Yamaoka Tesshu wrote this small piece in 1883, while kendo (then variously called gekkiken, kenjutsu, shinai uchikomi, etc) was nowhere near the shape it is now. Although the discussion of shinai length might not seem relavant to some nowadays, its a topic that comes up quite a lot if you read kendo commentary from the early-mid 1900’s, and not a few famous sensei experiment with shinai length/weight even today.
Tesshu’s Itto-shoden-muto-ryu uses a shinai of 3 shaku 2 sun in length (96cm’s) and are considerably heavier than standard shinai.
The length of the shinai was set for the first time to 3 shaku 8 sun (115cm’s) by the head kenjutsu instructor of the Shogunate’s Kobusho (military training center), Odani Nobutomo (jikishinkage-ryu) in the 1850-60s.
Sword length has been set to be 10 fist-lengths since a long time (Tesshu maybe be referring to the kobusho rule mentioned above). This size – about 1/2 of your body length – is said to make it easier for you to strike your enemy. Despite this rule, many schools have passed on the tendency to use shorter swords anyway, for example some schools advocate using a sword of about 8 fist-lengths. A shorter length sword requires you to make up the deficiency in length through your spirit.
During the Tenpo period (1830-1844) there was swordsman from Yanagigawa-han (Fukuoka) called Oishi Susumu. He prized victory above all things and used a shinai of over 5 shaku in length (modern day mens shinai are 3 shaku 9 sun or about 120cms; 5 shaku is around 150cms). He came to Edo and went around all the dojo challenging and winning most of his fights. Oishi was said to have fought even Chiba Shusaku (famous and highly influential Itto-ryu swordsman and shihan at Genbukan). Against Oishi’s massive 5 shaku+ shinai Chiba used a barrel lid as a tsuba. However this was just a “game” and not something that I would deign to call a kenjutsu shiai.
After this time kenshi from across various schools – in ignorance of their own tradition – have simply followed the fashion and believe that using a longer shinai is better. Their shallow learning and ignorance is deplorable: anybody who desires to study swordsmanship must not look only at the outer aspect of winning and losing in competition.
Nowadays various ronin proclaim themselves masters/teachers and riding on this boast are able to make a living. Their success depends on the fortunes of dojo challenges, and its from here that the popularity of the “longer is better” idea has sprung from.
If we look at how to restore kendo to its proper state, we should start first by returning the length of shinai to that of the older styles, and think about what it means to duel someone with a live sword.
– Yamaoka Tesshu, Meiji 16 (1883), September.
山岡鉄舟：剣禅話 。徳間書店.高野 澄(翻訳)