is the historical conglomerate of Japanese sword arts, sometimes referred to as JSA. The way most fictional media tells it, a skilled student of the Japanese sword
can achieve insane levels of skill and do things that outright defy physics and logic,
sometimes even bordering on Supernatural Martial Arts
. Like all types of propaganda, the anecdotes about users of the katana have some basis in fact, with the amount of truth varying from source to source. Kenjutsu schools often have a well-preserved lineage, unlike, unfortunately, its European counterparts
. Because of this, we know a lot more about how the samurai used their weaponry in battle than we do about how knights and men-at-arms of Europe used theirs, despite the misconceptions surrounding Japanese weaponry and the growing body of knowledge of European swordplay.
If one were to compare schools of Japanese fencing to schools of European fencing, one would find many similarities, but also significant differences. Due to the consistent nature of katanas, the design change in which is near negligible compared to alterations in European swords, the Japanese schools differentiate from one-another on much more subtle basis. Where a European school might differ from another on basic technical grounds, a Japanese school is more likely to define its differences in terms of how to achieve an end result (e.g. an attack to the head) rather than what this end result is. This is not to say that the European arts lack subtlety, but the context of Japanese sword arts demanded a higher emphasis on matters that some would consider quite minor, such as "one school lets the sword tip fall back as they arm, its sibling school does not."
The word "kenjutsu" can either refer to Japanese sword arts as a whole, or to the subset of teachings that focus on action occurring after the two combatants have already drawn their swords. Another branch of Japanese sword arts is iaijutsu
, which is about techniques that start before one has noticed a threat. Generally, the techniques taught in iaijutsu have the same general structure: Make a quick attack as you draw the sword, grip it with both hands and deliver the finishing blow, wipe or shake off the blood, return the sword to the scabbard, all the while maintaining awareness towards possible new threats.
A subset of iaijutsu is battojutsu
, which, depending on definition, is similar to iaijutsu but focuses on multiple cuts after the draw and includes test cutting practice as part of its curriculum.
Kenjutsu was developed, on the whole, entirely within Japan during the periods of isolation. This is why it sometimes appears, to students of European swordplay, to be an example of Crippling Overspecialization
. The katana and similar swords were, after all, designed and made to fight against one another.
Japanese swordplay uses the following weapons:
- Nōdachi/Ōdachi: A blade resembling a katana but longer, with blades reaching 4–5 feet in length. They fell out of favor after 1615 due to being impractical for use in confined indoors combat and the Shogunate prohibiting the use of swords above a set length.
- Katana: The sword that most people immediately think of. It was three feet or so long, with approximately a quarter of that as the hilt.
- Wakizashi: The shorter companion sword to the katana, usually about two feet long. Used in two-sword forms or in some single forms. It was considered the "indoor" sword; samurai didn't use the katana indoors, because of low ceilings, etiquette and the like.
- Naginata: Blade on a Stick. This was the Japanese anti-cavalry weapon developed after the first Mongol invasion in 1274. The naginata is traditionally considered to be the weapon of a samurai woman, and often presented as part of her dowry; however, this is a more recent view than people usually think. A few arts have curricula devoted to fighting with it.
- Yari: Spear. Usually about six feet long or so, used for thrusting and cutting similar to a Chinese spear.
- Bo: Simple Staff. Commonly about six feet long.
- Bokken: Trope Maker for Wooden Katanas Are Even Better. See that page for details.
- Iaito: This is a cheaper mock-up of a katana, with a dulled edge, made (usually) of an aluminium-zinc alloy or stainless steel. It's used by beginning students of iaijutsu who have "outgrown" the use of a bokken. It allows a beginner to practice without worrying if they'll harm their sword or themselves somehow.
- Shinai: Mock sword made from four strips of flexible bamboo around a hollow core, used in Kendo to facilitate contact practice. Some traditional ryu also use shinai, although of a notably different structure than the ones used for Kendo.
