Budo World

The Ideology of Tōken (swords)


The University of Tsukuba Graduate School of Comprehensive Human Studies Associate Professor Sakai Toshinobu

Prologue 1
The Culture of the “Sword” (剣) and the “Way” (道)

1. The Way of the Sword

Read as kendō, the characters used to write this word are  剣 (tsurugi / ken – sword), and 道 (michi / – way, path), take on the meaning of “the way of the sword”. Perhaps it is here that one can begin to see the complexity of kendō.

Nowadays, there are many people who train hard in the art of kendō throughout Japan, and in numerous countries worldwide. Regardless of age or gender, enthusiasts train with a kind of “obsession” or “passion” seeking improvement in the art of kendō. What is it exactly that attracts people to practise as hard as they do? I would like to consider this issue from a closer perspective.

Practitioners of kendō tend to have a strong aversion to comparisons made between kendō and modern sports based on the commonly espoused notion that kendō is a “Way” or “journey” – a sentiment I believe most (kendō) people have come across before. Is it the “journey” aspect that explains the “passion” with which people undertake their kendō training?  

2. The Culture of the “Way”

In truth, the term “Way” (道) is somewhat vague, and is therefore difficult to interpret with many possible meanings.

When read by itself, this character implies “the passage /path one takes”. In other words, it can refer to the “the path (thought /reasoning) one should traverse as a human being”. Additionally, it can denote the journey of one’s specialist field; for instance, in sadō (茶道) this character refers to the expertise involved in the tea ceremony.  Moreover, it can be used to express an “essential point” or “secret” (on the journey to enlightenment), and terms such as “to have reached the path /Way” is also alluded to this interpretation. This character is used in the words shintō (神道) and butsudō (仏道) (Buddhism), and  refers to the religious teachings of the gods or Buddha. An additional yet more complex interpretation is found within the ancient Chinese philosophy regarding the “great principle of the Universe”.

I will not analyse all of the possible connotations, suffice it to say there are many interpretations for this character. The difficulty of this term is found when certain circumstances infer different meanings, and it is challenging to decipher these individually. It entails a variety of background meanings, and is highly ambiguous. (The character 道 will be referred to hereafter by its on reading as michi).

The reason there are so many interpretations of this character is due to the sheer amount of cultural associations it has. Moreover, the various interpretations or ways of expressing the word michi are an indication of the width and breadth of the cultures in which it features. Accordingly, the “passion” displayed by the people who undertake the journey of kendo,  not only in Japan but around the world, may be referred to as a part of the culture of kendō.

Thus, the character michi, denoting a journey or Way, is a useful term for expressing background cultural qualities, and I believe it is used as such.

3. The Cultural Attributes of the “Tsurugi

Although some validation has been given of the ‘cultural nature’ associated to the term michi, it is also clear that the ambiguous interpretations of this character contribute to a certain degree of ambiguity.

There are many cultural pursuits that incorporate the “Way”, such as the physical activities of kyūdō, Judo and karate-dō etc., in addition to endeavours such as sadō (tea ceremony) and kadō (flower arranging). When used in the word kendō (剣道), the original cultural sentiment is somewhat highlighted by the addition of the character for sword (剣—ken / tsurugi) which usually refers to a double-edged straight blade. (NB – The character 剣 will be referred to by its on reading as “tsurugi”).

In Japan, the tsurugi (double-edged straight sword) harnesses a time-honoured and sacred ideology. In fact, these principles are not limited to the world of kendō or kenjutsu, as they extend to political and social systems, faith and religion, and diverse range of social features. As such, it contains a wide, deep, multilayered world of spirituality focused around the concept of the tsurugi.

This is an idea I term the “tsurugi-no-kannen”. I believe this is where the depth of meaning behind kendō exists, as well as explaining the “passion” with which many practitioners carry out their kendō training. Furthermore, considering the vast cultural sense implied by the term “the Way (道)”, perhaps this “concept of the tsurugi” can help to pinpoint the unique aspects of kendō.

So far, I have briefly examined the tsurugi. From here, I would like to widen the scope of this essay slightly and explore the idea of the “ken”—where “” refers to the character 刀, and is also read as katana; and “ken” refers to 剣, also read as tsurugi.