It’s roots can be traced back to the early ninth century where Japanese warriors were known to employ swords as principle weapons. These were probably straight, single edged swords (the oldest known was made between the sixth and eighth century). Between the eleventh and twelfth centuries the curved bladed sword was developed. This period in Japanese history is known as the Heian period, and it is believed martial arts flourished during this time as Samurai developed their skills through constant battlefield experience.
Samurai (the word means ‘to serve’) were warriors who emerged as a defined group or class in the late Heian Period (mid-twelfth century). Japan was ruled by this warrior class for nearly 800 years. Japan was split into many provinces which were ruled and fought over during much of this time by the Samurai Clans and families. During this period, the Samurai started living by the code of conduct known as bushido. Bushido is made up of the words Bushi (warrior) and Do (way), which literally means ‘the way of the warrior’. The code has a rich history which has evolved throughout the ages since it was conceived, but is generally summed up into seven virtues :
Loyalty | Benevolence | Honor | Courage | Honesty | Justice (Rectitude) | Courtesy (Respect)
During the warring states period (late fifteenth to early seventeenth Centuries) the martial arts, of which swordsmanship was one of the oldest, were systematized and many schools or ‘ryu’ of swordsmanship were formed. Even though firearms were introduced to Japan and widley used on the battlefield during this period, the final outcome of a confrontation was primarily settled with the sword. Many of Japan’s greatest swordsmen were active in this period, Samurai such as Tsukahara Bokuden, Miyamoto Mushashi, Ito Ittosai and Ise no Kami. The latter of these Samurai, invented the fukuro shinai for use in his Shinkage ryu swordsmanship. It was the first ever bamboo shinai and was very simular to the shinai we use in kedno today. It gave his students the opportunity to practice full contact swordsmanship, replacing the leathal bokken (hard wood sword) and the katana (real sword) which required an element of restraint in training as to not cause injury or death.
During the warring states period, Samurai wore full armor and sword schools focused on strength to cut through this armor, or in which only the weak points or joins in the armor were targeted. After this period, peace reigned in Japan and the Samurai wore no armor. Swordsmanship changed with the times to compensate, and techniques involving speed and dexterity dominated and the foundations of the kendo we know today were begining to evolve. During the Mid-Tokugawa period (Eighteenth Century), stabilty reigned and there were laws prohibiting tests of skill in swordsmanship by dual, resulting in hundreds of new sword schools emerging with no way of testing who was better. Kata was the main element of sword training during this time. Although kata is very important in the development of swordsmanship, it was getting to a point during this period that swordsmanship was becoming styalized and unrealistic. This led to Yamada Heizaemon (Jiki Shinkage ryu) inventing early bugu (armor) which was very simular to the bogu worn by kendo practitoners today. He also made modifactions to Ise no Kami’s fukuro shinai, which was also simular to shinai used in modern kendo.
Times were chaging in Japan and swordsmanship was no longer reserved for the warrior classes. People from all walks of life flocked to the dojo’s which trained with bogu to learn this form of swordsmanship. During the Tokugawa period some of the best swordsmen to emerge were not of Samurai origin, they were made up of the peasant and merchant classes. The nineteenth century and the Meji era saw the greatest changes to the Samurai class, which eventually resulted in the wearing of swords prohibited. Samurai found themselves adrift in a land of raitionalsim which saw the Samurai values as no longer valid. Many Samurai became merchants or held public demonstrations of their swordsmanship or run dojo’s in which the protective bogu was in use. One of the greatest swordsman who ever lived emerged in this period. Yamaoka Tesshu.
Yamaoka Tesshu systematized the Mutu -ryu (the no-sword school) and his kendo dojo was one of the toughest. His students were taught through relentless practice the true meaning of the way of the sword. He was one of many great Samurai of the era who adjusted to the politcal changes and showed that swordsmanship in times of peace was relevant, and its principles can be applied to any situation in life. With increasing interest in kendo for its many varied values it was adopted as a primary training method for police forces and skilled kendo teachers were in great demand.
The Great Japan Martial Virtues Association was established in 1895. It unified sword schools and came up with standardized forms and a rank and title system. Kendo was practiced at schools and colleges and as a hobby for more people than ever. In 1931 kendo was actually a physical educational requirement in Japans schools program.
Militarism and nationalism gripped Japan as a result of the Depression of 1929, and the situation escalated to make Japan an Enemy of the U.S.A and the allies during World War II. After the War, the American occupiers outlawed kendo among other martial arts. Although training still continued in some Dojos in secret, It was not untill 1952 that kendo was allowed to make a comeback. The All Japan Kendo Federation was established in 1953 and took forward the traditions laid down by The Great Martial Virtues Association and nearly 1000 years of Samurai history in which kendo began on the battlefield.
