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  • Writer's pictureInternational Jukendo

From Fencing to Katate Gunto-jutsu to Tanken-jutsu: The birth of Tankendo

by Baptiste Tavernier.


It's always fascinating to see how events intertwine to form the stream of history. For instance, who would have imagined a link between an obscure disease called pébrine, which plagued France in the latter half of the 19th century, and a martial art practiced in Japan?

Pébrine, along with flacherie, are diseases that affected silkworms and spread rapidly across Europe starting in 1855. At that time, France was the world’s leading country in sericulture. However, the outbreak of pébrine and flacherie devastated the silkworm populations in Lyon and its surrounding areas—France's primary silk farming regions. This led to numerous bankruptcies of farms and factories, marking the collapse of Napoleon III’s empire's foremost export industry—a catastrophe nationale.

The most pressing task for farmers was to find and import a variety of silkworm resistant, or at least immune, to pébrine and flacherie. Coincidentally, the Japanese silkworm was highly resistant to these diseases, leading to the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in Edo in October 1858. This treaty marked the official start of Franco-Japanese relations.

By 1864, a significant portion of the foreign population in Yokohama was French, prompting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to dispatch Léon Roches to Edo as the Plenipotentiary Ambassador, primarily to oversee the trade of worm cocoons and other silk-related matters.

Roches was not only a skilled diplomat but also became as influential as his British counterpart, Sir Harry Parkes, in the Japanese political scene. So much so that Tokugawa Iemochi, the 14th shogun, expressed in a letter to Napoleon III dated February 15, 1866, his intention to appoint Roches as his foreign affairs counselor.

During this period, Japan was experiencing internal turmoil, with the shogunate confronting uprisings and a potential coup d'état. Recognizing the need to modernize its military capabilities, Iemochi’s government requested military instructors and engineers from Great Britain and France. However, this request was met with lukewarm enthusiasm in London, which paved the way for Roches to further strengthen Franco-Japanese ties. Initially in Japan to manage the importation of silkworms, Roches now found himself playing a significant role in Japan's military affairs.

The agreement for the first French military mission to Japan was finalized in June 1866. Despite the sudden death of Iemochi in August 1866, preparations for the mission continued, and the French instructors arrived in Yokohama on January 13, 1867. Led by Charles Chanoine, the mission aimed to establish a new shogunate army modeled after the European (specifically, French) systems of administration, logistics, combat, and tactics. Japanese personnel were to be trained in artillery, infantry, and cavalry disciplines.

Regrettably, the mission was short-lived. The abdication of Tokugawa Yoshinobu in favor of the Emperor in 1868 led to the mission's cessation. The instructors officially departed Japan on October 18, having achieved very little.

'French military mission to Japan'; in "Le monde illustré", n°503, December 1, 1866.
'French military mission to Japan'; in "Le monde illustré", n°503, December 1, 1866.

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

2nd French Military Mission to Japan (1872–1880)

With the capture of Napoleon III during the Battle of Sedan in September 1870 and the subsequent defeat of the French army in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, one might expect the newly-formed Meiji government to pivot towards the German Empire for military modernization. However, due to various political and economic considerations (including the silk trade, which is beyond the scope of this article), Tokyo opted to continue its association with Paris, leading to the agreement for a new French military mission in 1872.

The second French Military Mission to Japan aimed to establish the Toyama Military Academy and implement a national conscription system. Records on the French instructors' teaching of martial techniques during this time are limited. Most archival materials at the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) in Vincennes focus on theoretical courses offered at the Toyama Academy, such as mathematics, topography, military music, French language, and veterinary medicine, with little mention of practical military drills like artillery or bayonet training. Nevertheless, we know that Sergeant François Ducros led the college of gymnastics from 1874, introducing military gymnastics and stick handling, which was seen as preparatory training for bayonet fencing. Despite not being a specialist, it seems that Ducros regularly taught fencing and bayonet techniques to his students.

