Welcome to an introduction on how to use the Japanese sword in your own martial arts training and as a tool of self-development. It is the goal of this training post to introduce you to the fundamental basics of the sword to not only get you started, but also impart a solid foundation so if you take your training to the next step in a more formal setting you will already have an understating of the basics and how to fit into the training culture of the dojo.
For this seminar you will need a wooden training sword known as a bokken or a similarly sized blunted stick.
Under no circumstances should you ever practice with a metal training sword or a real sword- the chances of serious injury to yourself or your training partner must be considered.
We first begin our study with a question- why in this day and age does one even study how to use the Japanese sword (katana)?
There are many reasons to study this historical and cultural tool beyond mere curiosity…
Studying the katana links you with a tradition that dates back hundreds of years to the time of the samurai of Japan, learning skills and methods that were used during life and death struggles of the time, with little to no change over the years. It is a chance to be part of a living tradition that has been handed down from teacher to student over countless generations. Think about how much the world has changed in your lifetime, and how you are now studying an art form that has not changed over time.
While the time of war with the sword is over and faded away with the samurai culture, the mind to body benefits are more important than ever- especially in this modern age. Exercises integrating the mind and body with the sword heighten your senses, expand your awareness, and sharpen your senses- all valuable attributes to have and carry over into everyday life.
And finally as a training tool to explore the katana teaches the student how to move the body, about distance, timing, and balance- all skills used in any modern martial arts which will benefit the modern student of the arts.
As you work your way through this course please keep these concepts in mind and look for them in the training points regarding how you can incorporate their understating into your own life and martial arts training.
Knowledge and the sharing of it begins with the understanding of language. The building blocks of letters, words, and composition allow people to communicate ideas and for other to understand them, and that is where we are going to begin with this course. There is a culture to the katana, a basic way of “how things are done” not only for safety reasons, but also so that all the students understand the format of learning by having a similar basic cultural understanding, similar to rules in a classroom, or the culture of a corporate entity on how people act and dress. By doing these rather simple things in your own daily training you will be heightening the awareness of your training lessons, and linking yourself with the samurai tradition, in addition to “fitting in” at the dojo if you pursue further training.
In Japanese culture and the martial arts fitting in is VERY important.
Knowing how to act and what is expected means the teacher (sensei) can spend the limited class time sharing valuable lessons rather than telling you how to stand or act appropriately.
Let’s star our exploration of this language by understanding the different types of swords used in studying kenjutsu….
Most of the training is done with a wooden sword made out of Japanese oak or a similar hardwood which represents the katana in size and approximate weight. The length of the sword is around three feet, but will change in size and shape depending on the school and tradition being studied. Formal training in the dojo will dictate this, and for the sake of this course it is not important but must be remembered.
This wooden training sword is known as a bokken, and despite it being wood, it MUST be treated as a REAL sword. Not only can it hurt somebody or yourself in training and thus needs to be respected, treating it as a real sword means you are also building proper handling skills that will carry over if you every pick up a real sword. Keep in mind that the most famous Japanese swordsman ever, Musashi, defeated many opponents in personal combat with a wooden sword while they used a real one.
This means never holding it by the “blade”, treating it carelessly, or tossing it about- it is not a piece of wood, but the spiritual representation of a real sword!
Keeping this in mind, just as one would care for a real sword, it is important to care for your bokken. Inspect it before and after each training session for any splits, cracks or splintering of the wood, so it does not hurt you or your training partner. If in doubt “retire” it and get a new bokken. Safety ALWAYS comes before tradition.
While most of your practice will be done with a bokken, there are times that another training sword is used for when contact is made between two training partners in class- a bokken should never be used for student to student contact.
This type of training sword is known as a fukuro shinai, or just plainly a shinai, and is a split bamboo sword often wrapped in leather or soft cotton to pad it. While not quite as heavy as a bokken it allows a degree of safety when making light contact in training.
