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Untitled Document

Kendo: The Way of the Sword

By John J. Donohue, Ph.D.

Principles & Concepts
Techniques & Training Methods
Etiquette & Customs
Practice Clothing/Uniforms
Training Facilities
Bibliography & Citations


Kendo, the "way of the sword," is the most respected form of modern budo in Japan, and has perhaps the closest links to many aspects of the classical martial tradition. Although it may be broadly categorized as the ritualized, sportive version of Japanese fencing, kendo is neither a viable combat art nor is it a pure sport. The modern heir to the social, cultural, and philosophical heritage of the Japanese martial tradition, kendo is perceived by most experienced practitioners to be an essentially spiritual discipline (Draeger 1974:77).


Kendo Principles & Concepts

Despite modern kendo's quasi-sport nature, it still retains a traditional Japanese outlook which links physical effort and spiritual development. For the Japanese, the discipline, consistency, and total commitment displayed in budo are keys to spiritual and moral development. All these qualities must be developed if one is to successfully tread the way of the sword.

What sets kendo and its practitioners apart from other arts, such as judo, aikido and karate-do is a certain cold determination, an almost religious sense of discipline, that conveyes the message that kendo is more a matter of mental and spiritual development than it is a system of physical technique.

All modern budo forms emphasize, to a greater or lesser extent, the development of a fighting spirit, the refinement of quasi-combat skills, and the cultivation of moral and spiritual maturity. In the kendo dojo, however, the trainee is placed in a true forge of the spirit, where mind and body are literally hammered into shape, where relentless training and endless effort are channelled into the re-creation of the individual along philosophical and cultural lines whose roots extend deep into Japan's past.

As a budo strongly shaped by the insights of the most profound of Japan's swordsmen, kendo today struggles to retain its moral and philosophical dimensions, all too aware of the erosion of these values among some judo practitioners. Since kendo is an art whose appeal lies mainly with martial artists in Japan or those of Japanese descent, it has been able to retain its classical orientation. The essence of kendo is still the improvement of character and the development of spiritual maturity through arduous training in its physical techniques. Like judo, kendo has an enthusiastic sport following. Unlike the gentle art, "kendo may be practiced, or one trains himself through kendo, but one must never just 'play' kendo" (Draeger 1974:105).

Passive, non-threatening stances and kneeling in such a way as to be always ready to draw a sword indicate the fact that, despite its ritualized nature, kendo is very much concerned with matters of life and death. The dojo is not just a training hall but a place where a certain awareness of the possibility of serious combat must constantly be maintained. This acute awareness of one's surroundings and the potential for danger is known as zanshin. Zanshin is the flip side of single-minded devotion to technique. A student of kendo must learn not to focus exclusively on his actions but rather to be attentive and receptive to all activities surrounding him.

This seems contradictory, but both the ideas of focusing entirely on technique and of maintaining zanshin have to do with the transcending of subject-object distinctions through martial training. Unity with the Void, to use Musashi's (the famous swordsman; See the History section) idiom, results in the execution of technique without any self-conscious awareness of doing so. By the same token, proper zanshin is indicative of the fact that the swordsman experiences no discontinuity between his surroundings and himself.

The spiritual aspect of kendo was initially impressed on me during my first visit to the dojo. The taiko (a large drum) boomed, calling the class to order. Fifty kendoka (kendo students) silently knelt in a long line which stretched down the length of the dojo. Only the dry rasp of calloused soles along the wood floor, the swish of hakama (devided pants) could be heard.

Quietly, zarei (a bow from a kneeling position) was performed. Muted commands rang out for suburi (practice of basic sword strokes). The basic exercises were performed efficiently, quietly. A type of reserve was exhibited at all times.

This feeling of reserve, of distance, was heightened when the class donned their armor. The uniform look of the bogu (protective armor) served to remove any sense of individual identity among the trainees. The men, or headpiece, obscured the facial expressions of the kendoka. Intent could not be easily read in the eyes. The effect was one of timelessness. As they donned their equipment, the kendoka also put on the tradition of kendo; its form, its purpose. They surrendered individuality and became one with the art of the sword.

The effect was an eerie one, but it in no way prepared me for what was to come. In the silence of that hall, the sensei signalled with the hollow tap of two blocks of wood that free practice was to begin. Before that sound had faded, each kendoka had joined in furious combat with an opponent. What was so striking, however, was not merely the fury with which these ostensibly mock combats were engaged in but the noise which accompanied these actions.

The clatter of shinai (practice sword made of bamboo strips) striking armor, in itself overwhelming, was overcome by the force of the cries emanating from the combatants. These kiai, a type of cry common to many martial art forms, had an incredible emotional impact. I had always understood kiai to be a symbolic sound used to express the martial artist's single-minded purpose, the unity of spirit and technique.

To hear the kiai in a kendo training hall, however, was to experience kiai as the unity of body and spirit. It was not merely a symbolic expression of that condition, it was a palpable expression of it. I was familiar with the contention of some Zen masters that the shout of a master could in some cases actually propel a student into satori (enlightenment). I had even had occasion to attend a lecture by a Zen monk where such a shout was demonstrated. The kiai of the kendoka that day had an equally striking impact on me which, as an analytical observer of budo, I was somewhat at a loss to explain.

There is an old adage used (and perhaps over-used) in the martial arts, to the effect that when you first see a mountain, it is just a mountain. Later, after training, you realize that the mountain is not just a mountain; it is something more. Finally, when you reach an enlightened state, you realize once more that the mountain is just a mountain. This saying hints at the fact that the Zen "beginner's mind" is often much closer to the proper perception of reality than is the mind of one who is actively seeking enlightenment. It also warns that an over-concern with the search itself often hinders perception.

I like to think that what I observed and felt that first day in the kendo dojo was, in some ways, an accurate insight into the nature of kendo. Through actual training, I would later experience part of the process of spiritual forging that could create such powerful kiai.

