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Kenjutsu may and frequently does require practice with katana (the live Japanese sword) though usually in training the bokken, a hardwood weapon of dangerous capabilities, is used in its place. The nature of the weapon and the realism in kenjutsu means that the training methods must be confined to kata (prearranged combative practice) with a partner because the movements toward the target areas have no limitations.

Kenjutsu was not delimited to the use of bokken or katana but also used jujutsu.

Kenjutsu pits blade against blade in a decisive and unique manner. Some seventeen hundred ryu (schools/traditions) or ryuha (branch of the former) have been catalogued in the feudal period. This indicates the enthusiastic intensity of endeavour made by the bushi (warrior) to perfect swordsmanship.

Each ryu or ryuha of kenjutsu has their own characteristic kamae (a posture or stance) and battle tactics where the training was carried out on natural terrain so as to approximate battle reality. The training consists of a particularly fast series of repetitive continuous movements.

Kenjutsu was developed systematically during the Heian (794-1190) and Kamakura (1192-1333) periods, but it is only during the Muromachi period (1392-1573) that kenjutsu is traditionally considered to have been systematized. During this period kenjutsu grew and the use of bokken in combat became increasingly popular.

The movements were initially based on patterns established in real fights, but as peace threw its net over the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), some ryu discarded practical combat applications in order to give emphasis to the spiritual, mental, and aesthetic development. This trend gradually brought kenjutsu to the earliest form of do, called kobudo . The purpose of kobudo was centered upon morals, discipline, and aesthetic concerns. Historically, it was not only the weapon or the physical technique which categorized the swordsmanship but also the idea of the training. Emphasis was placed on the spiritual element and reiho (etiquette) of kenjutsu by early Tokugawa period where several ryu or ryuha believed that kenjutsu should not be an art of killing (satsujinken) but one of disciplining oneself as a moral being (katsujinken).

Several leading swordsmen in the Tokugawa period described their teaching as kendo unaffected of which type of sword used in training. The swordsmanship in the Tokugawa period was called kenjutsu , kendo , shinai-geiko , and various other appellations, without strict distinction of form or content. For example in 1673 Abe Gorodaiyu, the founder of Abe Ryu, taught a method of swordsmanship where the emphasis was on moral and mental training rather than gaining expertise in physical techniques. Abe Gorodaiyu described the teachings of his ryu as kendo and not kenjutsu.

As weapon the hikihada-shinai (toadskin-covered bamboo sword) was already invented in the age of Abe Ryu. The founder of Hikita Kage Ryu, Hikita Bungoro (1537-1606), only using the hikihada-shinai during the 1560s aganist an opponent armed with a hardwood sword (bokken).

Later in 1710s further contributions were made to the 'dilution' of the combat values of kenjutsu. The protective armour was used and a multisectioned bamboo sword later to be called shinai replaced partly the dangerous bokken in some ryu or ryuha. The earliest training with the shinai was called shinai-geiko and by 1750 the development of the armour in connection to kenjutsu or kendo was fully established. In the mid-Tokugawa period over five hundred ryu or ryuha used shinai in their practice.