Samurai Sword Traditions - Changed, but not Forgotten

3 minute read

Reo bowed to his opponent, then raised his Shinai (bamboo practice sword).  He rushed toward his opponent, careful to keep his Shinai in guard position.  Using his momentum, he managed to lightly body-slam his opponent out of the ring. He was awarded one point, then the match reset.

The next time, his opponent was more wary.  Reo prepared to rush again, but more slowly this time.  As he did so, his opponent tried to move out of the way, but Reo had prepared for this and quickly swung around his practice sword.  Their blades crossed, but Reo brought his body weight to bear and pivoted his sword around his opponent’s, careful to keep its edge away, and managed to score another point by pulling his Shinai back and cutting at his opponent


A Continuous Legacy

Japanese sword traditions are unique in comparison to their European counterparts in that they have remained in practice since they were originally devised. European sword arts were discontinued around the Enlightenment era, as Europe turned its back on its traditions, thinking anything coming out of the Dark Ages was inherently flawed.  While sword use never truly fell away, for a long time it consisted mostly of fencing, and the original arts of the greatswords and longswords were mostly lost.

Japan, on the other hand, reached its “Enlightenment” much later, in the mid 1800s during the Meiji restoration.  While for a time they too turned their backs on the old ways, this time period was relatively short - only about 20 years - before the practice was resumed.  While these traditions have also changed over time, the fact that they use the Katana (or similar weapons such as the bokutō [bokken] and Shinai) and practice their traditions as a martial art rather than a sport, means that their traditions remain closer to what would have been practiced by the Samurai.  In fact, the modern sword traditions practiced in Japan are distillations and simplifications of forms practiced by the Samurai, and a student that practices all of them can get a well-rounded view of what a Samurai once would have learned.

Modern Sword Traditions

Kendo - Descended from Kenjutsu, Kendo (剣道) means “the way of the sword”.  It is a very common martial art practiced in Japan and around the world.  It is useful for learning practical armed fighting techniques, as sparring against live opponents is a large part of the art.  Because using a live Katana could cause injuries, the weapons used during sparring were first changed to a bokutō (wooden practice sword) and later switched to a Shinai (bamboo practice sword). Kendo was originally developed as a way to provide realistic combat experience to martial artists.


Iaido - Meaning “the way of mental presence and immediate reaction”, Iaido (居合道)  is focused on beginning and ending engagements quickly, usually within 1 or 2 strikes.  The art is heavily concerned with quickly drawing the Katana, making 1 or 2 strokes against an opponent, then wiping the blade and re-sheathing it.  While it is practiced using a real Katana, it is not as practical for gaining combat experienced as Kendo because the opponent is imaginary. However, because of the heavy emphasis on precision, it is an excellent way to learn fine control with an actual Katana, making it an excellent supplement to another martial art for the practical fighter.  It also includes Tameshigiri, where one practices cutting with the live blade on inanimate targets.

Toyama-Ryu - created by the Imperial Japanese army for use in combat shortly before WWII, it focuses on teaching the use of the Katana and bayonet for battle.  While it is not nearly as common as Kendo or Iaido, it is still practiced around the world.

Classical Sword Traditions

Iaijutsu - A family of martial arts rather than a singular art like Iaido, Iaijutsu (居合術) meaning “the method/technique/or art of”mental presence/immediate reaction” was developed primarily for self-defense rather than self-betterment.  It is not commonly practiced today, and it is almost impossible to find an authentic Iaijutsu school outside of Japan (though there are many fake schools).  Originally, Iaijutsu was part of Kenjutsu and utilized only standing fighting techniques.

Kenjutsu - the original predesceer of all the others, Kenjitsu means the “method/technique/art of the sword” (剣術) and is directly descended from the Samurai class that existed before the Meiji Restoration. Practiced mostly by families that have kept the traditions intact as cultural treasures (meaning it is almost impossible to learn outside Japan, and rare even inside it) Kenjutsu practitioners usually use a bokutō and practice against an imaginary opponent.

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