Forsaken Kendo — Katate guntō-jutsu

By Baptiste Tavernier

Originally published in Kendo World 7.3, December 2014.


It is always interesting to see how events connect to form the stream of history. Who would imagine, for example, that one might find a link between an obscure disease called pébrine, which plagued France in the second half of the 19th century, and a martial art studied on the other side of the globe in Japan?

Pébrine and flacherie are both diseases found in silkworms, and they spread rapidly in Europe from 1855. At that time, France was the world’s leading country in sericulture, but the plague of pébrine and flacherie was going to annihilate, in just a few years, the silkworm population in Lyon and its surrounding area, the country’s main centre of silk farming. Many farms and factories went bankrupt, leading to the collapse of the first export industry of Napoleon III’s empire: a catastrophe nationale!

Most urgent for the farmers was then to find and import a variety of worm that would be immune, or at least resistant, to pébrine and flacherie. As coincidence would have it, the Japanese silkworm was the most resistant to those diseases, and this very fact precipitated the signature in Edo of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in October 1858, which marked the official beginning of Franco-Japanese relationships.

By 1864, a large portion of the foreign population in Yokohama was French, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs thus decided to dispatch Léon Roches to Edo as Plenipotentiary Ambassador, mainly to supervise the trades of worm cocoons and other silk-related affairs. Roches, however, was a very skilful diplomat; he soon became as influential as his British counterpart, Sir Harry Parkes, on the Japanese political scene to the extent that the 14th shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi, declared in a letter addressed to Napoleon III and dated February 15, 1866, his intention to promote Roches to his councillor in foreign affairs (Polack, 2002).

By that time, internal turmoils had shaken Japan and the shogunate was facing uprisings and a possible coup d’état: Iemochi’s government soon felt the urgency of modernising its military power, both in logistics and theories, and thus addressed an official request to Great Britain and France to envoy qualified military instructors and engineers. The idea was nonetheless welcomed with lukewarm enthusiasm in London, which left the road open for Roches to strengthen a little more the ties between Paris and Edo. Roches, who first came to Japan in order to organise the importation of silkworms, was now playing a prominent role in Japan’s military affairs.

The agreement on the first French military mission to Japan was signed by both countries in June 1866. Iemochi’s sudden death in August 1866 did not halt the preparations for the mission and finally the French instructors set foot in Yokohama on January 13, 1867.


“French military mission to Japan”; in Le monde illustré, n°503, December 1, 1866.
Sitting second from right is Jules Brunet,  who inspired the character of Nathan Algren in the movie “The last Samurai”

The mission was headed by Charles Chanoine, and its purpose was to create a new shogunate army based on a European (more specifically, French) system of both administration/logistics and combat/tactics. Japanese men would receive instruction in artillery, infantry and cavalry.

Unfortunately, the mission fell through shortly after it started. With Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s abdication in favour of the Emperor in 1868, the mission was halted and the instructors officially left Japan on October 18, with very little accomplished.


“French officers drilling troops in Osaka in front of the Shogun”; in L’univers illustré, n°676, December 28, 1867.


The French military missions and fencing instruction in Japan

With the capture of Napoleon III during the Battle of Sedan (September 1870), and the final defeat in 1871 of the French army in the Franco-Prussian War, one would expect that the newly-formed Meiji government would try to get closer to the German Empire and hire instructors from there in order to continue with the modernisation of Japan’s army. However, for several political and economical reasons (silk being one of them) that will not be discussed in this article, Tokyo decided to remain faithful to Paris and agreed for a new military mission as soon as 1872.

