The stories of the Samurai have left a lasting impression on Japan and the rest of the world; after all, they were a class of people that rose to dominance for the best part of 700 years. Despite their eventual abolishment in 1868, the value of swordsmanship was still desired, admired, and ultimately survived. Kendo is a Japanese martial art based upon the continued development of swordsmanship descended from techniques used by Samurai warriors. Fast-forwarding to the modern day, Kendo has become an increasingly popular activity, to the point that upwards of sixty countries around the world now practice the art and compete in tournaments. This includes us here in the UK.
Sounds exciting? It should be. Let’s first take a quick look at what modern Kendo actually is.
The term Kendo can be translated to mean ‘Way of the sword’ and was originally a form of practice for the samurai. It is a martial art that sees two Kendoka (Someone who practices Kendo) face-off with bamboo swords known as Shinai. (no, unfortunately you don’t get to a wield a 2-foot katana.) Kendo isn’t all about sword-fighting however — surprised though you may be — as a big part of this martial art is about self-improvement, discipline, and etiquette. There is a big focus on how it is performed as well as what is performed. This is evident on the scoring system during competitive bouts, which I will come to shortly.
To help explain this, the AJKF (All Japan Kendo Federation), the founding organisation of modern Kendo, published ‘The Concept and Purpose of Kendo’ which is quoted below:
It certainly seems like a lofty goal to achieve, but when you consider that if you were to partake in Kendo anywhere in the world, you will be taught in only one way — The Japanese way. This includes everything from the bow to being commanded in Japanese — and everything in between.
It suddenly becomes not so unlikely.
Competing in Kendo
As much as kendo is a martial art with honourable intentions, it does also have a competitive aspect much like many others. Numerous tournaments are held nationally and internationally with the most prestigious being the All Japan Kendo Championship. This is of course only open to Japanese nationals but represents some of the best Kendoka. For everyone else there is the World Kendo championship which takes place every three years in rotating continents.
Points in a Kendo match is not awarded in a conventional way. Not only must successfully land a hit, but there are two other requirements following this that must occur. Here’s a basic run-down:
- A hit in the correct area.
- A shout identifying the area.
- Being able to follow-up.
To make a successful hit, the top third of the Shinai (bamboo sword) must strike either the head, hands, torso, or throat; also known as the men, koto, do, and tsuki respectively.
Kendo is a martial art/sport that requires being very vocal and is part of the next step.
Upon making successful contact in a scorable area, the Kendoka must shout the name of the area that was hit. This is called a kiai that releases energy and shows high spirits.
Lastly is the idea of Zanshin. This is a word that describes a continued state of awareness. Within the concept of Kendo, it means that following a hit, you must continue to be focused and prepared. If you were to hit and relax your guard or sacrifice your balance and position to achieve the point, then it wouldn’t be awarded. You would be classed as not in a continued state of awareness. This concept can be little tricky to comprehend at first, but it ensures constant focus.
Kendo in the UK
Kendo is a surprisingly accessible Japanese experience, whether you want to try yourself or keep up to as a spectator.
Taking your first steps to participate in Kendo is relatively straightforward. Most countries who practice the art have a national kendo federation or association that is a great place to start. Here in the UK, we have the British Kendo association that has a ton of resources to learn more and help get started. They provide a useful map that shows all the official Kendo clubs nationwide (of which they are many) as well a calendar that will show events both here and in Japan.
Equipment is often not necessary as a beginner, so you don’t need to go buy everything until you know its something you want to do; that being said, if you do decide to go further, everything you need is also quite easy to come by. A couple of UK based kendo suppliers are:
Kendostar also has an active YouTube channel by the name of The Kendo Show which includes lots of instructional, news and Q&A’s videos.
If on the other hand you prefer to get involved from a distance, the All Japan Kendo Federation often livestreams their events so you can watch full Kendo coverage. Their YouTube channel also regularly posts coverage of individual bouts from previous tournaments.
The KendoWorld channel is another place for Kendo spectators that features highlights from numerous forms of Kendo.
On the face of it, Kendo is all about sword fighting and periodically shouting for no apparent reason; consequently, those who try Kendo are often surprised that its not the case. There is a subtlety to Kendo that rewards discipline, precision, and speed both inside the dojo and out, as well as a focus on individual development.
It’s a martial art/sport that has a lot more depth than meets the eye, and with Kendo making its way to the UK its worth looking into. If nothing else, is a fascinating glimpse into Japanese etiquette and tradition.