Frequently Asked Questions About Training Requirements
Question: Over the course of study, what are the estimated costs?
Here are the typical costs:
1) You need to purchase your own fukuro shinai (the unique training tool of our school) or make one yourself (this takes some skill).
2) You must pay monthly fees. Your monthly fees go towards renting out the facilities that you train in, otherwise you would be training in a park or field. It is also a small payment and show of gratitude to your teacher to cover time and gas costs for the teacher to travel to your training location.
3) You need to purchase a uniform of some type.
Question: Do I need to get a uniform to practice kenjutsu?
Eventually, yes. To start, just wear a t-shirt and loose-fitting pants. If you decide that our class is for you, then eventually you must wear a uniform for practice. A standard karate uniform is the basic requirement for class. For more elaborate dress, the traditional samurai attire is a dogi (top), a hakama (pleated skirt or pants), and an obi (sword belt). For demonstrations, we wear tabi (Japanese formal socks). All these can be discussed with your instructor or the seniors in the class. They usually have good tips on where to buy uniforms.
Question: What equipment do I need?
For Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, you will need your own fukuro shinai (bamboo sword). At the beginning, most people borrow the dojo set. However, most practitioners are required to eventually have their own fukuro shinai for class. The dojo set is there for beginners who are trying out a class.
Question: How much does it cost (equipment, uniforms, etc…)?
AOI Budogu in Vancouver, E-Bogu in Los Angeles, Nine Circles in London, and Tozando in Japan are popular suppliers that many members buy from. Go check their websites for current prices.
Frequently Asked Questions About Kenjutsu: The Art
Question: Why would I wish to start studying a sword art when we no longer carry swords?
If practicality is what you seek, then a typical martial arts dojo with a self-defence course is what you are looking for. People who dedicate their lives to studying sword arts are a special few. Typically they are fascinated by swords and want to learn how to use one well. These people want to be swordsmen and they seek to learn an art form that teaches them how to wield a sword.
Question: What are the health benefits? (e.g., strength, stress relief, coordination, etc.)
As with any other traditional martial art, it is a combination of the physical, the mental, the psychological, and the spiritual. You are doing things:
1) with your body (agility, coordination, dexterity, etc… motor skills issues; the physical)
2) with your mind (planning, predicting, observing, etc… tactical issues; the mental)
3) with your psyche (perseverance, endurance, etc… attitude issues; the psychological)
4) with your spirit (calm, centered, in touch with the Way, etc… mystical issues; the spiritual).
Kenjutsu is not cardio-intensive. It is not designed as a modern strength-building, fitness and conditioning, or weight-loss program. Kenjutsu is the art of sword-fighting.
Question: Is the training brutal or intense?
No. Traditional martial arts are based on the practice of kata, pre-arranged sets of movements. Therefore, it is not sparring. It is scripted and choreographed. The training is thus educational in its approach.
Question: How would this training translate into my daily life?
Feeling better, feeling more aware. Developing better coordination. Developing better agility. But it varies from person to person. For some, it’s great stress relief. For others, it is a different type of physical activity. Still others, the art and the tradition fulfills what they are lacking spiritually. And for some, the lifestyle of a swordsman, being a student and practitioner of a 500 year-old sword art and using swords on a daily basis and being part of an elite group of individuals in the world, has a mystical appeal. How it will affect you depends greatly on what you seek and what you feel you are missing from your life.
Question: Am I too old or too young to learn kenjutsu? Am I too little?
No. For our dojo, the minimum age is 16. Before that, they are not coordinated enough or mature enough. Chronological age has little meaning. Emotional maturity however is more important.
In terms of size, it doesn’t matter much. Weapons are the great equalizer. You don’t need a lot of strength or size to wield a sword well. Sometimes, big, physical types can be soundly beaten by small, agile swordsmen.
Question: Do I have to be in good physical shape to do kenjutsu?
Not necessarily. Swordsmen come in all shapes and sizes. Obviously, the better physical condition you are in, the less likely the chance for injury. Other important physical qualities are agility, flexibility, manual dexterity (fine motor skill), eye-hand coordination, good body control, good sense of balance.
Equally important are mental attributes like mental flexibility, adaptiveness, awareness, good concept of spatial orientation, ability to learn, ability to mentally process a tactical situation, etc…
Sword-fighting ability is not just about the physical component.
Question: Kata versus kumite. Is it competitive?
