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Representational image of Kendo training in Japan. Source: jtanki / Adobe Stock

The Ancient Origins of Kendo: From Samurai to Sportsmanship

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Kendo, the practice of Japanese swordsmanship, is one of the most popular martial arts today. Yet few people fully appreciate this sport’s fascinating origins and what its evolution can tell us about modern Japanese history and culture.

Through the centuries, Kendo's path has transformed, adapting principles of discipline and respect into a competitive arena. Tracing this trajectory offers valuable insights into how traditions evolve, reflecting shifts in societal values.

Kendo itself is a relatively young sport, having only been officially established in the early 20th century. However, its origins go back hundreds of years, all the way back to medieval Japan and the age-old art of Kenjutsu. 

Kendo: Japanese Swordsmanship Through the Ages

Kendo, a Japanese martial art, centers on the use of bamboo swords ( shinai) and protective gear ( bogu) to simulate combat. Rooted in Bushido—the samurai code of ethics—Kendo emphasizes discipline, respect and self-improvement.

Participants engage in strikes targeting specific areas, fostering precision and control. The absence of physical contact aligns with its principle of mutual respect. Kendo's philosophy extends beyond physical skill, aiming to refine the practitioner's character through rigorous training. With an unwavering focus on personal growth, Kendo epitomizes the fusion of tradition and sport, shaping individuals not only as athletes but as exemplars of respect and integrity.

Origins of Kendo and the Way of the Blade

When one thinks of Japanese martial arts the first thing that likely comes to mind is the iconic curved samurai blade. It should be no surprise that the origins of Kendo, a sword-based martial art, can be traced back to the earliest Japanese blade, the nihonto.

This iconic sword first appeared during the middle of the Heian period, which spanned from 794 to 1185 AD. The sword had a slightly curved blade, known as a sori with raised edges, the shinogi

Originally the nihonto style of curved blade was used by tribes of horsemen in northern Japan, especially during the 9th century AD. Similar in style to the scimitars and sabers of other regions, the nihonto’s curved blade improved cutting efficiency and its curvature enabled a larger surface area to come in contact with the target during a swinging motion, increasing the potential for successful strikes. 

In horse combat scenarios, where swift and accurate strikes are crucial, the curved blade allowed riders to make impactful strikes while maintaining their momentum. Furthermore, the curve aided in drawing the weapon smoothly from its scabbard, minimizing the risk of snagging, which could be especially problematic on a fast-moving horse.

The curved design also enhanced the weapon's versatility, enabling both slashing and thrusting maneuvers. This adaptability proved valuable when engaging adversaries from different angles on horseback.

It didn’t take long for other groups to catch on to the nihonto’s benefits and the samurai soon adopted its design for their own swords. The sword became an increasingly prominent part of Japanese warrior culture and forging technology rapidly advanced, especially during the Kamakura period of 1185 to 1333.

The Battle of Onin during the Onin War, byy Utagawa Toshitora. (Public domain)

The Battle of Onin during the Onin War, byy Utagawa Toshitora. (Public domain)

Changing with the Times: The Muromachi Shogunate (1392–1573) 

By the time of the Onin War (1467 to 77), the nihonto had evolved into the traditional katana samurai sword as we think of it today. The period following this brutal war was one of political and social chaos during which many people turned to the sword for defense.

It is during this time that many of Japan’s early schools of swordsmanship known as Kenjutsu arose. Of these, the three major schools were Kage-ryū (Aizu) (Aisukage ryū), Chūjō-ryū and Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū. Aspects of these would go on to inspire Kendo as we know it today.

Another change came in 1543 with the introduction of firearms to the island of Tanegashima on Japan’s southern tip. Soon the Japanese were applying the casting method they used on their famous swords, tatara-fuki, which used high-quality iron sand, to produce firearms.

The spread of quality firearms necessitated a change to the heavily armored style of fighting that had become commonplace prior to and during the Onin War. Slow-moving Samurai wearing heavy armor were sitting ducks against gunfire, meaning new forms of lighter hand-to-hand forms of combat emerged. 

More emphasis than ever before was placed on swordsmanship skills. More refined techniques were established and the skills that were developed during the Muromachi Shogunate are still passed down to Kendo enthusiasts to this day.

