History of Kendo|A thorough explanation of the approximately 1,000-year history of kendo from the Heian period to 2025!

剣道の歴史|平安から令和まで約1000年の歴史を徹底解説!

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Motenas Representative

Do you know about the “History of Kendo”?

Kendo is one of the traditional Japanese martial arts.

It is surprising how much history has been passed down to the present day.

In this issue, we provide a thorough explanation of the history of kendo, which has a history of about 1,000 years since the Heian period!

Let’s take a deeper look into the history of “kendo” which has been passed down through twists and turns.

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What is Kendo? Traditional culture evolved from kenjutsu

What is Kendo? Traditional culture evolved from kenjutsu

Kendo is an evolution of kenjutsu, which was originally practiced by samurai.

First, let us look at the history of swordsmanship to see when it first emerged.

Heian Period|The appearance of the Japanese sword

It is believed that the “Japanese sword,” an essential part of swordsmanship, appeared in the Heian period (794-1185).

Originally used by tribes in the Tohoku region for mounted warfare, the shinogi-zukuri style of Japanese sword was born in the middle of the Heian period (794-1185).

Shinogi-zukuri” refers to a sword with “Shinogi” stripes on the blade.

When you think of “Japanese swords,” this shinogi-zukuri style sword comes to mind.

The form of Japanese swords with Shinogi-zukuri, which has been handed down to the present day, was created in the middle of the Heian period, or about 1,000 years ago.

The swordsmanship using the Japanese sword became widespread, especially among samurai groups.

Muromachi Period|Various schools of swordsmanship are born.

In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), wars were fought repeatedly and swordsmanship became more and more popular.

In this era, you cannot protect yourself unless you win by slaying your opponent.

And for the sake of their success, the warriors competitively honed their own swordsmanship.

This gave birth to various schools of swordsmanship.

Some of these schools, such as Shinkage-ryu and Itto-ryu, have been handed down from this period to the present.

  • Shinkage-ryu
    …A school founded in the Sengoku period (1467-1568). It is characterized by the technique of “letting the opponent perform the technique and winning without attacking yourself” rather than going to cut the opponent yourself.
    (Reference source: Shinkage Ryu Hyoho official website )

  • Itto-ryu
    …A school created during the Warring States period. The purpose of training is not to defeat the enemy, but to train the mind. However, there are many branches, such as the Ono-ha and the Mizoguchiha, each of which has its own characteristics.
    (Reference source: The 3rd Itto-Ryu Nakanishi-ha Innovation | All Japan Kendo Federation AJKF )

Edo Period|Foundation of Kendo is established.

Edo Period|Foundation of Kendo is established.

A major change in swordsmanship occurred during the Edo period.

Swordsmanship, which had previously been about slaying people and winning, was transformed into a form of character building as well.

In addition to the technical aspects, mental training also became important, and became the foundation of modern kendo.

Appearance of shinai and protective gear

By the middle of the Edo period, protective gear such as shinai (bamboo swords), masks, kote (short arms), and doh (bodies) began to appear.

The “uchikomi gyoei method,” in which players strike each other with shinai (bamboo swords) using this protective gear, was born and spread, and it is believed to be the basis of modern kendo.

While many schools of swordsmanship were born here again, there were also many swordfighting matches that transcended the boundaries between schools.

Edo’s three major dojo are also born.

It is estimated that there were more than 100 schools in the Edo period, but three of the most popular schools emerged.

  1. Kagami Shin Meichiryu (Shigakukan)
    …A school in which Okada Yizo, who served as a bodyguard for Katsu Kaishu, John Manjiro, and others, is said to have studied.
  2. Hokushin Ittoryu (Genbukan)
    It is said that Ryoma Sakamoto also studied Hokushin Itto-ryu. Hokushin Itto-ryu was also used to instruct the Metropolitan Police Department in the early Meiji period (see below).
  3. Shinto-Munenryu (Shindo-Munen Ryu) (Neriheikan)
    …A school that is said to have been studied by Ito Hirobumi, the first Prime Minister of Japan.

The dojos where these three schools were practiced were called the “three major dojos of Edo,” and many students practiced swordsmanship.

And it is amazing to know that historical figures that everyone knows were produced from the “three major dojos of Edo.

However, even the swordsmanship that had gained so much momentum was tossed about by the currents of the times.

Meiji – Taisho Period|Abolition of the Samurai and prohibition of the wearing of the belt.

Meiji - Taisho Period|Abolition of the Samurai and prohibition of the wearing of the belt.

In the Meiji Era, the world changed drastically.

The previous warrior system was abolished, and carrying a sword was prohibited.

This led to a temporary decline in swordsmanship.

Ten years after the Meiji Restoration, however, swordsmanship began to show signs of revival due to a rebellion that would go down in Japanese history.

Rebellion brings back swordsmanship

The Seinan Senso (Civil War) of 1877 triggered a renewed interest in swordsmanship.

The Seinan War was fought by Saigo Takamori, who led the Satsuma Clan, the political reformers at the core of the Meiji Restoration.

The Satsuma clan, led by Saigo Takamori, rebelled against the Meiji government.

In other words, Saigo Takamori rebelled against the government he had established, and the Seinan War, which lasted approximately seven months, became one of the most memorable wars in Japanese history.

