Elitism & The Tenkara Police

4 CommentsFriday, 6 January 2017  |  PG

Is Robin Hood’s character elitist?

I mean, the story goes that he came from the ruling classes (one of “them”)…and why rob the rich if he thought that the poor didn’t crave what the elite had going on? He must have thought that all those peasants were complete losers! What a patronising tool!

But wait, of course the (made up) Robin Hood didn’t hate anyone who wasn’t rich and of course the whole point of “Robin Hood” is making folks more equal. The complete opposite of elitism…

You can’t have missed the fact that this word “elitist” (along with “purist”) is being thrown around a lot right now in the online tenkara community. And yes, who isn’t annoyed by being told what they can and can’t do in their free time? Who has time for people that are so insecure they need to put down anyone not “making the grade” according to their own personal “tenkara code and performance standard”? That is one kind of hating on folks enjoying using their own tenkara tackle – but maybe the same thing can easily work in reverse? How so??

Well, for starters, I wonder if the words “Pure” or even “Elite” automatically describe negative things in your mind?

Let’s take tennis, it isn’t seen as unnatural to want to improve your game by gaining skills shown by the best players in the sport. Is progressing towards an elite level in tennis, using the same techniques developed by the best players and coaches “elitist”? Well, only when you turn around and say that anyone who is not at your level should quit the game and is not allowed in the same club as you…

It is just as easy to find someone who enjoys a particularly distinctive “pure” single malt whiskey as it is to find someone who really likes a skilfully blended one. Hell, it is easy to find an individual person who loves both blended and single-malt whiskeys (but they’ll probably be pretty clear on the different experience of each). Then again, most of us know someone who only drinks what they think they “should” drink in order to make them feel superior to the average person (whether they actually like it better or not). And, there, we are back to acts that only serve to make other folks smaller.

But being passionate about something distinctive and specific doesn’t automatically make you a snob does it?

Not only are pure or elite things often desirable, a positive case could even be made for people who like to hold themselves (but not others) to their own form of elitism or purist code. After all, they aren’t going around imposing that on other people. The offence comes from policing and judging as a way of putting other people down.

Co-incidentally (and in no way directly connected to tenkara just because they both come from Japan!), it was the founding father of Judo (Jigoro Kano) who came up with the perfect words to describe a healthy (and non-ass-like) attitude:

 “It is not important to be better than someone else; but to be better than yesterday”.

This about sums it up for me – except for one other thing. Accurate labels for (and an open-minded appreciation of) existing schools of thought, skill development and experimentation are surely great things to have. They make it easy to share intelligence on how you found success or failure on your latest trips (it also means that tons of existing valuable knowledge doesn’t get flushed down the toilet by accident!). In the same way that we’d be worse off if there was only one cooking style – instead of regional variations – it is good to look what has come before and is already out there.

The Spectre of That Tenkara Book...

In fact, that might be the key to why I was so disappointed with the Patagonia “tenkara” book – it managed to mix together (and poorly represent) at least three different fishing traditions from European nymphing through regular fly fishing to a strange version of tenkara. In the process, the best aspects of each were lost. Now, I hope that perhaps that book may have introduced people to the idea of tenkara and that could be good for future growth of the tenkara community, but I reckon it missed a significant opportunity with its lack of technical insight. Is that an elitist attitude from me or a “levelling the playing field” attitude?

Big Sticks...

Of course the adoption and use of specific definitions can, again, be misused by anyone trying to score superiority points – but that is not the fault of either the labels or the existing traditions. Because that has to be true, surely it’s just lazy-thinking to heckle anyone who is genuinely interested in those different traditions (say, by calling them an elitist poser)?

But that still doesn’t absolutely NAIL why it could be worth bothering with accurate labels and definitions…

There may be a brilliant answer to this in the Bill Bryson book I’ve been reading recently (Mother Tongue). It is about how English has spread to become the dominant “second language” around the world), but stay with me on this…

You see, English speakers commonly use about 200,000 words – compared to about 100,000 commonly used words in French. So this means that, without a very long explanation, it isn’t possible to tell the difference between “mind” and “brain” (or “house” and “home”) by using a single French word. Those separate labels do not exist. And this is not a way to bash French or any other non-English language (French and German, for example, both have words that distinguish “knowledge that comes by recognition” from “knowledge that comes from understanding” – which is pretty damn useful).

