George Alexander

Actually, certain Zen schools taught many samurai. In fact, the Zen of the samurai developed into a type of Zen known as Warrior Zen and was different than other forms of Zen. Warrior Zen was developed by a priest named Eisai in Kamakura, Japan in 1215 and the Chinese Zen master Daikaku.It used koans from the various sutras i.e., Buddhist scriptures. Warrior Zen required an incredible spirit by the teacher as well as the student. In Warrior Zen, sometimes the master would set out an unsheathed blade during the interview session. It was also characterized by a certain sense of urgency to solve the koans. Since the warrior it was designed for might die in battle the very next day. As a consequence, the warrior or samurai had no attachments to the future or worldly ambitions which gave him an advantage in the practice of Zen.Warrior Zen was replaced by a more intellectual form of Zen when the time of peace came to Japan. Warrior Zen all but died out and was forgotten by the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868). Although Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888), sometimes called Japan’s last great swordsman, was known to have  secured a copy of a book called Shonankattoroku which contained one hundred koans for warriors and an explaination of their history and the history of Kamakura Zen (Warrior Zen). He received this text from Preist Shojo of Ryutaku Temple in Izu. However, this copy has been lost.

Another record book of koan entitled Bukedoshinshu (Records of Warriors Aspiring to the Way) lists three hundred koan specifically designed for samurai. A samurai would often compose a poem oragyo to answer the koan in an interview with the master. After a samurai had solved all the riddles and mastered Zen, he was given a Zen name and full approval (inka) by his master. Additional Warrior Zen koan which are intended to be answered in succession by a samurai are as follows: “What is the meaning of dashing straight ahead?” “Leaving your dashing straight ahead, what is the meaning of the general’s dashing straight ahead?” Leaving the general’s dashing straight ahead, what is the dashing straight ahead of all the Buddhas and beings in the three worlds? Leaving the dashing straight ahead of all the Buddhas and beings, what is the dashing straight ahead of heaven and earth and the ten thousand phenomena? These are no doubt thought provoking. Another one which appears simplistic at first is this one. “How is it to wield a spear with empty hands?”

Zen considers an intuitive nature to be higher that an intellectual nature. Therefore, even the “intellectually challenged” can climb up the path toward enlightenment! This is because the intellect engages in reasoning and logic.    Like Aristotle (384-322 BC), who was a great thinker. He was the student of Plato and the founder of the deductive science of logic. The scholar thinks, he ponders, he analyzes. However, it is not the intellect of the conscious thinking mind that produces a “spontaneous response” to immediate experience but a sudden intuitive grasp by the unconscious mind. Therefore, by constantly producing a “spontaneous response” to immediate experience, intuition or intuitive grasp is developed by the Zen practitioner. This is not unlike what happens in the martial arts when one must spontaneously respond to an opponent’s attack without thinking. [If you have to think about what technique you are going to use, it’s to late!] In the martial arts it important to combine two principles simultaneously. The first is ri or inspiration and the second is ji, waza or technique. The idea is not to think and then execute a technique but rather let inspiration and techniques occur spontaneously. “Techniques will occur in the absence of conscious thought.” – The Bubishi However, this presupposes one has trained sufficiently in techniques otherwise his movements will be stiff and ki stagnated. Interestingly, the same concept is inherent in the training of other arts such as calligraphy or painting. “Draw bamboos for ten years; become a bamboo; then forget all about bamboo when you draw!” The artist [or the martial artist] is now in possession of an infallible technique and is totally possessed by the “inspiration of the moment”.

To truly live Zen one must value experience and intuition higher than intellect. Therefore, mere intellectual analysis, intense theoretical discussion, repartee with words and their inherent limitations cannot fully express what Zen is or is not. Therefore, I have no more to say!

The two philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism have both contributed to modern martial arts philosophies and ethical systems.  In Japan proper,  Zen has perhaps had the most profound influence,  particularly in the schools of swordsmanship.  During the Feudal Era in Japan,  Zen was a very popular belief,  particularly with the Samurai class.


Since ancient times in Japan’s turbulent history, the warrior courts of Emperor’s from the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (1185-1573), encouraged the practice of zen among the samurai class. This is because the austere philosophy of Zen goes hand in hand with the arts of war. Hence, the term Warrior Zen. In 1191Zen Buddhism was introduced directly from China. At this same time, Zen priests imported tea from China and it was used as a stimulant to Zen meditation. The Japanese ritual tea ceremony known as Cha-no-yu was created as this time as well.   

The samurai class embraced the religious philosophy of Zen because of its tenets of physical and mental discipline which coincided with the samurai’s stoic existence. Zen’s thinking is simplistic and its quest is the true nature of things. Warrior Zen espouses such phrases as “One must overcome fear by embracing death and transcending it.” “The mind turns in accordance with the ten thousand things; The pivot on which it turns is verily hard to know.” “Everything must come full circle.The beginner and the master have the same techniques.”

Zen philosophy points to the thinking that each single element in the universe is related to the ultimate reason of all things. In other words, all things are interrelated. The single blade of grass contains the essence of the universe as much as the universe contains the existence of the single blade of grass. By way of example, “a Zen monk experienced enlightenment (satori) when for a moment he grasped the universe with his hands when the moon was reflected in the water that he took from the mountain spring.” Therefore, according to Zen, enlightenment could be defined as the moment when finiteness of thought turns infinity into comprehension i.e., one becomes one with the universe and the existence of self is extinct.

During the seventeenth century, the samurai had more leisure time since they were no longer involved in armed conflicts or battlefield engagements. Therefore, their raison d’ etre became  the development of more intricate and ceremonial styles. Additionally, the concept of Zen and spirituality became an integral part of the mastery of swordsmanship during this period. The main pursuit of the samurai during the Tokugawa era became what was called Buntu Itchi, literally “Pen and sword in accord.” Young samurai were educated by engaging in the practice of swordsmanship and writing the Chinese classics. This is what Musashi was referring to in the Go Rin Sho as “It is said the warrior’s is the twofold way of pen and sword”. This is further evidenced by Yagyu Munenori’s Heiho Kaden Sho (Book of Swordsmanship) and the Zen monk Takuan’s Fudochi Shinmyo Roku (Divine Record of Immovable Wisdom), a treatise on Zen and swordsmanship. Yagyu Munenori with the help of the priest Takuan (1573-1645) combined many aspects of zen with swordsmanship.  The Heiho Kaden Sho explains how the sword is an instrument of heaven. If for example an evil man oppresses ten thousand people and he is killed, the sword will give new life to i.e., free from oppression, ten thousand people. It further explains that there is righteousness in using the fighting arts so that heaven is victorious.

An important tactic in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu was to perceive the opponent’s movements before he made them. The Heiho Kaden Sho (Book of Swordsmansip), written by Munenori, explains how an opponent will betray his intentions by preceding an attack with small movements of his shoulders or arms. Additionally, Takuan’s writings communicate the idea that an enlightened mind can be attained through the serious study of  swordsmanship. This “way”, i.e. michi or do, culminates with the phrase ken zen itchi (swordsmanship and zen are one).

Musashi’s life reflected a mastery of Zen. He lived pursuing a single purpose, to find enlightenment through the way of the sword. He put all of his being into his training with the sword. He neglected his appearance and worldly possessions. Musashi exclaimed “The way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death”. “Enact strategy broadly, correctly and openly. Then you will come to think of things in a wide sense and taking the void as the way, you will see  the way as the void.”

Within the philosophy of Japanese swordsmanship is the concept of the resolute acceptance of death. This is embodied in the samurai’s code of bushido i.e., the way of the warrior. The way a samurai kept his mind in accordance with the highest principle of bushido was to keep his spirit accustomed to and resolved on his own death. In this way, by considering himself already dead, he could perform his duties without fear of failure.


Sometimes bushido is translated as knightly ways. These knightly ways were the code of conduct; a set of moral principles, adhered to by the samurai class. bushido, similar in some ways to the code of chivalry of European knights, was basically an unwritten set of precepts. There is no particular text to serve as a biblical reference so to speak. The precepts were largely transmitted by word of mouth in the form of maxims in the educational process of a samurai and as anecdotes recorded by famous samurai warriors.

