Simon Fraser University Kendo Club

Kendo @ Burnaby mountain

What is Kendo?

Part II


What is Kendo?

The practice of Kendo as a physical activity has a long tradition within Japanese culture. Originally a method of sword manipulation, Kendo came to be more fully understood through observance of natural laws on the battlefield. It can be divided into the following three components:

  1. The way of the body – how to hold the sword, maai (spatial distance separating two opponents), etc.
  2. The way of the sword – how to execute a strike, the right moment to execute a strike, etc.
  3. The way of the mind – the correct mental attitude.

While these divisions represent a useful basis for a theoretical understanding of the main elements of Kendo, in practice they are closely interlinked, with the distinction between them not always so clear. Nevertheless, it is essential that those learning Kendo first acquire a grasp of these basic components and realize that the practice of Kendo is more than a simple matter of overcoming an opponent.

Why Practice Kendo?

Kendo has been practiced for various purposes at different stages of its development, according to the prevailing social conditions of the era. While everyone beginning Kendo will have their own particular motive, the aim of Kendo today may be said to be the development of a healthy body and mind through a sustained period of practice (keiko). In Japan, between four and five million people practice Kendo in schools, workplaces, and police station, as well as in dojos.

Present day Kendo is a technique where enables a strike to be executed on an opponent in a previously determined spot, by means of a shinai (bamboo sword). In this sense, Kendo may be likened to a modern sport. However, we should also retain the spirit of Kendo, which has survived though the ages as an unbroken tradition. The original motto of Kendo was “Victory means survival, defeat means death”. Although today this is not be taken literally, it is important to adopt a serious attitude toward the practice of Kendo, with the aim of forming a rounded human being, incorporating physical, spiritual, and social development.

Below are some hints which may be helpful for the understanding of Kendo practice:

  1. In the dojo, dispense with any easy sense of camaraderie. As long as you are wearing the men (mask), the opponent must be perceived as the enemy, and keiko (practice) carried out as a one-on-one confrontation.
  2. It should be recognized that each person has this or her own style and philosophy of Kendo which should be respected while still maintaining a sense of harmony in the group.
  3. Keiko should be carried out with the whole self – spirit (kihaku), physical strength, and technique.
  4. Each keiko, and each strike delivered during keiko, should be performed as if it were the one and only chance you have.
  5. Through keiko, strive hard to develop the self.
  6. Improve your Kendo by devoting yourself to keiko for its own sake.

It should always be remembered that Kendo is not something you know, but rather something you enjoy learning. Kendo is therefore something you become good at unconsciously, over a period of time.

Adopt a Generous and Liberal Attitude toward Your Opponent

Despite passing through various stages of development, the essence (honshitsu) of Kendo has remained constant: one person faces another, ready with the shinai, mind meets mind, and the opponents strike. By training one’s spirit and performing keiko correctly, honestly, and full of vigor, an ennobling of human nature takes place.

This may initially appear paradoxical, for how can human nature be ennobled by the act of looking for an opponent’s unguarded moment and execute a strike?

To appreciate this it should be realized that Kendo today is practiced in an environment removed from the everyday world. The act of attacking and parrying is carried out with the implicit understanding that on one actually intents to kill or wound an opponent. Rather, in engaging in such an act, opponents both compete and cooperate and to recognize his or her human nature, while at the same time resisting with all your might. In this way, each can ennoble the human nature of the other. Competition rules exist precisely to help maintain this vital balance.

In addition, while winning a match is important in Kendo, it is equally important to conquer yourself in the difficult situation in which you are placed. In other words, it is essential when learning Kendo to form a spirit of self-denial, which will lead to an ennobling of the self.

Women and Kendo

The number of women taking up Kendo in the U.S. today exceeds the figure for men. Furthermore, it is predicted that this trend will continue into the next century, so that eventually more women than men will be practicing Kendo. Although the reasons for this are unclear, it would seem that Kendo offers women something that other martial arts do not.

Large numbers of women have long been attracted to such martial arts as Judo and Aikido, often out of a desire to equip themselves with some form of self-defence skills. Kendo, however, requiring the use of specialized armour, does not fit into this category of martial art. It must be assumed, therefore, that women are taking it up for other reasons, some of them no doubt similar to those cited by women in Japan who practice Kendo. Not only does Kendo help to relieve stress and bring about a feeling of physical and mental well-being – many other sports may do this just as well – but it also teaches assertiveness. Moreover, this can be cultivated in a non-threatening environment since, unlike the case of most other martial arts, the use of armour in Kendo means that no actual body contact takes place.

