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A Brief History of Kendo

Kendo is composed of two kanji: "Ken", meaning sword, and "Do", meaning 'the way/path of'. Together the term is literally the "way of the sword". It is a martial arts tradition spawned by the traditional schools of swordsmanship (ryu) of ancient Japan, and was practiced by and large by the bushi, or samurai class of the era. As practice with real blades is inherently dangerous, the schools developed a dummy sword called a shinai, and a set of protective equipment called bogu which protects the head (men), wrists (kote), chest (do), and groin (tare). Before the Meiji period (1868 - 1912 ) it was customarily referred to as kenjutsu or gekken . Fencing with the single edged, straight bladed sword was probably introduced from the Sui (589-618) or early Tang (618-907) dynasties of China. The cultivation of sword skills flourished during the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333). With the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate and relative peace until the 17th century, kenjutsu went into decline. The moral and spiritual element became prominent, drawing on Confucianism, Shinto, and Buddhism, especially Zen. Following the Meiji Restoration (1868), kenjutsu went into temporary decline, but in 1879 the Tokyo Police Force initiated kenjutsu practices as a means to nurture discipline and stamina. In 1895 the Dai Nihon Butokukai (All-Japan Martial Virtue Society) was established to encourage kenjutsu and other budo arts. At the end of WWII, occupational authorities banned kenjutsu on the basis of its militaresque origins. Yet despite this, following the end of the Occupation period in 1952, the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei (All-Japan Kendo Federation) was established. By 1957 Kendo was returned to all Japanese middle schools.

Kendo training is based on a variety of movements of attack and defense known as waza . Most fundamental are stance, footwork, cuts, thrusts, feints, and parries. Today kendo has ten ranks and 3 teaching degrees, with the higher ranks regulated by the All-Japan Kendo Federation. The International Kendo Federation oversees all international kendo tournaments, acts as the umbrella organization of all international kendo organizations, and orchestrates the World Kendo Championships which occurs once every 3 years.

Though it is a highly strenuous activity, kendo is also a means to strengthen the mind and the will to improve oneself. It is this aspect of kendo that attracts many of its most devoted practicioners. A Kendo bout with skilled opponent is an intense experience. For a moment in time concentration is absolute, concious thought is suppressed, and action is instinctive. Such training develops in the serious student powers of resolution and endurance under pressure which frequently affects his or her life beyond the confines of the training hall.

The mission of the All Japan Kendo Federation states that, "The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the KATANA." From the beginning one must practice hard physically and develop mental control to master simple techniques. Kendo practice may be started at any age, young and old, and even with severe physical handicaps. The will to continue regular training is the essential element in learning Kendo. Kendo is practiced for character building through the manipulation of the sword calmly under great pressure. Physical prowess is less important than doing everything with full spirit even when there is no hope of winning. The essence of Kendo is attaining mental, spiritual, and physical calm with balance, thus the popular Kendo phrase, "ki-ken-tai no icchi". In effect, the spirit (ki), the sword (ken), and the body (tai) must move and act as one.

To execute a successful strike:

Ki You must see the target, feel the chance available to you, and work the resolve to make the cut. Often there's the "go for broke" spirit in a strike which manifests itself in the kiai or scream that arises from the gut of the kendoka.

Ken The motion of the sword in it's rise and it's descent on the target must be precisely coordinated with the will and the body's movement forward upon the target.

Tai The body must follow the will of the kendoka and the movement of the shinai as it lands on the target. The legs must lunge forward to get within striking distance, and the back must be straight. All of this is accompanied by a confident resolve to achieve the objective.

Kendo as practiced today is the result of refinements in the use of the Japanese sword spanning more than 1000 years. On the surface kendo appear to be only a physical activity: but beneath the surface are many benefits that may be acquired over a period of time through honest, sincere effort and self-examination. Kendo did not start as a clearly defined art --it evolved over centuries of trial and error through combat known as "Kenjutsu" to the present form which on the surface may be called a sport. Kenjutsu is the use of the katana in combat. Kendo is the use of a bamboo sword called the shinai to make strikes to a limited number of targets. The cultivation of the human spirit through Kendo also enhances our daily lives in work, relationships, knowledge and relaxation.

To learn Kendo, as with anything, repetitive practice in the basics is the foundation for expanding knowledge, growth, ability and true success. Training in Kendo is immediate and continuous with success as the companion of honest effort. Progress is derived from one's effort immediately, though it will seem small in comparison to the total spectrum of Kendo. Kendo success is achieved through aerobic and anaerobic physical effort, mental discipline and honest self-examination. We teach ourselves patience, discipline, cultivation of the human spirit, respect for ourselves, opponents, fellow human beings and nature as well as how to learn and and how to teach. Kendo is one of the things that can be started at any age level, childhood or old age,and with a pure spirit of learning always improve ones-self. We learn to relax under situations of high stress and perform beyond what we consider as the limits of our ability. No human being is unique, we differ only our willingness to do that which is needed.

In Kendo the practice halls are known as dojo. Although this word is in common use throughout the martial arts, it was first used in Kenjutsu many centuries ago, originating from the Buddhist term for "a place of enlightenment" probably in the 11th or 12th century. Within the dojo, training is hard and sustained, and must be so. The accent is on discipline since it is only through the sometimes harsh feudal methods that one can reach the ultimate goal of the master --mastery of oneself.

We use the word reigi to describe the discipline or etiquette of kendo. It is this reigi or good manners and respect between kendoka at all levels, that is the most unique and valuable thing that kendo can offer the modern world. It is as old as kendo itself. In a Western environment it would be impossible to impose totally Japanese culture on our students and we do not attempt this. But in any dojo the students, Japanese or not, can observe the traditional kendo reigi and this encourages the growth of a fundamental understanding of that which is naturally colored by the individual's own cultural background. One of the values of kendo training, according to many masters is that it produces a calm mind and allows its followers to face everyday problems squarely.

An aspiring kendo student must never forget that he is joining a society whose training program dates back to very ancient military practice and whose members are conditioned to accept rigors in this training not for their own sake but for the moral values behind them. For the greatest part of history, kendo or kenjutsu was practiced almost exclusively by the bushi. For the warrior: perserverance, skill-at-arms, breadth of character, steadiness, and self-control in all situations were the goals that lay at the end of a lifetime's study of swordmanship. These are still the kendoka's aims. The swordsman found that great ryus often exert a significant influence on political thought and action. They were men who commanded enormous esteem amongst their contemporaries and posterity; even today kendoka are highly regarded in Japan. It is for these reasons that kendo reigi is considered so important and is so closely observed within the dojo.

Kendo therefore, as opposed to kenjutsu, is not practiced in order to destroy opponents but rather to train oneself in character building. It is in this aim of spritual awakening that kendo has much in common with Zen Buddhism. However, kendo is deeply influenced not only by Zen but by orthodox Buddhist, Confucian, and Shinto philosophy.
The expert manipulation of the sword is only the means to the end. In a kendo match only one person may win but many people may take part. Physical prowess and technical skill are counted less important than doing everything with full spirit and participation even if there's no hope of winning. What is important is attaining mental and spiritual calm and balance

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