Three significant virtues imbued in bushido were honor, loyalty and courage. Factors which seemed to embellish all the individual virtues of bushido were the samurai’s stoic nature, his calm indifference to his environment, especially in battle, and his seriousness of purpose. One’s honor was a trait highly esteemed and care was taken to safeguard one’s reputation and dignity. So much care in fact that this defensiveness of one’s honor had to be counterbalanced by stressing the merits of patience. The counter effect was to prevent swords from being drawn at the slightest friction in dealing with others.

Loyalty to one’s master or daimyo was a characteristic which was considered one of the supreme attributes of a samurai. As evidence of this Japan’s history recounts how the lines of samurai served the lines of feudal lords for generations. Conversely, Ronin or roving samurai whose services were not retained by a liege lord were despised as renegades. Loyalty was epitomized by a certain ideology in which life or the forfeiture of it was regarded as a means by which to serve the master. This blind obedience or bizarre devotion is characterized throughout Japan’s literature. Perhaps the most famous account of this is the story or the 47 Ronin. Where 47 of a lord’s retainers disemboweled themselves in order to follow their deceased master.

Courage, needless to say, is a prerequisite for any combatant or professional warrior. But as far asbushido was concerned, courage was only recognized as a virtue if it was “exercised in the cause of righteousness.” In bushido the precepts implied “death for a cause unworthy of dying for was called a dogs death”. Hence, to know when to die and to know when to live is the mark of true courage. Accompanying this ideal was the discipline of composure in the face of death.

Courage became so highly refined as a virtue of the samurai it was expounded upon in many different anecdotes. It seems as though a certain amount of finesse was required to exercise courage properly. The samurai prided himself on the possession of brute strength. However, battles did not involve shear force alone. There is a certain sportive element in a courageous nature. Things which are serious to ordinary people, may be but play to the valiant. Therefore, sometimes in old warfare it was not uncommon for the parties to a conflict to exchange repartee or to begin a rhetorical contest. Combat was not solely a matter of brute force, it was as well, an intellectual engagement.

Embodied in the precept of courage was a lack of the fear of death or as mentioned before composure in the face of death.A seventeenth century document known as the Hagakure which means hidden under the leaves shows the samurai’s willingness to risk his life at any moment. Hagakure , authored by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, states that the “spirit of bushido is realized when one imagines himself to be dying, this he can do every morning and every evening. One should expect death daily, so, when the time comes, he can die in peace”. Yamamoto continues with “Tranquilize your mind every morning and imagine the moment when you may be torn and mangled by arrows, guns, lances and swords, thrown into a fire, dying of disease: die every morning in your mind, and then you will not fear death.”  .  

As evidenced by the Hagakure, the practice of keeping the idea of death consciously present on a daily basis was the means by which the samurai reinforced himself to face death repeatedly. Seemingly, this constant preparedness would avert fear and terror in a sudden life and death struggle.

Bushido, the way of the warrior, spawned by militarism as early as the tenth century, originally centered its goal in loyalty to the master for the sake of military accomplishment. As the precepts developed and evolved toward the Tokugawa period, its height, they became more ceremonialized and a shift occurred from the original purpose toward the metaphysics of death born out by the seventeenth century Hagakure.

 Seppuku or disembowelment was a form of Japanese ritual suicide. It became the focal point of the ferociousness of will which was necessary for the mastery of bushido. It came to be called “The Flower of Bushido”, primarily because of the samurai’s preoccupation with the preparation for his demise. Seppuku was a traditional, legal and ceremonial institution. Its purpose was to allow the warrior to absolve himself from any dishonor, escape disgrace or prove sincerity. It was often awarded to a perpetrator of an offense as a form of honorable punishment. Since it required an iron composure it suited the stoic nature of the samurai. Incidentally, seppuku was a rarely used method of atonement in Okinawa.

The sword became the badge of the warrior and it symbolized the power and the ideals of bushido.This symbolism of the philosophy of bushido manifested in the sword is exemplified by the following: “What he carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his mind, loyalty and honor.”

To the samurai the sword was not regarded as an instrument of death but rather as an instrument of spiritual self discipline. I might be noted that the sword as well as having an intrinsic spiritual value, embracing the code of  bushido, also carried an extraordinarily large monetary value. The better blades actually brought as much as a years allowance for 100,000 commoners (chonin). The blades themselves were so finely made that they naturally became an object of adoration on the physical plane as well as the spiritual. The following passage relates the beauty and awe inspiring qualities of the blade.

“Its cold blade, collecting on its surface the moment it is

drawn the vapor of the atmosphere; its immaculate texture,

flashing light of bluish hue; its matchless edge upon which

histories and possibilities hang; the curve of its back, uniting

exquisite grace with utmost strength; all these thrill us with

mixed feelings of power and beauty of awe and terror.”

The code of bushido gave no support to the wanton use of the sword. In fact, it vehemently stressed its proper use and discouraged its misuse. The possession of the weapon imparted a grave responsibility. Its power provided a great temptation and allowed it to be easily misused. Therefore, with regard to this aspect, bushido was necessary in order to establish a mode of conduct and an ethical framework for the samurai.

Beginning in the tenth century and continuing into the twelfth century, Japan saw the growth of large military clans. In 1156a military or samurai class began to emerge in the provinces.  These clans were constantly in skirmishes with one another until finally, a long and bitter struggle ensued between the Minamoto (Genji) and Tiara (Heiki) clans.The struggle for power and control of the imperial court pitted the Taira and Minamoto clans against one another. After five years of war, which ended in 1185, political power passed from the imperial court to the samurai or warrior class. In 1192, the emperor named Minamoto Yoritomo as Japan’s first Shogun or military dictator. Ultimately, the Minamoto prevailed and become the military rulers of Japan. It was during this period and chivalrous setting that bushido was produced and evolved.

By the thirteenth century the samurai reached a status of nobility as rulers and bushido flourished. Bushido as an ethical system became ornamented with ceremony as it reached its zenith during the reign of the Tokugawa Clan (1603-1868).

With the advent of the Tokugawa reign, the government became more stable and peace lasted almost three hundred years. Slowly, the precepts of knighthood began to become very ceremonialized, as evidenced earlier by the Hagakure, and the trend from military accomplishment toward a higher philosophical plane and the metaphysics of death evolved.

The precepts of bushido evolved as a philosophy and life style paralleled and supported by the feudalistic form of government. After the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the new Meiji government was installed and abolished the old feudalistic system completely. The new government began to absorb the culture of advanced western nations.

The strongest blow initially dealt to the samurai and bushido came as a result of the Meiji government issuing an edict in 1872 prohibiting the wearing of swords in public. This ban strictly forbade the wearing or the use of swords in public by anyone. As a result of the ban, the samurai were left without any source of income and bushido’s practicality began to wan in the new Japan.

Another circumstance which jarred bushido’s foundations was the peace that was enjoyed during the Tokugawa reign. The peace enhanced commerce and commoners began to prosper and accumulate wealth. Swordsmanship was not a commodity in great demand during a time of peace and eventually the ruling samurai class could not compete with the economic power of the merchant class. They were forced into less significant positions by financial subservience.

The decline of bushido was also aided by the rise of commoner s as a social class. The way of the samurai began to come under the criticism of the commoners in the late Tokugawa period. At this time senryu, a type of satirical poetry came into vogue. Most senryu poetry expressed bushido as an inhumane code.

Through senryu the commoners directed attacks against the samurai class. Senryu was used principally because any open resistance or criticism of the samurai by commoners was at the very least a dangerous undertaking. Finally, the bushido of medieval Japan was overtaken by an increasing pace in the society of new Japan. The feudalistic system supporting the life style of the samurai did not lend itself to modernization. The feudal lords were not banished but were absorbed and obscured by the fast paced Meiji government.