KENDO TRAINING IN MODERN TIMES
Today, kendo is practiced in dojo located all over the world, and carries on the tradition of training in Japanese swordsmanship using full contact strikes and thrusts, made possible by the wearing of protective Bogu (armour) and using a shinai (bamboo sword) to strike. There are similarities between the feudal encounters of old and kendo today, and also some differences. For example, the target areas in modern kendo are limited to the head (centre and both sides), the wrists, the torso (both sides) and the throat, for practical reasons. On the battlefield, the only thing that mattered was cutting down ones opponent. In modern kendo, winning is not important, but what is important is cultivating the fighting spirit shown by the Samurai who lived and died by the way of the sword. Today, kendo is practiced all over the world, and carries on the tradition of training in Japanese swordsmanship using full contact strikes and thrusts, made possible by the wearing of protective Bogu and using a shinai to strike. The shinai is used to ‘cut’, and is applied like a katana (real sword), and through repetition our technique, speed and physical and mental fitness are improved. The target areas in modern kendo are limited to the head, the wrists, the torso and the throat, for practical reasons. On the battlefield, the only thing that mattered was cutting down ones opponent. In modern kendo, winning is not important, but what is important is cultivating the fighting spirit shown by the Samurai. In the dojo where kendo is practiced, tradition is strongly observed and men and women, young and old train together equally, and face each other with respect, courage and spirit. Kendo has always been very physical, and to the outsider may look quite easy and straight forward in its approach, and in some ways it is. The martial arts are supposed to be simple and efficient, with every action made for a purpose.
The challenge in kendo lies in combining a lot of elements into one attack, so the actual sword cut is just a small element of that attack. This concept is known as Ki Ken Tai Icchi – the spirit, sword, and body as one, and is the corner stone of kendo training. We must pursue Ki Ken Tai Icchi in our kendo by full contact practice and also by perfecting ten Kata forms using a bokken (hard wooden sword). The kata training is non contact and contains seven long sword forms, and three short sword forms that are vital to correct kendo development. The beauty about kendo is that it is possible to start training at any stage of your life, by learning to adapt “your kendo” to suit you, and as we get older we actually improve as the natural tail off in speed, strength and physical fitness is replaced by our highly developed spirit (Ki) and our strong minds – at this stage kendo becomes less physical and more spiritual.
People take up kendo for a number of different reasons – there is no wrong reason to start training. The concept of budo (martial way) is considered by many to be the ‘true meaning of kendo’ – to cultivate a strong body and mind with complete destruction of the ego, and the realisation of the true self in all of us. In kendo, it is through the pursuit of Ki Ken Tai Icchi that we strengthen the traits that benefit us in everyday life. Kendo is considered to be the ultimate martial way, where we turn our attentions inward and ‘kill’ the bad things about ourselves, and our opponents teach us by every successful strike our weaknesses which it is up to us to strengthen. By keeping alive the samurai spirit, we learn to treat those we meet with courtesy and respect and fortify our own characters and face the challenges of life with the same fighting spirit we show in the Dojo. This is the true way of the sword. It is a way through life, a journey which starts when we enter the Dojo for the first time and will never end. Our teachers lead and show us the way, and it is up to us to stay on the path and learn the true way of the sword.
ATHLETES WITH BUSHIDO – KENDO, SPORT AND COMPETITION
Kendo can be called a sport, where people come together to improve their physical and mental fitness and also to compete with each other if they wish. There is not a lot of difference between budo and sport – in both cases people train to the best of their abilities, thus improving their physical and mental fitness, confidence, belief and spirit. If we approach the competition or ‘shiai’ side of kendo with the attitude that winning is not important then there is no difference at all.
The competition side of kendo can be very important to our development as it helps us to understand what makes a ‘perfect cut’ or yuko datotsu. A point can only be awarded in kendo if the elements of yuko datotsu are observed. These include cutting at the right distance, with the right part of the shinai, on the target with intention, opportunity, correct technique and awareness of our opponent after the attack. These are the same elements which should be present in all of our training. In the dojo, it is helpful to referee matches and take part in them as this helps us understand what correct kendo is. There are many opportunities to take part in competitions in kendo, and even to represent your country as part of your national team – if you train hard and attend national squad training sessions. Here in the UK we have some very highly rated competitions and the UK kendo team take part in competitions all over the world, including The World Kendo Championships which are held every three years. Whether you include competition in your kendo development is up to you and no one is required to compete if they do not want to. At Akai Ryuu, like most clubs we will encourage anyone who wants to compete, and we always enter a team at every major event in the UK.