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Kenseikai Dojo



A Brief History of Kendo, Iaido & Jodo

This article will outline a brief history of the three arts practised within the BKA, and with any luck will also give some insight to why they are the way they are today. I will also try to outline the social conditions that gave rise to the arts, and also how these affected the weapons.

Imperial Rule

Kendo as we know it today has a very long ancestry. As far back as we can go in history there are swords involved. However in the Japanese context the curved sword appeared around the 10th Century. They were long, light and primarily one handed weapons with the option to use two. The reason: they were used on horseback, and they were backup weapons. The primary weapon at this time was the bow. In fact the life of the warrior was described as ‘The Way of the Horse and Bow’. The social conditions being that warriors were commissioned by the Emperor to put down rebellions, catch criminals and enforce the will of the government. Pitched battles were few and far between.

The Start of Shogunal Rule

However, by the time direct imperial rule was overthrown by the Minamoto in the late 12th Century, pitched battles had become the norm, also warfare in woods and mountains had become common, and the foot soldier gained more prominence. In fact it is in the 1200’s that the word ‘samurai’ began to be used. It simply means ‘someone who serves’. This is the great heroic age in Japanese history. Anyone with good training, brains and luck could be samurai. Also the shift to foot meant that the sword started to become prominent. It became shorter, and became two handed with the option of one handed operation, and they were worn edge up. Part of the technique was to be able to draw easily and quickly and this action was simply called ‘batto’, which means drawing the sword.

The period between 1192 to 1336 is known as the Kamakura period, after the city from which the shoguns ruled. This was the period when the feudal shogunal rule started. However it ended with the Emperor Go-Daigo reclaiming direct rule, aided by the Ashikaga clan. However the Ashikaga betrayed Go-Daigo and restored shogunal rule, and thus heralded the Muromachi period. This era saw a flowering of the arts (including the martial arts as we know them today) but it was generally not that stable.

It is in this period that we start to see specific schools or ‘ryu’ starting up. Not only was there training in the use of weapons but there was spiritual training as well, but it was generally limited to such training as would help the warrior keep a calm mind in battle. The most famous of these schools was Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, founded by Izasa Choisai Ienao around 1450. This school trained with swords, shuriken (throwing knives), naginata, spear, staff and other weapons, as well as battle strategy. It was (and still is) an influential school. The sword techniques were short sharp armour smashing blows directed to vulnerable points (throat, neck, underarms, small of the back, wrists). Other schools, such as Kashima Shin Ryu and Shinto Ryu are related, and the sword techniques used in modern Aikido tend to derive from these schools.

The sword techniques at this time are ones that are useful in battle, not necessarily elegant, but effective. Battojutsu (quick draw and despatch) was part of the curriculum, with emphasis on effectiveness.

War Breaks Out-The Sengoku Jidai

About 1460 all hell broke loose in Japan. This is the start of the Sengoku Jidai, the era of the country at war, which was to last for over 100 years. This is the time when the feudal lords, known as daimyo were too powerful to control. They started to vie with each other for influence and land. This is the period of the great generals, of grand strategy and battles, when politics and warfare intermingled.

The swords also changed. For a start they were of lower quality, due to the huge demand generated by the constant warfare now raging. Then about 1540 guns came to Japan. This changed the balance of power, and the master of tactical use of guns was undoubtedly Oda Nobunaga. At the battle of Nagashino in 1575, Nobunaga mowed down the Takeda cavalry. The samurai using the guns were low class samurai, the ashigaru. This in itself was a revolution.

Transition of Japanese Society.

