Budo World

The Ideology of Tōken (swords)

Prologue 2
The Tsurugi and the Katana

“To discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the sword.”

Established by the All Japan Kendo Federation, the opening words of this section quote the “Concept of Kendō”. As a matter of fact, it is the “ideology of the tō-ken” that, although somewhat equivocal in modern kendō, exists within that one sentence.  

1. The Tsurugi and the Katana

The word tōken is a commonly used, and despite the inclusive nature of the word, the / katana (刀), and ken /tsurugi (剣) have some important differences. / katana refers to a one-edged sword, and ken / tsurugi to the double-edged sword.  Furthermore, with its curved blade the / katana, or so called Nihon-tō, used in the mid-Heian period onwards is also written as 太刀(tachi); whereas the older style, straight and one-edged blade was referred to with the characters 大刀(tachi), note that both sets of characters can be read as tachi.

The katana was a key weapon for a long time, and due to its history it is a treasured item with a rich philosophy. On the other hand, the tsurugi was not necessarily a practical weapon, yet has been a valued relic in the realm of Japanese faith and religion from the outset. This is apparent when one considers tsurugi that are stored and worshiped in Shintō shrines as containing the spirit of deities.  

Generally speaking, the tsurugi is seen as more sacred than the katana; a point that is particularly evident in the “Concept of Kendo”, where “sword” is written as tsurugi (剣). This is what I mean by the “conception of the sword” (tsurugi no kannen). And is the ultimate characteristic of the “ideals of the sword (token)” in Japan. Let us now turn to kendō with this in mind.

2. The Tsurugi and the Katana in modern Kendō

Modern day kendo is conducted with the use of shinai (a bamboo sword). However, I have always been instructed to “train as if I were holding an actual blade”, and I am sure that this teaching is familiar to many kendō practitioners.

In modern day kendō, there is a resolute idea that one should imagine using an actual katana in their training. I believe this is evident through the development of techniques that recognize the monouchi (correct cutting area) and the hasuji (correct cutting edge) of the sword, and through the importance placed on the development of correct execution of techniques in kata (set forms). However, the purpose of the kendō journey (shūgyō) is not to acquire the skills to be able to kill another person with a katana, but like the opening sentence to this section suggests, it is to “develop one’s character”. That is, the aim of one’s purpose should be consistently directed to achieving a higher standard (of human character). As such, rather than the term “tō-dō” (刀道), this pursuit is referred to as “ken-dō” (剣道).

At a glimpse this may appear to be contradictory, however that is not the case. Perhaps better considered as a symbolic turn of phrase, such an idea reveals the sacred value of the tsurugi, and its index in the term “the ideology of the tōken (刀剣)”. 

3. The Tsurugi and Katana Seen in Early-Modern Kenjutsu


Although the practices that regulate modern kendō (in terms of techniques for using a katana) are not necessarily the same as those established for kenjutsu of the Edo period, it can be said that, from the point of view of the importance placed on attitude when handling a sword, the ethos kenjutsu from previous eras still has an enormous influence on modern kendō.

Among the scrolls of the Shinkage-ryū, one of the kenjutsu-ryūha (swordsmanship schools) that is strongly represented in modern kendo, is the Heihō-kadensho. Written by Yagyū Munenori in the ninth year of Kan’ei (1632), this is a famous work that still profoundly inspires the practice of kendō today. The following is a passage from this manuscript:

As a consequence of one evil man’s actions, ten thousand men may suffer. When that one man is killed, then thousand men may be spared. Therefore, the sword (katana) that kills thus becomes the sword (ken) that gives life.”   

The notion that “to kill the man who causes ten thousand men to suffer will thereby save these men”, describes the well-known philosophy “katsunin-ken” (活人剣) or “life-giving sword”. It is through this line of thought that Yagyū insists on the notion that the act of killing one man may be justified if it is for the higher purpose of saving many. Putting the logic of this reasoning aside, the point I would like to make is that the object used to kill a man is the katana, yet the sword that gives life is the tsurugi. This clearly distinguishes significance behind the katana vis-à-vis the tsurugi.  Where the violent act of cutting a man down is symbolised by the katana, it is the tsurugi that represents a higher peaceful ideal.

According to the values system in which modern kendō operates today, the techniques are based on the katana (刀), and the ultimate goal of attaining the higher ideal of “human development” is implied by the tsurugi (剣).  We have now arrived at the doors of early-modern kenjutsu, and it is now that I can introduce the main issue to be investigated in this essay.