Journal of Theatrical
Combatives Mar 2006
The Fan and the Sword: Exploring Kenbu
copyright © 2006 Deborah Klens-Bigman, all rights reserved
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:
Botchan goes on to describe the thrilling and precise movement of the
swordsmen as they danced to the beat of a drum.
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.
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.
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
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
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)
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
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
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,
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.).
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
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
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
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