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Journal of Theatrical Combatives Mar 2006

The Fan and the Sword: Exploring Kenbu

copyright © 2006 Deborah Klens-Bigman, all rights reserved

Eto Tomoko in Guelph 2003
Eto Tomoko sensei performs a Kenbu piece in Guelph, Ontario (2003).

In his 1906 novel, Botchan, Natsume Soseki’s title character attends a local summer festival with his friend Hotta:

Around the grounds where the entertainment was to be held were a number of flagpoles from which flew long pennants…In the eastern corner of the grounds stood a hastily erected stage on which the …dance from Kochi was to be performed.  Soon the troupe…that everyone was talking about began their dance…Three rows, each composed of ten men, extended across the stage…What really astonished me was every one of the thirty men carried a drawn sword. (147-149).

Botchan goes on to describe the thrilling and precise movement of the swordsmen as they danced to the beat of a drum.

Skipping closer to the present day, to an amateur video shot somewhere in Japan.  In a brightly lit gymnasium, a middle-aged man, dressed in kimono and hakama (wide-pleated trousers), dances slowly.  I notice he handles the fan a little awkwardly, but his overall movement is both strong and elegant.  He has a sword in his belt which he draws and poses with a few times during the dance.  As the song nears its end, he suddenly draws the sword again and, quick as a flash, cuts through a target that has come in view of the frame.  Dance over, he replaces the sword in its sheath, and accepts a congratulatory certificate before leaving the performance area. 

A martial arts demonstration, this one in Canada.  An older woman dances a vigorous male-style dance with a fan.  The dance does not have the stylized look of kabuki or Noh.  However, the overall qualities of the dance are strength and masculine grace. 

Eto Eiko in Guelph 2003
Eto Eiko Sensei performs Shibu (2003).

Neither the man nor the woman is a professional dancer.  They are martial artists, and the dances they are performing are kenbu (literally, sword dance) and shibu (fan dance) respectively.  Kenbu and shibu (collectively referred to as kenshibu) are related art forms that have been appended to certain traditional Japanese martial arts practices, usually those that include weapons.  Chief among these are the Araki Ryu, which incorporates various weapons, including swords, and Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu, a style of sword drawing that dates back to the late 16th century.  This paper will explore the origins and contemporary practice of kenshibu.

Though some sources on kenbu are happy to point out that "sword dances" existed since Heian times (794-1185), or later, in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), at least one is careful to point out that this was not kenbu as we think of it now.  One writer has suggested kenbu originated as a form of kagura (shrine performance) but I think this is unlikely (Meirin Kai 2005, n.p.).  There is evidence of samurai interest in Noh performance, and an amateur tradition of practicing Noh may have existed, but no evidence that I have been able to find suggests a particular dance style of any kind specifically performed by samurai. 

Kenbu, as we now know it, was apparently a product of the Meiji Restoration.  As Cameron Hurst (1998), Donald Keene (2002) and others have pointed out, the transition to imperial rule, which began in 1868, created an entire class of educated, unemployed (and in a way, for some, unemployable) people - the members of the former samurai class.  While some were retained by the new government, many were cast out, replaced by a new class of loyalist bureaucrats.  A romantic poem of the period, by Onuma Chinzen, entitled the "Riksha Man" puts it this way:

“What did you do in the old days?”
“I was a Shogunate retainer with 3000 koku…
Proud I was, a samurai of high rank.
Today I have forgotten all that;
I gladly carry merchants in my riksha…”
(in Keene 2002, 200-201).

Though wars had largely ceased after 1603, civil disputes and rebellions did not, and members of the samurai class in the Tokugawa period were expected to train in martial arts as a matter of class distinction, family pride and potential necessity.  However, with the change of government and the desire to modernize Japan, samurai, who had been the ruling elite, were now entirely dispossessed not only of livelihood, but way of life.  Edicts against wearing swords in public went into effect in 1876 (Hurst 1998, 153).  Other laws regarding the samurai’s distinctive style of hair and dress were also enacted.  Those who had acquired more practical skills in the shogunal government, but who were not retained in the new government, turned their hands to civilian trades.  Those with a commercial talent turned to previously despised (though prosperous) businesses.  Others, still spurning commerce, became teachers.  Though the romantic poem above probably did not reflect reality for most members of the former samurai class, a few, unsuited to anything else, did become day laborers.  In any case, the feelings expressed in the poem probably rang true for many. 

