Kendo is a physically and mentally challenging activity that combines strong martial arts values with sporting-like physical elements.
Practitioners of kendo are called , meaning "one who practices kendo", or , meaning "swordsman".
Kendo is practiced wearing traditionally styled clothing and protective armour (bōgu), using one or two bamboo swords (shinai) as weapons. Kendo may be seen as an Asian style of fencing. However, the movements in kendo are different from European fencing because the design of the sword is different, as is the way it is used. Unlike western style fencing, kendo employs strikes with a defined 'edge' and tip of the shinai. Kendo training is quite noisy in comparison to other martial arts or sports. This is because kendōka use a shout, or kiai, to express their spirit, and when a strike or cut is performed, the front foot contacts the floor in a motion similar to stomping, called fumikomi-ashi.
There are estimates that about six million people world-wide practice either Kendo, with approximately four million in Japan, one million in South Korea, and millions more in Europe and the United States. The "Kodansha Meibo" (a register of dan graded members of the All Japan Kendo Federation) shows that as of January 2003, there were 1.3 million registered dan graded kendo practitioners in Japan. The number of kendo players not yet graded to a dan level is not included: those kendōka would outnumber considerably the dan graded players.
Kendo is one of the modern Japanese budō and embodies the essence of Japanese fighting arts.
Those swordsmen established schools of kenjutsu (the ancestor of "kendo") which continued for centuries and which form the basis of kendo practice today. The names of the schools reflect the essence of the originator’s enlightenment. Thus the Ittō-ryū (Single sword school) indicates the founder’s illumination that all possible cuts with the sword emanate from and are contained in one original essential cut. The Mutō (swordless school) expresses the comprehension of the originator Yamaoka Tesshu, that "There is no sword outside the mind". The 'Munen Musō-ryū’ (No intent, no preconception) similarly expresses the understanding that the essence of kenjutsu transcends the reflective thought process. The formal kendo exercises known as kata were developed several centuries ago as kenjutsu practice for warriors and are still studied today, albeit in a modified form. The introduction of bamboo practice swords (shinai) and armour (bogu) to "ken" training is attributed to Naganuma Sirōzaemon Kunisato during the Shotoku Era (1711-1715). Naganuma developed the use of kendo-gu (bogu) (protective equipment) and established a training method using the shinai.
In addition, the inscription on the gravestone of Yamada Heizaemon Mitsunori's (Ippūsai) (山田平左衛門光徳(一風斎), 1638 – 1718) third son Naganuma Sirōzaemon Kunisato (長沼 四郎左衛門 国郷, 1688–1767), the 8th headmaster of the Kashima Shinden Jikishinkage-ryū Kenjutsu, states that his exploits included improving the bokuto and shinai, and refining the armour by adding a metal grill to the men and thick cotton protective coverings to the kote. Kunisato inherited the tradition from his father Heizaemon in 1708, and the two of them worked hard together to improve the bogu until Heizaemon's death.
This is believed to be the foundation of modern kendo. Kendo began to make its modern appearance during the late 18th century. Use of the shinai and armour (bogu) made possible the full force delivery of strikes and thrusts without inflicting injury on the opponent. These advances, along with practice formats, set the foundations of modern kendo.
Concepts such as mushin, or "empty mind" as professed by exponents of Zen, are an essential attainment for high level kendo. Fudoshin, or "unmoving mind", is a conceptual attribute of the deity Fudo Myo-O, one of the five "Kings of Light" of Shingon Buddhism. Fudoshin, implies that the kendoka cannot be led astray by delusions of anger, doubt, fear, or surprise arising from the opponent’s actions. Thus today it is possible to embark on a similar quest for spiritual enlightenment as followed by the samurai of old.