In a most ironic circumstance while the bushido of medieval Japan was dying a nationalistic Bushidowas being born. A sort of bushido madness overtook the nation between 1880 and 1945. In the old feudalistic system loyalty to one’s lord was paramount. Cleverly, the Meiji government in breaking down the caste system of the samurai, shifted this loyalty to the emperor. Under the new government there was no longer a samurai and a commoner (chonin) class but one class.

The revitalization of bushido or the birth of the new bushido differed from the medieval version in that the new bushido was truly nationalistic in scope and was centered on the worship of the emperor. The new bushido’s followers also differed in that their ranks were a cross section of the nations society where formerly the precepts of bushido were only taught to the nobility or samurai class. The precepts of bushido now permeated society as a whole .

The resurgence of bushido was in fact directed by the Meiji government and rising nationalism. The primary implement in this was the imperial rescript to military men issued in 1882 in which the precepts of bushido from the past were reiterated. It read abbreviated as follows:

The military man’s first duty is to be loyal.

The military man shall be upright in his demeanor.

The military man shall highly esteem health and strength.

The military man shall esteem fidelity.

The military man shall make frugality a basic principle.

All imperial soldiers were expected to memorize this code.

In the late 1880s a group known as the Nippon Shugi Sha became active. Their members felt Japan was divinely ordained to be the leader among nations. They gained increasing power subsequent to Japan’s victories of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Together with other expansionist groups they helped form the attitudes which involved Japan in World War II.

Japan’s thousand years of militarism and code of bushido were eradicated with the surrender of Japan in 1945. American occupation eliminated the last traces of bushido. Japan had never been completely defeated and its people where demoralized. Additionally, the most important factor of the occupation strategy was requiring the emperor to state that his authority was not divinely instituted. Consequently, undermining the last pillar of nationalistic bushido; the figurehead and recipient of loyalty. Finally, another important factor was the constitutional renunciation of war which eliminatedbushido completely.

The setting for the heroic deeds of the samurai, which influenced all of Japan’s martial arts and martial philosophy, and the precepts of bushido were  engulfed by a rapidly expanding society in little more than a century. Bushido, born out of clan rivalry and the aggression of ambitious warlords, was destined to die with the advent of the modern age and the renunciation of war by a people who thrived on it for a millennium. Even though bushido has died in terms of a samurai serving his lord with blind obedience to the point of death, certainly the legacy of bushido and the stoicism of the samurai spirit lives on in the modern martial arts of today.

10,000 BC The Jomon culture of Japan begins. Small settlements are established and a unique pottery with cord designs is indicative of this culture.

300 BC The Yayoi culture replaces the Jomon culture. The pottery wheel, rice cultivation and metal working technology are imported from Korea. Various clans begin to gain power.

300 AD By the sixth century, the Yamato clan gains power and becomes the leading clan of Japan. The Yamato clan becomes the founder of the imperial line which has never been broken.

552 The use of Chinese characters for writing is adopted  by Japan. Buddhism , and other cultural and religious influence, arrives in Japan via Korea.  Japanese monks also went to China acceptable and enhanced the intergration of Buddhism into to study Buddhism there and then returned to Japan. Buddhist thought (not Zen) also reached Japan in the sixth century through Korea. Buddhism was flexible so a co-existence with Shinto was easily Japanese society.

 600 Tensonshi Dynasty of the Ryukyu Kingdon establishedEarly contact between China and Ryukyu (Okinawa) occurs. Kempo (tode) develops in China. T’ang Dynasty (618-906 A D).

 604 Prince Shotoku, influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism, drafts a document calling for an ethical framework in government and establishes a tradition of  scholarly missions to China.

 607  First embassy to China established.   

 645 The Taika reform, with the ideal of establishing  a central government based on the Chinese model, abolishes private land ownership. The Taiho code of 701 creates a legal system and a system of administrative offices. The Emperor carves up fiefs and grants plots to peasants during their lifetimes and taxes the harvests.

710  The imperial court moves to the city of Nara. Nara is the first urban center of Japan and the first permanent capital. Chinese culture continues to pervade Japan. Chinese style art and architecture flourish in this period and the construction of Buddhist temples increases throughout the provinces of Japan. In 784, in order to escape the increasing Buddhist political influence the imperial court leaves Nara.   

712 The Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), Japan’s first written history appears. About this same time another document known as Collection of  Myriad Leaves is written. This is the first anthology of Japan.

794  The imperial court establishes the city of Kyoto (Heian kyo), the capital of peace and tranquillity.

858 The Fujiwara clan becomes the regents of the Emperor and  ruling power in Japan.  

 1,000 The Heian court sets the stage for an era of refinement. Courtiers embrace the artistic pursuits of calligraphy, poetry, etiquette and embellish sartorial perfection and dress.  The world’s first novel is written, Tale of the Genji by Lady Murasaki Shibiku.

1101-1314 Local Chieftans vie for power and control of Okinawa. Many warring factions exist and Okinawa is divided into three kingdoms. Shunten becomes the first king of Ryukyu.

 1156  A military or samurai class begins to emerge in the provinces.  The struggle for power and control of the imperial court pits the Taira (Heiki) and Minamoto (Genji) clans against one another. The Taira remain the most powerful family from 1160 to 1180.

1185  The Minamoto clan emerges victorious over the Taira after five years of war. Political power passes from the imperial court to the samurai or warrior class. In 1192 the emperor names Minamoto Yoritomo, Japan’s first Shogun or military dictator. Yoritomo sets up his military headquarters in Kamakura.

1191 Zen Buddhism is introduced directly from China. The samurai class embrace this religious philosophy because of its tenets of physical and mental discipline which coincide with samurai’s stoic existence. Zen priests import tea from China. As a stimulant to meditation. The ritual tea ceremony known as Cha-no-yu is created.   The two main Zen schools in Japan became the Rinzai and the Soto sects. These first appeared in Japan in the Kamakura period (1185-1333). The first monk to found a Zen temple in japan was Eisai (1141-1215). He brought back the Rinzai sect from China. He is also credited with founding Warrior Zen. A type of Zen suited to the samurai warrior. It was supported by both the Emperor and the Shogun. Warrior Zen also was very cohesive with the samurai’s code of conduct, bushido and easily blended with it. Another monk by the name of Dogen (1200-1253) brought back the Soto sect from China. Chinese monks came to Japan to teach Zen and to escape the invading mongols. (footnote: The Japanese Art of War p.5)

  There is no exact date of the transmission of Zen from China to Japan. The zen Buddhist scriptures mention twenty four schools and fourty six transmissions of zen to japan. other years ?????


This is the way for men who want to learn my strategy.

  1. Do not think dishonestly.

  2. The way is in training.

  3. Become aquainted  with every art.

  4. Know the way of all professions.

  5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.

  6. Develop intuitive judgment and understanding for everything.

  7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen.

  8. Pay attention even to trifles.

  9. Do nothing which is of no use.

More than anything to start with you must set your heart on strategy and earnestly stick to the way.

-Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Genshin

writing in Go Rin No Sho 2nd year of Shoho, Reigendo Cave, Kyushu Island.

Kenjutsu (also, Kenjitsu) is the art of classical swordsmanship and refers to the technique of using a steel blade or  sharp (shinken ) sword on the battlefield by the samurai, Japan’s classical warrior.  Kenjutsu is primarily concerned with the techniques of using an unsheathed sword and therefore its tactics are very aggressive. However, the sword is more than merely a weapon of war in Japanese cultural history. It is a symbol of the imperial power of the emperor and has long been revered throughout Japan’s turbulent history. It is one of the three sacred objects of the imperial regalia orsanju no jingi.  In fact, the  imperial regalia consists of a mirror, a jewel and a sword.

In Japan, the first samurai swords (tachi) were introduced in the Heian Period      (794 -1191). Although, straight-bladed Chinese style swords were used prior to this period along with bows and arrows and spears. However, as cavalry became more widely used as tactical elements of warring armies, the tachi replaced the Chinese style straight-bladed weapon. The tachi was longer with a curved blade. This was to facilitate cutting downward at an enemy while on horseback. The tachi was worn edge down at a samurai’s side while mounted. This was during the reign of the Fujiwara Clan who were Regents to the Emperors of Japan at that time. The tachi sword was between four and a half feet to six feet in length. Later, as close-quarter combat replaced cavalry methods swords were shortened and the katana was developed. Although, historically Amakuni (c.700 AD) is considered to be the first swordsmith to produce a Nippon To, i.e. a distinctly Japanese sword with a single-edged curved blade.

