The Argument for the Revival of Gekken

Gekken Saikoron – The Argument for the Revival of Gekken

Editors note:

The Jikishinkage-ryu swordsman Kawaji Toshiyoshi (1834-79) was a Satsuma-han samurai who lived during one of Japans most tumultuous periods. A military man, he took part in many of the battles that happened over the country as it reacted to western encroachment and fell in and out of civil war. He rose in military rank to Major-General and was sent to Europe to study the workings of various police forces (for a year between 1872-3). On his return he designed the first Japanese police system (based on a French model) and was appointed the 1st Superintendent-General of the fledgling keishicho (Tokyo Metropolitan Police) in 1874.

In 1877 he created a special ‘Close Combat Force’ from members of keishicho (named Battotai) and dispatched them to fight against Saigo Takamori in the Satsuma rebellion. The result of their combat experiences led Kawaji to re-consider the need for kenjutsu training for policemen and in 1879 he published his thoughts for its re-establishment. Two years later kenjutsu instructors were employed by keishicho for the first time. This event is one of the most important in the history of kendo.

Kawaji’s short essay on the need for kenjutsu training is presented here.

The following translation is the work of George McCall with heavy input by Richard Stonell. Its the first time it has been fully presented in English afaik. For Japanese readers the original is at the end. Enjoy!

– George

Gekken Saikoron

1. Although the katana has been almost unused since the Meiji restoration, there is a general effectiveness that is expressed by close combat with Japanese swords. It is my humble desire to see this discipline restored and become popular. Even in enlightened nations, swordsmanship has to this day been practised devotedly. If our country now discards gekken, it will surely be impossible to resurrect. At such a time, will we just throw away this precious jewel and exchange it for a lump of broken pottery? No effort must be spared to prevent this from happening.

2. Those who would discard gekken think that people with the temperament to cultivate great skill in swordsmanship should stop clinging to useless skills and obstructing progress, and turn that same temperament towards scholarly pursuits and contribute to the enlightenment of society.

3. This is absolutely incorrect. There is a rich variety in human nature and people have different skills or leanings. For example, there is the literary type, or the martial type. There are those who have a taste for both. You absolutely cannot teach a purely academic person the military arts, nor make a pure fighter study literature. Likewise, when someone has a knack for both, they must pursue both together. Surely forcing people against their nature in this way is what will obstruct progress!

4. Gekken is beneficial to health.

5. Gekken cultivates bravery.

6. Even if you carry a stick for protection, without the skill to use it against an opponent you will not be able to defend yourself.

7. When action is needed to suppress violent gangs, a man who has not disciplined and prepared himself in the martial arts will be incapable of volunteering to take on these gangs in combat. Under the former Shogunate, law enforcers who failed to arrest vicious criminals were invariably lacking this kind of training.

8. Police officers who are commonly involved in strenuous, dynamic work at crime scenes need to be always disciplining their bodies through hard training, just like a swordsman.

9. Gekken (i.e. European fencing) is actively practised in Western countries. Our nation is somehow on the verge of discarding one of its esteemed arts. We should not let things reach the point where we have to learn gekken from foreigners. It would be like replacing a golden piece of treasure with a lump of broken pottery.

– Kawaji Toshiyoshi











川路 利良



The kendo practitioner and rei (etiquette)

The true meaning of rei is found in the midst of seriousness

The following article was originally published in April 2011 and is by Ota Tadanori hanshi (see author bio below). I placed this article on my ‘to-do’ list a while back and picked it up randomly a few days back. With the 15th World Kendo Championships happening this weekend, I thought a timely re-visit of an aspect of modern kendo that many sensei complain about: lack of manners. Especially during shiai, this seems to be the first thing that goes out the window.

The word ‘REI’ in Japanese refers to the physical act of bowing as well as ‘good manners’ in general. The term in Japanese can have a far deeper and wider meaning that simply ‘manners’ in English and brings a kind of (at least to me) sophistication and refinement/dignity with it. Due to this I have mainly left ‘rei’ in the original text as ‘rei’ in the translation.

