Is Kendo Swordsmanship ?

I will answer that question with a bold statement that will probably sound unusual : in its essence, Kendo is Kenjutsu. It is, in reality, very difficult to draw a clear, and objective distinction between Kendo and Kenjutsu.

Ante-Scriptum :

Swordsmanship is an essential part of Kendo, after all Kendo seeks to teach the principles of the katana. But, the pursuit of swordsmanship within Kendo has the purpose of improving one’s heart and spirit rather than to teach how to win a swordfight.

Still, seeing Kendo as a sport, a wellness practice, or a competitive practice alone is incomplete.

Kendo is budo. When the shinai is held with the same conviction as if it were a sword, kendo becomes budo.

Niibori-sensei, 8th dan hanshi

Hopefully, I can explain in which ways these statement makes sense. I will also include a short summary at the end of this article.


The question of the relationship between kendo and swordsmanship does sometimes arise among kenshi. But, I most often saw it debated by historical european martial arts (HEMA) practitioners as a way to question the legitimacy and value of the practice of kendo.

Often, the point is mistakenly made that Kendo is only a competitive sport, and that Kenjutsu is the “real deal“.

Youtube history and swordsmanship personnalities such as Scholagladiatoria and The Metatron made videos about that question. Even Andy Fisher (Renshi 6th dan) of the kendo show provided his answer.

I will make a different analysis, focusing on the history and the philosophy of Kendo.

I – The birth of Kendo :

The history of kendo begins with koryu kenjutsu. Kenjutsu means “sword technique”, and was the teaching method of swordsmanship in ancient Japan.

Initially, kenjutsu existed as koryu. Koryu can be explained as ancient schools that practice a tradition of martial arts (a ryu). There are many koryu that still exist today.

In the 16th century, the fukuro shinai was invented by Kamiizumi Nobutsuna in Shinkage Ryu. Our current shinai, the yotsuwara shinai was created much later (1750) by Chuzo Nakanishi.

Between 1701 and 1715, Naganuma Shiro developed a set of bogu and established a training method of kenjutsu using shinai and bogu within Jikishinkage Ryu (descendant of Shinkage Ryu). This, according to the All Japan kendo Federation, is the “direct origin” of the present day kendo discipline.

Jikishinkage Ryu practice

Eventually, most kenjutsu schools of Edo (Tokyo) started using shinai and bogu in their teaching. The most interesting example is that of Hokushin Itto Ryu. It is a koryu that shares many techniques with kendo.

Indeed, its founder, Chiba Shusaku wrote the Jikiden Kenjutsu Meijin-Ho. It is a collection of 68 kenjutsu techniques that are the basis of kendo. All revolve around the targets of men, kote, do, and tsuki, as well as renzoku-waza (successive cuts).

It was from around this time that the men strike became the most coveted target for its decisiveness – an attitude that is still prevalent in modern Kendo.

Alexander Bennet, Kendo 7th dan (Kendo – Culture of the sword)

*

In 1853, Commodorre Perry‘s Black Ships arrived to the coast of Japan to force Japan to make unequal treaties with the United States. As a reaction, the Kobusho was created to start prepare Japan to a potential war. Five hundred instructors of different koryu were hired.

An early standardized form of kenjutsu was born in the Kobusho, most influenced by Jikishinkage-ryu and various forms of Itto-ryu and the 64 techniques of Chiba Shusaku. Rules for competition, armor and shinai (size 38) were standardized. The Kobusho also gave out ranks to successful kenshi based solely on their success in shinai-sparring independently from any koryu.

That is what I would consider the beggining of kendo. The birth of a style of an independent kenjutsu that was slowly standardizing. One could hold a rank in “kenjutsu”, rather than a particular koryu.

As such, I will use the term standardized kenjutsu to refer to the direct origin of kendo. Please note that this term is partially innacurate : kendo was not fully standardized until recently.

