on June 14.