Kenjutsu (剣術) (Swordplay) (剣術)

Kenjutsu is one of Japan's Kobudo (classical martial arts) with the focus of killing and wounding opponents with a katana (Japanese sword).


Kenjutsu is the origin of Kendo, one of the contemporary Japanese martial arts. Concerning the name of this martial art, single edged swords "katana" (刀) and double edged swords "tsurugi" (剣) were clearly distinguished in China while their distinction was ambiguous in Japan. As double edged "tsurugi" changed to single edged "katana" after they were imported from China to Japan, this martial art came to be called Kenjutsu (剣術). Although this art was also called Tojutsu (刀術), this name was used only in a few documents, such as "Honcho Bugei Shoden" written in the Edo period, and didn't take root. Concerning Chinese Kenjutsu, refer to Chinese swords.

This type of swordplay, in which both parties fight, without shields, holding swords of over 60cm in length with both hands, is seldom seen in countries other than Japan, with the exception of the swordplay called Two-handed swords in the medieval age of Germany.

As Kenjutsu developed considerably during the Edo period, most of kata (forms of Kenjutsu) were created under the assumption that the fight would be in a peaceful time between people wearing ordinary clothes, not a fight on a battlefield in which people would wear kacchu (armor). It is said that the fights on actual battlefields were not done according to kata but were done by attempting to cut kesa (the collarbone, the carotid).

It is also said that most people killed by feudal retainers of the Satsuma Domain, who acquired the skill of Jigen School (Yakushimarujigen School and Jigen School), which is known for the phrase "another blow is not necessary", were slashed to instant death by kesagiri (slashing diagonally from the shoulder).

As for famous persons, refer to the list of kengo (a great swordsman) and the category of kenkyaku (an expert swordsman).

Ancient times

Judging from excavated articles, the production of bronze swords in Japan is believed to have started in the 1st century at the earliest. However, the details concerning Kenjutsu at the time, including its existence, are unknown since there was no written language in Japan at the time.

Using iron swords was the source of military advantage. However, the production of iron swords became active only after the 7th century in Japan. As the Emperor Suiko said "masasabi (swords) produced in Kure (Wu-southern part of ancient China) are the best", swords imported from China were mainly used during ancient times. "Kajitsube", factories for to-ko (sword craftsman), were established at many places by the Imperial court in the 8th century. Since then, varieties of iron swords, including choku-to (straight sword) and warabite-to (curved sword), were produced in Japan.

Heian period

Technologies for producing iron swords in Japan reached levels comparable to that of China in the Heian period. Instead of the then existing straight swords, curved swords which were more suitable for cutting persons or those suitable for fighting on horseback were developed, and the original model of the current Japanese sword was created.

Japan became a unified nation in the Heian period after the disputes with China/Korea were settled and the war against Hayato (ancient tribe in Kyushu) and Ezo (ancient tribe in Tohoku) ended. In such a situation, Japan adopted a unique system in the world, based on Japanese traditional magical philosophy rather than Confucian philosophy, under which impure works such as the use of military and police force were not regarded as official system of the nation.

Due to the above, however, self-help in settling disputes became necessary in order to make up for the lack of police force as well as to secure lives. Thus, many bushidan (samurai group) were organized in the Heian period as self-defense groups for farmers and shipping agents.

Around that time, the shape of the Japanese sword changed into that of the current one, whose hilt is longer than the previous one, and it became suitable to hold it with both hands rather than with one hand. Eventually, a style combining the Japanese sword, which was an indispensible item for the samurai and had the potential ability to kill or wound persons instantly, and Kenjutsu was established around that time.

Genpei period (late 11th century - late 12th century)

What looks like the name of Kenjutsu skill is seen in "The Tale of Heike".

Kamakura period

As the samurai class established its status as the core power of the nation, Japan began seceding from the Confucian cultural sphere and forming its own unique culture under which the ruler highly valued Kobudo and its training.

Sengoku period (period of warring states)

Kenjutsu (art of warfare) in the Sengoku period (Japan) integrated various combat skills on the battlefields.