Similarly there are times that an aluminum alloy sword is used into solo training (known as an iaito) which has the exact weight and length or a real sword, but being made out of unsharpened aluminum does not have an edge. That said, it still has a point, and the heft of a real sword and can be dangerous if not properly supervised under the direct real time supervision of a teacher.
Finally there is a real sword known as a shinken (live sword) which is the real deal- a fully sharpened and well built samurai sword used for what it was intended for. In martial arts training a shinken is used to practice cutting rolled up Japanese straw mats and other specialized targets.
I mention this in the post as you will often see a shinken used in cutting videos on YouTube and other social media so knowledge of what you are watching (culture) is important. That said, there is VERY little reason to ever use a real sword in solo training, and a real sword is NEVER used in partnered training. The risks are just too great for life altering accidents.
Please listen to this advice and NEVER use a real sword in practice.
Now that you are aware of the types of swords used in training, and what you should be using and not using we can move onto the basic etiquette of the sword and how to treat it when not in use.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the “blade” of the sword is always held facing up when not in use- this is both to protect the blade and to keep it ready for use if needed. Typically when the sword is in its sheath it is held with the left hand or tucked into the belt on the left and drawn with the right hand- this type of drawing and cutting with the sword is known as batto and is a sub skill or kenjutsu, just like grappling with the sword and armor is. When holding the sword in this manner, while it is not in use, you are aware of how hast it could be, and this builds awareness of space and time without thinking (zanshin).
That said, there are times that the sword is not held this way based on what it symbolizes…
In class techniques are often demonstrated by the teacher while the group stands off to the side and watches what is being shown. Afterwards the teacher will comment on some of the finer points and then the group will break up into senior and junior (sempai and kohai) partners and practice. When a teacher is showing a technique or you are standing around waiting to being practice the sword (bokken) should be held in your right hand with the edge facing up.
By holding it in your right hand you are showing respect in carrying it, but not your intention to use it in batto. If we can use the analogy of a fire arm for illustration, imagine if an instructor was showing you how to shoot and during that you had your pistol out and drawn.
What would that convey vs. having the side arm with the safety on and in your side holster?
When you are ready to actually practice a technique with a training partner, pass the sword to your left hand, take the handle with your right, assume the staring posture (kamae) and begin the lesson- finish by reversing the process and bowing to your training partner.
Going back for a moment and understanding what a bokken represents, it goes without saying that during training your bokken should never just be left on the floor, held or used like a walking stick in-between lessons or while the teacher is demonstrating. Likewise it should never hit a wall, be dropped on the floor, of bumped into another bokken as you move about.
Always be aware of where the sword is in relation to where you are, your surroundings, the other students, and the other swords in the class. There is a HUGE lesson in this understanding.
Are you ready for your first lesson?
Taking your bokken in your left hand while holding it edge up by your side practice just simply walking around with it. Be aware of where it is and work on implanting in your mind that you are NOT just carrying a piece of wood, but rather a real sword.
The first step in building awareness of the sword begins with how you care for your bokken and hold your bokken during training- the aim is to have no difference between steel and wood in your mind and ultimately attitude.
When you are done training with your bokken, either alone or perhaps in martial arts class in moving onto bojutsu (stick training) or unarmed training take the time to put away your bokken. Many students have a simple cloth bag they store it in- kind of like putting a large sized sock over it and then tying it down and laying it next to their training bag.
Holding The Sword
Aiuchi: Mutual Killing
So committed to the way of the sword, many samurai duals ended with both men cutting each other down at the same time illustrating the deadly nature of the art.
Modern students are reminded of the skill and
dedication of the samurai, and how important the extreme attention to detail is, if one was to even survive the times.
Now that you have been introduced to the types of training sword, how to hold your sword when not in use, and the beginning of building awareness of it, we can move onto how to hold it in use followed by the three basic postures needed to begin cutting practice with it.