A small number of former samurai who wished to continue to ply their trade in some manner as members of a warrior class embraced the only avenue open to them at the time: entertainment.  Sakakibara Kenkichi formed a company, the Gekken (or Gekiken) Kaisha (Fencing Company) in 1872.  These martially-inspired touring productions played the cities and provinces, allowing ex-samurai to flash their swords and perform feats of skill.  Many of the techniques of these traditional schools had never been seen in public (Hurst 1998, 155).  Apparently hoping to spur interest in traditional art forms before they disappeared forever, Sakakibara also composed martial dances in order to increase their appeal to the general public.  Sakakibara is therefore considered the “father” of kenbu (Meirin Kai 2005, n.p.).  The wild success of Sakakibara’s troupe inspired imitators, and a new art form was born. 

Araki ryu teacher and kenbu specialist Bob Corella, teacher at the Kenshinkan Dojo in Phoenix, AZ, notes that whenever there was a war afoot, kenbu seemed to increase in popularity (2005, n.p.).  That pretty much characterizes Japan from the late 19th century through 1945. After the Pacific War, the Occupation Forces forbade the use of weapons, whether for martial art practice or entertainment (even kabuki was banned for a short time).  Ever resourceful, kenbu instructors substituted a fan for the sword, and adapted kenbu choreography accordingly, as well as creating new works.  The new style was called shibu.  After the ban on weapons was lifted in the early 1950’s, kenbu was once again practiced, but shibu was retained (Hayabuchi Ryu Dojo 2005, n.p.).  Many groups do both; hence the name kenshibu.  Anecdotal evidence suggests kenshibu has gained somewhat in popularity in recent years.  Some groups have even established websites on the Internet.  A cursory search shows evidence of groups practicing kenbu in Brazil and the US as well as in Japan.

Though several groups acknowledge Sakakibara as the "founder" of kenbu, it is difficult to say if any of the kenbu performed today date back to his time, or were actually choreographed by him.  The Toyoda ryu, one of the groups with a significant Web presence, dates its founding to 1877, combining the Kinbusa ryu, founded by Kinbusa Kanichiro, and the Hayabuchi ryu (Meirin Kai 2005, n.p.).  While more research is needed, they may have been founders of rival gekiken troupes.  I have not been able to determine, based on what data I have been able to uncover, how many kenbu groups currently exist, whether separately or as an extension of martial arts (especially iai –or sword drawing) practice. 

Both men and women dance kenbu and shibu.  Sources, while they do not illuminate how many groups there are, suggest that there are two major divisions in kenbu styles - those that owe more stylistically to iai (whether iaido or iaijutsu) and those that owe more to Nihon Buyo, the Japanese classical dance (Hayabuchi Ryu Dojo 2005, n.p.).  Needless to say, of the sources I have looked at and communicated with, those affiliated with iai are proud to suggest the practice informs their dance with martial energy and strength, and reflects the pride and spirit of the old samurai (Corella 2005, n.p.). 

As the name implies, Kenshibu is performed with both a fan and a sword.  The sword is either an iaito, a practice sword for iai, or, as in the case of the description above, a real katana, also called a shinken (lit. "real sword").  There are also dances for other weapons, such as spears or naginata (glaive). 

Certain rules apply when handling a sword, whether a real one or one designed for practice.  Iaidoka and iaijutsuka (practitioners of iai) and consequently kenbuka know that they must never touch anything beyond the spine of the sword blade.  This is not only to avoid injury, but to avoid damage to a real sword blade that can be caused by sweat.  Likewise, the sword always remains in hand.  (So-called “martial arts” exhibitions where the sword is tossed up and caught, majorette-style, have nothing to do with respect for the weapon and how it is actually used.))