That initial experience with kendo, combined with and enriched by subsequent participation and observation, led me to a fuller understanding of the role of kendo in the lives of its adherents. The practice of kendo is an invitation to join in the experience of generations of Japanese swordsmen; to partake in a rich cultural heritage; to become part of a mental and physical discipline, a world outlook, a personal code of behavior.

The enduring image I have of kendo is not the flash of technique or the sweat of effort. Instead, I hear the boom of the drum; see the silent row of swordsmen bow; and with the dull summons of wood blocks, join together in a mysterious struggle whose real goal is the forging of the spirit.


Kendo Techniques & Training Methods

For the beginning student of kendo, early training emphasizes the development of fundamentals. Unlike the judo dojo, where theory and form are often subsumed in the interest of efficacy, the development of a rigorously proper technique is stressed by kendo sensei (teacher). After being shown the characteristic kendo stance, the right foot forward, left foot with heel slightly raised; the method of movement, the shuffle step which propels the trainee forward without altering the stance and the proper two-handed grip and method of swinging the shinai (practice sword made of flexible bamboo strips), I was expected to participate fully in the rapid and exhausting pace of training.

Basic kendo training consists of the extremely fatiguing repetition of basic strokes with the mock sword while stationary and while advancing and retreating. This is known as suburi. As soon as one of the junior instructors showed me the basic form, I was given the command to perform one hundred and fifty suburi. Although the shinai is much lighter than a katana (sword), during kendo practice a student executes strikes literally thousands of times. The activity places a certain amount of strain on the muscles of the wrist, forearms and shoulders. By the time my first two-hour practice session was over, the physical and mental exertion of swinging the shinai properly left me exhausted.

The sliding action of the feet along the wooden floor can also raise blisters on the soles, and the leather-covered handle of the shinai often raises companion blisters on your red and sweaty hands. A noted kenshi's statement says that if you are enjoying kendo practice you are not doing it correctly.

In a broadly descriptive way, and cognizant of qualifications made in the following historical discussion, kendo may be characterized as the modern, ritualized version of Japanese swordsmanship.

Reflecting its highly ritualized nature, contest (jiyu-renshu, or free fighting) is of a limited type. There are consequently only eight striking targets in modern kendo: the center, right-, or left-hand side of the head (men, migi-men, or hidari-men respectively); the wrist of either hand (kote or hidari-kote), (Note 1) the left or right side of the torso protector (hidari-do or migi-do), and a thrust to the throat (tsuki). As the kendoka strikes one of these targets, he characteristically calls out its name. This kiai, or shout, is intended to symbolize and encourage the unification of intent, technique, and spirit into a potentially devastating strike (Sasamori and Warner 1964:77).

Practice in kendo (Note 2) consists of two types: basic and free practice. Basic practice consists of the repetition of basic patterns of footwork and of striking with the shinai. Kirikaeshi, or the repetition of strokes, is considered a fundamentally important aspect of kendo training, and reflects the enduring influence of swordsmen like Ittosai and Tesshu (See the History section).

For the beginning kendoka, kirikaeshi is one of the major physical and mental hurdles to be surmounted on the path to proficiency in the art. The monotonous practice of suburi and kirikaeshi were the dominant themes of early apprenticeship in the way of the sword. Although very tiring, such activity is also very boring and it is sometimes extremely difficult to stay focused on the task at hand.

In retrospect, what initially appeared to be a mindless, unpleasant chore is a fundamental lesson in the nature of kendo. As Tesshu maintained, kendo is more a thing of the mind than it is a thing of the sword. Instructors, who seem to passively observe a student's progress, are actually setting the student's feet along a path of self-discipline. It is not really difficult to swing a shinai. What is difficult is to concentrate fully on that subject, time after time, until external considerations fade from the mind. Kendo sensei understand that it is futile to attempt to show a student further physical kendo techniques until he or she can exhibit a mind and spirit totally focused on the task at hand.

What underscores the importance of kendo is the investment of time. Many kendoka at both my former dojos were mature adults. They had been training for a number of years and were not considering stopping in the near future. It was widely recognized that to even begin to attain any level of competence in the art, regular and dedicated training would have to be pursued for some three or four years. At the end of this time, the trainee has some grasp of merely the physical techniques of kendo. As such, the techniques themselves are of an abstract type. They have no practical utility in terms of self-defense. The implications of such a level of devotion to a budo which has no immediate, practical utility certainly points to an appreciation of the fuller, spiritual implications of the way of the sword.

As an individual struggling to learn something about the essence of the kendo, I remained oblivious to its deeper spiritual meaning for some time. For me, kendo was an essentially physical art and the extreme depth of kendo, and the level of commitment required to even begin to appreciate this art, was only brought home to me when I was finally permitted to engage in mock combat wearing full armor. At more advanced levels practice of this type, often designated "free practice," is theoretically identical to randori in judo. In Kataoka Sensei's dojo (The New York Kendo Club), I obtained some experience in such practice, in which the fundamentals of kendo are put to use in extremely fast-paced action. The emphasis in modern kendo on free practice and contest has led to the popularization of sport kendo in Japan, in which matches are decided when either one of two competitors scores two points by cleanly striking any of the eight legal targets. (Note 3)

The competition between two kendoka is tempered by the ability to combine and utilize basic skills such as the striking of all eight target areas, singly or in combination. In addition, footwork and balance must be mastered to enable the kendoka to enter and escape from striking range. Thus, the development of an awareness of what is known as ma-ai (combatative engagement distance), that point at which the opponent is close enough to be struck (or strike you) with the point of the shinai, is the mark of an able kendoka.

At first blush, free practice struck me as basically simple in theory. The kendoka merely united stance, movement, and technique in such a way as to successfully strike the opponent. Initially, the beginner beats only the air with his shinai, refining his form and gaining confidence. After an appropriate interval of training, however, the pupil is encouraged to strike a knocking dummy and then live opponents. My first attempt at controlled sparring with an opponent showed me how wrong my initial understanding of free practice was. After striking only the air, hitting a solid target is a new revelation. My first attempts at a men (head/face protector) strike revealed a fundamental error in my grip and execution which had not been made apparent before the introduction of a living target. Instead of a solid, concentrated strike, the kissaki, or point of my shinai, bounced off my partner's men. This underlined the lack of focus in my kendo technique.

