Fast forward to the present, where a visit to any Japanese high school reveals groups of boys and girls clad in black hakama robes, their faces masked so that they look like angry wasps. With a scream and a lunge, they drive their wooden swords against a shoulder. A neck. Searching everywhere for an opening.
This is kendo, the “way of the sword.” As David A. Hall tells us in his Encyclopedia of Japanese Martial Arts, an exhaustive work drawing on decades of study and practice, the kendo tradition almost disappeared after the death of Takamori and disenfranchisement of his samurai brethren. With the Meiji emperor passing a set of laws known as the Haitorei edicts in an effort to outlaw the use of swords, long considered an emblem of samurai status, the romantic way of the sword survived only through the modern art of kendo and the other schools that Hall outlines in his book.
Americans might be familiar with the Haitorei edicts from Japanese media, even if they have never heard the term itself. For example, many will remember the scene in The Last Samurai (not exactly a paragon of historical authenticity, but it does provide some context) where the young samurai Nobutada, played by Shin Koyamada, is stopped in the street by some police officers, who promptly relieve him of sword and topknot to his cry of “Yamero!” “Stop!” As a member of the samurai class, which for centuries enjoyed the right of sword ownership as a status symbol, being deprived of his katana and wakizashi, a smaller sword, would have been especially humiliating for Nobutada. After all, in the words of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the famous Japanese shogun of old, “the sword is the soul of the warrior.”
For all its symbolic importance, the katana was not often the weapon of choice for a samurai on the field of battle. As David Hall tells us in his encyclopedia entry on kyuba no michi, or “way of the bow and horse,” the people of the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods identified warriorship with one’s skill as an archer, especially while on horseback. Later centuries saw the rise of firearms and squads of foot soldiers armed with yari, or long spears. Just as books and movies like The Three Musketeers and The Princess Bride have given rise to the romantic ideal of soldiers meeting each other one on one, exchanging witticisms as much as blows while they dance the dance of swords, modern takes on samurai history give the impression that battles rested on manful thrusts and parries of the katana. In reality, swords did not enjoy widespread use as a primary weapon until Japan’s invasion by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and even afterward, the sword generally played its greatest part off the field of battle in duels or assassinations.
Others might know Haitorei through popular anime series Rurouni Kenshin, which depicts the adventures of the titular Kenshin after he renounces the life of an assassin. Events unfold during the dawn of the Meiji era, with everything from the first steam engine to Western dress exemplifying Japan’s transition to a new age. This being the case, Kenshin’s practice of carrying his sword openly at his side, even if it is a reverse-blade sword made for disabling rather than killing, often brings him trouble while out in public. We also learn another bit of history through the character of Saito Hajime, the Dirty Harry of the Japanese police force. Not that any of the heroes and villains of the series seem to pay much regard for the sword carrying law, but as a member of the police, Saito is one of the few who does so within the boundaries of the law.
This detail accords with the historical record. Even after the passing of the last Haitorei decree, one outlawing carrying of swords for the general public, Tokyo police were allowed to carry swords in the course of their duties. In fact, Kawaji Toshiyoshi, protégé of the illustrious Saigo Takamori and founder of the first modern police force in Tokyo, advocated for including the sword as part of police training in a book called Kendo Saikoron (On the Revitalization of Kendo). David Hall expands on this history in his encyclopedia, where he tells of the 1886 creation of a standardized training curriculum for police that included elements of kendo.
It is important to note that the term kendo did not come into use until the seventeenth century, when a period of peace prompted some practitioners of martial arts to include a spiritual element in their training. In this sense, while modern kendo reflects little of the kinds of stylized katana fights seen in films like Kill Bill, and perhaps only a shadow of the martial legacy of the samurai, it certainly stays true to the spirit those same samurai were expected to represent: one of courage and discipline, and the kind of sacrifice seen on the slopes of Kumamoto.
Note: David Hall appears at Japan Society today for a Japanese martial arts demonstration, featuring several local practicing groups.