Kendo: Japanese Swordsmanship
Kendo is “The Way of Japanese Swordsmanship”. Modern kendo is both an art and an exciting sport. Its roots lie deep in Japanese culture and the spirit of the samurai warrior, known as bushi. Modern kendo is a unique blend of sport and spiritual discipline based on classical kenjutsu. Kendo originated a thousand years ago from kenjutsu an earlier ancestral form of swordsmanship. Kenjutsu is the art of using real swords or “live blades” on the battlefield and traces its origins back to Japan’s ancient martial culture. In fact, history records competitive bouts with swords were held as early as the Heian Period (794-1185).
In the late 1700’s, the shinai or bamboo sword was developed along with the protective equipment used in modern Kendo called dogu. Dogu literally means equipment of “the way”. A branch of the Itto Ryu kenjutsu style developed this equipment. This made it possible for a samurai to be able to practice using full force blows or cuts to his opponent without fear of injuring his training partner. Although this “new system” met with criticism from some of the members of the Itto Ryu style. In fact, some of them left the Ryu or clan because of the use of dogu. Prior to the use of the bamboo shinai and armour, practice was restricted to kata or forms repetition or the dangerous use of real swords. A bokken or solid wooden sword was sometimes used but this proved to be dangerous as well. These were used so that the feeling of applying techniques with a cutting edge could be maintained. In fact, Yagyu Jubei, the grandson of a famous swordsman had his eye poked out with a bokken during practice. The bokken is used in modern kendo for kata practice. The bokken is a solid wooden sword made out of hardwood to resemble the shape, balance and weight of a real sword. As such, it is a dangerous weapon even though it does not have a ‘shinken’ or sharp edge. After all, Musashi Miyamoto, Japan’s greatest swordsman, killed many of his opponent’s with a bokken. In fact, Mushashi prevailed over his archrival, Sasaki Kojiro, using only a bokken.
The innovation of the shinai and dogu made the practice of kendo even more popular. Today this is sometimes referred to as shinai kendo and the practice of kata as koryu or kata kendo. The Japanese government made kendo a part of compulsory education in schools in 1871. In 1909, the first college kendo federation was formed and in 1928 the All Japan Kendo Federation was formed. In 1952 the All Japan Kendo Federation was revitalized and in 1957 the Japanese Ministry of Education officially included a totally sport oriented form of kendo in its school physical education programs. Since then kendo has spread worldwide and has become international in scope. In 1971 the International Kendo Federation was created as the world governing body of kendo. About seven million people practice kendo in Japan and about one million people practice kendo outside of Japan.
Realism in training is a feature of all true Japanese martial arts. Therefore, there is a necessity to wear armor to protect oneself from full force blows. This armor or equipment, collectively known as dogu, consists of the men, kote, do, tare and shinai. The men is a form of headgear which incorporates a metal face mask. The kote are padded gloves or gauntlets which protect the hand and wrist. The do is a leather covered chest protector and the tare is a padded waistband which
covers the hips. A hand towel known as a tenugui is worn under the men to keep sweat out of the eyes during practice. The custom in kendo is give these as gifts or mementos after a practice. The shinai is the practice sword used in modern Kendo. It simulates a real sword with a cutting edge and is made from four strips of bamboo and a leather tip and handle held together by a string. The string runs down the back of the shinai and signifies the dull side of the blade. The split bamboo construction allows the force of the blows to be absorbed by the shinai or dissipate upon contact. If a blow misses the armor and strikes an unprotected part of the body, the leg for instance, because of the construction of the shinai only superficial bruising will occur.
For purposes of sport the number of techniques in kendo is limited. There are eight striking points in Kendo used for scoring. Seven of these simulate cuts and one a thrust. Kendo emphasizes slashing as opposed to European style fencing which emphasizes thrusting. The striking points to the head are men, the top center of the face mask, Hidari Men, Left side of the face mask, Migi men, right side of the face mask. Kote is a strike to the forearm just above the wrist and Hidari kote is a strike to the left forearm. Hidari kote is only permissible when the opponent’s left hand is raised above the shoulder. Do is a strike which simulates a cross cut to the body. Migi do strikes the right side of the chest protector while Hidari do strikes the left side. Usually Hidari Do is prohibited to keep the match a little cleaner. Tsuki is a thrust to the throat flap which is attached to the men headgear. When a strike is made, a Kendoka calls out the point by yelling Men, Kote, Do or Tsuki. This is a form of Kiai or shout releasing spiritual energy. Men is the favored technique. The idea is to catch the opponent totally off guard or unaware with a perfect men technique. This relates to the concept of ken zen itchi, the sword and the mind are one and ki ken tai no ichi, the sword, the body and mind are one. It implies the perfect stroke or cut involves the sword, the body and the mind all coordinated together as elements of one technique. Therefore, the perfect cut must strike the target: Men; Kote; Do or Tsuki with sufficient force at the same time the weight of the body comes down on the lead foot while calling out the name of the strike. “If you don’t call it, it doesn’t count!” Calling out the name of the strike loudly Men, Kote or Do also functions as a Kiai. Also, the lead foot should stomp the floor with a loud stamping sound at the same time as the impact of the technique. This is referred to as fumikomi and emphasizes that the bodyweight has been dropped at the same time the technique was executed.