Kendo developed out of Kenjutsu, transitioning from battlefield techniques to a modern sport emphasizing discipline, respect, and bamboo sword sparring. Woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada. (Public domain)

Kendo developed out of Kenjutsu, transitioning from battlefield techniques to a modern sport emphasizing discipline, respect, and bamboo sword sparring. Woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada. (Public domain)

The Development of Kenjutsu During the Edo Period

The relative chaos of the Muromachi Shogunate was followed by the lengthy Edo period, known for its prolonged peace which lasted from 1603 until 1867. This peace meant that Japan’s samurai needed new avenues to hone their skills and swordsmanship evolved from simple killing techniques to something more spiritual.

Kenjutsu masters began developing new theories for what constituted as a victory and more than ever before emphasized that great swordsmanship required a special kind of discipline. Entire books on the art of warfare and spirituality like Heiho Kadensho by Yagyu Munenori, Fudochi Shinmyoroku by the monk Takuan Soho, and Gorin-no-sho (The Book of Five Rings) by Miyamoto Musashi were compiled during this time. These and other books that came later during the period became the foundations for modern Kendo teachings.

These books taught the Samurai and other Kenjutsu practitioners how to overcome questions of life and death by applying what they learned from swordsmanship to their daily lives. The Edo period was a time of momentous change for the Samurai. They had gone from loyal warriors to glorified civil servants. During this time Kenjutsu was a way to help them focus their minds and remind them of their true calling. 

The Evolution of Kenjutsu

Kenjutsu continued to evolve throughout the Edo period, increasingly emphasizing more skillful and graceful techniques and moving away from practical combat uses. Over 500 different schools were founded during this time leading to rapid advancement in training techniques and the equipment used, another step in the gradual development of Kendo.

The first major step towards Kendo came with Yamada Heizaemon Mitsunori's introduction of Japanese wooden and bamboo swords to his lessons. He valued the safety of his students and is credited with refining the armor they wore, adding a metal grille to their headpieces, and covering their gloves in thick cotton. 

His son, Naganuma Sirozaemon Kunisat, another Kenjutsu master, worked with his father and during the Shotoku Era of 1711-1716, the two continued to refine their bamboo practice swords and armor, creating what is now known as kendo-gu (protective kendo armor) and shinai (bamboo swords). 

Yamada Heizaemon Mitsunori introduced bamboo swords and metal grille headpieces. (a_medvedkov / Adobe Stock)

Yamada Heizaemon Mitsunori introduced bamboo swords and metal grille headpieces. (a_medvedkov / Adobe Stock)

These new forms of protective gear had a major impact on Kenjutsu, allowing the practice of full-speed techniques during sparring while reducing the risk of severe injury. Prior to this advancement, Kenjutsu training had largely been limited to simply practicing the basics and paired kata drills. 

This led to somewhat of a golden age for Kenjutsu. Inter-school competitions became increasingly popular towards the end of the 1700s and swordsmen would travel throughout the land looking for skilled opponents to duel; this disseminated the new Kenjutsu techniques far and wide. 

The next major leap came during the early 19th century. The equipment pioneered by Naganuma Sirozaemon Kunisat, and his father continued to improve with the introduction of the yotsuwari shinai (a new type of bamboo sword made of four slats) which was both more malleable and durable than what had come before. A new type of armor, ado, was also introduced. This torso protector, made from reinforced and lacquered leather, made the fledgling art safer than ever.

This increased safety meant more students than ever wanted to learn Kenjutsu. This led to the rise of the Three Great Dojo of Edo, who all practiced full-contact duels using the new and improved training weapons and armor. These were The Genbukan led by Chiba Shusaku Renpeikan led by Saito Yakuro and Shigakkan led by Momoi Shunzo.

Chiba was particularly influential as he was the founder of Hokushin Ittō-ryū, a school devoted to traditional Japanese arts. His adding this new safer form of Kenjutsu to his school’s curriculum did much to legitimize it and caused a massive increase in popularity. He was also responsible for systemizing the waza (techniques) of shinai training. Many of the changes he made to Kenjutsu are still taught in kendo classes. 

Kenjutsu’s Decline and the Banning of the Blade

Just as things were beginning to peak the Meiji Restoration of 1868 happened. This returned Japan to imperial rule and led to samurai culture largely being outlawed. This began with a voluntary surrender of swords in 1871 that became a total ban in 1876. 

The samurai class was effectively dismantled and only the police were allowed to wear swords in public. This led to a rapid decline in Kenjutsu’s popularity.

