history kendo

A very brief look at the formation of reiho used in todays kendo

Without taking your eyes of your partner, and at a distance of roughly 9 steps do a standing bow (ritsurei) of 15 degrees, move your shinai from sageto to taito, take three large steps in and “draw” your shinai in a largish arc up and diagonally down through to the center of your opponent while performing sonkyo. Your shinai do not touch at this distance. After a brief moment (in a shiai the center referee will call hajime) the bout starts.

This is an example of one of the standard methods of “reiho” or “etiquette methods” we use daily in our kendo practise. Its use is so common that you can see many people simply perform the actions with no or little understanding behind the purpose of the movements or – at times – even in an almost disrespectful manner. Thats not the purpose of this short article though: what I want to (very!) briefly discuss here is who were involved, and when modern-kendo’s reiho was standardised (or, at least, a small part of the story).

One of the earliest standardised methods of performing the above can be seen in the picture to the *right: the opponents move into the center of the match area, taking sonkyo they place their shinai (or swords/bokuto) crossed over in front of each other, they then place the tips of their fingers on the ground/floor (this is called 指健礼 or SHIKENREI). From here they pick up their shinai by the tsuka, stand up, and retreat to roughly 9 paces apart. The bout then starts from here.

This method was said to have been formalised around 1800, when inter-ryu matches in front of officials were becoming more common. Since different ryuha have vastly different reiho, a more standardised version was therefore required.

* Please note that the picture to the right is taken from a book published in 1898 and reflects probably what was in vogue at that time. Click to make larger.

The largest difference between what is described above and what we do in kendo nowadays is the absense of the standing bow (ritsurei). The “bow” part in the above is performed when the opponents fingers touch the ground in sonkyo. So when was it that ritsurei was introduced into kendo? Well, the first published evidence of it seems to be in 1906, when butokukai first made an attempt at formalising its own kata:


Translated into English as:

When having a bout, both competitors must stand upright and in a natural posture from a starting position of around 8 paces distance. Hold your sword relaxed in your left hand (blade facing up, gripping the base of the tsuba) and leave your right hand hanging down naturally. With full spirit keep your eyes fixed on the enemy at all times and mutually perform a small, silent bow.

According to one source, the use of the standing bow by the butokukai could have been influenced by current methods found in military swordsmanship. This method was brought forward and used when the forerunner to kendo no kata – the Teikoku kendo no kata – were established in 1912.

I think its probably safe to assume that at least a couple of the reasons that this method was chosen was probably due to ease of execution and time. This becomes easier to accept when you take into account kendos increasing popularity and the push for it to become a compulsory subject at schools.

Further ritsurei standardisation occurred In 1941 (an increasingly militarized period in Japanese history) when the butokukai went on to define three further kids of ritsurei: a bow to the gods or to the emperor (45 degrees), bow to your sensei (30 degrees), and a bow to fellow kendoka or sempai (15 degrees). The 30 and 15 degree bows are still used to this day.

Nowadays we have a lot more access to koryu and old kendo material for study, namely online video, access to pictures, old scrolls that have been digitised and are available to download online for free, and – increasingly – the occasional non-Japanese expert. Using all these sources, we can easily discover that within the koryu (extant or otherwise) there are many different methods to show respect to your partner prior to practise (with or without weapons, kata or free-sparring). Kendo sprung up directly from these methods.

Both of the non-bogu pictures in this article are from koryu that had a massive impact on the development of modern kendo: the picture at the top is from a 1901 manual on Kashimashinden-jikishinage-ryu kenjutsu, and the picture to the right a recent picture showing the onigote and bokuto prior to commencement of keiko at an Ono-ha itto-ryu dojo. Where kendo etiquette has changed markedly over the years these koryu methods have not, and thus they serve as a window into kendo’s history.

In Summary

This has been a (tiny!) look at how a small part of the reiho we use today in modern kendo came into being. Although perhaps not an area of interest for many people, I do think (for a variety of reasons) that its a subject that deserves more study….. after all:

rei ni hajimari, rei ni owari



By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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5 replies on “A very brief look at the formation of reiho used in todays kendo”

Very interesting topic indeed! ..It would be v cool if you could cover the origins of sonkyo some day. cheers!

The history and explanations behind sonkyo is a lot longer and a bit more uncertain, but I will see about doing something. I’ve a few sources on it and have thought about doing an article for a while.

As a guess, I’d say that the reiho shown above in the 1898 picture is almost probably heaily influenced by Kashima shinden jikishinkage-ryu..(sonkyo and all).. as they still have pretty much the same reiho today (that the kenshi on the rights hakama is tied up could also be an indication of this).

Fascinating article here. I had no idea that there were any fore-running styles of this type of etiquette. The 1989 drawing of the two kenshi is beautiful. Do you have a link, or know where I could get a copy of that? I’m starting to make a wee collection of old woodblock/drawings depicting Kendo and haven’t seen that one before. Would be much appreciated.

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