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Kendo Swordsmanship, Japanese Martial Art of Fencing

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What is Kendo?

Kendo is the Japanese martial discipline of fencing originating from combative techniques of Japanese swordsmanship. The techniques that, over the centuries of modernization, lost practical value, still remained in use for health, educational, spiritual, and sporting purposes and ultimately evolved into the art of modern-day kendo.

In Japanese, there is a myriad of terms referring to swordsmanship: tachihaki, tachihiuchi, heiho, kenjutsu, gekken and so forth. But since the middle of the 20th century, kendo has been pushing all the others out of use.

The non-combative counterpart of kendo is called iaido, which is another modern martial art form developed from traditional Japanese swordsmanship. Iaido, just like kendo, requires both physical and mental discipline.

Japanese swordsman

Japanese swordsman

Japanese Swordsmanship and the Path to modern Kendo

Beginnings of Japanese Swordsmanship

In Japan, the sword has been in use since the 8th century A.D. When sun goddess Amaterasu sent down her grandson to rule over the Japanese islands, one of the sacred items that she gave him was the sword.

In reality, the methods of forging swords reached Japan from the Asian continent by way of the Korean peninsula, with the earliest examples of bronze bladed weapons dating back to the 4th century A.D. These weapons were actually double-edged broad swords resembling those commonly used in the China of the period. They weren't so much powerful weapons as symbols of authority.

Beginnings of the Sword as a weapon

With the improvement of technology that followed, swords became more and more efficient tools of war and fighting. The (in)famous Japanese tachi, the curved sword of the samurai, however, didn't come into existence until the rise of the warrior classes in the 10th century.

Throughout the premodern period of Japan, members of the warrior class and the nobility trained in martial disciplines that required proficiency in a number of different weapons. The samurai, for instance, were much more (in)famous for their archery skills (kyudo) than their use of the sword that was regarded as an auxiliary weapon.

It wasn't until the late 13th-15th centuries, the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, that the methods of sword production attained the level of superiority that Japan is to this day known for. This development coincided with the rise of the warrior classes to power.

Warring States in 16th Century Japan

Warring States in 16th Century Japan

Swordsmanship training for the army

In the 13th century, the Mongol armies of the West invaded Japan. As a consequence, Japanese leaders soon realized that their strategies of warfare were insufficient when it came to withstanding such attacks.

Huge armies employing large numbers of infantries started replacing cavalry units and mounted warfare was about to fade into the past.

The appearance of firearms in the middle of the 16th century rewrote the definition of effective warfare and made the employment of massed armies with units using various types of swords even more timely.

The raging battles of the Warring States Era (1477–1573) saw the rise of many legendary swordsmen who then codified the sword fighting techniques into specific schools, or ryuha.

Codification of Swordsmanship and the establishment of Schools

So it came to pass that by the beginning of the 17th century, after archery, equestrian skills, and other martial art forms, swordsmanship had begun to turn into a codified, organized discipline, with teachings and techniques appearing in writing to facilitate the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student in a fashion found in other martial arts.

Shinto-ryu, Kage-ryu, and Chujo-ryu were among the earliest schools of swordsmanship. By the end of the 19th century and the Tokugawa era the number of Ryoha, or schools, had exceeded 700.

Late Tokugawa Japan

Late Tokugawa Japan

Swordsmanship returning into a peaceful spiritual art

In the Tokugawa period Japan entered a longer period of peace with the demand for warriors declining drastically. Other factors that affected swordsmanship education included fast-paced urbanization and widespread literacy swordsmanship. The Samurai became bureaucrats serving their lords or the Tokugawa bakufu.

The comprehensive martial skills system disintegrated and swordsmanship, archery, lance, and other disciplines were specialized into separate schools. Specialization among teachers also became prevalent, with instructors dispensing certificates of mastery in return for compensation.

As Confucian and Zen Buddhist learning appeared in more and more places, the exploration of the philosophical aspects of disciplines, or waza, and mental awareness, or shin, contributed to the fact that swordsmanship was viewed as an essential part of samurai training.

Yagu Munenori’s Heiho kadensho, Takuan’s Fudochi shimmyoroku, and Miyamoto Musashi’s Gorin no sho along with many other texts explaining the spiritual side of the art of swordsmanship were written in this period from the 16th to 19th centuries. 