*

Sakakibara Kenkichi – soke of Jikishinkage-ryū

In the 1870s, the Gekiken Kai was created by Sakakibara Kenkichi (soke of Jikishinkage Ryu). It allowed kenjutsu practitionners to face off each other in free sparring. Practitionners of Kusari-gama and Naginata were also present.

The rules of such contests were based on those of the Kobusho. Matches were to be three-point contests identically to today’s shiai (sanbon shobu). Sakakibara Kenkichi also organized open training sessions teaching standardized kenjutsu. His training sessions and demonstrations became very popular.

Because of Meiji government policy, the term gekiken started being used to refer to kenjutsu itself. That term literally means “shocks/strikes between swords” (撃剣). Some traditions use it to refer to free sparring.

Kawaji Toshiyoshi (1834-1879) a samurai and the head of the police also wished to promote the practice of standardized kenjutsu for policemen. He managed to establish the Battotai, a sword-bearing police force made of samurai that practiced standardized kenjutsu with a special set of kata. That force achieved great success during the battle of Tabaruzaka.

Following the success at that battle, standardized kenjutsu started being taught to the all of the Keishicho (Tokyo Metropolitan Police). A set of kata (Keishicho Gekiken Kata) was created for that police. They also started using the present day size 39 shinai.

Standardized kenjutsu was also starting to be taught in schools. The first kata made to be taught in schools were those of Takano Sasaburo (kendo hanshi – Hokushin Itto Ryu master, 1862-1950) ; the Gogyo no Kata. They are still practiced in the kendo dojo of the university of Tsukuba to this day.

In 1895, the Butokukai (Martial Virtue Society) was created with the aim to unify and promote Japanese martial arts. One of its branches was tasked with the job of completing the standardization of Kenjutsu.

An unified set of kata was to be created for the standardization to be complete. A set of three kata, the Butokukai Kenjutsu Kata were created in 1906. However those kata were not implemented successfully and disappeared.

Jigoro Kano, member of the Butokukai and founder of Judo suggested including Kenjutsu within the Japanese school education system, which was done in 1910.

In 1911, the Japanese Ministry of Education with Takano Sasaburo, Negishi Shingoro, Kimura Nobuhide, and 10 other Kenjutsu experts created another set of three kata. The Butokukai, unhappily accepted those three kata, feeling as though the ministry of Education had stepped on their autority.

The Butokukai formed a comittee of twenty kenjutsu experts including Takano Sasaburo and Nakayama Hakudo to create seven more kata.

The kata created by the Ministry of Education are the first three kata of kendo. The kata of the Butokukai are the 7 others. As such, an official, standardized set of 10 kata was made for kenjutsu ; the Nihon kendo Kata.

The teaching method of Kenjutsu was also standardized by Takano Sasaburo (master of Ono Ha Itto Ryu, kendo hanshi), Nakayama Hakudo (kendo and Iaido hanshi, founder of Musō shinden ryū) Kimura Nobuhide (master of Jikishin-Kage Ryu).

With the standardized teaching method, kendo was essentially in its current shape but was still called kenjutsu.

In 1919, Nishikubo Hiromichi suggested changing the name of Kenjutsu to Kendo. Seven years later, in 1926 the Ministry of Education decided to officially rename kenjutsu to kendo. The Ministry of Education was to only change the name of kenjutsu – the practice was to remain identical.

That is the very reason why I began this article by stating that Kendo is Kenjutsu.

II – The evolution of Kendo :

In that case, why are there Kendo dojo and Kenjutsu dojo today ?

Because some Koryu did survive and were not renamed to kendo unlike standardized kenjutsu. Nowadays, kendo refers to standardized kenjutsu while kenjutsu refers to koryu only.

However, the “gekkiken” (shinai-sparring) part of koryu was effectively replaced by kendo. As such, most koryu only practice kata. In Japan, it is common for practitionners of koryu to complement their practice with kendo.

http://kendo-book.com/kendo-reader/

I will reference the writings of Noma Hisashi, a young 7th dan kyoshi who lived between 1910 and 1939. He wrote Kendo Tokuhon in which he explains the philosophy, and the techniques of kendo. We can see, through his words, how pre-war kendo was conceived.

