Interview with Abe Toyoko of the Tendo-ryu

In the early late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Kini Collins and I began a project to write a book on naginata (many portions of which later became the basis of my book, Old School). We interviewed many wonderful instructors of various ryu, and among them was this one Kini did with Abe sensei, which she first published by Valerie Eads, PhD., in “Fighting Woman News.”

 Kini and I had previously gone to Kyoto to observe a yearly national practice of Tendo-ryu, and among the many powerful women was one who stood out, Abe Toyoko sensei. Her technique had a different quality, both precise, but really powerful.  Even more striking, however, was her manner.  She obviously could not accept anything less than exemplary budo.  She was blunt spoken, even harsh, but never unkind.  She simply stated how she believed Tendo-ryu must be executed, and implicit in every word was the confidence that if one disagreed, she could demonstrate physically why her way was better.

Q: Could you tell me about the book you have just finished?

A: My book? Well, I have been practicing with a naginata for about 50 years. Since I was about 19. A lot of the things I was taught are not practiced at all anymore, so I decided to just write a simple catalogue of the techniques in our school, just to keep them all from getting lost. The younger women in the school have written books on spirit and power, but I decided to write on the basic techniques of the ryu itself.  I am not known, and have no influence anyway. I really only do it for myself, you know?

Q: When I first saw you at the school in Osaka, well, I am not well acquainted with the Tendo Ryu students, but you moved and looked so different…


A: Well, there is a reason for that. I got started in Kyoto, with the mother of the present head teacher. She was the 15th generation headmistress, Mitamura Chiyo sensei. I was living near the Heian Shrine.[i] Just by rounding the southeast corner and walking dead straight for about 2 miles, well there it was. Every year in May, there is a big festival, even today. They had everything – judo, kendo, kyudo – everything. Not like today: now they only have that modern, noisy kendo! You used to have to wear formal clothes to even get in. And even with that, the place was jammed. Sometimes you couldn’t even get in the doors. So different from now! It’s like going to the movies or a baseball game now. You used to be able to drink in the tension and quietness. That is where I first saw my teachers. That was all I needed. There have been really bad times in all those years, mostly dealing with the other people involved. I thought about quitting many times, but in the end, it was that first demonstration I saw, knowing it was and can be so good, so good. That impression helped me stick with it. That is what I want, have always wanted to pass on, something to help people stick. I’m not interested in sitting at demonstrations, judging matches or even being well known. My questions are different:  What is the meaning of the basic techniques? How can they be done with this partner? What is the timing? I think about these things. Why it happens the way it does.

This new stuff. One, up with the stick. Two, down with it. Three, put it away. Well, that’s one way of teaching, but there is something else, I only know it as kokoro (heart, spirit, will). Pull it in on one, out on two, lift on three, well, you try it! If you do it only with an awareness of moving and no concept of kokoro you are so wide open it isn’t even funny. This is what I want to teach: how to react when your partner doesn’t respond in form in the way you are used to. This is what it hasn’t got, the new naginata. There is no thought outside the form; there isn’t even any path for this kind of thinking.

Q: I have only seen the competitive matches once, but I didn’t think is would suit me…

A: It doesn’t suit me at all. That is why no one knows me, which suits me fine. When they got started about 20 years ago, they wanted to get going fast, so it was forced: trying to bring everyone into the same line, changing everyone’s style to fit a new form. Taking from the right, from the left, trying to get everyone to agree. Just to get started, never mind the outcome. But all these schools and the techniques themselves are separate entities governed by separate principles of movement and thought. This has absolutely none of these principles.

Movement in budo begins with bowing. Naginata practice starts and ends with a bow on both sides, one side offering to teach, one side asking to be taught. That is why it works. When you can get to a place where you can thankfully bow to someone who has just hit you and you can hit someone with love and intent to teach, well, I can’t say what, but there is certainly something there, and that is what the new Naginata Federation[ii] has forgotten. Bowing isn’t just to be polite!  They bow for form.

And the weapon they use is so light! It has no substance. Neither does their technique!  Just the other day at practice, I watched the women supposedly trapping their opponents’ wrist under their arm. Posturing! I was able to pull my arm out easily. Teaching the form of a technique rather than the substance and form leads to nothing. Worse than nothing. Some teachers say that form is enough for women. No way! That really makes me angry. Who needs form? In Japanese there is a word, rashikuke (to seem or to be like something): to be like a woman, like a man, like a  …. I don’t know what, but it really colors our language. It has meaning though, not just the surface stereotypes. A woman’s whole life is being woman-like. To be like a woman is not simply to be soft. To be woman-like is to be as strong or as soft, as servile or as demanding as a situation calls for:  to be appropriate and act with integrity. This isn’t being taught at all. And it is the heart of real budo, it is alive in the practice of it. Only learning something for form’s sake leaves you able to deal with only form. That is why the ceremony and solemnity of budo is so important. Just to cut or thrust with a naginata is useless.

One way I explain the kinds of strength needed in techniques is using the example of waves on a beach. Within each wave are levels of strength and centers of power. When the sea is calm, the waves slide up softly and retreat easily. Big waves bang in and pull everything out as the ebb. Our feet correspond to the bottom of the wave, rushing or sliding, retreating quickly or haltingly. The middle of the wave is like a body’s trunk, the center for balance and initiation of movement. The tips of waves are like our fingers. They express the feelings of the center, make the first contact and search out places to go. Just like the ends of waves sliding on a beach. Every technique must have a balance of these qualities, just like a wave must. Without an awareness of balance in nature and a striving for that balance in ourselves, budo loses its depth, and for me, its meaning.

