The katana has almost unrivaled mystique in cultures around the world. As the vaunted sword used by the samurai, it has been associated with martial arts skills and is often compared (sometimes excessively) favorably to other swords. Kenjutsu, a group of martial arts styles involving the katana, gets similar treatment by association. This sword has had the same basic design for over 700 years and there has been plenty of time for multiple intricate fighting systems to develop.
Use of the katana makes up the bulk of most training in kenjutsu, but other weapons like the yari, naginata, or tanto appear in some schools, because a warrior could encounter any weapon, not just a sword, as the above image shows. Others specialize in the use of the no-dachi, and some focus on the katana and wakizashi in tandem. Only at the highest levels of study are real weapons used, and even then in tightly-controlled circumstances for safety.
In wartime, a samurai would only use the sword as a backup weapon, so the other weapons were meant as stand-ins for battlefield armament or how one could be expected to be armed on the street during peacetime. During the Sengoku and Edo period, samurai would have worn the katana and wakizashi as a pair.
The uniform of a kenjutsu student consists mainly of a hakama (traditional broad-legged pants) and a heavy jacket called a dogi. In some traditions, only students who have reached first dan (equivalent to first-degree black belt) are allowed to wear the hakama. Everyone else wears a standard karate gi.
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This distinction makes it easy for new students to identify who to ask for help. It also enables instructors to easily see the leg and foot position of students to correct mistakes, because the hakama is deliberately meant to hide leg movements like the more formal kimono.
For solo practice and partnered forms, students use a bokuto, a hardwood practice sword. For sparring (though free sparring rarely occurs in kenjutsu) students use bamboo shinai. For extra safety, they may use padded shinai or wear protective armor. For practice in iaijutsu (cutting from the draw) students use either bokuto or iaito, which are metal swords without an edge.
Here is a list/glossary of some common terms you might come across when discussing kenjutsu, or indeed any Japanese martial art.
Ryuha: Kenjutsu style.
Dojo: Training hall where students go to study.
Kihon: Fundamentals. This includes footwork, safe and proper sword handling, distancing, and other such things.
Waza: Individual technique. Similar to the term “device,” “action,” or “play” in European fighting manuals.
Kata: Sequence of actions, either alone or partnered, designed to teach a given concept.
Bunkai: Practical application of kata.
Kamae: Often translated as “stance,” but it means something closer to “bearing” or “posture.”
Tameshigiri: Test cutting, often using rolled-up tatami mats, as the image above shows.
Uchidachi/Shidachi: Respectively, the attacker in a waza and the defender who is performing the action being taught.
Mushin: The state of being void of any preconceptions or desires for a particular outcome.
Zanshin: The state of relaxed alertness, being ready for any situation.
Broad Fundamentals of the Katana
The katana is a weapon designed for slicing cuts, often done from the draw, though it can thrust as well. Its edge is razor-sharp, but hard and brittle. Therefore, edge-on-edge contact with the katana was ill-advised. Kenjutsu relies on evasion and deflection rather than direct contact with blades. Also, the sword’s weight distribution (i.e. the lack of a pommel) makes it tip-heavy and easy to overswing if too much force is used.
Because of these characteristics, kenjutsu relies on motion from the hips and torso rather than the arms. The proper grip on the sword resembles the handshake grip, with the little and ring fingers tight and the rest progressively looser so the wrists can remain pliable during a cut. At the apex of the cutting arc, the user flicks the tip out to full extension as if casting a fishing rod. This maximizes the distance covered and imparts speed into the upper third of the blade, which is the ideal cutting point. From the full extension, the arms naturally draw the sword back to create the katana’s characteristic slicing motion.
Every school will have its own methods of footwork and cutting that are variants of the above, with some deviating more than others. For example, a parallel stance allows more linear motion, whereas an angled stance works best for maneuvering around an attacker and delivering powerful hip-driven motions.