…and what does all this say about our project at Discover Tenkara?

I know I can speak for John as well as myself when I say that our own love of (OK obsession with) the techniques and culture of tenkara makes us want to share our own good fortune. A subject that I am sure to return to is the fact that we probably didn’t pay enough attention to explaining our motives and core values in the past. Looking back, it is easy to see that our eagerness to pass on the information that we found interesting could be taken as “Thou shalt only fish using these methods as we prescribe” instead of “Hey, this is pretty different, fun and effective – and look out for these common pitfalls that can lead to frustration”.


Along with that are some big essential factors to - not only our own selfish enjoyment - but also communicating and passing on to you some of the best experiences found in tenkara.  One example is having the right labels to identify each new discovery. The more important and well-understood a subject is, the greater the need for distinct labels. Going back to Bill Bryson, he points out that there are 500 words for different kinds of pasta in Italian, Eskimos have 50 words for different kinds of snow (but no word that just means “snow”), Trobriand Islanders in Papua New Guinea have 100 words for yams and Highland Scottish has the word “sgiomlaireachd” which means “the habit of dropping in at mealtimes” (!).

At no point does anyone within those cultures say that you must then stop using your own words for things that are important to you…but they all highlight things that are interesting and useful within those cultures. Of course we all have our own bias.

Bill Bryson points out:

"Nobody ever said “Yes, my language is backward and unexpressive, and could really do with some sharpening up”. We tend to regard other people’s languages as we regard their cultures – with ill-hidden disdain. In Japanese, the word for foreigner means “stinking of foreign hair”…Germans call cockroaches “Frenchmen,” while the French call lice “Spaniards.”…"

And you could pretty easily switch “my fishing method” for “my language” in that first part of the quote and see similar disdain for other fishing codes.

Discover Tenkara is not to everone's taste

Now you are either the kind of person who likes to add those new bits of understanding and interesting/useful labels to your life OR reading those facts makes you want to start throwing shoes at the screen. Both responses are fine by us.

So, by way of fair warning, if you are more of a shoe-thrower than a “ah that’s interesting” person, then you probably won’t like much of the content on our site (or our published media or especially our free email tutorials that teach and distinguish between many different schools of fly fishing as a way of building up a good understanding of Japanese tenkara).

Now me and JP are pretty effing far from any kind of modern-day Robin Hoods of the fly fishing world – but our business is steered towards our passion (rather than the other way round: manufacturing a fake passion in order to make a business). All of the content that we share (whether free or paid) is offered as a way of making available to all the - sometimes jealously-guarded - secrets used by the best river fly-anglers in the world. In this way, we aim to add positive experiences to your days on stream – not to tell you what you are doing now is wrong.

Our aim is positive contribution, not bashing anyone’s free time activities and there are a few duties attached to that.

Sometimes a part of highlighting and passing on the essential key to a tactic (or an important cultural aspect that makes it easier to understand and enjoy a story or technique lesson) will be to make sure that the correct label and origin is used and passed on. That gives us all a common language to develop ideas. Sometimes it will be necessary to challenge and explain statements that are not factually correct, incomplete or likely to have been misinterpreted. That way, all of the existing development work and culture is respected – and can make the best possible contribution to future activities.

This is a two-way process and we welcome any and all new source-material.

Is understanding and sharing the most highly-developed tactics “freezing” tenkara – or could that understanding it be vital to feed into any development process?

Maybe if you can still see the labels after you’ve mixed something up in a bucket it is easier to take it all apart again and then try a different combination. Trying more combinations - but keeping an understanding of the component pieces - has to be a more creative process. Keeping that understanding means recognising and identifying what is important.

Now brace yourself for the classic "sign off with a wise quote" move. This one brought to you by Spanish Philosopher George Santayana who said:

Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”.

Is that an argument for freezing tenkara as a museum piece or being responsible caretakers for future development? I do know that the best Japanese tenkara anglers have some awesome skills that would be a huge bonus to anyone's river fishing game. Maybe worth keeping up to date with those...

Comments welcome!



