Kendo came about as a non-lethal system which enabled warriors to practice combat techniques and tactics.
Prior to that, especially before the Tokugawa period, training with a partner was a risky business due to the use of live blades. Some warriors began to use wooden swords, called bokken, although these proved to be as deadly as metal ones.
The celebrated swordsman Musashi Miyamoto fought his famous duel with Kojiro Sasaki on Ganryu Island using only a wooden sword. In that combat, Musashi barely evaded Kojiro’s sweep to his head but responded by leaping up in the air and striking him squarely on the head, killing him.
Musashi and his life are often used as examples of bushido which is known in English as the Way of the Warrior. Similar to the European code of chivalry, bushido called for warriors to be brave, loyal, and to show valor in all aspects of life. Additionally there was a concept of gentleness to others, an appreciation of beauty, and a willingness to die happily without thought.
This last concept, derived from Zen Buddhism which had been imported from China, came to serve as an underlying lesson for the warrior and can still be found in elements of modern kendo. Bushido became a formal part of Japanese life after the defeat of the Taira clan by the Minamoto in 1185.
This war came about after the failure of the Fujiwara clan (who had been ruling Japan through control of the Emperor for generations) to effectively govern Japan. The consequent military weakening of the Fujiwara and the rise of samurai clans in the countryside sparked a seizure of power by the Taira clan after defeating their primary opponent, the Minamoto clan.
The Minamoto ultimately defeated the Taira and began the system of military control of the Imperial Court and bureaucracy through military power; known as the Shogunate. Their government was based in the city of Kamakura and was done so as to avoid the “softening” influence of the traditional seat of power in Kyoto (which had been dominated by highly-cultured and sophisticated nobles with very little military knowledge). The Minamoto wanted to retain the same vigor and strength that brought them to power in the first place and, as a result, the government and the Imperial Court became separated.
Power shifted over time and Japan became riven with battles for who would become the next Shogun. 150 years later, the Minamoto were replaced by the Ashikaga who ruled until their decline resulted in the Warring States period. Out of this civil war, Japan found itself under the rule of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. The consequent battle between Tokugawa and Toyotomi after the death of Oda Nobunaga, resulted in the seizure of power by the Tokugawa clan.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun, intended that Japan would no longer suffer endless cycles of war and his solution was to enforce an absolute ban on social movement and foreign influence, first promulgated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. To that end, he froze Japanese society into four main classes and dictated that no one could change the class that they were born into. These classes were: samurai, farmer, craftsman, and merchant.
This system became known as shi-nô-kô-shô, after the Japanese transliteration of the four traditional Chinese classes. At the top were the warriors, or shi (士), followed by the farmers, or nô (農), the craftsmen, or kô (工), and the merchants, or shô (商). Also included in the system, were the courtly nobility, or kuge, who were theoretically superior to the shi but in reality were powerless, and the henin, or “untouchables”, who were the lowest of the low.
This system was not perfectly suited for the Japanese situation, incorporating as it did such alien elements as the traditional Chinese disdain for the merchant class. This actually contributed to the rise of Japan’s merchant class as the merchants were, despite their wealth, required to spend the least under the sumptuary regulations.
Throughout the Tokugawa era, Japan knew a peace it had not known in a long time. It lasted for 200 years, ending with the collapse of the Tokugawa government under the pressures of economic and technological stagnation and increasing foreign pressure.
During this time, the samurai had few chances to engage in battle, only being able to apply their skills in individual duals or vendettas which were technically illegal. As a result, schools of fencing arose in which participants wore protective gear and used wooden or bamboo swords (called shinai).
From this evolved kendo which replaced kenjutsu or the art of military combat. In order to maintain mental vigor and focus on the philosophy of bushido, Zen took on a more dominant role in the lives of the samurai, as their battles turned from the outside world and into the internal world of the spirit.
Kendo was officially organized under the auspices of the Dai Nippon Butokai, which had itself been established with the permission of the first Meiji Emperor in 1895. In 1920, this organization formally changed the name of this fencing system into kendo. Previous to that it had been known as gekiken or “hitting sword.”
Modern kendo is both a sport and a way of life, depending on one’s approach. Utilized with Japanese terminology and practices, kendo is a complete system of physical and mental exercise focusing on improving oneself through the practice of fencing.
Kendo is practiced throughout the world by men and women and it can be a sport and system that brings together people of different cultures, religions, and political persuasions. No matter one’s position in life, all practitioners are subject to the courtesy and tradition of the Way of the Sword.