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What’s KENDO?

Kendo is a modern expression of a traditional Japanese swordsmanship and martial arts that uses bamboo swords as an abstraction the Japanese Katana and wears kendo protective armor which consist of “men” (head protector), “kote” (arm protector), “do” (abdomen protector) and “tare” (lower body protector). Kendo originates in early 17th century as a part of traditional swordsmanship training call Shinai uchikomi geiko to enable practitioner to hit and practice without reservation and fear of injuring others or hesitation. The use of kendo protector and bamboo sword creates a platform for cross training and duel between each different school during those early periods, and it is this cross pollination between different schools which creates a standardized set of techniques and etiquette.

It is the culmination of both spiritual, mental, character and technical aspect of it that gives kendo a different taste from other martial arts and even sports. This is apparent when one see in kendo the process on how one achieve ippon or one cut/one point. In kendo, a point is given when the bamboo blade managed to cut one of the designated area on the protector like the head part, arm and abdomen by fulfilling other criteria. For example when one tries to score point like men (head) from an opponent, one must first be in the a distance where one can attack but opponent can’t while, to enter that distance one must not fear, must be calm and in control and be ready for contingency if the opponent to jump and attack at slightest movement. Then one must dominate physically and spiritual to open up the opponents defense and once opportunity comes one must not hesitate, with full of spirit and conviction attack the head while maintaining certain reservation a counter attack might ensue, once hit the person who initiate the attack must leave certain distance from the opponent so he can’t counter attack, and even if he can one must be in condition ready for another attack physically and spiritually. All of this can only be obtained by putting in serious hours of reflection, and training, and it is through this process one built up strength, spiritual, mental, character and technical ability.

A Glimpse of Kendo History and the Samurai

Kendo or “The path of the Sword” has long history that stretches up to 3rd century B.C. Metallurgy technique from China and Korea were imported to Japan, and swords design were heavily influenced from its place of origin. Sword designs during this period were straight swords with double-edges. The Chinese not only introduce sword designs, but they also introduce esoteric ideas and myth regarding the swords. One of it is the idea and classification between a double-edge sword we call tsurugi or 剣 and single edge sword knowns as katana or 刀. However in later period, the straight double-edged sword became a tool for the Cult of Swords or religion in China with its mysticism began to take its roots in Japanese mind while the single edged-swords become mainstream side weapon. The Cult of Swords influence greatly in Japan, it manifested itself not only in Japanese country-founding myth through holy swords like Kusanagi-no-tsurugi and Futsunomitama-no-tsurugi but also in its subsequent development.

The early form of Japanese Katana began to take shape during the Heian period. Swords made during this period began to show its iconic shape of having curved single-edge with ridgeline called Shinogi. Heian period also see the rise of organized military group call the Samurai. Two of the biggest and well known factions are Fujiwara clan and Minamoto clan. The Samurai primary weapon on the battlefield is his bow. Most of the fight occurs on horseback, a curved single-edged sword for cutting is much more preferred than a straight sword. With the Minamoto clan defeating Fujiwara clan, Minamoto Yoritomo seized power from the Emperor and regent and established the first military Government in Kamakura called Kamakura Shogunate. The development of curvature and shinogi requires different technique and brought forth indigenous new development in Japanese swordsmanship.
Earliest records of Japanese swordsmanship are during Ashikaga Shogunate period in 13th to 15th century. The main schools are Kage-ryu, Chujo-ryu, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu and Nen-ryu. These schools form the ancestor of other famous schools that survives right up until modern age. Among them, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu have managed to survive and passed down in clear succession till this day. The school technique reflects of its historical-context, with its stances and cutting styles are specialized for battlefield usage. Famous samurai during this period would be Kamiizumi-Ise-no-Kami and Tsukahara Bokuden.
Sengoku Jidai or Warring states period ushered in a new age for swordsmanship. The introduction of matchlock on to the battlefield changes the nature of warfare in Japan. Matchlock ease of use ensures that even someone who is untrained in martial warfare is able to use it to defeat the enemy. The time required to train is relatively short compared to bow and arrow. However, the introduction of matchlock brought some distaste for the samurai the idea of being killed by unskilled emissary rather than a highly skilled warrior. This opposition against the introduction of matchlock and matchlock severe weakness in close quarter combat, long reloading time, and weather dependency elevates weapon such as the Katana to much higher ideal and reverence.
Furthermore, the long period of the warring states period enables talented foot soldiers, peasants, and samurai to test their skill on the battlefield. Once the warring states period ended, there were sudden boom in number of swordsmanship school. Most of these school originate from one of the old schools and have their technique honed on the battlefield or duels, then later re-interpreted and improve upon that it sometimes bear no longer similar to the old school it derives from and requires renaming into a new independent school or style. As the warring states period ended, it also changes structure of the samurai. Toyotomi Hideyoshi began to restrict arms only to the Samurai class and solidifying the caste system. Prior to this, Samurai class came from aristocrats and common warrior class. Peasants were conscripted and could rise as a samurai if he performs well on the battlefield. Once Tokugawa Ieyasu became the new shogun, he maintained this system as way to quash rebellion.
During the warring states period, we see the rise of famous swordsman that left their mark in modern kendo with their famous treaties like Miyamoto Musashi and Yagyu Munenori. Miyamoto Musashi wrote his masterpiece The Book of Five Rings (Gorin-no-sho) as manual to not only learn the sword, how one should approach duel and also strategy. One separates this book from others, is its simplicity, precise and scientific approach towards swordsmanship and strategy. While, Yagyu Munenori wrote A Book of Hereditary Book on Art of War (Heiho Kadensho). Yagyu Munenori books discuss the techniques in Shinkage-ryu inherited from Yagyu Sekishusai and philosophical ideas of the sword and the samurai, and expounds the idea of a Killing sword (setsunintou殺人刀) and a Life-giving sword (katsuninken 活人剣). The Killing sword is rooted in Cult of swords ideal of that the essence of the sword is one of death and destruction, while the higher ideal of the sword is sword that gives life to not only your opponent and to others.