The first thing that a would-be initiate notices when observing a practice for the first time is the amount of ritual involved: bowing to the kamizanote
, to the sword, to training partners, when crossing swords etc. This is a holdover from when the arts were widely practiced by samurai; Japanese culture places extreme emphasis on etiquette. More pragmatically, etiquette involving the sword is there for safety purposes; someone drawing a sword in iai practice without observing standard protocol could be mistaken as intent on attacking someone. Here are a few common points, by no means a complete list:
- Metal swords are always sheathed when not in use, and are not used without at least a hint of a pre-practice ritual.
- The blade and/or the handle are oriented towards specific directions when placing the sword on the floor (e.g. for toreinote ) or giving it to someone else. Exact details vary.
- Swords other than one's own are never handled without permission. If this becomes necessary, the sword is treated with utmost care and respect; samurai believed that their swords represented their souls and deserved complete respect. The lethality of the blade might have had something to do with it, too.
- The blade of a sword is never touched with one's fingers, with the rare example of a half-swording technique. Not only is this considered disrespectful, the oils from the human skin can corrode the blade.
- Swords are always stepped around, not over.
- Even practice weapons such as the bokken or shinai are treated as though they have a live edge.
Uniformly, the usual clothing for a kenjutsu practice has been a gi
(large jacket) and hakama
(wide pleated pants), the common everyday clothes of feudal Japan. Colours did vary across schools and between seasons; generally, the hakama
is black or dark grey, whereas the gi
is navy blue or black. Higher-level practitioners may be permitted to wear a white hakama
How the Katana Cuts
Despite its curved, single-edge construction, the katana was not limited to slicing; its structure made it possible to withstand chopping movements as well. For that reason, the most efficient way to cut would be to blend the two motions, so that the arc of the sword-tip is wider than the arc of the hands; like this, the sword would enter a target obliquely, then come out straight perpendicular to its own trajectory. Of course, since katana were scarcely heavier than 1kg, relying on the sword's weight was not sufficient to cut that way; the practitioner had to utilise his entire body (left hand giving as much or more power than the right, proper footwork, torso linear and angular momentum) to cut with power and precision. It was overwhelmingly common to hold the sword with both hands; however, a handful of schools also taught techniques with a sword in each hand (one katana, one wakizashi), or (even rarer) a katana in one hand and its sheath in the other.
Like many feudal societies, the Japanese believed that left-handedness was a sign of evil or deception; therefore, sword techniques were taught exclusively as right-handed. This is reflected in the grip; the katana is usually gripped both-handed, with the left hand near the pommel and the right near the hand-guard. This holds true whether the sword is placed by the right side of the body or the left.
Usually, the pinky and ring fingers hold the handle the strongest, and the index and thumb only barely touch it.
As with any type of swordsmanship, movement is vital in kenjutsu. Rather than passively defending against an attack, it's preferable to avoid it or use a counter-attack to nullify it; both of these require a good knowledge of footwork. The most common foot positioning in kenjutsu is called sankakudai,
or "great triangle" in reference to the leg position. The lead foot (in most cases the right) points directly forward. The trailing foot is angled anywhere from 30 to 45 degrees outward. Different ryu will vary on the width and length of this stance; a few (mainly the more modern ones) prefer to keep the feet parallel.
Different schools taught different types of footwork. There's a wide gamut of walking methods taught: Some ryu walk ordinarily, others use the heels to support all of the weight, others don't even let them touch the ground. As time went on, the steps taken were refined, to the point that modern kendo teaches several different types of steps that one can take, depending on direction and foot order. Generally, the only teaching relative to footwork that the various ryu have in common, is that they all teach that the sword and body should move in unison.
Also known as kamae
, stances in kenjutsu are guard postures used for different situations. Depending on ryu, the stances taught vary; however, five basic kamae are used across virtually all of them, sometimes with different names and/or specific details.
- Chudan: Centre stance, philosophically associated with the element of Water due to its adaptiveness. The sword is pointing towards the opponent, at the height of his sternum or throat or eyes, depending on school. The pommel is usually one or two fists away from the user's body, though of course this varies with the school and, indeed, the individual. Perfect for thrusting, this stance also allows for cutting movements if the user can safely arm. A close analogue in German longsword would be pflug.
