Written by Franco Mocke
Japanese Kendo is the traditional style of Japanese fencing. The definition of Kendo is “way of the sword”. Kendo developed out of Kenjutsu, the ancient style of fencing.
History Of KendoAlthough the Japanese sword is considered to be the most noble weapon, it wasn’t always so. Until the 12th century, archery was above the sword. It only became the most noble after 1259, when Shogun Hojo Tokiyori restricted swords only to nobles and members of the warrior caste. From that time onwards the sword became the badge of the warrior and surpassed the bow.
The Japanese sword was part of the warrior. It was even called the “soul” of the warrior. Swords were believed to possess a life of their own, and all kinds of characteristics were associated with sword, such as luck, fertility and prosperity. The sole purpose of the sword was the eradication of evil. Anger were not permitted when using the sword.
After the Mongol invasion(1274 and 1281), a weakness in the sword design was discovered. The tip of the sword broke off, when chainmail and other hard material was cut. The great swordsmith Goro Myudo Masamune eliminated this by tempering and sharpening the blade all in one.
In the Nambokucho era (1336 – 1392). A split in the royal succession resulted in war and tyranny between the Northern and Southern emperors. That is when the long sword (tachi), was replaced by the shorter and lighter katana. The reason why the modern warriors chose the katana was because of its diversity in techniques. Lighter more agile weapons quickly dominated heavy long weapons.
How did the Japanese develop such astounding and devastating techniques? It all happened by a system of continuous learning. A warrior of proven ability taught his techniques to other students of his school. These martial arts schools existed for hundreds of years. The earliest recorded school was found in 1350.
Duels were common place in ancient Japan. Warriors challenged each other on a daily basis, with real weapons. Duels were also fought as a result of family feuds, or as masters of honor. Honor played a huge role in ancient samurai lifestyle. A slight brush of the scabbard against another person was taken as an insult, and occasionally resulted in a duel. Even unarmed civilians were struck down for such an insult.
Training was done with a real sword. This occasionally seemed to be too hazardous, so patterns and forms, also called “katas” were planned so that practice was harmless. Each kata focused on a particular series of techniques. It was reported that the ono ha itto ryu school practiced more than 100 katas!
In the search for more realistic practice, the bokuto or wooden sword was developed. This allowed two people to train with techniques that were too dangerous to practice with real swords. The bokuto did not replace the sword, but it helped for a more realistic practice session. The bokuto became more popular in duals – fatalities were reduced. It’s recorded that the bokuto can be used as a dangerous weapon. The famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi killed many people with his wooden sword.
Armour was introduced to during the Edo period (1615 – 1868) in the form of padded iron-grid masks and breastplates. The first breastplates were made from bamboo strips, sewn into tough cloth. A wrist guard was also used.
In the 19th century, gauntlets replaced the wrist protection, and the breast plate transformed into a wrap-around jacket. Modern armour replaced the padded jacket with a solid breastplate, which covers the rib. The ancient bokuto was replaced by the lighter shinai, made from bamboo.
In 1876 a call for setting aside the sword was edict, but a year later the Satsuma clan rebelled against the emperor. They were annihilated buy an army with firearms, but they did not die in vain for they showed the value of the martial spirit.
From that time on the decline in martial arts practice was halted and training was introduced to schools and colleges. In the year 1912 the sport Kendo eventually came into existence when all the various schools of fencing came together and agreed to a set of rules for competition in armour and with the bamboo sword.
Present Day "Kendo"Kendo practice takes place in a dojo. The practitioners of Kendo must behave politely and show respect to each other and the teacher. The Kendo uniform consists of a jacket (gi), trousers (hakama) and a head towel (tenugui).
Kendo practitioners stand about 3 meters apart from each other, holding the shinais in their left hands. The left thumb locks over the finger guard, and they move in unison. Both sink to their haunches while withdrawing the shinais. The right hand grips the shinai just below the finger guard and the left grips the lower part. Both partners then stand and each steps backwards half a pace with the left leg. The shinai lies in the middle position, with its point at chest height.
Weight is distributed evenly on the feet, so movement can be made quick in any direction. The feet skim over the ground and distance is adjusted either by stepping, or by taking half a pace forward with the right foot, then closing up with the left. When moving backwards, the left foot draws back first and the front follows. The correct distance between fencers is when the tips of their shinais are just crossing. The scoring areas of the head, arms and body are struck with a cutting action, except for the throat, which is attacked by a straight thrust. Cuts to the head are the most frequently used technique. They are made by raising the sword above the head and then brining it sharply down, using the shoulders as pivots. The left hand brings the sword down and the right directs it. As the sword passes vertical, the slightly bent elbows are straightened and as impact is about to be made, the kendoka emits a piercing shout. This is known as the kiai and it signifies resolve to strike strongly. Whenever the opponent raises his shinai to a high position, he exposed his mid section to attack. The defender holds his shinai in the shoulder position. This makes for a shorter and faster movement. Sliding the left hand up to the right during the cut provides extra acceleration. The opponent’s wrist will become vulnerable if his sword is held at a slight angle. The defender pulls back his sword from the chudan kamae to an upright position, then he glides forward and cuts across the exposed wrist.
Thrusts are made with the hands twisting inwards, or outwards during the execution. Most of the force is developed by sliding forward with stiffened elbows. The thrust either drives diagonally upwards into the throat, or it travels horizontally.
Mitchell, David. 1989. The Complete Book of Martial Arts. Hamlyn Publishing
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