Once an opponent begins to move and then to dodge your blows, the problems of stance and ma-ai (movement, distance) assume major proportions. It becomes an increasingly difficult proposition to execute correct technique. With an accomplished opponent, the practice of feints, deflections with the shinai (oji-waza), beating your shinai aside (uchi-otoshi waza), closing with you and immobilizing your shinai at the hand guard (tsuba-zerai) and a host of other techniques, reveals the infinite complexity of kendo. Kataoka Sensei at the New York Kendo Club was fond of demonstrating the limitless complexity of kendo to his students. After he had observed practice for some time, commenting on and correcting an individual student's technique, he would don his bogu (armor) and spar with students, bringing home in a dynamic, forceful (and often terrifying) manner gaps in the student's defenses. As my training progressed, I became more and more aware of the level of physical difficulty inherent in kendo training. In doing so, I fell prey to one of the fundamental errors of beginning kendoka: an inordinate concentration on the techniques themselves. I was thus studying kendo at the jutsu (technique) level. In many ways, the art remained a series of techniques to be learned and mastered. This perception of the way of the sword, I eventually came to understand, is an error.

The experience of training and reflection on my experience in the dojo eventually made it clear that kendo has absolutely nothing to do with the sword and the physical skills necessary to wield it properly. All physical technique is merely a means to an end, a prelude to a higher purpose. This purpose is seishin tanren, spiritual forging.

The ofttimes punishing physical ordeal of kendo training is designed not to focus the attention on the body but to help the trainee learn to transcend bodily cares and the duality of perception that inhibits performance. Kataoka Sensei would often chide me that I thought too much about the techniques I was to execute. My technique "stopped" at various points--an expression used by the famous swordmasters Takuan and Yagyu Munenori (see the History section) to describe the absence of mind-body integration in a swordsman. For proper execution of kendo techniques, the student must not concentrate either on physical mechanics or theory as isolated elements. They must be united, blended together by the spirit in the heat of training into a living whole.

The hundreds of thousands of repetitions of techniques are used to numb the mind, and, in a sense, to free it from self-absorption. Despite its heavy competitive emphasis, even thoughts of winning and losing are ultimately unimportant in kendo. An All-Japan champion who visited the dojo was asked by one of the senior students to explain what training techniques were responsible for his success. He stated that he never thought about winning or losing; he only concentrated on making his kendo beautiful. Since the conversation was being conducted half in English and half through an interpreter, the questioner thought an error had been made and pressed the champion further. The master kendoka was adamant in his reply: only by concentrating on its beauty can the student of kendo achieve greatness. This is a significant point, especially since it was expressed by an individual whose competitive involvement in kendo is great.


1. The hidari-kote can only be struck when the opponent raises his shinai above the shoulder level. The right kote can be struck at will.

2. Keiko, or practice, originally had the meaning of meditating and studying the exceptional things of old (Sasamori and Warner 1964:133). Its frequent use in kendo underscores the fact that one trains, never plays, kendo.

3. For a discussion of general rules and organization of sport kendo, see Arlott (1975:568-574).


Kendo Etiquette & Customs

Another basic tenet of proper kendo practice is the careful attention paid to etiquette within the confines of the dojo. Actions such as standing, walking, kneeling, and holding the shinai (even while not engaged in practice) are regulated by a host of rules.

When I was a new student and somewhat familiar with the basic factors of proper behavior within a dojo, I managed to enter the training hall and bow to the kamiza (a place of honor, often the front wall of a dojo were there is a Shinto alter, scroll or picture of a teacher or founder) without too much trouble. I was immediately informed by one of sensei's assistants, however, that I was to hold my shinai by the shaft and not the handle, with the tip pointing forward and down to the floor. This was, I subsequently learned, a passive, non-threatening posture suitable for entering the dojo. Since the shinai, symbolically representing a real sword, is normally held in the left hand at the hip (in the same position as a katana would be if worn in the sash), holding the shinai by the shaft in the right hand is indicative of non-hostile intentions.

In the same way, I quickly discovered that my method of kneeling and rising again was incorrect. A lifetime's training in the Catholic Church had taught me that you genuflected on your right knee; the logical extension of that practice was that, when kneeling, you first sunk to the right knee, and then the left. Without thinking, I reverted to this technique as the entire kendo class sank down to perform zarei, the seated bow, at the beginning of practice. As I began to stand up after bowing, one of sensei's assistants hissed that I should rise off my right knee first.

I was somewhat puzzled as to what significance this could possibly have in kendo training. Some reflection soon helped me to understand that, when you rise from the seiza position, if you leave your right knee on the floor and come off your left knee first, it is extremely awkward to draw your sword, which is held at your left side. By sinking into seiza left knee first, and by rising by lifting your right knee first, you are always in a position to quickly draw your sword.


Kendo Practice Clothing/Uniforms

Hearkening back to its origins with the feudal warriors of Japan, kendoka today wear the most ritualistic and symbolic of practice uniforms, eschewing the modern jacket and pants of the judogi, instead wearing the hakama (a pleated, divided skirt) and a traditional top known as the keikogi. The color of the practice uniform for kendo is usually dark blue or black, although high-ranking kendoka may also choose to wear an all white outfit (Sasamori and Warner 1964:71). Junior kendoka traditionally wear a dark hakama and a white top with black stitching. At both kendo dojo I studied in, most students wore dark blue or black uniforms.

As an art whose primary aim is training, not combat, the mock sword known as the shinai is the primary training implement in kendo. Essentially a tube composed of bamboo strips bound with leather ties and covered with a leather handle, the shinai enables kendoka to strike their opponents without fear of causing serious injury. To further guarantee safety and to encourage practitioners to strike fully, forcefully, and without reservation, a type of body armor, developed during the same period as the shinai, is worn. Adopted from the lightweight armor worn by bushi in the field, kendo armor is similar in concept but much less elaborate.

