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Jigen-Ryu Swordsmanship, by a New York City-based Japanese Kenjutsu Master, 1903

February 2, 2015

“Fencing, of course, is well known in New York, but our method is entirely different…”


On September 10, 1901, the following announcement appeared in Japan and America, a magazine based at 203 Broadway, New York City:

The famous Japanese fencer, Tatewaki K. Kawasaki, of the “Jigen-ryu” school, who was studying in A. M. Chesbrough Seminary, North Chili, has returned to this city [New York]. He is writing a series of articles in English on his singular sword play, with the view to disclose it to Western fencers and athletes, as well as to the American public.

Above: Kawasaki in the Omaha Daily Bee, 1906. Source: Library of Congress.

Kawasaki in the Omaha Daily Bee, 1906.

According to the New York Press, Tatewaki K. Kawasaki had taken “a classical course at a school neear Rochester,” New York, and had taken European fencing from Camero Negroni, before arriving in New York City, where he would “introduce the Japanese method of sword combat.”

The public would have to wait nearly a year and a half for the first of Kawasaki’s articles, when it finally appeared in the January 25, 1903 issue of the New York Press. Kawasaki would remain in New York City until at least 1905, when he is recorded as having given kenjutsu demonstrations at the New York Athletic Club and Fencers Club, as reported in the New York Times of January 8:

Following the bouts…was an exhibition of Japanese fencing methods with the two-handed and double-edged sword. The exhibition was given by Kawasaki, an instructor of fencing in the Government University, Tokyo, Japan. He used a sword made of bamboo, and was dressed in the native costume. His first opponent was John Allaire, of the New York Turn Verein, who used a sabre. Before the bout began Kawasaki insisted that Allaire put on a breast-plate of Japanese workmanship, so as to protect his ribs. This breast-plate was of metal, ornamented with enamels and elaborately trimmed with cloth, silks and a sort of embroidered skirt. Allaire is somewhat of the Russian type, stalwart and muscular, wearing a closely-trimmed Russian beard. Several of his friends among the large and fashionable gathering of spectators reminded him to be cautious or the Jap would forget himself and even break the handsome breast-plate.

When the men began it was evident that the American was no match for the dexterous Japanese. The latter fairly beat a tattoo upon the headpiece and breastplate. He kept the spectators constantly laughing, for, after the manner of the Japanese swordsmen, he grunted, roared like a lion, or chirped like a bird as he delivered his strokes. His rapidity and change of movement was bewildering, and he had a comparatively easy time with Allaire, who was only able to get in a few sabre cuts. K. B. Johnson of the New York Athletic Club then tried a bout with the Jap and also fared badly.

As can be seen and read about in this article by Maxime Chouinard, Kawasaki was not the first Japanese sword master to teach his art in America, and westerners returning from Japan had already provided accounts and descriptions of Japanese sword technique. Kawasaki, however, certainly seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, Japanese kenjutsu master to write extensively about his art while teaching in America, and specifically for an American audience. His article is also notable in that its author had also studied European fencing, which he contrasts and compares with his own native art.

Below, the first of Kawasaki’s articles is reprinted in full.

New York Press. Jan. 25, 1903.


Kawasaki, the Famous Japanese Fencer, Tells of the Wonderful Swordplay of the Orient, Where the Two Handed Blade Makes a Toy out of a Rapier

THE writer of this article is one of the Samurai; a child of a long and well known race who served under Tokugawa. The fifteenth of the Tokugawa dynasty turned his power over to the Mikado In 1857. The name Kawasaki was given some three hundred years ago to an ancestor in memory of his bravery in capturing a fort named Kawasaki (river cape). He is now a resident of this city, where he teaches fencing.

WHEREVER you go, east or west, whether the people are called civilized or barbarians, the men like to fight. National heroes everywhere are fighters; at first, I suppose, because they defended hearth and home, but afterward simply because they liked fighting and having crowds applaud the victor. The sort of fighting that is popular depends on the race. I am a Japanese. Our favorite game is fencing. Fencing, of course, is well known in New York, but our method is entirely different. It has been brought to a high state of perfection among us, for we are an old people and we have loved fencing for over 3,000 years. We ought after thirty centuries to have developed something. The first master of the art was Takemikajuchi no Kami, who is regarded by all Japanese fencers as their patron saint—almost deity.  Tradition says that he instituted the art in order to defend the young empire from the many foes which surrounded it on every side. I must here say that the art as practiced among us—Ken Jutsu, as it is called—has its foundation in that spirit of chivalry, Bushido, which is the soul of our nation: It has been our strength and hope in the darkest days, and it is now seen in the rapid and wonderful progress which Japan has made during the last forty years. Our fencing is the outward and visible sign of our national spirit.