No. If you want competition, try kendo (Japanese fencing). In kendo, there is free sparring where you compete against other kendo practitioners. Kendo is a competitive sport so there are tournaments.
Practitioners in classical kenjutsu however work on kata only. They learn the mechanics, techniques, and tactics of swordsmanship through their study of the kata. To succeed in an environment that focuses on kata, cooperation is a more productive approach than competition. Working well with your partners is essential in order to learn.
Question: About religion, will it conflict with my personal spiritual beliefs?
Obviously, any martial art comes from somewhere: from some time and some place. In some cases, religious philosophy can be present in the art form if the martial art in question has a history of originating in a temple or similar religious institution. You will have to investigate the art to see if it conflicts with your religious beliefs. It is difficult to generalize.
Question: Why would I want to choose kenjutsu over iaido, aikido or even kendo?
First off, some people do kenjutsu side-by-side with some other art, as a complement. It is not a matter of this one is better than that one. They are all good for different reasons. It really depends on what you are seeking. Second, they are all different and unique arts, with totally different philosophies. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Really, it boils down to what you are seeking.
Question: What is the difference between kendo and kenjutsu? (for people with no experience in either)
Well, modern kendo came from an old style of kenjutsu. Broadly speaking (and this is very broad), kenjutsu is a term meaning “sword techniques”, and typically refer to old styles of swordsmanship. Kenjutsu styles are typically old (a few hundred years old at least) and have a curriculum heavily based on kata (pre-arranged patterns of movements) as the educational form.
Kendo is the modern Japanese form of fencing with bamboo swords, much like Western Olympic fencing. And like Western fencing, practitioners fight in fencing bouts which are scored by a point system. There are also formal gradings for rank and competitive tournaments because it is a sport.
Question: What is the difference between kendo and kenjutsu? (for kendo practitioners)
You will learn through the practice of kata only, either through solitary or partnered kata. The focus is on real sword techniques, therefore any and all targets on the body are applicable. With battlefield styles from the Sengoku Period (the Warring States Period), they will focus on openings in the armor. With Edo-period styles (after the wearing of armor was obsolete), not being struck in any way was the key tactical goal. A strike received to any part of the body, however incidental, was damaging or fatal. Hence, the idea of the One-Cut became popular in the Edo Period. The famous style Itto Ryu (One Cut or One Stroke style) was such a style that embraced this philosophy of One Cut. And kendo developed from one branch of Itto Ryu, the Nakanishi Branch. In order to test their skills, they developed protective armor (bogu) and a bamboo sword (shinai). And in time, to save it from extinction in the Meiji Period, it gradually became a form of sport. As such, standardization of rules and a code of conduct to govern the sport were developed.
So the short answer is: Kendo is a modern sport. Kenjutsu is real life techniques from the Middle Ages.
Question: How does kenjutsu relate to kendo and iaido?
Kendo is originally derived from Itto Ryu, one of the old styles of kenjutsu from the 1600’s. Now it is the modern sport of Japanese fencing. Kendo focuses on sparring (competing in a sport sense) with a simplified set of fundamental techniques and points are scored based on hitting pre-determined targets with accuracy.
Iaido is a modern term for the art of drawing the sword. It replaced the old term “battojutsu” (the art of drawing). But many iai schools are very old too. And some kenjutsu schools have an iai component in their curriculum, to complement their study of sword-fighting. Iaido is the art form focusing on how to draw the sword, cut with it, and then replace the sword back in its scabbard. These are real techniques for drawing and cutting with a Japanese sword. The majority of kata are based on the premise that you are ambushed while your sword is still sheathed.
Kenjutsu is the term covering the old styles of sword-fighting from the Middle Ages. These are real styles of swordsmanship with real techniques for fighting and killing enemies. Some styles focus on battlefield fighting and some styles focus on urban duelling scenarios.
So, how does kenjutsu relate to kendo and iaido? They are all arts focused on the use of the sword. But each one examines it from a different historical and tactical perspective.
Question: How does kenjutsu relate to iaido? (for iaido practitioners)
They are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. Some people have defined iaido as the sword art that deals with scenarios where the sword starts in the scabbard. The vast majority of the kata in iaido begin with the practitioner being accosted while his sword is still sheathed. Reacting calmly and correctly, drawing and cutting smoothly in one, fluid action was the focus of iai study.
As regards kenjutsu, some people have defined kenjutsu as the sword art where the swords have already been drawn. There is no surprise element. Now, it is either a battlefield fighting scenario (fighting your way through a horde of enemy troops) or a duelling scenario (fighting against a swordsman of another school, one-on-one).