Swords were not main weapons on the actual battle fields at the time. On actual battlefields, people with good builds tried to slash foot soldiers by swinging long swords called nodachi or odachi, or cavalrymen tried to slash enemies' hands/feet/face while rushing toward them. Many daimyo (Japanese territorial lord) during the Sengoku period employed "rikishi" (persons with good build), gave them long swords that could be handled only by them, organized them into rikishitai and used them as bodyguards or special forces. When fighting against heavily-armored soldiers, spears/naginata (Japanese halberd)/sticks were more suitable than swords. Unlike those with good builds, fighting styles between heavily-armored samurai was not simply swinging about swords. It was called Kaisha Kenjutsu and samurai involved tried to stab and cut, while in a bent-over posture, locations of gaps in armor such as the eyes, the neck, the armpit, kin-teki, the inner thigh and the wrists. Fighting between heavily-armored samurai often finally came to an end by grappling, and grappling skills employed in such fighting became one of the origins of Jujutsu (one of the classical Japanese martial arts). Contemporary Judo is derived from Jujutsu.

It has been passed down that the origin of contemporary schools of Kenjutsu was "Kyo-Hachiryu (eight schools in Kyoto)/Kanto-Shihiryu (seven schools in Kanto)".

It is said that Kyo-Hachiryu was founded by eight disciples of Hogen KIICHI, onmyoji (Master of Yin yang) who was said to have instructed MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune during the late Heian period (the truth of this remains to be confirmed). Schools which originated from Kyo-Hachiryu include the Kurama-ryu School, the Nen-ryu School, the Chujo-ryu School and the Yoshioka-ryu School.

It is said that Kanto-Shichiryu was established by seven Shinto priest families from Katori-jingu Shrine and Kashima-jingu Shrine to whom the art of kenjutsu had been passed on by Futsunushi no kami and Takemikazuki when these kami settled in Katori county and Kashima county (Ibaragi Prefecture) after the conquest of Ashihara no nakatsukuni due to the tenson korin (descent of the grandson of the sun goddess). It is said that the Shinto-ryu School, Nen-ryu School and Kage-ryu School, the three schools of Kenjutsu in existence at present, originated from Kanto-Shichiryu.

The Shinto-ryu School is related to the Shinto-ryu group such as the Katori Shinto-ryu School, the Nen-ryu School is related to the Maniwanen-ryu School and the Chujo-ryu School, and Kage-ryu School is related to the Shinkage-ryu School (Shinkage-ryu Yagyushinkage-ryu School).
(The founder of the Nen-ryu School, as well as the Toda-ryu School and the Itto-ryu School, was Jion NENAMI. While "Chujo hangan" and "Saru gozen" were described as Jion NENAMI's disciples in the ancient document handed down in the Higuchi family of the Maniwanen-ryu School, the Nen-ryu School believes the former was Chujo Hyogo no kami and the latter was Ikosai AISU)
However, current researchers of Kenjutsu history generally regard the above-mentioned as a legend since the existence of Kyo-Hachiryu and Kanto-Shichiryu has not been confirmed.

Expert swordsmen were recognized as professional personnel in the late Sengoku period, and they began to wander from place to place. They aimed to become the lord of countries/castles by achieving distinguished service on battlefields while leading their retainers. Their aim was obtaining roku (stipend) and fame through their superior Kenjutsu skill, as opposed to success as a military man or a politician (like the case of Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI). The founders of many schools were these people, and a lot of great founders, including Ittosai ITO, Bokuden TSUKAHARA, Nobutsuna (Hidetsuna) KAMIIZUMI, Muneyoshi YAGYU, Seigen TODA and Chui TOGO, appeared during the time from the late Sengoku period to the Azuchi-Momoyama period.

It is thought that fukuro shinai (bamboo sword covered with a bag) and hikihada shinai (toad-skin bamboo sword), the origin of shinai (bamboo sword), came to be used for training around that time.

Azuchi-Momoyama period

After the nation was reunified, the policy of heinobunri (separation of the warrior class in the domain from its soil) and katanagari (swords collection) were implemented. The fact that Japanese adult males, including those who were not samurai, customarily wore a sword is an important factor in understanding the close relation between Japanese people and Kenjutsu. Since that time, Kenjutsu which was supposed to be used in daily lives, instead of on battlefields, became the mainstream.