Keiko itself is rei

As far as good etiquette in kendo goes, you either do it or you don’t. Respect, consideration, and a feeling of gratitude for your partner is where the essence of rei lies. If this is lost then kendo is nothing but an activity where you hit each other with sticks. This short essay is about how an understanding of rei can be used to improve your kendo.

When I was learning kendo from Fukuoka Akira sensei we didn’t have a dojo, but practised in his garden. Keiko only began after I cleaned the garden with a bamboo broom. Of course there was no Kamidana (small Shinto shrines found in many dojo) but I was taught that cleaning the area itself was an act of purity and that the place was sacred. After that I performed ritsurei (standing bow) to my sensei. This was the first form of etiquette I was taught.

Eventually, someone in the locality volunteered their storehouse and we remodeled it into a dojo. The finished structure had a kamidana and I learned the correct etiquette to perform in this type of environment. I feel that in a child’s mind, when you have a kamidana, understands that the place is different to others, that it is sacred.

When I first became a member of Keishicho (Tokyo metropolitan police force) we used to practise in the Keishicho gym, which didn’t have a kamidana. Instead there hung a large, solemn, picture of Mt. Fuji by the painter Yokoyama.

When I was a member of the physical-education division I was lucky to be taught by Masuda Shinsuke sensei for a year. During this time the kendo members were doing their warmup stretches in the dojo and Masuda sensei got angry and taught is a valuable lesson: ‘Do your warmup outside of the dojo. Don’t come to the dojo until you are ready for keiko!’ Also, when I entered the Tokuren (special kendo training division) we were told: ‘When you enter the dojo you mustn’t laugh nor smile.’ We were taught that a dojo was a place for serious and strict training (shugyo).

When top sensei like Ono Jusei and Horiguchi sensei stepped into the dojo immediately the atmosphere would change and without thinking your resolve would harden. It was such a powerful feeling that those people that came for degeiko (i.e. visitors) would often feel oppressed by this atmosphere. It was my good fortune that my day to day training happened in such an environment.

The sensei didn’t teach through words, but by demonstration – you had to watch how they acted and copy it. These sensei trained like their lives depended on it, so there were many many points that had to be studied. Individually we thought ‘I want to be like X-sensei’ and proceeded to practise with that sensei in mind, trying somehow to catch their kendo essence. Of course, this included all their mannerisms, including their etiquette.

‘Rei ni hajimari, rei ni owari’ (keiko begins and ends with rei) – I was taught that it was very important what happens in the time between those first and last bows. First you should bow with the feeling of ‘onegaishimasu’ (please, thank you, a sincere feeling), then keiko with all your energy, finally finishing with the feeling of ‘thank you.’ That is to say: ‘everything in keiko is rei.’ If you practise daily with this feeling, and go to your teacher for instruction, then in the midst of your strict training you will naturally pick up the correct etiquette manner. My experience tells me that its BECAUSE of the severe nature of training that real etiquette can be learned.

If you can’t express yourself physically, then your true intentions cannot be read

I think that the ‘shape’ (kata) of etiquette is very important. Its because it helps express the correct essence of your feeling (the feeling of ‘thanks’) to your partner.

Of course, simply going through the motions without the feeling behind them is unbelievable but, looking at many competitions nowadays, I see many many cases where indeed participants are bowing at their own pace without taking into account their partner (i.e. they are doing the shape only). This gives me a chill.

One of the things that changed kendo from a ‘method of taking life’ to a ‘method for the perfection of the character’ is, I believe, this ‘rei.’ Without this kendo can only be an activity where you simply hit each other with sticks, just another sport. If we support something where people just jump around smacking each other randomly then kendo will change into something that resembles (some) other sports, where there is no sympathy nor feelings of thanks between you and your partner. I think that this rei is the difference between Budo and Sport.