Nowadays, apart from the unique situations that arise in times of war, there are almost no opportunities for us to cross swords in mortal combat. In place of the sword there are now more advanced and efficient weapons available. Consequently, to say that the aim of Kendo is “to destroy the enemy and to protect oneself” is naturally going to invite ridicule for such an outmoded idea.

No, within Kendo there is something to be sought of much greater value, something of profound spiritual significance. But to learn of this significance one cannot bypass the original function of Kendo as Bujutsu i.e. “to destroy the enemy and protect oneself”. It is only through a deadly earnest razor edged course of Kendo training that one can truly experience the lofty way towards spiritual understanding.

To class Kendo as merely another form of physical exercise is to view it as another form of sport and to that I think is to miss the mark completely.

Noma Hisashi (1910-1939) – kendo 7th dan kyoshi

We can see that even in pre-war kendo, the true aim of kendo was not on winning sword-fights.

It was to reach something beyond, and through that search to improve oneself. Yet swordmanship is seen as an essential part of kendo. In the path to reach spiritual understanding it is necessary to remember the idea of bujutsu, of life and death in kendo.

Noma Hisashi also reminds us that the rules of ippon in kendo were created based on those of an effective cut with a sword.

[I have put in parenthesis the equivalents in the official ZNKR Kendo rules]

In the case of real combat of course it would not matter where one struck or thrust in order to kill the opponent, but for convenience and safety during keiko only the above mentioned areas may be attacked (Datotsu-bui) .

[Sho-men, Hidari/Migi-men, Hidari/Migi-kote, Hidari/Migi-do, Tsuki]

The purpose of cutting is to kill the enemy, and although there is no absolute rule that insists one should have to strike either here or there, a strike when made should conform to the following;

It must be sufficient to cut as if one is using a real sword (Sae and Hasuji)

Upon striking one must remain in control of ones stance and posture (Shisei, Ki-ken-tai ichi)

Also upon striking, a position must be taken from which if necessary a furthercut or reply can be made freely and immediately (Zanshin)

Noma Hisashi (1910-1939) – kendo 7th dan kyoshi

*

Before the second world war, the Butokukai determined that that kendo was an art that teaches swordsmanship with the aim of self-improvement (the sword that gives life – 活人剣).

But, the Second World War caused a divide. In the 1940s, kendo was instrumentalized by the Ministry of Education as a tool to promote nationalism and militarism. Indeed, the Ministry of Education wanted to make kendo at least partially effective for modern combat ; as ludicrous as that may sound in an era of automatic weapons.

As such, effort was made to change the philosophy of kendo from the idea of self-perfection and spiritual betterment (as defended the Butokukai, and explained by Noma Hisashi) to the use of a military sword, devotion to the nation, and sacrifice for the emperor.

The Butokukai did oppose this approach, but in 1942 it was restructured by the government into an organ of the state, losing its independence. After that, it became yet another instrument in the militarization of kendo.

The rules of kendo were changed in 1943, two years before the end of the war, focusing on the use of the sword as an instrument of killing. Kendo of that era would be unrecognizable by today’s standards.

The kendogi and hakama were discarded for a shirt, trousers and shoes. Tameshigiri (test-cutting) was encouraged. The length of shinai was set to size 36, the same size as the military swords of that time. Matches with multiple opponents and against different weapons were encouraged. Practice was made outside and unlike today’s or 1930’s kendo, the use of strength and violence and aggression were privileged.

Kendo, which had moved away from the sword of killing in the pre-war period (殺人刀) to the sword that gives life (活人剣) had returned back to the sword of killing under the influence of the Ministry of Education.


Following the defeat of Japan, Douglas MacArthur, the “Gaijin Shogun” forbid the practice of Kendo and of all Budo. All of those martial arts were at risk of disappearing.