Edo period

It is said that kaisha-Kenjutsu changed into suhada-Kenjutsu, which was supposed to be used in an accidental fight during peace time between people wearing ordinary clothes.

Some schools which put more emphasis on shinpo (mind training), such as Zen, appeared in the peaceful Edo period.

Setsuninto (the blade that kills) and Katsuninken (the sword that brings to life)

The terms of "Setsuninto" and "Katsuninken" were originally used in the koan (a method to learn the secrets of Zen) of Zen sects such as "Mumonkan" and "Hekiganroku".

The terms of "Setsuninto and Katsuninken" are seen in the certificate which Nobutsuna Kamiizumi gave in February to Nagayoshi MARUME of Higo Province, and the terms of "Manji, Setsuninto and Katsuninken" are seen in the certificate 14 of Itto-ryu School. As seen above, they had a big impact on martial arts along with other Zen terms.

Heiho kadensho (book of the family transition of swordsmanship)
In the early Edo period, Munenori YAGYU used these terms in a different sense from those of Zen in the Heiho kadensho.

"Many people can suffer by one person's wicked deed. As killing one wicked person could help many people, the blade that kills people could become the sword that brings people to life." "The reason why the blade that kills people should become the sword that brings people to life is because many people are killed without reason in a disordered society. If we use Setsuninto in order to calm the disordered society and the society becomes calm as the result, Setsuninto is exactly Katsuninken. That is the reason why I created these names."

In brief, he says that Setsuninto means definitively killing a wicked person and Katsuninken means saving many people and "bringing them to life". He admonished that the deed of killing a person with a sword should have these two aspects, and it demonstrates the difference between Japanese Kenjutsu and the mere skill of killing a person. As Soho TAKUAN of the Rinzai Sect gave "Fudo chishin myoroku" to Munenori Yagyu and the term of Ken Zen Icchi (The Sword and Zen are One) was used by Edo-Yagyu, Edo-Yagyu was dubbed "Edo-Yagyu of shinpo" while Owari-Yagyu was dubbed "Owari-Yagyu of toho" (sword training). From the above historical fact, the influence of Zen's thoughts cannot be denied.

Furthermore, the following descriptions are seen in a book written by Muneyoshi YAGYU that has been inherited by the Shinkage-ryu School. "A sword that is being held in position is called Mina Setsuninto. A sword that is not being held in position is called Mina Katsuninken."

From a martial art viewpoint on the toho (art of swords) and heiho (art of warfare) of the Shinkage-ryu School which was mentioned above, the terms of Katsuninken and Setsuninken have another meaning. A basic philosophy called "Marobashi", which means "winning by taking advantage of an opponent's attack", exists in the Shinkage-ryu School. It means waiting for the opponent's move while not holding sword in position (it is called "Mukei no kurai" (neutral position) and taking "go no sen" (responsive initiative)). In the above, the term of katsunin was used to mean "opponent's move". On the contrary, taking initiative while holding a sword in position is called Setsuninken in this context. Also, based on the basic philosophy of "Marobashi", skills for "asaku katsu" (literally win shallowly), which means sharply striking on the forearm were often used in the Shinkage-ryu School (including Ma no tachi, Kuneri uchi, Itto ryodan, Seiko sui and "Marobashi uchi", the typical one). As a result, winning without delivering fatal wounds to an opponent became possible, and such skills came to be called "Katsuninken".

Invention of shinai and protectors

Training using fukuro shinai (hikihada shinai) and kote (protector for the forearm) were adopted by schools from long ago. However, these implements were used mainly in the performance of kata (a fixed sequence of moves) training, and were seldom employed in training matches on the grounds that skills could be eroded and that learning riai (the skill of being able to seize a chance to strike) was impossible. During the middle to late Edo period, the original model of shinai and protectors used in contemporary Kendo was invented by the Jikishinkage-ryu School, and the Nakanishi-ha Itto-ryu School also invented and adopted its own protectors and shinai.

