Respecting Our Roots: Making A Case For Modern Japanese Tenkara in the USA
By Adam Klagsbrun
Fixed line fly-fishing may be centuries old, but as it is practiced today, tenkara is new. Tenkara is modern. Tenkara is not from the USA – tenkara is from Japan.
There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about what tenkara actually is, and what the definition of tenkara should be. There has also been discussion about what tenkara is not, and that seems to have created some really interesting, and in some cases intense, dialogue. What perplexes me the most is why some people immediately get defensive and upset about being told that fishing for bass or crappie in local warm water ponds and slow-moving rivers isn’t “Tenkara.” My goal in this article is to lay a foundation of understanding, to make a case for why it is important to keep tenkara from being re-defined, and to explain why we shouldn’t be the ones to re-define it here and now.
At this point most of us know the story about how Daniel Galhardo started Tenkara USA around 2009. What many do not know, or have not paid attention to, is how he honored tenkara’s roots in Japan and did not try to sell it to us as something that it was not. Sure, he added a more minimalist pitch in his marketing, but it made sense, given that from what I recall, the earliest adopters of this sport here appeared to be, in fact, ultralight backpackers who were largely exposed to Tenkara USA via Ryan Jordan at backpackinglight.com.
What Daniel did was to go spend time with Japanese tenkara anglers who were involved in creating and naming tenkara, the people who actually defined it for modern times, in Japan. He asked them questions. He listened to the answers. He watched the anglers. He learned from them. He got the definition. What he brought and packaged for us here in the USA was very close to tenkara as it was in Japan, and so began our adventures with tenkara here in the USA.
Since that point, Tenkara has grown to encompass a larger group of fishermen and a broader range of styles. As soon as there was a market established, other companies jumped in. Many of them became known as “me too” companies – some survived by producing great quality products at reasonable prices and attained a permanent seat at the “table” of tenkara rod-makers. Others did not. A lot of anglers here “grew up” on these rods when it comes to their personal journeys into discovering tenkara. But there has been a bit of an elephant in the room… Most of these rod companies never looked to the Japanese for anything in creating companies that were selling a Japanese-designed product for a Japanese sport. Does this make any sense?
While some people may have taken advantage of Oni school, most of the owners of these other companies didn’t appear to seek out relationships with the creators of tenkara the sport, they didn’t travel to Japan, but, most importantly, they didn’t learn about what a tenkara rod taper was all about, and they didn’t license any tenkara mandrels from Japan. They still haven’t. The result? The result is that the consumers got the short end of the stick. Many of us never learned what tenkara was, where it really came from, or why any of that matters. Many of them still have never cast a rod that flexes like many of the most popular Japanese tenkara rods do.
As one example, Patagonia made an early impact of this type, offering not only a completely incorrect taper and action in a “Tenkara rod” but then going one step further to apparently take credit for tenkara here in the USA. Chouinard painted a picture of fixed line fishing for his fishing kit that was loosely inspired by Pesca Mosca Valsesiana and tenkara, without truly representing either style in their kit. He calls it “simple fly fishing.” It is not tenkara.
This was particularly disappointing, as Patagonia, usually working hard to truly engage locally with their marketing and environmental/business impact campaigns and to understand what they were getting involved in, didn’t do any of the necessary legwork at all. This helped to create a complete misunderstanding within the market, and helped to foster an idea that somehow, anything could be tenkara. I believe this is just one element of what created a lot of the early anti-tenkara “hate” from other fishing communities online, and is something I’d like to delve into deeper at another time in the future.
It is clear there was no mal-intent in any of this, but the results were less than stellar on many levels, and some may argue that “damage” has been done. I’m glad to see other companies beginning to put effort into all of this, and I think it will go a long way to undoing some of the damage that may have been done early on. There’s more work to do.
But I digress, this article isn’t really a history lesson on the tenkara industry, it is meant to make people think. Furthermore, I truly love Patagonia as a company for many other reasons… I don’t bring this up to judge any company or person, or to be negative. I bring it up to paint a picture of how tenkara began to lose its way here in the USA, and how tenkara went from a style of fishing to a becoming a marketing term.
I believe that bringing this reality to attention is important, because it has the potential to be dangerous for the knowledge and the future of the sport. If we allow tenkara to simply become a marketing term to sell rods and gear, not only will we dilute the meaning of tenkara, but we will all be personally responsible for undoing decades of work that the masters such as Ishigaki-San, Sakakibara-San and countless others have worked so hard to create. Do we, the USA, want to be known for effectively destroying a well-defined niche sport with established teachers & sponsors, established methods and styles, and be happy about that? I certainly do not think so, and I believe most tenkara anglers here do not want to do that either. Do we?
What is it about? Honor. Honor is important in Japan. Honor is important everywhere. It would surely be dishonorable to have taken this wonderful sport from Japan and to then turn it into something completely different, simply because we don’t want to create new words for what we are doing now, do we? I don’t see how these shortcuts would benefit us, or the sport of tenkara here.