Thankfully, it was the police’s continued carrying of the sword that kept Kenjutsu alive. The Japanese government decided that the sword styles used by policemen should be standardized and a general, Kawaji Toshiyoshi, was put in charge of this process. Toshiyoshi recruited swordsmen from Japan’s most revered schools to come up with one, unified style that could be taught to Japan’s police force. 

This quickly proved to be an impossible task, so a compromise was made. Rather than one ultimate style, the men settled on ten practice moves, called kata, which would be used in police training. This is deemed by some to have been the founding moment of modern Kendo. 

Kawaji proved to be a major proponent of swordsmanship. In his book, Gekiken Saikō-ron (Revitalizing Swordsmanship) he stressed the value of the art, arguing centuries of sword styles shouldn’t disappear with modernization. While he only argued that continued swordsmanship was important for the police, people took his arguments and applied them to the wider population.

In 1895 a surge in nationalism led to the founding of the Dai-Nippon Butokukai (DNBK). It was created to promote (and regulate) traditional martial arts in Japan. It was this institution that formally created modern Kendo. In 1919 it officially changed the names of Bujutsu and Kenjutsu to Budo and Kendo. By replacing jutsu which meant technique/art with do (way) Japan’s government hoped to focus on the spiritual/educational aspects of these martial arts rather than their technical/ martial/competitive aspects.

Now known as Kendo, the kendo kata were developed from the Kenjutsu forms of old. By 1936, Kendo had become largely standardized with most schools teaching the same version of the Kendo arts. 

Kendo in the Modern Age

But Kendo had one more challenge to face. In 1946, following Japan’s surrender at the end of WW2 Kendo, along with its other martial arts siblings, was banned by the Allied occupying forces. The reasoning behind this was, “the removal and exclusion from public life of militaristic and ultra-nationalistic persons.” During wartime martial arts instruction had become militarized and hyper-nationalized and the Allies were trying to discourage this way of thinking. The DNBK was also disbanded during this time.

Kendo didn’t stay down for long however and returned to Japanese curriculums in 1950, first under the moniker “shinai competition” before reclaiming its true Kendo name in 1952. Ever since the sport has gone from strength to strength, seeing its popularity skyrocket.

The All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF) was founded the same year, following Japan’s renewed independence and the ban on martial arts being lifted. This period saw an emphasis on pacifism, rather than nationalism, and the federation was formed on the principle that Kendo is a sport, not a martial art. 

Kendo is now a popular martial arts sport worldwide. Source: liubovyashkir / Adobe Stock.

Kendo is now a popular martial arts sport worldwide. Source: liubovyashkir / Adobe Stock.

An increase in international popularity led to the founding of the International Kendo Federation (IKF) in 1970. It is the world governing body for the sport and combines national and regional Kendo federations under one umbrella. 

In the modern age, Kendo has experienced a remarkable surge in popularity, attributable to several factors. Its emphasis on disciplined training, mental focus and physical agility resonates with individuals seeking holistic personal development. The global accessibility of information through the internet has facilitated the spread of Kendo's virtues and techniques beyond cultural boundaries. 

Furthermore, its portrayal in popular media and the Olympics has elevated its visibility, capturing the interest of a diverse audience. As people gravitate toward mindfulness practices and unique sports, Kendo's fusion of tradition and athleticism offers a compelling avenue for self-improvement, contributing to its growing prominence worldwide.

In tracing the intricate lineage of Kendo, we uncover not just a chronicle of combat, but a narrative of cultural metamorphosis. From battlefield to dojo, the evolution of this martial art echoes the evolution of a society striving for harmony and discipline. 

Top image: Representational image of Kendo training in Japan. Source: jtanki / Adobe Stock

By Robbie Mitchell

References

Guttman, A. Thompson L. 2001. Japanese Sports: A History. University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Larkins. D. 23 March 2016. “Kendo: The way of the sword keeping skills sharp” in ABC News. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-24/kendo-way-of-the-sword-gold-coast/7271392

Mickov. D. 7 June 2023. “What is Kendo?” in Sword Encyclopedia. Available at: https://swordencyclopedia.com/kendo/

Ozawa. H. 1997. Kendo The Definitive Guide. Kodansha Europe.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 28 July 2023. “Kendo” in Britannica. Available at:

https://www.britannica.com/sports/kendo

 
Robbie Mitchell's picture

Robbie

I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

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