Sword Arts of Japanese Origin

Apr 16, 2016


The history of kenjutsu dates back to the late Kamakura Period (1192 - 1333) when the country was embroiled in a series of civil wars unparalleled in  Japanese history, as the influence and authority of the ruling Ashikaga Shogunate waned and the various provincial warlords all vied with one another for  hegemony and control of the land. It was in this tumultuous environment that the growth of the military arts blossomed, as there evolved the need for  well-organized martial disciplines to train and prepare the legions of warriors and clan members for combat on the battlefields. Kenjutsu was one of the Six  Ancient Martial Arts which warriors study; the others were archery, jujutsu, gunnery, horsemanship and spearman ship. But in terms of popularity and  practicality, kenjutsu (swordsmanship) practitioners out numbered all others, especially with the advent of the warrior's code of ethic, Bushido. The  pre-eminence of the study of swordsmanship continued up until the late 20th century, when unarmed martial arts then became popular.

Traditionally, study of kenjutsu originated in the Shinto shrines. The oldest acknowledged style of swordsmanship is Katori Shinto Ryu. Many famous  swordsman in Japanese history trained in this style and the roots of some famous styles of swordsmanship can be traced back directly to Katori Shinto Ryu. One of the most famous swordsmen in Japanese history, Tsukahara Bokuden, who was never defeated in over 100 duels and fought on the battlefield 37  times, trained in Katori Shinto Ryu in his youth and at the age of 37, created Kashima Shinto Ryu, a student of this style, later created Shinkage Ryu. One of the Nobutsuna's brightest students, Yagyu Muneyoshi, later gained fame and honour for his family when, after he devised his own style, Yagyu Shikage Ryu, based upon what he had learned from Notutsuna, he was called upon to instruct the Shogun Tokugawa. Yagyu Shinkage Ryu has been handed down intact to the present day and is very well-known in Japanese fencing circles. Even modern kendo has been influenced by techniques taught in these traditional styles of kenjutsu.


Among other well known ryuha of kenjutsu we must mention Niten Ichi Ryu of legendary Miyamoto Musashi, Itto ryu which gave the largest foundation for modern kendo, as well as: Jigen Ryu, Takenouchi Ryu, Jikishinkage Ryu, Hoki Ryu, Ono-ha Itto Ryu...


In modern days there are many neo-traditional sword systems called "gendai kenjutsu", created from the sword techniques preserved in koryu kenjutsu as well as in other japanese sword arts. Eventually, the latest phase of evolution brought the so called "sport kenjutsu" and chanbara, which are entirely competitive sport formats.





Kendo is composed of the two kanji characters ken, which means "sword", and do, which translates into "way". Literally, kendo means "the way of the  sword." It is a traditional Japanese sword art that was originally developed and practised by bushi, or samurai. Modern kendo originates from the various  schools of sword fighting techniques developed over hundreds of years of combat and study. The goal of kendo is not only to develop the physical ability for  fighting, but also the moral and spiritual aspects of rigorous and disciplined training. 

It is difficult to precisely determine when and how kendo originated. kendo was not created or developed by a single person or even a group of people (though,  perhaps the most famous contributor is the legendary Miyamoto Musashi, who wrote Go Rin No Sho).

The sword was introduced to Japan from China around the 200 B.C. By 700 A.D., the sword was being forged domestically in Japan. After the 9th century, as  the bushi class was established, the prototype of the nihon-to was developed. This sword differed from its Chinese predecessor in that it had a curved blade  rather than a rigid straight one. As Japan plunged into civil war in the 14th century, nihon-to became the weapons of choice among the warrior class. During  these warring years, Japan saw the rise of different schools of kenjutsu. These ryu were started by various master swordsmen, and each school had its own  style unique to the originator. As the civil war drew to a close and more peaceful times prevailed, more emphasis was placed on the spiritual aspects of  kenjutsu training. These moral and social aspects stemmed from Zen Buddhism, bushido, and Confucianism. 

During the mid-18th century, the first protective equipment was developed for kenjutsu. These developments in protective equipment and the usage of shinai (a mock sword made of four bamboo slats bound together) played an important role in the popularization of kenjutsu. In the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, awareness for the need for national defence was on the rise and the modified kenjutsu that included protective armor became popular among non-bushi class citizens. 

After the shogunate fell in 1867, modern Japan was established and the bushi class was dismantled as the right to bear a sword in public was abolished. Kenjutsu suffered a momentary decline in popularity. However, in the late 1870's kenjutsu was once again revived to train the Tokyo police. However, the popularization of kenjutsu demanded a universal form, one that would integrate all the different existing schools of the art. In 1912, after a long deliberation among masters from major ryu, a new system of kenjutsu was developed. This was dubbed kendo to differentiate the intent of the art. Kenjutsu aimed at defeating the opponent whereas kendo aims at self-cultivation. 


Iaido is one of the japanese traditional Budo concerned with drawing the blade and cutting in the same motion. A typical form consists of the draw and cut, a  finishing cut, cleaning the blade and returning it to the scabbard, all without looking away from the imaginary opponent. The term "Iai" is taken from the japanese phrase: "Tsune ni ite, kyu ni awasu". The meaning of this is, whatever we may be doing or wherever we may be, we must always be prapared from any eventually.  Most practice is solo, eventually with shinken (a real blade). Students must strive to achieve power, precision and perfection in their form. Along the way they learn balance, grace, and control both of the body and the mind. 

