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, meaning "the art of the sword"

, is a term for classical Japanese sword arts (or koryū), in particular those which predate the Meiji Restoration. It is sometimes used more generally to describe any martial art which makes use of the Japanese sword.

The exact activities undertaken when practising kenjutsu vary with school, but commonly include practice of basic techniques (kihon) without opponent and techniques where two persons paired kata (featuring full contact strikes in some styles).

Historically schools incorporated sparring under a variety of conditions, from using solid wooden bokutō to use of bamboo sword (shinai) and armor (bogu).

In modern times sparring in Japanese swordsmanship is more strongly associated with Kendo.


Early Development

It is thought likely that the first iron swords were manufactured in Japan in the fourth century, based on technology imported from Chinamarker via Korean peninsula.

While swords clearly played an important cultural and religious role in ancient Japan,

it is in the Heian period when the globally recognised curved Japanese sword was developed, and when swords became an important weapon, as well as a symbolic item.

No known Kenjutsu lineage survives from this period, the oldest schools still in existence today arose in the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573), known for long periods of inter-state warfare. Three major schools emerged during this period.

These schools form the ancestors for many descendent styles, for example from Ittō ryū has branched Ono-ha Ittō ryū and Mizoguchi-ha Ittō-ryū (among many others).

The Edo Period

During the Edo period schools proliferated to number more than five hundred , and training techniques & equipment advanced, giving rise to the development of the bamboo practice sword, the shinai, and protective armour, bogu. This allowed practice of full speed techniques in sparring, while reducing risk of serious harm to the practitioner. Prior to this, training in Kenjutsu had consisted mainly of basic technique practice and paired kata, using solid wooden practice swords (bokutō), or live blades.


Beginning in 1868, the Meiji Restoration led to the break up of the military class and the modernisation of Japan along the lines of western industrial nations. As the samurai class was officially dissolved at this time, kenjutsu fell into decline, an unpopular reminder of the past.

This decline continued for approximately twenty years, until rising national confidence led to an increase of the uptake of traditional sword arts again, particularly in the military and the police.

In 1886 the Japanese Police gathered together kata from a variety of kenjutsu schools into a standardised set for training purposes

This process of standardisation of martial training continued when, in 1895, a controlling body for all martial arts in Japan, the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, was established. Work on standardising kenjutsu kata continued for years, with several groups involved

, until in 1912 an official edict was released by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. This edict highlighted a lack of unity in teaching, and introduced a standard core teaching curriculum to which the individual kenjutsu schools would add their distinctive techniques. This core curriculum, and its ten kata evolved into the modern martial art of kendo.

This point could be regarded as the end of the development of kenjutsu and the kenjutsu was transmitted to the modern kendo.

Confusion with other practices

Kenjutsu should not be confused with iaidō or iaijutsu. Iaidō is a modern development with 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 given to the speed of draw. This in contrast with kenjutsu, where the sword begins unsheathed in general , and the emphasis is on both attack and defense. This distinction is not without exception, however, as some kenjutsu kata start with the sword sheathed.


One of the more common training weapon is the wooden sword (bokuto or bokken). For various reasons, many schools make use of very specifically designed bokuto, altering its shape, weight and length according to the style's specifications. For example, bokuto used within Yagyū Shinkage-ryū are relatively thin and without a handguard in order to match the school's characteristic approach to combat. Alternatively, Kashima Shin-ryū practitioners utilize a thicker than average bokuto with no curvature and with a rather large handguard. This of course lends itself well to Kashima Shin-ryū's distinct principles of combat.

Some schools practice with fukuro shinai (a bamboo sword covered with leather or cloth) under circumstances where the student lacks the ability to safely control a bokuto at full speed or as a general safety precaution. In fact, the fukuro shinai dates as far back as the 15th century.


An example of modern nitōjutsu practice.
distinguishing feature of many kenjutsu syllabi is the use of a paired katana or daitō and wakizashi or shōtō commonly referred to as . Styles that teach it are called ; contrast . The most famous exponent of nitōjutsu was Miyamoto Musashi (1584 – 1645), the founder of Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū, who advocates it in The Book of Five Rings. Nitōjutsu is not however unique to Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryū, nor was nitōjutsu the creation of Musashi. Both Tenshin Shōden Katori Shinto-ryū were founded in the early Muromachi period (ca. 1447), and Tatsumi-ryu founded Eishō period (1504-1521), contain extensive nitōjutsu curricula while also preceding the establishment of Musashi’s Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryū.


Notable Kenjutsuka


  • Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan - 3-volume set by Diane Skoss (Koryu Books):
    • Koryu Bujutsu: Classical Warrior Traditions Of Japan ISBN 1-890536-04-0
    • Sword & Spirit: Classical Warrior Traditions Of Japan, Volume 2 ISBN 1-890536-05-9
    • Keiko Shokon: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan, Volume 3 ISBN 1-890536-06-7

See also


  1. Full contact striking during kata is used in Ono Ha Ittō-ryū

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