A Brief History of Kendo

Samurai Armour Kendo, the way of the sword, is the martial art that recreates the fierce sword duels of feudal Japan. Kendo is more than flailing around with bamboo sticks, however, kendo is living history. Not only does it provide an, albeit limited, insight into one of the main forces that has had a profound effect on Japanese culture to this day. It also provides a medium through which we can learn about ourselves, learn to control and discipline our body and emotions .

The mid-14th century in Japan saw the sword replace the bow as the primary weapon of the samurai, and gain its quasi-mystical status. As the role of the sword in combat grew, so did the need for the propagation and dissemination of special techniques. for its use in various circumstances. Of course many people developed their own techniques, and taught these to eager pupils keen to enhance their chances of battlefield survival. The techniques for the use of a sword were known as kenjitsu, literally meaning sword art ,and the schools that taught these various techniques were called ryu, meaning style. Literally hundreds of kenjitsu ryu have come and gone since then, and it is from these that kendo has evolved.

One of the earliest reliably documented kenjitsu styles is the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu founded in the early 15th century, by Iizasa Choisai Ienao. These early sword styles all faced a common problem, how to provide efficient instruction, yet avoid the inherent danger involved in training with a live blade. Various drills were developed to get around this problem, but they mostly involved solitary practice or the practice of kata (a system of prearranged attack and defence) with a partner. This, however, removed the spontaneity of the real situation. Another technique was to substitute the sword with a wooden sword (bokutou). As the participants were unarmoured, the risk of serious injury or death still remained, thus the technique of stopping the cuts just short of hitting the opponent was used (tsumeru). This technique proved hard to judge and somewhat indecisive in the case of competitions.

It was not until the beginning of the 17th Century that the fore runner of the modern shinai (bamboo sword) first appeared. These shinais were simply a bundle of reeds or bamboo strips tightly bound in a fabric or leather case. This allowed for the first time the risk-free simulation of realistic combat situations. This form of shinai is reputed to have been developed by Kamizumi Nobutsuna, the third head of the Shin Kage-ryu, and used by him in an encounter with Yagyu Muneyoshi, who was to go on to found the Yagyu Shin Kage-ryu.

In the early 1700s, the students of Jikishinkage-ryu started to use protection for the face and forearms during practice. Nevertheless, this was dispensed with and a bokutou reverted to during serious contests. So by the end of the 18th century all the elements of modern kendo were in existence and remained only to be refined. In 1871, the year after the abolition of feudalism, a law was passed making the teaching of kendo in schools compulsory, which it remains to this day, despite a brief prohibition during the early years of the American occupation.
Kendo Armour

Modern kendo armour consists of the "tare", an apron like hip protection; the "do" made of bamboo strips or fibreglass, protects the torso and chest. The hands and forearms are protected by stout fabric mittens called "kote"; finally the head and throat are protected by the "men", a thick fabric head protection with a metal grill in the front. The modem shinai is made from four shaped bamboo (or carbon graphite) slats with a leather handle and end cap.

Kata remains an important part of kendo, and consists of seven kata using long sword and three pitting kodachi (short sword) against long sword. The modem kata contains a representative selection taken form the many kenjitsu-ryu.

Today kendo is practised in at least 20 countries world-wide. Since 1970, world championships have been held on a triennial basis, with Australia being one of the few countries other than Japan to have participated in all world championships to date.

Back to the Momiji Trading Page

Copyright © Momiji Trading 2003

Revised October 28 2003