Kendo: The Way of the Sword
Minami Yuzo Translated by Wakabayashi Tadashi
(York University (Canada) November 30,2001)

I. History of Kendo (1) -- Development of a Means of Learning

Kendo (the Way of the sword) or kenjutsu (techniques of the sword) began as training in how to defend one's group and one's life in combat; its origins go back to high antiquity in prehistoric times. However, Kendo today is a means of education, based on a culture created throughout a long history, that has developed over time to mould the Japanese people in accordance with the requirements of their society.

In the 15th to 16th centuries, when Japan was divided into many small baronies at war with each other, powerful warriors were highly prized, and strong swordsmen emerged. In that era, the Japanese sword also reached perfection as one of the world's great works of art. In the 17th century, Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the nation and founded a military government at present-day Tokyo. The control policies he set up ended internal strife and created a period of peace that would last 270 years, from 1600 to 1868.

In this society, kendo, which began as training in how fight and kill, lost meaning and many people stopped practicing it. But it is a truism that social mores degenerate when peace continues indefinitely. That would have had dangerous social, political, and economic ramifications for the Tokugawa regime; so it fostered the practice of kendo in order to curb such degeneration. The purpose of practicing kendo in this new, peaceful era was not to kill people, but rather, to facilitate their growth and development.

The Tokugawa also encouraged Confucianism, which was Chinese in origin, because it was best suited to form the basis of Japanese morality and thus support state policies. Almost all present-day Japanese social institutions and cultural activities, such as the tea ceremony, are based on the spirit of Confucianism. By deftly amalgamating its spirit and that of Zen Buddhism-- which had undergone a uniquely Japanese development-- kendo advanced from being training in how to defeat adversaries into training in how to develop individual character.

Practice methods also changed drastically. Up to then, people used wooden swords, which caused serious injury and so precluded intense practice. But swords made from split bamboo rods (shinai), as well as armor (bogu), were devised. As a result, the public as a whole could take part in this moral and spiritual training; it was no longer limited to a small group of specialists, the samurai.

The term kenjutsu, or "techniques of the sword," implies training in how to defeat-- or kill-- an opponent. By contrast, kendo, or "the Way of the sword," implies using it to better oneself spiritually and to assist the opponent's development. That is why we stress proper etiquette and respect for opponents through the practice of kendo. We call this method of practice "the Way."(do)

This is the origin of the spiritual training in kendo, which many people practice and love today as part of Japanese culture.

II. History of Kendo (2) -- Exemplars from the Past

A. Sakamoto Ryoma, Takasugi Shinsaku.

The 270-year Tokugawa period ended and Japan emerged under the new Meiji emperor. Many energetic young men carried out this "Meiji Restoration" or return of power from the Tokugawa regime to the imperial court in the 1860s. Among them were Sakamoto Ryoma, who was instrumental in forging the anti-Tokugawa loyalist alliance, and Takasugi Shinsaku who led one major domain in the loyalist cause and devised a modern-style army comprising recruits from all social strata, not just the samurai. Both were kendo enthusiasts in their youth, and this spiritual training forged the strength of will needed to overcome all obstacles in reforming society.

B. Yamaoka Tesshu.

In 1868 Japan transformed itself from national isolation under Tokugawa rule to a modern nation-state-- a transition achieved with strict discipline and very little civil war. This is an extraordinary event in world history. Yamaoka nipped civil war in the bud and facilitated a bloodless transfer of power. Just as war was about to begin, he slipped through several enemy lines to visit Saigo Takamori, leader of the loyalist forces, and persuaded him to accept a surrender of the Tokugawa stronghold without bloodshed. As a result, Tokyo was spared massive destruction and loss of human life.
Yamaoka was a famous swordsman who ran a school known for its harsh practice and founded the Muto style of kendo. Muto means, "no sword." The ultimate aim of his spiritual training was to "not need a sword." Indeed, this ideal found manifestation in the way that the Meiji Restoration took place.
(See John Stevens, The Sword of No Sword: Life of the master warrior, Tesshu. Shambbala, 1994)

C. Nitobe Inazo.

Nitobe was one of the first influential Japanese to participate in foreign affairs. The Nitobe Inazo Memorial Garden at UBC testifies to his stature.
When a foreigner asked him how the Japanese conducted religious education, he replied that none took place in schools. When asked how the Japanese conducted moral education, he replied that its basis lay in bushido-- the samurai Way.
The moral norms informing Japan's society, he said, derived from bushido. To explain Japanese behavior accurately to foreigners, he wrote Bushido, Soul of Japan(1899) in English. It described in detail how bushido had permeated Japanese life and formed the cultural background to uniquely Japanese behavior that foreigners found strange. This is a valuable work that allows foreigners to understand Japanese social conduct and continues to be published all over the world today. Japanese today learn the spirit of bushido through the instructional medium of kendo.
(See Inazo Nitobe, Bushido, the Soul of Japan: an Exposition of Japan Thought [with an introduction by William Elliot Griffis], 1905).