Today, the kendoka is protected by protective equipment known as bogu. The men is an iron facemask, similar in appearance and concept to a baseball catcher's mask. The kote are mitts made of leather which are used to protect the hands and wrists. The do, a chest protector, is made of strips of bamboo covered with lacquered leather, and the tare is a hip protector made of thick cotton material.


Kendo Ranking

Modern kendo utilizes the kyu/dan ranking system initiated by Kano Jigoro. Kendoka advance from the 6th through the 1st kyu, then up through ascending dan levels, to 10th dan. As in judo, it is generally believed that extreme competitive and physical skill is enough to advance a kendoka up through the 5th dan. After that point, however, spiritual development, contribution to the art, as well as some form of advanced research on the subject are all required for further advancement (Sasamori and Warner 1964:60).

Special titles are also given advanced kendoka to distinguish them from lower dan grades. Thus, fourth through sixth dan are called renshi (trainers), seventh and eighth dan are called kyoshi (instructors), and those few rare individuals holding dan grades above this are termed hanshi, or masters (Ratti and Westbrook 1973:287).


Kendo Training Facilities

The boom of the taiko, the great drum of the dojo, often calls you to practice in the kendo training hall. It is an austere place, a hard place. Its high ceiling isolates the aspiring kendoka; the clean, cold, simple lines of a traditional Japanese dojo offer no clutter, no distraction--no place to hide. The polished wood floor mirrors movement and effort. No matter how crowded the practice floor, you remain alone with the art of the sword.

In my experience as a participant-observer in the various martial ways, no other dojo felt as strange, as foreign in the literal sense, as the training halls of kendo. The atmosphere of strangeness was more a function of attitude and spirit than it was one of organization or action. Structurally and symbolically the surroundings and activities, the environment and form of kendo were familiar ones, since kendo is perhaps the most orthodox of shin budo.

I received fundamental training in kendo at the Ken Zen Dojo. Despite the stress placed on this early training and the development of basics, the import of such valuable lessons was never verbalized in the training hall. The trainee was left to reflect on his training and the guidance of his seniors, and come to some conclusion concerning how these physical and implied conceptual messages fit in with the way of the sword. In the kendo dojo of Kan Sensei, more than any other budo dojo I studied in, the form of traditional Japanese training was strictly adhered to.

Everything about this dojo proclaimed its very classical roots. When I stepped through the sliding door to the dojo floor, I could as well have stepped into a dojo in Japan. A spacious rectangular room some thirty by one hundred feet, the training hall itself was modeled after an existing hall in Japan and followed the clean lines of classical Japanese architecture. The floors were of highly polished, natural wood. The walls were wood-panelled for half their height. The windows and doors were shoji--composed of rice-paper and wood laths that let a subdued light in from the street. The ceiling was a high one, to allow for the swinging of the three-and-a-half foot shinai overhead.

At the head of the dojo hung a large scroll of calligraphy. To one side stood the taiko, the drum of the dojo, which was beaten to signal the beginning and end of training sessions. To the other side of the kamiza (seat of honor, or deity seat, often a wall space with a Shinto shrine, calligraphy and photo of a teacher or founder) was a weapons rack, which held staffs, bokken, and naginata (a type of halberd). The entire effect of the room was of a cavernous, remote hall which overwhelmed you by the mere absence of inconsequential adornment. It was, you sensed, a place devoted to very serious training.

The bearing of Kan Sensei, the head instructor at the Ken Zen Dojo, reflected this severe fixity of purpose. A reflective, undemonstrative elderly man, Kan Sensei supervised training from the head of the dojo, giving few verbal instructions, content to let the experience of training serve to forge the kendoka under his tutelage. Indeed, even commands to line up and begin various types of practice were given not by Kan Sensei, but by one of his junior instructors. The drum called and dismissed us. During free fighting, Sensei began and ended contest periods by clapping two blocks of wood together.

The very Japanese atmosphere was reinforced by the make-up of the student body here. Unlike other dojo, many students were either Japanese or Japanese-Americans. This was especially true among the children who studied with Kan Sensei.

For the young kendoka, training was not so much something which was done because of their own interest or enthusiasm but was rather due to the encouragement of their parents. The Ken-Zen Dojo was a cultural center that sponsored kendo and iaido training, judo and karate as well as calligraphy and Japanese dance lessons. The young trainees, like their adult counterparts, were there to experience Japanese culture. Indeed, some of these children told me that, in addition to kendo training, they were also required to study the Japanese language. For these young Japanese-Americans, Saturdays were devoted to a crash course in traditional Japanese skills, the content of which was dictated by their parents. Saturday afternoon training sessions at the kendo hall took on some of the flavor of a family gathering, with a large audience of parents and grandparents closely monitoring their offspring's performance from the visitor's section of the dojo.

The New York Kendo Club was a training hall with a slightly different emphasis and personality. Kataoka Sensei was a younger man in his thirties, who had a successful competitive career in kendo while still in his twenties and who had raced through the dan grades to his current rank of sixth dan in record time. His dojo, while it did not lack the same serious attitude, placed considerably more emphasis on kendo as a competitive sport. The teaching methods of Kataoka Sensei included much more verbal explanation, which was combined with the traditional pattern of learning by imitation of the instructors.

Kataoka Sensei's dojo was not as elaborate as that of Kan Sensei. It was perhaps symbolic of the dual physical and spiritual nature of kendo, however, that it was located in the fifth floor gymnasium of a Manhattan church. The polished wooden floor was the same as in Kan Sensei's dojo. Finely brushed calligraphy hung on the wall and served to demarcate the kamiza. The equipment of kendo filled the nooks and crannies: men, do tare, kote, shinai in various stages of disrepair, bokken. Notices of upcoming tournaments were taped to the walls. In some ways, it was a shabbier dojo but one which was transformed with the onset of practice into a fierce arena where body and spirit were tested.