Iaido began in the mid-1500's. Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu (1542 - 1621) is widely accepted as the founder of iaido. There were many (probably several thousand of) koryus ( traditional schools), though only a small proportion remain today. Almost all of them also study older  school established during 15th century, like Muso Shinden-ryu, Muso-jikiden Eishin-ryu, Shinto Munen-ryu, Tamiya-ryu, Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, and so on. There are many styles of iaido, many ways to cut, to move, and as one learns one improves technically. However, we train not only to learn techniques, but  also to cultivate the heart and spirit. With this respect all "styles" will lead to the same goal. 

All students perhaps study a standard iaido, commonly known as the Seitei Iai, which is established by the All Japan Kendo Federation (Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei, hereafter ZNKR). There are 12 established forms of ZNKR Seitei Iaido (hereafter Seitei Iai) which were developed during 1960's and 70's by a panel appointed by ZNKR for that purpose. The original intentions in creating Seitei Iai was to produce a standard that could used for gradings nationally and later internationally. 



Japanese martial artists and sword masters came together in 1969 and modernized the “art of practice.” Founder Tanabe Tetsundo and his following, comprising some of the most influential swordsmen in Japan, called this new way of thought goshindo – also colloquially known as chanbara. The word  “goshindo” translates to, “the way of self-preservation.”  These traditional swordsmen, aware that times were changing, began to educate the public in the way of the modern samurai while utilizing traditional ways and techniques. Swords made out of flexible plastics (called a ‘choken’) proved a stroke of genius, because wearing a light head mask for face and eye protection was all that was required for safety.

This innovation made such a difference that the Japanese public wholeheartedly embraced this new combative sport. It is a part of the Japanese Department of Education and Recreation. Today, chanbara is a fast growing combative sport all over the world, boasting 300,000 combatants worldwide. The word “chanbara” loosely translates to “sword fighter.” Sport Chanbara is a full speed, full contact padded weapons combat program in the tradition of Kendo - but without the need for heavy armor and without the fear of injury.


The Founder and Chief Instructor is Toshishiro Obata, a world renowned swordsman. Shinkendo is a practical, combative style of swordsmanship. Shin in Japanese means "real, serious, or earnestly", Ken means "sword", and Do means "the way of". Shinkendo therefore, means the way of the real sword. Shinkendo is comprised of five equal areas of study: Battoho(drawing and cutting methods), Tanrengata (forms), Suburi (solo exercises),Tachi-uchi (partner practice) , and Tameshigiri (test cutting). Other areas of study include; sword safety, sword etiquette, the history of the Japanese sword, and other sword related subjects.

Shinkendo teaches a person to be able to use a sword safely and effectively. Test cutting allows a student to learn the correct handgrip, correct cutting angles, proper stances and combative distance engagement. Normally, straw-matting type material and bamboo are used as targets. The practice of test cutting distinguishes practical styles of swordsmanship such as Shinkendo from the philosophical and sporting styles. Since a real sword is used, Shinkendo must be studied and practiced carefully and seriously. At first bokken (wooden swords) are used, later an iaito (sword without an edge) is utilised and after  that a student moves on to a Shinken (real sword). 



Toyama Ryu Batto Do is a Japanese sword art established in 1925. It was formed by a committee, the senior authority being Nakayama Hakudo who was the 16th soke of the Shimomura-faction of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu iaido. This art draws its techniques and philosophy from the expert swordsmen and their styles of that era. It’s roots may be Omori Ryu Tachi Iai or the tachi waza of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. It embodies the art of drawing and using the single sword from a standing posture. It teaches not only drawing and cutting techniques, but also the mental and spiritual aspects which governed the daily lives of  swordsmen long ago. The most prominent exponent of Toyama Ryu was Nakamura sensei.

Toyama Ryu is based on the practical application of the sword as a weapon. It consists of basic cutting techniques, basic kata, advanced two man kata and a  variety of specific cutting patterns. It places significant emphasis on the importance of actual cutting with the sword and understanding the intricate details. It focuses on not only the physical details of every action involved in using the sword, but also the mental and spiritual meaning which also must play an equal part in understanding the sword as was once done long ago.


Many of aikido teachers use bokken practice only as a way of better understanding the empty-handed techniques, as these techniques are grounded in kenjutsu. The founder of Aikido, Ueshiba-sensei, was trained in many styles of bujutsu, including kenjutsu, jojutsu and aikijutsu. He distilled and modified the myriad of techniques he knew into modern aikido. Most modern students do not have the time or inclination to learn the empty handed curriculum as well as bokken and jo, so the concentration tends to be on the aiki techniques. Even among those dojos which emphasize bokken, the techniques are somewhat different from kenjutsu. In most Aiki schools the swort techniques are commonly classified into "suburi" drills na dtachi dori. Aiki ken is usually practiced with wooden sword, bokken or bokuto.



Sword techniques prtacticed in ninjutsu are special in many aspects. The difference woth other Japanese sword arts is best explained by Hatusmi sensei: "While the ninja did not regard their shinobigatana (short sword) with the same reverence the samurai gave their exquisitely forged katana, they nonetheless knew and greatly appreciated its incomparable value. It was an extremely versatile weapon/tool that often made the difference between escape and capture life and death. The saya scabbard was usually longer than the short blade, the extra space used to hide messages, blinding powders or explosives; the extra-long sageo scabbard cord could be used for any number or extracurricular activities, including tying up a captured enemy or as a trip wire across a doorway or forest path. And because it was short, the shinobigatana could be easily carried, especially in areas where the cunning ninja were most often to be found: in narrow corridors and alleyways, in tight crawl spaces, up among the tangle of branches of trees or down in a trough or a hollowed-out log. Also, because the blade was not honed as precisely as the supersharp katana, the ninja could not wield it in the same manner as the samurai; instead, he relied more on body weight in motion in order to execute effective cuts. The ninja made better use of his weapon with slamming stabs and thrusts and sawing dragged-edge cuts."