Iaijutsu is a subset of kenjutsu, focusing on actions involving drawing the sword and cutting in a single motion. Think of it as transitional: if, like a civilized person, you were walking through medieval Osaka with your sword sheathed and another samurai decided they wanted you dead, they would hardly wait for you to draw and take your stance, so you would need to be able to react in time to save your life. Luckily, the curvature of the katana lends itself well to this motion.
A waza in iaijutsu consists of four parts: nukitsuke, or the initial draw cut to warn the enemy off; kirioroshi, the finishing downward blow; chiburi, shaking off the blood from the sword, and noto, resheathing the sword. The chiburi doesn’t actually remove the blood, it’s more of a formality and a signal during practice that your action has ended.
In addition to standing defenses, iaijutsu also teaches how to defend from seiza — if you’ve ever attempted to sit seiza for any length you know it is an awkward and uncomfortable position to maintain. It was part of Zen Buddhist meditation for the purpose of aiding concentration and building discipline. The reasoning is that if one can fight from this posture it makes actions when standing even easier to do. Battojutsu is a similar art to iaijutsu; there is more focus on cutting practice with tameshigiri than only form practice.
Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, in existence since 1447, holds the distinction of the oldest living system and many other ryuha stem from it. The system is a heavily martially-inclined one, with multiple weapons taught in various kata. One defining feature of Katori Shinto-ryu is the lack of pulled blows. Every action in a kata is meant to be lethal or debilitating. Students directly interpose their bokuto to block the oncoming sword so the attack can be done at full force and not ingrain the habit of pulling the cut. Students wishing to study this art traditionally had to sign an oath in their own blood not to misuse the teachings or divulge them to others without permission.
Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, founded in 1568, is another style that many kenjutsu students consider to be the definitive and most influential; this reputation comes from the endorsement of the first Tokugawa shogun during the Edo period. Although Yagyu Shinkage-ryu is intended for combat, it focuses on the idea of showing mercy to an enemy — the concept of katsujin-ken (the sword that gives life). In other words, only the force needed to subdue or dissuade an attacker was used. Yagyu practitioners use fukuro shinai — leather-bound bamboo swords that allow safe sparring and form practice. Also featured are several mutodori (empty-hand weapon disarming) waza.
Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, the most predominant iaijutsu style in the world, was founded in 1600. It is one of the first styles to make use of the katana’s full capabilities as a draw-cutting weapon; it includes waza from seiza, tatehiza (raised-knee posture, as if rising from seiza), and standing. The various waza involve responses to some tactical situations a samurai might encounter, like being attacked from behind (Ushiro), dealing with multiple opponents (Shihogiri), or an unseen opponent at night (Shinobu).
Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu, the style created by Miyamoto Musashi, is known for its two-sword forms using both the katana and the wakizashi. Although it is the most well-known school that uses both weapons, it isn’t the first one. More advanced forms in the style make use of the bo and unarmed combat.
Evolution of Kenjutsu
The evolution of how kenjutsu is practiced reflects the history of the samurai. During the Muromachi and Sengoku periods, the whole of Japan was engulfed in war. One could expect to have to fight for their life at any time, and the martial arts that developed in this context were efficient and brutal. They focused purely on combat effectiveness against armored and unarmored opponents. Many of the kata seen in Katori Shinto-ryu, for example, are very much to-the-point.
In the Edo period, Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, and widespread warfare was a thing of the past. Kenjutsu became a tool of self-improvement and moving meditation and focused on dueling unarmored opponents. Older styles employed cuts that would target areas that armor did not cover, as well as thrusts and half-swording maneuvers. Later, the focus shifted to unarmored dueling, with the downward-cut shomen-uchi becoming prevalent.
The Meiji period saw the abolition of the samurai caste, meaning there wasn’t as much demand for learning how to fight with a sword. These circumstances led to the development of kendo, a competitive sport derived from kenjutsu. Participants wear protective armor and spar with shinai. The moveset of kendo is limited when compared to kenjutsu.
After World War II ended, a similar thing happened when the Allied occupying forces forbade the practice of traditional martial arts because they feared it would reignite Japanese militaristic spirit and traditions. By framing their study as an exercise in self-improvement, the various schools got the ban lifted, and people worldwide study kenjutsu to this day.