Japanese Kendo: Way of the Sword

Kendo is a modern sword-based fighting sport with ancient roots reaching back to the 18th Century and the Samurai. With quick strikes and calculated pauses, it is an intensely difficult sport to master and a thrilling competition to watch.

Take a peek behind the veil of the past to see this exciting martial art as it persevered across the history of ancient Japan to today.

While much of the world and the equipment produced within it has changed since kendo’s inception from older traditions, it remains a discipline worth considering and a competition worth exploring.

Kenjutsu: Kendo’s Ancient Parent

Kendo is practiced with bamboo swords, padded armor, and protective helmet, but it can trace its lineage back to the art of Kenjutsu.

Kenjutsu was organized as a combative style for training purposes for the Japanese population. While master-craftsman-level swords were difficult to attain, bamboo was plentiful, so as the martial art instructors trained the elite samurai, the simpler infantry was able to benefit from this fighting art.

As often happens with martial arts training practices, competition grew to establish supremacy within the burgeoning artform.

While the bamboo sword and resultant combat training was first introduced in the early 18th century, 

The Business of An Artform

Money played a large role in Kendo’s development from Kenjutsu. Because any man could acquire a bamboo training sword and the armor was much simpler than the expensive sets worn by professional soldiers it grew in popularity.

Because of the large attraction to the art form, a greater pool of talent was available from which masters could draw. Competitions brought more people, and more people resulted in better purses for victors, trainers, and event organizers.

Schools of training began to develop in the mid 19th century. A prominent trainer, Chiba Shūsaku, would develop Hokushin Ittō-ryū, which itself would become two separate disciplines of modern-day Kendo.

Later, in 1876, when the Japanese government would begin its crackdown on the feudal system, demilitarizing the shogunate, and confiscating swords across the Japanese mainland, Kendo practices were maintained.

It was thought that although the Samurai were denied their weaponry, that the local police forces should still remain capable of bringing disciplined but swift control over situations.

Following the defeat of Japan in World War II, all military arts were banned for four years until control was handed back to the Japanese government over their own affairs.

In 1950, Japan brought public Kendo in training and contest back to life. While it is enjoyed as one of the many martial arts birthed in Japan, it boasts millions of practitioners worldwide.

Watching A Kendo Match

Watching the participants in a Kendo match march onto the mats may look like a combination of a Judo competition combined with fencing. The participants, kendōka, wear helmets and special pads.

The helmet and pads were first introduced just after 1708 when its school was taken over by Naganuma Sirozaemon Kunisato. 

The padded armor, created to protect vital areas near the carotid artery, hands, legs, chest, and groin were complimented by the helmet, called “bogu” which is a barred helmet. Much like its fencing counterpart, it allows for vision while protecting eyesight.

Each match is officiated by three judges who will look for a clean strike to one of several areas called datotsu-bui.

If you watch a match, you will see combatants wrap up much like two boxers will wrap up, staying close to preserve energy. However, if a kendōka reaches out and taps his opponent in the head with the sword, no point is awarded.

Scoring

All points require intentionality and form to count toward victory. In order for a fighter to win, he or she must be the first fighter to score two points.

Watching kendo bouts on live-streamed services has created a great deal of wonder for the sport’s spectators as match producers can playback slow-motion videos and demonstrate strikes that the judges saw up close.

Strikes that gain points happen at the speed of a snake strike, so combatants must be well-practiced in the kata forms of kendo, of which there are ten traditional forms. 

Proper Form

The ten kata forms were formulated once Kendo became a police training tool, condensed into the book written by Kawaji Toshiyoshi called Gekkiken Saiko-ron, a sword technique training manual meant to train the once sword-bearing police.

After 1950, when Kendo was allowed to reform, the police no longer carried these weapons, preferring more modern weaponry when it was called for, but the sport remained, nonetheless.

With the ten kata forms, contestants, who practice each form continuously step into the ring and pit their training against one another.

Strikes must involve several factors in order to be counted toward victory. A shout, the kiai, and the foot stomp, the fumikomu, are both required to convince a judge to raise his flag. Stepping out of bounds will stop the match.

Since the sword, or shinai, is round and actual swords are flat, with traditional Japanese swords having only one side bladed, a full hit is only registered by hitting with the manouchi, an area from the tip of the sword to about five inches down from the tip.

Honor and Decorum

Even though Kendo is now an international sport, whose ruling agency sports with affiliates in 41 different countries, it still maintains its original spirit inherited from a Japanese warrior culture.

While precision, grace, poise, and ferocity are rewarded with victory, absolute attention to honor for opponents and grace for a defeated foe is tantamount.

Kendo Championships

The sport has grown popular in the last decade, only taking a break from the international competition out of caution toward the outbreak of Covid in 2020. The international competition will resume in 2022.

The 18th championship, originally slated for 2020 was canceled during the original outbreak of Covid and was postponed again in France, citing both Covid concerns and financial hurdles.

Past hosts of Kendo world championships have been:

  • Japan
  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Brazil
  • France
  • South Korea
  • Canada
  • Chinese Taipei

The 18th championship will take place in France.

For the men’s team competition, Japan has reigned since the inception of the championship in the ’70s, losing the top spot on only one occasion to South Korea, taking bronze, and watching the United States finish with silver.

South Korea has amassed one gold medal, ten silvers, and three bronzes. The United States has taken two silvers and eight bronzes.

In the women’s division, which has been around for the last seven championships, the Japanese women’s team has taken gold in each competition. South Korea has won six silver. Brazil has taken home one silver and three bronze.

All Japan Kendo Federation Official Website

In the 17th championship, the last time the competition was held, the top four women individual competitors were all Japanese competitors, Matsumoto, Yamamoto, Senoo, and Fujimoto.

For the men’s individual competition, the top four were: Ando of Japan, Jo of South Korea, Park of South Korea, and Takenouchi of Japan.

A Timeless Art Form

Kendo’s traditions walk back through history across a checkered past of violence and intrigue, marked by warriors who guarded their lords and their honor with sharpened swords. Along the way, the Japanese everyman was invited to learn the traditional art of Kendo.

World Kendo Federation Official Website

In time, even though swords would be supplanted by modern tools of warfare, the practice of the ancient sword fight lives on through international competition. The tradition of this competition keeps alive the spirit and honor of yesterday in the warrior ethos of tomorrow’s fight.

Kendo World Championship Japan vs USA

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.