- Jodan: High stance, philosophically associated with the element of Fire due to its aggressiveness. The sword is held above the head, ready to strike down in a powerful vertical or diagonal cut. Most basic cuts can be executed instantly from here, without the need to arm the sword first. Jodan is usually taken with the left foot forward (left-jodan), to allow the torso's rotation (as the right foot is brought forward) to add to the sword's speed.
- Gedan: Low stance, philosophically associated with the element of Earth due to its immovability. Here, the sword is pointed down at the enemy's knee. It's meant to be defensive and/or lure the opponent in for an attack, analogous to alber in German tradition. From gedan, one can thrust at the lower body or bring the sword up in a rising cut to counter against the enemy's attack.
- Hasso: A side stance, philosophically associated with the element of Wood due to its uprightness. Superficially similar to left-jodan, hasso places the left foot forward, with the hand-guard held beside the face. Hasso portrays a less aggressive intent than jodan. It was devised mainly for waiting to see what an opponent would do, or as a jodan-substitute when the one's helmet was too ornate to use jodan. The closest European analogue is Vom Tag.
- Waki: Rear stance, philosophically associated with the element of Metal, because the other elements called "not it" and metal wasn't there. The left foot is positioned forward, and the sword is brought to the back and points backwards. As it could hide the sword behind the user's body, it was commonly called the "hidden guard" in many ryu. This may also help to conceal the length of the sword or a broken blade to surprise the opponent. Ostensibly an awkward stance, can actually perform various attacks rather smoothly.
Apart from those, various iaijutsu
schools also devised new ways to sit. As there was an apparent need to be alert and ready to fight even when seated, many iaijutsu
schools created techniques for attacking from the regular seiza
position. Others, however, modified it to facilitate easier standing, and some even preferred to sit on one knee and one foot in order to be constantly on the ready.
Despite occasional modern skepticism towards its efficiency, the most common fundamental technique amongst schools was a cut to the head. Among other possible targets were the arms or neck or torso for cutting, or the throat and chest for thrusting. The actual techniques are, of course, limitless, but those are the ones found most commonly between schools.
Some schools taught techniques to avoid an attack, others taught techniques to flowingly move the enemy's sword off the centreline as part of one's regular attack. Generally, however, it was considered far more preferable to just attack before the enemy has a chance to react. Secondary to that is to ruin the opponent's technique and then attack, and tertiary is to let the opponent perform that technique and then make one's attack in response. This philosophy is very similar to the one found in German sword-fighting schools, and probably arose from similar combat experiences.
Also like German schools of swordsmanship, schools that date back to the time when armoured battlefield combat was more common used extremely close-quarters fighting techniques: grapples using the blade as leverage, low-line upward thrusts meant to pierce where an enemy's armor did not cover
, blows with the pommel aimed at the face, eyes, or throat if it was uncovered, cuts to the insides of the legs or other unprotected areas.
Most of the time, the techniques were taught through choreographed imitations of battle, called kata
. As the outcome was pre-determined, focus was on the execution: correct distance and footwork, good timing, powerful and precise strikes, visible alertness towards other possible threats, etc. Different schools placed different emphases on each of those.
Focused on Kenjutsu
Katori Shinto Ryu:
One of the oldest and most famous kenjutsu schools in Japan. Named after the shintoist Katori shrine, where it's practiced, this school was (and, to some extent, still is) very secretive. Prospective students used to need to swear a blood oath of secrecy before even stepping foot inside the dojo; this practice is still upheld in the Katori shrine, but many teachers in other places readily teach a sizeable part of the curriculum to curious students without requiring an oath. Some of the techniques are only taught to the most trusted students there are, and (of course) always require a blood oath.
Philosophy: "We're at war, be ready for everything."
Temperament: The swordsmanship practiced in KSR is quite physically demanding. It has a certain rhythm of attack, and does not generally wait until an opportunity has presented itself, rather aiming to create it by being proactive. Endurance and speed are both required to keep up with the pace.
Technical focus: Very diverse. The marginally most common technique is the "rolling strike", a strike to the head; but apart from that, students are taught a large variety of different techniques and even different weapons.