The main objectives of the second French military mission to Japan (1872–80) were to establish the Toyama military academy and a national conscription system. There are only scarce sources regarding the teaching of martial techniques by the French instructors at that time. For example, most of the archives kept at the SHD (“Service Historique de la Défense” — the archival records of the French Armed Forces) in Vincennes mainly detail the theoretical courses that students had to attend at the Toyama academy: mathematics, topography, military music, French language, veterinary medicine, etc. Not much is said about artillery or bayonet drills. However, we do know that sergeant François Ducros headed the college of gymnastics from 1874. Military gymnastics, featured callisthenics and also stick handling (bâton), which was then regarded as effective introductory training before learning bayonet fencing. Moreover, according to the All Japan Jukendo Federation (Kanesaka, 2007), Ducros, although by no mean a specialist in those fields, started to teach fencing and bayonet to his students on a regular basis.


sergeant François Ducros

By the time of the third French military mission (1884–89), the shift had finally occurred: Japan now mainly relied on German instruction, and was also hiring advisors from several European countries. Nevertheless, Tokyo decided once again to entrust the land army to French instruction. The French mission reorganised the Toyama military academy and created in 1886 the four departments of strategy, artillery, callisthenics, and fencing. The fencing course was itself divided into three fields: foil, sabre and bayonet.

We need to pause here, and go back to 1877. During the Satsuma Rebellion, the Battōtai, an elite police squad who fought against Saigo Takamori’s forces armed only with swords, rapidly rose in fame. This feat of courage actually led Japan to reconsider its position towards the traditional martial arts that were thought outmoded, and to encourage a revival of gekken and jūjutsu, especially in the police. The Battōtai was constituted mainly by former bushi who would use their kenjutsu skills to a devastating effect. The army, on the other hand, had achieved great improvement in artillery but did not have a cohesive close quarter fighting system yet: some soldiers had received instruction in French fencing and bayonet fencing at the Toyama academy, while some had a Japanese bujutsu background, but a large number of conscripts simply had no skills at all. The tendency was then to improvise and use imported European weapons like the bayonet or sabre in a “Japanese way”, combining, for example, bayonet with yari techniques, etc. This state of affairs curiously remained unattended to until the arrival of the third French mission.

The main instructors of the third mission were Etienne de Villaret and Joseph Kiehl. One of their assignments was to create unified fencing and bayonet curricula for the Japanese army, which would be later taught at Toyama’s department of fencing. In order to spread this new method, the French advisors would first instruct twelve Japanese noncommissioned officers, who would in turn help teach the techniques to a larger audience. Japanese kenjutsu or sōjutsu training was strictly forbidden. However, discontent among soldiers was strong. Many in fact favoured kenjutsu over sabre, and especially over foil, which they saw as a completely useless system on a real battlefield. Moreover, a rising number of conscripts were becoming skilled in gekken and were thus having a hard time becoming accustomed to the European style of fencing, especially to its lunging footwork. Bayonet techniques in France were originally theorised based on traditional fencing, and the ability to lunge was again crucial.


Joseph Kiehl and his students

According to Watanabe Ichirō, (1971, p. 899), both Kiehl and de Villaret studied kenjutsu from 1887 under Sakakibara Kenkichi. The extent of their study and skills remains, however, unknown. One would wonder if the French officers started kenjutsu out of curiosity, or in order to devise a hybrid fencing curriculum that would better suit the Japanese soldiers…

The third French military mission officially ended in January 1889. The same year in November, Japan’s Ministry of Army published the Kenjutsu Kyōhan, the official fencing textbook that was based on translations of French military teaching materials. The Kenjutsu Kyōhan is divided into three volumes:

• Seiken-jutsu (正剣術) —> foil

• Guntō-jutsu (軍刀術) —> sabre

• Jūken-jutsu (銃剣術) —> bayonet

Interestingly enough, Vol. 1 on foil is the longest and most detailed of the three volumes (63 sheets), while the two others on sabre and bayonet are only 22 sheets long. The volume on guntō-jutsu is itself divided into three main chapters:

• Definitions and exercises

• Basic drills

• Etiquette and shiai

The first chapter, “Definitions and Exercises”, starts by explaining the different parts of the sabre, the correct way to grip the hilt and the four moves that constitute the opening salute (yodō). The paragraph on footwork and lunges says to refer to the explanations given in Vol. 1 on foil.