While it goes without saying that a sword is not a club, hammer, or baseball bat and should not be held like one, many beginning students do indeed hold it like one.
This is understandable as a western student, since many things similar in size and shape of a sword are held this way. One can’t be criticized for doing something and not knowing, but once you are aware of the correct way of doing things then the responsibility is on YOU to do it correctly from that moment on.
That is another hidden lesson of kenjutsu to keep in mind.
The katana is always held with both hands as a two handed sword. While there are a few rare times it might be used one handed for a specific reasons- the loss of the other arm, always practice using it as a two handed sword.
There are many reasons for this, but for the sake of this course, the main reason is because all of the lessons of timing, distance and footwork will change if the sword is held in one hand. As a new student one has to learn the lesson first before it can be changed and adapted (shu ha ri).
In kenjutsu there are no left handed people- the right hand always grips near the guard (tsuba) while the other hand grips near the end of the handle. There should be a fist width of space in-between your two hands when you are gripping the sword.
This spacing is important as the right hand is the hand that delivers the force in the cut, while the left hand guides the blade- if your hands are close then the dynamics of the cut will be off, and this will affect your distance, timing, etc.
That’s not to say one can’t use a smaller or larger sword, you want to get to the point of understanding where you can pick up anything and use it, but again, in the beginning it is about learning correctly with proper principals over just freelancing things or making them up as you go along.
So how do you get the correct handle length in proportion to your hands and body?
A simple way is to hold the bokken in your right hand near the guard and measure it down to your right elbow- that is the “correct” length of the handle for your body.
Now that you are aware of how to hold the sword let’s take a look at gripping it…
Taking the sword in your hands use your pinky, ring, and middle finger to grip the sword in place tightly while your index finger and thumb lightly hold it- this type of sword grip will allow fluid movement of the sword in your power and guiding hand while still having a firm grip of the handle so you won’t drop the sword.
Ready for your next training exercise?
Time to practice holding the sword with the correct grip over holding it like a sporting tool- which may be harder than you think if you are an avid sportier! Once you feel comfortable with gripping the sword, practice holding it in your right hand as shown in the previous etiquette section, followed by passing it to your left hand, taking hold of the handle with your right and then holding it in front of your with both hands.
Feel comfortable with that?
Great, time to move onto the basic sword postures…
Looking beyond the mountains…
There is a saying in kenjutsu to look beyond the mountains often accompanied by a calligraphy picture to both inspire and remind the student. When looking at a mountain range we tend to focus on a single mountain- often the biggest and tallest to the point that after a few moments we miss the surrounding mountains.
In kenjutsu while we spend time focusing on the very smallest and exacting details to perfect ourselves without compromise, we need to know when to pull back and see where and how all the pieces fit into the big picture.
When using the sword it’s not enough to just cut with the sword, but rather to not only cut with it effectively, but also protect yourself from being cut back in the process from your training partner.
In kenjutsu there are a number of body postures (kamae) that both serve to lead into the various cuts, but also protect your body’s vulnerable spots from being cut in return.
Think of them as strategic starting points that you shift in and out of as you navigate the sword in conjunction with your training partner. In this course we are going to look at three of the basic postures used in kenjutsu. In actuality there are dozens of them in general, and even more used by specific schools (ryu). Some kamae further refine the strategy, while others are used for very specific functions like safely deflecting something being thrown at you.
In learning the kamae you want to first begin by assuming the position and getting used to holding your body and the sword correctly. Hold it for a bit as best you can and then stand back normally. Later on as you become more comfortable with them you will want to practice shifting from one posture to the next in a fluid manner and in different directions moving more like a dance to get used to shifting in and out of them as needed without thinking about them.
Regardless of the posture at all times you want to be aware of where your sword is in relation to you and your training partner, in addition to making sure your back is straight, your hips are tucked under your spine, and that you have good balance and are able to move smoothly.
BALANCE is KEY.
