Fencing might be a Western creation, but the Japanese have Kendo – a martial art deeply ingrained in the land of the Samurai. Roughly translated into “the way of the sword,” Kendo isn’t only an educational sport but a way of life for practitioners to value personal growth, self-discipline, and respect. Unsurprisingly, millions of people practice this ancient art even in the 21st century.
Join us in this article as we explore the world of Kendo, the tools it requires, and the techniques that practitioners aim to master. We’ll also look into the fundamentals and rules associated with competitive Kendo, including the benefits you can derive from this martial art.
The History of Kendo
Let’s begin answering, “What is Kendo?” by appreciating its origins.
Scholars consider the Age of the Samurai spanned between 1185 and 1868, making some people believe Kendo developed around this time. However, this martial art predates the Katana by several centuries, especially between the 3rd and 4th centuries. It coincided with the period when sword fighting began in the archipelago.
Kendo achieved martial art status in the mid-19th century during the late-Edo Period, combining several “fighting Samurai” methods (Kenjutsu) from each Japanese province. The 21st-century Kendo drew inspiration from Hokoshin Itto-ryu, Akanishiha Itto-ryu, and Jikishinkage-ryu.
The following personalities contributed to the development of modern-day Kendo.
- Naganuma Shirozaemon – invented the Shinai Kendo sword and Kendo protective equipment in the early 18th century
- Nakanishi Chuta – developed a 4-segment Shinai we still use today
- Chiba Shusaku Narimasa – popularized the Kendo fencing style
The year 1877 saw the end of the Samurai, but not Kendo. As the “way of the sword,” the Meiji government used Kendo principles to instill discipline in the police while venerating Japanese culture and tradition.
Valuing the teachings of the Kendo, early 20th-century Japanese educators included Kendo in the curriculum to imbibe unquestioning obedience and loyalty to the Emperor and strengthen the sense of nationalism in Japanese youth.
Kendo was scrapped in the educational curriculum after World War II but was revived in 1952 with the increasing popularity of the sword sport Shiani Kyogi. This event paved the way for the establishment of the All-Japanese Kendo Federation Association, eliminating previous Kendo techniques deemed harmful or injurious.
This Kendo is what persists today.
Benefits of Kendo
Although the modern Kendo no longer teaches many “fighting styles of the Samurai warrior,” it remains instrumental in helping practitioners (Kendoki) derive the following benefits.
Like the legendary Samurai, Kendoki will strengthen their mental fortitude, concentration, discipline, and perseverance. These attributes enable Kendo students to focus their mental energies on combating everyday stress, allowing them to excel in many facets of modern living.
Although fictionalized, Tom Cruise’s character “Capt. Nathan Algren” in the film “The Last Samurai” sums up the Samurai warrior’s land and everyday practices as nothing short of “spiritual.” The calmness of spirit, courtesy, respect, mental clarity, and etiquette are core to the Samurai world. These attributes are also central in Kendo training.
Make no mistake. Kendo training can be brutally demanding. It demands Kendoki to be agile and flexible. They must possess unending vigor and stamina while requiring coordination of lightning-quick movements without losing balance. These requirements might seem easy, but try doing it with the mental focus of a Samurai, and it becomes challenging.
Learning and appreciating Japanese culture is more engaging with Kendo training than watching informational videos and reading educational materials. It’s a multisensory experience Westerners cannot get anywhere else, allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of the unique traditions and beliefs of the Japanese people.
Like other learning venues, Kendo Dojos are communities where social interaction is revered and valued. It’s not uncommon to form lifelong friendships with other Kendo learners, allowing them to cement formidable social bonds that transcend geopolitical and socioeconomic boundaries.
Although modern Kendo no longer teaches deadly Samurai fighting styles, conditioning the mind and body is sufficient to thwart an attack. You’ll stay calm amid chaos, allowing you to think about how to subdue your opponent and protect yourself and your loved ones.
Now that we understand the many Kendo benefits, it’s time we look at this martial art that venerates the samurai warrior’s indomitable spirit and the way of the sword. Kendo swords are as essential as the Katana of Samurai warriors.
It is worth pointing out that using a razor-sharp Katana to learn and master the “way of the sword” isn’t a good idea, especially with novice or beginner learners. Kendo swords have a straight wooden blade. These training tools don’t have the Katana’s distinct curve and sharp edge. However, Kendo training swords can still inflict pain on someone when it hits a body part, but the blunt edge will not cut or slash.
Although these tools don’t feature the equally mystical Tamahagane steel, Kendo swords remain exceptional works of art and invaluable tools for Kendoki to derive the martial art’s many benefits.