Sergeant François Ducros. (Picture taken in Tokyo)
Sergeant François Ducros. (Picture taken in Tokyo)

3rd French Military Mission to Japan (1884–1889)

By the third French Military Mission, Japan had begun to diversify its military instruction, increasingly relying on German expertise while still engaging advisors from various European countries. Yet, Tokyo chose to entrust its land army's training to the French once again. This mission revamped the Toyama Military Academy, introducing departments in strategy, artillery, calisthenics, and fencing in 1886, with the fencing program encompassing foil, sabre, and bayonet.

However, it's crucial to revisit 1877 during the Satsuma Rebellion, when the Battotai, an elite police unit wielding only swords, gained renown for their valiant stand against Saigo Takamori's forces. This incident prompted a reevaluation of traditional martial arts, which were previously considered outdated, and led to a resurgence of gekken (kendo) and jujutsu, particularly within the police force. The Battotai, composed primarily of former bushi, effectively utilized their kenjutsu skills. Meanwhile, the army, despite advancements in artillery, lacked a unified system for close-quarter combat. Some soldiers were trained in French fencing and bayonet techniques at the Toyama Academy, others had backgrounds in Japanese bujutsu, but many conscripts had no martial training whatsoever. This led to an improvisational approach, blending European weapons like the bayonet and sabre with traditional Japanese techniques, a practice that continued until the third French mission's arrival.

The main instructors of the third mission, Etienne de Villaret and Joseph Kiehl, were tasked with developing unified fencing and bayonet curricula for the Japanese army. These new methodologies were to be implemented in Toyama's fencing department. To disseminate these techniques, the French advisors initially trained twelve Japanese noncommissioned officers, who would then assist in teaching a broader audience. Training in Japanese kenjutsu or sojutsu (spear) was explicitly prohibited during this period.

Joseph Kiehl and his students
Joseph Kiehl and his students

Despite these efforts, there was significant dissatisfaction among the soldiers, many of whom preferred kenjutsu to the sabre, and particularly to the foil, which they considered impractical for actual combat. Furthermore, an increasing number of conscripts, proficient in gekken, struggled to adapt to the European fencing style, particularly its lunging footwork. The bayonet techniques taught by the French were also heavily influenced by traditional fencing, emphasizing the importance of the lunge.

Intriguingly, Watanabe Ichiro (Watanabe Ichiro, Meiji Budō Shi, Tokyo, Shinjinbutsu Hōraisha

1971, p.899) notes that both Kiehl and de Villaret began studying kenjutsu under Sakakibara Kenkichi from 1887. The depth of their engagement and their level of proficiency in kenjutsu remain however unclear. This raises the question of whether the French officers pursued kenjutsu out of mere curiosity or with the intention of creating a hybrid fencing curriculum more aligned with the needs and preferences of Japanese soldiers.

Kenjutsu Kyohan's sabre techniques

The third French military mission concluded in January 1889. In November of the same year, Japan's Ministry of the Army released the Kenjutsu Kyohan, an official fencing manual derived from French military texts. The Kenjutsu Kyohan comprises three volumes, each dedicated to a different aspect of fencing:

  • - Seiken-jutsu (正剣術) covers foil techniques.

  • - Guntō-jutsu (軍刀術) addresses sabre use.

  • - Jūken-jutsu (銃剣術) focuses on bayonet tactics.

Notably, the foil volume is the most extensive, spanning 63 sheets, while the sabre and bayonet sections are each 22 sheets long. The sabre volume is structured into three primary sections: definitions and exercises, basic drills, and etiquette and competitive practice (shiai).

The initial section on definitions and exercises details the sabre's components, proper grip, and the four gestures of the ceremonial opening salute (yodo). It then directs readers to the foil volume for foundational footwork and lunging techniques.

Yodō: the opening salute
Yodō: the opening salute

Fencing principles like the strong and weak parts of the blade (fort & faible), hand positions (pronation and supination), and attack lines are thoroughly explained in the foil section. However, traditional parry names like sixte, tierce, quinte, and septime are absent, potentially complicating comprehension. Instead, the manual describes each move in terms of blade position and hand orientation, which can be somewhat perplexing.

