Life-giving vs killing sword
by Karl Friday
These two terms are more often misinterpreted and mistranslated than perhaps any others associated with Japanese swordsmanship. Many--perhaps most--kendo and kenjutsu affecianados even in Japan do not really understand them.

The terms derive from Buddhist allegory and literally mean "life- giving sword" (katsujin ken) and "killing sword" (setsunin to). In classical bugei parlance, however, their connotations were/are more concrete: the "sword," in both cases refers not to the weapon itself but to its usage; and it's not the opponent himself who is killed or given life, but his responses and fighting spirit. When a combatant uses force of will to overpower, immobilize and strike down an opponent before he can react, this is called setsunin-to (ie "sword[smanship] that transfixes" or sword[smanship] that kills response"). Katsujin-ken ("sword[smanship] that animates"), on the other hand, involves drawing out the opponent, inducing him to strike, and then going inside his technique, countering it at either the moment of its origination or at the point of its most complete extension.

Setsunin-to is an egoistic and risky approach to combat--the slightest miscalculation will result in the swordsman walking straight into the opponent's counter-attack. Katsujin-ken, by contrast, involves a sophisticated manipulation of the opponent and his actions by means of utter selflessness; properly conducted it is virtually undefeatable.

The literal meanings of the terms, therefore, have little to do with their practical meanings to medieval and early modern swordsmen. This is, in fact the case with most bugei jargon. Japanese warriors described their techniques and conceptual ideas in terms meant to be evocative to those already clued in--those to whom the terms have already been explained--but utterly opaque to outsiders. Thus advanced initiates of schools like the Yagyu- Shinkage-ryu, the Jikishin-kageryu, or the Kashima-Shinryu (all of which center their strategies on katsujin-ken) have had the terms explained to them and find them useful mnemonic devices and handy tools for discussion. But to the uninitiated, the terms can be taken only at their face value: sword techniques that kill or do not kill the opponent. This is a plausible interpretation that satisfies such outsiders while at the same time revealing little. Again, many--most--martial arts terms follow this pattern.