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Kendo: History, Philosophy and Culture

Early records

The sword has been a part of Japanese culture since the earliest surviving records of that country. References to swordsmanship can be found in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), and the Nihon Shoki (History of Japan), two of the oldest chronicles of Japanese history. Though it is difficult to make accurate date estimates from those sources (dated to the 8th century A.D.), other sources describe references to the use of the bokken (wooden sword) as a weapon as early as A.D. 400.

During feudal times in Japan, the sword was an important instrument in the establishment of social and political rule. The early part of Japanese history is largely dominated by wars between various provinces. The feudal lords employed armies of Samurai warriors to defend their land, conquer enemies, and maintain order. Swordsmanship was a basic discipline of military training, and a strict training regimen was developed to ensure that the proper lessons were taught in a systematic manner. Strong sword teachers were highly prized by the feudal lords, and powerful warlords made substantial efforts to identify and hire the best swordsmen in the land. A teacher of swordsmanship was frequently relied upon to provide both military and moral leadership for the men under his tutelage.

Evolution of the warrior

With the advent of firearms, and the establishment of a stable military rule, the sword lost much of its value as a battlefield weapon. Nevertheless, swordsmanship flourished during the Tokugawa shogunate (around the year 1600). The warrior (Bu) training of the Samurai was considered to be the perfect complement to academic and social (Bun) learning, and both were considered necessary in the development of well-rounded individuals. Kendo training thus became seen as a means of instilling the discipline and ethics required for leadership.

The art of swordsmanship directly coevolved with technological, cultural, and philosophical developments in Japanese society. For example metallurgical discoveries made by swordsmiths were applied to other areas. One of the most intriguing aspects of Japanese swordsmanship is the way in which the ideals of the warrior were married to the study of Zen Buddhism, which made it's way to Japan from India, via China. Because so many aspects of Zen training and philosophy were in harmony with the ideals and training of the Samurai, Japanese warriors embraced Zen, and found that it lent moral and ethical depth to their experience as humans.

Zen and the Samurai

To a great extent the development of the modern ideal of the Samurai was shaped by the influence of Zen Buddhism. Though the religion and its leaders did not actively promote the endeavors of the Samurai, it did seem to offer them a belief system that fit well with the kind of life they lived.

One of the hallmarks of Zen is the rejection of any intellectual device that could provide a barrier to one's perception of reality. Even the most mundane experience is elevated to the sublime if it is conveyed directly to one's senses without prejudgement, or analysis. For the Samurai warrior, whose life could depend on a split second judgement, the simple clarity of Zen was appealing. A moment's thought could mean death, so there could be no delay between knowing, and acting. The ultimate goal of both the Samurai and the Zen monk was to become in harmony with the universe, so that one's actions would naturally be in accordance with the divine powers.

The life of a Zen monk was in many ways similar to that of a Samurai. Both considered that perfection was only attainable through austere practice. There were many cases of Samurai warriors augmenting their training at a Zen temple. There are also cases of Zen temples that became known for the combat valor of their monks, who trained in martial arts to perfect their practice of Zen.

Modern Kendo

Today, Kendo is practiced by millions of men, women, and children. Not only is it still popular in Japan, but enthusiasm for Japanese fencing has spread to Korea, the United States, Canada, South America, and Europe.

In the United States, strong clubs have existed in the major cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, for decades. Smaller cities like Portland, Seattle, Austin, and Denver have well-established Kendo programs. Through the dedication of many individuals, Kendo clubs are becoming established in smaller communities like Salt Lake City, Boise, Cheyenne, Lincoln, and even Pocatello (my home).

Modern Kendo has developed a strong sporting aspect. The All-Japan Kendo Championships are a major sporting event in Japan, and are widely televised each November. Many Kendoists have an ambivalence toward tournament match play in Kendo. Most experts seem to agree that the tournament aspect can often dilute Kendo's martial art roots. Nevertheless, if approached with the proper attitude, Kendo tournaments can be a fun, invigorating, activity that provides many opportunities to improve one's skills, and to meet other enthusiasts.

Though originally limited to the privileged warrior classes, Kendo now enjoys wide participation by people in a broad range of social and economic classes. Nonetheless, Kendo is still considered a "gentleman's sport," and retains a certain cachet not unlike the sport of polo in Europe.


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