The manual emphasizes wrist and elbow flexibility through specific exercises. One involves extending the arm and rotating the sabre horizontally, while another entails vertical rotations. These exercises underscore the sabre's characteristic circular strikes, necessitating considerable wrist and elbow mobility to execute the spiraling blade motions effectively.

Sabre Exercise No.1
Sabre Exercise No.1

The structure and content of the sabre volume in the Kenjutsu Kyohan evolve as the manual progresses, transitioning from foundational techniques to the practical application and refinement of skills. After an initial focus on strikes and parries, the manual concludes its first section with a detailed exploration of ripostes—counterattacks executed without lunging, referred to as engeki in Japanese. These ripostes are tailored to counter specific types of attacks effectively, emphasizing the strategic aspect of sabre fencing.

The volume's second half delves into practical drills, offering a comprehensive guide on structuring a training session. This section presents various attack and riposte patterns, enriching the trainee's repertoire and response capabilities. Additionally, it outlines the verbal commands instructors should use to direct trainees, fostering a dynamic and responsive training environment.

The concluding chapter of the volume addresses the rules and etiquette of shiai (competitive matches), encapsulating the principles that govern formal engagements.

Diverse sabre attacks and parries

Diverse sabre attacks and parries

Diverse sabre attacks and parries
Diverse sabre attacks and parries.

From French sabre to Japanese katate guntojutsu

The decision by Japan's Ministry of the Army to promote a Kenjutsu Kyohan grounded in French military fencing, despite its contentious reception, is intriguing, especially considering the publication came nearly a year after the conclusion of the French mission. This timing would have allowed Tokyo to revert to traditional Japanese martial arts like gekken (kendo), given the prevalent expertise in Japanese kenjutsu among officers and soldiers.

Several factors contributed to this decision. Initially, there was still significant support within the Toyama Academy for the French method. Additionally, the Japanese army had already integrated the European sabre into its standard armament, having placed orders for these weapons. The logistical and financial implications of replacing the European sabre with the traditional katana were deemed prohibitive.

However, the stance on French fencing began to shift within a year of the Kenjutsu Kyohan's publication. Baron Okubo Haruno, then director of the Toyama Academy, voiced concerns that French fencing did not align well with the physical build and cultural ethos of the Japanese. He advocated for gekken as a more suitable martial practice and tasked a man called Tsuda, head of the gymnastics department and a proponent of the Tsuda Ichiden-ryu, with developing an alternative system.

Tsuda's efforts culminated in the release of an updated Kenjutsu Kyohan in April 1894. This revised edition likely reflected a synthesis of Western and Eastern martial traditions, tailored to accommodate the unique requirements of the Japanese military while capitalizing on the indigenous martial heritage.

The 1894 edition of the Kenjutsu Kyohan marks a significant evolution from its 1889 predecessor, most notably in its streamlined structure, which omits the section on foil (seiken-jutsu) and focuses solely on sabre (gunto-jutsu) and bayonet (juken-jutsu) techniques. This change reflects a move towards a system more aligned with traditional Japanese martial arts, evidenced by the adoption of shinai and bogu, gear commonly used in gekken, for training purposes.

Despite these alterations, a detailed examination reveals that the technical framework of the 1894 gunto-jutsu (and similarly, juken-jutsu) remains deeply rooted in the 1889 French methodologies. One fundamental aspect is the persistence of a one-handed (katate) sword technique, a necessity given the design of the European sabre and its widespread issuance within the Japanese army, which precludes the traditional two-handed (morote) grip found in Japanese kenjutsu.

Adjustments were made to footwork to better accommodate Japanese soldiers, notably the replacement of the deep lunge with more agile leaping strikes. However, a form of shallow lunge is retained, an aspect that persists in contemporary jukendo and tankendo disciplines. The execution of strikes maintains the circular motion characteristic of sabre fencing, with the shinai's tip describing a spiral before impact.

