Kendo; a Japanese martial art and sport with swords

Japan has a proud martial arts tradition. Amidst the many martial arts originating from Japan, the major and most well-known ones include aikido, judo, kendo and kempo. Of those four, kendo is an interesting martial art; instead of throws, grappling and close quarter moves with an opponent, it involves bamboo swords and is considered more of a sport than a martial art.

Kendo (Way of the Sword) is both a modern and old martial art. Developed in the 20th century, it is descended from the traditional Japanese art of swordsmanship (kenjutsu). Widely practiced globally today, it is a mentally and physically challenging martial art that combines martial art philosophy with strenuous, sports based physical activity.

Originating several hundred years ago in Japan, several aspects of kendo have changed over time- but the essentials and the ethos remain unchanged. The formal exercises used in kendo practice (kata), for example, were used by warriors for kenjutsu practice, and are still used today, albeit modified.

Much later on, in 1895, the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (DNBK) was established in Kyoto to preserve traditional martial ways and teachings (bujutsu). Additionally, it was set up to promote and encourage bushido, the “way of the warrior” literally, or a term for the samurai way of life. The DNBK also changed the name of the sporting from of swordsmanship that had developed, gekiken (“hitting sword”), to kendo in 1920. Today, the DNBK has a more research and promotional role, as opposed to management.

During the Second World War, the Allies banned martial arts in Japan. When this was lifted in 1952 upon Japan regaining its independence, the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF) was founded. The AJKF saw kendo more as a sport than a martial art- something which continues to this day.

Internationally, many national kendo organisations have been founded. The International Kendo Federation (FIK) was established to be a link between national organisations and Japan. Upon its foundation in 1970, there were 17 national organisations; there are now 53 such national organisations, a testament to the promotional work of the FIK, and the kendo’s popularity.

Kendo; what’s it all about?

The concept of kendo very much reflects its origins. According to the AJKF, the overall concept is to “discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana.”

The kendo ideology, as set out by the AJKF, revolves around self improvement physically and mentally to better promote inner and external peace and harmony, for personal fulfillment and for the good of society.

Kendoka in action
Kendoka in action

Today, kendo practitioners are known as kendōka (“someone who practices kendo”). Kendo’s popularity is evident by the way the AJKF estimates that there are 1.66 million active kendōka, with the  Kodansha Meibo (a register of dan graded kendōka) showing that there were 1.48 million dan graded kendōka in 2007. Those figures are just from Japan, and do not reflect the global and rising popularity of the sport!

Specialist equipment and clothing is required for kendo. A bogu (suit of protective armour) is worn, with a jacket underneath, and a helmet with a metal grille (men). The sword used today is called a shinai. Representing a traditional Japanese sword, it is made from bamboo and is held together by leather straps. Sometimes, bokuto (hard wooden swords) are also used when practicing kata. Contrary to other martial arts, kendo is actually quite noisy. When striking, kendōka shout to express their fighting spirit, and make an action similar to a stamp (fumikomi-ashi).

Modern kendo techniques use both strikes and thrusts. Strikes, with either the edge or the tip of the sword,  are only made towards specific body areas which are protected by the armour. Thrusts are only allowed to the throat (similarly protected by the helmet). Situational awareness (zanshin) must be shown by kendōka during strikes, and they must be ready to attack again immediately.

Practicing kata

Kendo is very formulaic, and is based on kata, fixed techniques and patterns used in training by swordsmen of old. Kata teaches basic principles of swordsmanship, in both attacking and counter attacking, and there are ten basic kata techniques. These are usually taught using wooden practice swords (bokken; similar to those used in aikido), before the student graduates onto using the traditional shinai. Kata techniques are either shikake-waza (initiating a strike) or ōji-waza (responding to an attempted strike). Mastering such moves takes time and patience, as confidence, efficiency and speed is slowly built up. Stamina and alertness are also built up.

Quite often, the opponent’s weakness, either physical or mental, are used against them, or may end up off balance, and any weaknesses in their attacks are ruthlessly exploited in a counter attack. Skilled kendōka also use surprise attacks to great effect, or launch an attack whilst their opponent is concentrating on their own attack. Another technique is to attack just after a (failed) attack from your opponent, whilst they are still gathering themselves after their attack. As such, awareness is very important in kendo, as is the mental ability to think quickly and to guess your opponent’s actions. In addition to attacking moves, counter attacks and responses to attacks are also taught- most of which are aggressive as opposed to passive!

Kendo is very much a martial art based on past traditions. However, it is also very much a modern sport. It is that blend of old and new which makes it a very dynamic martial art to study. For the student, it is very fast paced, very active, and involves physical stamina and abilities as well as a good sense of awareness. Mental abilities such as discipline, self control, and quick thinking are also needed, as is a fighting spirit. In common with most Japanese martial arts, a certain sense of humility, self improvement and self awareness are also learned by the student.

Although not as well known as its cousins aikido and karate, kendo is an exciting and different martial art to learn. More of a sport than a martial art, but with a martial art philosophy, this fast paced martial art is perfect for those who want to try something different, have fun, and get fit along the way. Although hard, all that is required of the novice is enthusiasm, fighting spirit and energy; the rest will come over time.

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