From the dawn of Japan’s iconic samurai, swords and other weaponry were central to the culture and training of those warriors who fought under ‘the rising sun’. These classical weapons of feudal Japan walked with the country’s warriors for hundreds of years until the end of the samurai era.
In today’s modern warfare, swords and ancient weapons find no place. However, they will forever be remembered as symbols of blood-stained battlefields and the instruments which were used to shape the modern Japan we know and love today.
1868 symbolises an iconic time in Japanese history that saw the samurai regime replaced with imperial rule, known as the Meiji Restoration. It saw the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the birth of a new Japan. This change of guard was accompanied by an evolution in the old-school martial arts of the time, ushering in a new era where the skills taught were no longer used in life and death situations, but for the betterment of the individual and society as a whole.
While new Japan marked the end for many old martial traditions, some survived, and many new ones were born. Though not as prevalent as in feudal times, Japanese martial arts have kept a firm place in modern society. Traditional Japanese martial arts are now being taught in schools worldwide, including London-based Jikan Dojo, which preserves Japan’s ancient weapon arts in their own special way today.
Jikan Dojo is an East-London based martial arts school that proudly stands at the heart of its community, still teaching the ancient rituals that shaped Japanese traditions but also incorporating modern or gendai techniques that evolved in the post-Meiji period. In addition, the martial arts school serves as the hombu or headquarters for the Jikan Kai – a small association of clubs of authentic traditional lineage.
In teaching these arts as they have been handed down, Jikan Dojo is able to express what history taught past generations. Students and practitioners from all walks of life step into the training hall or ‘dojo’ weekly to train earnestly in disciplines that develop their mind, body, and soul.
Katana – かたな
The Japanese katana sword seems to define the spirit of the legendary Samurai. Its distinctively curved blade and uniquely wrapped handle make it a thing of beauty and highly talented craftsmanship. Many Samurai often carried not only a Katana but also a shorter sword called a Wakizashi.
Standard Katana blade lengths can be between 60cm-80cm. Generally speaking, a blade over two shaku (Japanese foot) can be considered a katana.
Kenjutsu: The Art of the Japanese Sword
Kenjutsu – “Technique of the Sword” 剣術
During the early 1800s, a unique style of kenjutsu was created by Oishi Susumu Tanetugu (1798-1865). His newly formed system would come to be known as Oishi Shinkage Ryu (大石神), and is the lineage of Jikan Dojo’s kenjutsu practice. It taught unique stabbing and striking techniques. Oishi also altered protective gear and incorporated shinai bamboo swords for full-contact sparring practice known as shinai geiko or bogu chakuyo keiko.
Sometimes the lengths were standardised. However, Oishi conducted his practices with longer swords due to his taller stature, adding to the uniqueness of his fighting style. Sparring practices allowed practitioners to strengthen their skills through non-lethal duels and it was common for masters of various schools to challenge each other to friendly duels.
“The Way of the Warrior”
Fun Fact: Traditionally, Katana swords would be present in the birth room for newly born warriors, used to become fearless Samurai upon their martial arts weapons training journey.
Kodachi – 小太刀
A kodachi (short sword) also served the ruling Samurai and is often mistaken with a wakizashi. However, both occupied a sidearm position to accommodate larger weapons like the katana. Though still possessing a curved shape, some experts define kodachi swords as less than 60cm in length, which puts them in a different class to larger blades.
Daishō (大小) – “Big-Little.”
To carry both primary and secondary swords at once
Tamahagane steel (high-carbon) was forged to produce various blades during the samurai regime, including the kodachi. However, the Japanese government introduced a law in 1629 – “all active-duty Samurai are permitted to carry two swords at all times.” With Japan’s new law enforced, kodachi swords evolved in their designs, better crafted for samurai use.
Learning Kenjutsu as Supplementary training
Sadly, kenjutsu has become less common throughout Japan, and even more so in the western world while the modern sport of kendo has grown in popularity. But kenjutsu teaches sword duelling from a practical and realistic perspective.
Jikan Dojo is among the rare martial arts schools that teach such crafts based on battlefield scenarios. However, the lessons taught in kenjutsu are not only of benefit to the samurai. They have principles that can be applied to other martial arts such as karate and jujutsu.
The art form focuses on evasive movement, distance, timing, counter-attacks, and initiating attacks. It does so by developing legwork, posture, coordination, and even proper breathing. It also focuses on mental awareness and requires intense concentration to be performed safely and efficiently. Through the practice of kenjutsu, it is easy to understand how the ancient warriors of Japan had to be incredibly disciplined.