One of Nobunaga’s ashigaru was a deserter from another army, who stole an armour and joined Nobunaga, and his name was Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi rose up the ranks and eventually became a top general. When Nobunaga was assassinated by Akechi Mitsuhide, Hideyoshi avenged Nobunaga and thus gained both the power and the honour and prestige of avenging his master’s death. This counted for a lot. Hideyoshi continued the reunification of Japan, eventually completing the job started by Nobunaga. Hideyoshi used not only warfare, but also bribery and negotiation, and one person he negotiated with was Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was too powerful to take on directy

Hideyoshi, however, could never become shogun, as he was not descended from the Minamoto, so he was titled Taiko, or Regent. He faced enormous problems, not least of which was a country at peace but with a populace armed to the teeth and quite capable of causing mayhem. Remember that anyone who wanted to be samurai could be one, if he survived long enough.

His solution was characteristic. First he formalised the class system. One could be warrior, farmer, artisan or merchant, with very little social mobility. Only warriors could carry swords. Everyone else had to hand in their weapons. Hideyoshi did this by celestial bribery. He declared that anyone handing in weapons would be guaranteed access to heaven by using these weapons in the manufacture of a giant statue of Buddha. I am sure that officials poking people with sharp objects also assisted. This was the famous ‘Great Sword Hunt’. He sent armies to Korea, both to further his ambitions and to keep potential rivals busy elsewhere. And then came the masterstroke. The wars had created a large number of ronin, masterless samurai who were social outcasts. Hideyoshi officially forgave them provided they joined his service. This guaranteed a loyal army as the former ronin would do anything to avoid returning to their outcast status.

Next he urbanised Japan, continuing the trend started by Nobunaga. Great castle cities grew up. The samurai, now known formally as Bushi clustered around the cities, and also so did everyone else, the swordsmiths, rice merchants, carpenters, tailors and entertainers. Only the farmers and fishermen remained in the


These urban samurai were no longer at war, and so did not wear armour as a matter of course, but there was still the danger of being attacked. Also some samurai started to ponder on the role of the warrior in society, and some were musha shugyo, wondering swordslingers who travelled around testing their skills. Three of these men, in whom we have an interest, were Shinmen Musashi Miyamoto, Muso Gunnosuke Katsuyoshi and Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu. These guys all lived through the transition from the freewheeling days of war to the stable society that was to follow. Battlefield swordwork was less necessary, but the ability to draw the sword quickly and kill an attacker was a useful skill, both in the role of self defence and being on guard duty at a castle. This skill was still called battojustu. Also without the encumbrance of armour the sword techniques became rounder, larger, and smoother. Different kamae (postures) appeared. New schools, such as Shinkage Ryu and others began to appear. This was the time that the ancestor of modern Iaido was created by Jinsuke, mentioned above. He travelled around, and is said to have started over two hundred schools. This was Muso Jikiden Ryu, or Jushin Ryu (Jushin is the Chinese reading of Shigenobu).

Hideyoshi died in 1598, leaving a five-year-old son as heir, a situation all dictators dread, as it stirs ambitions. So his will mandated that a council of regents rule until his son was of age. Two of the regents were Ishida Mitsunari (based in Osaka and head of the Western Army) and the aforementioned Tokugawa Ieyasu (based in Edo, now Tokyo, and head of the Eastern Army). This is the classic recipe for a huge fight, and so it proved in 1600, when Ieyasu defeated Ishida at Sekigahara. Casualties amounted to about 40000.

Edo Period.

Ieyasu became shogun in 1603, and consolidated his power. A couple of years later he handed over to his son, Hidetada, while Ieyasu ruled behind the curtain. The hostage system for the daimyo was initiated (it was politely called the alternate attendance system), in which the daimyo’s families remained in Edo, and the daimyo themselves had to spend periods of time in Edo. This limited conspiracy, and Ieyasu kept a tight control of things.

The samurai became administrators, bureaucrats, and officials, paid for by taxing the other classes. Many samurai became lazy, not training, enjoying their social status but not actually producing anything except red tape. There was evidence of this at the siege of Osaka in 1614-15, which Ieyasu pulled off as much by deception and long range bombardment with Dutch cannon as by hand to hand fighting. Also in 1638 the Shimabara Rebellion in which farmers and christians held off the Tokugawa samurai for ages, which dramatically highlighted the degradation of fighting skills.

