Kendo – The Way Of The Sword


The sword has been a part of Japanese culture since the earliest surviving records of that country. References to swordsmanship can be found in the ancient chronicles of Japanese history. Though it is difficult to make accurate date estimates from those sources, but some sources describe references as early as A.D. 400.

During feudal times in Japan, the sword was an important instrument in the establishment of social and political rule. The early part of Japanese history is largely dominated by wars between various provinces. The feudal lords employed armies of Samurai warriors to defend their land, conquer enemies, and maintain order. Swordsmanship was a basic discipline of military training, and a strict training regimen was developed to ensure that the proper lessons were taught in a systematic manner. Strong sword teachers were highly prized by the feudal lords, and powerful warlords made considerable efforts to identify and hire the best swordsmen in the land.

With the development of firearms, and the establishment of a stable military rule, the sword lost much of its value as a battlefield weapon. Nevertheless, swordsmanship flourished during the Tokugawa shogunate (around the year 1600). The warrior (Bu) training of the Samurai was considered to be the perfect complement to academic and social (Bun) learning, and both were considered necessary in the development of well-rounded individuals.

The art of swordsmanship directly co-evolved with technological, cultural, and philosophical developments in Japanese society. For example metallurgical discoveries made by swordsmiths were applied to other areas. One of the most intriguing aspects of Japanese swordsmanship is the way in which the ideals of the warrior were married to the study of Zen Buddhism, which made it’s way to Japan from India, via China. Because so many aspects of Zen training and philosophy were in harmony with the ideals and training of the Samurai, Japanese warriors embraced Zen, and found that it lent moral and ethical depth to their experience as humans.

To a great extent the development of the modern ideal of the Samurai was shaped by the influence of Zen Buddhism. Though the religion and its leaders did not actively promote the endeavours of the Samurai, it did seem to offer them a belief system that fit well with the kind of life they lived.

One of the hallmarks of Zen is the rejection of any intellectual device that could provide a barrier to one’s perception of reality. Even the most mundane experience is elevated to the sublime if it is conveyed directly to one’s senses without prejudgement, or analysis. For the Samurai warrior, whose life could depend on a split second judgement, the simple clarity of Zen was appealing. A moment’s thought could mean death, so there could be no delay between knowing, and acting. The ultimate goal of both the Samurai and the Zen monk was to become in harmony with the universe, so that one’s actions would naturally be in accordance with the divine powers.

The life of a Zen monk was in many ways similar to that of a Samurai. Both considered that perfection was only attainable through austere practice. There were many cases of Samurai warriors augmenting their training at a Zen temple. There are also cases of Zen temples that became known for the combat valor of their monks, who trained in martial arts to perfect their practice of Zen.


Today, there are millions of men, women, and children who practice kendo. Not only is it still popular in Japan, but enthusiasm for Japanese fencing has spread to Korea, the United States, Canada, South America and Europe as well as to the Nordic countries.

Modern Kendo has developed a strong sporting aspect. The All-Japan Kendo Championships are a major sporting event in Japan.

This is how Mr. Hiroshi Ozawa defines kendo and its contemporary practice (Ozawa, Hiroshi: KENDO. The Definite Guide, 1997):

The practice of Kendo i.e. Japanese fencing as a physical activity has a long tradition within Japanese culture. Originally a method of sword manipulation, Kendo came to be more fully understood through observance of natural laws on the battlefield. It can be divided into the following three components:

1: The way of the body ­ how to hold the sword, maai (spatial distance separating two opponents), etc.

2: The way of the sword ­ how to execute a strike, the right moment to execute a strike, etc.

3: The way of the mind ­ the correct mental attitude.

While these divisions represent a useful basis for a theoretical understanding of the main elements of Kendo, in practice they are closely interlinked, with the distinction between them not always so clear. Nevertheless, it is essential that those learning Kendo first acquire a grasp of these basic components and realize that the practice of Kendo is more than a simple matter of overcoming an opponent.

Kendo has been practiced for various purposes at different stages of its development, according to the prevailing social conditions of the era. While everyone beginning Kendo will have their own particular motive, the aim of Kendo today may be said to be the development of a healthy body and mind through a sustained period of practice (keiko). In Japan, between four and five million people practice Kendo in schools, workplaces, and police stations, as well as in dojos.

