Kenjutsu is the historical conglomerate of Japanese sword arts, sometimes referred to as JSA. The way most popular fiction tells it, a seasoned master of the Japanese sword can not only perform nigh-impossible feats but 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, sadly, their 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. 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: The quintessential Japanese BFS, with blades reaching 4 to 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.
- Nagamaki: A relatively uncommonly seen evolution of the Ōdachi, with the grip making up about half of the overall length for better control and leverage. Think of it as a hybrid between a sword and a Naginata.
- Katana: The weapon most associated with the samurai and Japanese sword arts. 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. It is similar to the Chinese Guan Dao and has been in use since the 12th century or earlier. Originally very popular with samurai men in the 12th-14th centuries (especially in the Gempei war of 1180-1185), the naginata slowly came to be considered the weapon of a samurai woman, and was often presented as part of her dowry. A few arts have curricula devoted to fighting with it (naginatajutsu).
- Yari: Spear. Usually about 6-8 feet long, though there are some shorter variants. There are also longer variants, including 15-20 foot long pikes used in the 16th century. It is mostly used for thrusting, but the user can also cut with the edge or strike with the shaft. In addition to the simple straight bladed spear head, there are many variations with blades or other protrusions on the sides of the spear head. Using the spear is called sōjutsu.
- Bō: Simple Staff. Commonly about six feet long. Some schools also teach use of the jō, which is about 4 feet long.
- Bokken: Trope Maker for Wooden Katanas Are Even Better. See that page for details.
- Iaitō: This is a cheaper mock-up of a katana, blunt-edged and 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 the risk of harming themselves or dulling the edge of a real sword.
- Shinai: Mock sword made from four strips of flexible bamboo around a hollow core, used in kendo to facilitate contact practice. Some kenjutsu schools also use shinai, although of a notably different structure from 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 wooden practice weapons 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. Holding the sword with both hands was the common practice; 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/buttcap 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 one teaching about footwork that all the various ryu have in common is 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, and Person or Being, as the sword stems from the user much like the soul of the samurai. 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, and Heaven as the sword stands valorously high. 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 and frankness. 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, and Yin as the sword held above casts a shadow. 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 due to its latency, and Yang as it is if the user is like a source of light. 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. While ostensibly an awkward stance, it can actually perform various attacks rather smoothly.
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 fluidly 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 does. Secondary to that is to ruin the opponent's technique, and then attack. 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.