D. Sasamori Junzo.

Sasamori was an important figure on the international stage in the difficult pre-World War Two era. He was a follower of the Itto or "Single-sword" style, one of the most famous among many traditional kendo styles. He translated into modern Japanese, published, and thus popularized secret teachings in this style that up to then had been forbidden to convey except to disciples. Such an act was very atypical for a Japanese in that era.
He also published a book in English on kendo to encourage non-Japanese to take up it up. This is not a simple introduction to kendo, but rather, a superb specialized work that aids foreign practitioners in understanding kendo. It has many avid readers among them.
See Junzo Sasamori and Gordon Warnet, This is Kendo: The Art of Japanese Fencing, 1964.)

III. Spiritual Training in Kendo (1) -- What is Keiko?

Keiko or "practice" originally meant "to contemplate ancient matters with fondness," and thus entails the repeated thinking and practice of superb skills conveyed from the past in order to achieve higher levels of attainment.
These levels are denoted by dan-- usually translated as "black belt degrees" in other Japanese martial arts. To acquire dan, one must hit targets forcefully, accurately, and with dignified beauty. Thus players who win tournaments do not necessarily obtain higher dan. One cannot master dignified beauty through words or intellect. It takes years of keiko in which practitioners etch that ideal in their minds and strive to achieve it.

IV. Spiritual Training in Kendo (2) -- Etiquette in the Place of Practice

The ultimate goal of kendo lies in using the sword to better oneself spiritually and to assist the opponent's development. The proper attitudes for practitioners are: obedience, respect, and gratitude. This is why kendo stresses decorum and respect for opponents.
The traditional Japanese mode of education is to master forms before thinking about what these mean. The spiritual training in kendo begins with etiquette in the form of rei, a formal bow in the sitting position with legs buckled underneath-- not legs crossed.

a) The first rei is to the center of the dojo or practice area. Previously, this was directed toward the "deity altar" to pray for protection against injury. But today altars are rarely placed in dojos, and because kendo has undergone internationalization, I do not stress this dimension. Rather, I construe this rei to be directed toward each practitioner.

b) The second rei is to teachers and senior students; it shows respect for their instruction. As noted, keiko originally meant "to contemplate ancient matters with fondness." Hence it is crucial for a novice to obey faithfully instructions from teachers and senior students, not strike out on one's own. This rei embodies gratitude for that instruction.

c) The third rei is to all fellow practitioners-- not just teachers and senior students-- who seek to better themselves spiritually. All are valued teachers, so we must show an equal measure of respect to them in practice.

V. Spiritual Training in Kendo (3) -- Ultimate Aims

There are in essence three aims in kendo.

a) The Novice's Aim -- To Win By Striking Targets.

This aim alone requires dozens of years practice to attain. To win, one must strike the opponent forcefully, properly, and on target. The goal of practice here is to score points by striking the opponent's wrist, head, or side; or by thrusting at the throat. Striking "properly" means to hit targets with the topmost part of the bamboo sword, in the correct posture, and with a vigorous voice to show "inner ki" or spirit. By mastering the synchronicity of these movements, we attain higher levels of skill-- but this still belongs to the realm of the novice.
Techniques are evaluated through public tournaments in the presence of high-ranking teachers that are also useful opportunities for each practitioner to evaluate and reflect upon himself. Through tournaments, one also creates good friends and rivals who help polish each other's skills throughout their lifetimes.

b) The Intermediate's Aim -- To Win Without Striking.

After dozens of years of practice, one may perhaps achieve the next aim; i.e., to read the opponent's movements so that a high level of technical skill is not needed-- only normal skills.
After further spiritual training, one becomes able to forestall the opponent by adjusting to his movements and, by a menacing mien, awe him into immobility and impotence. One needs but hold the sword with proper posture, and the opponent is overwhelmed.
He loses not by being struck, but by the mere fear of being struck. This is the second aim or level. Only a handful of practitioners ever attain it, although many strive to.

c) The Ultimate Aim -- A Sheathed Sword.

The next aim is to eliminate the need to draw one's sword at all. Even with sheathed sword, one has no weak points. One's mere presence overawes others. By perfecting oneself through spiritual training still further, one can overawe people through love and not fear. Since one loves everyone, one is loved by everyone. Then, there is no need for a sword to strike with, and there is no need to fear being struck by one. This, indeed, is the inner secret of Yamaoka Tesshu's "No Sword" philosophy. It is synonymous with "love" or "humanitarianism."

In sum, the novice's aim is attained through bodily movements. The intermediate's aim is attained through control of one's own mind. The great majority of practitioners seek to go only this far. But the ultimate aim constitutes an eternal possibility to strive for. The aims of spiritual training in kendo are limitless; this is one of its greatest attractions. No matter how long and hard one trains in pursuit of these, they recede beyond the horizon.