In ancient Japan, a kensei (剣聖?, sword's saint; sometimes rendered in English as Kensai, Ken Sai, Kansei, or Kenshei) was an honorary title given to a warrior of legendary skill in swordsmanship. The literal translation of "kensei" is "sword saint". Thus, the term is considered by some to imply a higher degree of perfection (possibly also encompassing a moral dimension) than the more commonly used kengō (剣豪?) or "great sword." This is not to be confused with the word kenshi (剣士), meaning "swordsman".
Among the most famous kensei is Miyamoto Musashi (宮本武蔵?), although not all would apply the term to him. Other historical kensei are often the founders of popular schools of swordsmanship. Although there is no such written rule, the title carries such prestige that it is commonly understood that there should be no more than one kensei at any given time.
Depending on the kanji symbol used, "ken" may be translated as either "sword" or "fist", thus the term kensei was also adapted in Okinawa to literally mean "fist saint" (拳聖) or "sacred fists" in honoring one of Okinawa's most notable martial arts masters, Higaonna Kanryō. He is credited with formalizing & founding Naha-Te, which is one of modern Karate's direct predecessors. One of Higaonna Kanryō's student's, Chojun Miyagi, who founded the Gōjū-ryū style of karate, is also recognized as Kensei.
- Hattori Hanzō
- Higaonna Kanryō (fist saint)
- Ito Ittosai Kagehisa
- Minamoto no Yoshitsune
- Miyamoto Musashi
- Sasaki Kojirō
- Tsukahara Bokuden
- Yagyu Hyogonosuke
- Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyoshi
- Yagyū Munenori
- Okita Sōji
- Kawakami Gensai
In popular culture
Kensei frequently appear in fiction, as their skill and morality make for sympathetic and interesting characters.
- Orlandu's job class in the game Final Fantasy Tactics is Kensei (called Holy Swordsman in the PlayStation translation and translated as Sword Saint in the PlayStation Portable remake).
- In Baldur's Gate 2, one of the fighter sub-classes is "Kensai". Kensai are outstanding fighters that gain bonuses to attack, damage, and weapon speed, but are not allowed to be of Chaotic alignment and may never use armour, shields, or bracers.
- In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition Oriental Adventures accessory, Kensai is one of the base classes. Kensai specialize in a particular weapon, but it does not have to be a sword; it can even be unarmed combat.
- In the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Oriental Adventures accessory, the Kensai is presented as a Prestige Class. The class represents those who choose to perfect their fighting skills with a single weapon, as with the 1st edition class. In the 3.5 revision, the Kensei is presented as a Prestige Class yet again in the Complete Warrior accessory, presented as a warrior who devotes themselves to the service of a noble master or a cause, and to the perfection of the use of a single weapon, able to increasingly enhance the weapon's capabilities over time. In 4th Edition, the Kensei in the Player's Handbook is a Paragon Path choice for the Fighter class with a focus on perfection with a single weapon.
- In Shogun: Total War Mongol Invasion (and Warlord Edition), "Kensai(s)" are trainable units consisting of only one exceptional soldier. This unit is easily able to defeat a unit of medium foot soldiers containing 60 men.
- In Heroes, teleporting, time-traveling Hiro Nakamura learns that his "future self" has a katana of legendary power, once owned by a heroic samurai, referred to as Takezo Kensei. The story, as told to Hiro by his father in childhood, states that this warrior has great powers that he could not control: that is, not until he found and claimed this mysterious sword, sheathed in a field of ice. This katana bears an RNA-like symbol alluding to one of the TV series' themes, which is later defined as two Japanese characters fused into one: "Great Talent" and "Godsend". Takezo Kensei is portrayed by David Anders. (Takezo in turn is an original reading of Miyamoto Musashi's given name.)
- In the video game Fire Emblem: The Sword of Seals, one of the minor characters, Karel, has achieved a great deal of international fame for his perceived benevolence and his skill with the sword, earning him the nickname of "Sword Saint" - a title he does not regard as fitting, as he was once a psychotic murderer who killed both large military detachments and many powerful individuals simply to test his martial ability (ironically, during that period of time, he was known as the Sword Demon).
- In the Bifrost Guardians book series, written by Mickey Zucker Reichert, the character Gaelinar is a Kensei, sometimes referred to in the series as a Sword Saint.
- In Mamoru Nagano's manga Five Star Stories, Kensei is an honorary title given to the best swordsman in the Joker Cluster, with many characters in this epic story holding the title at various points of time. Often, the title rested among the members of Kaien family, most notably Douglas Kaien and his son, Maximum HOLTFORS Ballanche Kaien, Duke of Fates.
- Playstation video game Kensei: Sacred Fist refer to this title.
- Australian Goju Kai Karate - Article on Naha-te & Sensei Kanryo Higaonna
- Houston Samurai Martial Sports - Article on the history of Goju-Ryu
- Kensei Kensan Kai - 剣聖研鑚会 - Kendo & Iaido practitioners in Japan and Sweden
- Kensei Ryu International - Brief summary of Kensei
- Northwest Goju Ryu - Article on Kensei Kanryo Higashionna
- Okinawa Karate & Kobudo blog - on the kanji of kensei
- Shima Karate - Article on the History of Martial Artsde:Kensei