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A History of Kendo and Why I Love It

I love kendo and the history of kendo. I first learned about it while reading two fantastic books written by Eiji Yoshikawa — Taiko and Musashi, which got me thinking about taking up the sport. So, I did kendo for a few years in Japan before heading back to Australia. Despite suffering a few injuries and being very scared on numerous occasions I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although my kendo training is now over I still really enjoy it and researching the origins of this great sport.

Let’s explore the history and tradition of kendo up to the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868). This was the last time true samurai fought against each other. As Japan entered into the Industrial Revolution, new technologies and weapons rendered the sword-wielding samurai relics of the past.

The last samurai, staged photo from the Meiji Period. Photo by Nationaal Archief on Wikimedia Commons

Firstly, for those of you interested in bushido and the history of sword fighting I recommend the following books:

  • Kendo: The Definitive Guide, by Hiroshi Ozawa
  • This is Kendo: The Art of Japanese Fencing, by Junzo Sasamori and Gordon Warner
  • Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa — the story of Miyamoto Musashi
  • The Book of Five Rings — Musashi's sword fighting philosophy
  • The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War, by Yagyu Munenori (master swordsman under the Tokugawa)
  • The Complete Art of War, by Sun Tzu and Sun Pin.
  • The Samurai Sword: A Handbook, by John Yumoto — comprehensive facts about the samurai sword.
A drawing of Musashi Miyamoto
Musashi Miyamoto in old age, possibly the most famous swordsman in Japan
The author sitting on the same rock Musashi did when he wrote ‘The Book of Five Rings’ – Reigando Cave in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu)

The art of kenjutsu (fencing) and the samurai code of behaviour we know as "bushido" can be traced back to the Heian Period (794-1185). The first written evidence of samurai in battle is found in the Japanese literary classic The Tale of The Heike. The book accounts for the Genpei war fought between the Minamoto and Taira clans. The victor, Minamoto no Yoritomo, head of the clan established a new capital for the first time away from Kyoto, in Kamakura. He established the first military rule we know today as the Shogunate. The art of sword fighting and samurai philosophy thrived during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Kendo was the means to practice swordsmanship with a bokken (wooden sword) without accidentally killing or causing too much injury to anyone.

After a relatively peaceful 150 years, civil war once again broke out at the beginning of the Muromachi Period (1336) through to the beginning of the Edo Period (1603). Fighting was initially localized between the Emperor in Kyoto and the Shogunate in Kamakura but eventually led to full civil war we know as the Warring States Period. The Onin War in 1467–1477 kicked things off, which destroyed Kyoto and left it a barren city full of bandits, which quickly spread throughout the whole country, dividing clans as either pro-Emperor or pro-Shogunate. During these years many schools of kenjutsu were established and there was no doubt many students were ready to start training. Among the finest were the following:

  • Tenshin Shoden Shintoryu — founded by Iizasa Choisai
  • Aisukageryu — founded by Aisu Ikosai
  • Ittoryu — founded by Chujo Hyogo no kami Nagahide

After about a whole century of war, Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu remained the last man still standing, and Japan finally entered into a relatively peaceful period we know as the Edo Period (1603-1868). During this time, philosophies about the use of the sword began to change from simply killing people to the art of developing one’s inner self. These ideas were published in books elaborating on the art of warfare in the early Edo Period. Examples of these books include:

  • The Life-Giving Sword, by Yagyu Munenori
  • Fudochi Shinmyoroku - The Unfettered Mind, by Priest Takuan, which was written as an interpretation of Yagyu Munenori’s Ken to Zen (Sword and Zen) written for Tokugawa Iemitsu, Third Shogunate for the Tokugawa Government.
  • Gorin-no-sho — The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi.

The warrior class however didn’t suddenly disappear, the new Tokugawa Shogunate simply controlled what they did and where they travelled. Edo samurai lived under a strict hierarchal system and samurai continued to study and train their art of sword fighting. They lived quite a privileged life compared with the lower-class farmer and devoted themselves to study and the refinement of swordsmanship. In present day terms, they worked as bureaucrats and soldiers. The bushido spirit, or way of the samurai, that evolved during this time, developed during a peaceful 268 years of the Tokugawa Period. Even after the collapse of the feudal system, this bushido spirit lives on in the minds of the Japanese.

Kendo students in the Meiji Period wearing modern protective gear, 1868. Credit: National Museum of Denmark from Denmark [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

The art of kenjutsu continued to develop through these peaceful years but the use of battle armour during practice was troublesome. Naganuma Shirozaemon-Kunisato of the Jiki Shinkage Ryu school developed new techniques of the sword. In the early 18th century Naganuma developed new light weight type protective equipment and established a training method using a shinai (bamboo sword) replacing the bokken which enabled full contact practice without the fear of injury. Soon after Nakanishi Chuzo-kotake of Itto-ryu introduced a steel men (helmet) and kendo bogu made of bamboo, which became popular among many kendo schools in a short period of time. By the beginning of the 19th century inter-school competition became popular and samurai traveled to different regions of Japan in search of stronger opponents to improve their skills. During the late Edo Period, three dojos that gained great popularity became to be known as the “Three Great Dojos of Edo.” They were:

  • Genbukan, led by Chiba Shusaku
  • Renpeikan, led by Saito Yakuro
  • Shigakkan, led by Momoi Shunzo.

Chiba soon established the “Sixty-Eight Techniques of Kenjutsu” which were classified in accordance with striking points. Techniques such as the Oikomi-men and Suriage-men and other techniques that were named by Chiba are still used today.

Modern Kendo students. Photo by Luca Mascaro via Flickr

Kenjutsu is a very traditional Japanese sport with roots going back over 1200 years. It was tarnished throughout the 20th century as it was associated with Japanese imperialism, but luckily from 1952 the Japanese Kendo Association was formed, promoting kendo as a sport which continues today.

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