Kendo: Japan’s Modern Day Samurai

Kendo in Japan: Transcending from The Past to Future

One of the fascinating facets of the Japanese culture is its affinity towards martial arts. All over the world, plenty of martial arts practices have risen as a mix of culture and self-defense. With Japan being a culturally rich nation, it is only fitting that a lot of martial art types are being practiced there. Japanese martial art can be attributed to a whopping fifty types of sports; this consists to a big chunk of the worldwide total. In Japan, the term for martial arts can be translated to three words with various definitions. The first definition is "budo" which directly translates to "martial arts". This is the newest definition and is currently being used in the modern times. The essence of "budo" in traditional Japan is self-improvement through practicing physical, spiritual and moral exercise, as they believed that these aspects were essential in an individual’s personal growth. “Bujustsu”, on the other hand, deals with the defensive aspect of martial arts as it translates to “art or craft of war”. This recognizes the roots of martial arts as a combative tool in the olden days. Meanwhile, “bugei” translating to “martial arts” confirms the educational aspect of martial arts by systematic training to improve one’s skill set. The official name for people practicing Kendo is Kendoka.

Among the many forms of Japanese martial arts, Kendo is considered to be one of the most popular. Kendo is also practiced all over the world as it is considered to be a traditional Japanese form of the international sports fencing. In Japanese,  the name Kendo translates to “sword way”, which traces the roots of Kendo from sword fighting. Most of what Kendo is today, its principles, techniques and practices were rooted from the traditional practice of kenjutsu. During the feudal era in Japan, kenjutsu was practiced as a form of samurai training. In fact, plenty of schools for samurai training were established to teach kenjutsu.  It was in the 1800s when modern Kendo began to rise into popularity. In 1920, the official name for swordsmanship was changed to Kendo and was continuously practiced until 1946. When Japan fell during the end of the World War II, martial arts were banned to remove the militaristic culture that was evident in Japan prior to the war. It was only in 1950 to 1952 when Kendo was fully reinstated back into Japanese curriculums along with other versions of sword related martial arts such as Iaido, another form of sword fighting.

The primary concept of Kendo as a sport is to instill discipline through swordsmanship. In the year of 1975, the official board for Kendo called “All Japan Kendo Federation” published a manual called “The Concept and Purpose of Kendo.” In hindsight, the purpose of Kendo as defined by this manual is to improve man's mind, body, and spirit through vigorous training. Courtesy and honor are both valued in the sport, which is the reason why sporting events and competitions begin with two opponents bowing to each other. Taking into consideration the Japanese’ fierce sense of nationalism, it comes to no surprise that the cultivation of Kendo as a sport is to improve one’s character so that he can contribute and do more for his country and society, to honor Japan’s rich culture and history, and lastly to be at peace with others.

While two opponents fight in a Kendo competition, there are between three to five contestants per competing team. For example, in renowned Kendo competitions like the World Championships, each competing team will have five Kendoka players. It is quite surprising that Kendo matches do not very long. For adult competitions, a single set would last for merely five minutes, while junior matches take even less time. The goal of each match is to earn most points for each strike in the opponent's head, body, wrist, and throat – with each body part worth one point per hit. Three judges are usually responsible for presiding in a competition, with the results counted by the end of all matches. The team with the most number of points accumulated per match wins.

Tools of the Trade: Sticks, Swords, and Bogu

The introduction of bamboo swords and armor into sword training began in the 1700s, back when kenjutsu was still the original form of swordsmanship and this was carried over into the modern day practice of Kendo. The bamboo sword and armor are the two basic requirements of Kendo training. Majority of the time, a single bamboo stick is used for training - however, there are some styles of Kendo wherein two bamboo sticks are required. The bamboo stick used for Kendo training is called “shinai”.  The shinai is meant to represent a katana, which is the Japanese samurai sword.  The uses of bamboo swords have been employed in place of real swords for safer reasons. Traditional shinai was made from four pieces of bamboo held together by leather to consolidate the pieces together. A modern take on the shinai, however, uses carbon fiber and resin materials in place of wood and leather. During kata practice, a variation of training sword called bokuto is used. Instead of having four separate bamboo pieces, the bokuto is a form of a Japanese wooden sword that is made from a single piece of wood. In other cultures, the Japanese bokuto is also called the bokken.

While the use of bamboo wooden swords in place of the katana has made the sport generally safer than using real metal swords, the impact of wooden sticks hitting the opponent's body can still cause serious damage. To prevent injuries from occurring, there is a dedicated set of armor for Kendo that aims to protect the head, arms, and body, as these are the target points within the match. One of the most at risk body parts during Kendo practice is the head, as the slightest trauma can cause serious damage. Hence, the head must be protected at all costs. In order to do that, the use of a helmet is employed. The helmet for Kendo is called a "men", which is made up of fabric padding and leather materials. Metal grilles were used to cover the kendoka's face, while the leather and fabric padding covers the throat, neck, and shoulders for protection. Arms and wrists are covered with protective gloves made with padded fabric. The gloves used for Kendo are called "kote." Meanwhile, a breastplate called “do” protects the body, and the stomach and lower parts are protected by fabric pieces called “tare.” While the pieces of protective armor covering the players are separate pieces, they are generally called “bogu.”

