What is Kendo?

In all cultures, swordplay has a romantic image, and those adept in wielding a sword are attributed certain characteristics: gallantry, bravery, nobility. Although such idealistic expectations of warriors were spurred, no doubt, by poetry and literature, they were also based on a very real code of conduct that these cultures set for their swordsmen. In Europe, this code was encapsulated within the chivalric tradition. Its Japanese counterpart, Bushido, or “the way of the samurai,” likewise emphasized righteousness, courage, honor, mercy, courtesy, faith, and loyalty. But here Western and Eastern approaches to the art of the sword diverge. Although both traditions encouraged its adherents to strive to perfect their skills through rigorous practice and to behave honorably, the influence of Buddhism on the Japanese aristo-military class required a melding of spiritual, mental, and physical components in the swordsman. The kendo master, Miyamoto Musashi, taught the principle of Kanken no metsuke. By following this advice, one saw less with one’s eyes, than with one’s mind. The power of the swordsman’s mind was such that the outcome of any encounter could be determined without even drawing the sword.

But despite the emphasis on achieving a calm, yet alert mind surprised by nothing, successful swordsmanship also requires dedicated practice. To lessen the severity of injuries incurred during practice, kendo began to be practiced with a bokken and then a bamboo shinai instead of a katana. Later, kendoists also began wearing protective armor to further lessen the potential for being harmed. These precautions continue to be practiced by contemporary kendoists. It is worth noting at this point that the use of a dull practice weapon was imperative as the katana made by Japanese swordsmiths had remarkable cutting edges. Refinement in tempering steel and forging it, and the subsequent production of keen edged katana changed the way in which sword fighting was conducted. Prior to the development of methods of steel refinement, swordsmen could only thrust or hit their opponents with their weapons. With the development of the katana, a swordsman could now also utilize a cutting motion to strike his opponent. This cutting motion proved an effective means of dispatching an opponent, and kendo forms all reflect specific sword movements. 

Although kendo has been practiced for centuries, the basic tenets of the art still reflect those of its earliest kendoists. In dojo that pay strict attention to the spirit of kendo, such as Kaifukan, one of the fundamental lessons that a student must learn is a respectful attitude. Because it is inevitable that a student will hit another kendoist during practice or during shiai, as well as be hit himself, it is important that all participants understand that any injury that they may sustain is not maliciously inflicted. Resentment has no place in a kendo dojo. As a sign that he accepts the responsibility of behaving respectfully, a kendoist often gives rei (bow) during kendo practice. This spirit of respect is also reflected in the bow that a kendoist gives to his sensei and to his fellow kendoists. 

While kendo is ideally practiced with a neutral mind, it is nevertheless also true that practice will help develop readiness of mind. As Maeda Sensei points out, a “kendoist’s mobile vision is keener than [that of any other martial arts practitioner] because he is trained with the swinging sword, which is much faster than any human body motion.” This basic fact of kendo enables kendoists of differing physical strength and stature to face each other as equals. In fact, Maeda Sensei notes that the difference between more senior students and beginners is that senpai have a quicker eye, and have had more practice seeing openings. And because the practice of kendo requires the development of mind, body, and spirit that kendoists are able to continue vigorous practice well into their eighties. Never underestimate the power and skill of a senior sensei!

A new student should expect his first lesson to be one of respect. Once he has committed himself to this spirit, he will then learn basic footwork and the proper way to hold and swing a shinai. Once he understands and can perform these basic skills, a student may progress to practicing basic hits and different waza with senpai wearing armor. But it is not only beginners who must practice these fundamental lessons. All students regularly practice basic footwork and hitting drills in every class. Kendo requires vigilant practice as proper form is tantamount to the successful execution of a clean strike or waza, and any deviation from correct form often leads to ineffective strikes. Lastly, students can look forward to sparring with their classmates and also with their sensei. 

Finally, it should be noted that the lessons of kendo are applicable to a student’s life beyond the dojo. Besides courtesy, there are many other important life lessons that kendo teaches that will lead to personal development. Among them is that there can be no successful end without commitment--whether it be to the completion of a strike or the accomplishment of a goal. Moreover, in a time when it is common practice for people to take shortcuts, kendo requires honesty from its kendoists. A kendoist may feint, but he will never resort to underhanded techniques to achieve his goals. Thus, while kendo may seem anachronistic to some observers, the fact is that this martial art enables its practitioners to take away more than ritual and technique--it allows them to grow as responsible human beings.