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Theatrical sword fighting carves new path in Japan's fitness market

Students are seen practicing their theatrical sword fighting skills at the Mainichi Culture Center in Osaka's Kita Ward on Aug. 11, 2019. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

OSAKA -- Theatrical combat training, commonly seen in period dramas featuring swordplay, has recently started gaining attention at health and fitness classes as a good way to get the body moving.

Classes with names such as "Stage combat exercise" and "Theatrical swashbuckling fitness," utilizing wooden swords, are garnering attention for enabling participants to work up a sweat while getting a taste of the samurai lifestyle.

International visitors to Japan are also being drawn into the classes. One organizer told the Mainichi Shimbun they wanted to bring the country's culture to life through new forms.

On a morning in August, at the Mainichi Culture Center in Osaka's Kita Ward, one classroom echoes with the sound of wooden swords slicing through the air. Six students and five staff members, including instructors and assistants, are present and monitoring participants' progress. "It's a bit hot isn't it? Shall we lower the temperature on the air conditioning?" asks one instructor. Motivation is high, with many students perspiring from their efforts.

Most of the participants are practicing for the presentation event of the Maibun festival 2019, set to be held at the Mainichi Newspapers' Oval Hall in the western Japan city on Sept. 16. The students are challenging themselves to demonstrate theatrical combat skills and moves they have been taught by the instructors and assistants.

A participant fends off an attack from a "villain" and fells him in a single stroke, then defends himself against simultaneous attacks by two others. The instructors scrutinize the participants movements, handing out constructive advice on where to point their weapons, and how to correct their side-to-side maneuvers.

Although they're acting out tense fights to the death, everyone appears to be enjoying themselves, and smiles appear on their faces as they receive precise instructions.

As theatrical swordplay has gained popularity with the spread of period dramas, depictions of beautiful sword fighting have also flourished in plays and films.

Instructor Tomoe Iwata, who learned theatrical swordplay at the Japan theatrical sword fighting association, is a rare example of a female teacher who has fully immersed herself in the study of the art. Eight years ago, she started lecturing on the fitness benefits of swordplay, while also teaching it in various locations in Japan. She says she feels the growing popularity of the art.

Speaking about it as one example of Japan's unique cultural practices, Iwata said, "I've even done demonstrations for foreign tourists aboard cruise ships. It seems people from all over the world have an interest in it."

The Maibun festival 2019 will be held at the Oval Hall in Kita Ward, Osaka, on Sept. 16 from midday to 6 p.m. Along with the sword fighting show, there will be entertainment including singing and dancing. Entry is free of charge. For any questions, please call the Mainichi Culture Center on 06-6346-8700 (in Japanese).

(Japanese original by Katsuyuki Ijichi, Osaka Executive Manager's Office)

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