Kenjutsu is a name used to describe the arts of swordsmanship practised by the legendary samurai warriors of feudal Japan. It literally means 'sword techniques'. In the edo period the Japanese sword known as a katana was the most revered weapon on the battlefield and the samurai spent much time in training to become skilled at using it. Off the battlefield, in training, the fearsome iron blades of the katana were substituted with tough wooden swords called bokutou (bokken). Many drills were practiced in the form of sequences known as kata in order to learn and fine tune skills of attack and defence.
Kenjutsu is the predecessor to the modern sport of kendo but differs greatly in training and application as kenjutsu retains its emphasis on being practical in warfare. Today authentic kenjutsu is quite rare in the western world. While practitioners of modern martial arts tend to focus heavily on hand-to-hand combat, on the battlefield of ancient Japan this was not the case. Like modern soldiers, the samurai would first engaged the enemy with weapons. Unarmed combat was a last resort!
Unknowingly to many, kenjutsu is also the mother of jujutsu, the unarmed fighting methods of the samurai. It is through defence against the sword and grappling with the sword that jujutsu techniques were first born. Because of this, many movements and principles of kenjutsu are the basis for the original jujutsu. In fact many old-style Japanese martial arts groups (koryu) who practice jujutsu tend to also do some amount of sword techniques.
Video shows a few of the later taught techniques of the 500 year old style of Muso Shinden Eishin Ryu Iai Heiho and also Shibukawa Ichi Ryu Jujutsu. The defender 'uchitachi' uses techniques to disarm a swordsman or to stop someone attempting to disarm him.
In the modern world martial arts practitioners may not see any relevance in the practice of swordsmanship for street self-defence or combat sports. However, it is actually an incredible supplement to training in arts such as karate and jujutsu. For karate, kenjutsu is really a great tool in the development of kumite (fighting) skills. The kata of kenjutsu are the same in concept to sparring drills of karate (yakusoku kumite). It teaches distance, timing, initiating attacks, counter attacks (go no sen), predicting attacks (sen no sen and sen sen no sen) and evasive movement through ducking, dodging and applying footwork.
For Japanese jujutsu, the practice of kenjutsu and iai (sword drawing) gives new meaning to many techniques such as throws and joint manipulation that may have evolved from grappling with the sword, thus improving one's understanding of the unarmed techniques. Kenjutsu also teaches principles of good posture and breathing which focus on the core of the body known as tandem or hara. In fact, the tandem or hara is also a hugely important element in styles of jujutsu and karate. In kenjutsu there is also the concept of spatial awareness and alertness, referred to as zanshin in both karate and jujutsu and is also important in modern self-defence applications.
This video shows a demonstration of Oishi Shinkage Ryu Kenjutsu techniques.
Kenjutsu training can be a good aerobic exercise once practised intensely. It also teaches about the body’s anatomy especially vital organs and arteries which are targets for sword cuts and stabs, but also make good targets for the empty-handed techniques of karate and jujutsu.
One can therefore see that while actual sword fighting is a thing of the past, the practice of kenjutsu can still be relevant in the present as it teaches many great principles that can be useful in hand-to-hand combat systems, both old and modern.