Historical Way of Gekiken, Koden Gekiken Keiko Ho 古伝撃剣稽古法
The boom of Bogu Shinai Keiko Ho
From the late periods of Sengoku Jidai, to the beginning of Edo Period, it was believed that there were many accounts of inter-style Shinken Shobu and Bokutou shiai. However, due to the dangerous nature of such duels, it resulted in many fatalities that were frowned upon.
As there were no more major wars, there was almost no place where sword skills can come into use, and this was a concern to the development of sword arts. And thus, Bogu Shinai Keiko Hoshiki was developed during the Edo period and it was being used by many sword styles for free-response sparring training.
However, this concept actually originated even before the Sengoku Jidai. The concept was to wrap soft wood with fabric, and use it for training and sparring. The Fukuro-Jinai.
Historical fukuro-jinai were made using 4 pieces of split bamboo (yotsuwari), but it was tightly wrapped in fabric that it became rather hard. So Kamiizumi no Ise Nobutsuna splited the tip of further so that the tip (which will used for striking most often) becomes softer. This method of construction provides much more safety and was termed Hiki-hada Shinai.
Shinkage Ryu used the Hikihada Shinai for sparring training. However, as it was done without any armour, it can still cause some damage or injuries. And we also have the Itto Ryu, who uses Bokuto and Habiki-Tou, along with their own unique protective gear, the Oni-gote. However, Itto Ryu's training with the Oni-gote is not actually total free-response sparring.
So for sparring safety, we can consider exchanging the sword for a softer Bokutou or Shinai, and donning on protective gears. However, when it comes down to really intense full-contact free-sparring, it is still very dangerous, and there was a search for weapons and protective gears that provides a high level of safety.
It was believed that in the past, that the one who opened the path to Jiyu-Keiko-Ho (free-response training) is Naganuma Shirozaemon, a practitioner of Jikishin Kage Ryu in Edo. Nakanishi Chuta, who founded Itto-Ryu Nakanishi-Ha, improved on the training sword and worked to bring this form of training to a higher level. Shinai-Uchiai (bamboo sword duelling) brought the Kenjutsu world to an exciting period in its time of blossom.
The World of Duelling
When Gekiken-Ho was invented in the Edo Kenjutsu community and gained popularity, many styles came to Edo to learn it as well, and soon Gekiken spreaded through the entire Japan. As Taryu-Jiai (inter-style sparring) can now be done in a safe manner, many styles were encouraged and started working hard to produce good swordsmen.
However, not all styles picked up Gekiken-ho.
There were old styles who were more interested in keeping their traditions alive and understanding the essence of their masters' teachings. Some styles also didn't viewed Shinai-Kyogi-Keiko (Bamboo-sword Sparring) as a realistic simulation of a real sword fight, and rejected it. Furthermore, some styles have their own unique theories and techniques, which might not be applicable in the Gekiken environment.
Katori Shinto Ryu, Jigen Ryu and some other styles backed out of Gekiken for various reasons. Within the Nakanishi-ha Itto Ryu, a Shihan by the name of Terada Muneari also prefered to practice Kata-Geiko (pre-arranged sequences) only, even though Gekiken was blooming within the style. Even though Gekiken-ho is gaining popularity, it should be noted that its objective is not to replace regular Keiko-ho (training) and become something stand-alone. This is the fundamental difference between Gekiken and modern Kendo. Gekiken is meant to be a training activity that compliments Kenjutsu (swordsmanship) training.
Although it varies from style to style, most Kenjutsu styles conduct trainings based on Kata developed by the founder of the style. With Edo acting as the central source, Gekiken began to blossom into various clans and parts of the country.
Around the mid-Edo period, there were styles being created which were similar to modern Kendo. However, their objectives were very different from Gekiken. Especially post-war Kendo, which is the modern Kendo that we see commonly nowadays.
Post-World War II Kendo modified the rules and standardized its curriculum to become a standalone sport, which erased the stylistic diferences in various Kenjutsu styles. Please consider the difference between Gekiken and modern Kendo.
The biggest historical difference is in the objectives of modern Kendo and Gekiken.
Modern Kendo is a competitive sports, where one competes with another within the rules to try and achieve victory. On the other hand, Gekiken Keiko-ho practiced in traditional Kenjutsu is just one of the training tools to aid in overall training. Gekiken later evolved into something competitive in the late-Edo period, such that it can't be said that someone who is strong in Gekiken Keiko-ho will be equally good in a real sword-fight.
There were also others who thought that something like Gekiken is different from actual real swordmanship. In peace times, where there weren't any real sword fights anymore, there were people who also wondered about the practicality of Gekiken.
Under such way of thinking, there were cases of highly skilled swordsmen visiting Tennen Rishin Ryu's Shi'eikan with the intention of dojo-yaburi (destroying the reputation of a dojo or school). With the help of people highly skilled in Gekiken or Shinai Kyogi, these "visitors" were defeated and Shi'eikan's honour was preserved.
Kondo Isami, who was the head of Tennen Rishin Ryu Shieikan, wasn't as skilled in Gekiken, compared to the young Okita Souji, who was nicknamed "Tensai Kenshi" (Genius Swordsman). Even though Gekiken may indeed be different from real swordsmanship, it's interesting to note the effectiveness of Shieikan training to Shinsengumi members, in Tennen Rishin Ryu and Gekiken, during the Bakumatsu period. Of which, the most famous of all, is the Ikedaya Incident. The Bakumatsu period is a time when sword were actually being more commonly used in fights. Whereas in large battlefield, the weapon of choice was usually the spear.
Koden Gekiken Keiko Ho
Modern Kendo is now a big organization widely found in most parts of the world, and the teachings are standardized as one. Whichever Kendo Dojo that you visit, you'll find largely the same things being taught. One of the important Kenjutsu style involved in historical Gekiken was Jikishinkage Ryu, however their teachings were not found in modern Kendo. Instead, modern Kendo teachings is based mainly on the Itto Ryu teachings. After World War II, rules were additionally created and enforced, leading to modern Kendo becoming a form of sports competition.
However, in historical Edo period Gekiken, there was no such standardization as the teachings of each individual style is unique to itself. In this way, Gekiken served to enhance and build up each Kenjutsu styles' own teachings.
It is regrettable, that a lot of the Gekiken teachings painstakingly researched during the Edo period by various Kenjutsu styles are lost, and few remained. There are indeed some minor styles that still managed to protect and preserve historical Gekiken teachings. One of which is Jikishinkage Ryu, which still preserved historical Gekiken techniques along with their traditional Kata. Another style is Kogoden Nito Ryu, which has very unique teachings on using 2 swords in Gekiken. This splendid form of Nito Gekiken proved to be a great challenge to one of modern Kendo top players.
柳剛流 and 慈元流 had a unique style of Gekiken technique that defeats the opponent through applying pressure on their shin. However, these techniques are not permitted in modern Kendo. Tennen Rishin Ryu also have their set of teachings in Gekiken technique, called "Gyaku-gyou" 逆業, translated literally as Opposite Study. Also worth noting, is Maniwa-Nen Ryu, which is one of the oldest styles around. They use rather unique protective equipments which you'll have to see for yourself.
Translated by: Jack Chen
From the book, Tennen Rishin Ryu Kenjutsu.
I do add bits of additional information not found in the book. All translation mistakes are mine alone.
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Thank you for reading.