In many old kenjutsu styles, they already have their own built-in iai component in their curriculum.
In the old days, there was no separation of the two. Swordsmen studied both since both were paramount to one’s survival. You might be ambushed in the teahouse one day or sent to battle in your warlord’s army the next day. You had to be prepared for anything.
Question: Can I use it for defense? Can I learn to defend myself with kenjutsu?
Many martial arts are defensive in nature. Basically, a martial art is based on the idea of how to defend yourself, whether on the street or on the battlefield. Of course, no one uses swords nowadays. If the question is: does kenjutsu have any applicability today? The simple answer is no. There is no practical applicability to a self-defence situation in modern times because no one carries swords today. Yet, having said that, some people believe that the principles of fighting in general that you learn in sword-fighting can be applied to any hostile scenario where there is an attacker and a defender.
Question: Are there competitions in kenjutsu?
No. If you want sparring bouts and tournaments, try kendo.
Question: How long does it take to learn all the fundamentals and kata?
The answer is not so simple. It can take months, years, decades, or a lifetime. As our Headmaster has said: “I can teach you the secrets today.” It depends what you are looking for. If you are on a timetable, I would not suggest that you undertake study in our style or any kenjutsu style for that matter. You would be insulting them and wasting their time. For high-level swordsmen, it is their raison d’etre, a lifestyle. It is who they are. It is their identity, their calling. Like joining a priesthood.
If you are there to collect kata (hence the term, “kata collectors”) as some sort of accomplishment or trophy, what’s the point? Elite swordsmen understand that technique is driven by philosophy. Once you take it out of its context, it is meaningless. It may look nice and flashy but ultimately, it becomes meaningless. For example, to do Katori Shinto Ryu correctly, you have to be in the KSR mindset, have the KSR attitude and tactical approach, the way of moving and using kiai and the spirit have to be aligned in the KSR way, and so on. Once you extract only the techniques out, it is no longer Katori Shinto Ryu. It may look like KSR but really it isn’t.
Some people ask: “How long does it take to learn all the fundamentals and kata?” with the view of learning all there is to know then leaving. Again, why? What’s the purpose? To accomplish a goal, to say you did it and then move on? Then this is absolutely the wrong motive for joining a sword school. You join a school to become part of that group, to learn all about it, its history, its culture, its traditions. To become part of that unique history, that special culture, that rich tradition, to be a member of that elite group. Not to leave it.
If you are on a timetable, do not join. Study in kenjutsu takes patience and hard work over a few decades. After a few years, you will hopefully understand the basics.
Question: How long does it take to become a Black Belt?
We do not have belt ranks. If you are looking for a trophy or some visible means of showing off an accomplishment (e.g., trophies, plaques, certificates, belts, ranks, etc…), we do not have these. Most Western karate dojos (the McDojos) can fulfill these modern needs for showing accomplishment, indicators of progress, building self-esteem, or for gratifying the ego.
If you mean “reaching a high level of proficiency in the art”, there really is no timetable for judging this. Every student is different with totally different traits and make-up. Some learn fast. Some are naturally talented. Some struggle. You may think, well I’m physically coordinated and have good fitness. But martial arts is not just about the physical. It is also mental, like whether you can anticipate, analyze, whether you can figure out the other guy’s tactics. And it’s psychological: how determined are you? How well do you persevere? There is no way to predict. There are so many variables that influence success or struggle.
It also depends how often you practice. And how often you practice at home, on your own. Practice makes perfect, as the old saying goes. For the average person with an average timetable of practice, it will take over a decade of training, maybe 2 decades. Training in kenjutsu is a long road. Like anything, to become good, you have to train a long time. Tiger Woods did not become a good golfer in a couple of years. It took him at least a decade of hard work and training. Real swordsmen do it all their life: it is a lifestyle, a profession, a calling, a part of their intrinsic being. That is what they are and that is what they do.
Here is an interesting perspective from aikido. In aikido, they estimate it takes an average person 7 years of committed practice to reach shodan (1st degree black belt), at which time you are then deemed to be a “serious beginner”. The general rule it seems is to be prepared for a decade of study as a minimum.
Question: You don’t have ranks. Why not?
