The word “Tenken” is an infrequently used term in the English vocabulary, certainly, but it is a term that has a meaning to a very specific crowd of people. The word – stolen from Japanese, and spread through the anime watching sub-culture in English speaking countries, has layers and layers to its meaning. Some of them are apparently contradictory in nature, so in order to understand the word, it’s somewhat important to understand its history.
Let me start by going over a couple of the popular definitions that you’ll find on the web:
- “Heavenly Sword. To have great ability with the sword — to a degree that the skill can only be a gift from the heavens.”
- “To move, think, or act with Godlike speed and accuracy.”
- “Pertaining to swordsmanship – to act or move with Godlike speed.”
These all root back to the way in which the term Tenken was popularized in the US, which is through the Japanese anime series known as “Rurouni Kenshin.” Within this anime, the character Seta Soujiro, an 18 year old swordsman, fights without emotion, passion, or anger. Because of this, he is almost entirely unpredictable on the battlefield. His speed, precision, and ability are unmatched. Indeed, Soujiro is never defeated in combat, even by the greatest heroes of the series. He is called “the Tenken.”
This gives us a few alternate definitions of what Tenken may mean. It can mean:
- Someone who is brutally effective.
- Someone who is incredibly fast, incredibly talented, or incredibly smart.
- Someone who shows no emotions at all.
But in this absolutely fantastic anime series, the character of Seta Soujiro is not merely an emotionless master swordsman. As his story unfolds, we find out about his tragic past, and what he hides underneath the emotionless mask.
On the inside, he’s torn up. On the inside, he just wants to be allowed to be weak. We see this in his final battle with Kenshin (the protagonist of the series) as Soujiro starts letting his emotions out, and has this internal dialogue:
If it’s right to save people who were weak, then back then, why didn’t you protect me? Why didn’t anyone protect me?
Then he says, their swords locked, “You didn’t protect me. If what you say is right, then why didn’t you protect me?” Seta starts to have a massive breakdown. He starts flailing, clutching his head as he stumbles around the room, screaming. Because of this emotional breakdown, he loses the fight to Kenshin (but is not killed).
We basically discover that, despite the fact that he’s seemed like this completely heartless killer, he’s this torn up and sensitive person who’s been repressing every bit of emotion he has. His constant smile is a mask against the rest of the world, and against his own demons.
So, we can add these definitions to our list:
- Someone who is pretending not to experience emotions, but has a strong emotional side.
- Someone who presents a tough exterior, or a false exterior, to protect themselves against their own demons or past.
In the aftermath of this battle, the Tenken determines that he will start wandering in order to discover who he really is. He says:
“It’s a little unfair…. When you’re trying to repair a brick building that was made the wrong way the first time, you have to tear the whole thing down before you can begin; it can’t be done any other way because brick is just too strong.”
So, we can also view Tenken as a term meaning:
- Someone seeking redemption or truth.
- Someone who is having to break apart his identity and re-establish it.
- Someone who is seeking to be better at great cost.
All of these things are powerful and meaningful to me, which is why I’ve adopted the name “Tenken” as a moniker in my online interactions. Even my blog is named after the Tenken – specifically, http://www.TenkenatHeart.com
And me. I’m Rob Tenken.