In the late Heian Period two other clans, the Taira and Minamoto Clans, were warring factions in one of Japan’s many internal power struggles. The Taira defeated the Minamoto in 1156.  In 1160, in yet another battle between the Taira and Minamoto Clans the Taira were still left in power but in 1185 the Minamoto finally defeated the Taira Clan.

This half century of continual warfare gave rise to the Samurai or Bushi as a distinct class within Japanese society.  At this time the code of Bushido or “Way of the warrior” was developed and two of Japan’s most famous literary works were produced. One is called Genji Monogatari (Tale of the Genji), the world’s first novel and Heike Monogatari, a literary work which told of great heroic deeds of the Samurai. The etymology of the word samurai is derived from sameru (to serve). Although the term bushi (warrior) has a more elite and respectful  meaning.

Sword making around this period began to improve.  The Minamoto Clan in Western Japan had excellent iron ore resources on its lands.  Also sword makers became exalted figures themselves attaining a status close to priesthood.

By the eleventh century, the Japanese sword was acknowledged to be the most superior sword made in Asia. This was based on a balance between functionality and artistic achievement.

Japan’s most famous swordsmaker was Masamune (c.1326).  He developed a process whereby the edge of the sword would not chip.  Masamune did not sign many of his blades as was the custom. When asked why he did not sign his name to the tang (nakago) of many of the masterpieces he created he replied “What’s the need. It’s obvious who made it.” Previously the blades of swords used in combat either chipped at the edge or broke at the hilt. This is because they were simply made from a solid sheet of iron that was folded, hammered and then forged. The technology developed for sword making then evolved to what is called four-bar construction. It consisted of welding together a bar of hard steel in the center in order to maintain a sharp edge, two hard iron bars on the outside to resist bending and a soft iron bar in the center for flexibility in order to resist breaking.  This composite blank which is basically a core of flexible steel (shinganae) surrounded by a jacket of harder steel (kawaganae), was then hammered to make the steel edge protrude. The final step in the process is tempering. The blade was reheated, a clay mixture applied to the edge, and then thrust into a vat of water. This tempering process makes the edge very hard and yet preserves the flexibility of the blade. The unique hamon or temper line is produced by this process and is important in the aesthetic appreciation of the sword.

For purposes of classification, swords made between the years 800 and 1596 are referred to as Koto( literally “old swords”) blades. New swords are called Shinto blades, i.e. swords made between 1596 and 1781. Additionally, a third period of sword classification is called the Shin Shinto period or New New sword period. (1781-1876). The imperial edit of 1876 whereby the wearing of swords in public was prohibited put an end to this period. Sword making declined dramatically after this. Therefore, any swords made after 1876 are referred to as modern swords from the Gendaito (Modern Sword) period.

As the Ashikaga Shogunate (1338-1500) came to a close, Japan again entered into a period of continual warfare.  The Onin wars (1467-1477) marked the beginning of one hundred years of civil strife.  It is during this period that the numerous schools and styles of swordsmanship developed. Formerly, the term Kenjutsu was used to denote the art of swordsmanship on the battlefield. This term implied the sword was already drawn and ready to apply techniques. The modern term Kendoor “the way of the sword” is derived from kenjutsu. The term Battojutsu was also used in this period to denote swordsmanship. Batto literally means an unsheathed sword and referred to drawing and cutting. Around this same time, the term Iaijutsu came into use to refer to swordsmanship. Iaijutsumeans the art of quick draw. In other words, drawing the sword quickly and cutting an enemy in one motion is the essence of this technique. The idea was to be able to respond to a surprise attack or an ambush. The modern term for this art is Iaido.

The earliest documented school of kenjutsu on record is known as the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. Its founder was Iizasa Choisai Ienao (1386-1488). The school has been associated with the Katori Jingu (shrine) and the Kashima Jingu and is still in existence today. It places an emphasis on ethical swordsmanship, i.e. a morality in swordsmanship which advocates dispatching an enemy but not  indiscriminate killing. Ienao distinguished himself as a swordsman at a young age. He had developed great skill in both the use of the sword and spear. He fought in numerous battles and was never defeated. Reputedly, at the age of sixty Ienao meditated and performed daily worship and purification rituals at the shrine for one thousand days. During that time, he practiced his sword skills incessantly. He then received a vision of the deity Futsu nushi no mikoto who gave him a book on martial strategy and proclaimed that Ienao would be a great teacher of the sword. Ienao then founded his own ryu giving it the name Tenshin Shoden, meaning divine sanction or divinely inspired. This school was the basis for the evolution of many other sword ryu or styles and the development of many master swordsman, including Tsukahara Bokuden and Kamiizumi Nobutsuna. The disciples of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu were sworn to secrecy with regard to the technical aspects of the ryu. Each student had to sign a (keppan) blood oath upon acceptance into the ryu. The curriculm of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu includes training in Kenjutsu (sword), Iaijutsu (sword drawing), Bojutsu (staff), Sojutsu (spear), Naginata jutsu (halberd), Shuriken jutsu (throwing blades), Jujutsu (throwing and grappling) and Ninjutsu (espionage). Many swordsman were known to have prayed to the Katori shrine for inspiration and achievement in their swordsmanship.

In 1546, a samurai of the Minamoto Clan was born by the name of Hayashizaki Jinsuke – Minamoto (1546-1621).  After his father was killed in a duel, he decided to study swordsmanship to avenge him.  He devised a method of drawing and  cutting in a single stroke. At the time Hayashizaki called his swordsmanship Batto jutsu now it is called Iaijutsu or Iaido.  Hayashizaki’s style became known as Hayashizaki Ryu. Although Hayashizaki is given credit for this innovation, some authorities claim that the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu had already devised this method one hundred years prior to Hayashizaki. Later, Hasagawa Hidenobu (Eishin), devised a system called Eishin Ryu whereby the sword is drawn from tate hiza (a sitting position with the right knee raised and the left knee folded under the buttocks) as opposed to tachi waza or standing techniques. Hasagawa, adaptedIaijutsu techniques to the shorter katana.  The next contribution to Iaijutsu was from a  style calledOmori Ryu, founded in the sixteenth century by Omori Rokurozaemon. His innovation was the addition of performing sword-drawing techniques or kata from  seiza no bu, the Japanese formal sitting position. Today, this style is known as Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaijutsu.

Around 1542, the Portuguese introduced firearms to Japan. This weapon was known as the harquebus. The warlord Oda Nobunaga successfully used the harquebus in 1575 to defeat an opposing daimyo by the name of Takeda Katsuyori (1546-1582).  Thereafter, swords changed from the long tachi sword to a shorter lesser curved blade called the katana or daito. The samurai then carried two swords in his belt, collectively called daisho, a long katana for attack and defense and a shorter wakizashi for self emoliation or ritual suicide. Along with this change in design came about a change in technique. The Kenjutsu swordsmanship of using an unsheathed blade or tachi on the battlefield either as an infantryman or as a calvaryman gave way to using the Katana or shorter blade in smaller skirmishes or individual duels where a surprise attack often had to be dealt with.  This meant that speed in drawing the blade and flexibility in techniques became of paramount importance.  Curiously, the study of swordsmanship seemed to increase during a period when its practical use became less important. The samurai had more leisure time since they were no longer involved in armed conflicts or battlefield engagements. Therefore, their raison d’ etre became  the development of more intricate and ceremonial styles. Additionally, the concept of Zen and spirituality became an integral part of the mastery of swordsmanship during this period. This is evidenced by Yagyu Munenori’s Heiho Kaden Sho (Book of Swordsmanship) and the Zen monk Takuan’s Fudochi Shinmyo Roku (Divine Record of Immovable Wisdom), a treatise on Zen and swordsmanship. Takuan’s writings communicate the idea that an enlightened mind can be attained through the serious study of  swordsmanship. This “way”, i.e. michi or do, culminates with the phrase ken zen itchi (swordsmanship and zen are one).

