Tuesday, 9 September 2014

What is Shinkendo?

Following on from last week’s intro entry, this week I aim to cover the second question, i.e. what is Shinkendo.

Firstly, let’s cover what it is not.  Primarily it is not a traditional, ancient school of martial arts – a koryu.  Shinkendo is a modern martial art developed by Obata Toshishiro Kaiso in the early 90s.  The honorific use of the word “Kaiso” symbolises that the person referenced is the creator of something new, which is essentially what Shinkendo is – something new, albeit based on something old.  Why did Obata Kaiso create Shinkendo?  To answer this we need to consider the historical perspective of Japanese swordsmanship. 

Japanese swordsmanship was at its height during the warring state period, known as the Sengoku period.   This period culminated in three famous warlords, namely; Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, eventually unifying Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate.  The Shogunate would last just over 200 years in what is known as the Sakoku period, the period in which foreigners were expelled from Japan and the Japanese borders closed to outsiders. 

The fall of the Shogun began in 1854 when Admiral Matthew Perry sailed his ships into Japan.  Being safely out at sea he began to bombard the Japanese coast with his cannons.  This show of modern military might highlighted to the Japanese that the world had moved on but Japan had not.  What would follow included a civil war, the fall of the Shogun and Japan’s rush to modernise.  This included the famous dissolution of the Samurai warrior and the rise of Imperial might.

The events leading up to the warring states period led to the creation of the Samurai warrior.  During this period warfare was often conducted on horseback, which meant that as a result the Japanese Katana was longer and used in a downward slashing motion.  After the battle of Sekigahara, which ultimately led to the unification of Japan, Japan would enter into a ‘peaceful’ era, during which mass warfare were no longer the norm.  During this period Japanese swordsmanship would switch to ground fighting with the central emphasis being on dueling.  The modern heroes of Japan swordsmanship would arise during this period, which included Miyamoto Musashi and Yagyū Munenori.

Under the Shogunate Japanese dueling style swordsmanship experienced its renaissance.  However, the fall of the Shogun and the rise of the Emperor had the reverse effect.  The Samurai were outlawed along with the Katana, which could no longer be worn in public.  As a result traditional swordsman schools once teaching thousands of students fell into obscurity.  It was not until the period surrounding World War 2 that Japan re-sought its historical roots relating to the sword.  However, many of the traditional schools had long since ceased to practice meaning that the only records of the techniques they once taught could be found recorded in scrolls.  Many sought to re-study these scrolls in order to rebuild these former schools but we are reminded that learning martial arts through books is never truly possible.  As swords based warfare had long since passed there was in reality no real way to rediscover the true samurai swordsmanship taught before the Meiji Era and as such these schools were in reality lost to us.

During World War 2 the swordsmanship style taught to the army was Toyama Ryu.  This style of swordsman was by all accounts crude, being entirely based on practicalities and the ability to cut multiple opponents at a rush.  Many of the flamboyant movements seen in other swords based martial arts were deemed unnecessary for real warfare.  Even techniques such as chiburi, or putting the sword away, was seen as unnecessary to master.  The reason for this was that it was highly unlikely that after charging into battle with a sword that you were going to go home alive again afterwards and therefore learning to put the sword away was itself not a practical technique.   It should however be remembered that the last time swordsmanship was actually used in an actual combat situation was during this period and therefore the techniques taught here give us the most authentic understanding of how to use a sword in a real situation.

Obata Kaiso began his martial arts career in 1966.  He later gained an interest in swordsmanship, which he began to study in earnest in 1973.  During this time he would study Nakamura-ryu, Ioriken Battojutsu, Toyama-ryu, Yagyu Shinkage-ryu and Kashima Shin-ryu, amongst others.  However, his central criticism of these arts would later be that alone they held individual lessons to be learnt, but each style was incomplete on its own.  Furthermore, many of the core concepts that made each style unique were most likely unauthentic as many of critical components would most likely have been lost after the fall of samurai warrior during the Meiji Era.  Therefore the logical conclusion was to reformulate the practical elements of these schools into a new unified system, which teaches its students “how” to use a sword practically without any historically unverifiable baggage.  The result of this was the creation of “Shinkendo”, which means “the way of the real sword”.

Shinkendo is a modern martial art.  Many of the techniques, or cuts, used within it are based on traditional koryu, but it is not a koryu itself.  The central emphasis in Shinkendo rests on the practical use of a sword and not on ambiguous traditions.  As a system Shinkendo has been designed to encompass all practical aspects of how to use a sword.  Shinkendo teaches us “how” to use a sword, rather than “to use” the sword.  To learn “how” to use a sword 3 central skills need developing.  They are:
  •      How to swing a sword correctly
  •      How to use your body in time with the sword movement
  •      How to draw the sword and put it away without cutting yourself

Each of these elements are taught in Shinkendo through the following: 
  1. Sword swinging - Suburi training
  2. Body exercise practice - Ashisabaki and Kensabaki training
  3. How to draw and put the sword away - Battoho training

Once each of these skills are developed they can be combined into a unified whole and practiced as a complete set through form training, known as the Tanrengata training.  By practicing these Kata the practitioner is able to analysis their movements in order to assess areas, which still require refinement, known as the act of Tanren.

Having worked on these basic skills the next area of study is combat or sparring.  This area is practised through paired partner training, known as Tachiuchi.  These exercises focus on the central skills required to duel rather than on the sparring itself.  Arts such as Kendo focus solely on the sparring, which is permissible because of the use of armour, which protects the body against heavy blows.  However, as the armour only covers a limited area of the body, i.e. not on the back or behind the head, many avoidance based movements cannot be executed safely.  As a result Kendo sparring traditionally occurs in a linier pattern with parties often landing simultaneous blows.  In an actual combat scenario this would result in the death of both combatants, which it is assumed would be undesirable.

Rather than travel this road Shinkendo aims to practice the core skills required to duel in a real situation.  These include:
  •        How to block and avoid an attack
  •       The distancing between yourself and your opponent
  •       Focused pressure with the intent of overcoming your opponent through fluidity of body movement and sword movement
  •       Balance distribution and the shifting of your body to allow quicker and easier dynamic avoidance and body movement whilst transitioning between strikes and blocks
  •       Timing disruption and the trickery of sword movement

In order to train these skills without impediment and in a safe manner pre-set forms are used.  These allow both parties to forget about the unpredictable and rather focus on developing the skills referred to above.  This is in stark contrast to the Kendo based sparring, which whilst not pre-set, rarely vary beyond attempting to hit the opponent with a downward strike onto head.

Having learnt the above the final area to experience is the physical cutting with a sword.  In Shinkendo this is done through Tameshigiri, or test cutting practice during which straw targets which simulate the density of an opponent are cut using a real sword.  By practising this, the practitioner is given an opportunity to experience how successful their training has been so far and how precise their cutting angle is.

So what is Shinkendo?  It is a modern martial art, which focuses on “how” to practically use a Japanese sword.  It teaches the core skills needed by a swordsman to be a well rounded swordsman without any of the unverifiable historical baggage.  Shinkendo is a complete system teaching correct body movement, how to swing and cut with the sword, how to draw and put the sword away, the skills required to duel, and finally the physical cutting of targets.  Shinkendo is something new, based on something old, and it is hoped that all who experience it will enjoy it for its simplicity and its sheer practical effectiveness.


  1. Very interesting and informative post sensei, i have a question about the last thing you wrote, you said it has sheer practical effectiveness, my question is how would i know?

  2. Very interesting and informative post :) Keep them coming

  3. But i could cut the target by practising some basic sword work for a long time, why then is the rest of it needed?

  4. I'll explain next time I see you.