As a result, the Satsuma Army lost about 6,800 men and the government army (government forces) about 6,400 men. The Seinan War ended with the victory of the government forces.

In the beginning of this battle, both armies used guns, but there were occasions when the guns became unusable due to the continuous rain.

The sword was used for this purpose.

Excellent swordsmen such as those from the former Aizu domain were also sent to the war and battles were fought.

And soon after the end of this Civil War, swordsmanship began to attract attention again, with the police adopting it.

Movement to pass on swordsmanship gains strength

By 1895 (Meiji 28), 18 years after the Civil War, there was a growing movement to pass on the art of swordsmanship to future generations.

One of these was the establishment of the Dainippon Butokukai, which lasted until 1946.

After that, the company faced a situation where it had to be dissolved at one point, but was re-established and has been carried on to the present.

Around the same time, a book titled “Bushido” was published in English, which continues to be a catalyst for people overseas to learn about the martial arts.

From “Kenjutsu” to “Kendo

The name “kendo” was changed from “kenjutsu” to “kendo” in 1912.

In the same year, a kata called “Dai Nihon Teikoku Kendo Kata” was established, which is still used today as the “Nihon Kendo Kata” (Japanese Kendo Kata).

And this was the moment when the word “kendo” was used for the first time.

Seven years later, in 1919, kenjutsu officially changed its name to kendo.

This was to ’emphasize the meaning of cultivation, which is the original purpose of “bu”, and to insist on the unification of martial arts and martial arts into “budo” and kenjutsu and kendo into the name “kendo”.’ (quoted from: History of Kendo | All Japan Kendo Federation, AJKF ).

Postwar to Present|The Road from Banning Kendo to Its Revival

Postwar to Present|The Road from Banning Kendo to Its Revival

In the Showa era (1926-1989), Japan was defeated in World War II.

Japan was occupied by the Allied Command, and kendo and other martial arts such as judo and kyudo were totally banned.

This is believed to have been banned because it is believed that martial arts made Japan a militarized nation.

However, Japanese people who wanted to somehow carry on or revive kendo devised various measures and turned their attention to a certain Western sport.

Inspired by fencing, revived as a sport

The Allied Command occupying Japan recognized “fencing,” which had existed in the West since that time, as a sport.

So Japan also abandoned the name “kendo” and invented a sport called shinai kyogi (撓競技), which imitated fencing.

Nyushi Kyogi (撓競技) is a sport based on kendo in which shinai (bamboo swords) are improved to be more resilient and safer, protective gear is worn to mimic fencing, and a match time and referee system are introduced. (Reference source: The 6th Thinking about Tradition|All Japan Kendo Federation AJKF )

Through the efforts of these predecessors, kendo will be revived in Japan as a sport.

About two years later, the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952 freed Japan from occupation, and martial arts other than kendo were revived.

In response, the All Japan Kendo Federation is established.

Then, modern kendo was created by absorbing “shi no kyogi” (撓競技).

First World Kendo Championships Held

The 1st World Kendo Championships will be held in 1970.

The venue for the first world convention was the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo.

The men’s team competition was held, and three days later the individual competition was held in Osaka.

Since then, the World Championships have been held every three years, and in 1997, women’s individual and team competitions were also held.

Martial arts to become compulsory in junior high schools in Japan

One of the major events for kendo in recent years has been the introduction of martial arts as a compulsory subject in domestic junior high schools in Japan in 2012.

This is news that is fresh in our memories.

However, since kendo is a martial art that requires shinai (bamboo swords) and protective gear, it is expected that few schools will include kendo in their classes.

Nevertheless, as students are exposed to more opportunities to experience the martial arts, they may become more aware of its appeal and more willing to carefully pass it on.

Kendo is also a popular club activity, so it will continue to be passed on to the future through school education.

Expanding to the World and the Future of Kendo

Expanding to the World and the Future of Kendo

Currently, the world’s kendo population is estimated to be about 2.6 million.

It is deeply moving to think that swordsmanship, once honed by Japanese warriors, has now grown into a martial art with enthusiasts all over the world.

Some people ask, “If there are so many people practicing kendo all over the world, why not make kendo an Olympic sport?” However, there is also a desire on the part of Japan not to make kendo a sport.

Kendo is not a “sport” where winning is the only objective, but a “martial art” where both technique and spirit are honed.

That is the appeal of kendo and the tradition it has inherited from its predecessors, so it is probably unlikely that the sport will continue to explode as a sport in the future.

Nevertheless, many foreigners find kendo’s “respect for the opponent” and “mentality” attractive, and these people are still practicing kendo all over the world.

Rather than seeking mass popularity and recognition like in sports, people who resonate with the appeal and spirit of kendo will continue to practice daily, and this will be passed on with great care.

Summary

Summary

Kendo has faced the threat of extinction many times, including during the Meiji Restoration and postwar occupation by the Allied Powers.

Even so, kendo is what it is today because of the wisdom of our predecessors and their desperate efforts to carry on the tradition.

Although we no longer use Japanese swords in real life and the world has become a peaceful place, the thoughts and spirit of our predecessors still live on in kendo.

I would like to continue to pass on this proud traditional martial art of kendo to the future.

Reference page
History of Kendo | All Japan Kendo Federation AJKF

[References
J Sports Series 6 Kendo” by Naoki Eika, published in April 2001

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