The last great battle in Japan’s military history, known as the battle of Sekigahara, was fought in October of 1600.  The result was the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate and relative peace for a period of over two hundred years.  After this there were no more great battles but more often individual duels and swordsmanship developed into hundreds of ceremonial styles.

The Great Swordsman

Tsukahara Bokuden (1490-1571)

During the sixteenth century at the end of the bloody Ashikaga Shogunate, Tsukahara Bokuden studied fencing from his father since his early childhood. His father was also a fencing master. Bokuden who was of slender build and somewhat short was nevertheless wiry and powerfully built. However, his rapid progress in martial arts was attributed to natural ability and his zeal for training.

In fact, he progressed so quickly in his development as a swordsman that his father allowed him to challenge other swordsman at the young age of only seventeen!

At this time, during Japan’s feudal era, a swordsman’s reputation was measured by his success in dueling. An accomplished swordsman of reputation would travel far and wide throughout the country to find worthy opponents. Duels were fought with either wooden swords (bokken) or steel swords (katana).  In any case,  shinken shobu or a fight to the death was often the case. Bokuden visited many districts throughout Japan to challenge masters of the various schools. Despite his youth, Bokuden defeated all of his opponents including the master swordsman of all the different styles. In one encounter Bokuden had challenged a master fencer named Ochiai. Ochiai was about forty years old at the time and Bokuden was only seventeen. At the start of their match Ochiai faced his adversary in the middle level posture known as chudan no gamae. However, Bokuden lowered his sword  almost to the ground leaving himself completely unprotected. Ochiai and the onlookers gasped in astonishment at the youthful Bokuden’s lack of fear in the face death. Bokuden then leaned forward inviting total disaster at the hand of the powerful Ochiai. In an instant it was over! Ochiai was knocked to the ground and was lying there helpless with Bokuden’s sword at his throat. Bokuden had attacked with such speed that his opponent never knew what had happened. He then walked off abruptly without killing him and leaving Ochiai in total surprise. After that engagement, Bokuden’s fame spread quickly. This duel was the beginning of Bokuden’s career as a swordsman.

Bokuden fought in nineteen duels in his lifetime. He also distinguished himself on the battlefield. He fought as a retainer for the lord of Awa Province. In thirty seven battlefield engagements, his ferocity as a warrior was such that he killed over two hundred men and only received minor wounds.

Tsukahara Bokuden eventually founded his own school of swordesmanship called Shinto Ryu. The major stratagem of his system was called hitotsu tachi or single stroke. Indeed, almost all of Bokuden’s matches were won with only one stroke. However, Bokuden found it difficult to find a worthy successor to his ryu.  Although, he did teach the secret of hitotsu tachi to Kitabatake Tomonori. This is the okuden or secret principles of the style. Tomonori is also said to have instructed Bokuden’s oldest son in hitotsu tachi. However, there are no remaining or extant records detailing the activities of Bokuden’s son. Although a manuscript entitled Bokuden Hyakushusurvives, Bokuden’s Shinto Ryu style and the secrets hitotsu tachi disappeared from the pages of history after his death at the age of eighty-one in 1571.

Several famous martial arts anecdotes are atributable to Tsukahara Bokuden and therefore are worth telling here. One story recounts the tale of Mutekatsu Ryu, the art of using no sword and the other the story of the three sons. Once while crossing a river on a ferryboat, Bokuden sat and listened to the bragging of a samurai who boasted about how skillful he was with the sword. By this time in his life Bokuden had fought and won so many duels that he no longer had a propensity to show his skills with the sword. Therefore, Bokuden simply ignored the boastful samurai. The samurai became enraged at Bokuden’s disregard for him and challenged him to a duel, asking him “What is your style called?”. Bokuden replied it is called Mutekatsu Ryu [the style of swordsmanship that uses no sword]. The recalcitrant samurai replied, “That’s ridiculous. How can you defeat another swordsman without a sword?” Bokuden replied “My sword cuts through vanity and slices through viciousness”. The samurai then said “You are talking nonsense! Show me some of this style called Mutekatsu Ryu in a match then”. Bokuden said “How about this island?” The samurai agreed. Bokuden then ordered the boatman to steer the ferry to a nearby island which appeared suitable for a match. As the ferry approached the island, the samurai anxiously leaped off the craft, drew his sword and positioned himself on shore. Bokuden said to the samurai “My style is Mutekatusu Ryu and I have no need for a sword”. At that moment, Bokuden gave a powerful thrust with the ferryman’s pole and shoved the ferry away leaving the dazed samurai stranded on the island. The samurai screamed “Come back here and fight!” Bokuden said “This is my way, Mutekatsu Ryu”.

Tsukahara Bokuden had three sons. He was faced with the task of selecting one of them to succeed him.  In order to do this, he positioned a jar above the shoji screen door in his room so that when the door was slid open the jar would fall down. He called his first son and asked him to come into the room. As the first son entered the room the jar fell and hit him in the head. He apologized to his father. Bokuden said it was alright then asked him to replace the jar and then dismissed him. Bokuden then asked his second son to come into the room. As the second son entered the room and slid the shoji open, the jar fell but before it could hit him he drew his sword and with a lightiing fast slash smashed the jar to pieces. Bokuden thanked him and asked him to replace the jar before leaving. Finally, Bokuden asked his oldest son to come into the room. The oldest son hesitated sensing something was about to happen. He then slid the door open and quickly caught the jar before it could fall. He placed it gently on the floor. This convinced Bokuden that his oldest son was truly worthy of carrying on his name and teaching since he did not draw his sword in order to deal with the jar.

(Authors note: The Japanese recognized that the indiscriminate and wanton use of the sword was corrupt and immoral. Therefore, they sought to preserve the higher ideals of swordsmanship and martial virtue.)

            Miyamoto Musashi  (1584-1645) 

Japan’s Greatest Swordsman is the title garnered by Miyamoto Mushashi.  He began training in swordsmanship at a young age. He is reputed to have had his first duel and killed a samurai named Arima Kibei of the Shinto Ryu school at age thirteen. Three years later he challenged Tadashima Aikiyama of Tajima Province. He easily defeated this overconfident samurai. These matches set the course of Musashi’s life and established his destiny as a swordsman. In his lifetime, he fought in over sixty duels. Musashi’s skill with the sword was so high that he fought many of his duels with a bokken or wooden sword. When he was twenty one Musashi headed for Kyoto and continued to follow his destiny in the capital. This was in 1605. Immediately upon his arrival he visited the Yoshioka family and challenged Genzaemon, the family patriarch. Genzaemon accepted the challenge even though Musashi was an unknown entity and the Yoshioka’s were renowned for their swordsmanship. The match was set for five o’clock the next morning at a field on the outskirts of Kyoto. Genzaemon brandished a wooden sword. He was accompanied by several retainers and arrived at the appointed spot at dawn but Musashi was nowhere to be found. Genzaemon sent some of his disciples to investigate and see if Musashi was still at his Inn. Indeed Musashi was there but he was asleep! This infuriated Genzaemon to no end and he had to wait two more hours before Musashi arrived. Musashi swaggered onto the field at high noon with a wooden sword in his hand. His appearance was calm and collected. An enraged Genzaemon made no attempt to conceal his anger. He immediately launched his attack against Musashi.  Musashi blocked the attacks parrying the blows. Although both received blows to the head, Musashi landed a crushing blow to Genzaemon’s head knocking him to the ground. He lay there unconscious and his retainers had to carry him back to the family residence. Later, he regained consciousness to discover his right arm was broken in many places. Genzaemon was humiliated by the defeat. No sooner had the match ended when Denshishiro, Genzaemon’s younger brother, challenged Musashi in order to preserve the family honor. Although Genzaemon was the head of the family, Denshichiro was considered to be a far better swordsman. He arrived at the appointed place with a steel sword that was over five feet in length with the intent of having Musashi’s blood on it. Denshichiro was filled with confidence. He had seen Musashi’s swordsmanship first hand when his brother was defeated and thought he could beat him. Again, Musashi was late for the engagement but as soon as he arrived he launched a furious attack against Denshichiro with his bokken. Musashi quickly landed a crushing blow which killed Denshichiro on the spot!