These circumstances led some to think things over. Two things were gnawing at the mind of the samurai. First was his (and her) role in society, and the second was how to keep up the fighting skills in times of peace. This is where religious/philosophical matters come in. Japan had socially lived by the code of Confucius, suitably adapted to Japanese ways, and this solved the first problem. A warrior was a man of peace, justice and moral probity. He was to set an example to the rest of the population. He was to live a sober life, keep himself in fighting trim and be ready to do his duty, to die if necessary, while doing his duty. He was

to rise above violence and become educated, to foster the arts, to become a scholar, and to protect the country from threats. He didn’t produce anything, but he justified his existence by keeping the peace, dispensing justice, and generally setting example, and he had the tools to do it, and the time.

The second problem, that of preserving fighting skills, was at least partially solved by the explosion in the number of schools of martial arts. Many of these schools were founded by people who in reality were not that good at fighting, and many were on the make. They all sought patronage with daimyo, and it provided some degree of job security. There was always the risk that your patron could discontinue his support, or that you came up against someone like Musashi, who was not above wiping out entire schools. The ones that survived developed techniques, and found new ones, some of them quite flashy and which you wouldn’t seriously consider in a fight. Certain techniques became characteristic of certain schools. The Muso Ryu (of which Jikiden and Shinden are a part) had great big wellying cuts, as well as various sunegakoi (ankle protection techniques). Sub Ryu developed techniques for fighting in water. Yagyu Shinkage Ryu was a whole curriculum, including unarmed fighting, and became the official style of the Shogunate, and developed the use of the fukuro shinai (lit. ‘bag shinai’) which could be used on opponents without (much) fear of injury. Bet it still stung, though. Also it was realised that the training also developed character, and so the schools became vehicles for assisting in developing moral people, which was entirely in keeping the samurai’s role in society. I believe that this may be the main reason that they have survived to this day. In a society that doesn’t need fighters, the fighting arts schools adapted to the social conditions and justified their existence by moral and spiritual training. There was also the time for masters to ponder on why they survived fights and to look into the spiritual side of things. After all there was plenty of time. Many of the famous masters of the sword were also famous for being Zen Men as well. Many saw that instead of developing a Zen mind to help in swordfighting, the practice of sword techniques could be a way to spiritual enlightenment.

A word on the swords. In the early days the samurai on horseback used long, light swords. These were known as tachi. They were deeply curved. Also the samurai carried a dagger for the close in stuff. When the samurai became urban and settled they spent much time indoors. The tachi had become the katana, shorter with less curvature and easier to draw. The dagger had been replaced by the wakizashi (lit. ‘side sword’). The wakizashi was a short sword, useful for indoor fighting, and it was permissible to wear them indoors. (Long swords left at the door, please). However, the dagger, or tanto continued to be worn by women (this is why arguing with a fully clothed Japanese woman can be very bad for your health) and to be exchanged as gifts among samurai and daimyo. Also swordsmiths began to turn out higher quality swords, and started to produce more artistic work, although in the eyes of many they could not match the quality of the Kamakura era blades.

Also the sword had become venerated by the samurai. Not only was the sword a symbol of status, but it became the embodiment of the ideals of the samurai. It was clean, well made, razor sharp, and a dispenser of instant justice. It served as a reminder of the awesome responsibility of life and death borne by the bearer of the sword, and that to carry one you had to be worthy of it. These of course are all ideals, and some saw swords as a way to bully their way to what they wanted. This of course is the darker side to the sword.

Jinsuke’s school of Iaido developed with additional techniques being added by Eishin and Omori. Their sets of techniques added to the Oku (secret) techniques to give the three levels we have today: Omori Ryu, Eishin ryu and Okuiai. The 11th headmaster, in the 1700’s issued two menjo, and so the school formed two branches. The branch that would eventually develop into Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu became secret, and was predominantly practised in Western Japan, particularly in Tosa province, in the Island of Shikoku. The other branch, which was eventually to turn into Muso Shinden Ryu, became practised broadly in Eastern Japan. These two styles, are the predominant styles in Japan today, and also elsewhere in the world.

