The exact activities undertaken when practising kenjutsu vary with school, but commonly include solo practice of basic techniques (kihon) and two person paired kata (featuring full contact strikes in some styles). Schools incorporate sparring under a variety of conditions, from the more dangerous use of wooden swords (Bokutō) to the safer use of bamboo swords (shinai) and practice armour (bogu).

Kenjutsu should not be confused with iaidō or Iaijutsu. Iaidō is a modern development with sporting, artistic, and meditative features. The role of iaijutsu is as a practice performed against an opponent who is visualized most often to be armed with a sword. There is often strong biomechanical symbiosis between the iaijutsu and kenjutsu of most schools. Iaijutsu allows the practitioner to perfect the execution of techniques, body position and displacement which he will later employ in his kenjutsu without the stresses of a partnered kata. Iaijutsu therefore remains a distinct and yet a complementary practice to kenjutsu in most schools.

Another general distinction between iaijutsu and kenjutsu is the condition of the sword at the start of the kata. In iaijutsu, the sword starts in the sheathed position with the emphasis on the draw as well as the few initial cuts. Traditionally, koryū focus on shifting smoothly in the pace of execution within the iaijutsu kata with little focus is given to the speed of draw. This is contrasted with kenjutsu, where the sword begins unsheathed, and the emphasis is on both attack and defense. This distinction is however not consistent as some kenjutsu kata start with the sword sheathed.

A distinguishing feature of many kenjutsu syllabi is the use of a paired katana or daitō and wakizashi or shōtō commonly referred to as Nitōjutsu.

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