Kendo training traditionally requires self-discipline and intense exhaustive physical and mental effort. Needless to say, this builds tremendous stamina. It is reported that a certain Ryu required a swordsman to fight “six hundred” matches in order to achieve only a middle level rank in Kendo. It is necessary to train to the point of complete exhaustion in order to improve one’s technique. This develops Ki or internal energy which is very important and stressed in Kendo. The development of Ki allows a superior swordsman to use “inner strength” rather than rely on sheer muscular or somatic force. A Kendoka who relies on muscular force alone soon becomes exhausted and can no longer adequately defend himself. You have to experience this in order to become a believer.
The fighting strategy of modern Kendo lies in speed and the ability to attack the opponent. Mastery is achieved through repetition training in the basic strikes of Kendo. Also, emphasis is placed on footwork. Footwork training called Suburi demands that the Shinai and body be moved in a coordinated manner in order to achieve speed and accuracy. Good sight is also necessary in Kendo. This is necessary in order to detect a flaw in the opponent’s defense. This in itself develops a certain spiritual or intuitive awareness.
There are ten kata utilized in modern Kendo training. Although Kata is not the foremost training method used in Kendo. These Kata consist of two-man sets which use techniques of kenjutsu that have actually been tested in combat with real swords. These two-man kata are called Nihon Kendo Kata and are performed with the bokken or a sword. The Nihon Kendo Kata were formulated as early as 1912 at the Dai Nippon Butokukai (The Greater Japan Martial Virtues Association). These kata make use of the ancient techniques of kenjutsu as adapted to modern kendo, i.e. kiri age (cutting from ground to sky) has been eliminated. In addition to these kata, there are a set of solo exercises or forms called seitei gata. These are called iaido kata which emphasize sword drawing and cutting. These are sword kata derived from Iaijutsu techniques. In 1967, the All Japan Kendo Federation (Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei - ZNKR) formed a committee that developed the first seven of these kata so that kendoka would not lose the feeling of working with a real sword as opposed to practicing with only a bokken or shinai. The committee was made up of members from the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, Muso Shinden Ryu and Hoki Ryu. In 1977, a second committee was formed which included the previously mentioned Ryu and the Tamiya Ryu. At that time, the remaining three kata were added to complete a set of ten kata known as the seitei gata. Some critics of the seitei gata have stated that many of the hundreds of traditional Iaijutsu ryu did not contribute to the design of the seitei gata. However, many Ryu now use the seitei gata as a point of beginning and then practice the kata relevant to their particular Ryu. Therefore, the seitei gata is the most popular way of practicing iaido. Additionally, another organization exists in Japan (in addition to many separate Iaijutsu Ryu) which is called the All Japan Iaido Federation (Zen Nippon Iaido Renmei - ZNIR). This organization was founded inn 1948 and has its own curriculum of kata.
Additionally, the reality of training in swordsmanship in that there are really three critical areas in which training is necessary to become a complete swordsman. The first is training in techniques of attack and defense and engaging in actual keiko or free style sparring practice to develop timing, distance and other innate combative skills. This is modern kendo. The second is training in kata to perfect techniques and the proper form. The third is tamaeshi giri or performing actual test cutting on a target such as bamboo or tatami. Tamaeshi giri practice teaches the actual feeling of cutting and hasuji or the proper angle of engagement in order to make a cut effective. It is necessary to engage in all three types of practice to fully develop as a swordsman.
Modern kendo uses a rank system based on the Kyu/Dan system which was originated by Judo. Kyu ranks are usually from rokkyu (sixth Kyu) upwards through ikkyu (first Kyu). Dan ranks are from Shodan (first Dan) through Judan (tenth Dan). However, let me qualify this by saying there are not to many legitimate tenth dans in kendo. In fact, the highest ranking gaijin (foreigner - non Japanese) in kendo is Dr. Gordon Warner. He is a hachidan (8th Dan) and began his training in 1937. No belts are worn in kendo but it is obvious after a few minutes in a match what the skill level is of the practitioners. It usually takes about two to three years to achieve Shodan in kendo. Kendo is controlled by the All Japan Kendo Federation (Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei) and the International Kendo Federation (Kokusai Kendo Renmei). A world tournament is held every three years. Each participating country has its own federation which is a member of the IKF. All Dan ranks are granted by a promotion board after testing