Kendo: The ancient Japanese Way of the Sword
We’ve all seen those old Samurai movies. Akira Kurosawa cornered the market in such films in the 1950s with classics such as the Seven Samurai, which would later go on to be remade in an American reimaging as the Magnificent Seven, and the unforgettable The Hidden Fortress, which amongst other things proved to the inspiration for George Lucas’ epic Star Wars Saga.
But have you ever thought about learning how the samurai actually master their blade? Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to actually stand toe to toe with someone, sword in hand ready to face to ultimate test of tour mental and physical faculties? If you have, then maybe you should give Kendo a try.
Kendo, translated into English literally means “The way of the sword”. Although a number of the legendary 16th and 17th century Japanese sword masters such as Miyamoto Musashi and Keijiro Sasaki showed expertise in sword technique, kendo as a training style did not really emerge until the 18th century.
Although a number of schools were operating in Japan at the time, the introduction of kendo’s characteristic Shinai (bamboo sword) and bogu (body armor) is primarily credited to the 18th century master Naganuma Shirozaemon Kunisato. Before these innovations, learning how to correctly wield a katana (Japanese sword) successfully must have been a very painful and extremely dangerous experience.
Made by tying several strands of bamboo together, the shinai is weighted to reflect closely the actual weight and dimensions of a basic katana. In the early stages of learning kendo, a strong emphasis is placed on correct posture, elegant cutting technique and movement, controlled breathing and most of all, concentration.
With its basis in Japan’s samurai elites of the past, even today kendo retains a strong sense of ritual and honour. A successful kendoka (kendo practitioner) will devote considerable time to learning how to properly put on and wear his training gear. How to maintain and repair his shinai and armour by himself, and even how to bow, sit and stand correctly in class. For someone who wishes to ascend to the higher levels of understanding in kendo, such things are not only essential, they are fundamental to your daily life. They must be mastered thoroughly before you even think of picking up a sword.
On the face of it, kendo seems like a very simple premise. In competition there are only 5 scoring points on the body, and the entire structure of training is based only on landing hits on these 5 areas. They are the top of the head (Men), the wrist (Kote), the left and right side of the opponent’s belly (Do and Yaku-Do) and finally the throat (Tsuki).
Kendo armour is constructed in such a way to reflect these target areas. The top of the head and the shoulders are coated in a thick hide, which is resistant to dull blows, though a solid whack over the head from a beginner, who hasn’t learned adequate control, can still be pretty painful. Likewise the gauntlets one wears over the wrists are similarly thick and designed to soak up blow after blow. The face guard is a steel lattice work, allowing the kendoka protection from accidental jabs to the face. This is most likely to occur when your opponent tries to thrust towards your tsuki. Looking something like an Egyptian Pharaoh’s ornamental beard, the tsuki hands down from the chin of the armour’s headgear, almost inviting an attack. To most kendo tournament experts however, this is a no-go area, considering how difficult it is to safely land a clean strike without leaving yourself wide open.
Tournaments in kendo are also very simple. One on one, and the first person to score two points is the winner. Again, it seems really simple, but it is in fact one of the toughest challenges you will ever face. Timing, accuracy, patience all play crucial roles as you stay focused on your target, wait for your moment, and then strike! The exhilaration of landing a clean blow on an opponent is hard to beat in any sport, but kendo has such a precision and finality about it, that elevates this feeling to an all new level.
With only 5 hit points and only 2 points required for a win, one could be mistaken for thinking that its easy. It isn’t. I have been in the company of people who have practiced Kendo for decades and they still look for newer, faster more elegant ways to cut down an opponent.
For many kendoka however it is not the sport, but the lifestyle that attracts them to this art. Once you join a kendo club, you’re not just practicing a sport a couple of times a week, you are joining a family and with that comes both privileges and responsibilities. It was through kendo that I was first invited to Japan, ten years ago, as a representative of Edinburgh University Kendo Club. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I remember being sat in the dojo in northern Japan’s Akita Prefecture, after a particularly intense training session listening to the sensei. Despite being in his 60s, he had the look of someone 20 years younger. He spoke with a sincerity I have come to find characteristic among Japanese people.
“I have studied Kendo for more than 50 years,” he said. “But I am still learning. Kendo is not something you can learn in a week, a month or even a year. It is a lifetime commitment, and there are always new places you can go and new things you can learn.”
I’m paraphrasing a little, but you get the picture. Everything I have now, my life in Japan, my friends, my job all started at that point. It was a privilege for which I will always be grateful.
Many of my most powerful life lessons were acquired during those 2 years I practiced in Edinburgh. My teachers taught me not just how to handle a sword. They also taught me how to be bigger stronger and more confident as a person. They modeled me into the person I am today. Kendo, like so many martial arts is not merely a sport, it is a way of life.