It has been said that once you pull the sword out of a scabbard, what happens after that is kenjutsu. Indeed, what about kenjutsu? Kata practice had long been established as being safer than matches with live blades, and bokken were as dangerous (Musashi often used bokken in his duels, with deadly effect). However the problem with kata is that it lacks the free exchange of blows which characterise a fight. Live blades were an option, but duels were generally frowned upon by the authorities, and the loser didn’t have a chance to learn from his mistakes. A man named Chuta Nakanishi of the Itto Ryu in 1750 started to develop shinai and armour which were the ancestors of the kendo armour and shinai we use today. Now the swordsman could deliver full blows with full power, and engage in matches and walk (well maybe) away afterwards. The above mentioned fukuro shinai was invented about this time. Many people didn’t like this development of protective equipment, saying that it diminished swordsmanship. It is interesting to note that this argument still rumbles along today.

Let’s now back up to the late l500’s/early l600’s. A fateful match took place between Musashi, who had perfected the use of two swords at once, and Gunnosuke, holder of a menkyo kaiden (masters certificate) in Katori Shinto Ryu. Gunnosuke used a bo (six foot staff), but Musashi blocked him with a cross block and defeated Gunnosuke. Musashi spared his life, and the unhappy Gunnosuke wandered around, obsessed with the idea of finding a way to defeat Musashi. Finally, through dreams, divine inspiration and no doubt much experimentation, came up with thejo, a short staff about 4 feet long. The legend is that Gunnosuke went back and defeated Musashi, but historians debate whether they ever met after the first encounter. Gunnosuke went on to develop the art of jojotsu, and the art was practised in secret in Kyushu (Southern island of Japan) for about 300 years. This art was given the name of Shindo Muso Ryu Jojutsu, with the jo as the core weapon (most ryu have the sword as a core weapon), and also includes Shinto Muso Ryu kenjutsu, hojojutsu (tying), kasurigama (sickle and chain) and other weapons.

Developments in the 20th Century.

Fast forward to the 20th Century. Japan has been open to the West for about 50 years, wearing of swords has been banned, except by the military and police, which are now organised along Western lines. The sword arts have declined markedly, except a few people have stubbornly kept the traditions going. There is no obvious use for them. However this is the time of Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo. He travelled extensively in the West, and was greatly influenced by what he saw. He took the dangerous techniques out of Jujutsu and formed Judo, and promulgated it as part of the education of youngsters in Japan. He also introduced the Dan ranking system. This had great influence in the practice of modern Kendo. In the early

1900’s the Kendo Kata were standardised into something like their present form. Shinai lengths were standardised (earlier shinai 6 foot long were sometimes seen), and Kendo took on a sporting element, and was introduced into the school curriculum. It was often called Gekken, and involved trips and takedowns as well as the usual sword strikes. Kendo as a term also started to be used as a specific term for this activity

The first half of the 20th Century saw much martial arts activity. Other famous names include Ueshiba Morihei, founder of Aikido, Gichin Funakoshi, who introduced Karate from Okinawa. However three names are of interest to us at this time: Oe Masamichi, Nakayama Hakudo, and Shimizu Takaji.

Oe Masamichi was the 17th Grandmaster of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. He took it out of the secrecy that had surrounded it, and modernised it extensively. Nakayama Hakudo was the last Grandmaster of the Muso Shinden Ryu. He gave out so many menjo that it was impossible to name a successor. The two styles retain extensive links, although as with all such things, have diverged into their own identity. Even today, the Shinden branch has far more practitioners than Jikiden. Jikiden is mainly practised in Western Japan even today, and in the opinion of many has kept more of its original combative nature, while to most eyes Shinden has more in the way of aesthetic appeal. It is also at this time that the word ‘Iaido’ was formulated for the art of drawing the sword.