The fan used for kenbu is not anything like the martial gunsen, or Japanese war fan, or tessen, the iron fan.  Gunsen were used for signaling troops in the field or for identification.  They were made out of steel, paper, wood, usually heavily laquered to stand up to weather conditions.  Tessen reputedly had some self-defense applications, but today are used for exercises to strengthen one’s grip.  Both are too heavy to use for dancing.  Instead, kenbu practitioners use a plain dance fan, either a kingin (gold on one side, silver on the other) or plain white.  Made out of paper and bamboo, these fans are the same as those used in Nihon Buyo, with the metal slats at the bottom that weight the fan and allow it to be thrown accurately. 

Performers practice in regular keikogi and hakama, as they would for any weapons-type martial art practice, with the addition of white tabi.  For performance, they wear kimono, hakama and tabi.  Dancers do not wear wigs or special makeup.  The kimono may be formal black, worn with the traditional grey-striped hakama, or both kimono and hakama may be in beautiful patterns and colors.  The style of movement reflects a cross between male style Nihon Buyo and movement for iai - stances are low and wide, reflecting both strength, grace and refined masculinity.  Though the legs may be placed asymmetrically, the weight is always balanced and the body stays in line, rarely twisting or bending.  Generally speaking, feet stay in contact with the floor, walking in graceful suriashi steps. 

The dances are performed to poems sung by a single vocalist with or without musical accompaniment.  The poems are composed in a Chinese style called shigin, or ginei.  Japanese in origin, the poems reflect great deeds of samurai or other stories related to battles or fighting.  Michael Alexanian, Shihan of the US Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu organization, provided me with an English translation of a poem, “Kawanakajima” (“Island in the Middle of a River”) used for one of the Tamiya Ryu's kenbu.  The poem depicts a failed raid on an enemy camp:

After we crossed the river in the night by paying attention even to the sounds of whips, we found that the banner of the general of our enemy was surrounded by a great number of soldiers.  Thinking back to the past, it has been more than ten years since this hatred started.  However, in spite of the fact that we prepared ourselves for this opportunity of beating our enemy by polishing our swords, we lost this wonderful opportunity.  We cannot help regretting it.  (Alexanian 2004, 1)

Alexanian also provided a description of some of the accompanying movement.  For example, the concluding posture of the dance:

Take your posture in the position of hidari (left) jodan.  While making a step to the front, move your sword downward (kirioroshi) and put your right foot to your left foot.  Put your right hand with your sword to your right rib, and make a backward step.  At the same time, put your sword above your head. (Alexanian 2004, 2)

Everything about the poem and description suggests a low posture and a feeling of martial strength. 

As in Nihon Buyo, the movements of the dance include rhythmic passages as well as gestures that illustrate, at least abstractly, the lines in the poem.  Dancers learn the dances by following a teacher's movement as she performs sections of the dance.  There are no technique drills for kenbu, just as there are none for Nihon Buyo, and few for iai.  Performers learn the dances phrase by phrase, rather than linking established techniques to lines of the poems, as might be done in classical ballet.  Corella notes the average kenbu is about 3 minutes long, and it takes about three months of practice for a student to learn the choreography (2005, n.p.).  Interpretation is another matter.  Students are expected to understand the poems and their meanings in order to properly interpret the lines in movement.  Even though the pattern of movements is set, not understanding the lyrics to the poem makes the dance seem shallow and mechanical.  It should be pointed out that while kenbu is a relatively young art form, some of the poems are quite old, and in any case are composed in an older style that is difficult even for Japanese, and not just outsiders, to comprehend and learn. 

Members of old, traditional martial arts styles like Araki Ryu and Tamiya Ryu are encouraged to take up either kenbu, Chinese poetry recitation, or both, as part of an overall "cultural study" that includes their iai or other martial arts practice.  I don't know what the reaction is by Japanese students involved in such comprehensive study, but from what I have gathered here, American students involved in these art forms (mostly men) fail to grasp the importance of kenbu study.  Mostly they do it because if they don't, they can't study the martial art style, so they grudgingly commit to it.  Bob Corella studied kenbu, along with Araki ryu while living in the castle town of Himeji for several years.  He may be the only American who regularly practices and performs kenbu in the United States, having been practicing for 22 years (Corella 2005, n.p.).