It should be stressed that the Kendo practiced by women is exactly the same in every way as that practiced by men. Since the basis of Kendo is not physical strength but correct waza (technique) and proper mental attitude, it is equally suitable for both men and women, and the current trend in the U.S. is therefore extremely encouraging.

Hiroshi Ozawa. Kendo – The definitive guide. Kodansha International, 1997.

The Concept of Kendo

The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Katana (sword).

The Purpose of Practicing Kendo

The purpose of practicing Kendo is:
To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.
This will make one be able:
To love his/her country and society,
To contribute to the development of culture
And to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples.

(The Concept of Kendo was established by All Japan Kendo Federation in 1975.)

“The Mindset of Kendo Instruction” and its explanation*
* Translation of‘Kendo Shido no Kokoro Gamae (The Mindset of Kendo Instruction)’ and its explanation in Japanese

(The Significance of the Shinai)
For the correct transmission and development of Kendo, efforts should be made to teach the correct way of handling the shinai in accordance with the principles of the sword.
Kendo is a way where the individual cultivates one’s mind (the self) by aiming for shin-ki-ryoku-itchi (unification of mind, spirit and technique) utilizing the shinai. The “shinai-sword” should be not only directed at one’s opponent but also at the self. Thus, the primary aim of instruction is to encourage the unification of mind, body and shinai through training in this discipline.
(Reiho – Etiquette)
When instructing, emphasis should be placed on etiquette to encourage respect for partners, and nurture people with a dignified and humane character.
Even in competitive matches, importance is placed on upholding etiquette in Kendo. The primary emphasis should thus be placed on instruction in the spirit and forms of reiho (etiquette) so that the practitioner can develop a modest attitude to life, and realize the ideal of koken-chiai (the desire to achieve mutual understanding and betterment of humanity through Kendo.)
(Lifelong Kendo)
While providing instruction, students should be encouraged to apply the full measure of care to issues of safety and health, and to devote themselves to the development of their character throughout their lives.
Kendo is a “way of life” that successive generations can learn together. The prime objective of instructing Kendo is to encourage the practitioner to discover and define their way in life through training in the techniques of Kendo. Thus, the practitioner will be able to develop a rich outlook on life and be able to put the culture of Kendo into use, thereby benefitting from its value in their daily lives through increased social vigour.

All Japan Kendo Federation. Concept of Kendo. 2009.

The History of Kendo

When looking back into the History of Kendo, there are several fundamental points that cannot be overlooked.

The first point is the advent of the Japanese sword. The Japanese sword that emerged in the middle of the 11th Century (middle of the Heian Era?794-1185? ) had a slightly arched blade with raised ridges (called Shinogi). Its original model was presumably handled by a tribe that specialized in cavalry battles in northern Japan during the 9th century. Since then, this sword was used by the Samurai and production technology advanced rapidly during the period of early Samurai-government reign (end of the Kamakura Era in the 13th Century). In this manner, it is not an exaggeration to say that both its wielding techniques using Shinogi which produced the expression of Shinogi-wo-kezuru, engaging in fierce competition and the Japanese sword were Japanese born products.

After the Onin War occurred in the latter half of the Muromachi Era (1392-1573), Japan experienced anarchy for a hundred years. During this time, many schools of Kenjutsu were established. In 1543, firearms were brought to Tanegashima (Island located off the southern tip of Japan). The Japanese sword was made using the Tatarafuki casting method with high quality iron sand obtained from the riverbed. However, it did not take long before large quantities of firearms were made successfully using this high quality iron sand and the same casting method to produce swords. As a result, the heavy-armored battling style that prevailed up to then changed dramatically to a lighter hand-to-hand battling style. Actual battling experiences resulted in advanced development and specialization of sword-smithing as well as the establishment of more refined sword-handling techniques and skills that have been handed down to the present through the various schools such as the Shinkage-ryu and Itto-ryu.

Japan began to experience a relatively peaceful period from the beginning of the Edo Era (1603-1867). During this time, techniques of the Ken(the Japanese sword) were converted from techniques of killing people to one of developing the person through concepts such as the Katsunin-ken which included not only theories on strong swordsmanship, but also concepts of a disciplinary life-style of the Samurai. These ideas were compiled in books elaborating on the art of warfare in the early Edo Era. Examples of these include: “Heiho Kadensho (The Life-giving Sword)” by Yagyu Munenori; “Fudochi Shinmyoroku (The Unfettered Mind )” by Priest Takuan which was a written interpretation of Yagyu Munenori’s “Ken to Zen (Sword and Zen)” written for Tokugawa Iemitsu, Third Shogunate for the Tokugawa Government; and “Gorin-no-sho (The Book of Five Rings)” by MiyamotoMusashi. Many other books on theories of swordsmanship were published during the middle and latter half of the Edo Era. Many of these writings have become classics and influence many Kendo practitioners today.