As a result of the defeat of both the Yoshioka brothers, Musashi’s fame grew instantly in Kyoto. And it grew at the expense of the Yoshioka’s reputation. Humiliated, the disciples of the Yoshioka school devised a plot to do away with Musashi and put an end to this young upstart. The plan was to have Matashichiro, the son of Genzaemon, challenge Musashi. Then, when he arrived at the appointed place of the duel they would all attack him simultaneously and kill him. Musashi arrived at the place of the duel hours ahead of schedule and found a hiding place. From his vantage point he watched and listened as the Yoshioka’s arrived with the young Matashichiro. They commented how Mushashi would be late as usual and that they would not fall for that trick again. Prepared to wait for Musashi’s late arrival, they laid their weapons down and relaxed. Suddenly, Musashi jumped out from his hiding place and caught them totally off guard. He shouted ”I’ve been waiting long enough! Draw your sword and prepare to fight!” He quickly moved toward Matashichiro and killed him instantly by slashing across forehead. He then engaged the other Yoshioka disciples one by one quickly dispatching them before they could organize the ambush they had planned against him. After killing many of them, Musashi suddenly turned and fled. This was the end of the Yoshioka family but the beginning of Musashi’s career and quest for worthy adversaries. He would wonder the land for eight more years accepting challenges from other samurai.

The highlight of Musashi’s career as a swordsman came when he met his arch rival Sasaki Kojiro. Kojiro used a long sword that he carried slung behind his back rather than held by the obi at the waist like other samurai.  (Interview with Komei Sekiguichi, Headmaster, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaijutsu. March, 1997.) His nickname for his sword was The Drying Pole. The nickname was due to it unusual length. Kojiro was known to have cut swallows out of the air with a single stroke of the Drying Pole. He also developed a fighting technique known as tsubame gaeshi (swallow counter) based on the tail movements of a swallow in flight. In their  encounter, Musashi had no sword so he carved one out of a boat oar on the way to Ganryu Island where their duel was to take place. At their meeting at dawn on the beach, Kojiro drew his sword while standing in the surf and threw his saya into the water. Musashi commented ”You’ve thrown your saya away. Because you know you won’t need it anymore. You know you’ve already lost.” Kojiro lunged at Musashi cutting a towel off  his head with his sword. At the same time Musashi brought his wooden sword down in a mighty blow crushing Kojiro’s skull. After this, Musashi was considered to be invincible in combat. He had fought in over sixty duels and numerous battlefield engagements.

Musashi was always searching for the best way to perfect his sword skills and achieve enlightenment, the zen ideal of spiritual oneness. In addition, Musashi is known for his relationship with the zen monk Takuan (1573-1645). He  Pursued Yagyu Munenori for esoteric knowledge. But the old man was usually inaccessible or simply dismissed Musashi. Finally, when Yagyu could avoid him no more and with Musashi expecting some lofty spiritual guidance Yagyu said, “Your problem is  you are too strong.”

Musashi is known for founding the Niten ryu or two sword style. Although, the lineage (keizu) or succession seems to be lost. Interestingly enough, nito or two sword keiko is practiced in modern kendo. It is said that Musashi discovered the two sword style by accident while in a battle.  In the fury of combat, he pulled out his short sword or wakizashi and started fighting with it in one hand while he held his long sword or katana in the other.

The last two years of his life he spent in a cave writing his classic treatise on strategy called Gorin No Sho – A Book of Five Rings. It is known to be one of the greatest books ever to be written on strategy. (Authors note: The authors opinion is that the other two books are The Art of War by Sun Tzu and Principe (The Prince) by Machievelli. In the Gorin No Sho, Musashi’s equates the strategy of warring armies to that of individual or single combat saying that it is one in the same thing. This was the first time this theory was ever aspired to. In fact, critics of Musashi say that his tactics in the case of the Yoshioka’s and others were inexcusable no matter how good his swordsmanship. Since he and his tactics did not follow the proper etiquette and rules of decorum of the times.  However, defenders of Musashi respond by saying that the depth of his swordsmanship and philosophy reveal that his thinking was the match began at the moment of the challenge. Much like warfare on the field of battle, a surprise attack is an accepted and even heralded tactic. (See Sun Tzu, The art of War.) This is implicit in Musashi’s statement in the Gorin No Sho, “There is no warrior in the world today who really understands the way of strategy”. In other words, no Marquis of Queensbury rules in battle, whether man to man or army to army. No quarter shall be taken and none shall be given. This is not unlike Machiavelli ‘The first thing to do is to ignore the rules since your opponent will surely do the same.’

Musashi also wrote a definitive treatise on the technical aspects of swordsmanship entitled The Thirty Five Articles on the Art of Swordsmanship. This work gives details on how to hold a sword, what footwork to use and other bits of wisdom garnered from Musashi’s experience in actual swordplay. It is considered the forerunner of the Gorin No Sho.

Ito Ittosai Kagehisa (1540-1634)  

 Ito Ittosai Kagehisa was the founder of the Itto Ryu school of kenjutsu. This is one of the major schools of Japanese swordsmanship. As a youth, Ito was muscular and very strong. From his early teens he had a desire to become a swordsman. In the small village where he lived, he practiced incessantly and quickly developed lighting fast movements by using a wooden sword. One day a traveling samurai stopped at Ito’s village. He bragged of his skill in kenjutsu so Ito fought a match with him. The boy easily defeated the samurai. Ito was simply too fast for him and the samurai was unable to block any of his blows. Another event dramatically influenced Ito’s life and sword style. One evening for reasons unknown,    Ito was attacked from behind by a would be assassin. A sixth sense told Ito to turn quickly, draw his sword and instinctively cut his opponent down before he could finish his cut. The encounter was over in a flash and the attacker lay dead at his feet. For several weeks afterward he contemplated the event but he could not remember what technique he used . Finally, it came to him that the block and cut were one and the same and that his sword was the stronger and overcame his opponent’s. He therefore named himself Ittosai or one-sword man. This technique became known as Kiri Otoshi (Literally cutting drop). Later, this same technique became known as Uchi Otoshi in modern kendo. (See This is Kendo Today, G. Alexander & G. Warner).   This information was provided in an Interview with Hiramasa Takano, Nakanishi Itto Ryu Kenjutsu, June 1986).

He fought all over Japan. Ito Ittosai became the leading swordsman of his day. He eventually moved to Kyoto and opened a dojo where he had many disciples. However, he later went on numerous pilgrimages to find a worthy opponent and a successor to Itto Ryu kenjutsu. He fought thirty three duels during his wanderings and never lost one match. Unlike Musashi and others he never sought after or tried to connect religious ideals, morality or philosophy to his swordsmanship. On the contrary, he was totally pragmatic in his approach to swordsmanship. And as such, his method of selecting a successor was cruel and unusual. Typically, a master would select a student with the highest technical skill and initiate him into the okuden or hidden mysteries of the style. Often a certificate was awarded in the form of a scroll or makimono, known as a menkyo kaiden proclaiming the named recipient as either the successor or achieved full mastery of the art. However, Ito decided to have his two top students fight to the death in order to determine the successor to the ryu. One student was named Zenki and the other was named Tenzen. Both were eqally talented and powerful swordsman. Since Ito could not make a decision between the two, it was decided the match would be fought with real swords and the victor would become the successor. Tenzen won the match by slashing his opponent and killing him instantly with one stroke. Tenzen then became the head othe Itto Ryu style. He recieved the master’s sword and he later changed his name to Ono Taadaki and founded a branch of the style called Ono Ha Itto Ryu. Later, disciples of the Itto Ryu (mainly Chuto Nakanishi)  were responsible for developing the shinai used in modern kendo. (Interview with Hiromasa Takano, 10th Dan Meijin of Nakanishi Itto Ryu Kenjutsu,  June 1986, Kamakura, Japan).