So, teachers must reduce telling their students that ‘shiai is a part of kendo’ and place more emphasis on the ‘everything in keiko is about rei’ aspect. It is essential that teachers themselves ensure that they have the correct etiquette ‘shape’ and show (display) that they understand the feeling behind the movements.

The correct feeling is important, then the shape of expressing it. Kendo no kata is an important tool for this. Everything needed to understand rei is embodied in it. Starting from your bow to the flag (depends on the dojo), how you bow to your partner, how you walk, how you stand, how you sit, how you use your hands… all this must be done in unison with your partner and with the feeling of ‘onegaishimasu’ at the start and ‘arigato gozaimashita’ at the end. We tend to concentrate on how to do the kata themselves (i.e. what we are doing with bokuto, how many steps we take in and out, etc) but in reality its the rei that is permeated throughout that is important.

Its important for teachers to study this aspect, feel it for themselves, and finally for them to show it to those around them.

Train children though correct etiquette

Especially nowadays, people act as if they are blind to children’s discourteous behavior. Its because they are not disciplined properly at home I guess. But surely the essence of childhood isn’t different nowadays than what it was in the past? If you teach children properly, then any child can learn to be polite.

I help to teach the children’s kendo class at Nippon Budokan and nowadays I see that many kids can’t act as part of a group: they suddenly disappear from where they are meant to be, and don’t bother saying hello or goodbye to the teachers or their friends, etc. Of-course, its part of the teachers job to persevere and try to teach the children these things properly. At this time you must not think “how do I teach this kid?” but “how can I communicate my feelings towards this kid?” This is whats important. Thats is to say, whats important is to consider how can you build up a feeling of trust between yourself and that child.

When I am teaching children, sometimes I lightly tap them on the behind with a shinai. Do you call this punishment or teaching? Which side of the border line you lie on depends on whether you are attempting to build up the trust I mentioned earlier. If you honestly desire to ‘teach’ the child something then – if you manage to communicate your feelings to them – trust will be born and the child will begin to change.

Rei is the basis of your daily life in society. ‘Rei = the bonds forged between individuals.’ The base of of this rei is discipline. If you don’t have discipline then rei cannot be learned and will fade. I want people (children) to be disciplined in manners in their homes first, then above and beyond this through kendo.

Of course, that children are becoming ill-mannered is a symptom of Japanese society in general. A while back an American person said this shocking thing to me: “Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese all look kind of similar but its the Japanese that are the most discourteous.” The reason for this is that the modern society has taken to referring to any selfish action as “freedom” thus forgiving it.

The only way to fix this is through rei taught in budo! Our chance to enact this is when budo begins to be taught as part of the national curriculum in junior high schools around the country (this started April 2012).

The best place to teach rei is in the dojo

Its sad to say, but recently many local dojo have been closing and more and more kendo clubs are doing their keiko in public sports gyms. In the ‘All Japan (ken) dojo renmei’ (a group set up for the promotion of kendo for primary and junior high school ages) actually only 1/4 of groups have their own dojo. The rest are probably training in sports gyms or maybe even – like me when I was a child – in gardens. But, obviously, a place that is sacred and pure has a special meaning to it (i.e. a dojo with a kamidana).

First, make sure your appearance is tidy and neat, line up your footwear correctly, then enter the dojo. As you enter collect your thoughts and bow towards the kamidana. The kamidana is not a religious thing, but embodies the spirit of budo. ‘Today I hope to do keiko without being injured’ or ‘I want to do keiko with a pure heart’ etc etc its perfectly fine for people to decide their own individual goal for the days keiko. This is what Fukuoka sensei taught me.

You can only perform such initial salutations in a dojo environment. Why? Because a dojo is a space where everyone from children to adults are under the same roof and – as adults are teaching the children – they are training themselves at the same time. While adults are teaching children they themselves must always heed their own manners, all the while studying from their own sensei. This type of ‘living teaching environment’ is the best attraction of a dojo. Thus I believe dojo are the optimum environment for learning manners.

