Budo World

The Ideology of Tōken (swords)

A Bird’s-eye View

1. Introduction

The significance of kendō in modern society (aside from its role in athleticism) is, for one thing, its cultural contributions, of which a particular focus on the study of the concepts of the tōken has been presented here. However, it is possible that the overall picture may have become blurred. In closing, I will provide a bird’s-eye look at the main points of this text. By doing this, I hope that the width and depth of the cultural nature of kendō will become clear to the reader.

2. The Breadth of Cultural Nature

As the reader may have already gathered, the concepts of the token, particularly the idea of the tsurugi being more sacred than the katana, was not confined to kenjutsu. It was a phenomenon that also existed in many other forms of culture. This shows the girth of kendō’s culture, but can also be broken down into three groups or classifications.

‘Divination against evil spirits’, and the techniques used to overcome one’s own mind with the tsurugi—the so called ‘cut the self and the opponent’—are concerned with the individual pursuit of kenjutsu. With the image of the tsurugi, even as the ability to mentality to cope with the extraordinary situation of the battlefield shifted to an everyday system of morals and ethical spirituality, it is still an issue of the individual’s way of life, and operates on a personal level. This constitutes the first category.

Secondly, in feudal society, the matters of the tōken being symbolic of the bushi class, and also as a symbol of governance were mutually inclusive, and related to the spirituality of the masses. However, it is also true that this is limited to a specific population of a particular era in the long history of Japan. For instance, the strong tendency of the three imperial regalia to symbolise the eminence of the emperor is something that can be recognised as a political and social system.

Thirdly, Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi and Futsu-no-Mitama-no-Tsurugi acted to link heaven and the earth, and therefore signified the symbolised the deities. A symbol of faith even today, this image was created from ancient mythology. In matters concerning faith and religion, this is rooted deeply in the spirituality of the Japanese people, and can be considered a powerfully universal concept.

Simply put, these categories relate to 1) an individual’s actions; 2) governance and social systems; and 3) faith and religion.  These categories are depicted in diagram 1, and it is important to note that they are not independent of each other. They function as a basis for the next tier. As an example, if Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi of the imperial regalia did not become a symbol of religious belief, it would not have been positioned in the next tier as a symbol of imperialism.

Each of these categories are interrelated by the characteristics of the Japanese sword concepts, yet even deeper than this is the sense of religious belief in tōken—that of which is represented by Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi and Futsu-no-Mitama-no-Tsurugi. Without this, there would have been no sword concepts.

3. The Cultural Depth

This sense of religious belief in tōken was not unique to Japan. In ancient times, as was the case for many other aspects of culture civilisation, this idea stemmed from China and Korea. The roots of these religious beliefs as they relate to the concepts of tōken can be found here. The gist of these articles is represented in Diagram 2.


Discussion has ranged from the Korean legend of Kim Yusin to ancient Taosim, and the sacred sword tale of Go and Etsu in the Spring and Autumn era. Without rehashing all the main points again, suffice it to say that the profundity of the culture that relates to the concepts of tōken should be plainly visible.


4. Final Summary

I have investigated the origins of the concepts of token. I have shown that the roots of sword ideals and the depth of its culture nature can be found in China and Korea. This is not to say that the techniques of swordsmanship developed actually matured in China or Korea first. As mentioned previously with concern to religious belief, governance and society, tōken were revered from ancient times throughout East Asia. However, it came to relate to military and ideology in the medieval period in Japan with the perfection of the Nihon-tō—when the bushi began their long hegemony over the country. Precision of sword techniques eventuated in the early-modern era.

With regard to the various cultural phenomena that concern the perception of tōken covered in this text, while being closely connected, it is no mistake that the techniques of the sword and the consequent line of thought saw a unique line of development in Japan. I believe that the cultural span, depth, and originality of the concepts of tōken are a part of the cultural nature of kendō that we can take great pride in.

 (This text is a revised version of a series of articles first published as “The Concepts of the tōken 1-12” (September, 2003 – August 2004)in “Kensō” (All Japan Kendo Federation)