The revised Kenjutsu Kyohan retains the organizational structure and much of the terminology of its predecessor, though it excises certain European fencing elements. The deep lunge has been moderated, and concepts such as pronation/supination and the detailed categorization of fencing lines have been omitted. The ceremonial yodo has been replaced with etiquette more in keeping with Japanese martial traditions.

Thus, the 1894 gunto-jutsu emerges as a hybrid, integrating elements of European sabre technique with the principles of Japanese gekken. The manual succinctly presents basic techniques, each accompanied by an illustrative diagram, offering a concise yet comprehensive guide to this innovative martial fusion.

Examples of Gunto-jutsu techniques presented in the revised edition of the Kenjutsu Kyohan.
Examples of Gunto-jutsu techniques presented in the revised edition of the Kenjutsu Kyohan.

The decline of katate guntō-jutsu

The evolution of Japanese military martial arts in the early 20th century reflects a series of adaptations to the changing demands of warfare and the internal evaluations of the Japanese army. After the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, critiques within the military suggested that gunto-jutsu lacked effectiveness. This led to a significant revision of the Kenjutsu Kyohan in 1907, marking a departure from circular sabre strikes in favor of kendo-style furiage strikes, with a diminishing emphasis on forearm strikes and increased emphasis on men strikes.

The 1907 edition introduced joba gunto-jutsu, or mounted sabre technique, expanding the curriculum to include combat strategies on horseback. However, by 1915, a strategic shift occurred: the Japanese army began to phase out the one-handed sabre system in favor of a two-handed approach known as morote gunto-jutsu. This version was adapted from kendo, but designed for outdoor training, excluding traditional dojo footwork and left doh strikes due to some equipment worn by soldiers which shielded the left torso.

Jōba guntō-jutsu
Jōba guntō-jutsu

As a consequence, the original one-handed sabre technique was reclassified as katate gunto-jutsu, and reserved mainly for cavalry officers. The focus increasingly shifted towards bayonet and detached bayonet techniques, culminating in the development of a new one-handed close combat system called tanken-jutsu around 1919, which drew from both detached bayonet fighting and traditional Japanese kodachi techniques.

By the time World War II commenced, bayonet and detached bayonet techniques had become the primary focus of military close combat training, leading to the gradual obsolescence of katate gunto-jutsu. Following the war, when the GHQ lifted the ban on budo, only juken-jutsu and tanken-jutsu were revitalized and modernized into what are known today as jukendo and tankendo, respectively. Katate gunto-jutsu, however, did not make this transition into a contemporary martial way, resulting in its fade from the Japanese martial arts scene.

joba gunto duel - humorous
"C'est la guerre !!"

Tanken-jutsu: the birth of tankendo

The development of the tanken-jutsu combat system at the Toyama Military Academy marks a significant evolution in Japanese military martial arts, culminating in the publication of a comprehensive manual in 1922 titled Tanken-jutsu Oyobi Oyo Kenjutsu no Kenkyu (Research on Tanken-jutsu and Advanced Kenjutsu). This 74-page booklet is structured into two principal sections, focusing on tanken-jutsu and what is termed "advanced kenjutsu." However, the latter title is somewhat misleading as the content primarily explores juken-jutsu (bayonet fencing), not advanced kenjutsu techniques.

The section dedicated to "advanced" bayonet fencing is particularly noteworthy, detailing two sets of kata that have not been carried over into contemporary jukendo. Although these kata fall outside the scope of this discussion, their significance and potential insights into historical martial practices warrant further exploration.

The first section on tanken-jutsu is further subdivided into three chapters, each addressing a different combat scenario: tanken versus tanken (detached bayonet confrontation), tanken versus juken (detached bayonet against fixed bayonet), and tanken versus morote gunto (detached bayonet against military sabre). Interestingly, only the tanken versus tanken segment includes photographs of practitioners donned in bogu. The remaining chapters present various techniques in a kata format, without the depiction of protective gear.

This manual not only serves as a historical document outlining the martial practices of the time but also offers insights into the tactical considerations and training methodologies employed by the Japanese military in the early 20th century.