Yodō: the opening salute (from right to left)

In the Kenjutsu Kyōhan, fencing concepts such as fort & faible (strong part/weak part of the blade), pronation and supination (nails facing downward or upward), or lines (inside-high, outside-low, etc.) are all explained in the foil volume. However, one should note that there is no mention of the parries’ names such as sixte, tierce, quinte, septime, etc., which would have made the translation easier to read. Instead, the Japanese textbook gives for each technique the position of the blade and the orientation of the nails, in a sometimes confusing way.

The book continues with two exercises that soldiers should perform in order to loosen up their wrist and elbow. The first one consists of stretching the arm out straight forward and whirling the sabre horizontally, and exercise No. 2 asks the practitioner to whirl the sabre vertically.


Exercise n°1

Those exercises are important because in sabre, strikes are circular (the tip of the blade draws a sort of spiral in the air), so the practitioner needs great mobility in the wrist and elbow.

Before the manual starts detailing strikes and parries, there is one last paragraph, rather unclear, which seems to indicate that tierce is preferable to sixte as the basic posture in sabre (this would be consistent with modern sabre theory).


Kenjutsu Kyōhan‘s sabre techniques

Kashira no zangeki / bōfutsu (Slash / parry to the face)

Slash: whirl the sabre backward to the left with the edge in front, stretch the arm out and stop the sabre at the height of the opponent’s face.

Parry: change the position of the hand in order to have the nails facing forward, raise the arm and keep the edge facing upward. The sabre should be horizontal, slightly in front of the head.



Kata no zangeki / bōfutsu (Slash / parry to the shoulder)

Slash: whirl the sabre backward to the left with the edge in front, stretch the arm out and stop the sabre at the height of the opponent’s left shoulder.

Parry: Rise and rotate the right arm with the elbow facing outside; the forearm should be horizontal in front of the head [the illustration does not render it clearly], the right wrist is on the centre line, nails facing forward; lower the tip of the sabre with the edge facing left, the blade should be about 10cm apart from the body.



Migi-men no zangeki / bōfutsu  (Slash / parry to the right side of the head)

Slash: whirl the sabre from right to left with the edge facing to the right, the nails are facing downwards, stretch the arm out and stop the sabre at the height of opponent’s head (right side).

Parry: the right hand swerves about 10cm to the right; the edge should be facing right and the blade should slightly lean forward.



Hidari-men no zangeki / bōfutsu  (Slash / parry to the left side of the head)

Slash: whirl the sabre from left to right with the edge facing to the left, the nails are facing upwards, stretch the arm out and stop the sabre at the height of opponent’s head (left side).

Parry: the right hand swerves about 10cm to the left; the edge should be facing left and the blade should slightly lean forward.



Waki no zangeki / bōfutsu  (Slash / parry to the side)

Slash: the edge is facing diagonally upward and the thumb slightly to the left, stretch the arm out and stop the sabre at the opponent’s right side.

Parry: the right hand swerves outward to the right, with the elbow facing outside; the forearm should be horizontally aligned with the shoulder; lower the tip of the sabre with the edge facing right, the blade should be about 33cm away from the body



Hara no zangeki / bōfutsu  (Slash / parry to the abdomen)

Slash: the edge is facing diagonally upward and the thumb slightly to the right, stretch the arm out and stop the sabre at the level of the opponent’s abdomen.

Parry: rise and rotate the right arm with the elbow facing out; the forearm should be horizontally aligned with the shoulder, the right wrist is on the centreline, nails facing forward; lower the tip of the sabre with the edge facing left, the blade should be about 10cm away from the body.



Totsugeki / bōfutsu  (Thrust / parry)

Thrust: lower the tip of the sabre at the level of the chest, rotate the wrist so the thumb faces downward and the edge upward, stretch the arm out and lunge.

