The following is an article that I wrote in 1999 for Sword Forum International, and just rediscovered again recently. I have reprinted it here without change.
So you want to be a modern samurai? Well the primary weapon of the samurai (at least during the Tokugawa era from about 1603 to 1868) was the sword, so it would be wise to start your journey of transformation by studying the sword. In the West we have several choices for training with the Katana. I'll outline them and try to provide a bit of background concerning the practice and its connection to the samurai.
It is often supposed that the Japanese sword arts of today are directly linked to the arts of the Sengoku Jidai, the age of wars that predated the Tokugawa peace. While it is true that some of the schools I will describe claim an unbroken lineal descent from that time to this, it is doubtful what we study today is what was practiced on those long ago battlefields. By the very fact of being "living arts" the Japanese sword schools have changed with their times. The arts as practiced today are designed and intended to be practiced by the people of today, not the samurai of half a millennium ago. Each headmaster of the art was and is a product of his time, he lived (or lives) within his or her society, as do the students of the art. With each generation the art changes, old skills are dropped and new skills developed to reflect the needs of the time.
Add to that the relative lack of detailed technical writing about the schools (often what was written was barely more than a listing of techniques) and you are left with the almost inescapable conclusion that what we practice today is barely linked to what the Samurai in the wars practiced.
But don't despair, the techniques may have been changed, tarted up, beautified, or what have you, but the methods of practice remain, as do the benefits of that practice.
Arts in the West
First a bit of a disclaimer. I will attempt to give this listing in order of the relative likelihood of finding instruction. The arts with the largest number of instructors will be listed first, those which you are unlikely to find without a lot of luck, later. This is, however, not a statistically accurate ranking. I may get it wrong. I may also have some specific information a bit muddled, this is, after all a survey article, not a history book so I won't be citing sources and defending my thesis before a panel. Take it with a grain of salt and do your own investigation if you get interested. The internet is a great place to start, there are newsgroups, mailing lists, and thousands of websites devoted to the Japanese sword.
I'll also try not to pass judgement on any of the arts I will describe, but I will try to give the reader an accurate (again, as I perceive it) idea of where the arts came from, and what they teach. I fully expect to be blasted for this attempt, so please take note of my email address and don't go blasting those who don't deserve it.
There are several different flavours of Aikido, Aiki-jutsu, and Daito-ryu in the West, and the total number of students would be quite impressive I'm sure. A large number of these schools include some form of sword training in their practice. I'm most familiar with the "Aikikai", the direct line schools founded by Morihei Ueshiba and continued by the late Kisshomoru Ueshiba so I'll start there.
The particular sword arts studied by Morihei Ueshiba are somewhat unclear, at least as far as what, exactly, he learned, and for how long. Before he met Sokaku Takeda of the Daito-ryu, Ueshiba studied a couple of ju-jutsu schools and the Yagyu Shingan-ryu, a classical style that still includes practice (or at least demonstrations) in full battle armour.
Sokaku Takeda, founder of Daito-ryu Aiki-jutsu (okay, we can debate the founder label another time) studied the Itto-ryu, a sword style we'll mention again in relation to Kendo. I suspect Ueshiba was deeply influenced by this style through Takeda.
Later, as Aikido was established, there was contact with the Kashima Shinto-ryu school, and this influence can be seen most clearly in the sword matching kata preserved by Morihiro Saito and his "Iwama-style" Aikido. By all accounts, however, the Aikido of Ueshiba's later years, and through the years his son led the Aikikai, the sword was not practiced much. The result of this was that many of the senior Aikido instructors practice a rather idiosyncratic style of sword. The same can be said of course, about the other major Aikido styles such as Tomiki and Yoshinkan whose founders had varying amounts of sword experience under Ueshiba and the other visitors to the dojo, or in other places.
Most of these senior instructors will readily admit to a lack of formal instruction in the sword, and to practicing a sword style that "is in accord with the principles of Aikido". This means that the sword you practice in Aikido may have a tenuous connection with the classical arts. Remember though, as I said above, the classical arts may themselves have a rather tenuous connection to the past.
There are groups within the Aikikai (and other organizations) who also studied sword arts outside their Aikido practice. In particular I am thinking of those in Europe and the USA who practiced Muso Shinden-ryu Iaido with Takeshi Mitsuzuka. This iai practice is well integrated with the Aikido practice in many dojo. Although this is likely the largest "group" of Aikido instructors practicing a particular line of iaido, many other instructors practice this art, and other classical arts to gain insight into the sword, and hopefully, into their own Aikido practice.
