The samurai, Japan's elite warrior class, distinguished themselves from the rest of the population by wearing two swords, the katana and the wakizashi. These swords were more than just decoration--samurai created hundreds of fighting styles using them, and only the most effective styles survived through tests of combat.
Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu
Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu focuses on iaido. Iaido, derived from iaijutsu, develops the samurai skill of drawing the sword and cutting in the same movement, rather than cutting from a traditional stance after already having drawn the sword. Iaido aims to cultivate spiritual harmony in addition to the battlefield skill of iaijutsu. Eishin-ryu contains sitting techniques, standing techniques and techniques for use against multiple opponents, as well as for use on terrain.
Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu
Although the samurai carried both a katana and a wakizashi, they only used the katana outdoors and the wakizashi indoors. Miyamoto Musashi, the famous samurai who wrote "The Book of Five Rings", developed Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu. This style's name translates to "Two Heavens, One School" and refers to the trademark stance of both swords held above the head to attack. The swords work in a sequential rhythm; as one sword defends, the other attacks in the next step.
Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu
Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu remains the oldest surviving school of Japanese swordsmanship. According to Koryu, an index of traditional Japanese martial arts, Katori Shinto-ryu dates to 1447 and has had 20 headmasters based in Japan. The style encompasses training in the use of the katana, the bo staff, the halberd-like naginata, the spear and in empty-hand combat through jujitsu. Katori Shinto-ryu headmasters enjoy the status of Living National Treasures of Japan.
The Chicago Mugai-ryu Study Group manual explains that this style has existed since 1691. It has both kenjutsu and iaijutsu techniques. Students train with bokken--wooden swords--or iaito, aluminum training swords with a dulled edge. Advanced students move on to tameshigiri exercises, which involve cutting targets to ensure proper form and blade angle during a cut. Mugai-ryu's iaijutsu curriculum incorporates two-person forms to help students achieve a sense of distance.
Ono-ha Itto-ryu's name translates to "one sword." The underlying principles of the style, and the branches of Itto-ryu that followed it, rely on a single powerful cut to defeat the enemy. According to Fighting Arts, Ono-ha Itto-ryu curriculum has over 150 techniques, many of which involve a direct downward cut through the center line of the body, often using the wrists as a target during their raised position when ready to attack. Modern kendo, the sport form of kenjutsu, derives its underlying philosophy from Itto-ryu.
Yagyu Shinkage-ryu was the first style of the Tokugawa shogunate, before they began using Ono-ha Itto-ryu. Shinkage-ryu emphasizes flowing, subtle movements, and uses a longer and thinner blade. It contains some principles of aikido: instead of killing an enemy, the style encourages the use of disarming techniques.
Jigen-ryu was founded in the late sixteenth century. It emphasizes a powerful first strike, intended to kill an enemy instantly. Students of Jigen-ryu stand in a modified Hasso-no-kamae stance, with the sword held vertically on the right side of the face with the guard at cheek level. The attacker makes a running hidari-kesa cut from the opponent's left shoulder to his right hip, cutting into the base of the neck where armor would not protect easily. You can learn Jigen-ryu in Kagoshima prefecture today.
Tamiya-ryu, founded in the late 1560s, makes use of a sword with a slightly longer hilt. A longer hilt gives the sword greater stability and power. When you stand in the high stance, Jodan-no-kamae, your opponent will have a tendency to look at the raised sword blade, and they will not notice foot movement. Tamiya-ryu requires large, precise movements.