Sword and Flower

Sword and Flower

Voices against impractical swordsman training

Due to the unusual conditions of peace, swordsmen were trained primarily through the repetition of forms, known as kata, often far removed from practical battlefield skills. Swordsman training became a closed and secretive society with matches between different schools strongly discouraged or made impossible.

The number of kata increased as more and more new schools sprang up out of the peripheral branches of old ones. The practice of focusing on kata was often criticized as "flowery swordsmanship," without combat practicality.

Finally, the unseemly conditions of mud-throwing and mockery invited the development of bamboo swords and body armour that allowed practitioners to actually strike each other in simulated combat, named shinai uchikomi keiko. These new developments signaled the arrival of competitive fencing games that became dominant by the end of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Training halls, or dojos, were set up in larger cities as well as the domain schools of most lords. The passion of competitive fencing left the samurai behind and splashed onto common townspeople and even farmers in rural areas.

This was the renaissance of martial arts, and swordsmanship in particular, as popularity sky-rocketed in the wake of hostile intrusions into Japanese lands in the middle of the 19th century. Local domain academies and the Tokugawa bakufu founded martial arts training grounds for their warriors. 


The Birth of Kendo

At its institute for martial skill development, or Kobusho, the bakufu appointed famous fencers from ryuha practicing combat fencing to train its vassals, as opposed to its own shogunal fencing instructors, who were preoccupied with kata training.

If you read my hub on Iaido, the non-combative counterpart of kendo, which explains what kata meant for practitioners of Iaido, you will see that the followers of both disciplines (iaido and kendo) took extreme caution not to get involved in the ways of the "impure" other art.

With the overthrow of the Tokugawa regime in the middle of the 19th century we arrive at a period when most warrior leaders in charge of the insurrection, along with major supporters of the old regime, considered combat fencing a superior form of swordsmanship. Their views with regard to how sword training should be executed laid the foundation for the development of modern kendo.

Why the Tokugawa regime collapsed.

Why the Tokugawa regime collapsed.

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History of modern Kendo

After the overthrew of the the Tokugawa regime a period of quick modernization followed, called the Meiji Restoration. The right to carry swords was abolished and the samurai class went down the drain.

Swordsmanship educators were fired as interest in the art fell drastically in favor of modern weapons of warfare. It was only the traditional organizations that kept swordsmanship over the surface thus helping its transformation into modern-day kendo.

The rise of modern Kendo

Sakikibara Kenkichi founded a performance company, or gekken kaisha, and a gathered together former martial art instructors as well as skilled fencers.

The company showed up in places all over Japan, holding competitive games before what was left of the curious audiences of the past. They also revealed and spread once op secret knowledge among a broader populace.

Another phenomenon that contributed to the formation of kendo as we know it was that the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, after seeing success with swords and pole weapons in the Seinan War of the late 1870s, began to standardize training in swordsmanship, get rid of differences between traditional schools, regularized kata, and promote kendo in general.

At the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto, a Heian Shrine was erected in the city and to honor this event a martial arts hall named Butokuden was founded along with the Dainippon Butokukai institution to advocate martial arts training, including swordsmanship.


Kendo training and the first tournaments

The Dainippon Butokukai ran its first yearly tournament in the same year that saw the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, which ended in a rapid victory for the country. The Butokukai was in charge of the training of instructors, setting of standards, and the further advertisement of kendo.

The Japanese school system also embraced the cause of kendo by gradually including it in the curriculum. Gradually, because the Meiji administration went out of its way to eradicate any effort to allow judo and kendo into the curriculum, in favor of European-style physical education.

Because of the fervour of the Japanese people for traditional art forms the government could not succeed. Kendo began to flourish at first as an extracurricular activity, and later as an integral part of the PE curriculum from 1911 onward.

The All Japan Kendo Federation also made its invaluable contribution to the increasing popularity of kendo, enjoying the consistent support of many industrial and other organizations of kendo enthusiasts. Korea and Taiwan that were Japanese colonies at the time also received their fair share of kendo education due to the influence of the All Japan Kendo Federation.