Underneath the protective armor called "bogu", there is still a need for the appropriate garment to wear during Kendo training. The attire for martial arts in Japan have been preserved due to cultural significance – this is the reason why martial arts practitioners in present day still wear uniforms, instead of sweat pants and dry fit Nike shirts during training. The two pieces of clothing are jacket and trousers. The jacket called “kendogi” resembles the traditional top used by samurais in the feudal era. The trousers called “hakama” are also an updated version of the traditional samurai trousers. Meanwhile, players do not wear footwear, and instead, fight on bare feet with only a tendon protector used to avoid heel injuries. As an added accessories, there are also Kendo specialized bags called Bogu Bags. These are meant to carry the shinai.

Kata Techniques and Kendo Skills

For anyone who wants to engage in Kendo training, a good way to begin is with the Nihon Kendo Kata (commonly known as just Kata).  Kata is deeply rooted in the teachings of ancient kenjutsu, and is aimed at preserving the basic elements of swordsmanship from the olden days. Basically, Kata is a set of techniques modeled after the movements in ancient kenjutsu that have been passed on to the art of Kendo. It is a perfect way to get into learning Kendo, as Kendo schools in Japan back in the 1800s relied heavily on the use of Kendo for teaching students. It is the perfect learning tool for Kendo as the roles include a student (shidachi) and teacher (uchidachi) set-up. There are ten forms to be learned in Kata, with two types of swords with differing lengths used by students. The majority of the Kata techniques use a longer boken called “tachi”, while Kata 8 until Kata 10 makes use of a shorter bokken called "kodachi”” – meanwhile, the teacher uses tachi consistently. At present, Kata has started to lose popularity due to its dull nature of repetitive and predictable actions. However, a lot of Kendo masters still see Kata as a necessary stepping stone to develop discipline and to develop the right attack techniques. It is also important to note that being able to qualify for a higher rank (or “dan” as it called in Kendo”) Kyu-1, at least three forms of Kata is required to be learned.

The basic skills set for Kendo are the different types of footwork. These are ayumi-ashi, okuri-ashi, hiraki-ashi, and tsugi-ashi. Okuri-ashi is the most popular type of Kendo footwork as it serves as the foundation of Kendo. Kendo footwork involves sliding and gliding movements for the Kendoka. Developing one’s execution of footwork aims to his movement so he may flawlessly execute his striking and thrusting actions. Another important skill required in Kendo is speed. In order to develop speed in Kendo, “kakari-geiko” training is practiced by kendokas. This form of training aims to develop the kendoka to strike as much as possible at the least amount of time, as the premise of Kendo is to score the most points per hit within five minutes or less.

Similar to the regular scheme of elementary schooling, Kendo also has varying ranks for its practitioners.  The first rank (dan) would only require a merit of 1-kyu as graded by a panel of examiners. Advancement in Kendo requires plenty of time, it is nearly impossible to reach the highest level, which is the 8th dan. For example, in order to move up to the second dan, it would require a year of training coming from the first dan. However, moving up from seventh dan onto the highest level of eight dan would require a rigorous ten-year training in between to qualify. Kendo grade levels also have specific age limits, where in the first dan is required to be at least of thirteen years of age, while the eighth dan must be of forty-six years of age.

Kendo for Everyday: Defense and Leisure

Ideally, a daily application of the sports Kendo for everyday use is for self-defense. However, unlike other forms of martial arts, Kendo would be harder to execute in situations wherein self-defense is required as it is not often that you would have a shinai or bamboo sword on hand to use as protection. That does not however automatically disqualify Kendo as a useful tool in self-defense. Since Kendo is a contact sport, it teaches kendokas speed allowing them to react at reflex. In terrible situations, one can always defend himself even without a bamboo sword if his reflex is better than his attacker. In times of peril, one who is accustomed to the art of Kendo can even use makeshift tools to hit his attacker at the head, neck, breast and other points since he has enough training to execute it properly. Hence, while Kendo can not be directly used in street fighting or during times of danger, it is still useful enough to help develop a person’s strength and agility.

Engaging in martial arts is not a popular tourist attraction in Japan, however, those who are up for a little for a challenge can opt to try Kendo for leisure while on their Japan trip. A popular place where tourists can go to have a feel of Kendo would be Kyumeikan Kendo Dojo in Tokyo prefecture. Tourists can reserve a slot to attend beginner lessons as students, join sparring activities, and to meet the Dojo Master. While it is physically strenuous and not everyone would be up for physical activities while on vacation, it can be a memorable experience all the same. Another way for foreign nationals who do not want to personally engage in contact sports, but still want to enjoy Kendo is by watching Kendo competitions. Every year, the All Japan Kendo Federation holds interprefecture competitions called Kendo Taikai. Less than a decade ago, AJKF has already started a move to include a division for women kendokas to compete in. Every year, competitions for Kendo are held in Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, officially called as Tokyo’s Martial Arts Hall. Other dedicated organizations for Kendo also hold different competitions of lower esteem. Every summer, there is also a Kendo Leaders’ Summer Seminar where participants can engage in training with Kendo masters hailing from other nations aside from Japan.