Parry: lower slightly the tip of the sabre, while the right hand swerves towards the centre of the body.



After that series of sketches detailing each technique, there is an additional written instruction on zenhi no zangeki (slash to the forearm), but it does not feature any illustration:

The edge is facing diagonally downward and the thumb slightly to the right, the position of the right hand should not change much, and while showing the intention of protecting your face (raising the arm), slash the opponent’s forearm.

There is no explanation, however, on how to parry that slash to the forearm.

Finally, the chapter ends by detailing the ripostes (counter attacks without lunging—engeki in Japanese) that best suits each type of attack.

The second half of the volume on sabre proposes in Chapter 2 numerous examples of drills, and explains how to conduct a training session. Several patterns of attack and riposte are detailed, as well as the commands that officers should shout to the trainees. The last chapter refers to shiai rules and etiquette.


From French sabre to Japanese katate guntō-jutsu

One may wonder why the Ministry of Army decided to promote a Kenjutsu Kyōhan based on the contested French military fencing. After all, the book was published almost one year after the official end of the French mission, so Tokyo had the opportunity to abandon that system and come back instead to gekken/kendo, since many officers and soldiers were already skilled in Japanese kenjutsu.

In fact, it seems first that a faction at the Toyama academy was still strongly in favour of the French method. Secondly, the army was facing an unforeseen problem: Japan had already adopted (and ordered) the European sabre as its standard weapon, and it certainly seemed far too costly to re-equip officers and soldiers with katana instead. Nevertheless, one year after the publication of the Kenjutsu Kyōhan, Baron Ōkubo Haruno, then-director of the Toyama academy declared that French fencing was not suited to Japanese people’s morphology and spirit, and recommended gekken instead. He thus asked Tsuda Kyōjū (the reading of the given name is uncertain), chief of the gymnastic department and successor of the Tsuda Ichiden-ryū, to devise a new system (Kanesaka, 2007). Tsuda’s research led to the publication of a revised version of the Kenjutsu Kyōhan in April 1894.

The first main difference with the 1889 edition of the book is its division into only two sections, guntō-jutsu and jūken-jutsu: seiken-jutsu, the foil, has been completely removed from the official guidelines. The next striking difference is in the training equipment: the new system advocates the use of shinai and bōgu, and is thus in this respect very close to Japanese gekken.

However, a closer look at the guidelines reveals that in fact, the technical syllabus of the 1894’s guntō-jutsu (this is also the case for jūken-jutsu) is still largely based on the 1889’s French one. First of all, the techniques described here form indeed a one-handed (katate) sword system, as opposed to the traditional two-handed (morote) Japanese kenjutsu. The hilt of a European sabre does not easily allow handling the weapon with two hands, and since the whole army was equipped with such a sword, Tsuda had to cope with it.

The footwork has been changed to better suit the Japanese soldiers and thus the deep lunge has been abolished in favour of leaping strikes. Nonetheless, a shallow lunge is still performed at the end of the attack (this is still the case in modern jukendo and tankendo). Finally, the strikes themselves are still performed in the sabre (circular) fashion with the tip of the shinai drawing a spiral before hitting. The structure of the revised Kenjutsu Kyōhan follows also the structure of the old version, with the same points discussed in the same order, often with the same vocabulary.

Some technical elements of European fencing have however been expurgated. The lunge, as mentioned above, is now very shallow. Neither the concept of pronation/supination or the fencing lines are explained anymore. Yodō has also been abandoned, replaced by a more Japanese style of reigi.

1894’s guntō-jutsu is therefore a hybrid system that mixes European sabre and Japanese gekken. Basic techniques are explained in short paragraphs, which feature an illustration.


2nd edition’s guntō-jutsu techniques

Men (sayū-men) no zangeki — Slash to the head (and both sides of the head)

Whirl your sabre backward and immediately slash the face (or the side of the head) of your opponent.



