Tabaruzaka, The battle that saved Kendo

This story begins during the Bakumatsu era. It is an era, which saw many conflicts involving modern firearms as well as more traditional weapons that culminated in the Boshin war.

The Shogun had been forced through gunboat diplomacy to start trading with western powers, but such trade meant unequal and humiliating treaties for Japan. As such, many Samurai rebelled against the Shogun, believing the Emperor would expel the foreign powers and maintain the status quo.

尊皇攘夷 – Revere the Emperor, Expell the Barbarians

Sonnō jōi (Slogan of the pro-emperor faction)

Samurai from Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Saga led by pro-imperial commanders including the notable Takamori Saigo defeated the pro-shogun forces and returned power to the Imperial Court.

This signed the end of the bakufu (shogunate). It was the first time the Emperor of Japan was effectively in power since the 12th Century.

Samurai from Choshu during the Boshin War

Ironically, following the victory of the Emperor, the Empire of Japan enacted policies to rapidly modernize the country. Which included changes to culture, and loss of privileges for the samurai that undermined their financial position.

Meanwhile, Kenjutsu as a whole was in fast decline as the sword appeared to be eclipsed when facing firearms in conflict. Samurai were by law forbidden to bear swords. Sword-hunts took place, and many dojo struggled financially.

Swordsmen such as the famous Sakakibara Kenkichi had to put on public demonstrations of Kenjutsu called Gekiken Kogyo to earn money.

Many samurai felt betrayed by the Emperor’s new policies and rebelled. The most famous of these rebellions was the Satsuma Rebellion, led by Takamori Saigo, the very same samurai who had rebelled in support of the Emperor and against the Shogun a few years prior.

During the Satsuma rebellion (1877), a battle took place that arguably saved Kendo. That battle was the Battle of Tabaruzaka.

Takamori Saigo, the samurai who inspired Katsumoto in “The last samurai”

Though the forces of the Satsuma rebels were limited and severely outnumbered by the Imperial Army, they still managed to cause significant casualties to the Imperial Army during the siege of Kumamoto Castle before being ultimately forced to retreat.

The retreating rebels, and the pursuing army of Imperial Japan clashed again in the battle of Tabaruzaka in 1877.

The Imperial Japanese army had a rather peculiar unit in its midst, an unit called the Battotai.

Kawaji Toshiyoshi

It was created to the suggestion of Kawaji Toshiyoshi, a former samurai who rose to become the Chief of Police of Imperial Japan.

He was known for having a deep respect for Kenjutsu, trying to revitalize and stardardize it, campaigning for its teaching to the Keishicho (Tokyo Metropolitan Police).

He was succesful in creating the Battotai and is one of the main contributors to the development of Kendo, writing a book called “Kendo Saikō-ron” – Revitalizing Kendo.

The Battotai was made up of men, many of whom who were former samurai selected from the Keishicho. As Kawaji had recommended, they were only armed with swords.

In the midst of the battle, as both sides were exchanging volleys of gunfire to no avail. Eventually, the Battotai were given an order to assault the positions of the rebels who were using muskets.

They charged into the rebels, and exchanges of gunfire turned into sword-fights. Soon after, the opposing rebels were running.

Surprisingly, their assault was a success.

In reality, there are various reasons as to the success of their charge ; the days before the battle were marked by heavy rain which dampened gunpowder, therefore caused misfires. It is also easy to understand how in close quarters a swordsman can prevail against a rifleman who is reloading or out of ammunition.

Nonetheless, the fact that an unit, charging with swords into hails of musket-fire managed to win became a major media sensation in Japan.

Simultaneously, the Gekiken kogyo of Sakakibara Kenichi also popularized Kenjutsu.

Those events changed the way Kenjutsu was perceived by the public, from an art of the past that one still worthy of respect.

We cannot deny the contribution of great figures such as Kawaji Toshiyoshi, Sakakibara Kenkichi, as well as others I didn’t quote such as Takano Sasaburo, Jigoro Kano.

But the battle of Tabaruzaka which only a handful know of today also played an important role into shifting public consciousness. It was, to many, the proof of the usefulness of Kenjutsu in police training.

As such, following that battle, Kenjutsu started being taught to the Keishicho with special kata being created for them. Those kata are the very first kata of Kendo, still practiced by the Kendo dojo of the Keishicho today.

Then, in 1911, the practice started being taught in Japanese schools with a different set of kata made for the students, the present day Kendo Kata.

And finally, in 1926, the name of Kenjutsu was officially changed to Kendo and started being more practiced than ever before.


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