Kenjutsu Sword Fighting

Kenjutsu (剣術) is the Japanese martial art specializing in the use of the Japanese sword (katana). Generally, kenjutsu takes the form of partnered practice exercised through kata (pre-arranged forms, as opposed to competition, solo, or freestyle practice).

Kenjutsu is the core means by which koryū train their students to employ the Japanese swords against a variety of classical weapons, while indoctrinating the student in the combative mindset of the school. Therefore, kenjutsu can be seen as an integral aspect of all classical Japanese sword school curricula.

Today most koryu schools continue to employ kenjutsu as part of their curriculum. Some are even thriving on a relatively small scale. Schools (or ryu) such as Yagyū Shinkage-ryu, Kashima Shinto-ryu, Kashima Shin-ryu, Kashima Shinden Jikishinkage-ryu, Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu are some of the more famous still existing.

Some of these schools trace their lineage to the early years of the Tokugawa shogunate. Many other schools can legitimately trace their history from the founder dating back to the 14th century, such as Maniwa Nen-ryū (founded: 1368) or Tatsumi-ryu (founded: Eishō era 1504-1521) or Kashima Shin-ryu (founded: ca. 1450).

Confusion with other practices: Kenjutsu should not be confused with iaidō or iaijutsu, where the former being a modern development with both sporting, artistic, and meditative features. The role of iaijutsu is as a practice performed against an opponent who is visualized most often to be armed with a sword.

There is often strong biomechanical symbiosis between the iaijutsu and kenjutsu of most schools. Iaijutsu allows the practitioner to perfect the execution of techniques, body position and displacement which he will later employ in his kenjutsu without the stresses of a partnered kata. Iaijutsu therefore remains a distinct and yet a complementary practice to kenjutsu in most schools.

Another general distinction between iaijutsu and kenjutsu is the condition of the sword at the start of the kata. In iaijutsu, the sword starts in the sheathed position with the emphasis on the draw as well as the few initial cuts. Traditionally, koryū focus on shifting smoothly in the pace of execution within the iaijutsu kata with little focus is given to the speed of draw.

This is contrasted with kenjutsu, where the sword begins unsheathed, and the emphasis is on both attack and defense. This distinction is however not consistent as some kenjutsu kata start with the sword sheathed.

Equipment: The equipment employed in kenjutsu has changed little within the last five hundred years. One of the more common training tools is the bokken (wooden sword). For various reasons, many schools make use of very specifically designed bokken, altering its shape, weight and length according to the ryu’s specifications. For example, bokken used within Yagyu Shinkage-ryu are relatively thin and without a handguard in order to match the school’s characteristic approach to combat. Alternatively, Kashima Shin-ryÅ« practitioners utilize a thicker than average bokken with no curvature and with a rather large handguard. This of course lends itself well to Kashima Shin-ryÅ«’s distinct principles of combat.

Some schools employ a fukuro shinai (a bamboo sword covered with leather or cloth) under circumstances where the junior student lacks the ability to safely control a bokken at full speed or as a general safety precaution. It should be noted that the practice of using a bamboo sword was not adopted from kendo. In fact, the fukuro shinai dates as far back as the 15th century.

Nitojutsu: A distinguishing feature of many kenjutsu syllabus is the use of a paired ōdachi and kodachi or shoto commonly referred to as nitojutsu or two sword methods. The most famous exponent of nitōjutsu was Miyamoto Musashi, (1584 – 1645) the founder of Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu. Nitojutsu is not however unique to Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu, nor was nitōjutsu the creation of Musashi. Both Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryū were founded in the early Muromachi period (ca. 1447), and Tatsumi-ryu founded Eisho period (1504-1521), contain extensive nitōjutsu curricula while also preceding the establishment of Musashi’s Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu.