Dojo Name: Kaohsiung Butokuden 高雄武徳殿
Arts Practiced: Kendo, Iaido, Hyoho Niten-Ichi-ryu, Aikido, Brazilian Jujutsu, Taiko Drumming
Dojo Leader: Chen Xin-Huan 陳 信寰, kyoshi 7-dan kendo, 11th generation soke Hyoho Niten-Ichi-ryu
Location: Kaohsiung Taiwan 高雄市台湾
Construction Type: brick, steel roof
Summary: A pre-war Japanese era butokuden in Taiwan
The second dojo I visited in Taiwan was the Japanese colonial era Butokuden (武徳殿) in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city. I first became aware of this dojo when I was told about it by Takenaka Masamichi, the organizer of Wakaba Japan (an OB keiko-kai for ex-Wakaba London kendo club members who returned to Japan). Since I was already intending to visit relatives in Taiwan at some point in the coming year, I made contact some months prior to the visit with the hall’s head kendo sensei, Chen Xin-Huan (陳 信寰), kendo kyoshi 7-dan and 11th generation soke of Niten-Ichi-Ryu1, the koryu school founded by Miyamoto Musashi. Chen-sensei kindly agreed to let me drop by for a kendo practice and investigate the hall itself.
The most well known butokuden is the one located in Kyoto where the annual Zen Nippon Embu Taikai (Kyoto Taikai) takes place. Butokuden, meaning Hall of Martial Virtue, were built throughout the Japanese Empire under the aegis of the (pre-war) Dai Nippon Butokukai2 (大日本武徳会), a body within the Ministry of Education charged with standardizing and promoting Japanese budo.
This butokuden in Kaohsiung, at the time called Takao3, was completed on 19 July Taisho/大正8年 (1924) and located in the Gushan District (鼓山區), relatively close to the city center. It was initially owned by the office of the Japanese appointed Governor of Taiwan and managed by the police for their use as well as for the practice of kendo, judo, kyudo and other budo. Several other butokuden survive in Taiwan though not necessarily retained or reverted back to martial arts use.
Before my visit, the first impression I had of the Kaohsiung Butokuden from online images is that it does not look much like traditional Japanese architecture. In fact, the undulating gable and its karahafu (唐破風), or undulating bargeboard, is the only Japanese architectural element visible from the exterior. The roof is also Japanese style but is hard to perceive from the ground. The gable is in turn supported by Tuscan order columns. The rest of the building seems to be influenced by the École des Beaux-Arts in its composition making the language of the building eclectic. The walls have the classical tripartite (division into three sections) elements of base, shaft/body and capital/frieze, as handed down in classical Western architectural tradition since ancient Greek temples. The rhythm between solid and void (wall and windows in layman terms) is regular and I would not be surprised if one could find tracés régulateurs4 hidden within their proportions.
Japanese adoption of Western neo-Classical architecture for institutional or public buildings has been well established since the Meiji period, which began some 56 years prior to the construction of the Kaohsiung Butokuden. Nevertheless, it was somewhat surprising to find this influence in a building whose initial benefactors were out to promote traditional Japanese culture (but that is probably just down to my personal lack of exposure to Meiji and Taisho period buildings). Most butokuden in Japan (relatively few survived) tend to stick to a more clearly traditional style of Japanese architecture. With butokuden in Taiwan the approach seems to be mixed. The butokuden in Nantou (南投) and Taoyuan (桃園) look as if they could be located in Japan itself. Other butokuden in Taiwan like the one in Tainan (台南), like the Kaohsiung Butokuden, also exhibit a mixture of traditional Japanese and neo-Classical characteristics.
If indeed traditional Japanese architecture was pursued as explicit or implicit policy by the Dai Nippon Butokukai, I venture to guess that there was some leeway for projects undertaken outside of Japan. During my visit to the Metabolism exhibition at the Mori Art Museum, I noted a description for an urban planning proposal for a Japanese colonial new city in then pre-war occupied Manchuria. This was not itself a Metabolist project but the exhibition featured non-Metabolist works to place Metabolism within a historical context. The urban plan was based on a very regular grid and the accompanying explanation said that architects were able to introduce ideas in colonial projects that they would not have the freedom to propose back in Japan proper. Perhaps then the architect of the Kaohsiung Butokuden felt he (almost certainly male due to the socio-historic context) had a free hand to pursue what was at the time the established fashion from the West. Meanwhile in Europe and America the first generation of Modernists were starting to drag architecture kicking and screaming into the 20th Century. However, while the likes of Le Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe were enjoying a more permissive air following the First World War, they were at this time not yet establishment. This would arguably only take place in earnest with rebuilding efforts following the Second World War.
With the end of the Second World War, the Japanese left Taiwan. Japanese era public buildings were either appropriated for new uses or demolished. According to Chen-sensei, the head kendo sensei at Kaohsiung Butokuden, a Japanese shrine used to stand above the Budokuden further up the hillside on which it is sited. However, this was a victim of the purging of Japanese influences with the arrival of the Kuomingtang from China. The Butokuden was spared but spent the better part of the next 60 years being used for other uses and in steady decay.
At the end of the war the Kaohsiung Butokuden was handed over to nearby Gushan Elementary School and was used for school purposes until 1986. After this, it fell into neglect with the occasional itinerant use like as a café. In 1999 it was designated a Historic Site by the City of Kaohsiung (now merged with the County of Kaohsiung) in 1999. A decision was made by the city’s Cultural Affairs Department to renovate the hall. Work was then completed in December of 2004 and the hall’s management invested in the local kendo association. Today the hall is also used for the practice of iaido, aikido, Brazilian jujutsu, taiko drumming and for special events.