Junzo Sasamori, (16th Soke of Ono Ha Itto Ryu) wishing to save kendo negociated with the MacArthur regime to allow for kendo to survive and be gradually reinstated.

A compromise had to be made and shinai kyogi was created. The uniform and armors were based on fencing, and the discipline used american terminology. Unfortunately, with the compromise, sacrifices had to be made.

Between 1945 and 1952 because of American pressure and the trauma of the Second World War, the norm was to percieve the shinai as a mere stick, any combat-related vocabulary was avoided.

Shinai-Kyogi

Kakegoe and kiai (shouts) tai-atari and Grappling (Especially ashi-barai ; foot sweeps) were forbidden. Vocabulary related to swords was to be avoided.

Furthermore the shinai were radically changed, to size 50 rather than today’s size 39, made softer more pliable and lighter despite the greater length. Matches were to always last 5 minutes, with three referees. The competitor with the most point within the five minutes was to win.

Note that grappling was already discouraged in Kendo before Shinai-Kyogi.

Because in kendo the techniques are concerned with the sword, outside of situations when it can’t be helped, you should avoid grappling. If you have great strength, challenging people to grapple or wrestling with those who are weak is incorrect.

Takano Sasaburo (1862-1950) – kendo hanshi

Finally in 1952 kendo was legalized once again. Both kendo and shinai kyogi coexisted until the complete integration of shinai kyogi within kendo in 1959.

Kakegoe, kiai, and tai-atari returned integrally. Ashi-barai was only maintained in police-kendo. We can make the point that the disappearence of ashi-barai, which caused many falls made the practice of kendo safer and more accessible.

*

With the return of kendo, the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei ; successor of the Butokukai was established. Kendo was reinstated in mostly the pre-war style. The shinai were size 39 rather than the wartime size 36 shinai, without matches against multiple opponents and matches against other weapons (isshu-jiai) being uncommon.

The philosophy of Kendo was still to be determined. The idea of military training was discarded ; as the trauma of the Second World War made such a conception innaceptable in the now strong anti-militaristic Japanese society.

However, there was still a debate as to whether kendo should be conceived as a competitive sport like shinai kyogi, or as a budo that teaches swordsmanship for self-betterment as in pre-war kendo.

The answer was officially given in 1975. Ogawa Chutaro (9th dan hanshi – 1901-1992) was tasked by the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei to establish “The Concept of Kendo”.

Kendo is a way to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana.

Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei

To further understand the meaning of the Concept of Kendo, I suggest examining the words of its author.

There are still people who claim that the shinai is only a bamboo stick, and they, therefore, see nothing wrong on considering Kendo on a solely ludic level. If you consider the shinai that way, the shinai will only be a stick, and it will suffice to say that Kendo is a sport.

However, if you consider the shinai as a nihonto (japanese sword), Kendo becomes a question of life and taking life. Its aim will be to enlighten the questions of life and death. That attitude is the basis of life, and is useful even when we do not carry swords.

Ogawa Chutaro – kendo 9th dan hanshi

Indeed, the same approach as that of pre-war kendo prevailed. Kendo was neither to be an instrument for militarism, nor a competitive sport. As such it is very clear that swordsmanship is a fundamental part of kendo. It is the method through which kendo allows us to improve ourselves.

Kendo was to be an art that values peace, courtesy and spiritual improvement above all else.

Epilogue:

By saying “kendo is kenjutsu“, I wish to explain kendo is rooted in koryu kenjutsu (Jikishinkage Ryu, Ono Ha and Hokushin Itto Ryu, among others) ; and is just standardized kenjutsu, renamed in 1926 to kendo.

As for those who argue that pre-war kendo and post-war kendo are completely different, I would advise for them to watch pre-war kendo as to temper their opinion.


殺人剣 活人剣

Those characters are “Setsu nin to” and “Katsu jin ken” ; the sword that kills, and the sword that brings life. They are concepts that played a fundamental role during the entire history of kendo.

