By Jeff Broderick, U. of Guelph, Canada
With special thanks to Kim Taylor
Despite its history as one of Japan's oldest, most respected and most widespread martial arts with over 10,000,000 participants in that country alone, kendo ("the way of the sword") has, until the last couple decades, kept a relatively low profile in North America. Recently, however, it has shown signs of gaining momentum here and abroad, with participants numbering over 200,000 outside of Japan.
The general public's awareness of kendo stands to receive a boost this year, as the United States has the honor of hosting the 11th World Kendo Championships. In March, kendoka from all over the world will converge on Santa Clara, California to compete and participate in seminars and goodwill exhibitions with some of Japan's leading kendo exponents. The World Championships are held every three years, with the last three taking place in Toronto, Canada (1991); Paris, France (1994); and Kyoto, Japan (1997). Japan traditionally dominates these events, but strong teams are being fielded by many countries including Korea, Canada, and the United States.
Kendo on the World Stage
The umbrella organization for kendo the world over is the International Kendo Federation (IKF) which oversees approximately 30 national organizations. Among these are the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei (ZNKR, or AJKF: All Japan Kendo Federation) and in North America, the All U.S. Kendo Federation (AUSKF) and the Canadian Kendo Federation (CKF). As a martial art and as a sportive activity, kendo enjoys a worldwide unity rare among budo styles, with one main governing body and very few "splinter" organizations. This allows for a great deal of co-operation and international exchange.
How is Kendo played?
Participants in kendo wear bogu or armor consisting of a men (head protector), do (chest plate), kote (gloves with wrist guards), and tare (groin and thigh protector). They wield a bamboo shinai which is a specifically-designed weapon which simulates a sword but prevents injuries by being composed of four staves of flexible bamboo wrapped in a leather handle and bound with leather strings.
Matches are typically set for five minutes, with the winner being the first person to score two points within that time period. Sudden-death overtimes are played when time elapses with the players tied. Points can be scored on any of four places: the top of the head (men), the wrist (kote), the abdomen (do), or a thrust to the throat (tsuki). To be valid, a point must be struck along with a visible demonstration of movement and a shout or kiai which shows the player's spirit. In kendo, it is said that one strives for "ki ken tai ichi" or "spirit, sword, and body as one." All three elements must be present to score a point in a match, and three judges must agree that a particular point is good before it is awarded to the player. Simultaneous strikes nullify each other, so it is not uncommon to see players attack repeatedly without scoring clear points.
In the middle ages, swordsmanship in Japan came to be codified into classical sword schools, or ryuha, which taught many different techniques for using the katana. At that time, training was conducted with actual swords, or with bokuto: wooden swords which were only slightly less lethal than their sharpened counterparts. Even with a wooden weapon, it would not be unheard-of to have students killed or maimed in the course of practice.
Most teachers soon realized that students needed a blade which was less dangerous than the bokuto if they were to practice without restraints on their technique. The earliest form of the bamboo shinai was probably developed by Hikida Bungoro (approx. 1537-1606) of Hikida Ryu (Hikida-Kage Ryu). This weapon was almost like a bokuto in its weight and stiffness.
Kamiizumi Ise no Kami (1508-78), founder of the Shin-Kage Ryu and Yamada Heizaemon (d 1578), founder of Jikishin-Kage Ryu, both used a form of shinai in their training. Even at this early date Yamada was experimenting with head and arm protection. The shinai was also used in the Maniwa Nen Ryu and in the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu.
By 1711 the Jikishin-Kage ryu was regularly using "shinai-geiko" or shinai practice to supplement the Kaho (kata) practice that is associated with bokuto training. Naganuma Shirozaemon introduced some armour to the regular practice in this same era. Nakanishi Chuta of Edo (about 1750), a follower of the Ono-ha Itto Ryu, was a student of Ono Chuichi and eventually founded the Nakanishi-ha Itto-ryu. Chuta improved the practice sword, and invented the kote to protect the wrists since his style emphasized strikes to this target. The new sword was a shinai of bamboo reeds, 16 to 32 strips, covered with cloth. It was roughly the same weight as the live sword.
By 1760 swordsmen had three training choices, the katana, the bokuto, and the shinai. In 1765-1770 Nakanishi invented the modern "do" chest protector and then the four piece shinai with leather tsuba. Today, kendo shinai have lengths of up to 3'8".
Later developments in protection were the "tare" or hip protector and the "men" or helmet. Soon some 300 positions were being taught in the new art. After 1780 these were reduced to about 100. In the 1800s there were more than 500 ryu practicing "shinai-geiko" as the art became popular with the non-samurai classes.
Modern kendo was established in its present form shortly after the Second World War. The system has six kyu and 10 dan grades, and it takes from 2 to 6 years to reach the shodan level. All dan grades require a minimum age as well as minimum time from the last grading. After 5 dan a kendoist may be awarded the title of Renshi, after 7 dan, Kyoshi and after 8, Hanshi. These are special titles called shogo and require minimum ages as well as minimum rank.
Like Judo, but unlike western fencing, kendo includes aspects that are not strictly sport. The governing bodies are very concerned that kendo practice not lose the budo aspect to become strictly sport-oriented. Competitions are organized into rank divisions but not weight or height classes. In addition, there are provisions for training students in the manner of classical sword schools.
The Kendo-no-kata are a set of ten "forms" which teach the fundamentals of the sword in the same manner as the old schools. The kata are set partner practices and include long sword against long sword as well as short sword against long. The kata teach timing, distance, and especially blade control using either wooden or metal blades instead of the competition shinai. Since a point cannot be made in competition without proper hand, blade and edge control being apparent to the referees, this type of kata practice with "real" blades is necessary to all kendo competitors.
Kendo's "representative forms of Iaido" the Seitei Gata Iai, are based largely on the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and the Muso Shinden Ryu traditions. The ten forms are, however, distinctive to Kendo and are intended to reflect the movements of Kendo no Kata. Students study Iaido to gain experience in using the live blade, and they are also encouraged by the All Japan Kendo Federation (ZNKR) to study an old school of iai.
The short staff (about 4 feet long) or jo is a weapon that has been closely associated with the sword since the 1500s. The Kendo "representative forms" or Seitei Gata Jo are based on the teachings of the Shindo Muso Ryu and include basic exercises as well as two man forms of staff against sword. Jodo is not as widely practiced in Kendo as is Iaido, but all three arts are considered complementary and are contained under the aegis of the ZNKR.
While kendo has strong sportive and competitive aspects, its leading proponents are firm on the point that kendo is a true budo. Enlightenment can be obtained through hard practice, and there is a strong emphasis on personal spiritual development. All classes begin and end with a period of mokuso or meditation, during which players clear their minds of worldly concerns. The ultimate point of doing kendo, as stated by the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei ("All Japan Kendo Federation") is much more than merely winning or losing, but rather:
To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for Improvement in the art of Kendo;
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.
Thus will one be able to love his country and society,
To contribute to the development of culture,
And to promote peace and prosperity among all people.
High ideals, indeed. To find out more about kendo in your region visit these links:
Mr. Tim Yuge
P.O. Box 2004
Lomita, CA 90717
Fax: 310-326-2982 or 213-740-5737
"If telephoning from outside the U.S.": 310-326-2982