For practitioners of modern tankendo, the contrasts with the 1922 tanken-jutsu outlined in the historical manual are indeed noteworthy. One of the most apparent differences is the protective gear: in the original tanken vs. tanken practice, both hands were covered with kote (protective gloves), whereas in contemporary tankendo, only the right hand wears a kote, leaving the left hand free for grappling maneuvers known as seitai waza. This adaptation could suggest that the initial tanken-jutsu curriculum didn't encompass grappling, a notion supported by the absence of seitai waza in the 1922 text, at least in the tanken vs. tanken section: such techniques do appear in contexts where the tanken confronts longer weapons.

Another intriguing variance is the positioning of the left hand. Unlike in modern tankendo, where it's customary to place the left hand on the hip, the 1922 tanken-jutsu kept the left hand more or less free, sometimes mirroring the style seen in katate gunto-jutsu. Generally speaking, there are several differences that could highlight the shift seen in post-war tankendo pedagogy, which aimed at distancing the martial art from its militaristic roots and aligning it more closely with traditional budo principles.The post-war formal reintroduction of tankendo happened much later than jukendo (in the 1970s) and was part of a movement seeking to redefine the discipline as a modern budo centered on a short sword (kodachi) rather than a detached bayonet. This transition is evident in various aspects of contemporary tankendo, such as the symbolic positioning of the left hand to imply the presence of a saya (scabbard) at belt level, the adoption of a curved bokuto similar to those used in kendo (in contrast to the straight weapon used in 1922), and modifications to certain techniques to resemble kendo more closely.

Basic techniques

The 1922 Tanken-jutsu Oyobi Oyo Kenjutsu no Kenkyu provides a detailed look into the datotsu-bui (striking areas) similar to those in modern tankendo, with a notable distinction: the inclusion of the opponent's left hand as a valid target, made possible by the practice of wearing both kote.

Tanken-jutsu: shitotsu (thrust) and zangeki (slash) targets.
Tanken-jutsu: shitotsu (thrust) and zangeki (slash) targets.

The textbook's approach to explaining techniques is concise, emphasizing kihon-dosa, or basic movements, conducted in pairs involving a motodachi (instructor role) and a student. The manual underscores the significance of kihon-dosa for mastering proper form and posture, recommending its practice at the beginning and end of each session—a tradition that persists in tankendo training, albeit with significantly evolved content. Commands issued by the motodachi to guide the trainee are specified, accompanied by brief technique descriptions. However, the text omits any reference to the concept of absorption— a maneuver where the motodachi steps back slightly to mitigate the impact on the trainee's wrists and elbows, a practice now common in both jukendo and tankendo. This omission raises questions about whether the concept was in use in 1922 or was deemed too fundamental to warrant explicit mention.

The kihon-dōsa sequence outlined in the 1922 manual includes:

  • - Nodo no tsuki (thrust to the throat), illustrated in Graphic 5.

  • - Men uchi (strike to the head).

  • - Harai on nodo no tsuki followed by a thrust to the doh (torso).

  • - Harai on men uchi (similar to suri-age, a deflecting technique) followed by another men uchi, depicted in Graphic 6.

tankenjutsu techniques

Advanced techniques

Advanced techniques in the 1922 manual are designated as "kihon-dosa variations for shiai." They mark a significant shift towards more complex and situational forms of engagement within the practice. Despite acknowledging the left kote as a legitimate target, it's intriguing to note that none of the exercises outlined in the manual include a direct strike to this area.

The manual delineates five advanced techniques. Some feature multiple possible concluding strikes :

a. Lateral Movement and Strike: The practitioner steps aside, capitalizing on the opponent's advance or retreat to deliver a men strike.

b. Debana: This technique is employed when the opponent initiates a men strike by raising their tanken. The practitioner responds with a preemptive strike, which could be a nodo or doh tsuki, or a strike to the men or kote, demonstrating the importance of timing and anticipation.

tankenjutsu debana kote
Debana kote.

c. Feinting: By intentionally exposing one's kote, the practitioner entices the opponent into striking, creating an opening for a debana attack to the nodo, doh, or men. This maneuver requires skillful misdirection and swift counteraction.

