Kenjutsu

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Kenjutsu (???), meaning “the art of the sword” [1]:172 , is a term for classical Japanese sword arts (or koryu), 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). [2] Historically schools incorporated sparring under a variety of conditions, from using solid wooden bokuto to use of bamboo sword (shinai) and armour (bogu). [1]:XII, XIII In modern times sparring in Japanese swordsmanship is more strongly associated with Kendo.

It is thought likely that the first iron swords were manufactured in Japan in the fourth century, based on technology imported from China via Korea. [3]:1 While swords clearly was an important cultural and religious role in ancient Japan, [3]:5, 14 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. [3]:15 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.[1]:XII

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

During the Edo period schools proliferated to number more than five hundred[1]:XIII , 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 (bokuto), or live blades. [1]:XIII

Beginning in 1868 the Meiji Restoration lead to 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. [1]:XIII, XIV This decline continued for approximately twenty years, until rising national confidence lead 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 [4]:11 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 [4]:11,12 , 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. [4]:11,14 This point could be regarded as the end of the development of kenjutsu and the birth of kendo.

Kenjutsu should not be confused with iaido or iaijutsu. Iaido 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, koryu focus on shifting smoothly in the pace of execution within the iaijutsu kata with little focus is 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 Yagyu Shinkage-ryu are relatively thin and without a handguard in order to match the school’s characteristic approach to combat. Alternatively, Kashima Shin-ryu 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-ryu’s distinct principles of combat.