According to the Japanese government, the country is home to 250 bamboo species out of 1,200 worldwide, surpassing India’s 136 but falling short of China’s 861. Still, bamboo remains one of Japan’s most valuable woods, allowing them to make Shinai Kendo swords for training.
Bamboo is sturdy and durable yet offers enough flexibility to not cause serious harm when a Kendoka strikes it against an opponent. The Shinai is unmistakable. It doesn’t have the Katana sword’s iconic curve, although the Shinai retains some of the Samurai sword’s elements.
The Shinai spans 115 centimeters or 45 inches from the Kashira (the pommel) of the sword’s Tsuba (hilt) to the Kissaki (the blade’s tip). The average Katana is shorter by 15 centimeters or about 6 inches. However, the Shinai’s Tsuka (sword guard) is slightly smaller than a Katana’s. Some Shinai swords are longer or shorter to accommodate the user’s height.
Novice Kendoki use Shinai swords because it’s safer while still giving them the unique “feel” of wielding a legendary tool. It’s the ideal training tool for learning the basics, testing learned skills through sparring, and competing in tournaments.
A Kendoka wielding a Shinai. Photo by AlleSerebrina.
Advanced Kendoki who wish to learn and master the art of Kata can opt for a more robust wooden Kendo sword – the Bokken. This wooden Samurai training sword looks nearly identical to the Tamahagane steel Katana, with its characteristic curve but without the glint of the razor-sharp blade.
Although the Bokken can feature any hardwood species, most Kendo sword manufacturers use red or white oak. Its overall length approximates the steel Katana, spanning the Kashira and Kissaki in 100 to 110 centimeters or 39 to 43 inches.
Kendo tournaments and sparring activities forbid using a Bokken because the hardwood is more likely to cause injuries than a bamboo or softwood Shinai.
Hence, Senseis (teachers) only recommend this Kendo sword for practicing and mastering advanced Kendo techniques, such as defending, sword swinging, and Katana attacking. It can help students hone their skills and other Katana moves they can employ in Shinai tournaments or duels.
A wooden Bokken for Kendo. Photo by BokutoShop.
Bogu, the Kendo Armor
Like fencing, Kendo requires Kendoki to wear a special “uniform” or “armor” (Bogu). Although Shinai Kendo swords cannot slash or cut, they can still hurt when you strike another person without adequate protection. Hence, the sword martial art requires a Kendo armor with the following parts (from head to toe).
This part of the Kendo armor (Bogu) includes a facemask and two shoulder protective flaps. These components protect the Kendoka’s face, head, neck, and shoulders. It consists of the following elements.
The Bogu offers a thick breastplate of leather or padded cloth to protect the torso, including the chest and abdomen.
These Kendo armor components are mitten-like gloves that protect the Kendoka’s hands and forearm without undermining mobility, comfort, and power.
The Tare is a belt-like contraption the Kendoka wraps around the waist, consisting of thick cloth panels the Kendoka secures with built-in ties to wrap around both upper thighs near the groin. The protective flaps hang loose over the groin and both upper legs.
Derived from the words “Keiko” (practice) and “Gi” (dress), the Keikogi is a Kendoka’s training uniform worn under the Bogu. Most Keikogis are indigo because the Japanese believe this color has hemostatic effects and sterilizing properties.
If the Keikogi is the Kendoka’s training uniform upper garment, the Hakama would be the trousers or wide-legged pants. It’s a traditional Japanese clothing with unique characteristics.
- Himo – four straps (Himo) to secure the Hakama; two long straps on the garment’s front side and two short Himos at the back side
- Koshi-ita – a rigid board-like panel at the Hakama’s rear
- Hakama-dome – a spoon-shaped section secured with the short Himo at the rear or tucked under an Obi to fasten the Hakama
The Hakama has five deep pleats (three on the right and two on the left) at the front and two at the back. These pleats represent the seven virtues of the Bushido, including the following.
- Meiyo - honor
- Gi – integrity, justice, and righteousness
- Re – respect and courtesy
- Chugi – duty and loyalty
- Yu – heroic courage
- Jin – compassion, mercy, or benevolence
- Makoto – honesty and sincerity
Kendo armor (Bogu). Photo by BoguShop.
The traditional Japanese call a Kendo training facility a Dojo or “place of the way.” It’s worth pointing out these venues are more than learning the essentials of sword martial arts. It’s also vital in mastering meditation, a central theme in learning Kendo.
Kendo Dojos feature an open and wide wooden floor to accommodate as many Kendoki as possible. It’s like a high school or grade school gymnasium.
Kendo Training Techniques
Learning and mastering different Kendo techniques require Kendoki to wear the correct attire (Bugo, Keikogi, and Hatama).One can train in Kendo all year round. However, traditional Japanese mostly train in the summer (Kangeiko) and winter (Shochugeiko).