The ethnic mix at the New York Kendo Club was a bit more varied, although Japanese members still constituted a large segment of the student body. This was especially true among the junior kendo students, who were overwhelming Japanese. Once again, they seemed to be there at the insistence of their parents, many of whom came to observe training.

The adult kendoka at both dojo were, of course, there of their own volition. For them, kendo was a voluntary and emotionally rewarding experience. Although not as forthcoming verbally as the young students, the behavior and attitude of the adults indicated the important place kendo seemed to play in their lives.

The motivation of adult students was much more personal and intense. Many of these adult students were beyond the age where they would be attending school. They were, therefore, working full time and then attending kendo class in the evenings and on weekends, many of them four or more times weekly. They also paid a monthly fee for the privilege of training under the tutelage of respected kendo sensei and purchased the relatively expensive equipment necessary to do so. The expenses involved are not in themselves prohibitive. They do indicate, however, the more than casual interest of kendoka in pursuing this avocation. The level of financial commitment is much greater in an art like kendo than it is in judo.


Kendo Styles

At base,, kendo is a syncretic art: sensei from various traditions came together to create a homogenized system. We see this most clearly in the Kendo no kata, which were selected and adapted from various kenjutsu ryu. There are stylistic variations from dojo to dojo today, but they are pretty much kept to a minimum due to the competition aspect of kendo, where a system of uniform rules and
expectations create conformity. It's analogous to the situation in Kodokan Judo. But there is some variation. There are some players who practice using two shinai, so they use the Nito style usually associated with Musashi (see the History section), but this designation as used by most kendoists today doesn't mean that the stylist has studied a unified system called Nito, just that they have adopted some of the techniques of using two shinai. If a sensei has studied some of the more traditional sword arts (Yagyu or Itto Ryu, for instance, this could bleed into the way they approach kendo.


Kendo History

Since kendo is based on the use of the Japanese sword, it could not have begun to develop until the Nara Period (710-794). The earliest swords in Japan were of the Chinese variety, and the Japanese words for sword--ken and to--have their semantic roots in the Chinese terms ch'ien and tao (Ratti and Westbrook 1973:258). The oldest swords in Japan date from the second century B.C., but it was not until the eighth century A.D. that the distinctive prototype of the single-edged, curved Japanese sword known as the katana emerged (Draeger and Smith 1989:99).

Even with the emergence of the Japanese sword, no organized, defined style or form of swordsmanship developed immediately (Sasamori and Warner 1964:26). Techniques for the use of the sword developed along an ad hoc basis for some 600 years, and only began to be systematized during the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). Up to this point, the art of the sword was developed primarily only in its technical aspects in terms of the forging of sword blades. Great strides in the swordsmith's art were especially notable during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), when swordsmiths benefited from the patronage of the Imperial House.

The period following the Onin War (1467-1477) witnessed both technical systemization and ideological elaboration concerning the arts of the sword. By the Tokugawa Period hundreds of martial arts styles had developed, although in a sense they can all be seen as developing from a few main traditions.

The watershed in Japanese history for the art of the sword is marked by the life of Izasa Choisai Ienao (1387-1488), the founder of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu of swordsmanship. A gifted swordsman and an organizational genius, Choisai founded his ryu after a period of fasting, meditation and training that lasted one thousand days (Reid and Croucher 1983:120). His style of kenjutsu was a precise, rigorous system which regulated all phases of swordplay, from physical preparation and technique to mental attitude (Ratti and Westbrook 1973:272). The oldest ryu of which we have historical documentation, Choisai's system set the style for subsequent schools of swordsmanship. Considering the turbulent nature of Japan's history during this time, which continued until the close of the sixteenth century and was marked by widespread war and civil unrest, there was ample opportunity and motivation for the evolution of other ryu of swordsmanship (Warner and Draeger 1984:34).

The structure of these schools or styles of swordsmanship was, of course, affected by the social and political organization of the time. Ryu, the Japanese term perhaps best glossed as martial traditions, were corporate entities perpetuated by ties of real or fictive kinship. Masters of ryu assumed their position based on lineal or collateral descent and were called shosei, although gifted students could rise to headship even though not related by kin ties, and were termed shodai (Draeger 1973b:21).

Since outsiders could be admitted to a ryu, various customs arose that served to bind students to their school. Initiates were required to take a blood oath of loyalty, or keppan, and swear not to divulge the secret techniques of the ryu to non-members. Initiates were also required to undergo a probationary period, known as te hodoki--"untying of hands"--during which they were required to perform menial tasks for the master and could not participate in actual training. This period gave the head of the ryu time to scrutinize and judge the initiate's character and test his devotion (Warner and Draeger 1984:43).

The establishment of ryu was frequently attributed to divine guidance, a flash of inspiration, bestowed on the founder. Due to this element of supernatural intervention, ryu were often associated with Shinto shrines and were considered to be protected by the power inherent in these locations (Draeger 1973b:21). The belief that these ryu were inspired in the theological sense led to the tradition of the transmission of the ryu's secrets from master to disciple, both directly and through the medium of makimono, or hand scrolls, which cryptically recorded the strategy, techniques, and insights of the ryu and were generally understandable only by initiates (Note 1) (Warner and Draeger 1984:43).

The Japanese refinement and propagation of sword arts would be no more noteworthy than that of European fencing masters were it not for the concomitant development of a philosophical and spiritual system that was considered to be an integral part of the swordsman's art. The growth of a philosophical rationalization for kenjutsu is most notable beginning in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when a number of skilled and profound kenshi (swordsmen) developed concepts that were to decisively affect the evolution of modern kendo.