Drew Hill
Friday, 6 January 2017  |  16:55

First off I'd like to say in no way am I disrespecting anyone's passion or opinions.
I recently commented elsewhere Tenkara is simply fishing. Just read that again and ponder on it for a moment.
Classifying and cataloging are quite modern Western modes of thought.
I agree Paul, there's a danger our passion for fishing Tenkara is to be dissected by those with the bug for insisting there's is the only path. Rather than the inclusive view we see here at Discover Tenkara.
I would offer one alternative view regarding striving to improve. Being better than yesterday.
As our hobby is imbibed in Eastern culture it may be worth reflecting that being in the moment with Tenkara rod in hand, in the setting up, in the approach, the cast and the drift or manipulation. That's the important thing for me. It's pleasant to see things improve. With practice to bank more fish. But the practice of Tenkara is my pleasure.
I guess I'm happy to be a heron, not an Olympic sprinter. But that's the beauty of our inclusive sport.
The Tenkara police shouldn't be allowed to spoil it .

Tuesday, 10 January 2017  |  10:22

Thank you Drew, lovely words :)

David Walker
Monday, 9 January 2017  |  13:14

Wow, I did not expect to see this type of post necessary. I recall this sort of thing reaching a peak a few years ago, and I thought it had run it course then went away because it was unproductive.

However, a few hours before reading this I received an email from a friend who wrote that due to something I posted online a tenkara video he had uploaded has received a lot of views, but he had also received a lot of thumbs down, more thumbs down than thumbs up, mostly from his fellow country men, writing that what he does is not tenkara. This sort of thing in my opinion comes from different points of view, and expectations about what tenkara is.

This kind of thing reminds of a story I read years ago about a Canadian museum that had commissioned a village elder to build an authentic kayak for the museum of the type historically built in his village. And he built it using the methods that had been used for generations, but the museum was unhappy with it and insisted he start over and rebuilt it in a way that met their expectations of authenticity.

The museum had expected him to only use the same materials that had historically been used to serve certain functions in the kayak. The museum's idea of authentic was focused only on the materials used. Not the process of building it. They saw the traditional kayak from this village only as a museum piece, frozen in time using only materials used when the village elder was a young boy. Missing in my opinion the more important aspect of how kayaks were built in the village. The process of building it.

Historically pieces of bone had been inlaid into the wooden frame at certain points to protect the frame parts from damage from movement of the wooden parts against each other as the frame would flex in the waves during use. That was what the museum people had expected to be used.

But instead of using bone he had fashioned parts of the same shape from materials he found in the village dump. Modern synthetic materials. Materials that in his experienced judgement would be more durable, and more functional than bone. It would be an improvement. Using this new material would conform with the authentic process of how kayaks had always been built in the village.

The village elder saw the kayak he was building for the museum as a living thing. Not just a museum piece. He wanted to pass on to future generations the best example possible in the kayak he was building for the museum. And believed the best way to do that was to build the kayak using the same process that had always been used when building a new kayak. Innovate, adopt, and use the best materials locally available at the time it was being built. The process of finding and using the best available materials available at the time was more important to authenticity than continuing to the same materials used in the past when a better material was now available.

I see tenkara in much the same way. Do it the traditional way when it's the best way. But innovate and adopt new techniques, and materials when they improve your success , and enjoyment of the sport. From what I can tell another traditional authentic principle of tenkara is Ten Colors. Ten people, 10 different ways of tenkara. It's live and let live. But also realize that one or two of the ten will be more skillful than the others. And the two more skillful anglers may be using quite different techniques. And along with that there is no tradition of criticizing the other eight. Only the example of demonstrating a better way. PG & JP I think you're on the right path.

( btw I'd like to think you are reading The Mother Tongue after I mentioned it in an email)

Tuesday, 10 January 2017  |  10:21

Hi David, thanks as always for your perspective on everything. It is always interesting and always well-informed.

I am ashamed to say that I had not consciously remembered your recommendation for The Mother Tongue (but very likely unconsciously did!) - something that I blame on how packed your emails are with wonderful info!

I started reading it over the holidays when I picked it up from the bookshelf at my "in-laws'" house - and then promptly got it on kindle so I could finish it!