    Kamiizumi Nobutsuna (1508-1577)

Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, who was originally known as Kamiizumi Hidetsuna, is considered the initiator of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu. This is a true   hereditary ryu whose descendants were all blood relatives and became fencing instructors to the Shoguns. Nobutsuna had studied the Kage Ryu style of swordsmanship under Aisu Hisatada (1452-1538), its founder. However, he wished to develop his swordsmanship further. He convinced his Daimyo (feudal lord) to allow him to go on a pilgrimage to develop his sword style known as Shinkage Ryu (New Shadow school). During his journey, he had occasion to have a match with Yagyu Muneyoshi (1529-1606), who was the best swordsman from Yagyu Village. During their engagement, which took place in approximately 1565,  Muneyoshi was soundly defeated by Nobutsuna. At that point, Muneyoshi requested to become Nobutsuna’s student. Nobutsuna is known to have developed the furoku shinai. This is a mock sword constructed with bamboo staves inside a leather bag. It was unique to Shinkage Ryu and substantially reduced injuries  in sword matches.

One famous story about Nobutsuna recounts how he rescued a child from the clutches of a madman. The man threatened to kill the child. To disguise himself, Nobutsuna had his head shaved and posed as a priest. He approached the man who was holding the child and offered the man riceballs. As the man reached for the riceballs, he wrestled him to the ground and rescued the child. He then   returned the child to its relieved parents.

Nobutsuna’s approach to swordsmanship was perhaps the first to incorporate the mental aspects of combat into a style as opposed to only techniques. (This would eventually lead to a relationshsip which combined zen and swordsmanship.) In this case, the mental aspects referred to the concept of reading the opponent’s mind. ‘A mind whose intention is winning is kage’. When facing an opponent, it is important not to reveal one’s intentions (especially through body language, changing postures or movement). ‘One’s mind should reflect the thoughts of the opponent ‘s mind like water that reflects the moon (mizu no kokoro).’ The Yagyu Shinkage Ryu developed from the Shinkage Ryu style of Nobutsuna.

Yagyu Muneyoshi (1529-1606)

After the match between Nobutsuna and Yagyu Muneyoshi (1529-1606), Nobutsuna noticed a talent for swordsmanship in the yet to be developed  Muneyoshi. As Nobutsuna’s disciple, Muneyoshi progressed rapidly and eventually received a certificate from Nobutsuna proclaiming him as the successor to Shinkage Ryu. Muneyoshi did much to further develop the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu style. His youngest son, Munenori (1571-1646) also showed a talent for swordsmanship.  One of Muneyoshi’s contributions to the Yagyu style is called Muto or no sword, i.e. defending oneself against a sword while having no sword. These are techniques such as clasping an opponent’s sword with the palms of the hands or manipulating an opponent’s sword by grabbing the hilt or tsuka.Obviously, these are techniques which require great skill. Incidently, the Shinkage Ryu uses a unique form of shinai that is made of bamboo strips completely covered with leather.

As Muneyoshi’s fame as a swordsman grew, a chance meeting changed the destiny of the Yagyu clan forever. In 1594, having heard of Muneyoshi’s skill, the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu requested a meeting with Muneyoshi at his villa (imperial palace) in Kyoto. The Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, recieved Muneyoshi, who was sixty-six at the time and was accompanied by his son Munenori who was then twenty-four. The Shogun was so impressed with their demonstration of muto that he decided to try it himself. As Ieyasu attacked Muneyoshi with a wooden sword, Muneyoshi adeptly yanked it from his grasp sending the sword flying through the air. At that point, the Shogun requested that Muneyoshi become his personal swordsmanship instructor. Muneyoshi said that he was too old but requested that his son, Munenori, hold the position and the Shogun agreed.

Munenori (1571-1646)

The Yagyu had a special relationship with the ninja of Iga and Koga Provinces. The ninja acted as espionage agents and helped gather intelligence information which proved to be valuable in winning the battle of Sekigahara in October 1600, the deciding battle which unified the country. Additionally, they used ninja as guerrilla fighters against Ishida Mitsunari’s troops, the opposing force in the battle of Sekigahara. Munenori with the help of the priest Takuan (1573-1645) combined many aspects ofzen with swordsmanship. This is reflected in Munenori’s writings known as Heiho Kaden Sho. An important tactic in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu was to perceive the opponent’s movements before he made them. The Heiho Kaden Sho (Book of Swordsmansip) written by Munenori explains how an opponent will betray his intentions by preceding an attack with small movements of his shoulders or arms.

Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi (1607-1651)

Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi, Munenori’s eldest son, distinguished the reputation of the Yagyu name even further. At the Shoguns request, he roamed the countryside disguised as a ronin (masterless samurai) in order to engage in espionage. He developed techniques which emphasized go no sen, i.e. waiting for the opponent to attack and then take advantage of his movement which left him unprotected.  Reportedly, Mitsuyoshi only had one eye. Legend tells us that he had it poked out in a fencing match using bokken. He wrote a treatise on swordsmanship called Tsuki no Sho (Notes on the Moon). Mitsuyoshi suddenly died at the early age of forty four while staying in the village of Yagyu. Supposedly, he was poisoned. Mitsuyoshi’s son, Munefuyu continued the Yagyu family tradition of serving the Shogun as fencing instructor. Although he was an excellent swordsman, he did not have the talent of his predecessors. The Yagyu Shinkage Ryu line produced three master swordsman, Yagyu Muneyoshi; Yagyu Munenori and Yagyu Mitsuyoshi. Its tradition has been carried on to the present day.

Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888)

Yamaoka Tesshu is often referred to as the last great swordsman of Japan. In an age when the sword was completely replaced as a weapon of war and a symbol of chivalry, he was totally dedicated to his mastery of the sword. He studied the Itto Ryu style of kenjutsu and was a practitioner of zen. In fact, he completed an entire course in Zen and was considered enlightened. He once gave instruction in swordsmanship to the Emperor Meiji. During their match, Tesshu threw the Emperor to the floor using ashi garami (leg entanglement). The Emperor’s attendants were shocked that he threw the Emperor to the floor so violently. When they asked him about it saying “How dare you throw his majesty?” He said “Why not! It is part of what I was asked to teach him. “If the Emperor does not know what it is like to be thrown, he will not  know fencing”.

Yamaoka Tesshu lived during a time of transition in Japan. The Shogunate was disolving and giving way to imperial power. He deeply regretted the decline of bushido, the way of the samurai. However, he was known for his efforts to prevent war between imperial forces and the Shogun’s army.

 Kendo:  Japanese Swordsmanship

Kendo is “The Way of Japanese Swordsmanship”. Modern kendo is both an art and an exciting sport. Its roots lie deep in Japanese culture and the spirit of the samurai warrior, known as bushi.Modern kendo is a unique blend of sport and spiritual discipline based on classical kenjutsu. Kendo originated a thousand years ago from kenjutsu an earlier ancestral form of swordsmanship. Kenjutsu is the art of using real swords or “live blades” on the battlefield and traces its origins back to Japan’s ancient martial culture. In fact, history records competitive bouts with swords were held as early as the Heian Period (794-1185).

In the late 1700’s, the shinai or bamboo sword was developed along with the protective equipment used in modern Kendo called dogu. Dogu literally means equipment of “the way”. A branch of the Itto Ryu kenjutsu style developed this equipment. This made it possible for a samurai to be able to practice using full force blows or cuts to his opponent without fear of injuring his training partner. Although this “new system” met with criticism from some of the members of the Itto Ryu style. In fact, some of them left the Ryu or clan because of the use of dogu. Prior to the use of the bamboo shinai and armour, practice was restricted to kata or forms repetition or the dangerous use of real swords. A bokken or solid wooden sword was sometimes used but this proved to be dangerous as well. These were used so that the feeling of applying techniques with a cutting edge could be maintained. In fact, Yagyu Jubei, the grandson of a famous swordsman had his eye poked out with a bokken during practice. The bokken is used in modern kendo for kata practice. The bokken is a solid wooden sword made out of hardwood to resemble the shape, balance and weight of a real sword. As such, it is a dangerous weapon even though it does not have a ‘shinken’ or sharp edge. After all, Musashi Miyamoto, Japan’s greatest swordsman, killed many of his opponent’s with a bokken. In fact, Mushashi prevailed over his archrival, Sasaki Kojiro, using only a bokken.