First of all, we do not have the authorization to bestow ranks. That is the purview of the headmaster in Japan. In old styles of kenjutsu, some schools only have two ranks: teacher and student. You are a student until the headmaster makes you a teacher. It is that simple. And you will not be a teacher until you have studied in that school for 30-40 years. Or you may never be appointed a teacher. Some schools only have one teacher, the headmaster. Everyone else is a student.
Second of all, in the old days, people trained for survival. You trained in order to survive on the battlefield. You trained to survive an encounter in the street. You trained in order to escape an ambush. Training for getting pieces of paper or fancy coloured belts or being able to wear a special uniform is laughable.
Third of all, our founder, a practitioner with over 25 years of training, still considers himself a beginner, a white belt if you will. His teachers before him thought of themselves as beginners. There is an old saying in Zen Buddhism: “shoshin”. Translated, it means “beginner’s mind”. Once you think you’re some kind of expert, then that is the beginning of the end. Our founder’s Master said to him: “Budo is like climbing a mountain. We are all climbers in the same group climbing up this mountain. Naturally, there are some with more experience than others. But you have to remember that I am also still climbing up this same mountain with you.” That is the spirit of traditional Japanese budo which is heavily based on the idea of humility. In this sense, ranks mean nothing.
Fourthly, if you are worried about your place in the dojo hierarchy (a political issue), you don’t need ranks to know who everyone is and where everyone fits in the hierarchy of the dojo. In Japan, they have an old system called the sempai-kohai system. Basically, it is a seniority system. Whoever is there before you is your sempai (senior). Whoever comes after you is your kohai (junior).
Finally, to high-level swordsmen, when we cross swords, we will know your rank intuitively. When we feel your sword, when we feel your spirit, it is immediately obvious. Paper ranks or belt ranks mean nothing in “this moment”.
As regards the issue of rank, you only need to ask yourself: why are ranks important to me?
Question: “Can you tell me right up front what koryu arts involve and save me the time and effort of unnecessary training?”
That is why it is useful to watch a class. You will see exactly what is involved. If you cannot even sit through a class, then koryu (traditional martial arts) is not for you. This is the approach taken in Japan. Mr. Tong, our Founder, takes the approach his headmasters, like Sugino Yoshio Sensei and Mutoh Sensei, did. Just sit and watch and we’ll talk later.
But remember, while you are watching the class, they are watching you. And evaluating whether they want to accept you as their student or not, whether you would be a good addition to their school or not.
Question: “What can this school offer me?”
In the money-driven West, some students think like customers. They are thinking like a customer at a retail store, “What can I get from this school?” or “What will this school give me?” They are thinking from an acquisitive mindset, a selfish mindset. This is the completely wrong mindset if you want to study budo.
But remember that while the acquisitive student is thinking “What can this school give me?”, the teacher is thinking: “Do I want this student?” In other words, does this student show some potential, some promise?
Mr. Tong was lucky (and eternally grateful) that his teachers saw something in him and decided to take a chance on him. They could have just as easily said no. For the teacher, taking on a new student represents a huge investment of time and effort. So for the teacher, he will not make that decision lightly.
Question: “Yes, but I pay money to take this class. They should cater to me.”
Then koryu is not for you. Try a modern art instead, one that follows modern standards.
Remember that the teacher is under no obligation to take you on as a student. They have enough students. One more or less will make little difference to them. On the contrary, you need to demonstrate to them why you would be a good student, a good investment of their time and energy.
As John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Frequently Asked Questions About the Style: Yagyu Shinkage Ryu
Question: What is the lineage of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu? When does it date back to? Is it derived from a certain style or is it a pure form of martial arts? Is it a well-established art form?
The founder of Shinkage Ryu was a veteran samurai and master swordsman named Kamiizumi Ise-no-Kami. He is also known by the name Kamiizumi Nobutsuna. He developed the style from a fusion of his studies in two older styles: Kage Ryu and Katori Shinto Ryu. It dates back to 1540. He would eventually meet and teach a talented swordsman named Yagyu Munetoshi, who would become the second headmaster. Munetoshi’s 5th son Munenori would eventually become famous as the instructor of swordsmanship to the first three Tokugawa Shoguns. Yagyu Shinkage Ryu is arguably the most famous style of Japanese swordsmanship. The style has a long lineage and a fascinating history. Please look through our website for more information on the history of the style.
Question: What separates Yagyu Shinkage Ryu from other Japanese sword styles?