As mentioned above, the Kaohsiung Butokuden sits on a slope. This slope is part of a topographical rise that forms part of the Gushan peak (鼓山 meaning drum mountain). The approach to the hall is from the street in front via two stairs that lead up the slope. The hall faces roughly 30 degrees west of south. Two banyan trees stand in front of the hall, providing some shading against solar exposure. The larger of these two is collared by the deck just before the main entrance marked by the karahafu located on the center of the front elevation. Ema (絵馬), wooden plaques on which people write their wishes, can be seen tied around the banyan tree.
The Kaohsiung Butokuden has only one “room” and that is the training hall itself. The interior of this is about 20m wide by 14.5m deep. There are no secondary rooms within the main building. Support spaces such as toilets, shower, storage and office are in separate, more recently built structures that are situated behind the original hall. An alcove, possibly intended as the tokonoma (床の間), is built as a projection of the rear wall. Aside from the main entrance door at the front, there are two large side doors and two rear doors. The windows and doors have wooden sashing. There is no climate control, however, the large windows and doors, when open, along with the gable vents provide quite a bit of natural ventilation. Nevertheless, the practice still felt quite humid on the mid-October evening of my visit. The rebuilt floor is traditionally sprung. The floor finishing is treated to resist wear and tear.
Composed of only the angle irons that make up the chords and webbing, connection plates, brackets and rivets, the roof trusses lack any purposefully decorative elements. Their utilitarian appearance had me initially believe they were new from the renovation. They are however, original to the Kaohsiung Butokuden. From these lights are hung. Exterior roof overhang brackets do have decorative characteristics so it seems the roof truss design was a case of cost saving in one part of the building for the decorative benefit of other parts.
The karahafu in the case of this butokuden acts as a signboard. It would have and still clearly distinguishes this building as Japanese in comparison to its neighbors. There are lengthy discussions about the semiotics of architecture within architectural academia and discourse which I won’t go into in this post.
Other Japanese decorative elements are the shimenawa (注連縄) and shide (紙垂) that are hung over the doorways. Shimenawa are rice straw rope that typically adorn Shinto shrines and venerated objects as a symbol of purification. Shide are the zigzag paper streamers often seen attached to the shimenawa. These would be periodically replaced since they wear out relatively quickly so the current ones would be recently installed.
Although part of the architecture, a more overtly appliqué decorative element are the relief symbols that decorate the tops of pillars and doorways. These symbols show an arrow embedded in a target and a similar symbol but with the arrow truncated with ties giving more of a bundle impression. I could not find the exact meaning of these symbols though they may have something to do with kyudo having been one of the arts hosted in this hall during the Japanese era. I am not sure how kyudo would have been practiced in this hall as usually kyudo targets are set against an earthen embankment. While it is possible the hill the Kaohsiung Butokuden is built on may have served as such an embankment (unlikely as it is too close), the wall facing this slope does not open up like a kyudojo would open towards the target zone.
Within the hall a few interesting items are on display including a set of yoroi (鎧, samurai armor), katana (刀), bokuto (木刀, wooden sword), makimono (巻物, scroll) and information about the hall. There is also a taiko drum (太鼓) used for signalling the end of keiko, a kamidana (神棚, small shrine) and a donation box that is either designed to look like or actually was constructed as a donation box from a Japanese shrine or temple.
I was able to attend two of the three keiko on the evening I visited. Other kendoka there included someone else from the US and a Greek long term resident of Kaohsiung so there is a slight cosmopolitan air to the practice. After practice Chen-sensei treated us to some stories about the history of the Kaohsiung Butokuden and of kendo and Niten-Ichi-ryu in Taiwan. It was a fascinating evening and I hope to be able to revisit this butokuden and as well explore other butokuden in Japan, Taiwan and China (there’s one in Tianjin) in the future.
Muku Flooring has a brief blog entry regarding this dojo with a floor plan, build up details and images of the renovation, which seem to come from Kaohsiung official sources.
Contact information for the Kaohsiung Butokuden
Address (English): No.36 Dengshan Road, Gushan District, Kaohsiung City
Address (Chinese): 高雄市鼓山區登山街36號
closest MRT (metro) station is Sizihwan Station (西子灣站)
tel: +886 07-5318845
fax: +886 07-5317498
email: firstname.lastname@example.org (best to communicate in Chinese or Japanese)
My thanks goes to:
Chen Xin-Huan sensei (陳 信寰), kyoshi 7-dan kendo, 11th generation Hyoho Niten-Ichi-ryu Soke
Takenaka Masamichi for tipping me off on this dojo
my wife for the evening photos
1Chen-sensei received menkyo-kaiden in Hyoho Niten-Ichi-ryu and was named one of three 11th generation successors by the 10th generation soke, Imai Masayuki Nobukatsu. The other two 11th generation successors were Iwami Toshio Gensho and Kiyonaga Fumiya. A complicated succession dispute subsequently arose.
2As part of post-war Allied efforts to purge militarist tendencies from the Japanese, the original Dai Nippon Bukokukai founded in 1895 was dissolved. An organization with the same name exists today but is not a continuation of the original.
3Prior to Japan’s occupation of Taiwan, Kaohsiung was called Dagao (打狗), which means to “beat dog” in Taiwanese. This name was in turn based on the local aboriginal name for the area, meaning bamboo forest, rather than because the place was known for canine abuse. The Japanese decided to keep the rough pronunciation of the city’s name Takao, but changed the kanji to 高雄, meaning high hero. The Japanese era name in kanji was retained after the war but with the pronunciation in Mandarin so that it is now known as Kaohsiung. There are still occasional references to “Takao” however.
4Tracés régulateurs is a term describing the hidden proportions intentionally designed into a building. Facades, window openings, etc. may have been drawn with certain ratio for their location, size, proportion, etc. The “golden ratio” in particular was considered particularly pleasing to the human eye.