The "Aikijutsu" schools of various shapes in the West, are even more fragmented than the Aikido schools, and I won't attempt to classify them or the sword arts offered, but I suspect the main points made about Aikido will be accurate for those "jutsu" derived from Aikido. Those "Aikijutsu" which are derived from Daito-ryu will be influenced by the sword of that art. Which is to say, not much exposed to the sword at all. As was the case with Aikido, Sokaku Takeda in his later days, and his son Tokimune, did not practice the sword much, concentrating on the unarmed aspects of the art. There are, however, some lines of the art in which Itto-ryu is practiced.
So, the most likely place for the typical "samurai to be" off the street to encounter the Japanese sword is in the Aiki based arts. The sword found in these schools does, for the most part, have a real basis in the "classical" art, which means the grip, stance and swing will be within the range of what was taught during the Tokugawa era. But I doubt you will find a classical style that will match what you learn.
A brief explanation of why the sword was dropped from these arts: World War II and the aftermath, where all forms of "classical" martial arts were, to say the least, out of favour.
The Aikido sword is usually a "bokken" a carved, wooden replica of the katana. In Aikido the sword is usually without a guard. Practice is most often done solo, and with a partner in simple repetitive patterned strikes and blocks. Sometimes you will find kata, or more complex patterns of attack, defence and footwork. Those schools which practice iaido mostly do so in the way described below for that art.
After an Aikido dojo, I suspect the next most likely find will be the Kendo dojo. Kendo is a "modern" art (of about 200-300 years) which involves a "freestyle" form of practice involving body armour and a replica sword made of four staves of bamboo. The main root art of Kendo is Itto-ryu, which is one of the major streams of sword practice. Kendo was developed from the various classical styles by instructors who wanted to go further than the patterned practice with wooden swords.
This art is much easier to describe than Aikido since it is a single, unified, world-wide art. By far and away, the majority of people who practice Kendo in the world do so under a single national body which in turn belongs to the International Kendo Federation. The IKF holds a world championship each three years, the next being in the United States. Any kendoka in the world can walk into a club anywhere else in the world and feel at home practicing.
Kendo also includes a set of ten kata which are practiced with wooden long and short swords and without armour. These are called (ready?) the Kendo kata, and are based on the old sword schools. The kata are named "one" through "ten" which kind of reflects the sort of art Kendo is. Direct, to the point, and no frills.
The Kendo Federation also oversees two other sections of practice, Iaido and Jodo. There is a set of 10 Iaido kata and 12 Jodo kata which were developed by the Federation for practice, demonstration and grading purposes. The Iaido kata were derived from several schools but mostly from Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu. The jodo kata were derived exclusively from the Shindo Muso-ryu. There are large numbers of Iaido clubs in the West which are affiliated with the Kendo Federations. In Europe there are also many Jodo clubs which are affiliated with the national Kendo Federations, but in the Americas this is not the case at the moment.
Okay, let's get a bit more complex again. There is a Kendo Federation which includes Iaido clubs, these do the Kendo Iaido kata. If they are mostly a Kendo club this may be all they do but most of these dojo also practice an iaido koryu, an old school style. The Iaido section was added to the Kendo Federation in the late 60s. Prior to that in Japan the All Japan Iaido Federation was founded by the then headmaster of the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu. The AJIF (or ZNIR in Japanese acronym language) has a set of 5 common kata for grading, practice and demonstration, and all the schools in this organization also practice a koryu.
Those are the two major "organizations" you will find in the West. You will also find a significant number of "independents" and even some other organizations of some size, such as the San Shin Kai (which is the Aikido-based organization of Takeshi Mitsuzuka in North America).
Iaido is practiced alone, using a metal blade to perform set kata involving a draw and cut, a finishing cut or cuts, a symbolic cleaning of the blade, and a replacement of the blade back into the scabbard. Many Iaido schools also have partner practice kata done with wooden swords (in this case usually called "bokuto" rather than "bokken", same thing) in specific patterns, and without armour.
In the wars preceding the Tokugawa era, the sword was a secondary weapon, especially toward the end when the gun became decisive on the battlefield. In those days training in the sword would have been rudimentary at best, and iai would have been of marginal use. With the Tokugawa, era the sword became a symbol of the Samurai class, and was worn commonly. Combine the availability of the weapon with the move of the Samurai into the towns and you now have the atmosphere where a "quick draw" sword art might be useful on being attacked.