In World War II, kendo became a vehicle to strengthen national defense and the nationalistic spirit of Japanese students. As a consequence, kendo was abolished during the Allied Occupation, along with the Dainippon Butokukai.

After the Occupation was over, kendo reemerged in the spirit of competition and morphed into a fully-fledged sporting activity totally purged of nationalistic ideals. In 1953, kendo was fully reinstated in the school curriculum. 


Kendo today

The years following the 1964 Tokyo Olympics saw a new rise of interest in national sports including kendo.

Today there are many institutions in sponsorship of kendo tournaments, organized around schools, gender, geographical region, place of employment, and so on, all operating under the All Japan Kendo Federation.

Kendo tournaments are now held on an international scale. Since the 1960s, governing bodies, such as the Japan Foundation, have been dispatching professional Japanese coaches abroad, promoting awareness of kendo world-wide as well as teaching foreign students raising their level of skill in kendo.

International tournaments of Kendo

The very first international tournament was held in Taipei in 1965. At the 100th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration in 1967, the All Japan Kendo Federation sent invitations to athletes in ten countries to an international tournament to be held in Japan with their full participation.

In 1970, another international competition was held at the Osaka Exposition, and the International Kendo Federation (IKF) was founded, with the participation of 17 national bodies. Since then, IKF has been holding international tournaments every 3 years in different locations world-wide.

Kendo education, ranking, rules and play

In late medieval times

  • swordsmanship training began systematization,
  • teachers instructed students in graded ranks.

In the modern age, in 1902, the Dainippon Butokukai

  • established a consistent ranking system,
  • with six grade ranks, or kyu, for beginners,
  • and ten degrees, or dan, for advanced kendo practitioners.

Degrees 1-8 are gained in examination, with the last 2 awarded by heads of the organizations after a nomination process and proper examination.

Above 5th degree, there also exist 3 honorary degrees for teachers (Renshi, Kyoshi, and Hanshi) awarded not exactly on the basis of demonstrated skill, but rather of skill in leadership and in judging character, as well as the facilitation of the advancement of kendo.

Kendo Training in Japan

Kendo uniform

Kendo uniform

Kendo education involves

  1. first mastering basic techniques, or waza, such as stances, cuts, thrusts, parries,
  2. then practicing these basic movements in basic forms, or kata,
  3. and finally engagement in freestyle practice, or keiko and competitions, or shiai keiko.

Competitive matches among master fencers involve wearing prescribed gear, such as mask, chest, wrist, groin and thigh protectors, and holding a bamboo sword, called shinai. They also wear keikogi (jackets) and hakama (pleated trousers).

The length of shinai differs according to the age of the practitioner:

  • junior fencers employ shinai up to 112 cms in length and up to 450 grams in weight,
  • high school fencers use up to 115 cms in length and 500 grams in weight,
  • adult fencers have shinai up to 118 cms in length and more than 500 grams in weight.
Shinai, kendo bamboo sword, parts

Shinai, kendo bamboo sword, parts

Kendo scoring points

Kendo scoring points

Kendo Kata or Movements


  • meet each other in rings between 9 and 11 meters on a side,
  • and compete in matches decided by scoring two of three points.

In a time limit of 5 minutes, the contestant scoring the first 2 points, or the only point for that matter, is declared the winner. Ties result in a 3-minute extension.

Matches are controlled by a judge and two referees, waving red and white flags to award successful points that are scored by striking the opponent with cuts.

Among moves that count are:

  • cuts to the center of the head,
  • cuts to the temple followed by the call "Men!" meaning head,
  • cuts to either side of the body calling out "Do!" or chest,
  • cuts to either wrist with the call of "Kote!" or wrist,
  • thrusts to the throat with calling "Tsuki!" or thrust.

A contestant to be successful awarded a point must deliver 13 cuts or thrusts holding the appropriate posture. Two officials need to agree in order to award a point.

Today's kendo is primarily a competitive sporting activity, but it to some extent it is said to succeed in retaining a connection to the spirit of earlier swordsmanship in its concern for decorum, ritual, and development of the self.

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Rui Miguel on April 26, 2011:

congrats, this is an awesome article, very very good.. good structure.. great..

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