“As in Lapland the reindeer, and in Arabia the horse, have words enough to fill a book growing out of their glories and uses, so is the sword in Japan…”



The art received a tremendous impetus about 1200 A. D.. when two powerful families named Genji and Helke introduced the feudal system: the fierce feuds which followed giving abundant opportunity for the exercise of everything connected with the sword. In those days battles were hand-to-hand fights, and victory came to those who were the most skilled in the use of the sword at close quarters. Especially are the Masamune swords renowned, their beautiful finish and exquisite temper making them to us what those of Damascus were to the knights of Europe. In Japan, as in western lands, we have our stories of wondrous swords, such as “Cloud Cluster,” which was found in the hall of a mighty dragon slain by Sosanoo— the moon goddess.

This sword became one of the three sacred emblems forming the regalia of the Japanese emperors, and also appearing on our paper money. Innumerable ceremonies surrounded the sword, how it was to be treated at a friend’s house, the degree of obeisance to be accorded to it, how it was to be withdrawn from the scabbard, and so on. If by chance one gentleman’s scabbard clashed against another’s it was tantamount to a challenge, and fierce conflicts often arose from such accidents. The ordinary sword is about two feet long, but all lengths are used, the old time warriors having some as long as six feet. The blade is about one inch in width, seven-eighths being an iron backing on which a face of steel is forged. The point is ground off to a parabola. Every part of the guard, scabbard and blade is ornamented with elaborate gold and silver ornamentation. As in Lapland the reindeer, and in Arabia the horse, have words enough to fill a book growing out of their glories and uses, so is the sword in Japan.

Under such conditions, it is clear that it was of the highest importance to have not only skilled swordsmen, but swords worthy of them. Such swords were made and attained a world-wide renown. Swordsmanship being so highly thought of, there grew up a special class of men who were known as Samurai, or knights; these men were swordsmen and nothing else, their whole life being devoted to warlike exercises. Until the great change in Japan last century these men not only formed a class to themselves, but also had many rights and privileges. What might have been a serious international complication happened a few years ago, which arose out of this idea; a sailor from a European warship while ashore happened to cross the sidewalk in front of a Samurai. This was an insult to his dignity, and he at once slew the unfortunate man, who had been quite unaware of the seriousness of his fault. In former times they were the liege men of their feudal lord, fighting his battles and receiving his protection and largess. The name still remains, but the thing itself is disappearing; shorn of all the old-time grandeur it is doomed ere long to be but a memory.

“There is a marked difference between our style and the European style used in America…”


Every Samurai had to undergo a thorough and rigorous course in fencing. It was his chief, nay, even his sole education. Thus it was that the title and life, passing on from generation to generation, a marvelous dexterity and proficiency developed among our Samurai. A favorite occupation of the Samurai when not engaged in dissecting the enemy was to go around the country challenging the various fencing schools, and by their prowess winning the blue ribbon of Japan—to be esteemed a mighty fencer.

"The balance of the body is entirely different from the Frenchman's."

“The balance of the body is entirely different from the Frenchman’s.”

There is a marked difference between our style and the European style used in America. In the first place, the sword is grasped with the two hands, the hilt of our sword being long enough to allow of this. While fencing we sometimes change hands—that is, pass the sword from one hand to the other, and also by a sort of jump change the position of our feet, the left falling back and the right advancing, or vice versa. This rapid change is a very marked feature of our fencing, the fencers being in a continual state of motion. This demands great agility and strength. As is well known the Japanese have not only great muscle power in their legs, but can use it in a way probably unknown in other lands. The Japanese legs are as different from yours as the black man’s head is from the ordinary white man’s.

Another very marked feature in our fencing is called intimidating your opponent. The power to do this is taught in the dozo-school. and is only attained by hard and rigorous training. What I mean by this is the power to so frighten your opponent that even before a single pass has been made he is defeated. Some men have so developed this power as to be able to do this time and again when the opponent is a man of less will power. Confidence in yourself is of primary importance in all fencing. Before a duel, even in the European style, a clever man will find out the state of his opponent’s mind and take good care to work upon his fears, if that is possible.