Bōjutsu: Japanese Stick Fighting
Bōjutsu (棒術) – “staff technique” is a form of martial art involving wooden staffs. The name originates from the Japanese word for staff which is “Bo”. It does not possess any form of blades and is typically 6ft (1.8m) long.
Traditional Okinawan Weapons
Okinawa is known for many things, including breathtaking scenery, the longest life expectancy among natives, and a historical martial arts heritage.
It was the largest island of the ancient Ryukyu Island Kingdom, but in 1609 Okinawa was invaded and occupied by the Satsuma samurai clan of Japan. Their rule was brutal, and they imposed a weapons ban that prohibited Okinawans from using traditional weapons such as swords and spears. As a result, many improvised weapons were devised from tools and farming implements by peasants. These systems of weaponry are today referred to as Okinawan Kobudo (沖縄古武道) – “old martial way of Okinawa”. They include weapons such as the sai, nunchaku and kama, among others.
The sai is a pronged trident-like weapon consisting of a long centre prong and two side prongs. Sai are normally used in pairs. They can be used defensively for blocking and trapping strikes from other weapons and also offensively to strike and stab.
According to some historians, the sai was used by farmers for ploughing the soil. The sai’s design is easily recognised in popular culture made famous through television and films such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Marvel’s Elektra.
The Nunchaku is perhaps the most well-known Okinawan Kobudo weapon of all time. The simple but effective design of two sticks connected by a communal chain is ideal for close-quarter combat. It can be used not only to spin and strike but also to seize or entangle opponents. In the west, Nunchaku or ‘nunchucks rose to prominence in the 1970s, thanks to martial arts icons like Bruce Lee.
The kama is a form of sickle or scythe. It has a curved blade and a long handle. According to some historians, the kama was the only bladed farming tool that Okinawan farmers were allowed by the ruling samurai forces. The Kama, like the sai, are normally used in pairs.
Learn Japanese Martial Arts Weapons at Jikan Dojo
For more than 25 years, Sensei Jacob Greasley has been practising martial arts. He began martial arts training as a teenager and studied jujutsu and swordsmanship in Japan for several years, earning the rank of 5th Dan, Shihan-dai in Jujutsu. After serving in the British military, he opened Jikan Dojo in East London, where he now teaches many children and adults.
When discussing his journey, he states, “My school is unique in that it combines a wide array of weaponry into one curriculum. Both Japanese and Okinawan kobudo.”
“Traditionally, to train in all these weapon arts, you’d have to go to multiple martial arts dojos to learn from different teachers. However, I learned Kenjutsu from my former Jujutsu organisation in Japan and Okinawan Kobudo from my parent Karate organisation. As Karate and Jujutsu were my primary martial arts, these forms of weaponry were learnt as a secondary or supplementary practice which I chose to keep alive in the Jikan Kai’s curriculum.”
Jikan Dojo’s traditional weaponry preserves authentic Japanese traditions. The curriculum consists of four main lineages:
Eishin Ryu Iai Heiho
A 500-year-old style that includes sword drawing, duelling tactics and disarming and counter-disarming strategies with the katana.
Shinkage Ryu Kenjutsu
This sword duelling style dates over 200 years and comes from the lineage of the famed fighter Oishi Susumu. Paired forms are practised using a wooden sword called a bokuto.
Bojutsu & Kusarigama-Jutsu
Shibukawa Ichi Ryu is a classical style of jujutsu, a grappling art, which is practised at Jikan Dojo. It also employs a wide range of weapon techniques, including the stick techniques of bojutsu and the use of the sickle and chain called kusarigama. There are various lengths of sticks or “bo” measuring 6 feet, 4 feet, 3 feet, and shorter sticks used as grappling instruments called gobo and kobo.
Okinawa’s rich martial arts heritage continues to inspire individual martial arts schools like Jikan Dojo. The Sai, Kama, Tonfa, Bo, and Nunchaku are among the weapons featured, and they are all taught and presented using the same ancient principles.
Both Sensei and practitioners must learn how to master these ancient Japanese weapons. Thus, Jikan Dojo’s martial arts weapons training follows the historical traditions of old Japan, allowing anybody interested in martial arts to immerse themselves in a centuries-old practice.
Check out Jikan Dojo and get in touch with them for a friendly chat. Its weapons curriculum is taught to its karate and jujutsu students and is available in venues in East London. www.jikandojo.com
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