What these publications tried to convey to the Samurai was how to live beyond death. These teachings were to be used for everyday life. The Samurai studied these books and teachings daily, lived an austere life, cultivated their minds, and devoted themselves to the refinement of Bujutsu, learned to differentiate between good and evil, and learned that in times of emergency they were ready to sacrifice their lives for their Han (clan) and feudal lord. In present day terms, they worked as bureaucrats and soldiers. The Bushido spirit that evolved during this time, developed during a peaceful 246 years of the Tokugawa period. Even after the collapse of the feudal system, this Bushido spirit lives on in the minds of the Japanese.

On the other hand, as peaceful times continued, while Kenjutsu developed new graceful techniques of the Ken created from actual sword battling skills, NaganumaShirozaemon-Kunisato of the Jiki-shinkage-ryu school developed a new foundation in techniques of the Ken. During the Shotoku Era (1711-1715) Naganuma developed the of Kendo-gu (protective equipment) and established a training method using the Shinai (bamboo-sword). This is the direct origin of present day Kendo discipline. Thereafter, during the Horeki Era (1751-1764), NakanishiChuzo-kotake of Itto-ryu started a new training method using an iron Men (headgear) and Kendo-gu made of bamboo, which became prevalent among many schools in a short period of time. In the Kansei Era (1789-1801), inter-school competition became popular and Samurai traveled beyond their province in search of stronger opponents to improve their skills.

In the latter half of the Edo Era (beginning of the 19th Century), new types of equipment were produced such as the Yotsuwari Shinai (bamboo swords united by tetramerous bamboo). This new Shinai was more elastic and durable than the Fukuro Shinai (literally, bag-covered bamboo sword) which it replaced. Also, a Do (body armor) that was reinforced by leather and coated with lacquer was introduced. During this time, three Dojos that gained great popularity became to be known as the “Three Great Dojos of Edo.” They were: Genbukan led by Chiba Shusaku; Renpeikan led by Saito Yakuro; and Shigakkan led by Momoi Shunzo. Chiba attempted to systematize the Waza (techniques) of bamboo sword training by establishing the “Sixty-eight Techniques of Kenjutsu” which were classified in accordance with striking points. Techniques such as the Oikomi-men and Suriage-men and other techniques that were named by Chiba are still used today.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Samurai class was dissolved and the wearing of swords was prohibited. As a result, many Samurai lost their jobs and Kenjutsu declined dramatically. Thereafter, the Seinan Conflict which occurred in the 10th Year of the Meiji Era (1877) was an unsuccessful resistance movement of Samurai against the Central Government that seemed to give an indication of Kenjutsu’s recovery mainly among the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. In the 28th Year of the Meiji Era (1829), the Dai-Nippon Butoku-Kai was established as the national organization to promote Bujutsu including Kenjutsu.? At around the same time in 1899, “Bushido” was published in English which was considered a compilation of Samurai’s thoughts and philosophy. It was influential internationally.

In the First Year of Taisho (1912), the Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kendo Kata (later renamed to Nippon Kendo Kata) was established using the word Kendo. The establishment of the Kendo Kata provided for the unification of many schools to enable them to pass on to later generations the techniques and spirit of the Japanese sword, and to remedy improper use of hands which had been caused by bamboo sword training and to correct inaccurate strikes which were not at the right angle to the opponent. It was thought that the Shinai (bamboo sword) was to be treated as an alternative of the Japanese sword. And, in the Eighth Year of Taisho (1919), Nishikubo Hiromichi consolidated the original objectives of Bu (or in other words Samurai) under the names of Budo and Kendo since they conformed to them.

After the Second World War, Kendo was suspended for a while under the Occupation of the Allied Forces. In 1952, however, when the All Japan Kendo Federation was established, Kendo was revived. Kendo presently plays an important role in school education and is also popular among the young and old, men and women alike. Several million Kendo practitioners of all ages enjoy participating in regular sessions of Keiko (Kendo training).

Furthermore, Kendo is gaining interest all around the world, and more and more international practitioners are joining the Kendo world. The International Kendo Federation (FIK) was established in 1970 and the first triennial World Kendo Championships (WKC) was held in the Nippon Budokan in the same year. In July 2003, the 12th WKC was held in Glasgow, Scotland. Kendo practitioners from forty-one different countries and regions participated.

All Japan Kendo Federation. The History of Kendo. 2009.