Embarking on a journey that transcends time, Kenjutsu emerges as a cherished art form that embodies the essence of the samurai spirit. Rooted in ancient Japan, this martial discipline encompasses not just the physical prowess of swordplay, but also the cultivation of character, mindfulness, and respect.
As we delve into the intricate world of Kenjutsu, we unveil the profound significance it holds in the tapestry of Japanese history and culture, and how its teachings continue to inspire individuals to master the way of the sword.
What is Kenjutsu?
Kenjutsu, a term encompassing the ancestral schools of Japanese swordsmanship, illustrates the legacy of the samurai class that once thrived in feudal Japan.
Rooted in tradition and steeped in profound philosophy, Kenjutsu signifies more than just the mastery of sword techniques; it signifies a journey that intertwines the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of the practitioner.
Rekindling Tradition in the 20th and 21st Centuries
As the 20th century dawned, Kenjutsu expanded its influence beyond Japan’s shores, captivating enthusiasts worldwide. As global interest grew, practitioners across continents delved into the teachings of this venerable art, seeking to absorb its teachings and connect with its timeless wisdom.
The allure of Kenjutsu lies not only in its practical techniques but also in the rich philosophy that accompanies every strike, embodying honor, discipline, and respect.
Swords, Schools, and Evolution
Kenjutsu’s history, stretching back centuries, reveals a tapestry woven with countless schools and techniques. The art’s early development saw the emergence of major schools during the Muromachi period, a time defined by extended periods of warfare.
These schools, including Kage-ryū (Aizu), Chūjō-ryū, and Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū, laid the foundation for a myriad of descendant styles, each perpetuating the legacy in their own distinctive ways.
The Ebb and Flow of Tradition
The Edo period marked a zenith for Kenjutsu, as schools multiplied and training techniques advanced. Innovations such as the shinai, a bamboo practice sword, and protective armor, revolutionized the art, enabling practitioners to spar at full speed without grave risk.
However, the Meiji Restoration brought about profound societal changes, and the decline of the samurai class cast a shadow over Kenjutsu. Yet, this decline was transient, as the art resurged in the late 19th century, particularly within the military and police, rekindling its importance as a conduit for discipline and heritage.
Culmination and Continuation
The 20th and 21st centuries witnessed Kenjutsu’s global expansion, reflecting the enduring fascination with Japanese martial traditions. In this era, diverse practitioners took up wooden swords like bokuto or specialized fukuro shinai, each reflecting a school’s unique approach and principles.
Kenjutsu, with its intricate techniques and profound philosophy, continues to inspire practitioners to not just master the way of the sword but to also cultivate virtues that extend far beyond the dojo.
Notable Kenjutsu Schools
Niten Ichi-ryū, an ancient school of Japanese swordsmanship founded by the legendary warrior Miyamoto Musashi, blends katana and wakizashi techniques, embodying the unity of “two heavens as one.” Emerging from Musashi’s mastery of Enmei Ryū and Tōri Ryū, the school symbolizes the fusion of dual swords into a single force.
Musashi’s chosen successors, including Terao Magonojo and Furuhashi Sozaemon, received unique versions of his teachings, reflecting their strengths. Kyumanosuke, Musashi’s brother, eventually succeeded him and passed on his knowledge along with additional instructions.
Niten Ichi-ryū’s succession diverged from hereditary patterns, emphasizing two artifacts—an instructive scroll and a wooden sword—representing Musashi’s legacy and the discipline’s enduring reverence for tradition.
Ittō-ryū, translating to the “one-sword school,” holds a significant place in the lineage of various Japanese Koryū kenjutsu styles, encompassing Ono-ha, Mizoguchi-ha, Nakanishi-ha, Kogen, Hokushin, Itto Shoden, and Mugai Ryu. This legacy traces back to its founder, Itō Ittōsai Kagehisa, whose innovative vision gave birth to a diverse range of sword arts.
Notably, Ono-ha Ittō-ryū, the oldest branch, exerts a profound influence on modern kendo’s tactics, kata, and aesthetic. Led by Mikogami Tenzen, this style’s founding successor, Ono-ha Ittō-ryū emphasizes refined swordplay and cultivated character, carving a remarkable path that continues to inspire respect and admiration for the art of the sword.
Jigen-ryū, a traditional Japanese martial arts school founded by Tōgō Chūi in the late 16th century, hails from Satsuma Province, Kyushu. This school’s focal point is the art of swordsmanship, distinguishing itself for its resolute emphasis on the first strike, disregarding the second. Central to its techniques is the distinctive tonbo-no-kamae stance, where the sword is poised vertically above the right shoulder.
Its core attack involves a swift forward dash, executing a diagonal cut on the opponent’s neck, accompanied by a forceful “Ei!” kiai. Jigen-ryū’s rigorous training encompasses wooden stick practice against poles or trees, and it has a reputation for its resounding Enkyō kiai. Even today, this martial art is perpetuated at the Jigen-ryū practice hall in Kagoshima.
Kage-ryū is a historical martial art system that specializes in battojutsu, employing uniquely long swords called choken. The name “Kageryū” translates to “keshiki,” meaning “scene,” capturing the essence of a ryū originating from Kyushu’s Yanagawa fief in the 16th century.
Founded by Yamamoto Hisaya Masakatsu of the Akizuki domain, this school’s inspiration reportedly came from observing a monkey’s reach for fruit with a stick, sparking the concept of utilizing extended weaponry. With a blend of written scrolls, manuscripts, and oral teachings (kuden), Kage-ryū’s teachings have been preserved over generations.
Notably, the art adapted to the standardized sword length set by the Tokugawa shogunate. Presently, a dedicated shihan continues to uphold the living tradition, fostering connections across Canada, Japan, and the U.S.A. Alongside this, the Yanagawa Fief also practices Oishi Shinkage-ryū Kenjutsu, an art led by Oishi Susumu, reflecting the rich martial heritage of the region.
Through dedication, discipline, and unwavering respect for tradition, practitioners of Kenjutsu find themselves drawn into a sacred lineage that echoes with the footsteps of countless samurai before them. The mastery of this ancient art requires not only the honing of physical technique but also the nurturing of virtues that elevate the human spirit.
As we conclude our exploration into the world of Kenjutsu, we’re reminded that its teachings go beyond the physical realm, fostering a deep connection to the past and guiding individuals toward a path of self-improvement, harmony, and reverence for the profound wisdom of the sword.