Kagehisa Ittosai Ito, a shadowy figure from an historical viewpoint, since even his place and year of birth is unknown, nonetheless dominates the development of modern swordsmanship. A swordsman unique in history, he was not only an impeccable technician but also a deeply philosophical thinker. Heavily influenced by Buddhism and its interpretation of the physical world, Ittosai perceived an essential unity in sword techniques that was a reflection of the cosmic order. As all creatures are deductible to one origin, he believed, so all sword techniques come from one single technique, that of kiriotoshi. For Ittosai, this meant that the swordsman had but to train in the basics of kenjutsu while pondering the true nature of reality. His conviction in the validity of his philosophy--one Mind, one Sword, one technique--was reflected in his adoption of the name Ittosai, literally "One Sword Man." His stress on both basic techniques and philosophical introspection was perpetuated in the Itto Ryu he founded in the sixteenth century and was to have a significant impact on modern kendo (Sasamori and Warner 1964:45).

Kamiizumi Nobutsuna (b.1508) was trained in the tradition of the Kage (Shadow) Ryu, but made a number of changes which prompted him to change his system's name to Shin-Kage (New Shadow). His emphasis on the mind and mental control in the practice of swordsmanship, his approach to swordsmanship deeply affected one of his pupils, Yagyu Mitsuyoshi. Mitsuyoshi's son, Yagyu Munenori (1571-1646) was one in a line of capable swordsmen in this family who had a strong impact on the development of the theory and practice of kenjutsu. While stylistically guided by the precepts of Shin-Kage, Munenori was strongly influenced by the views of the Zen priest Takuan (1573-1645). It was to this Yagyu swordsman that Takuan wrote his famous philosophical treatise, the Fudo Shinmyo Roku (Lowry 1985:126).

Under Takuan's guidance, Munenori came to believe that righteousness is an essential part of the martial arts. Without this moral dimension, swordsmanship is merely the act of killing and avoiding being killed. Demonstrating the impact of Zen on his outlook, Munenori believed that swordsmen must aspire to a plane beyond life and death, must cast off petty distractions if they are to achieve real mastery.

Reflecting the fact that the Yagyu were official fencing instructors for the Tokugawa shogunate and so intimately involved in the social and political order of the day, Munenori also was convinced that kenjutsu could and should make a positive contribution to society. This concept had of course been implicit in kenjutsu, since it was the bushi as a class who developed the art. Munenori was convinced, however, that the proper study of swordsmanship led to a spiritual insight and moral maturity that could not fail to have a beneficial impact on society.

Munenori became increasingly convinced that his style of kenjutsu had nothing at all to do with swordsmanship, and everything to do with the spirit. He even remarked that if his style of swordplay had not already been titled the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu by his father, he would call it the Muto, or No-Sword, Ryu, to underscore this fact. Thus, "servants who attended to Munenori in his old age frequently caught sight of him in his garden, absolutely motionless, sword in hand, occupied not with the physical mechanics of posture and movement but with the abstruse precepts of Takuan's Zen that elevated the bujutsu from technique to a method of spiritual contemplation" (Lowry 1985:150). (Note 2)

Munenori wrote the Heiho Kadensho, or Chronicles of Strategy, to record his insights for future swordsmen. Like all makimono of the various ryu, this work is difficult to understand, and filled with obscure references which (it is to be assumed) are comprehensible only to initiates of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu. Munenori's most enduring contribution to the practice of the Japanese sword arts is his stress on Zen concepts as a route to mastery and his insistence that true swordsmanship is a moral art. "Katsujinken Satsujinken" is a phrase which was written down and hung on the dojo of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu and is also found on teaching licenses given to adepts. Literally "the sword that gives life, the sword that takes life," this motto of the Yagyu Ryu is an enduring reminder of the nature of Munenori's quest for perfection in the way of the sword.

The idea of swordsmanship as possessing a moral dimension was developed among other contemporaries of Yagyu Munenori. Odagiri Sekiei, founder of the Muji-Shin-Jen Ryu of swordsmanship, also perceived kenjutsu not as an art of killing but of disciplining the self as a moral being (Draeger and Smith 1989:101). His "Sword of No-Abiding Mind" style exhibited the strong influence of Zen as well as the distinctive colorings of Confucian and Shinto thought. For Odagiri, the student of the sword must act in accord with Heavenly Reason and closely observe the Law of Nature. Acting in accord with these principles would facilitate a mastery of the sword so complete that it would be unnecessary for the swordsman to slay his opponent (Suzuki 1959:173). (Note 3)

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) is perhaps the most renowned swordsman of this time period, and is familiar today as the author of the Go Rin No Sho, or Book of Five Rings. Originally penned as a treatise on swordsmanship, it has become popular in the United States because it was erroneously considered to be as a primer on Japanese business strategy (see Hurst 1982).

Musashi, the founder of the Niten Ichi Ryu, was a swordsman more interested in the impact mental training had on technique than he was in spiritual development. In this sense, he was a less well rounded kenshi than Munenori or Ittosai. (Note 4) He was, nonetheless, influenced by the Zen concept of no-mind. Musashi expressed this concept with the term Void and identified true attainment of the way of swordsmanship with the attainment of Void. In this state, the swordsman becomes a stable, focused, imperturbable entity; in Musashi's words, he attains the "body of a rock" (V. Harris 1974:82) in which he is able to go beyond merely seeing the opponent and can perceive his strengths and weaknesses and even anticipate his actions. The concept of the distinction between perception and sight in swordplay is one that has endured to this day.

One of the most interesting and influential of Japan's swordsmen was Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888), whose life and career spanned the interval during which Japan entered the modern world and also the period in which swordsmanship ceased to be a primarily functional military art and evolved into a true do form.

Tesshu was an accomplished calligrapher, a serious student of Zen, and an active public servant who served in both the Tokugawa bakufu and the government of the Emperor Meiji. Tesshu's study of the martial arts began early in his life. In addition to swordsmanship, he also studied sojutsu (the art of the spear) but was renowned primarily for his skill with the sword. He stood over six feet tall and was immensely strong. Tesshu's swordplay was so enthusiastic that he was nicknamed "Demon Tetsu," (Note 5) and several dojo in which he trained prohibited him from striking the wrists of opponents (a traditional target) for fear of broken arms (Stevens 1984b:15).

