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During Japan’s occupation of Korea in 1910, the art of Kendo was brought into Korean schools and society. Over many years, Koreans adapted this art into their own style, mixing Korean ideals and philosophy with the art of the sword and staff taught in Kendo. The result is the modern day Kumdo, which has been an official part of junior high school curriculums in Korea since 1927 and differs widely from the Japanese art of Kendo, siting mostly stylistic differences in the ways that blows are struck as well as insignia on clothing, terminology, and the philosophies encompassed during instruction. 

The Art of the Sword Comes to Korea
In as early as 1894, Korean police were required to learn combat swordsmanship as part of their training and military swordsmanship in the use of the Korean Army Academy can be traced back to 1904. In order to train more safely, the use of padded armor and bamboo swords were used in practice, similar to the Japanese art of Kenjutsu. This paved the way for sport swordsmanship, first called Gekiken, being introduced to Korean schools in 1906. 

Before Japanese occupation, swords were sometimes used in training in Royal Court Martial Arts and other practices, but it was the Japanese arts that merged with Korean traditions to make Kumdo an organized and recognized Korean martial art. Determined to maintain their own heritage, Koreans adapted the art of the sword and included their own philosophies and terminology to make it their own. By 1927, all junior high school students in Korea were learning Kumdo as a required part of the curriculum, but it wasn’t until almost 30 years later in 1953 that the Korean Kumdo Association became more organized and affiliated with the Korean Amateur Sports Association. From then on to the present, Kumdo became popular in many sporting arenas as well as gained headway in larger organizations and accreditation within schools and the Korean police forces. Today, Kumdo’s rich Korean heritage shines from the moves that are used in practice to the traditional Korean uniform and the terminology and philosophies used. 

Basic Clothing and Equipment
The padding used in practice on a typical Kumdo uniform has specific uses for each part. The different areas that each piece of equipment covers are crucial to the safety of the practitioner and each piece has a specific name. The padding and equipment that is worn (aside from the sword) is all together referred to as “armor” and consists of six elements. The first is a scarf that is worn under the helmet. This is necessary to prevent sweat from blurring the practitioner’s vision during practice. The scarf is made of cotton and called “Myŏn-soo-goon.” The next element is the helmet, called “Homyeoum.” It includes a grill that protects the face during practice and combat. Moving down the body, the third element protects the chest. It is usually made of leather and looks similar to the type of armor you’d see on a medieval swordsman, of course with different styling and insignia. It is called “Kap.” The fourth element protects the hips and areas below the waist. It is a skirt, like what you’d see on a Roman warrior, usually made of a thick canvas and leather. This piece is called “Kapsang.” Over the hands and forearms, the practitioner wears mitts that protect these areas, which are very much in play during sword practice. This fifth element is called “Howan.” The sixth and last element of the armor is a mouth guard, called “Eep Bohodae.” 

The armor is worn over a traditional Koreon Dobok, which is a practice garment worn in many types of martial arts. In the Japanese fashion of Kendo, many practitioners also wear “Paji” which are a type of billowy pants not secured at the ankles. However, in the practice room, paji are sometimes secured at the ankle to signify the traditional style of Korean dress. A linen jacket is also worn and secured with a belt that signifies the rank of the student. In some schools, the uniforms are a bit more lax, although full armor is still required when sparring for safety reasons. In modern times, some students are allowed to wear the simple white or black pants and linen jacket that many other martial arts practitioners wear along with the belt that signifies rank. In competition, the dress is much stricter and Korean Kumdo practitioners often wear traditional black uniforms under their armor

The Kumdo practitioner uses a wooden or bamboo sword called a Juk-To during practice and combat in order to limit injuries and fatality that could occur with a sharpened metal sword. The sword itself consists of several named parts that are all important during practice and combat, some for the use of scoring points. A leather cap, called “Sunnhyuk,” marks the end of the sword and thrusts in combat are only counted when made with this part. A leather band, called “Joonghyuk,” marks the first third of the sword. The area between the Sunnhyuk and Joonghyuk is called “Tadolbu” and it is the aim of the practitioner to strike with this area, as it is the only place that is recognized as a strike during combat. 

Philosophy and Training
The art of Kumdo, like many Korean martial arts, encompasses a mind and body philosophy so that the practitioner is expected to abide by a code of conduct in life and in practicing martial arts. Kumdo seeks to strengthen the practitioner’s character and abides by a modern rendition of the five tenets set forth during the Three Kingdoms period:

“Be loyal and faithful to your country and organization.
Be faithful and respectful to your parents and elders.
Be faithful and respectful to your friends and colleagues.
Be confident and show courage when faced with injustice.
Be benevolent.”
Source: Wikipedia

This is the basic creed that Kumdo practitioners follow; however there is more to the philosophy than these five tenets. As students train, they learn several techniques to control their responses in combat. One such technique is the mastery of the “four poisons” which are surprise, fear, hesitation, and confusion. When students learn to control these parts of their responses, they can learn the state of “emptiness,” which asks them to execute method without being impacted by circumstance or environment. The mastery of one discipline leads to the next and goes on to include entering states of complete clarity, spiritual awareness, objectivity, and other studies that all pertain to the basic five tenets. Each part of the spiritual development during Kumdo training is in balance with the others. 

The ranking system is similar to other Korean martial arts in that it begins with the 10th level down to first for students and then begins with the 1st level moving up for masters. The requirements to progress are different among the schools but each advancement requires testing to exhibit the skills learned in combat necessary for the next level. Students must learn several types of skills at each level, all encompassing both the body conditioning aspects as well as the other philosophies of Kumdo. 

A typical training session depends on the school that the student attends. Although organized, Kumdo schools are not as structured as many other Korean martial arts and so the practices may vary from school to school depending on the instructors and other organizational affiliations. Nevertheless, students must learn specific techniques in order to progress through official levels and earn accreditation in competition as set forth by the Korea Kumdo Association. During training, they use drills and strikes to perfect their technique, and then spar using full armor and bamboo swords the same as they would during competition. They work to perfect the Bonguk Geombeop and Joeson Saebop forms, learning several sets of engagements necessary for each examination for advancement. 

Competitions consist of two practitioners at a time as they parry on a court using specific strikes and blows in order to gain points. The courts are generally a square or rectangle of 9 to 11 meters per side. Judges score based on the types of attacks and how well they are executed as well as sportsmanship and adherence to the character building tenets of Kumdo displayed in competition. Three referees preside over the events, one in the court and two corner referees. Participants must wear full body armor and use bamboo swords in the arena. Several organizations exist to regulate and stage these competitions, but the Korea Kumdo Association is the de-facto governing organization, which is also responsible for most of Kumdo’s representation in the arts and media. 

Differentiating Between Kumdo and Kendo
The specific stylistic differences between Kumdo and Kendo exist in the ways that blows are struck during combat. Some schools still adopt some of the practices of Japanese Kendo and a Korean Kumdo team does attend the World Kendo Championships every three years. While these schools that train their students in both the traditional Korean fashion may also teach Kendo as well, they still maintain the rich Korean heritage of the sport as well as the philosophies passed down from the Three Kingdoms period.