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Kendo – The Way of the Sword


The Art of Kendo


Kendo is a Japanese martial art which translates to “Way of the Sword,” and descends from traditional swordsmanship. Today, it is primarily used for sport and physical fitness, as well as a form of mental discipline. Kendo is in many ways the Far Eastern equivalent of fencing, but there are a number of differences that separate kendo from similar martial arts. The key defining characteristics of kendo are its use of shinai, a unique type of sword made from bamboo, and a specialized type of protective armor called bogu. It has gained worldwide popularity over the years since its creation, though it is most commonly seen in its home nation of Japan.


Kendo, like other forms of Eastern martial arts, integrates a good deal of non-physical components into its design. Mental training is just as important in kendo as its physical counterpart, and the sport also incorporates metaphysical concepts into a form of spirituality that accompanies this rigorous physical and mental training. Here, we'll briefly outline a few of the main points regarding kendo's history, core concepts, primary techniques, and modern usage.


History and Central Concepts


The origin of kendo is in the far older art of kenjutsu, which was formed centuries ago and developed over many years. The individual exercises of kendo are known as kata, and are taken from traditional training methods for warriors and samurai studying kenjutsu, albeit in a modified format. The main things that separate kendo from kenjutsu are the equipment (shinai and bogu as opposed to wooden or blunted metal swords and armor) and the application. Kendo is designed as a sport and martial art, whereas kenjutsu was intended to train warriors for actual lethal combat.


The time frame within which kendo originates is still subject to some debate, though references date back to the seventeenth century. Improvements to the equipment and art form were ostensibly made in the early 1700s, with improved shinai and specialized armor being designed specifically for training in kendo. The sport was not even officially renamed to kendo until 1920, before which it was simply a form of sport swordsmanship (gekiken).


Kendo was, at one point, banned in Japan. During the occupation following World War II in 1946, the occupying forces attempted to remove the militaristic practices present in Japanese culture. Kendo returned less than a decade later, and later the International Kendo Federation was formed in 1970 to promote the sport worldwide. Today, kendo is practiced around the world.


The primary concept of kendo as laid out by the IKF is “to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana.” To summarize a statement released by the IKF, kendo aims to develop the body, the mind, and the spirit all together. This is achieved through rigorous physical and mental training, and by achieving a state of serenity.


Core Techniques of Kendo


Kendo's training techniques are broken into a number of different subsections, each of which is designed to improve a particular aspect of the sport. One of the core techniques within kendo is known as the kiai, or war shout. The kiai is designed to represent the fighting spirit of the practitioner, and to show one's strength. Along similar lines is the fumikomi-ashi, which is a stamping motion with the front foot when performing a strike. In order to correctly perform fumikomi-ashi, one must fight barefoot, ideally in a dojo with sprung wood floors.


Strikes in kendo are designed to make contact with particular areas of the opponent's armor at specific times in order to score points. The only valid targets in a kendo competition are the wrists, head, and areas of the body, and many of these only using certain techniques or during certain positions. For example, thrusts are only allowed to connect with the throat, though due to the potentially dangerous nature of thrusts regardless of protective armor, some competitions for less experienced practitioners do not allow thrusts at all.


A few of the formats used during training include waza-geiko, ji-geiko, and shiai-geiko. Waza-geiko is kendo practice using a partner, which can take the form of exercises or sparring matches. Ji-geiko is an undirected form of practice against an opponent, in order to combine all the techniques currently being practiced. Shiai-geiko is a more serious form of practice designed for competition, and in cases may even be judged as a form of evaluation.


Techniques in kendo fall into broad categories, each of which has more specific sub-techniques that are used in specific situations. Shikake-waza are attack techniques that use bold strikes and take advantage of openings in an opponent's guard. Examples include tobikomi-waza, which is a rapid strike when one judges one's opponent to be of weakening spirit, and debana-waza, which aims to preempt an opponent's attack by striking just before their strike lands.


Oji-waza are counter-attack movements, which rely on parrying or blocking an opponent's attack and then following up before they have time to respond. Some advanced forms of oji-waza rely on baiting out an attack from the opponent, which can be predicted and thus easily countered. Examples include the kaeshi-waza, which is a parry followed by reversing one's grip and striking the opponent's opposite side, and nuki-waza, which is a quick sidestep or backstep immediately followed by a counterstrike.


Modern Kendo as a Competitive Martial Art


Modern kendo has very strict rules for competition, though even practicing tends to have a fairly rigid format in order to prepare practitioners for competitions. Point are scored in the form of yuko-datotsu, and are gained when a purposeful strike or thrust lands on a valid target. Only a particular area of the shinai is valid for scoring on a given attack. For thrusts, only the tip counts as a scoring area. For strikes, only one side of the shinai counts as a scoring area - the one facing away from the wielder, as shinai are modeled after katana, which have an edge on only one side of the sword. The scoring area for strikes tends to be around the last third of the blade, as contact with a scoring area on an opponent's armor with the part of the blade near the hilt won't be counted.


Scoring areas on the opponent's armor are typically defined as the following four sections: men-bu, which are the top and sides of the head armor, kote-bu, which is the padded area on either the left or right wrist protector (the valid side depends on how the opponent's shinai is being held), the do-bu, which is the area protecting the sides of the torso, and tsuki-bu, which protects the throat. As mentioned previously, the tsuki-bu is typically only able to be targeted by thrusts, and typically only in certain types of competition.


Notes on Competition and Grades


Part of the art of competing in a kendo match takes shape in the form of zanshin, which is a state of heightened awareness. This awareness pertains not only to the movements of one's opponent and their weapon, but one's own body and weapon as well. Executing a perfect strike relies on maintaining zanshin throughout, as this will help keep strikes accurate and powerful as well as prevent counterattacks and parries.


A standard kendo competition has three judges, each of which makes a vote following a successful (but not necessarily scoring) strike. If two out of the three judges deem the strike to be a scoring hit, a point is awarded. A given round ends when a point is awarded, and a typical match ends when one contender scores two points. In the event of the time limit being reached, if only one competitor has scored, that person wins the match. Ties can be dealt with in several ways, with the most common being a sudden death style round (the next point scored wins). Sometimes the judges will vote on a winner based on technique and form, and at times the match will be declared a draw.


World championships for kendo are held once every three years, and competitions have been held since 1970. The International Kendo Federation organizes these tournaments, with a separate European tournament held once a year (except for world tournament years).


Kendo grades its practitioners based on a combination of performance and the amount of time a practitioner has spent on the art. Kendo uses a kyu and dan system, with kyu being amateur ranks that increase in rank as the number decreases (sixth kyu is the lowest grade, first kyu is the highest). Dan grades begin after first kyu and mark a skilled or professional-level practitioner, ranging from 1-dan (the lowest) to 8-dan (the highest). In order to advance from one dan grade to the next, one must practice for one year for each of the ranks they have completed so far, meaning advancing from fifth to sixth dan requires four years of training, starting after reaching fifth dan. The exception is eighth dan, which requires an additional ten years of training, meaning the minimum age for eighth dan is forty-four.