Present-day Kendo is a technique, which enables a strike to be executed on an opponent in a previously determined spot, by means of a shinai (bamboo sword). In this sense, Kendo may be likened to a modern sport. However, we should also retain the spirit of Kendo, which has survived throughout ages. The original motto of Kendo was “Victory means survival, defeat means death.” Although today this is not to be taken literally, it is important to adopt a serious attitude toward the practice of Kendo, incorporating physical, spiritual, and social development.

It should be remembered that Kendo is not something you know, but rather something you enjoy learning. Kendo is therefore something you become good at unconsciously, over a period of time. Keiko should be carried out with the whole self-spirit, physical strength, and technique. Each keiko, and each strike delivered during keiko, should be performed as if it were the one and only chance you have. Though keiko, strive hard to develop the self and improve your Kendo by devoting yourself to keiko for its own sake.

Despite passing through various stages of development, the essence of Kendo has remained constant: one person faces another, ready with the shinai, mind meets mind, and the opponents strike. By training one’s spirit and performing keiko correctly, honestly, and full of vigor, ennobling of human nature takes place.


Kenjutsu — Japanese fencing with sharp, single-edged swords — is thought to have come to Japan from China in the 6th or 7th Century A.D.  At that time, swords upwards of four feet in length were used primarily for fighting from horseback.  Little by little, foot soldiers began to develop their own techniques for wielding swords, probably due to the higher cost of cavalry.

The Kamakura Period (1192-1333) was the golden age of the sword arts.  As certain swordsmen demonstrated greater skill and success than their peers, they began to be looked to as teachers of the art of swordsmanship.  Naturally, these teachers developed different and often highly competitive schools, or ryu, teaching their own particular brand of the discipline.
Often this competition between schools resulted in bloodshed as the followers of different masters fought to prove their ryu’s superiority.  In truth, the schools were probably all equal; the masters were probably born with certain unteachable skills, much the way modern pro-athletes have a certain innate physical ability that separates them from the pack.

Nonetheless, thousands of eager young warriors from the Kamakura Period to the end of the Momoyama Period (1568-1600) were ushered to early graves thanks to ill-advised duels entered out of a fanatical devotion to their ryu.  Around this time, master swordsmen began to notice that there was something more than sheer skill that separated the victorious from the dead.
It was an indefinable calmness of spirit and resolution of purpose.  This theory seemed to be borne out on the battlefield, where an instant’s hesitation had often cost superior swordsmen their lives to lesser opponents.  And so swordmasters began melding Zen with technique.
By the Edo Period (1600-1867), kendo was being studied for its philosophy as much as its physical techniques.  During the Edo Era, the fukuro-shinai, fore-runner of the modern shinai, was developed.

Made of 32 strips of bamboo covered in heavy cloth, the fukuro-shinai allowed a blow to be delivered with proper focus and power without harming their opponent.
The modern shinai is made of four strips of bamboo and is no longer covered in cloth.  The shinai and kendo armor were perfected in the late 18th century, allowing sportsman to get a governmental ban on inter-school tournaments lifted.
Coupled with the emphasis on mental and spiritual discipline as taught in Confucianism, Shinto and Zen, modern kendo was born.

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868s, kendo went into decline until the Tokyo police instituted a kendo course.
In 1895, the Dai Nihon Butokukai (All Japan Martial Virtue Society) came into being, breathing new life into kendo and other traditional Japanese martial arts.

Following World War II, the Occupation Forces banned swords and kendo for its alleged role in stirring up nationalistic militarism.
In 1952, the Zen Nihon Kendo Remmei (All Japan Kendo Federation) was formed.
In 1957, kendo was re-introduced in Japanese middle schools.


The mental discipline gave the ancient bushi, as samurai were called, their ability to face death in one-on-one combat with resolve and even eagerness.  In combat, tension breeds hesitation; it clouds decision-making and tightens muscles.  Thus the warrior who was not relaxed in the face of death was certain to quickly feel its icy kiss.

This willingness to die is reflected in numerous tales and proverbs from Japan’s feudal era.
Consider these, for example: The Way of the Samurai is found in death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance.
To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates.  When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim.
Concerning martial valor, merit lies more in dying for one’s master than in striking down the enemy.  During the centuries of strife in Japan’s feudal history, the samurai needed spiritual resolve and mental discipline to face death with a clear mind.  The development of the spiritual aspect of the sword arts was the introduction of a lengthy peace by the Tokugawa Bakufu, beginning in 1615.

