Budo World

Gekken Kōgyō—The Public Fencing Shows

In order to save the martial arts from the crisis, Sakakibara Kenkichi, a former kenjutsu instructor at the Kōbusho, came up with the unique idea of turning kenjutsu into a money-making show. The plan was to gather paying spectators to watch fencing matches. The matches were organised along the line so of sumo tournaments with an arena bordered by four pillars. Contestants were divided into east and west teams; the announcer called the players and commenced their bouts in the middle of the ring.

The first gekken kōgyō show was held on April 11, 1873, for ten days, and was heralded as a great success. Until then, ordinary people rarely had the opportunity to see kenjutsu bouts, and now they could by simply paying an entrance fee. Moreover, the competitors were famous swordsmen of the day, which proved to be a major drawing card for the curious public. Around 1876 in central Tokyo alone there were twenty locations holding gekken kōgyō events. However, in order to attract more people to the shows, acrobatic techniques started to be used, dramas were also introduced, and as a result, their popularity slowly faded away.

Sakakibara Kenkichi’s gekken kōgyō had its merits and problems: As for the merits, it permitted swordsmen who were unemployed to make a living again; it saved traditional kenjutsu from extinction; and introduced kenjutsu on a wide scale to commoners. As for the problematic areas, it transformed kenjutsu, which was symbolic of the pride of the bushi, into a show—making it sink in peoples’ estimation, and it distorted the essence of kenjutsu techniques.