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A Brief Look At Japanese Sword Arts
By Bob Hubbard

Japanese sword arts are considered some of the finest in the world. The katana is prized for its sleek efficient design and balance. A complete look at these arts can and has filled entire books. In our limited space, I am going to give a brief overview of a select few.

Kenjutsu or “the art of the sword is usually of a combative nature. Kenjutsu movements begin with the sword already drawn. Classical kenjutsu schools (also called ryu) are about as close as you can get to the classical warrior training today. Many of the classical schools are closed to outsiders and tend to be very secretive.

Kenjutsu training gear is very traditional, consisting of a hakama (a split skirt type trouser), keikogi (a heavy weight jacket worn tucked in) and obi (belt). Training is done with either a bokken (wooden sword) or a live blade.

Practice is done individually at first, but later as one becomes more proficient, partner drills are added to the mix. Many repetitions of the kata (forms) are required to learn the intricate motions of the art. At later stages actual cutting and thrusting is done using water soaked rolled straw mats and poles, called tameshigiri. This simulates the feel of the blade cutting through flesh.

Kendo or “the way of the sword” is a Japanese style of fencing that evolved from Kenjutsu as many began to wonder if a higher understanding could be found through practice with the sword. This movement from “art” to “way” began in the middle of the 14th century. Initially, Kendo was a way to train in kenjutsu without the risk of harm from the live blade, but later it began to come into its own during the Meiji period in Japan (1868-1912)

Training is done in traditional uniforms. To this is added the budogu or fencing armour. This is similar to that worn in the west. The men is a face mask with throat protection, the do (a breastplate) the kote (gloves and gauntlets) and a tare or heavy apron are the components of the budogu. The weapon used in Kendo is the shinai, or bamboo sword. The shinai is approximately four feet in length and is made of four carefully formed bamboo slats bound together to form hollow cylinder. A cord runs along the length of the shinai.

Kendo has a more limited legal strike area than other arts. Part of this is for safety reasons. I’ve also heard it said that these are the harder to hit areas, and if you can hit them, you can hit anywhere. These areas are the wrists, sides of the do, three head shots (left right and center) and 1 thrust to the throat. To make a valid cut a player must strike his opponent with the side opposite the cord. In addition the point must be struck with the top third of the shinai.

Promotion and advancement are done by kyu and dan, similar to the colored belt ranks found in other arts. The difference is that the obi (which is sometimes deleted) remains a constant color. At higher dan ranks, some proficiency with a live blade is required. Classical ryu have all but vanished, and today kendo emphasizes more of the sport aspects.

The final sword art to cover here is Iaido / Iaijutsu.
Iai is differentiated from the ken styles in that the sword is initially sheathed. Iai is composed of drawing the sword, bringing it to combative use in minimal time, and then resheathing it. You start from both combative postures, and at-rest positions such as seated. The reason for these non-combat positions is that they are everyday positions. Once could expect attack at any time, so the ability to respond and survive was considered essential.

As the student progresses, the ‘do’ aspects are often left behind and the jutsu becomes more pronounced. The major difference between the 2 styles is that while Iaido focuses on the mental aspects, Iaijutsu focuses on the combative techniques. Many students find iaido to be a meditative art in their search for perfection of the draw.

A traditional gi is worn as in kenjutsu, and styles vary in how they handle rank. Iaido is practiced today as an aid to self-discipline, improved coordination, and for the sake of posterity. In most styles of iaido the actual cutting techniques are valid, but the practice of iai for defense or war is no longer necessary in modern times.

Bob Hubbard is an administrator of the popular martial arts portal site A student of all the arts, he is currently studying Modern Arnis. Bob can be reached at

Originally published in MartialTalk Magazine August 2003
Copyright ©2003 Bob Hubbard - All Rights Reserved


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