Context of application: Many different ones. With or without armour, in a duel or a battlefield, with a drawn or sheathed sword, with other weapons, the techniques practiced are very diverse. Even some wrestling techniques are taught, as well as a few other battlefield skills. Students are swiftly prepared to survive a prospective battle, and are even instructed to be cautious around one another.
Yagyu Shinkage Ryu:
One of the two schools (the other being Ono-ha Itto Ryu) to be given the distinction of being considered "official" by the shogunate, as well as the first to make use of shinai. This allowed practitioners to spar freely with one another, greatly improving the quality of teaching compared to solely kata-based instruction.
YSR teachings emphasise improvement of self above all. Many details of the body workings are prescribed, even down to the fingers and toes. This makes for a school that was renowned for its efficiency, without cultivating aggression in its practitioners.
Philosophy: "Strive to have the centre."
Temperament: Rather pacific. Emphasises self-improvement.
Technical focus: Ruining an opponent's attack with one's own. Typically, such a technique would first deflect an opponent's attack, and then continue on to the target.
Context of application: Unarmoured duels.
Niten Ichi Ryu:
A school that owes its fame to its founder: the most famous Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi
. Officially formulated during Musashi's later years, it mainly concerns itself with the sword (katana, wakizashi or simultaneous wielding of the two), with some bojutsu and wrestling techniques included.
Niten Ichi Ryu is most famous for its dual-sword curriculum, with a katana in one hand and a wakizashi in the other. However, it's worth noting that it's neither the only nor the first school to teach dual-sword techniques. Also, the main purpose of dual-wielding practice was to make the katana easier to wield one-handed.
Temperament: Calm and composed, influenced by Musashi's Buddhist practice.
Technical focus: Curiously, although Musashi considered chudan to be the most important stance to study, most-if-not-all of the techniques he taught are against an opponent that has assumed hasso. Many techniques are about avoiding to the side, or deflecting, or parrying, and the most usual targets are soft tissues such as the neck or wrists.
Context of application: Unarmoured duels.
A greatly feared school that had many victories. Characteristic for its "dragonfly" stance, essentially a modified version of hasso (see above) with the hands a couple decimetres higher.
Philosophy: "One strike is all you need. Don't even consider a second one."
Temperament: Highly aggressive. In rumour, students of this style required a paper cord to keep themselves from drawing their swords (and killing) more frequently than they had to.
Technical focus: Downward strike. That, combined with very loud and continuous yelling. Seriously, there was nothing else; just was one technique, practiced for over four million times yearly. It was so quick as to make evasion extremely difficult, and so powerful as to kill people by clanging their own sword against their skull.
Context of application: Practically, any battle wherein one is armed with a sword.
The afore-mentioned schools, like most old Japanese sword arts, were mainly focused on sword vs sword exercises. There were, however, a few famous schools with different areas of expertise, such as those outlined below.
A branch of an earlier kenjutsu school, Tendo Ryu ended up specialising in naginata vs sword techniques, taking advantage of the naginata's much longer reach and ease of cutting. A very popular martial art amongst the women of ~1900 (despite being founded by men), it also includes some techniques with swords, or with the broken shaft of a naginata. Well-suited to the woman intent on protecting her house-hold with the by-then-traditionally ladies' weapon.
Shinto Muso Ryu:
An art descendant of various older bojutsu teachings, it opted to shorten the bo by 30% to create a new, shorter staff called a jo. Mainly consisting of jo vs sword exercises, it uses the staff's longer reach to swipe the sword to the sides, attack the hands or head, trap the weapon and thrust to vulnerable points of the body. A few other weapons are also taught auxiliarly.
One of the earliest schools to solely focus on iaijutsu techniques. Eishin-ryu has techniques performed from seiza
and from standing position. One notable aspect of Eishin-ryu when compared to other arts is its focus on environmental considerations, such as attacking from beneath an overhanging ledge or when passing under a gate. The majority of Eishin-ryu waza
are intended for eliminating a single opponent, but there are techniques for dealing with multiple opponents.