Tesshu studied in the Shinkage Ryu, Ono-ha Itto Ryu and Nakanishi-ha Itto Ryu, becoming one of the foremost swordsmen of the era. What marked Tesshu as a great swordsman, however, was not his physical training, but the emphasis he placed on the disciplining of the mind and spirit. When he was twenty eight years old, Tesshu was decisively defeated by Asari Gimei, master swordsman of the Nakanishi-ha Itto Ryu, a man half Tesshu's size and some twelve years his senior. So powerful a kenshi was Asari that Tesshu found all mental composure fleeing the moment he crossed swords with the master.

The solution to Tesshu's personal dilemma in swordsmanship turned out to be not merely more training under Asari's tutelage but also the rigorous pursuit of enlightenment through the study of Zen. After seventeen years in both Asari's and a Zen dojo, at age forty five, Tesshu experienced enlightenment: "For years I forged my spirit through the study of swordsmanship, confronting every challenge steadfastly. The walls surrounding me suddenly crumbled; like pure dew reflecting the world in crystal clarity, total Awakening has now come" (Stevens 1984b:18). With Tesshu's spiritual awakening, Asari designated him headmaster of his ryu. It is said Asari never picked up a sword again.

Tesshu was convinced, by reason of his very personal experience, that training in the way of the sword was an intensely spiritual thing. In his dojo, known as the Shumpukan, Tesshu initiated an onerous course of study calculated to exhaust the swordsman physically, and to develop an extremely clear, focused mind. So strongly did Tesshu believe that true swordsmanship was a thing of the mind and not of the sword, that he established his own ryu, the Itto Shoden Muto Ryu, "The No-Sword System of the Correct Transmission of Ito Ittosai."

At his dojo, there was little or no emphasis on explanation or analysis of technique. Novice swordsmen devoted their time to uchikomi (attack training) for at least three years, a fatiguing and extremely boring apprenticeship. Tesshu thought that such training served to both strengthen the body and focus the mind, imprinting the fundamental techniques on the minds of beginners. Critics of Tesshu's system saw little merit in what they termed "wood chopping" (Stevens 1984b:22).

Perhaps the most dramatic training technique Tesshu instituted was that of seigan (or vow) training. The first type of seigan was one in which the student completed one thousand days of successive training, followed by contests in which the trainee was required to stand and continuously face two hundred opponents. If this seigan was successfully completed, the student was eligible, after further training, to undergo a three day, six hundred match seigan. The next and highest level was that of the seven day, fourteen hundred match seigan (Stevens 1984b:24-25). (Note 6)

The motivation behind such a brutal training method was to truly consume all of a trainee's physical stamina, of wearing down his body and exhausting his technique, until the only thing that compels him to raise his training sword for yet another in a seemingly endless series of matches is the power of the spirit. In Tesshu's words, swordsmanship, and particularly seigan, "should lead to the heart of things, where one can directly confront life and death" (Stevens 1984b:25).

Today, there are perhaps only fifteen active swordsmen of the Muto Ryu. The present headmaster, Dr. Murakami Yasumasa, thinks its methods are too severe, its principle too deeply philosophical for widespread popularity (Stevens 1984b:41). While we may agree that Tesshu's way is one which demands high levels of devotion and discipline, and so has declined in popularity, we must also note that many elements traditionally found in the Muto Ryu have served to influence the practice of modern kendo. Tesshu's emphasis on basics, a devotion to almost monotonous training (Tesshu would say this was mindless training in its best sense), and an all-pervasive idea that swordsmanship is above all the training of the spirit, are the modern kendoka's inheritance from the master swordsman Yamaoka Tesshu.

Until the seventeenth century, the way of the sword could, at least theoretically, be described as one concerned with the development of viable combat skills with the live blade of the katana. As the military utility of the swordsman waned, (Note 7) however, practice in the art of swordsmanship, as already discussed, began to develop spiritual aspects. The need to reduce the chance of training injuries, which had earlier given rise to the use of the bokken (wooden sword), eventually resulted in the creation of the shinai (bamboo fencing foil) during the eighteenth century. With this development, the way of the sword began to bifurcate along two separate lines: kendo, which concentrated on training with the shinai in an active, competitive environment; and iaido, which focused on practicing with the live blade in the series of formal solo exercises known as kata.(Note 8) Although formally distinct in terms of technique, it is widely held by kendoka that no true understanding of the way of the sword is possible without some proficiency in iaido as well. Kan Sensei, at whose dojo I studied, made it a point to teach both kendo and iaido, which he considered "two wheels on the same cart."

The Abe Ryu was the first to formally designate its system as "kendo" during the eighteenth century (Draeger and Smith 1989:101). It was during this period also that fencing gloves and armor were introduced into practice, along with the widespread use of the shinai (Sasamori and Warner 1964:51-52). The increased margin of safety in practice encouraged training in kendo even by those who were not professional fighting men, and by the mid-nineteenth century, a substantial number of Japanese, samurai and commoners, were engaged in shinai-geiko, or the type of training in which students used the shinai and protective armor.

It was during this period, of course, that Japan entered the modern world with the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of the Emperor Meiji. At the same time that the government felt driven to modernize Japan's economy and government, however, there was also a concomitant feeling that much that was good in Japanese culture and society needed to be preserved. The particular qualities of courage, loyalty, and discipline that were believed to be encouraged by training in arts like kendo were considered vitally important by officials of the Meiji government. As a result, beginning in 1871, traditionalists urged the Japanese Ministry of Education to make kendo compulsory in all public and private schools in Japan (Sasamori and Warner 1964:55). Despite such encouragement, interest in budo began to wane in the late nineteenth century, and public kendo exhibitions became common during this period in the hopes of reviving interest.(Note 9) In 1895, the government established the Dai Nippon Butokukai (Greater Japan Martial Virtue Association) in Kyoto, which stressed the role of kendo and judo in the education of Japanese citizens (Draeger 1974:35).

Government sponsorship of these arts eventually served to revive interest. In 1905, Tokyo University became the first college in the nation to sponsor a kendo team, and other colleges soon followed. In 1928, the All Japan Kendo Federation was established as a governing body to regulate and standardize the art throughout Japan.