Many of the Iaido koryu trace their lineage back to Hayashizaki Jinsuke who developed the art around 1600. Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, traces its line through over 20 headmasters to Hayashizaki. There are other schools which contain an iai art, some claiming to be older than Hayashizaki, some younger. I won't go through the individual iaido schools since most practice in similar ways to what I have described above.
At this point, after describing kendo and iaido many people in the West will expect to see the art of "kenjutsu" described, this being something that is "more battlefield oriented than kendo". There is no art of kenjutsu, at least in the sense that there is a "Kendo". Kenjutsu is an overall term for sword arts, and could actually include iai as well as modern kendo, although most westerners figure it means any art with wooden (or even metal!) swords done with a partner. If you want to press me, I might say that kenjutsu is what happens after you get the sword out of your scabbard. Of course this includes kendo.
I tend to use "koryu ken" as a term for the older schools (ken and iai). Now, what's an older school? I tend to say anything that originated before the Meiji restoration in 1868. There's little data on any koryu ken before 1600, (too busy fighting to codify fighting styles I imagine) so most of them were developed, codified or invented during the Tokugawa (Edo) era. Of course that also includes Kendo again.
And the place of "kenjutsu" (the koryu ken that are not Kendo or iaido) in this list? Quite a bit further down I'm afraid, it isn't very popular and likely never will be.
Another relatively common source of Japanese sword practice is the various Ninjutsu dojo. Having experienced the rise of Ninjutsu after the Kung Fu craze, and it's retreat in the face of the Brazilian jujutsu fad, I'm not really sure how many dojo are left. Many of those that are, now claim descent from several more or less mainstream sword and jujutsu koryu. I haven't examined any of these in much detail, but, as with Aikido your experience of the sword is going to depend mainly on the instructor. Pretty much by self-definition, however, you will not be learning how to be a "samurai" but how to be an "anti-samurai" agent in these schools.
Toshishiro Obata, movie actor, stunt man, student of Aikido, Nakamura-ryu, and other things has developed his own style of sword practice with wooden weapons which is highly reminiscent (to me at least) of Aikido sword practice. He also includes test cutting with metal blades. This art is in the process of development, but there are several dojo in the USA and Canada.
Toyama-Ryu / Nakamura-Ryu / Batto
I've lumped these arts, derived mostly from the teachings of Nakamura sensei, into one grouping although the reality is a bit more complex. These groups practice sword drawing (iai), test cutting, and in some cases, partner practice with wooden weapons. There are a few dojo scattered about in the west.
Both these last two arts are recent developments (since WWII) out of older schools. It remains to be seen how closely they remain tied to the older methods of practice.
At this point we've pretty much exhausted the common sources of Japanese sword training, and come to the old schools themselves. These arts are not common in Japan, and even less so outside that country. In fact I would guess that most of the old schools are completely unrepresented in the West, and those that are might be represented by a single individual. I will likely forget a few of the schools in what follows so take it as a representative list, rather than as a comprehensive list.
One koryu that is actually quite well represented outside Japan is Shindo Muso-ryu, a school known mostly for jodo, but which also practices the sword, both as an attacking weapon for jo training, and as an art in itself represented by the Shinto-ryu sword kata.
As mentioned previously, there are many dojo in Europe that are associated with the various national Kendo federations. There are also dojo in Europe and in North America which are affiliated with independent organizations or individual instructors. It will be several years before the Kendo federations in North America begin to support jodo, even to the extent that they support iaido now.
At this time SMR jodo is likely too large to ever be unified again under a single headmaster, and outside the Kendo federation there is no system of competition to encourage a unified practice so one can expect the art to drift into several streams as Aikido has done.
Jodo traces it's lineage back to Muso Gunnosuke, who lived in the first half of the 17th century. It was nourished through many generations in the Kuroda clan and was consolidated in its present form by Shimizu sensei, the last (25th) headmaster who popularized the art in Tokyo, and who introduced it into the Kendo Federation.
The Kashima-Shinryu has become quite well known in the west through the writings of Karl Friday, a menkyo kaiden in the art who now teaches history at the University of Georgia. There are dojo in Georgia, California, Montana and one in Europe (I may have forgotten one). This makes the Kashima-Shinryu one of the "up and comers" in the koryu universe. The current headmaster is, a university professor who spends at least some time in B.C. but I don't know of any people in that province of Canada who are practicing the art.
