The Martial Art of Kendo
We’ve spent a lot of the last few months talking about different martial arts – karate, tae kwon do, kickboxing, and so on – but for the most part, those have all focused on disciplines that prioritize body movement over weapons. While some, like ninjustsu, allow for the use of weapons like staffs, the majority of the training is on how to strike, block, and counter with your own body. Today let’s talk about a martial art that goes the other way: the Japanese school of kendo.
Kendo came together over the last few centuries, descended from kenjutsu – the expert swordsmanship and techniques of samurai and other fighters in feudal Japan. It emphasizes the quick motion and strikes of swordfighting, while also teaching how to effectively block your opponent from hitting you in return. It takes many years of practice to master, and requires intense training to reach the physical fitness necessary to wield and move the weapons properly, while maintaining the correct footwork for the style.
Historically, kendoka (practitioners of the sport) used real swords, but beginning as far back as the 1700s, that has changed in favour of using bamboo or wooden swords, called shinai or bokuto, respectively. And similar to modern fencing, its participants have special protective gear to protect their heads, body, and arms, a tradition that has been in place since the 17th century. This includes a head, shoulder and throat covering, made of leather and fabric, with a metal grille over the face; a hard leather breastplate to protect the torso; three thick fabric flaps for the groin and waist; and finally, a pair of long, thick cotton gloves for the hands and forearms. Based off the traditional outfits of samurai fighters, this equipment became a key part of the kendo style.
In competitions, the only way to score points is to hit your opponent in one of those areas – the head or throat, the wrists, or the body. Any hit on an unarmoured area does not count. Thus, learning how to properly manoeuvre with the sword for strikes and counterstrikes is the foundation for every kendo student – techniques known as kata.
Getting used to the sword movements and reactions, and being adept enough to predict what to do next, takes years of practice – and the grading system reflects that, with more than ten skill levels noted. At age 13, a kendoka can be admitted to the first true grade, 1-dan (before that they are considered as kyu, which itself has 6 levels). To reach the next dan after that, increasing years of practice are needed, and no student can get to the highest level if they are younger than 46 years old. At minimum, 31 years of practice are needed to ascend to the level of 8-dan!
If you have always admired the effortless swordwork of Japanese masters, and you want to become exceptional at hand-eye coordination, anticipation of strikes, and counter-attacks with a weapon, kendo could be a lifelong journey of constant growth for you. As with any martial art, it has its benefits and advantages, and it keeps its learners active, disciplined, and focused in their lives. Whether you’re doing kung fu, kendo, or karate, that is the first step towards a meaningful and well-lived life!