Thereafter, training matches using shinai and protectors became rapidly popular, and various schools conducted such training matches. In contrast, a substantial increase in the number of disciples was not seen in the schools that didn't introduce training matches using protectors while instead placing emphasis on kata training with wooden swords and fukuro shinai, such as the Shinkage-ryu School in the Owari domain, the Katayama-Hoki-ryu School in the Iwakuni and Choshu domain and the Toda-ryu School in the Hirosaki domain. There are records stating that the schools which had prohibited doing matches since the time of their founding were forced to conduct training matches (except for the Jigen-ryu School in the Satsuma domain etc).

The end of Edo period

Schools which placed emphasis on training matches, such as Hokushin Itto-ryu Kenjutsu, Shinto Munen-ryu Kenjutsu, Shinkageto-ryu School, Kyoshin Meichi-ryu School and Tennen Rishin-ryu Kenjutsu, were established in various places.

Kanto region (Kan hasshu) where a lot of Kenjutsu dojo (hall used for swordplay training) were located and Satsuma/Tosa province which actively participated in the movement to overthrow the shogunate are known as the places from which many expert swordsmen hailed. In the wake of the arrival of the Black Ships (Perry's fleet), Shinsengumi (a group who guarded Kyoto during the end of Tokugawa Shogunate) was established in order to cope with the rise of the movement advocating for the expulsion of foreigners as well as political disturbance. They were involved in the Kinmon Incident, the Choshu Conquest and the Boshin War, and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.

After the Meiji era

Wearing swords was banned by Haitorei (decree banning the wearing of swords) proclaimed on March 28, 1876, and the general atmosphere regarding Kenjutsu as out-dated became common.

However, as Battotai (drawn sword squad) consisting of keishikan (policemen at the time) achieved distinguished military service in the Seinan War, a policy of encouraging Kenjutsu was adopted, including the creation of Keishi-ryu katachi kata (attack and defend with wooden swords) by Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, and this became the momentum for the restoration of Kenjutsu. Thereafter, Kenjutsu became a compulsory subject for policemen and all police stations recruited swordsmen as instructors.

The context of the above was that the effectiveness of Kenjutsu in close combat was reconfirmed due to situations where armor lost its significance due to the improved killing power of guns and soldiers coming to fights lightly equipped. Unlike the policy of police, however, the Japanese Imperial Army abolished Japanese traditional Kenjutsu and instead introduced fencing by inviting instructors from the French Army. Japanese Kenjutsu was revived in the Army long afterward.

Gekiken kogyo (swordsmen show) by Kenkichi SAKAKIBARA was popular at that time, but its popularity waned later.

Kendo spread among ordinary people during the period from the end of Meiji era to the Taisho era because Dainihon butoku kai changed the names of Kobudo and Kenjutsu to Budo (martial arts) and Kendo respectively and began to instruct Kendo at junior high schools under the old education system. Around that time, the difference between Kendo and traditional Kenjutsu was not well acknowledged and many schools actively participated in Kendo matches (Japanese Kenjutsu in general, including contemporary Kendo, was collectively called "Kendo" in the documents written from the end of Meiji era to the end of World War Ⅱ). It seems that Kendo, which was popular among ordinary people, was regarded as "one of the schools of Kenjutsu (Kendo)" at that time. In fact, Kendo was sometimes called "Butokukai-ryu School". Unlike contemporary Kendo, the skills of ashibarai (foot sweep), nagewaza (throwing technique) and taking off the face protector by holding down an opponent were allowed to be used.

After Japan was defeated in the Pacific War, Budo (Bujutsu) was banned by General Headquarters (GHQ). Kendo was renamed "shinai game", its nature changed to a kind of sport and the difference from traditional Kenjutsu grew larger. As the number of people who learn Kenjutsu decreased under such circumstances, Kenjutsu training was conducted only at training halls of schools even after the ban of Budo was lifted.

There are some schools, such as the Onoha Itto-ryu School and theJikishinkage-ryu Kenjutsu, at which a comparatively large number of people learn both Kenjutsu and Kendo. Ikkenkai Haga dojo and Nihon Kendo Kyokai, both descended from Hiromichi NAKAYAMA and Junichi HAGA, are still using ashibarai and nagewaza in training as they did in the prewar period.