Posture # 1: Seigan No Kamae (True Eyes Posture)
Begin by gripping the sword in your hands as you step back with your left foot and forward with your right foot creating a triangle like pattern with your feet. Tuck your left elbow in near your side along with holding your right elbow out with a slight bend in the elbow.
Now imagine a training partner holding a sword across from you about three feet away and hold the sword in front of you angled slightly up, pointing the tip at their eyes with the edge of your sword facing down.
In this posture you are physically putting the sword in-between you and your training partner which is a very good defensive move. In order to cut you, they have to navigate past your sword and in turn risk being either cut or thrusted with your own sword.
This posture derives its name from how it deceives the eyes…
Ultimately kenjutsu is all about distance.
A miss is a miss if happens by an inch or a foot.
Well trained in kenjutsu one can effectively deal with a sword wielding training partner without even drawing and using their own sword (muto-dori) since they know what is going to happen and how to control the distance. This is the life giving sword since you do not use your own sword allowing one to keep their life and not ruin yours by taking another life (karma).
In kenjutsu there are three basic distances, which all get adjusted a bit based on sword length, the leg length of your training partner, and any environment effects like trying to cut up or down a hill, on slippery ground, in mud, etc.
The first distance is where you can cut your training partner and they can cut you at the same time without stepping or moving your feet. This is the WORST place to be for obvious reasons.
The second distance is where you and your training partner can cut each other but you have to both take a step to close the distance to do so- this is better as you have some time to act and can influence the receiving cut based on kamae to negate it.
The third distance which is the best distance is where you can step and make contact with your training partner but they can’t step and make contact with you- but they think they can…
One of the ways to conceal your distance and gain the third distance is to hide the length of the sword. Well trained in kenjutsu, you will judge part of the distance based on how close you are to the opposing sword, so naturally if you don’t know how close you are the distance becomes safer or more dangerous depending on where you stand.
Think of how you view the sword as a straight object.
If you view it from the side, you can judge the length, but if you view it head on, directly straight with the eyes, the length of the sword will be hidden behind itself and harder to judge.
That is one of the secret teachings of the seigan posture.
Point the sword at the eyes, and have it disappear behind the length.
To conveniently learn this skill practice in front of a mirror holding and adjusting the angle of the sword to where the length disappears from your sight. Be sure to remember that once you find that sweet spot it will change based on the height of the training partner you practice with each time and needs to be adjusted as needed.
While standing in seigan try to flatten your body as much as possible behind it to protect as much of your body behind it as possible like a shield. Also keep in mind that your hands are the closest body part that can be made contact with so be ready to move them and the sword out of the way as needed.
So how is seigan used?
Seigan is used to create and control distance, to protect yourself, and to push your training posture off balance and out of proper kamae. When in doubt as your training partner steps forward move into a strong seigan posture, see how they react and then shift to the appropriate posture to deliver a cut based on where they are weak and open.
Posture # 2: Dai Jodan No Kamae (Great Overhead Posture)
This posture begins with holding the sword over your head with the opposite footwork of seigan no kamae- your left leg is forward while your right leg is back.
Holding the sword 45 degrees over your head is important- back further and it takes more time to bring it down to cut, in addition to shifting your balance backwards taking even more time to cut or move out of posture- time you don’t have when interacting with a training partner.
At first glance when compared to the safety of the seigan posture dai jodan looks to leave you vulnerable- your chest, stomach, and front arm are all targets to be made contact with by the other sword.
This is true if you have sloppy posture- a good dai jodan will always make sure the arc of the sword if brought down to cut will land in the center of the target being cut.
It is this very action, and the threat of it, which prevents the attack from coming in….
….which leads us to the understanding of just HOW important good kamae are, and why kenjutsu is made or broken on them- why you NEED to spend years practicing them.
A proper kamae, meaning your body is in balance and the sword held correctly and in the right position for the posture means that your training partner cannot risk attacking without getting cut back- there is no way through your posture.