Kashima-Shinryu is a composite art including several weapons and unarmed practice. Sword practice is done with bokuto, fukuro-shinai and metal blades used for iai (batto) practice.
Katori Shinto Ryu
This koryu might just be the best known of all, due mainly to the writings of Donn Draeger who was a student of the "original" dojo under Ritsuke Otake sensei. There are no other branch dojo of this "original", if you want to drink from this cup you go to Japan and hope to be accepted by Otake sensei.
There are, however, instructors of Katori Shinto-ryu outside Japan. These come from at least three sources, two of which I believe trace back to the third. Sugino sensei, who died recently, studied Katori Shinto-ryu under the previous head instructor (prior to Otake sensei taking on the job) and was granted permission to teach the art. He taught in his own dojo, and also at the Aikido headquarters where Sugawara sensei, and Mochizuki sensei (of Yoseikan budo) studied the art. These three have passed the art on to many students in the west who continue to practice.
Eventually this will lead to a situation where the "branch" will be more influential than the "root" which is not uncommon in the history of these schools. Katori Shinto is also a multi-weaponed art, and the sword practice includes bokuto and metal bladed practice.
Kogen Itto-Ryu (Classical Kendo)
In the USA there are two or perhaps three schools of Kogen Itto-ryu style kendo. One in Ohio and one in Utah. These dojo practice a variant of kendo which includes a modified scoring system and expanded targets. They also practice iai and kata with bokuto.
The International Naginata Federation (which practices Atarashii Naginata or "modern" naginata, a competitive art rather like kendo) functions like the International Kendo Federation with the competitive art being homogenous, and with various koryu arts being associated. In the west there are several dojo which practice one of these koryu, the Tendo-ryu which, like Shindo Muso- ryu, contains sword training as an adjunct to the main weapon. In this case the naginata, a pole weapon with a curved blade at the tip.
Yagyu Shinkage Ryu
There are a couple of dojo on the East coast of the USA which offer Yagyu Shinkage-ryu training. This art includes practice with bokuto, with a bamboo weapon called a fukuro-shinai (a single split bamboo stave encased in leather), and with metal blades. The bokuto and fukuro- shinai are used in set partner practice while the metal blades are used in iai practice (called Batto).
One example of a school represented by a single individual in the West would be the Araki-ryu. Ellis Amdur teaches the art in the northwestern USA to a very few students. He learned the art in a similar sized class.
These last two arts might be considered "classical" type koryu dojo in that the lineage is very direct, from teacher to very few pupils, with no intention or desire to teach large numbers of students. It is from arts like these that Western students of the sword have got the idea that the koryu were "secretive" things that required special initiation ceremonies, fancy handshakes, and official letters of recommendation. From what I've learned by talking to members of these schools I suspect the greater reality is that the "secrecy" comes from being small and hard to find rather than any deliberate attempt to keep students out. If you should stumble upon a teacher of one of these arts, go ahead and talk to him or her. Ask about his/her training, his instructors, and his current connection with the school in Japan. If they are legitimate they will answer the questions, I have yet to find a student of one of the koryu who wasn't willing to talk your ear off.
If you're satisfied with the chat, ask to train. If the instructor has taken a liking to you, you'll be welcome. If they don't like you, or if they're not interested in more students they'll tell you no. I very much doubt you'll be asked to sit at the temple gate for a week in the rain, or asked to perform some special deed before being accepted. If you are, you'd better think deeply about just what kind of instructor you have just encountered.
Other Classical Styled Schools
If everyone in the sword world isn't mad at me now, I'll try and make up for that and collect the last few folks here.
I call these last schools "classical styled" since none of them can provide an independently varifiable history or lineage more than one or perhaps two generations past the current headmaster. They seem to be largely Western phenomena, unknown in Japan but definitely rooted in Japanese sword practice. The schools are usually relatively small but often quite well known due to extensive media coverage. Examples of these arts are the Kaze Arashi-ryu, and the arts headed by Fredrick Lovret and Don Angier.
That's not to say they aren't good places to practice the sword, just that you many not find any firm connections to Japan. If you happen across one of these arts, or any of the other arts for that matter, check it out, talk to the students, talk to the instructor, watch a class, try a class, and then decide for yourself if this is the route you want to take to samurai-hood.
If that all seems too much trouble but you still want to be a
call me and we'll talk about a high rank in Daidokoro-ryu for a modest
donation to the building fund. Now I think I'll go and hide for a month