The warrior class of the samurai of Japan has always intrigued the Western world because of their fascinating contrast between their precise efficiency and strict military training, and their refined talents in various arts and deep spiritual customs. This paper’s primary focus is to answer the questions: What is Kendo (the way of the sword)? Moreover, who were the samurai warriors? This paper aims to respond to this samurai question by diving into the history of the samurai warriors in Japanese culture and their use of the katana as their primary sword when facing opponents. When regarding the question about kendo,this paper will seek to define and explain the culture of the sword and its evolution into the modern sport practiced by many all around the globe.
The Samurais were one of the most feared forces of the Japanese military who emerged in the seventh century and continued till the late 1800s when they were abolished. In the early phases of the origin of the samurai, they were used as a mercenary force but quickly became the major army who served the Japanese Empire. They were soon after regarded as the ruling class of Japan due to their effectiveness and efficiency on the field of battle. The military-inspired moral codes and core values of the samurai warriors were religiously maintained resulting in their rapid transition from mere military functions to other prestigious functions in the high courts of early Japanese culture and inter-clan intrigues (Nitobe p.42). There was also a balance between the military might of the Samurai and their noble character that was gentlemanlike further exemplified by the weapons and the armor they were adorned in. The primary fighting tool of the samurai warrior was the katana sword.
Kendo, on the other hand, is a form of traditional martial arts originating from Japan that primarily came about from the samurai but using bamboo swords as the fencing tool instead of katanas like the samurais used. The fencers of the kendo fighting art wear protective gear over their kimono-like training wear. Kendo also differed from many other sports in that is was not just about winning but also nurtured a strong will power and respected proper manners since it was an heir to the spirit of traditional Japanese fighting arts. During the 17th century to the 19th century, in the Edo period, kendo slowly descended from the samurai’s way of the sword and was used primarily as a training method while using bamboo swords and protective armor including: a breastplate (called do), a helmet (called men), and gauntlets (known as kote) to prevent injury. This form of martial arts was originally known to the masses as kenjutsu, meaning swordsmanship, and slowly evolved into the type of martial arts today known to many as kendo. During the 17th century onwards, Japan gradually transitioned into an era of peace and, with time, the samurai had no need for real swords to keep the peace and fight battles. The social and moral aspects of this art were in accordance to the Zen Buddhism and the warrior’s way known as Bushido. Since the samurai warriors were the only class of citizens that were allowed to have a sword on them at any time, mastering the art of sword fighting was a paramount skill that was indispensable for the samurai. In the final period of the Shogunate of Tokugawa, kenjutsu became popular to the masses due to the growing need for defense at a national level. In around 1912, there were long deliberations among kenjutsu masters, and thus kendo was officially born and transcended the existing systems of kenjutsu due to its universal appeal. Kendo was also a part of the physical education program offered in secondary schools and then made its way to the primary level. Kendo thus flourished resulting in various tournaments being held in Japan.
The basic meaning of the word samurai is one who serves. They were, therefore, servants to their leaders and lords and thus had a sense of clear duty to their masters as embedded in their name, the samurai. This loyalty and duty to their lords can be found in their cultural customs and religious beliefs as warriors of stature in the ancient Japanese society. The samurai’s religion was a was a complex entity resulting from the mild fusion of the native Japanese spiritualism, Shintoism, the samurai’s warrior code of Bushido, and some portions of Buddhism imported from other nations like China. Bushido translated to the knighthood precepts, and it governed the morals that were to be upheld by every true samurai. Bushido upheld codes of loyalty, justice, courage, courtesy, love and honor. These ideas united the interconnection of all things with the concept of loyalty with the views of being an avid gentleman who is learned, cultured, and skilled in martial arts. There are therefore several similarities between Bushido and the Chivalry code that was upheld by the knights in Europe during the medieval period.
Initially, samurai warriors were primarily independent fighters who focused on individual fighting techniques that would earn them recognition by their respective lords. This devotion to the perfection of each samurai warrior’s style and technique meant that they were a force to reckon with when grouped to form an army. When matched against each other, on the other hand, the fight was likely to be evenly matched. During the Sengoku period, the various Japanese clans formed samurai units that were intended to fight in a collaborative manner. These samurai-commanded armies grew in both number and skill due to the experiences they acquired in the field of battle resulting in the forming of the ashigaru forces. This method of joint training and fighting was employed meaning that different samurai forces could be defeated by semi-skilled forces of the ashigaru if they did not use collaborative tactics in the battlefield as opposed to fighting collaboratively as the ashigaru troops fought (Vaporis p.65). This trend of fighting techniques continued into the period of Azuchi-Momoyama until peace broke out in the Tokugawa period.