Kenjutsu existed as an art for killing in the Muromachi period (12th to 15th Century). From the 15th century until the 1930s, it became increasingly about self-improvement and the seeking of perfection through the art of the sword ; and was renamed to kendo in 1926.

In the 1940s kendo was instrumentalized by the ministry of education, and returned to the sword that brings death as in the ancient days. Thankfully, after the war kendo returned to the pre-war conception of swordsmanship as a means of self-betterment.

*

This era belongs to the sword that brings life. The contemporary philosophy of kendo focuses on that as one can see through the Purpose of Kendo, as explained by the Japanese Kendo Federation.

The purpose of practicing kendo is:
To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for improvement in the art of kendo,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honour,
To associate with others with sincerity,
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.
This will make one be able:
To love his/her country and society,
To contribute to the development of culture,
And to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples.

Japanese Kendo Federation

Within kendo, swordsmanship is the method through which the practitionner cultivates his heart and spirit.

Nonetheless, if we forget that the heart of Kendo is Kenjutsu, that the shinai is a sword, and its techniques were initially created for killing, then Kendo loses its spiritual depth. Forgetting swordsmanship, one cannot understand the deepest teachings of Kendo.

Within Kendo there is something to be sought of much greater value, something of profound spiritual significance. But to learn of this significance one cannot bypass the original function of Kendo as Bujutsu i.e. “to destroy the enemy and protect oneself”. It is only through a deadly earnest razor edged course of Kendo training that one can truly experience the lofty way towards spiritual understanding.

To class Kendo as merely another form of physical exercise is to view it as another form of sport and to that I think is to miss the mark completely.

Noma Hisashi (1910-1939) – kendo 7th dan kyoshi

However, if you consider the shinai as a nihonto (japanese sword), Kendo becomes a question of life and taking life. Its aim will be to enlighten the questions of life and death. That attitude is the basis of life, and is useful even when we do not carry swords.

Ogawa Chutaro – kendo 9th dan hanshi

I would like to thank George McCall (https://kenshi247.net/) for his excellent constructive criticism. Please note that it doesn’t mean this article is representative of his views.

8 thoughts on “Is Kendo Swordsmanship ?

  1. I might comment that Nakayama Hakudo Sensei, although had achieved the title of Hanshi in three different Arts (a remarkable deed!), hasn’t be promoted to 10th Dan.
    Despite that historical inaccuracy, the text is very pertinent and good!
    Regards!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great text! I totally agree with the statements. In Brazil we have a serious problem with obscure entities with financial goals that pervert the meaning of terms Kenjutsu and Kendo for money!

    I have always argued that both terms represent the same idea, the same concept! Such entities teach merely flourishes and falsehoods – can an instructor possess menkyo kaiden in 12 different koryu? Since they can not teach “Kendo” for legal reasons, they claim alleged contacts in Japan and discovered a “product” that Brazilians did not know: “kenjutsu”! This is very sad.

    They just do not mention what you wrote with property: both are essentially the same. When I think about pre-meiji sword schools, I always say “koryu kendo”. There is no DO without JUTSU, and there is no Jutsu without Do.

    For this reason, 11 years ago I created the blog Espírito Marcial (Martial Spirit), due to lack of information about the Japanese sword arts in Portuguese, with the purpose of clarifying people about these issues. I would like to say that I will recommend your blog to Brazilian readers due the quality content! Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always found the rivalry found between koryu and kendo practitionners outside of Japan a bit odd; especially since no such rivalry exists in Japan and koryu practitionners often also do Kendo there.

      And, after all, the transition between Kenjutsu and Kendo was a very slow, and organic one. There is no hard wall that truly separates them. I really enjoyed reading Kendo Tokuhon’s first chapter about that subject.

      It is sad to hear about the state of Kendo and Kenjutsu in Brazil. I hope that it will improve in the future.
      Thank you for your kind words, I wish I understood portuguese to visit your blog !

      All the best,
      E. Nalbant

      Liked by 1 person

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