History of MUKEN

A personal history of MUKEN tenugui designs

by Ben Sheppard, 2006

I thought it might be fun to archive some of the designs that the club has used, seeing as the club is now in it’s 17th year.

Yakov sensei’s favourite tenugui was a simple one with just 剣 in the middle. This calligraphy also served, in photocopied form, as the club’s joseki from day one. That was, until I came along and without asking, replaced it with a very bad, but very heartfelt rendering of 剣 in my own hand. I think this joseki, mounted on a bamboo shaft, is still floating around in the armoury somewhere. So that is how the character 剣came to be the symbol of the club. (Incidentally the current joseki, 剣道 which was brushed by my calligraphy teacher, Ishihara Sotei sensei in 1993, was supposed to be just 剣. At least that’s what I asked him for. He came back with three different versions of 剣道instead. Whether he misheard me, or thought my request misguided I don’t know. I wasn’t quite prepared to say, “Oi! That’s not what I asked for. Do it again!”).

Tenugui No. 1

As you can see the club is yet to become UMKC, but is just “Melbourne University Kendo Club”. The plane tree leaf in the corner is a reference to the fact it was autumn when I printed this, and the year 1991. It is also a reference to the fact that Sensei works for Parks and Recreation Dept at the City of Melbourne. The b/g is a geometric pattern that I later learned represents snake-skin in Japanese dance and Kabuki, hence it is included in the garb of many a villain. Nevertheless it appealed to my aesthetic, and Sensei’s mathematical sensibilities. The calligraphy is copied from Sensei’s favourite tenugui mentioned above.

The stencil was cut out of adhesive Contact™ with a scalpel. Lettering was generated using graph paper, compass and pencil (no Adobe Illustrator then!). It was silk-screened by hand, in a 2-screen edition of 30, on what was a very hard-to-get-at-that-time, bolt of genuine tenugui fabric from Japan. The pattern does not quite go all the way to the edges of the fabric, as any bleed over would risk dirtying the press and transferring onto subsequent prints. But it goes bloody close! I gave up printing them myself after that...


Tenugui 1

Tenugui No. 2

This was the first commercially produce UMKC tenugui, and I can’t remember the year, 1994 perhaps?. The club is now officially “UMKC”, although we had chosen to use the University crest rather than the old Sports Union crest, something we later found out was illegal (Sssh! Don’t tell the uni!). “Melbourne Uni Sport” was still but a twinkle in some marketing man’s eye…

The tenugui was printed in Melbourne by a commercial t-shirt printing business, and you can see how far they kept from the edge of the fabric! The two dark blue panels were supposed to go edge to edge, in order to echo the look of sliding screens. They are two asymmetrically placed panels but with the central kanji still in the geometric centre. It lost something when they came back from the printer’s as floating boxes…

The calligraphy is by me, much improved by years of doodling the kanji 剣 in the margins of newspapers, etc since my previous offering for the club. This particular kanji was “brushed” with a chisel-point Artline texta. I’ve often hoped to find the original stashed somewhere but alas I think it got thrown out by accident. The original calligraphy you see, was about the size of a postage stamp! The vertical calligraphy メルボルン大学剣道部 was also done in texta.

The hanko I printed by hand later (saving us $$!) using a design carved from stone dipped in silkscreen ink. It says 文武 (literature and military) which comes from the famous saying 文武両道 (“pen and sword in accord”) which means there should be a balance in learning the arts of war with the arts of peace, an appropriate motto for a University club. (It also comes from my name in Chinese, the single character 斌).

The problem with silkscreen however, is that you can never get an even spread of colour on both sides of the fabric. To this day I still don’t really know how they do it Japan. Sensei says he’s seen machines where they literally suck the ink down through many tenugui at once. I would really love to see the machines and the processes by which they do it.


Tenugui 2

Tenugui No. 3

Our first Japanese-made tenugui! Actually this was our second. Our first had a mistake in the uni crest but unfortunately I don’t have one of those in my collection any longer! Starting to look familiar? We’re still “UMKC” with the uni crest even though Melbourne Uni Sport is starting up at this time. Calligraphy is the same. Ordered from Tozando via email, so that narrows the date to post 1995 I would think. I mean, who knew about the net before then? I still wasn’t happy with this colour though. Looks too much like reflex blue, the default colour for TV screens. At least it is even on both sides though.


Tenugui 3

Tenugui No. 4

And here we are with the present design. The central kanji is the same, the side kanji have been cleaned up to look like “MS Gothic Pro” and the uni crest has been replaced with an adaptation of MU Sport’s generic club logo. The colour is better too, being a genuine navy. Again from Tozando. This design is now in it’s 3rd (or 4th?) printing. Originally appeared around 2001-2002.


Tenugui 4

The late Nishiyama Yasuhiro sensei (Hanshi 8 dan), who visited UMKC around the time of the 2002 AKC in Melbourne, was an aficionado of calligraphy and upon inspecting the UMKC tenugui, enquired after who brushed the calligraphy ken. It seems he was impressed, which came as a relief to me as I had never known whether I had taken too many liberties with the shape of the kanji. He was very surprised when told it had been done with a majikku (magic marker = texta). Typical gaijin! It remains one of my favourite pieces of calligraphy, i.e. I can still bear to look at it this many years down the track.

The production process is by now getting fairly streamlined with the use of Adobe Illustrator to render the design as an EPS file, which then can be turned into a proper Film Positive: a mechanically produced template of the exact design at 1:1 scale on heavyweight clear film acetate with registration marks and the whole industrial bit. This now gets put in a mailing tube and sent to Japan for Tozando’s printer to work from directly: a little bit of insurance that helps prevent unwanted ‘interpretations’ of the design at the other end.

This small collection represents only 10 years, but it is interesting to note that in those 10 years we have gone from doing things by hand on materials hard to come by, to being able to create more professionally finished artwork than ever before on computer, email it to Japan directly and 3 months later receive tenugui as good as any you would see at a Japanese club.

Nishiyama sensei