The innovation of the shinai and dogu made the practice of kendo even more popular. Today this is sometimes referred to as shinai kendo and the practice of kata as koryu or kata kendo. The Japanese government made kendo a part of compulsory education in schools in 1871. In 1909, the first college kendo federation was formed and in 1928 the All Japan Kendo Federation was formed. In 1952 the All Japan Kendo Federation was revitalized and in 1957 the Japanese Ministry of Education officially included a totally sport oriented form of kendo in its school physical education programs. Since then kendo has spread worldwide and has become international in scope. In 1971 the International Kendo Federation was created as the world governing body of kendo. About seven million people practice kendo in Japan and about one million people practice kendo outside of Japan.

Realism in training is a feature of all true Japanese martial arts.  Therefore, there is a necessity to wear armor to protect oneself from full force blows.   This armor or equipment, collectively known as dogu, consists of the men, kote, do, tare and shinai.  The men is a form of headgear which incorporates a metal face mask.  The kote are padded gloves or gauntlets which protect the hand and wrist.  The do is a leather covered chest protector and the tare is a padded waistband which

covers the hips. A hand towel known as a tenugui is worn under the men to keep sweat out of the eyes during practice. The custom in kendo is give these as gifts or mementos after a practice.  The shinai is the practice sword used in modern Kendo.  It simulates a real sword with a cutting edge and is made from four strips of bamboo and a leather tip and handle held together by a string. The string runs down the back of the shinai and signifies the dull side of the blade. The split bamboo construction allows the force of the blows to be absorbed by the shinai or dissipate upon contact. If a blow misses the armor and strikes an unprotected part of the body, the leg for instance, because of the construction of the shinai only superficial bruising will occur.

For purposes of sport the number of techniques in kendo is limited. There are eight striking points in Kendo used for scoring.  Seven of these simulate cuts and one a thrust. Kendo emphasizes slashing as opposed to European style fencing which emphasizes thrusting. The striking points to the head are men, the top center of the face mask, Hidari Men, Left side of the face mask, Migi men, right side of the face mask.  Kote is a strike to the forearm just above the wrist and Hidari kote is a strike to the left forearm.  Hidari kote is only permissible when the opponent’s left hand is raised above the shoulder.   Do is a strike which simulates a cross cut to the body.  Migi do strikes the right side of the chest protector while Hidari do strikes the left side. Usually Hidari Do is prohibited to keep the match a little cleaner. Tsuki is a thrust to the throat flap which is attached to the men headgear.  When a strike is made, a Kendoka calls out the point by yelling Men, Kote, Do or Tsuki.  This is a form of Kiai or shout releasing spiritual energy. Men is the favored technique. The idea is to catch the opponent totally off guard or unaware with a perfect men technique. This relates to the concept of ken zen itchi, the sword and the mind are one and ki ken tai no ichi, the sword, the body and mind are one. It implies the perfect stroke or cut involves the sword, the body and the mind all coordinated together as elements of one technique. Therefore, the perfect cut must strike the target: Men; Kote; Do or Tsuki with sufficient force at the same time the weight of the body comes down on the lead foot while calling out the name of the strike. “If you don’t call it, it doesn’t count!” Calling out the name of the strike loudly Men, Kote or Do also functions as a Kiai. Also, the lead foot should stomp the floor with a loud stamping sound at the same time as the impact of the technique. This is referred to as fumikomi and emphasizes that the bodyweight has been dropped at the same time the technique was executed.

Kendo training traditionally requires self-discipline and intense exhaustive physical and mental effort.  Needless to say, this builds tremendous stamina.  It is reported that a certain Ryu required a swordsman to fight “six hundred” matches in order to achieve only a middle level rank in Kendo.  It is necessary to train to the point of complete exhaustion in order to improve one’s technique.  This develops Ki or internal energy which is very important and stressed in Kendo.  The development of Ki allows a superior swordsman to use “inner strength” rather than rely on sheer muscular or somatic force.  A Kendoka who relies on muscular force alone soon becomes exhausted and can no longer adequately defend himself.  You have to experience this in order to become a believer.

The fighting strategy of modern Kendo lies in speed and the ability to attack the opponent.  Mastery is achieved through repetition training in the basic strikes of Kendo.  Also, emphasis is placed on footwork.  Footwork training called Suburi demands that the Shinai and body be moved in a coordinated manner in order to achieve speed and accuracy.  Good sight is also necessary in Kendo.  This is necessary in order to detect a flaw in the opponent’s defense.  This in itself develops a certain spiritual or intuitive awareness.

There are ten kata utilized in modern Kendo training.  Although Kata is not the foremost training method used in Kendo.  These Kata consist of two-man sets which use techniques of kenjutsu that have actually been tested in combat with real swords. These two-man kata are called Nihon Kendo Kata and are performed with the bokken or a sword. The Nihon Kendo Kata were formulated as early as 1912 at the Dai Nippon Butokukai (The Greater Japan Martial Virtues Association). These kata make use of the ancient techniques of kenjutsu as adapted to modern kendo, i.e. kiri age (cutting from ground to sky) has been eliminated.  In addition to these kata, there are a set of solo exercises or forms called seitei gata. These are called iaido kata which emphasize sword drawing and cutting. These are sword kata derived from Iaijutsu techniques. In 1967, the All Japan Kendo Federation (Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei – ZNKR) formed a committee that developed the first seven of these kata so that kendoka would not lose the feeling of working with a real sword as opposed to practicing with only a bokken or shinai. The committee was made up of members from the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, Muso Shinden Ryu and Hoki Ryu. In 1977, a second committee was formed which included the previously mentioned Ryu and the Tamiya Ryu. At that time, the remaining three kata were added to complete a set of ten kata known as the seitei gata. Some critics of the seitei gata have stated that many of the hundreds of traditional Iaijutsu ryu did not contribute to the design of the seitei gata. However, many Ryu now use the seitei gata as a point of beginning and then practice the kata relevant to their particular Ryu. Therefore, the seitei gata is the most popular way of practicing iaido. Additionally, another organization exists in Japan (in addition to many separate Iaijutsu Ryu) which is called the All Japan Iaido Federation (Zen Nippon Iaido Renmei – ZNIR). This organization was founded inn 1948 and has its own curriculum of kata.

 Additionally, the reality of training in swordsmanship in that there are really three critical areas in which training is necessary to become a complete swordsman. The first is training in techniques of attack and defense and engaging in actual keiko or free style sparring practice to develop timing, distance and other innate combative skills. This is modern kendo. The second is training in kata to perfect techniques and the proper form. The third is tamaeshi giri or performing actual test cutting on a target such as bamboo or tatami. Tamaeshi giri practice teaches the actual feeling of cutting andhasuji or the proper angle of engagement in order to make a cut effective. It is necessary to engage in all three types of practice to fully develop as a swordsman.

Modern kendo uses a rank system based on the Kyu/Dan system which was originated by Judo. Kyu ranks are usually from rokkyu (sixth Kyu) upwards through ikkyu (first Kyu). Dan ranks are from Shodan (first Dan) through Judan (tenth Dan). However, let me qualify this by saying there are not to many  legitimate tenth dans in kendo. In fact, the highest ranking gaijin (foreigner – non Japanese) in kendo is Dr. Gordon Warner. He is a hachidan (8th Dan) and began his training in 1937. No belts are worn in kendo but it is obvious after a few minutes in a match what the skill level is of the practitioners. It usually takes about two to three years to achieve Shodan in kendo. Kendo is controlled by the All Japan Kendo Federation (Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei) and the International Kendo Federation (Kokusai Kendo Renmei). A world tournament is held every three years. Each participating country has its own federation which is a member of the IKF. All Dan ranks are granted by a promotion board after testing. No dojo certificates are allowed for Dan ranks

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