JAPANESE SWORDSMANSHIP: What’s the point?


Kendo and Iaido should never be confused with Kenjutsu or Iaijutsu. They are entirely separate arts, even though there may seem to be similarities, especially with regards to Iaido and Iaijutsu. It is possible to study these latter two separate arts by learning the same kata. In order to determine the difference, it is important to be clear about intent. One must pose the question, “What is it that I wish to learn?” Examining the brief descriptions above should give some basic directions in answering this question. Generally speaking, Kenjutsu and Iaijutsu are fighting arts, developing the skill in the use of the weapons as if they were to be used as lethal weapons. Kendo and Iaido are more modern activities with either sport or esoteric principles as their guiding light. – Having sketched the basic activities, we might now have some idea of what to look for should we be contemplating learning Japanese sword arts. When looking for a school in which to learn, it would be really great if it was as simple as looking for one such as “Kenjutsu school of….” Or “Iaido school of….”. But the Japanese have had almost a thousand years to come up with a great array of names (in Japanese of course) to confuse us.

Over the many centuries, many schools of Japanese swordsmanship have come and gone. At its height, there were more than 700 schools in Japan alone. There are very much fewer today thankfully. This makes the task of finding a school much easier in one sense, and harder in another. Because of the classical (“koryu” in Japanese) nature of these arts, they tend not to travel very well to other countries. Most scholars agree that trying to learn true koryu Japanese arts outside of Japan is incredibly difficult, as the Japanese culture is suffused with and integral to each of those arts. It is said that to learn a koryu Japanese art, one must learn the culture first. This fact alone limits the availability of true classical Japanese swordsmanship outside of Japan.

At an estimate, there are probably less than 1500 people in the UK who are actively engaged in learning traditional Japanese martial art (Aikido practitioners are excluded from this figure). So the choices are limited.

Here are some styles which can be found in the UK:

  • Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu
  • Muso Shinden Ryu
  • Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu
  • Araki Ryu
  • Daito Ryu

In looking at the above list (which is not exhaustive) don’t be fooled into thinking that they are all “Schools of Swordsmanship” because they are not. If only it were that simple. In order to give a full explanation, we would need to begin a long discourse on the development of samurai fighting methods through the ages. Suffice it to say that each of the styles in the above list either teaches much more than just sword skills, or only a part of sword skills. What we need to concentrate on is what benefits there can be from learning to use the Japanese sword.

The gradual development of Japanese fighting techniques over many centuries up to the 14th century caused a great deal of refinement of technique in many areas. Battlefield fighting skills spilled over into civilian life, where there was every bit as much need for them.

Whether unarmed fighting skills influenced the use of the sword or vice versa is not really known, but what became very clear by the 15th century in Japan, was that there was a very distinctive way in which the use of the sword gave rise to a set of movements which could be characterized as mirroring sword use in empty-handed combat. In other words, a set of body movement principles had been variously developed which were used to define the use of the sword, as well as how to fight without it. This refinement came to be known by many names, but quite commonly was called Aiki-jujutsu.

Knowing this, perhaps it becomes a little clearer what the modern practitioner might gain, with the right teaching. Understanding the various bodily movements required to wield the sword also allows the practitioner to learn something of a method of self-defense that does not require a sword, merely movements associated with its use.

It is this line of thinking which gave rise to the development of the modern style called Aikido. In traditional style Aikido, the emphasis is on those empty-handed movements. This training is supplemented with bokken (wooden sword) training to back it up. So does this mean that if we study Aikido, we learn swordsmanship? Unfortunately no, because the emphasis is always on the empty-handed technique.

Similarly, by learning say, a style incorporating Kenjutsu, do we learn Aikido? No, but we learn certain principles of body movement which are very useful in a fight when they are correctly understood.

Replace the sword with a stick, pool cue, broom, or chair leg (you just happened to find lying around…ahem) or any other such improvised weapon, and you can then directly use the techniques of the Japanese sword for self-defense.

If you were to take your training that little bit further and get some good Aikido training as well, then you have a well-rounded ability for a form of self-defense. You might already have learned some Karate or something similar, so you now have knowledge of empty-handed striking techniques to supplement these movements. We could go on and include Jujutsu or Judo training into the mix, but hopefully, you get the idea.

Japanese swordsmanship was designed to be an effective battlefield method of combat. It has had many centuries after that to be refined and make the cross-over into civilian life, where it was further refined and ruled supreme.

In this article, we have only covered one real benefit of this fascinating art, that being an element of self-defense. We could also talk about the development of the mind in various ways, the understanding of strategy as well as the usual attributes of martial art, such as indomitable spirit and health.

Owing to the demands of modern life and the scarcity of good training opportunities, it is a rare thing to have the opportunity to study this art in depth in the UK. Should the opportunity come your way, then please be encouraged to give it a try.

As a modern practitioner, you could do a lot worse than learn how to use the Japanese sword!

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