On shinai length

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)

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5 replies on “On shinai length”

Ben, I’d guess they’re practitioner of Kashima Shinden Jikishinkage Ryu, based on the style of shinai.

Jikishinkage-ryu shinai are the fukuro type shown in the picture above as Kent says. Muto-ryu also use non-fukuro type shinai in their sparring practise. Both are pretty similar.


Michael, take a look here for example:

Jikshin kage ryu and Itto ryu traditional use bamboo sword, but since the kendo, this reduced in kenjutsu training. For example, Yamada Jirokichi sometimes referred as kendo master.

By one of his book he described the “fukuro shinai”: total length is 3 saku 3 sun ( ~100cm), tsuka is 9 sun (~27.5cm), and the 2/3 of the “blade” covered by leather, quite similar as now days the tsuka. This length is about the same as the normal bokken length.

The kenjutsu keiko mostly based on kata. For example we have a kata named 韜の型 (we call it fukuro shinai kata, sometimes refered as to no kata), which since Yamada Heizaemon (1638 – 1718), practiced with shinai, and optionally in bogu.
If there is no bogu, the uchidachi made one more block at the very end of each part (this form has 14 parts)

The beginners practice katas, but uchidachi wear bogu, so they allowed to hit the uchidachi (kata shinai geiko). The bogu is somewhat distorting the fluent movements, so not useful for beginners till base movements not learned well.

The next level is the the uchikomi geiko, where the uchidachi don’t block, let the sidachi to develop an “answer” for the attack. For example, the above mentioned kata has 14 part, and in this phase, the attacks (or parts) come in “random order”.

The third level is the shiai geiko. For average practitioner, takes 3-4 years to reach this level.

Still, the bogu is limited protection, and some control required even on men, more at other targets at kesagake, needles to say targets without cover, like legs or armpits.

I hope this helps some.

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