The only thing your training partner can do to safely, for them, to make contact is to get you to break kamae- to move in such a way that your sword skips off alignment for a moment, that your balance shifts incorrectly so you can’t move for a second- something so they can safely cut you for a moment- and if your kamae is weak as you move around, you will give those openings without even knowing it and get tagged.
There is also a deception in this, where you appear to break kamae knowing that your training partner will see that and take the bait so to speak- allowing you to safely respond to them- however, these concepts can only be directly expressed and not captured or communicated by words.
Practice your kamae strong and long enough and they will reveal themselves…
Posture # 3: Hasso No Kamae (Side Cut Posture)
To shift into hasso no kame you stand with your left foot forward and your right foot back while holding the sword parallel to your side.
Unlike seigan no kamae, and dai jodan no kamae this posture has both a right and left side. To switch to the left side just reverse the footwork and hold the sword on the opposite side of your body.
The name “hasso no kamae” covers both sides.
In this posture pay attention to your front elbow and be sure to hold it in and close to your side. A common mistake is to have it sticking out a bit opening it up to being hit without even knowing.
But now that you know that, you know what to look for in your training partner or where to start exploring with this posture to open up weaknesses as we talked about in dai jodan no kamae.
Just as we examined three basic postures we are now going to look at four basic cuts in kenjutsu and how they combine with the three kamae. In cutting with the sword you are looking to make contact with the last three inches of the blade regardless of how long the sword is. This three inch range is where the most cutting power is found, based on the sharpening and curvature of the blade- it also helps to maintain proper distance and timing.
Yes, it’s true that the rest of the blade is sharpened since distance and timing may be off and one might cut with more than three inches, in addition to push and pull based cuts that also take advantage of the curvature of the blade. There is also grappling with the blade (yori kumiuchi) but for now that is beyond the scope of an introductory study course…
The first “cut” is actually a thrust where you push the sword out in front of you, angling it slightly up on impact to take advantage of the curvature of the bade. Often we see this done directly from the seigan posture by shuffling the feet forward and extending the arms. That said, it is not exclusive to seigan no kamae, just as all the cuts are- one can thrust from any of the postures by moving the sword into position and stepping.
The second cut involves bringing the sword down cutting from top to bottom and is illustrated best in dai jodan no kamae. Step forward and cut directly down with the sword stopping at about waist height…
…which bring us to another very important point in kenjutsu- never cut past the target or more then needed. Always keep the sword edge and tip in front of you as a shield.
As an example if I am cutting down from the dai jodan posture I want to stop at hip height in case I miss my target I can then thrust- maybe they step back out of the way? If I cut all the way down to the ground I open myself up with bad kamae to be countered at best and at worst might risk getting my sword stuck in the ground in front of me.
In hasso no kamae we practice cutting from an imaginary hip to shoulder in a diagonal line and then from shoulder to hip while stepping at the same time with the sword.
When cutting with the sword one needs to move the upper and lower half at the same time to generate the perfect cut while keeping good kamae, balance, distance, and timing. The best way to explain this is that every time you cut with the sword you are taking a step forward with your feet- how much of a step depends on the distance. Your hands and feet are linked together in the cut, meaning by the time you have finished stepping you have also finished cutting. You step and cut, not step then cut.
And with the study of those formal kata we end the introduction to kenjutsu…
As mentioned I hope it has offered you a good look into the foundations of the art along with the how and what is involved in study.
In preserving such a cultural transmission it is my hope that you can look beyond the physical and see how the lessons presented can be used to better your own self mentally and spiritually through good discipline and attention to detail.
While it is true that there is SO much more to the arts then presented here, and more than could ever be covered in a single class, what is presented here as a foundation is often the focus of training regardless of what ones belt color is or how long they have been practicing.
Moving forward the best advice I can leave you with is that you can never practice the basic kamae and cuts enough…