In 1931 the 25th Grandmaster Shimizu Takaji demonstrated Jojutsu in Tokyo, bringing it out into the light. He started the Rembukan Dojo, It retained the traditional Ryu format, unlike Kendo, which had become public property.


In the aftermath of WWII, martial arts were banned in Japan. However in 1952, practice was allowed again, and the arts had to adapt again to the prevailing social and political winds. The Japanese emphasised the sporting aspects, in an effort to remove the stain of ultranationalism with which the sword arts in particular had been tainted. Also the Japanese organised things so as to preserve the cultural aspects of the arts. The ZNKR, which had been formed in 1928, was able to be the public face of Kendo, and reorganised Kendo into its modern form. The hard practice of Gekken was stopped (although it is still practised in some places), and by emphasising the sporting aspect a little more, it started to become popular outside Japan. Also Kendo overtly stated that it was a way to develop good character, foster harmony amongst the people of the world, etc etc. Today, especially, the sword arts have to find their place in modern society, and have adapted accordingly. It’s a case of trimming sails and adapting to new winds. What is remarkable that Kendo has retained much of its traditional nature.

What of Iaido? Some Kendo practitioners were also Iaido practitioners, so Iaido was also part of the ZNKR. In the 1960’s, a committee developed a set of 7 kata, which were called ‘Seitei’. Seitei simply means standard. They were developed to lure the Koryu (the old traditional schools) into the ZNKR fold. The old saw about getting Kendo guys to use a real sword was probably a public statement to gloss over the politics going on. In the 1970’s (1977 I believe) 3 more kata were added to make the number up to the ten we practice today. The Seitei kata provide a means of ranking, and as a common point of reference, and its introduction caused quite a few ruffled feathers amongst the various schools. Seitei is dominated by techniques

from Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu (ever wonder why the beginning and ending torei are different? Now you know). There are a few from Hoki Ryu, as well as some others.

In 1953 Shimizu brought Jojutsu into the ZNKR. This was another controversial move, but out of this came seitei Jodo, with 12 standard kata taken from the various levels of Jojutsu. However there was a strong move to preserve Jojutsu in its original form, and in the 1960’s the International Jodo Federation was formed. The IJF does not practice the seitei forms (although I am sure that many IJF members know them) and is quite active in Europe.

So now we have the three arts in their present form. They came to the UK comparatively recently, although Kendo has been established here since the 1960’s (there have been individuals who practised here before that, but nothing really organised). Iaido started to arrive in the 1970’s but really got going in the 1980’s, and I think much the same for Jodo. What I feel is that there is a shift going on, especially in Iaido. Memories of the postwar ban are fading, and a new generation is taking over in Japan, and the emphasis is swinging away from the sport/recreational bit and back to the martial way. Not that we will return to iaijutsu, but there is a feeling that even seitei Iaido has to have effectiveness, rather than being merely a teaching and grading tool. Jodo has yet to really gain a firm foothold here in the UK.

Final Comment.

I hope that the above article is useful in painting a broad brush picture of Kendo, Iaido & Jodo in its historical and social context. I believe that we should be at least a little aware of where these arts are coming from, and how they fit into our lives. It is not necessary to know how a car works in order to drive one, but it sure helps to know. So it is with Kendo, Iaido & Jodo. A rounder knowledge will help us in our own development, as well as helping those who are just starting.

Finally, I would like to mention what I think to be the most remarkable thing of all. Individuals who lived 400 years ago, who were not in themselves political shakers and movers, but nevertheless extraordinary in their own way, could touch, and even change our own lives so directly by the survival of the schools they started. Who has the more relevance today? The generals and the politicians, who have stamped their way into memory by way of history books, or the masters who developed Kendo, Iaido & Jodo, who even now speak to us directly through these arts? Something to think about.

Gavin Murray Threipland

25 May 2000