Unlike those movies in which Jedi knights wield lightsabers as they battle Imperial stormtroopers, kendo is for real. To onlookers, the swinging kendo shinai (bamboo swords) seem to hit their marks only accidentally, but nothing could be further from the truth. If you pick up a training sword to see for yourself, before you even get into your on-guard stance, you’ll likely be hit several times. Even when you’re ready, the strikes seem to come out of nowhere. Frustrated, you swing back, hoping to hit something—anything—but all you feel is air.
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Your amazement quickly turns into distress once you realize that had your opponent’s shinai been a live sword, you wouldn’t be standing. The first target he hit was probably your men, the helmet wrapped around your head, or your kote, or wrist/forearm area. The right one is preferred because it’s normally closer to him than your left. Afterward, he might have attempted a do, a strike to the torso designed to take out your vital organs. If he’s advanced, he might have targeted the sides of your head or thrust the tip of his shinai into your neck.
In a split second, you would have gone from being a live human to being an illustration out of Gray’s Anatomy.
The katana, the long sword of the samurai, is an icon of the Asian martial arts. From the 1300s to the 1500s, when Japan endured constant civil strife, warlords placed great value on a man’s ability to wield such weapons. The study of the katana was dubbed kenjutsu, or sword skills. Because the threat of losing life and limb was so immediate, students learned by practicing kata, or patterns of attack and defense executed with a live blade or bokken (wooden sword).
In the mid-1500s, Japanese swordsmanship took an evolutionary turn. Because of the nature of kenjutsu, practitioners were forced to focus on the thin line between life and death. They created mental patterns to justify their physical actions, which entailed taking lives to preserve the peace. It was around this time that the ideals of bujutsu began to meld with Buddhism. From the Zen sect came such contradictions as “losing one’s self to find one’s self,” “thinking of only one thing, thinking of nothing” and “act, don’t act”—all of which meshed nicely with the martial arts.
One man who recorded the effect of those teachings and the subsequent morphing of kenjutsu into kendo was Munenori Yagyu (1571-1645). The author of The Life Giving Sword, he was the confidant and chief fencing instructor of a future shogun named Ieyasu Tokugawa. Munenori Yagyu’s father was Muneyoshi “Sekishusai” Yagyu, a swordsman reputed to be able to defeat an armed opponent without using a weapon. Hearing rumors of the father’s ability, Ieyasu Tokugawa requested a match in which he would wield a sword while Munenori Yagyu used only his hands. Twice the shogun-to-be had his weapon taken away after he attempted an attack. Impressed, Ieyasu Tokugawa tried to hire him as his chief instructor, but Muneyoshi Yagyu refused, requesting instead that his son Munenori Yagyu be his replacement. The request was granted.
Munenori Yagyu served Ieyasu Tokugawa well, and after the shogun died, the swordsman continued in the same capacity with his two heirs. In addition to being one of the first to utilize the fukuro shinai to train his troops, Munenori Yagyu mastered various empty-hand methods for overcoming the enemy and preserved them in a book titled Heiho Kadensho. More important than his contribution to the technical side of the art, however, was his penchant for identifying and utilizing the positive principles of swordsmanship to better one’s life. They became the basic tenets of kendo.
Kendo Training’s Appeal
Following in the footsteps of Munenori Yagyu, modern kendo practitioners usually don’t think of a sword stroke as a bringer of death. The turning point in the development of the way of the sword occurred when students of kenjutsu put down their live blades and picked up substitutes. First was a length of hardwood shaped like a sword. Called the bokkuto or bokken, in practice it prevented incisions, but it was still capable of breaking bones—which took months to heal and wasted valuable time that was better spent training for war.
To avoid that fate, kendo masters taught kata that included moves that mimicked combat situations. The forms were done repeatedly to create muscle memory without running the risk of injury. From the sidelines, instructors scrutinized and corrected. Over time it was determined that kendo’s kata training alone wasn’t enough to prepare warriors for battle because it lacked the stress of unrehearsed no-holds-barred situations. Enter the shinai and armor.
Although no one knows who invented the shinai, there are records of certain styles of kenjutsu—including the yagyu shinkage-ryu, a style adopted by Munenori Yagyu—using it. Around 1559, his father Muneyoshi Yagyu had a contest with the nephew of another noted swordsman, Kamiizumi Ise-no-kami Hidetsuna, and was easily defeated twice. Muneyoshi Yagyu used a bokken, while his opponent used a relatively unknown instrument: the fukuro shinai. The new training sword, made of four strips of bamboo covered by a leather sheath, enabled students to practice more realistically. They could now sharpen their offensive and defensive skills by experimenting with tactics that weren’t possible with a katana or bokken.