It is a famous style because it was the Shogun’s official style. Many styles vied for the honour of this position but the Shogun chose this style because he was impressed by its philosophy, a way of thinking that fit his way of thinking. Yagyu Shinkage Ryu has a very unique and revolutionary philosophy. Look through our website for more information on the philosophy of our style.
Question: How do I know if this style fits me?
This is more of a philosophical question and one which we cannot answer for you. You will need to think carefully about this one.
Yagyu Shinkage Ryu is not the style for everyone. It will appeal to a very small minority of people because it does not fit most people’s conception of what sword-fighting is about. It doesn’t have what most people want in a sword style.
“Shinkage Ryu is not a technique for you to win. It is a technique so you don’t lose.”
This is the key philosophy of the style. In other words, it is a technique to stay alive. So in this style, we DO NOT attempt to win, to conquer, or to kill the opponent. It is very pacifist. We just try to stay alive, as long as possible.
The best course of action is to visit the dojo and observe a class to see if it is for you.
Question: What about power, strength, aggressiveness?
These ideas are all antithetical to Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, which seeks to keep your opponent alive, a very Zen Buddhist approach which seeks to not harm anyone. In this way, the spirit of this style is totally different from other styles of swordsmanship which typically seek to dispatch their opponents by cutting off their heads, arms, and hands, or cleaving the opponent in two.
Question: Isn’t that how you win a swordfight?
Not necessarily. Killing a person is only one way to win a swordfight. But notice that the premise already inherent in that statement is that winning is what you ultimately seek. But remember that the fundamental philosophy of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu is not to strive to win. According to Yagyu Munenori, the sword instructor to the Shogun, if you are trying to win, you have already lost.
Question: So if you’re not trying to win, then what are you doing?
Kajitsuka Sensei told our Founder: “In the Edo Period, swordsmanship became not about killing people. It became about promoting life.”
There is a fundamental concept in our style. It is the idea of “The Life-Giving Sword”. It was so revolutionary in its time that it became famous throughout the land. If you do a Google search, you will find many interpretations of this famous idea which is still to this day a very popular notion in Japanese swordsmanship.
Question: It sounds weak. Most styles will teach you to be strong and aggressive. Isn’t the samurai way to rush in, not afraid of death, like Yamamoto says in Hagakure?
If you want to crush your enemies, then this is not the style for you. If you want to learn 25 different ways to cut down your enemy, then this is not the style for you. If you want to dominate your enemies and be the best swordfighter around, then this is not the sword style for you.
Crushing your enemies, killing as many of the enemy as possible, becoming a killing machine is a barbaric notion. Strength and aggression is one approach. But it is not the only one.
Likewise, rushing to your death headlong is one view of Bushido, as argued by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a low-level samurai living in the 1700s in the Nagasaki area, in the countryside far from the capital of Japan, who had never participated in any battles or duels.
Yagyu Munenori, the sword instructor to the Shogun and author of the famous Heiho Kadensho (one of the Bibles of Japanese swordsmanship), lived in a time of great change when the nation was embroiled in civil war and battlefield fighting was commonplace. He lived through the transition to the era of peace when Tokugawa Ieyasu, his patron, became the ruler of the land. Munenori was employed as a high-level government official (akin to the Director of the FBI) working for the Shogun in Edo, the capital of the nation. In one instance during the Osaka Summer Campaign, Munenori protected the 2nd Shogun Hidetada with his life, defeating seven samurai who had broken into camp to assassinate the Shogun. In his distinguished lifetime, he also met and became close friends with the famous Zen Master Takuan Soho who taught him much about Zen. Munenori then went on to incorporate Zen into the Yagyu style of swordsmanship, marking the first full-scale fusion of Zen with Swordsmanship. Ideas like centeredness, awareness (zanshin), empty mind, No-Mind (mushin), Immoveable Mind (fudoshin), and others then eventually became commonplace in the study of swordsmanship, and in later centuries to more modern arts like karate and aikido. Munenori’s concept of The Life-Giving Sword transformed the art of Japanese swordsmanship and the rationale for its use and study. Bushido (the Way of the Warrior) to this class of high-level samurai is about service; service to one’s lord, service to one’s clan, service to one’s government, service to one’s people, service to one’s nation. If there is one man whose words have any weight regarding the issues of swordsmanship, ethics, and the Way of the Samurai, it is this man.
Question: So what is the spirit of the Yagyu way?
Being calm, peaceful. Yagyu Shinkage Ryu is used for defense, never for attack. Now you have to ask yourself if this is what you believe in or want in a sword style.