The Way of the Sword
Considered part of the legacy of bushido – the life and culture of feudal Japan’s samurai class, kendo is a sport with a rich history, and a beloved aspect of Japanese culture.
Though its origins are steeped in violence and war, the sport as it is today revolves around values of respect and self-reflection. It is a sport still practiced mainly in Japan, but one which is seeing growing popularity around the globe. Riddled with tradition and rules of etiquette, it has become one of the country’s most well-known symbols.
Kendo, unlike Western fencing, is not an Olympic sport. But while both have roots in duelling weapons and one-on-one combat, the two have few similarities beyond that.
Unlike Western fencing, kendo does not use metal blades but ones made out of bamboo, named shinai. Fencers wield a weapon in their dominant hand alone, but the shinai kendoka (kendo practitioners) use is meant to be two-handed. And whereas fencing uses an electric scoring system, kendo has remained highly traditional in its execution, with judges awarding points, and no electric equipment allowed.
The history of kendo
Swords and duels have existed in Japan for over a thousand years. Yet during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), Japan came to experience a time of relative peace. This allowed for sword fighting to move away from merely violence and conquest. The art of swordsmanship began to give way to a mentality of introspection and a search for how to apply the values and dignity of bushido to daily life; providing warriors with, not only the ability to defend themselves, but also a code of conduct to adhere to.
It was also during this time that many of the more visible characteristics were developed. These include the use of protective equipment, such as the men (masks) and do (torso protector), and the shinai still used today.
The Meiji Restoration (1868) dismantled the samurai class and banned travel with swords, leading to a decline in the art. Although the use of swordsmanship as training in various government and law enforcement organisations did remain throughout the 19th century.
It wasn’t until 1952 that the All Japan Kendo Federation was founded, followed by the International Kendo Federation in 1970. Since then, the numbers of kendo sportsmen and women number in the millions worldwide. In 2021, Japan alone counted nearly 2 million dan grade holders (sportsmen with a rank), and the World Kendo Championships in 2018 saw 56 different countries and regions competing.
More than just a victory
The lack of modernisation is often attributed to kendo being more than just about the victory. The forms, traditions, and etiquette play a large part in the sport and how it is scored. The All-Japan Kendo Association describes the concept of kendo as one “to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana (sword).”
Kendo instructors place a great deal of weight on values of respect for partners and rivals, encouraging students to strive for self-reflection and self-improvement in not only the sport, but all aspects of one’s life.
The name itself, kendo, means “the way of the sword”, symbolising not only a sport, but a mentality and conduct to strive for.
But for those of more competitive spirit
How does one win a kendo match? A typical bout will take anywhere between 2 to 5 minutes and ends when one athlete scores two hits or the time runs out. There are four valid target areas to score a hit: the men, the head; do, the body; kote, the wrist; and tsuki, a thrust to the throat. The tsuki is more commonly allowed in higher-level competitions, as the higher level of difficulty for the hit makes it more dangerous than the others.
But hitting your target alone is not enough to grant you victory. The 3 judges in charge of awarding points also watch for a fumikomu, a stomp, and a kiai, shouting out the name of your hit. Three judges will score hits to determine whether a point is awarded or not, and at least two must be in agreement before a point is awarded, leading to some ambiguity in the final result of a match.
So, whether you are interested in the history, the culture of respect, or the satisfaction of winning, are you ready to look up the nearest kendo club?
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