Impressed by his opponent’s ability, Muneyoshi Yagyu fell to his knees, bowed and asked to become Kamiizumi Ise-no-kami Hidetsuna student so he could learn the yagyu shinkage-ryu. Munenori Yagyu also mastered the system and, in his later years, made improvements to it and recorded them for posterity.
The fukuro shinai that lay at the center of the shinkage-ryu gave way to the modern shinai, which retains remnants of the cowhide wrapper at the tip of the “blade,” on the handle and as a marker strip a foot below the tip. The strip not only holds the four pieces of bamboo together but also denotes the nearest extent of the preferred cutting area, the dotatsu-bu.
The other key to the rise of kendo was body armor. The aforementioned men covers the head and shoulders. An oval faceplate relies on tightly spaced horizontal metal bars to allow the eyes to see out but nothing to get in. A thick layer of laminated material and a heavy-weave jacket shield the torso, and girding the groin is a hakama bolstered by an overlayer that hangs like an apron. Padded gloves preserve the integrity of the bones of the hands and wrists.
With that kind of shell, it’s little wonder that kendo is one of the safest martial arts in the world. Outside of an occasional stubbed toe or bruised ego, injuries are rare.
In addition to equipment-driven changes, social conditions also played a role in the decline of kenjutsu as a physical pursuit and a means of defending the nation. As depicted in Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai (2003), the sword was revealed to be ineffective against modern firearms. With the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry, Japan received a wake-up call announcing that the West had passed them by technologically. The effort to rectify the situation included pushing aside the old order, the last Tokugawa shogun, the samurai and the sword.
What wasn’t abandoned, however, was the spirit of the samurai, which Japan wisely chose to maintain through its education system. Included in the nation’s phys-ed curriculum well into the 1980s were kendo and judo. Largely because of the influence of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo and a member of the Ministry of Education, the two arts bolstered the mental and physical development of Japan’s youth.
Kendo Training’s Modern Value
Practitioners of other martial arts are quick to point out that people today don’t walk around wearing armor and carrying swords and therefore that the benefits of kendo practice don’t extend outside the dojo or the fencing arena. But even without his shinai or bokken, the kendo student walks through life with composure, even in the face of conflict. Years of training in a contact activity will do that to you.
The following anecdote, told by a martial artist named Reggie Benitas, illustrates the point: “I was standing in line to place my bet on the next race at Hollywood Park when some big guy and his friend cut in line in front of this older lady. The lady didn’t say anything. I was annoyed and was thinking of saying something when a small Asian guy behind me said, ‘Sir, you shouldn’t butt in line because we are all waiting.’
“You could tell the Asian guy was a little frustrated [because] he had rolled up his racing forum and was talking with it. The big guy moved past me and was in the Asian guy’s face. He said, ‘What’d you say, chink?’ The next thing I know, the big guy is falling backward into me holding his neck. The Asian guy just stuck that guy in the throat with his rolled up racing form. The guy was choking for air as his friend led him away.
“Curious, I asked, ‘Was that jujutsu or karate?’ He replied, ‘Kendo.’ ”
More than anything else, kendo cultivates decisiveness, bravery, loyalty, devotion to duty and cunning. It also builds character. Because it’s a challenging physical activity, it can reduce stress. There’s nothing as satisfying as surmounting the defenses of your opponent and landing a solid whack to his face mask. But what really sets kendo practitioners apart is their drive to do the right thing.
Modern kendo isn’t just about winning, says Tim Yuge, a seventh-degree black belt who serves as head instructor at the Torrance Dojo in Torrance, California. “It’s a lifelong discipline of bettering oneself.”
His school bustles with a horde of 40 children learning kendo twice a week. Asked why he thinks his facility is so popular, he smiles and humbly says, “I have a lot of help from the Parks and Recreation Department and the parents who help keep things organized.”
Then, pointing toward a line of instructors who are finishing class, he continues: “These young sensei are doing a great job. They instill confidence and a sense of pride in their students.”
As the kendo students bow and pay their respect to their teachers, they’re told what they did well and what they need to work on. The instructors’ comments are peppered with questions about how well the kids are doing in school and if they’re minding their parents.
What Tim Yuge neglects to point out is his remarkable ability to lead, to look for and build on natural talent, to bring out the best in everyone. He fails to mention them because the first lesson in kendo is reigi saho. In English, it means courtesy, manners or etiquette, and it’s one of the most prized benefits of kendo training.
(Hayward Nishioka is a Black Belt Hall of Fame member, a legend in the judo community, and the author of Judo Heart and Soul and The Judo Textbook.)