The close involvement of the government with the martial arts caused the Allied Powers to ban their practice after Japan's defeat in World War II. The aggressive, jingoistic flavor of militarism made an unsavory addition to the ideology of budo, and the attitude of the Allied Powers is understandable. The fundamentally positive aspect of Japanese budo soon impressed itself upon officials, however, and they came to understand that the excesses of Japanese expansionism could in no way be attributed to budo itself.

In 1950, the Butokukai was reopened, and judo and kendo were selected as the primary arts for the training of the newly organized Japanese police force. The rehabilitated image of budo gave rise to increased public participation in these arts. The early 50's saw the first extensive export of budo to the United States. In Japan, the increasing popularity of kendo and judo was encouraged by a heightened emphasis on sport competitions during the 1960's. The Nippon Budokan, a massive sports arena, was built in 1964 in Tokyo, and is used to host major tournaments in kendo and judo. In 1971, reflecting the spread of kendo throughout the world, the International Kendo Federation was established (Lewis 1985:114). Today, kendo has some eight million adherents throughout the world.

An excellent summary of the goals of kendo is provided by the All Japan Kendo Federation:

The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character
through the application of the principles of the katana.

The purpose of practicing Kendo is:
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 peoples. (Note 10)

Despite a continuing emphasis on physical training as a road to spiritual mastery, the post-war sportive emphasis on budo places kendo in danger of assuming a character much like that of modern judo. The war-era perception of kendo and other budo forms as part and parcel of Japanese aggression has, of course, served to encourage a more "American", sportive interpretation of budo as part of the price paid for budo's rehabilitation in the post-war era. While there is still a certain dangerous possibility that kendo will assume some of the negative aspects of international judo, its classical interpretation is still relatively intact.

The limited appeal kendo holds for non-Japanese, as well as the strong emotional and cultural affinity the art holds for many Japanese and foreign nationals of Japanese descent, places kendo firmly within the Japanese martial tradition. As such, kendo is clearly a type of secondary social group concerned with the perpetuation of ethnic identity through the cultivation of Japanese attitudes and skills.


1. Even those annotated translations of makimono available today are often obscure (see V. Harris 1974; H. Sato 1986).

2. Lowry's portrait of Munenori is perhaps too benign. Although not the one-dimensional political schemer often portrayed in Japanese literature, we must note that Munenori served as the head of the shogun's secret police. His interest in swordsmanship was certainly as practical as it was profound.

3. The application of such concepts came to fruition in the modern budo form of aikido developed by Ueshiba Morihei in the twentieth century.

4. This is perhaps a less than kind assessment of Musashi. A ronin (masterless samurai) for most of his career, he was a ruthless opponent in a duel simply because attaining renown as a swordsman was the only viable option he possessed for eventually securing a position as a vassal of some local lord. A less refined man than Munenori, he also lived a much harder life. Ultimately, he obtained a position as a minor vassal of a Kyushu daimyo. Musashi's quest for excellence in the way of the sword drove him, however, to live his last four years in a cave, pondering the philosophy of swordsmanship. It was here he penned the Go Rin No Sho.

5. Born Ono Tetsutaro, Tesshu was a yoshi, or one who married into a family with no male heirs to carry on the family name. Tesshu therefore adopted his wife's family name of Yamaoka as his own. Tesshu, literally "Iron Boat" was his pen name. As renowned a calligrapher as he was a martial artist, Ono Tetsutaro is thus known to history as Yamaoka Tesshu.

6. Tesshu's institution of the thousand day period of successive training is highly reminiscent of the similar period of training and mediation undertaken by Choisai before establishing the Tenshin Katori Shinto Ryu.

7. Munenori himself noted that nothing could beat the bow and the gun for fighting. Despite popular misconceptions fueled by works of historical fiction, the Japanese were willing and eager to adopt firearms into their military strategy, and began to do so before the end of the sixteenth century (H. Sato 1986:13).

8. Although long a subject of study within the classical ryu of swordsmanship, iaido was not formally established as an art until the 1920's. Currently, the All Japan Iaido Federation operates under the umbrella of its parent organization, the All Japan Kendo Federation.

9. These exhibitions were somewhat sensational in nature, since before the Meiji era commoners were forbidden to study or even watch training in the way of the sword, although it was not uncommon during the later years of the Tokugawa shogunate for commoners to study in urban dojo.

10. Courtesy of Mr. Gene Eto of the American Kendo Federation.


Bibliography & Citations

Draeger, Donn F. 1974. Modern Bujutsu and Budo. New York: John Weatherhill Inc.
Sasamori, Junzo and Gordon Warner. 1964. This is Kendo. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E.

Ratti, Oscar and Adelle Westbrook. 1973. Secrets of the Samurai. Rutland: Chalres
E. Tuttle Co.

Draeger, Donn F. and Robert W. Smith. 1989. Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts.
New York: Kodansha.

Reid, Howard, and Michael Croucher. 1983. The Fighting Arts. New York: Simon and

Warner, Gordon and Donn F. Draeger. 1984. Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique and Practice. New York: John Weatherhill, Inc.

Draeger, Donn F. 1973. Classical Bujutsu. New York: John Weatherhill.

Hurst, G. Cameron. "Samurai on Wall Street: Miyamoto Musashi and the Search for
Success." UFSI Reports, no. 4

Lowry, Dave. 1985. Autumn Lightning. Boston: Shambhalla.

Suzuki, D.T. 1959. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton: Princeton University

Harris, Victor. 1974. Miyamoto Musashi: A Book of Five Rings. Woodstock, N.Y.:
Overlook Press.

Stevens, John. Sword of No-Sword: Life of the Master Warrior Tesshu. Boulder:
Shambhalla Press.

Lewis, Peter. 1985. Martial Arts of the Orient. New York: Gallery Books
Arlott, John (ed.). 1975. The oxford Companion to World Sports and Games. New
York: Oxford University Press

Sato, Hiroaki. 1986. The Sword and the Mind. Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook

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