Some thoughts on Gekiken

This is the english translation of an older blog post in german from November 2015.


Gekiken (撃剣) refers to the free sparring of various ryûha using bôgu and shinai (or without bôgu, of course). Once a standard of probably most schools, it is today part of the curriculum of just a few left.

The reasons for this are manifold: First of all we need to realize the impact the year 1868 had on Japan. A strictly feudal society was suddenly pushed into the modern western world of the late nineteenth century. Of course, this didn’t happen out of the blue. The decades before 1868 have seen a strong will for radical change. It must have been obvious as well for most of the Tokugawa diehards that Japan will be transformed, especially after Matthew Perry steered his US fleet into the harbor of Uraga in 1853.
When the new emperor Mutsuhito declared the era name “Meiji” (enlightened rule) in January 1868 it was apparent where the journey goes.
Often, this period is accused of having dealt the deathblow to so many traditional arts. But many tend to forget what would have been the other option: An inevitable colonization of Japan through the western powers. Neighboring countries have been sad proof of this. It’s safe to assume that in this case hardly any traditional arts would have survived…

Old Bôgu
Old bôgu

It is common knowledge that modern Kendô originated directly from the Gekiken practice of the nineteenth century. Standardization was promoted by the Meiji government on all levels of society and economy and it was of great importance to the establishment of a national sentiment. Obviously, the martial arts haven’t been excluded and uniform standards have been developed in order to teach them nationwide and raise the fighting spirit of the people (without “bothersome” school-specific teaching methods and techniques).

All of the famous Meiji-era Kendôka have been members of a traditional ryûha. Only one generation later this was hardly the case anymore. The best evidence that standardization proofed very successful in this field.

Even in many ryûha the unique Gekiken of said schools was replaced by modern Kendô.

Just a few realized the downside of this: Most schools had (and have) a curriculum which covers different weapons and unarmed techniques. The school-specific Gekiken naturally used all those options. If replaced by Kendô, all this vanishes as Kendô is limited to the use of the long sword only (certain Nitô techniques with the short sword are merely a negligible phenomenon here).

Keep in mind: There is not ONE Gekiken.
Gekiken is always strongly integrated in one’s schools teaching methods. Therefore, there are numerous types of Gekiken which can be practiced.
Clearly, such diversity runs contrary to standardization…

An old Men
An old men (head guard)

Schools with a high amount of Jûjutsu techniques try to utilize them and often go to the infight (e.g. Tennen Rishin-ryû).
Schools with various weapons apply them deliberately in Gekiken and for example let fight a person with a kodachi (short sword) against someone armed with a naginata (e.g. Hokushin Ittô-ryû Hyôhô).

As mentioned, the Gekiken practice must be completely “soaked” in the specific teaching methods of each respective school. The tactics and strategies of the school, as studied in kata-geiko, should manifest themselves in Gekiken and have to be instructed accordingly along with specific kuden teachings.

It is my firm belief that Gekiken training cannot be integrated easily in any random school.

Contrary to common belief, it’s not just the “new” schools of the Bakumatsu era knew this kind of training. The Maniwa Nen-ryû (founded in the sixteenth century) call it “Kiriwari jiai” and they are not using a standard bôgu but padded gloves and thick headgear. But the end result is the same.

Let us take a closer look on the bôgu and its usage. A very interesting difference is visible here between Gekiken and modern Kendô. In the course of the mentioned standardization certain target areas have been assigned to the armor in Kendô. But this was never the intent and such concept is completely unknown to Gekiken. Here, the armor serves its main purpose: to prevent severe injuries of the vital parts of the body.
But a strong tsuki to the upper arm, a Ganmen-tsuki, a cut from below to the kote or a devasting hit just above the knee… all clear and valid targets in Gekiken as well as in a duel situation… but not so in modern Kendô.

Gekiken is an integral part of our schools curriculum. Without it, a crucial part would be missing. It plays, so to speak, an essential role of the schools DNA.

An old Dô
An old dô (chest protector)


                      A devastating blow!



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