Like any training program, Kendo progresses from beginner to advanced, allowing Kendoki to develop the necessary skills and competencies in one stage before advancing to the next.Shinai Training Style
This Kendo training program is for beginners and some advanced Kendoki who want to master the basics. Senseis teaching the Shinai style focus on the following Kendoki skills and activities.
- Proper holding and swinging of the Shinai
- Cutting, slashing, and thrusting techniques
- Striking and hitting with the Shinai
- Condition striking (striking with the Shinai over an extended period)
- Dueling and sparring activities
- Tachikiri or standoff practices, where the Sensei tests the limits of the Kendoka’s physical strength
As the name implies, Bokken training requires the Kendoka to use a wooden Bokken instead of bamboo Shinai. This training methodology builds upon the skills in the Shinai stage, allowing Kendoki to practice defensive tactics and sharpen Katana attacks. It includes learning and mastering the following.
- Iaido martial art techniques (the art of drawing a Katana and striking an opponent in one lightning-quick, precise, and fluid motion)
- Basic wooden Katana training methods
- Fundamental Kata movements
Kendo Shinai tournaments require a Kendoka to strike an opponent to score a point, similar to fencing. Initiating an attack requires knowledge and skill of Shikake waza techniques, which include the following.
- Tobikomi waza – exploiting an opening, opportunity, or an opponent’s weakness
- Hikibana waza – the Kendoka feigns to lose balance, luring an opponent into letting his guard down and allowing the Kendoka to deliver a point
- Harai waza – involves striking an opponent’s unarmed (no Shinai) Bugo or the Shinai itself
- Katsugi waza – the Kendoka lifts the Shinai over the opponent’s shoulder in a surprise attack
- Debana waza – requires perfect timing to strike an opponent about to strike
- Nidan waza – creates a second striking opportunity by ensuring the correct rhythm for holding an opponent’s posture and attention or scoring strikes
Just as a Kendoka can initiate a strike, he can also execute a counterattack. These techniques are the Oji waza and include the following.
- Kaeshi waza – parrying the opposing Shinai and flipping it to strike the other Kendoka’s opposite side
- Nuki waza – requires perfect timing to dodge an attack while executing a perfect counter-attack
- Suriage waza – sweeping the opposing Shinai with the counter-attacking Kendoka’s Shinai before striking from the same direction as the original attack
- Uchiotoshi waza – knocking an opposing Kendoka’s Shinai to neutralize the attack while going on the counter-offensive
Kendoki sparring in a Dojo. Photo by Randburg Sun.
Kendo isn’t all about learning and mastering attacks and counterattacks. Senseis emphasize conduct and etiquette (Reiho) among Kendoki because these attributes remain strong in Japanese culture. Hence, Kendoki are expected to observe the following.
- All Kendoki must bow to the Sensei, other Kendoki, and the Dojo.
- All Kendoki must walk and move barefoot in the Dojo and training areas.
- A Kendoka must respect others’ belongings, especially the Bugo, by not jumping over or touching these items.
- Each Kendo training session starts with meditation to help Kendoki relax and calm their spirits and minds.
- All Kendoki must respect dueling or sparring partners, never considering them “enemies.”
Kendo Shinai Tournaments
As mentioned, Kendo is the Japanese equivalent to the West’s fencing. It’s a competitive sport where opposing Kendoki attempt to score points by striking specific areas of the Bugo. The International Kendo Federation formulates and oversees the rules for each Kendo Shinai tournament.
Tournament matches occur in a 9-meter by 11-meter (30-foot by 46-foot) dueling area with white lines forming the perimeter. A match can last three to ten minutes, depending on Kendoki experience and age. A Kendoka only needs three points to win a match, requiring a slashing or thrusting technique on designated point areas, including the following.
- Sides or top of the Men
- Padded areas of the Kote
- Left or right side of the Do
- The Tsuki dare and around the throat
Three referees officiate the Kendo Shinai match, each holding red and white flags corresponding to the Kendoki corner colors. For instance, if the Kendoka in the red corner scores a point, the referee raises the red flag.
Since there are three referees, two must agree to award a point to a Kendoka. It’s not unusual for a Kendo Shinai match to end in a draw.
A Kendoka. Photo by AllaSerebrina.
The Bottom Line
Kendo is one of the world’s most culturally-enriching and safest sword martial arts. The self-discipline it teaches and the respect it inculcates in every Kendoka strengthen the very foundation of modern personhood. Even if one doesn’t compete in a Kendo Shinai tournament, the teachings will reverberate throughout a Kendoka’s lifetime. It empowers the individual to achieve greater things with renewed determination and focus, just as the legendary Samurai warriors once did.