I have written about bogu before in this blog, but I was prompted to think about it again after getting involved in a thread on the “Kendo Business Professionals” forum on Linkedin. A kendoka started the debate by asking for advice on inserting hard protection into kote to limit injury. Some people including me, made the point that it might be due to problems with his or his opponents technique and then the discussion went on to the protective qualities of various types of kote.
As often happens in these forums, the thread then became wider ranging, covering the respective merits of Japanese, Korean and Chinese made bogu and I felt that there is considerable confusion about what we spend our money on.
As I do regularly when I am in the Kansai area, I took time in May, to visit an old friend, Kawato Shinji, owner of Kawato Budoguten. Kawato-san is of the old school of apprentice-served bogu craftsmen. He has made much of my bogu over the last twenty years and always offers knowledgeable, honest advice on products and their viability for repair.
His view, correlated by other sources, is that most of the bogu sold these days is Chinese made, even up to and including middling expensive hand-made sets selling at $3,000 to $5,000. The confusion comes from the fact that whilst cheaper armour is made and assembled in China, with more expensive products, the components are made in China and the finished articles assembled and finished in Japan and Korea. In effect the difference between sourcing mid range bogu from China and Japan, is that for the latter, you are paying for Chinese product with Japanese quality control. Some of the bigger Japanese makers have their own staff members based in the factories in China to monitor the quality of output.
There is also confusion about the term “hand-stitched”. Modern sewing machines make it possible to produce futon that exactly match traditional hand-stitched patterns which are by and large, indistinguishable from the real thing.
In the old days “and still, in the case of the most expensive bogu” it took a craftsman a month, working 7-12, to manufacture a bogu from raw materials. Even then the dou dai (plate) and the mune were bought in from other craftsmen. The raw material for futon is typically 7 or 8 layers of cotton that starts as a thick pile of up to 3 cm which is painstakingly compressed stitch by stitch till it reaches a thickness of 2-3 mm for 1-bu stitching or 5-6 mm for 2-bu.
Traditional dou dai manufacture is equally detailed, with bamboo slats hand shaped and tied, cowhide laminated on top and then coat after coat of lacquer applied over weeks and left to dry. Specs of dust are removed with the finest of brushes in between.
I bought my first good dou, when I lived in Japan and had the fun of visiting several times over 3 months to see it as a “work in progress”. In reality because work has to be multitasked and scheduled, you can expect to wait 1 to 2 years to take delivery of the highest quality handmade bogu.
Top quality bogu sells for prices in the region of 1.2 million yen (around $14,500), or the price of a car. I imagine that the maker enjoys less profit per sale than does Toyota. Whilst all good kendo retailers and e-sellers try to give value for money, it is unreasonable to expect to buy a year of a master craftsman’s life for your 200 bucks.