“A proficient fencer will so dodge as to drive his rival into a less advantageous position, as, for instance, making him face the sun or the wind…”


Many men will not be seen the day before except by their seconds or friends on this very account. At all hazards a man must keep his nerve. An expert fencer says that a man who could whistle a gay tune in tune on the field of battle would be a most dangerous opponent and one which would make him feel horribly uncomfortable. A story is told of one fencer who just before falling into position turned to his second and said: “I forgot something,” and when asked  what it was replied, “A basket for my opponent’s head.” In Japanese fencing we depend more upon the fierce attitude and the threatening glance, which, as I have said, can and does work wonders. If, however, the opponent is not intimidated then one should be prepared to at once take up an attitude of offense. A proficient fencer will so dodge as to drive his rival into a less advantageous position, as, for instance, making him face the sun or the wind.

The body should be held erect and the feet be kept separate by about the same distance as in ordinary walking, the right foot to the front, the heel of the left foot being slightly raised or just touching the ground and the knees kept limber so as to give one perfect freedom of action. It will be seen that there is a great difference between our way of standing and the European. In which case the feet are firmly placed on the ground and the knees giving the necessary rocking motion.

The sword must be held by the right hand close to the guard, the left hand grasping lightly the end of the grip. In the case shown the sword is directed at the other man’s throat and the fencer coolly awaits an opportunity to thrust. This position is called Sei-gan (literally, the attitude of straight sight).

The third and fourth fingers of both hands are used for holding the sword: the first and second fingers being used to control or direct the blow. This is very different to the European style, where the thumb is the director A constant watch must be kept on your opponent’s eyes, as the attack will probably be delivered at the point to which the eyes are directed. It is of the greatest importance that you learn to keep the eyes perfectly steady and yet see exactly where you can strike. This is no easy matter, as the eyes have a tendency to involuntarily stray.

"The two swordsmen should stand six feet apart."

“The two swordsmen should stand six feet apart.”

The fencers should stand about six feet apart, as this is just such a distance as gives the greatest facility for both offense and defense. Should one advance a step the other should retreat, so as to maintain a constant distance.

A thrust may thus be averted by quickly retreating a step. Increasing the distance, so as to be beyond reach of the sword. Conversely this is just such a distance that one can, by advancing  step, give an effective blow should an opening be presented by his rival in an unguarded moment. As the one tries to get in a blow the other parries it and almost at the same moment dashes step forward, effectively a thrust at the rival’s throat.

"An opening is usually a fatality."

“An opening is usually a fatality.”

The fencer must be on his guard against strategical moves intended to lead him into traps, This is shown in plate 5, where the one brings his sword slightly down, whereupon his rival, thinking he sees an opportunity, quickly strikes at the head. The former, however, skillfully parries the blow, and before the rivals guard is resumed, and while his side still remains open by the raising of both arms, quickly turns and delivers a blow on his flank. Sometimes what is called a Tsuba-jeri occurs—that is to say, the two men get so close together and in such a position that they are unable to either thrust or deliver a blow. In such a case an attempt is made to press his opponent down by sheer weight.

Another attitude is known as Morote Jyonan, or invitation, which means that one of the fencers appears to lay himself open to attack, and so by strategy leads his opponent on and then smites him. This corresponds in some sort to the European riposte.

“It is of the utmost importance that all contests be opened, carried on and closed in perfect good humor and with certain well-defined courtesies…”


As will be seen in the photographs, we often use foils in fencing that are made of round, split bamboo instead of sunds, a blow from which makes one smart and tingle. A corselet is worn, with shoulder plates of hide padded, and also heavily padded gauntlets. The head is protected by a wadded cap. which has a stout iron grating, serving as a visor. In spite of all this armor a Japanese fencing bout generally results in somebody getting whacks which are not forgotten in five minutes.

It is of the utmost importance that all contests be opened, carried on and closed in perfect good humor and with certain well-defined courtesies. In Japan all contests are begun and concluded by simply bowing. Personally I prefer the salute of the European fencers.

"The Japanese swordsman is scrupulously polite to his foe."

“The Japanese swordsman is scrupulously polite to his foe.”

It will be seen the immense field Japanese fencing opens in the way of providing an excellent sport, and one which demands accuracy, calmness and a thoroughly trained and healthy body. No one can understand the rapidity of the hand and foot changes save he who has seen them made. Every sense must be on the alert, and, even more than with foils, must the fencer keep an unceasing and unrelenting watch upon the opponent, who is in a state of rapid and quivering motion.

A Japanese fencer salutes in print a chivalrous people—the ever-alert and keen-eyed Americans.


Master of Japanese Fencing, Member of the Jigen Ryu, Tokyo, Japan.

New York.


Proceed to PART II, the second of Kawasaki’s articles, wherein he treats of sword technique in greater detail.


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