Budo World

The Ideology of Tōken (swords)

The Development and Background of Spirituality

1. Introduction

The issue of spirituality juxtaposing with technique is not unusual in thought surrounding physical activity, or in discussions concerning budō. In Western culture, although it is customary for physical activity to be conducted separately from issues concerning spirituality, Japanese budō attempts to deal with these matters in unison. Such an approach has been termed shinshin-ichinyo (the unity of body and mind), and may be considered as one of the irreplaceable characteristics of budō.

The phrase shinshin-ichinyo is not, however, referring to ‘the body’ and ‘the mind’ as the same thing. This line of thought understands the body and the mind as separate entities, but that one generally directs the other. This is what emphasises the closeness of their relationship, hence the use of the wording “unity” of body and mind. The way of solving the issues presented by shinshin-ichinyo can be reached through harnessing an image of the tsurugi sword, and this can be considered as one characteristic of the art of kendō (kenjutsu). However, one might argue that there are differing perceptions of the body-mind relationship, and when considered on a broad scale, it is an issue faced by many other physical cultures. Yet in the case of Japanese kenjutsu, these perceptions followed a peculiar path, and this will be investigated from here.

2. The Transition to Ethical and Moral Spirituality

To explain what is meant by a peculiar development, let us now focus in on a verse from the Jigen-ryū kikigaki-kikkin-roku scroll. It reads;

“The students of this school who undertake shūgyō (a journey of ascetic practice), should harness the riken of the mind; and, even for the most fleeting of moments, must avoid having the three poisons of greed, anger, and foolishness in their heart. These must be purged…”

A similar passage was quoted earlier. However, the earlier example referred to the non-ideal state of mind, that is overcoming the three ailments of the heart with the riken, was for the purpose of cutting down and defeating an enemy. As the following passage indicates, there is a difference in nuance of the ultimate goal:

“…This leads into the speech and actions one’s conduct in daily life. Even if a good deed goes unnoticed, one should not become disheartened. Too much woefulness leads to greed. If one learns a skill and cannot perform it better than another person, he should not feel regret. Too much regret leads to anger. Even if one is destitute, he should not lament. This will only lead to idle complaining. In the pursuit of knowledge one should conduct his studies correctly, and not take etiquette for granted. More than learning the skills to defeat an enemy who may oppose us, one must learn the righteous way of the sword that can defeat the three harmful poisons of the mind that governs the actions of the body.”

Separated from technique, here we see a clear focus on the issues concerning the mind and spirituality. What is more, this discussion of temperament is not concerned with the state of mind one should have when engaging an enemy in combat. It pertains to one’s decency as a human being. Furthermore, rather than concentrating on the extraordinary experience of placing one’s life on the line, it refers to the mentality imbued in the moral and ethical concerns of daily life, suggesting that the realisation of this attitude is the “riken of the mind”.

The correct way to live as a warrior was a major concern at the time. The ideal image of the bushi was influenced by Confucius thought. I do not wish to digress too much, suffice it to say that the notion of the essence of way of the bushi was found in the ideals of the tōken.

3. The Symbolic Tōken of the Bushi

In medieval times, expressions such as “yumiya toru mi” (bearer of the bow and arrow) referred to the professional warriors. Later on, it was the tōken that became the symbol of the warrior. In the manuscript Gorin-no-sho (1645) of Miyamoto Musashi, this perception is succinctly described in the following passage.

“The fact that those of bushi status carry two swords at their waist need not be indorsed in writing. In our land, whether one is aware of it or not, to wear a sword is the Way of the bushi.”

In the Rikata dōji-kyō, a scroll of the Rikata Ichi-ryū, it states,

“The child of a bushi should mature by the virtues of the mamori-gatana(literally the sword of protection) to be a warrior. The child of a samurai must also wear the sword in order to be called a warrior, and learn that being a warrior begins with the virtues of the sword.”

The bushi would conduct themselves based on the virtues of the symbolic tōken, in order to become (the ideal) warrior. From this, it was not strength as a combatant that was sought per se, but as it was the virtues of the sword that lead to development of the human character, it was simply a matter of whether he prodigious as a person. Thus, it was the ideals of the tōken that influenced the everyday morals and ethics of warrior society.

4. The Tōken Symbolic of Governance

The struggles to find solutions to the surprise, fear, doubt and confusion that plague the mind when facing against an enemy were considered a very natural part of the journey when studying the techniques of the sword. These matters of the mind were also converted into a system of everyday ethics and morality. At first glance, this is certainly an interesting phenomenon. However based on the numerous historical documents that espoused such ideals, is was certainly not unusual, as somewhat typical of early-modern kenjutsu.

How did this development come arise? On the face of it kenjutsu in a practical sense was intended to defeat an enemy; yet in actuality, most of the Edo period was marked by peace, and the majority of bushi lived their entire lives without seeing battle. Thus, when considering the way a warrior of the time should conduct himself, if he were simply a brute skilled in the techniques to kill, surely he would be eschewed without being able to govern effectively.

For close to seven hundred years following the establishment of the Kamakura bakufu (shogunate), bushi administered the country. They formed an elite group who sought to maintain their position of power. As a matter of course, bushi did not always operate as heavies, and sought to refine more humanistic traits. Through their ability with the sword, they were able to develop such values, and it was by channelling the ideals of tōken that they cultivated a moralistic spirituality that could be implemented in every aspect of their lives.


Therefore, with the addition of the practical aspects of the tōken, martial art experts sought a set of morals in order to live by, and at the base of this development was a deep affiliation to ideas of governance. The tōken was a symbol of government, an idea can be seen in the following excerpt from Yagyū Munenori’s Heihō kandensho:

“To govern a world in disorder, one should use the setsunin-tō (殺人刀—death-dealing blade). Yet when one already maintains control, it is the katsunin-ken (活人剣—life-giving sword) that one must carry.”

From this we can see the important differences in the philosophy of (刀 or katana) and ken (剣 or tsurugi). For the meantime, however, it is evident that aspects of both and ken were considered when governing the country.

5. Summary

Evoking ideas of the tōken as guiding principles to govern the country was not because it was seen as symbolic of the bushi. In fact, it is the other way around. Although this point will be looked at in more detail later on, the tōken (particularly the ken / tsurugi) was symbolic of governance since ancient times. As such, this symbolism came to be associated with the bushi as the eventual rulers of Japan, and ultimately guided the directions of their spirituality.

In Musashi’s Gorin-no-sho, there is a passage that clearly elucidates this progression. It states:

“Through the virtues of the tachi (太刀) one can manage the world and the self; and so the tachi forms the basis of strategy.”

In this section I have investigated the development and backdrop of bushi spiritualty. In summary, the spirituality of kenjutsu concerned ethics, and this transformed into system of morality for daily life. The concepts of the tōken played an important role in this. The concept of ningen-keisei (cultivation of the human character) in modern kendō is connected to this flow. These ideas relate directly “the concepts of the tōken” seen on the surface of modern kendō.