Yasuko Suzuki becomes the first woman to complete the beginner’s course of the Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu school. (Video by Akira Nemoto)

NARA--It took more than four centuries, but a noted martial arts school here no longer clings to the mentality that warriors must be male.

The famed Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu recently announced that the first female in its 465-year history has completed its beginner course in spear-wielding.

Until last year, it only allowed men to learn spear-handling techniques forged in feudal times. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the school, established in 1553, had more than 4,000 students.

"It's really just chance that I became the first woman to finish the course," said Suzuki, 48. “To be honest, there are almost no differences in the way the school treats men and women ... except perhaps in which locker room to use," she said lightheartedly.

Suzuki decided to join the school after she visited the dojo in March last year at the behest of her husband Naoshi, 48, a combat sports enthusiast. The couple travel one hour to the dojo each Saturday to train from their home in Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward.

Suzuki passed the test for promotion in April. To take the exam, she was required to attend at least 30 training sessions spanning a year or longer and master 14 basic skills.

Once trainees complete the beginner, middle and upper courses and are certified as having mastered the required techniques, they will be allowed to perform in front of spectators.

Suzuki recalled how she felt after the first time she wielded a spear for 5 minutes or so.

"It was fun as that is something I never do in my daily life,” she said.

Suzuki said she was determined to master the traditional martial art after Junzo Ichiya, 69, the 21st head of Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu, told her that women could participate from this year.

Women had been prohibited from joining the school since Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu was founded by Inei, a Buddhist monk of Kofukuji temple here.

The school is of such renown that a martial artist from Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu appears in manga creator Takehiko Inoue’s popular work “Vagabond,” which features swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584-1645).

It began to rethink its policy in response to several annual inquiries from women asking to be accepted for training.

Some members were cautious about opening the doors to women on grounds that spears are difficult to handle and too heavy for women to hold. Others felt there were enough trainees already.

Despite that, it was eventually unanimously agreed that the mission of Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu is to “pass on our skills to posterity.” It was decided there was “no good reason to refuse to teach spear-wielding techniques to women.”

Suzuki and two other women began practicing at the dojo in April last year. Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu also operates dojos in Osaka, Nagoya and Hamburg in Germany. Of the 100 students, six are female.

Suzuki initially found it difficult to wield a spear as the weapon measures 2.7 meters and weighs 2.1 kilograms.

She also had problems manipulating a spear with her wrists and striking a target properly.

As she tells it, Suzuki relied on the wrong muscles to give her control. It took her ages to learn even one spear technique, but she would not give up.

“It is impossible for men and women to quickly learn how to wield a spear properly because they need to move their bodies in different ways,” said Ichiya, who trains Suzuki. “Spearing, thrusting and twisting techniques are quite different from activities of daily life. What is important is to continue training.”

Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu uses spears with cross-shaped heads to hit, catch and knock down an opponent’s spear with the flip of a wrist. To wield the weapon in a fluid motion, flexibility is more important than simply swinging it with all one’s strength.

Ichiya said the unique feature of Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu allows male and female students to learn at the same pace.

Suzuki, after continuing practicing, also realized training and maintaining balance play a bigger role than physical strength.

“The spear is long and heavy whatever gender you are,” she said.

Suzuki said Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu does not treat male and female trainees differently.

“No one here expects me to adopt the traditional role of a demure woman,” she added.

Kazutoshi Ishikura, 58, a management consultant in Nara who joined Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu in 2015, said he felt inspired by Suzuki and the other female students, noting their careful preparations for training and diligence about putting away weapons carefully after use.

“I was initially concerned whether women would be able to endure the rigors of training, but they get used to it without any great difficulties,” he said. “They make us male students feel we have to work as hard as them.”

Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu members do not engage in combat. They train simply to master the school’s styles so they eventually can show off their skills in front of spectators.