Totsugeki (tsuki) — Thrust

Stretch your arm out, (the wrist can rotate either left or right), while stepping forward and thrust to the throat.

[Note: In these guidelines, a tsuki to the mengane is deemed valid, whereas a thrust to the chest or the abdomen is not.]



Zenhi (kote) no zangeki — Slash to the forearm

Whirl the sabre backward to the left and immediately slash the opponent’s right forearm.



Migi-dō no zangeki — Slash to the right side

Whirl the sabre to the left and immediately slash the opponent’s right side.



Hidari-dō no zangeki — Slash to the left side

Whirl the sabre to the right and immediately slash the opponent’s left side.



Men (sayū-men) no bōfutsu — Block to the head (and both sides of the head)

Stretch out the arm and raise the wrist (the wrist should rotate left or right in order to block strikes coming from the side) to the level of your eyes; the tip of the blade should be slightly diagonal towards the opponent. A block can be performed close to your head, or far away in the direction of the opponent.

[note: the guidelines stipulate that all blocks should be performed with the edge of the sword, never with the back nor the sides, as those parts are considered weak.]

gunto6 gunto7


Totsugeki no bōfutsu — Blocking tsuki

When blocking a thrust (left or right), do it forward in direction of the opponent.



Zenhi no bōfutsu — Block to the forearm

When blocking the slash coming from the outside (inside), stretch your arm out [towards the opponent] slightly to the right (left).



Hidari-dō, migi-dō no bōfutsu — Block to the left or right side

When blocking the slash to the side (right or left), swerve your arm downward to the right (left) while keeping the tip of the sword diagonally upward.





The decline of katate guntō-jutsu

After the end of the Russo-Japanese War (1905), voices raised in the Japanese army judged that the guntō-jutsu was not effective enough, and that it should be researched thoroughly and perfected.

A new revision of the Kenjutsu Kyōhan was thus published in 1907, in which circular strikes are now abandoned in favour of kendo furiage strikes. From that edition onward, strikes to the forearm would become gradually disregarded.

A new category of guntō-jutsu appears in the 1907 textbook: jōba guntō-jutsu or guntō-jutsu on horseback.



jōba guntō-jutsu

However from 1915, the Japanese army decided to discard the sabre system and to promote instead the two-handed morote guntō-jutsu, a modified version of kendo for military use (outdoor training only, no dojo footwork and no left strikes—at that time, the soldier’s equipment effectively protected the left side of the torso). The old guntō-jutsu would be then renamed katate guntō-jutsu, as opposed to morote guntō-jutsu and practised only by cavalry officers.

From 1919, the Japanese army devised a new one-handed close-quarter combat system called tanken-jutsu,  based on detached bayonet fighting and Japanese kodachi techniques. As a result, katate guntō-jutsu slowly disappeared as bayonet and detached bayonet techniques become the main curricula before and during World War II.

When the ban on budo was lifted by the GHQ a few years after the war, only jūken-jutsu and tanken-jutsu were revived as “Japanese martial ways”, and transformed into jukendo and tankendo. Katate guntō-jutsu was completely forsaken and did not evolve into a modern budo.



• Archives du Service Historique de la Défense, Vincennes

• Kanesaka Hiromichi (editor), Jūkendō Hyaku-nen Shi, Tokyo, Zen Nihon Jūkendō Renmei Jimukyoku, 2007

Kenjutsu Kyōhan, Kobayashi Matashichi, 1889

Kenjutsu Kyōhan, Kobayashi Matashichi, 1894

Kenjutsu Kyōhan, Kōseidō, 1907

Kenjutsu Kyōhan, Gun’yū Kyōkai, 1915

• Polak Christian, Sabre et Pinceau, Tokyo, CCIFJ, 2005

• Polak Christian, Soie et Lumières, Tokyo, Hachette Fujingaho, 2002

• Watanabe Ichirō, Meiji Budō Shi, Tokyo, Shinjinbutsu Hōraisha 1971