History of Kendo

a hand-coloured  photography of a man in samurai amrourThe roots of Kendo, The Way of the Sword, are to be found in Kenjutsu, the art of wining a real fight with real swords. Japanese historians mean that there were three periods in the ancient history of swordsmanship: Joko-ryu, Chuko-ryu and Shinto-ryu (the ancient, middle and new styles).

It is difficult to find accurate dated historical studies about Kenjutsu but in the three volumes of Kojiki that covers the history of Japan from mythological age down to the reign of Empress Suiko (592-628 CE) and the 30 volumes of the Nihon-shoki, completed in 720, Kunimatsu no Mahito, a famous swordsman, is mentioned as founder of Kenjutsu. His fencing style, Kashima No Tachi (Kashima Shrine style), still exist.

The beginnings

The first accounts of the art of sword fighting is recorded about 400 CE and refer to Tachikaki (tachi means sword, and kaki is the form of drawing). By using a Bokken (solid wooden sword), that at this time was a straight blade, attack and drawing were practised. 
During the Nara period (710-794), when Nara was the capital of Japan, the art of Tachikaki was replaced by Tachiuchi (match of swords), which was a new form of combat-of-arms.

When the capital in 794 was moved from Nara to Kyoto, at that time named Heian-kyo (city of peace and tranquillity), the art of Kendo started to developed slowly. This was a period of peace and ease, so Samurai that wanted to keep their skills or perfect their sword techniques searched for skilful kendo instructors. As many of the samurais were master swordsmen, they could start a fencing school supported by a warlord of an Uji (clan). But still the bow was the main weapon of the samurai of the Nara and Heian periods.

The kendo schools evolve

The many wars of the Ashikaga Shogunate (1333-1568) made that the art of fencing, Kenjutsu, got an upsurge as the art of sword warfare became necessary for the samurai to master sword fighting. In this period the first Kenjutsu Ryu (school) were founded and the most famous were Nagahide Chujo (1380), Bunguro Hukida (1437), Choisai Iizasa (1488) and In-Ei (1521). There were two distinct areas of Ryu: Sen-ha Kenjutsu, which concentrated on sword techniques to be used in battle; and Ryu-ha Kenjutsu, which also included a more scientific approach, also to the art of war and war strategy.
The earliest kendo school of which there is a record, is the Nen-ryu founded in 1350 by Sanashirio Yoshimoto. If Yoshimoto originated the style is not for sure, this particular style however was taught until the 18th century by the Higuchi family, but has now disappeared. Also if this was the first school in existence is not proofed as every Damiyo (lord) has a fencing master in his castle.

The foundation of modern kendo began during the late 18th century. Yamada Heizaemon Mitsunori and his son Naganuma Sirozaemon Kunisato improved the Shinai and Bogu (armour) by adding a metal protection to the men and padded wrist-shield to the Kote. This enabled the full force delivery of strikes and thrusts without inflicting injury on the opponent. These advances, along with changing practice formats, set the foundations of modern Kendo.

During the Edo period (1603 - 1867) there were more than 300 Kendo schools. After the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, many samurais were no longer employed in active warfare. As the sword schools were very popular, they enabled many Samurai to make a living teaching swordsmanship. During this time, early 19th century, the “Three Great Dojo of Edo” were founded; Genbukan, led by Chiba Shusaku who systematize the Waza (techniques) of bamboo sword training by the “Sixty-eight Techniques of Kenjutsu”, Renpeikan, led by Saito Yakuro, and Shigakkan led by Momoi Shunzo. 

The end of samurai era

In 1876, samurai were banned from carrying swords. A standing army was created, as was a police force. This “sword hunt” was performed for, ostensibly, different reasons, and certainly with different methods than those of several centuries earlier. Ironically, perhaps, this sword hunt put an end to the class system while the earlier ones were intended to deepen the distinctions between commoners and nobles.

When the Samurai class officially ended in 1876, Samurai were banned to wear swords and practise martial arts. Only members of the national conscript army could wear swords. But Samurai traditions of centuries could not be eradicated even by law. Short after the government re-introduced the martial arts, retaining as far as possible the ceremonies of former times.

Modern times

In 1928 the All-Japan Kendo Federation was founded. Following World War II, Kendo with its militant background, was banned as being too militaristic but was brought back in 1953. The International Kendo Federation was founded in 1970.


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