The Dai Nippon Butoku Kai was established in 1895 to solidify, promote, and standardise all martial disciplines and systems in Japan. The DNBK changed the name of Gekiken (Kyūjitai: 擊劍; Shinjitai: 撃剣, "hitting sword") to kendo in 1920. Kendo (along with other martial arts) was banned in Japan in 1946 by the occupying powers. This was part of "the removal and exclusion from public life of militaristic and ultra nationalistic persons" in response to the wartime militarization of martial arts instruction in Japan. Kendo was allowed to return to the curriculum in 1950 (first as Shinai Kyougi "Shinai Competition" and then as Kendo from 1952).
Protective armour , is worn to protect specified target areas on the head, arms and body. The head is protected by the helmet-like , the forearm, wrist and hand by gauntlets called , the body by the and . The clothing worn under the bogu comprises a jacket, or kendogi/keikogi and a hakama, which is a trouser-like garment with wide legs. A cotton towel or tenugui is tied around the head, under the men, to absorb perspiration and provides a base for the men to fit comfortably. Like in some other martial arts, kendoka train and fight barefoot.
In modern kendo, there are strikes (or cuts) and thrusts. Strikes are allowed only to be made on specified target areas, or datotsu-bui on the wrists, head or body, all of which are protected by bogu. The targets are men (top of the head), sayu-men or yoko-men (upper left or right side of the head), the right kote, or wrist at any time, the left kote when it is in a raised position (such as jōdan-no-kamae also known as jōdan) and the left or right side of the dō or torso. Thrusts are only allowed to the throat (tsuki). However, since an incorrectly performed thrust could injure the neck, thrusting techniques in free practice and competition are often restricted to senior dan graded kendoka.
Once a kendoka begins to practice in bogu, a practice session may include any or all of the following types of practice.
In shiai, there are usually three referees, or shinpan. Each holds a red flag and a white flag in opposing hands. To signal a point, the shinpan raise the flag corresponding to the colour of the ribbon worn by the scoring competitor. Generally, at least two shinpan must agree, for a point to be awarded. The match continues until a pronouncement of the point that has been scored.
The first competitor to score two points wins the match. If the time limit is reached and only one competitor has a point, that competitor wins.
In the case of a tie, there are several options:
Hachi-dan (eighth dan) is the highest dan grade attainable through a test of physical kendo skills. In the AJKF the grades of kyu-dan (ninth dan) and ju-dan (tenth dan) are no longer awarded, but kyu-dan (ninth dan) kendoka are still active in Japanese kendo. International Kendo Federation grading rules allow national kendo organisations to establish a special committee to consider the award of those grades.
All candidates for examination face a panel of examiners. A larger, more qualified panel is usually assembled to assess the higher dan grades.
Kendo examinations typically consist of a demonstration of the applicants skill and for some dan grades, also a written exam. The hachi-dan (eighth dan) kendo exam is extremely difficult, with a reported pass rate of less than 1 percent.
There are no visible differences between kendo grades; beginners may dress the same as higher-ranking yudansha.
Kata 1–7 are performed with both partners using a daitō(大刀) or tachi(太刀) (long sword) style bokutō of around 102 cm. Kata 8–10 are performed with one partner using a daitō and the other using a kodachi or shoto(小刀) (short sword), style bokutō of around 55cm. During kata practice, the participants take the roles of either uchidachi(打太刀) (teacher) or shidachi(仕太刀) (student). The uchidachi makes the first move or attack in each kata. As this is a teaching role, the uchidachi is always the 'losing' side, thus allowing the shidachi or student to learn and gain confidence.
Nihon kendo kata were drawn from representative kenjutsu schools and tend to be quite deep and advanced. In some areas the regular training curriculum does not include nihon kendo kata.
In 2003, the introduction of Bokuto Ni Yoru Kendo Kihon-waza Keiko-ho(木刀による剣道基本技稽古法), a set of basic exercises using a bokuto, attempted to bridge this gap. This form of practice, is intended primarily for kendoka up to ni-dan (second dan), but is very useful for all kendo students.
The International Kendo Federation (FIK) was established in 1970 and in December 2006 admitted their 47th national or regional federation as an affiliate. The World Kendo Championships have been held every three years since 1970.