What is Kendo?
‘Ken’ means sword and ‘Do’ is the way, so Kendo, translates literally to mean ‘The way of the sword’ - it is a modern Japanese martial art which provides a number of challenges – both physical and psychological.
Kendo developed from Kenjutsu/swordmanship but it is very different from the more violent origins which involved fierce and often fatal sword battles between samurai warriors.
Kendo practioners are known as Kendoka which simply translates into ‘one who practices Kendo’. They are sometimes referred to as Kenshi (swordsman).
Kendo can be noisy when compared to other martial arts, as practitioners will shout (kiai) when striking in order to demonstrate their combative spirit. During a strike they also perform a fumikomi-ashi, which is like a stomp forward and reduces the gap between the striker and their opponent.
Whilst this is also used in other martial arts, it remains unclear when it was first introduced to Kendo. It is thought in some quarters that it may have been after the Bogu was created as this extra protection enabled the practitioners to ‘jump in’ when performing an attacking strike.
Modern Kendo involves targeted thrusts and strikes at specific areas including the wrists, head and body - these are protected by armour. Due to the danger of performing certain strikes and thrusts some are not permitted during practice and competition events.
There are various techniques which can be used in Kendo, and these are split into ‘strike initiation’ known in Japan as shikake-waza; or ‘response to a strike’, which is referred to as ōji-waza - counter attacks which can be used after responding to or avoiding a strike from an opponent.
These techniques are often practiced individually by a Kendoka with a motodachi (one who receives strikes) and this needs a lot of patience as you start slowly then build up speed as you improve and your confidence increases.
In competition, points are scored for an accurate strike or thrust on a target area of an opponent.
Where did Kendo originate from?
Kendo is the art of Japanese Samurai Swordmanship, where mastering the sword was often the difference between life and death.
But Kendo is more than defeating your opponent, it is a way of training one’s mind and this unwavering spirit continues to shine brightly in the Kendo art today.
It is difficult to trace back the origins of Kendo to a sole person or a specific date in time.
For hundreds of years Japanese swordsmen started Kenjutsu (the ancestor of Kendo) schools, which form the basis of Kendo as it is practiced now.
In the modern era, Kendo uses Shinai which are bamboo swords and Bogu, protective armour, which is worn over traditional style Japanese clothing. This was instigated around 1711 and 1715 (the Shotoku era) by Naganuma Shirōzaemon Kunisato who devised a training style using the Shinai. Naganuma worked closely to improve the bogu with his father, Heizaemon right up to Heizaemon’s passing away.
By using the Shinai and Bogu the Kendoka can strike fully without the risk of causing serious injury which was commonplace in the Samurai era.
As a result, new rules and formats had to be introduced and these paved the way for the establishment of modern Kendo.
Kendo saw a major downturn during 1868 with Japan emerging as a modern nation in the new world under Emperor Meiji. This saw the abolishment of the Samurai and the outlawing of public sword wearing.
The decline was short-lived though and in 1887 interest in Kendo began to rise again as the police needed training to combat the unrest and revolts against the authorities.
As a result, 1895 saw the creation of the Butokukai organization which was dedicated to the martial arts.
Then in the early 20th century, Kendo became part of the curriculum for P.E. in middle schools and in 1912 a set of Kendo rules and regulations known as the ‘Nihon Kendo Kata’ was written.
Following the second world war, Kendo was banned and the Butokukai was broken up due to its military and national associations but in 1952 Kendo followers managed to get Kendo re-instated into schools as a pure sport called Shinai Kyogi which omitted the rougher and more military elements of Kendo.
The All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF or ZNKR) was created in 1952 on the basis that Kendo would be promoted as an educational sport rather than a martial art and it is practiced as such today throughout Japan and the rest of the world.
According to the All Japan Kendo Federation and its register of dan graded members (the ‘Kodansha Meibo’) in 2007 there were almost 1.5million registered Kendoka that were dan graded in Japan. The AJKF estimates there are around 1.7million Kendoka in Japan and over 6 million in total throughout the world.