Endo Gentei is a rokudan (6th degree black belt) in Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu, but she is also a Kenshibu Specialist in the dances affiliated with the Ryu.  In July 2005, Endo performed a dance entitled "Honnoji" as part of an enbukai in East Lansing, Michigan.  The dance depicted the death of Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), a ruthless and talented 16th century warrior.  Nobunaga tried, by conflict and political maneuver, to unite Japan as a single entity.  His attempt failed, however, and he was betrayed and assassinated (Hooker 2005, n.p.). 

Endo Gentei in East Lansing
Endo Gentei Sensei performing “Honnoji” (2005).

Endo's dance background is in Shin Buyo, a descendant of the classical Nihon Buyo, that developed in the 20th century (Endo 2005, n.p.).  Shin Buyo is distinguished by use of more modern, and sometimes even Western music, though it shares movement quality with Nihon Buyo.  Endo's long-time practice of Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu informs her dance technique.  Honnoji is filled with strong, male-style movement and use of a drawn sword, which hardly occurs in Nihon Buyo or Shin Buyo. 

Kenbu today is primarily performed in a martial arts context.  Enbukai (martial arts exhibitions) are the chief performance venue.  Corella has stated that some performances are held in community or concert halls, also a popular venue for enbukai (2005, n.p.).  Though Soseki's novel mentions Botchan witnessing a performance at a festival, this does not appear to be common at the present time.  I have also found evidence of a kenbu troop making up part of a broader cultural program, which happened to tour the UK recently, but I think this is not usual.  The several kenbu and shibu performances I have seen have always been performed at enbukai.

What is usual, however, is competition.  Dancers of different groups (not necessarily of different styles) gather for contests, and prizes are awarded.  Corella told me his teacher in Japan recently won a high level competition (2005, n.p.).  I do not know what the criteria for judging are; probably a combination of technical skill and presentation.  Not least is probably a sense of sincerity or commitment, since one of the expressed motivations for learning and performing kenbu is preserving a romantic sense of the samurai past, real and imagined.  As in other traditional art forms, rankings are also awarded separate from competitions that reflect level of skill and time spent in the art.

Though Corella has suggested that kenbu’s popularity has recently increased, he commented wryly that “it’s not as popular as baseball” (2005, n.p.).  It’s possible that anime and manga’s mining of romantic samurai characters and legends has contributed mildly to some sort of revival.  However, if my experience is any guide, the interest shown by Westerners for Japanese traditional arts, along with the Internet, may be the single biggest influences on the art form of late.  This is not unusual.  Many traditional art forms, such as tea, and sports, such as sumo, have enjoyed growth at home due to foreign support both in Japan and abroad.  It remains to be seen whether foreign interest will also spur further growth in kenbu in its native land.

Note: An earlier version of this paper was given in July, 2005 at the Association for Theatre in higher Education Conference, Westin Hotel, San Francisco, CA.


I wish to thank Michael Alexanian, Bob Corella and Endo Gentei for their invaluable help in preparing this article; however, any errors are entirely my own.
Article and Photos Copyright 2006 Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Bibliography and works cited:

Alexanian, Michael (Gennan) 2004: "Culture & Koryu Bujutsu," paper given at the 2004 Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts (ejmas.com/proceedings/)
Corella, Bob 2005    Personal communication with the author. _________ 2005    "Kenbu: The Art of Japanese Sword Dancing" Kenshindojo.org/dojo/kenbu.html Endo Gentei 2005    Personal communication with the author.
Hayabuchi Ryu Dojo 2005    “Shinden Shinsei Hayabuchi Ryu Kenshibu Do” homepage2.nifty.com/keitensha/kenshibu-eg.html
Hooker, Richard 2005    "Oda Nobunaga" www.wsu.edu:8080/~du/TOJJAPAN/ODA.HTM
Hurst, G. Cameron III 1998: Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr.
Keene, Donald J. 2002:    Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his world, 1852-1912  NY: Columbia Univ. Pr.
Meirin Kai 2005    “Kenshibu” www1.winknet.ne.jp/~meirin/English/ekenbusenbu/ekenshibu.html
Soseki, Natsume 1980    Botchan (tr. Turney, Alan) Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd.
Toyoda Ryu 2005    “Traditional Arts (17th and 19th June 2005)” South West Anglo-Japanese Society www.swaj.org.uk/events

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JTC Mar 2006