Opening kote
Opening kote...

Debana Doh!
Debana Doh!

d. Suri-age and Pivot: In response to an incoming men strike, the practitioner performs a suri-age movement while pivoting to the right, setting up a counter-thrust to nodo or doh. This technique emphasizes the integration of defense and offense.

e. Irimi/Tenkan: Reminiscent of aikido's irimi/tenkan, this technique involves stepping diagonally forward to the right and pivoting to evade an incoming tsuki, followed by a counterstrike to doh, nodo, or kote. This advanced move highlights the use of body movement and positioning to neutralize an attack and create a retaliatory opportunity.

Dodging tsuki while strinking kote.
Dodging tsuki while strinking kote.

These advanced techniques reflect a sophisticated understanding of movement, timing, and strategy, underscoring the martial prowess required for mastery of tanken-jutsu. The emphasis on adaptability and the use of varied final strikes illustrate the dynamic nature of combat and the need for practitioners to be versatile in their responses to different combat scenarios.

Tanken vs. longer weapons: the origin of tankendo kata

Parts 2 and 3 of the tanken-jutsu section in the 1922 manual delve into tactics for confronting adversaries wielding a juken or morote gunto. The presentation of these techniques adopts a more formalized, kata-like approach, foregoing the use of bogu for these exercises. The contemporary Tanken Tai Mokuju No Kata (tanken versus mokuju) and Tanken Tai To No Kata (tanken versus sword), find their origins in the methods outlined in this early manual.

A notable distinction between the 1922 techniques and modern tankendo practice lies in the treatment of close-quarters combat. The historical manual permits stabbing or delivering men strikes during grappling engagements. In contrast, contemporary tankendo rules would typically disqualify head strikes executed in such close proximity, reflecting an evolution in the sport's regulations and safety considerations.

tankenjutsu Men strike at close quarters
Men strike at close quarters

The manual presents about a dozen strategies for breaching the maai to gain the upper hand against a fixed bayonet, alongside four specific counters to the sword. Notably, two of these sabre-countering techniques remain unchanged in the modern tankendo kata, underscoring the enduring relevance of certain foundational tactics across generations of martial practice.

Preemptive grab on a furi-age men. This technique made its way into the modern sets of kata, albeit not against the sword but as the last technique of the Tankendo No Kata (tanken vs tanken)
Preemptive grab on a furi-age men. This technique made its way into the modern sets of kata, albeit not against the sword but as the last technique of the Tankendo No Kata (tanken vs tanken)

This historical context enriches the understanding of tankendo's evolution, highlighting the martial art's adaptability and the continuous interplay between tradition and innovation in response to changing combat scenarios and regulatory frameworks.

To conclude

The publication of the 1922 tanken-jutsu textbook indeed signifies a foundational moment for tankendo, offering a unique window into the martial art's inception and subsequent evolution into a budo. This historical document serves as more than just an archival piece; it's a vital resource for understanding the transformation of a practical combat system into a modern martial way, encapsulating the dynamic nature of martial arts development.

Firstly, the comparison between the 1922 curriculum and contemporary tankendo practices reveals the adaptative journey of martial techniques from their original forms—often pragmatic and unpolished—to their refined, codified versions suitable for budo. This exploration allows us to uncover long-abandoned techniques or understand the original context of current methods, enriching our appreciation for the art's depth and its responsiveness to changing martial philosophies and safety standards.

Secondly, the manual's focus on practical combat strategies lends its content an inherent effectiveness, particularly relevant in ishujiai scenarios where tankendo practitioners might face opponents from disciplines like jukendo or kendo. In modern tankendo, explicit strategies for such cross-discipline encounters are scarce, often limited to a handful of kata. Thus, the techniques preserved in the 1922 textbook provide invaluable insights and tactical options for contemporary practitioners seeking to broaden their shiai repertoire.

Engaging with the 1922 manual not only deepens one's technical knowledge but also fosters a greater appreciation for tankendo's rich heritage and its enduring principles of adaptability, effectiveness, and martial spirit.


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