Budo World

The Origins of Kendō Technique

shinai kyogi photo

The Significance of Harsh Training

A passage in the book Kendō (1915) authored by Takano Sasaburō hanshi (1862‒1950), states “a characteristic of kendō is its harsh style of training”, and that “this is valuable acquire the many types of movements needed for modification and development of one’s technical ability in kendō.” Of course, as in other forms of budō and sport there are exacting methods of training, however there is a peculiar value placed on austere kendō training. When one thinks of the “harsh” types of training in kendō such as “kirikaeshi”, “uchikomi-geiko” and “kakari-geiko”. In kangeiko (midwinter training), for example, there are still many dōjō that emphasise kirikaeshi and kakarigeiko during the early morning training regime. One still hears of stories pertaining to the pre-war Budō Senmon Gakkō and Kokushikan, where the training of junior students consisted almost entirely of an unforgiving regime of kirikaeshi and kakarigeiko.  

As I have already covered, the latter part of the modern Edo period saw a division and systemisation of shinai-kenjutsu techniques, and at the same time, severe training methods were also instigated. In Chiba Shūsaku-sensei chokuden kenjutsu meijin-hō, a text frequently cited in this article, the author Kōsaka Masataka states that “uchikomi is not performed much in other schools, and for those who wish to truly improve at kenjutsu, not doing it will mean that reaching a skilled level is extremely difficult. Thus, for novices in this school, a duration of one year will be dedicated to uchikomi without participating in shiai.” Also, “Kangeiko will be conducted every morning over 30 days from 3am until dawn, and will consist only of uchikomi, regardless of level.” Furthermore, “This uchikomi will be directed at continuous striking of the left and right men with strict attention given to the finer points, large and straight attacks to men, and left and right attacks to , with the purpose of becoming exceptionally proficient.”

Furthermore, within the same text there is mention of “uchikomi jūtoku” whereby ten outcomes of uchikomi training are outlaid, all with a focus “prolonging iki-ai (breathing)”. Kōsaka explains that uchikomi is “not performed much in other schools”, however it is believed that the various new fencing (gekiken) schools formed in the bakumatsu period devised training methods that aimed at prolonging and strengthening one’s respiratory capacity. In the book Gekiken sōdan (1790) it states that in the Shindō Munen-ryū one should “maintain an ensuing focus even after a fight has ended”.  It was also stated that the Kyōshin Meichi-ryū expected students to “continue focusing to meet attacks firmly.” Even in the Shindō Munen-ryū kenjutsu kokoroe-sho (Tenpō era) it refers to the Jikishin Kage-ryū, whereby “the opponent (Jikishin Kage-ryū) will almost certainly launch an assault afterwards, so one is better to attack rather than to contemplate this.” In short, “To maintain a continued alertness” explains that things do not come to an end with an ippon cut, but rather, techniques must be executed one after the other in an unforgiving offensive. To do this may be considered difficult, unless one undergoes extensive uchikomi type training of “iki-ai no keiko (breath exercises)”.    

The importance of strengthening and lengthening one’srespiratorycapacity (iki-ai) had been previously asserted by Matsudaira Sadanobu (a member of the Shōgun’s council of elders who led the Kansei Reforms). From the time of the feudal lord Ōshū Shirakawa, Sadanobu would tell his retainers that “One should wear armour, and study how to fight with both the spear and the sword.” (Shūshin-roku). Further, he stated that “Just hitting each other relentlessly with spears and swords is not useful. Place the chikutō (the training spear) or the shinai (used in kenjutsu) over the shoulder, walk a distance of 5-7 ri (approx. 20‒28km), and without resting the legs, practice swinging the yari or shinai. One should test the movements of the body, legs, and loins as they tire. This is done for the purpose of iki-ai no keiko” (Shirakawa kōdenshin-roku). He explained that the act of attacking or thrusting at an opponent without hesitation when wearing armour, and the exhaustion accrued through “iki-ai no keiko” to ensure the movements of one’s body and mind, is important for use “when one is in a pickle”.         

As Kōsaka put it, there is a side to “uchikomi” that is a comprehensive and indispensable form of training for the improvement of technical ability in kendō. Additionally, the disbursement of the spirit through the repetition of kirikaeshi, uchikomi-geiko, or kakari-geiko in kangeiko for example, aside from strengthening respiratory function, helps one to recognise the actual movements of mind and body when fatigued. This suggests a way of thinking that encompasses the idea that, as a consequence, such training methods act to improve one’s responses in times of predicament.       

It is within the development of various techniques and training methods in kendō that the imagination, methods, and sense of value of our predecessors can be unravelled—and I would be happy if the reader was able to learn from this.    

 (This text is a revised version of an article first published as “The Origins of Kendo Technique” 1-6 (October, 2005 – March, 2006) in Kensō (All Japan Kendo Federation)