The primary sword used by the samurai warriors was known as the Katana. It was majorly a slashing weapon but could be used for stabbing opponents and also as a defensive weapon due to its unique structure and high resilience (Turnbull p.26). It could either be utilized with a one-handed or two-handed grip depending on the amount of force the samurai wished to exert on a strike or the stroke type that was delivered. The katana was a result of sword refinement for thousands of years and is considered as the final stage of the Japanese sword since the first creation of the sword in Japanese culture in the fifth century. The distinctive curve of the katana was introduced in the Nara period when the sword smiths were formulating a type of sword with a better blade for the purpose of cutting. These sword smiths found that they could create a finer edged sword by repeatedly hitting one side of the sword resulting in a sharper blade that curved slightly on one side. In the infancy stages, this curving of the blade was merely a side effect of the process of sharpening but eventually developed to become a core structure of the design of the katana.
The samurai warriors learned to achieve perfection in their skills of combat to be as deadly and sharp as their blades primarily from the Zen philosophies. The samurai regarded the katana as not only merely a sword but also as an extension of the warrior’s soul who yielded the weapon and a mirror of his Bushido skills on the field of battle. Traditionally, the katana was made by a talented blacksmith who matched the sword’s personality to that of the samurai warrior who commissioned it. Upon receiving the forged katana, the samurai warrior was always to have it by his side throughout his life on earth. This sentiment allowed the samurai warriors to carry katana swords when the rest of the citizens were prohibited from carrying weapons in public in the early Tokugawa period. The samurai warriors who sold their katana swords for extra funds were considered as dishonorable among their samurai counterparts. The samurai era thus continued until the proclamation by Emperor Meiji that the carrying of katana swords in public was illegal to even the samurai warriors.
The art of kendo, on the other hand, is considered as more of a sport. It grew in the years following 1957 because that was when it was restored back into the Japanese culture. Kendo became a type of martial arts that was used to develop both the body and mind resulting in a sense of purpose of preservation and protecting life. This feeling of purpose meant that kendo practitioners lead better lives than their counterparts who used the sword as a tool take life in earlier eras. The martial arts of kendo differed from other combative sports such as judo and wrestling due to various factors. Among them is that there are no weight classes for the competitors in kendo, it is also noisier than other martial arts sports because the practitioners shout to express their fighting will when striking, and also the stamping of the foot when hitting the opponent. Similarities to other martial arts are that the students of kendo fight and train barefoot in a specialized dojo or standard sports venues. Players of kendo score points by using the bamboo sword to strike the opponent’s protective gear in areas including the helmet, gauntlets, and breastplate. Matches are quick-paced with opponents seizing openings to strike, deflect an attack, or trying to create an attacking opportunity by disrupting the posture of the opponent.
Kendo was practiced to build a strong spirit and mind. This factor has time and time again explained why the kendo practitioners commuted over long distances to dojos and practiced barefoot on frozen wooden floors during winter or the hot summer times without ever giving up. The kendo practitioners also had to wipe clean the floor of the dojo and paid respect to the kamidana, a Shinto altar in the dojo, before starting each practice. Kendo students had to begin and end matches and practice runs with a polite bow to the opponent that was conducted in silence. The sport of kendo also valued the key aspects of sportsmanship. If an opponent flamboyantly celebrated the scoring of a point during a match, then the earned point could be taken away because this act is viewed as a form of disrespect to the opponent.
The techniques in kendo are divided into oji-waza (responding to a strike that was intended) and the shikake-waza which means initiating a strike. These techniques had to be practiced with patience, first starting slowly and then speed is incorporated into the practice and matches as the practitioners built confidence and familiarity with each technique.It has been observed that many individuals in Japan have tried their hand at kendo when compared to other martial arts sports such as judo. The number of kendo practitioners has increased drastically since the art became integrated into the physical education program in schools where students are required to practice the art. The Japanese children of modern times practice kendo as a way of upholding the spirit of the samurai and involving themselves with healthy competition to cultivate their bodies and minds through training (Craig p.57).
In conclusion, these two forms of martial arts in Japanese culture help individuals nurture a resilient spirit thus building them to be better people in society. The sport of kendo was a trickling down effect of some of the aspects of the samurai culture and thus should be held with high regards as it is more than just a sport.
Craig, Darrell. The Heart of Kendo. Boston: Shambhala ;, 1999. Print.
Nitobe, Inazo. Bushido the Soul of Japan. Auckland, N.Z.: Floating, 2008. Print.
Turnbull, Stephen R. Katana: The Samurai Sword. Oxford: Osprey, 2010. Print.
Vaporis, Constantine Nomikos. Tour of Duty Samurai, Military Service in Edo, and the Culture of Early Modern Japan. Honolulu: U of Hawaiʻi, 2008. Print.