At any rate, you can’t do kendo without a partner. If you keiko with compassion and gratitude at all times then once keiko is finished you will natural say ‘thank you.’ I believe that this type of satisfaction is kind of ‘beautiful.’ So, everyone, won’t you consider reevaluating your manners again, even just one more time?

This article was published in the April 2011 edition of Kendo Jidai.

About the author

Ota Tadanori, kendo hanshi 8dan. Born in 1941, Chiba prefecture. After graduating high school he entered Keishicho directly. He has won the all japan police championships and taken part in the tozai-taiko, Meiji-mura taikai, etc. He taught as the top kendo teacher at keishicho until his retirement in 2000. He currently has posts in the ZNKR and teaches kendo at various locations.



Seme #2: Sakudo Masao

Already well known in Japan, Osaka sports universities Sakudo sensei is becoming more and more well known outside of the country nowadays, so I thought I’d dig out a piece of kendo literature by him to share with kenshi247 readers. Here is a translation of a short description of ‘seme’ that was originally published in a Kendo Jidai article series called “Mei senshu, renma no hibi” (originally serialised in 1983-84). The series was published in a two book format called “renma no hibi” in 1989. At the time Sakudo sensei was still only kyoshi 7dan (now he is hanshi 8dan).

See Seme #1 published in 2008.


You must face your opponent with the feeling that ‘ki’ is crystalized in and emitted from your body. Your hands must be soft. The softness of the inside of your right hand is especially important. Lightly touch the tip of your sword against your opponents sword; don’t especially strike or push their shinai in any way. During this time your body should be soft and flexible and your heart/spirit firm. To get the knack of this you must constantly think about this ‘firmness.’

While keeping this ‘fullness’ of feeling in your body you must project the feeling of ‘come and strike me!’ at your opponent, and – at the same time – while abandoning yourself to their strike, slowly close distance. Depending on your opponents movements you may sometimes close in relatively quickly and largely, but in any case the most important aspect you must keep in mind is your breathing as you move: it is essential that you unify your body movement and your breathing. That is to say, you must not move as you breathe out in a large/long blow, but execute movement as you are breathing out rhythmically in short, slow blows. This is so that your opponent cannot read your intentions easily.

While you are moving your body in this manner, the tip of your shinai should be soft and flexible. If your shinai tip is stiff then in the instant where an attacking movement occurs it will not be able to stay in the center, and all your strikes will be incomplete. Please be careful about this point.

To conclude, keeping this ‘fullness’ of feeling in your body and spirit you must begin to ‘seme’ and – whilst this is happening – you must study from where the intention of your opponent appears: is it from their shinai top? their right hand? their eyes? When your opponent doesn’t begin to move/react to your pressure but you see an opening and attack, then this is called ‘kakari no sen’ and if they move because of your pressure and you strike them this is called ‘go no sen.’ When you strike, do so straight from your kamae.

About the author

Sakudo Masao hanshi is a professor at Osaka sports university (specialising in Budo) and the leader of the kendo club. He is a graduate of Tokyo University of Education, earlier called Tokyo-shihan-gakko, the school that was home to Takano Sasaburo. There he was taught kendo by such famed sensei as Nakano Yasoji hanshi and Yuno Masanori hanshi. Upon moving to Osaka he did kendo under various sensei including Ikeda Yuji hanshi. He had competition success at university level and has taken part in the 8dan taikai. Outside of university life he holds several kendo related posts both in Japan and abroad.



Two points for daily practise

1. By the time you are in sonkyo you should already have your strategy in place:

‘As soon as you stand up, 1 – seme, 2 – seme, 3 – seme… pressure, pressure, pressure.’

‘If you want to strike me men go ahead, do it! When you attempt to I will strike your dou.’