We have all advanced to the point where we understand why tenkara is not cane pole fishing, and how it is not simply dapping. I believe at this point, now, we have finally gotten to a point where we have learned enough to know that tenkara also is not fishing for bass or warm water species in slow and still water. There are enough Japanese anglers, facts and history to support this claim. Ishigaki-San and many others have defined tenkara – so yes, tenkara has a definition already.
As Ishigaki-San and many of the others have confirmed, tenkara means fishing for trout in bubbling brooks and raging rivers with some elevation change, using a fly, utilizing a long rod and a very light line. Tenkara is as much about casting as it is about drifting, something I used to incorrectly speak about by saying pretty much the opposite. I am just as guilty in doing damage to the definition and image of tenkara as any company or blogger or early adopter who decided to use western fly lines, floating lines or dry flies.
I didn’t mean to dilute tenkara by pitching bead heads, ultra-short lines and nymphing techniques… but I did – heck, they worked! But I now know more about how to cast correctly, how to fish a slightly longer line effectively, how to manipulate flies more effectively, as well as more about what tenkara actually is – and with this knowledge comes new understanding. What follows that for me is just a lot more good old fun while fishing, a lot more success catching the “hard to catch” fish, a more “zen” attitude on the stream, and a mission to spread this all to others.
Tenkara was defined by the most active, important anglers within the sport at that time, many of whom we know of today. They are the “masters.” The word tenkara was chosen by this group of existing, established Japanese tenkara anglers, some of those masters and their teachers, in order to help distinguish between the new western style of Kebari Tsuri (fly fishing,) and the traditional old style with a fixed line… then also called Kebari Tsuri.
Tenkara is not a broadly defined style. It is a niche that was created in order to describe something very specific – something that was evolving both alongside, and separately from, other methods of fly-fishing. So in effect, tenkara has evolved as a niche within a niche. It followed a path to that point that helped to define the techniques and the tools of the sport, and we have barely even begun to scratch the surface of all of this over here in the USA. We are lucky to be exposed to decades, if not centuries, of this knowledge from Japan; lucky to have friends in Japan to teach us the right ways, and lucky to have all found this wonderful sport.
So my question is, given these realities, do we, as a community, really want to go backwards in time and re-define tenkara as something broader that encompasses all kinds of fly-fishing? Do we really want to promote a train of thought that undoes the very ideas of why tenkara was defined in the first place? What good would it serve to be the ones who undermine the very people we are trying to learn from right now? Does this help us, and does this have a positive impact on the sport of tenkara?
Tenkara, as it is defined from Japan, is well established for these reasons – and there is a lot we have left to learn before we are ready to go off and take it to the next level ourselves. For if we cannot first fully learn and understand the myriad of techniques and knowledge that has already been accumulated, all we will be doing is throwing that out the window, by letting tenkara become a marketing term.
In Japan, they define the fishing style by the kind of fishing you do, not the rod you have. Because of that, each style of fishing has developed its own gear… carp fishing for Herabuna carp is called Herabuna fishing. There are “Hera rods” for that. Chub fishing for Hae in mountain streams is called Hae fishing. Did you know there’s a whole category of rods that are sold for this too? The Daiwa Rinfu is one of them. Ayu fishing utilizes insanely expensive and much longer rods, and you use a half of a fish as the bait. Most of us have heard of Keiryu fishing too, as Chris Stewart has largely been responsible for making people aware of this style and marketing it as its own unique thing – as well as selling the rods to us here in the US.
So I believe that it is time for us to begin to communicate more accurately about modern Japanese tenkara, to accept its definition more clearly, to think about using Japanese carp rods for carp, salmon rods for salmon, and calling each method of fishing by its own name as has already been defined. Maybe it is even time for us to be creative and to make our own names as well. There is no reason that anyone cannot use their tenkara rod to fish however they’d like and for whatever species of fish they’d like to fish for. But I do believe it is as good a time as any to begin to re-define that stuff for what it is, instead of pretending that it is all actually called tenkara.
Japanese tenkara anglers I have met and watched interviews about have always seemed to say that we in the USA will have a profound impact on tenkara, and suggested that many of the next great innovations within the sport would come from us here, not from within Japan. I am sure these innovations didn’t involve re-defining the entire sport for the sake of marketing. Do we not want to make the best impact on tenkara that we can? Can’t we still do that while also, at the same time, creating new names for the fishing we like to do with fixed line rods that doesn’t fit the definition of tenkara? I believe that we can.
I’m very much looking forward to the evolution of our fixed line fishing industry here, of Tenkara, Keiryu, and of the people involved in it. I’m looking forward to continuing this journey of knowledge among all of you, no matter what kind of fish you want to catch or what kind of line you like to use. But most importantly, I’m looking forward to doing a better job honoring those from which we took and learned this wonderful Japanese sport here in the USA.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016-17 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.