Some teachers themselves have no idea what is happening. I saw a match between two 9th dan (of the naginata federation) once. They bowed quickly and then both jumped in. There was no watching, looking; just blindly attacking. I asked how they interpreted the concepts of ojiru (waiting, unmoving; then responding) and hikake (catching the timing for an attack). All one of the women could say was that she moved because her opponent did. Only surface reactions! But hikake has a much deeper meaning. You try to attack only if you think you are able to win. There would be no other reason to try to catch the timing: only to win. If you don’t intend to win, you have no business moving into an attacking mode. There are no techniques that teach one to attack in order to lose. There would be no truth to that kind of technique.

But the techniques in our kata have been designed to teach not only how to win, but also how to lose, why you lose.  If you do this, then that, you find that it works or doesn’t against a certain attack. And by doing and feeling it, you learn the reasons from the inside out, and an ability to think both ways. This is also not being taught. They only teach the form, not the reasons for the results. It is like teaching the letter “E” without showing how it is used in words. And I feel so sorry for the students, especially the kids. I feel sorry for the naginata too. Some of these young women, they win this or that tournament, get so built up, but they can’t fight. They can’t look outside their own small form to see the “why” of their success.

Q: The match I saw you fight last month with Kino Shizue was really incredible…

A: That was the first time in 20 years that I competed.[iii] I was crazy for tournaments until I was about 50 years old. But this was the first time in 20 years. Our matches don’t have all that quick jumping and dancing. They never did. There has to be a lot of awareness before and during a match. You can’t just enter one lightly. Naginata blades really cut, and we have to keep that respect, even with the bamboo blades we use today. The first tournament I saw my teacher in, it was amazing. She walked her opponent all the way across the hall, from the east side to the west side, not using any technique, just her stance and spirit. Everyone, even the old teachers were enthralled. Then she moved to cut, just once.  And I was hooked. She found my timing and caught me. She won the match too.

Lots of people ask me what motivated me to learn the naginata. Or if I think it would be good for them to study. I think that is a stupid question. I don’t think motivation is so important. The original motivation may change your life, or it could just fade away. It seems that whether something is useful to your life, at any given moment, is what determines if you will continue doing it. For me, the naginata has given me the strength of will to act on my decisions and the ability to make decisions at all. The only reason I would quit now would be lack of physical strength. But even if you practice once a week, if you are of the mind that you practice the naginata, then you will have something to share. People ask if it was good to practice so long, was it harsh, or even worth it. Who knows? It all depends on my mood and the way the asker wants to be answered. I saw it once and thought it was good enough for me, and that’s lasted 50 years. I have no desire to tell others the “right” way to do it. I only know the way I have. No one ever asks how 50 years of marriage was. They know. Sometimes it’s really fine, sometimes absolutely terrible. Same thing with the naginata, it’s just another thing that I live.

I see lots of people today jumping from one new thing to another, not getting settled. I really think people need something in the foundation, some deeply rooted place in their lives. I see this even in the judging of naginata matches. It used to be so different, this judging. There were only two per match and they were deliberate and subtle, not jumpy and conforming like the ones today. Even their movements had more meaning. The judges used to have individual styles; their own way of signaling points. Now everyone has to do even that the same way! You won’t believe this. They stopped a match once, once I was judging, and asked over the loudspeaker if I would raise my arm a few more degrees when signaling. Do you believe it? And a just a couple of years ago I was judging with another teacher. One of the competitors moved, just moved a little, and the other judge signaled a point. I asked the two women in the match if a point had been made and they both said no. But because the judge had ruled for it, it was declared valid! I haven’t judged since. I don’t want to be part of teaching people how to win cheaply or lose unfairly.

And kata competition! What a waste of time. It is easy to look good doing a form when you know what is coming. I’ve never judged those kind of matches. Who needs it?

I can talk easily now, but I get tight when I am in that society. I always watch myself and get very tired. That is why I don’t go too often. It’s too hard on me. I lose the strength of my convictions and end up feeling that I am shutting myself off from everyone, or being shut off. I really do practice for myself anyway.

NOTE: The two personal photographs of Abe sensei and Kini Collins are credited to Ms. Collins 

[i] Abe Sensei was living and caring for her brother, Abe Kenshiro, a brilliant young judoka, who was attending the Budo Senmon Gakko.

[ii] The Naginata Federation Abe sensei refers to is a national organization of a new post-WWII type of competitive naginata.  They have a competitive component, modeled on modern kendo, using very light practice weapons, with a slender wooden shaft and strips of bamboo at the tip, and a kata component, the latter with elements largely drawn from an amalgam of Tendo-ryu and Jikishinkage-ryu naginata.

[iii] This was a match at the 1982 All Japan Senior’s Competition against Kino Shizue, the headmistress of Higo Koryu naginatajutsu, described in Old School, pp. 81-84.


  1. Thank you for this! Very enlightening!


  2. I stayed with Abe Kenshiro Sensei in 1982. On his death, 1984, Abe Toyoko wrote to me with various documentation. We remained in communication until she passed away. Her daughter then contacted me. Toyoko was very generous sending me poems and other documents/ calligraphy. He daughter also sent me precious documents. Some of these can be seen on our website:,uk

    I am so please that the family name is still so dearly treasured.

    Thank you for writbg up such an interesting and special piece.

    Yours sincerely,

    John Goldman


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