‘Just as your partner attempts to strike have the feeling of thrusting his left eye, this will cause a disturbance in his heart/will.’

‘Pressure the omote and strike the ura.’

etc etc. Whichever strategy you have decided on stand up silently from sonkyo and with full vigor face your opponent – if you do this and manage to take an ippon within 20 seconds it will be a mark that your kendo is improving.

Its very common for teachers to say ‘do shiai with mushin’ but this advice is for experts who have already forged their technique. If inexperienced people whose technique is far from polished try to do this they will simply be struck.

In order to stand up and take an ippon in under 20 seconds you have to concentrate on taking the ippon at shotachi (the initial strike). Shinken-shobu is often called ‘the fight for shotachi.’

2. While pressuring your opponent, or when their body-shape is in disarray after execution of an attack – when their heart/will is in a state of confusion – you should immediately attack without giving them time to breathe. If you are too late in taking the chance it will not come again.

Your mental state should be the same as an athlete who is waiting at the starting block of a 100m race: ‘ready, set, go!’ If the strike isn’t an ippon you must cultivate the practise of striking multiple times in one breath (until you hit a good strike). If you don’t do this in your daily keiko then your body won’t be able to keep up (during shiai or against other opponents).

This isn’t about striking with your head. Your legs should move of their own volition. Only when you have reached this state can it be said that you have mastered technique.

About the author

SAKUMA SABURO sensei was born in 1912 in Fukushima prefecture. He started kendo at around 10/11 years old in Fukushima Butokuden. After graduating from what is now Fukushima University he started teaching kendo at various high schools. In 1939 he began to work in Mitsubushi’s mining operation and taught kendo throughout the country whilst visiting various mines. After the war, he became a student of Mochida Seiji hanshi and – while running his own kendo club – began working as a director in the Tokyo Kendo Renmei amongst other things. He died at 84 in 1997. He was hanshi hachidan.


平成・剣道 地木水火風空 読本(下)。佐久間三郎。平成9年発行。

kendo places #12: Ganryu-jima

400 years ago today, on April the 13th 1612, the most famous duel in the history of Japanese swordsmanship took place between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro*. Its so well-known that there is no point in adding any information here, as every single kendo, iaido, or probably practitioner of any Japanese budo knows the story! If you need a recap click here.

The duel took place on a very small deserted island in between Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi prefecture, and Kyushu called Funashima, later renamed to ‘Ganryu-jima’ allegedly in honour of the slain Sasaki Kojiro (his sword style was called ‘gan-ryu’).

*Allegedly. This is the current ‘official’ date but – as with almost every aspect of Musashi’s life – there are many theories. Discrepancies range as much as 10 years.

What is there to see?

Well, not much! There is a statue of the swordsmen fighting, and a couple of plinths in the area. There is also a man-made beach with a boat placed strategically on it, as if Musashi himself had just jumped out of it waiving a newly carved oar/bokuto.

Why go?

The value of going there is not to see the tourist-aimed statues, or to buy the trinkets on sale, but more to celebrate a piece of Japanese swordsmanship history. Its cool to just sit down and relax, pondering your own kendo/iaido/etc journey.

Getting there

I’ve visited the island twice. Once when I first visited Fukuoka in 2004, and another time I took some kendo friend there in 2008. Although out of the way, its not so difficult to get to if you are heading down to Kyushu from the mainland and you have 3 or 4 hours to spare.

Assuming that you are taking a train there get off at JR Shimonoseki station (this is a regular train stop and a Shinkansen stop). From there you can walk to the pier or take a bus. Its not really obvious which way you should go, so its best to ask someone at the station ‘Ganryu-jima?’ and they will point you in the right direction.

At the pier there are two companies that run boats to and from the island with return tickets being 800 yen. You can buy tickets and check times in the small cabins by the pier. The boats run pretty frequently. Make sure you can get on the last boat back to the mainland otherwise you will need to swim.


Click on the image to see it bigger.