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. Once a standard of probably the 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 at once 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 clear 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…
It is common knowledge that 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).
Most of the famous Meiji-era Kendôka have been members of a 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 with 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).
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…
Schools with a high amount of Jujutsu 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 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.
By the way, it’s not that solely 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 result is the same.
Let us take a closer look on the Bôgu and its usage. A very interesting change is visible here from Gekiken to modern Kendô. In the course of the mentioned standardization certain target areas have been assigned to the armor. This idea is completely alien 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 or a cut from below to the kote… all clear and valid hits in Gekiken (but not so in modern Kendô).
Gekiken is an integral part of our schools self-image. Without it, an important component would be missing. It plays, so to speak, a pivotal role of the schools DNA.