The 2 main sources required to attain such a level of mastery over their own minds and feelings were complimentary and intertwined: Bushido and Zen Buddhism.  Bushido is the Way of the Warrior ( bushi=warrior, do=way ) and was roughly equivalent to the knight’s code of chivalry.  It told him how he must act not only during battle but how he must conduct himself during daily affairs.
When you consider that samurai were allowed by law during most of the feudal era to kill any non-samurai with impunity, you can see where it was important for them to have internalized a strong code of behavior.

Zen buddhism gave the bushi a religious practice that taught them to remove distractions from their minds and;
and through it’s belief in reincarnation and rapture based on “karma”, allowed them to face death without fear.  In Zen, the random thoughts, fears and desires that race through a person’s mind willy-nilly are called bonno.
Bonno can be fear of the unknown, dread of an upcoming event, longing over some desired person or object,
or even just the haunting strains of some song that are stuck in a person’s head.  For the samurai in battle, the distractions of bonno could be fatal. In everyday life, they can prevent a person from perceiving situations accurately.
Takuan Soho, a Zen priest in the 1700s, said “If a person stops to stare at a single leaf, he will miss seeing the tree.” These are functions of bonno.

The prescription is mushin or ” no mind”. The person with mushin notices all details but concentrates on none.
He notices his opponents weaknesses but does not get sucked into them to the extent that he misses seeing the trap that has been set for him.  Living instant by instant, he is able to use his entire environment to his advantage while becoming distrated by or dependent upon nothing.

Kendo teaches mushin. It is achieved through proper breathing and through repetition of tasks until they are separate from active thought.  At this point a person becomes a meijin, one who succeeds effortlessly, without conscious thought; the way an adult walks across a room, though he struggled to do the same thing as a baby.

In this way, more than through the ferocity of the battle or the spirit-bracing kiai does modern kendo keep the spirit of the warrior alive.

The modern kendo-ka needs mushin and zanshin, its total-awareness counterpart. He or she needs humility, respect for rank, discipline.
As the kendo-ka learns to perform the traditional kata, the choreographed attack and defense “dances” that were learned by samurai hundreds of years ago, he or she is also learning tolerance for discomfort, and even physical pain.  This is how a true kendo-ka keeps alive the spirit of the samurai.
His sword has turned from metal to bamboo, but his mind and spirit are still forged steel, blasted in a furnace and folded several hundred times.


IAI : The drawing and sheathing of the katana.
IAIDO : The way of drawing the sword.
BATTOJUTSU : Another name for iai.
KENDO : The way of the sword.
KORYU : Old school or lineage.


REIGI : Etiquette.
REIHO : Etiquette, method of bowing.
REISHIKI : Same as above.
SAHO : Method of etiquette.
HAJIME NO SAHO : Beginning etiquette.
OWARI NO SAHO : Finishing etiquette.

DATTO : Taking sword from belt
KEITO : Same as teito shisei.
TAITO : Putting sword into belt
TEITO : Holding the sword loose by the left side. Also used when sword is in belt and both hands loose at sides.
TEITO SHISEI : Holding the sword by the left side, as if in the obi. Thumb on tsuba.


REI : Bow.
JOSEKI NI REI : Bow to the high section of the dojo.
KAMIZA NI REI : Bow to kamiza ( gods )
SHINZEN NI REI : Bow to shrine.
SENSEI (GATA) NI REI : Bow to teacher(s)
TO REI : Bow to sword.
OTAGAI NI REI : Bow to each other.
TACHI REI : Standing bow.
RITSU REI : Same as tachi rei.
ZA REI : Kneeling bow.


SENSEI : Instructor.
SHIHAN : A senior teacher, properly used within the school only, when outside, use sensei.
SEMPAI : Senior student.
KO HAI : Junior student.
KYU : Student grade, from 5 to 7 up to 1, the highest.
DAN : More advanced grades, from 1 to 10.
YUDANSHA : Members with dan grades.
MUDANSHA : Members with kyu grades.
HANSHI : Highest title, must be 55 or older and 8 dan.
KYOSHI : Middle title, must be 7th dan.
RENSHI : Title bestowed in addition to Dan ranks.
SOKE : Head of style ( actually head of family, unifier of gods and lineage )
KAICHO : Owner of school ( organization )
KANCHO : Owner of school ( building, hall )


DOJO : Practice hall.
KAMIZA : Altar.
SHOMEN : Front of room.
JOSEKI ( JO ) : High side, also called shinzen.
GE : Side of dojo opposite shinzen.
SHIMOSEKI, SHIMOZA : Opposite sensei, where students sit.

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