The Edo period ushered by Tokugawa brought peace, and to ensure technique forged on the battlefield was passed down to the next generation, Kata/Kumitachi or Pre-coordinated form practice was created from the founding father school experience and swordsmanship theory. Kata practice was usually done using blunt-swords or wooden swords call bokuto. Kata practice is done alone with an imaginary opponent, teaching method on how to use the sword and how to cut, while Kata practice with a partner is done to impart important ideas such as timing, distance, and also technique. However, the use of blunt swords and wooden swords in Kata cause practitioner to have high rate of injury. Precisely because of that, a lot of effort and thought is given to reduce injury during training.

With the advancement of protective gear equipment made by armor craftsman and bamboo sword call shinai, traditional swordsmanship school began to adopt it as part of its curriculum. Naganuma Shirozaemon Kunisato was credited for popularizing the use of kendo armor known as bogu or kendo-gu or gusoku. This created a new way to practice and it was called Shinai uchikomi geiko. Shinai uchikomi geiko is used to supplement Kata practice by allowing its practitioner to do full blow cutting motion without stopping the sword last minute. This allow practitioner to cut without hesitation.
However, introduction of shinai uchikomi geiko is not without its opposition. This schism is nowhere can be seen much more clearly between the exchange of two famous Itto-ryu master Yamaga Takami (山鹿高美) and Nakanishi Chuzou (中西忠蔵). Yamaga who out of respect towards Kata practice wrote to Nakanishi with intent to reprimanding him that practice using bamboo sword to hit on an opponent is a children’s game. Nakanishi replied back by pointing out that with using bokuto and blunt-sword, one can never strike with full power without any hesitation. This weakens the attack and often leads to discussion only philosophical in nature and not reflective of the practitioner’s skill. However, Nakanishi Chuzou himself knew there is a limit to how effective practice with bamboo can be and solve it by imparting few rules that one must strike until the opponent feel pain, and one must acknowledge a strike taken even if it just touch. This is to remind his student that the bamboo sword must be thought as an abstraction of the real katana.
The tension in between shinai uchikomi geiko and kata keiko also persist in Itto-ryu Nakanishi school. It is related among Hokushin Itto-ryu school follower, Chiba Shusaku the founder of Hokushin Itto-ryu had a chance to see a fight between Kata keiko practitioner and Shinai uchikomi geiko practitioner. Terada Goroemon who is famous for his stoic approach towards training with only Kata keiko was challenged by another member of the dojo for a duel using only shinai and bogu. He accepted the match while allowing his opponent okay to wear protective equipment when he only use his bokuto without any protective equipment. Terada’s ability to read and predict the next movement of his opponent would left large impression on Chiba Shusaku, that he would impart the same importance of Kata practice to his student in his school.