History of Kendo

Historically, the Kendo tradition can be divided into three broad periods, each reflecting its period in Japanese history. These periods are:

  • From the earliest records of systematic sword instruction around the year 792 AD to, roughly, 1600. This was a period of many upheavals and varying degrees of widespread warfare throughout Japan when the arts of the battlefield gradually emerged. These fighting arts are known as the Bujutsu and contained a huge variety of drastic techniques designed for protection and survival. The traditions were exclusive to the warrior groups. Kenjutsu formed the basis of most of these entities.
  • The Japanese state was unified under the Tokugawa government (Bakufu) soon after 1600 heralding a long period of stability in which the Bujutsu of the old battlegrounds developed and to a greater or less extent changed towards more ‘peaceful’ or philosophical systems, the ‘Ways’ or ‘Do’ of Bu-do. The swordsmanship that now emerged no longer had survival as its primary objective although the majority of the systems contained many lethal techniques. The emphasis rapidly shifted towards moral development and self-discipline, reflecting the influences exerted by the Tokugawa government. In Kendo the styles or traditions that now appeared, and there were very many of them, ranged from systems very close to the older, harder, styles of the war period through a complete spectrum to what might be termed the wildly esoteric and impractical. The swordsmanship of the first period of more than 600 years which was entirely focussed on warfare and the application of this knowledge to generalship and the whole range of tactics, strategy and the support of large bodies of armed men in the field, now changed, in the main, to the more personal skills with the sword. By the mid-18th century there was widespread acceptance amongst the samurai of the use of the bamboo shinai, either more or less as we know it today or a leather-covered version, and the wearing of fairly crude protective armour. The result was the development of practice forms that permitted full contact striking with either version of these two practice swords, very much as the Kendo of the present day. It is important to remember that many of the older kata-based Kenjutsu traditions still flourished but the teachings contained by these often formed an ‘inner’ level only transmitted to those more able students who demonstrated their worth to their masters. It was in this period between 1600 and 1868 that many of the traditional Iai-do traditions emerged, the similar trend being true throughout the rest of the Budo field.
  • The two major civil wars of the Bakumatsu period marking the transition from a feudal to a modern state with the restoration of democratic rule under the Emperor (1868 – 1876), culminated in 1877 with the samurai class ceasing to exist and the former warriors now being known as gentlemen. Budo fell at once on hard times and nearly ceased to exist for the best part of fifteen or twenty years. It was through the efforts of a handful of former samurai masters that brought about a revival but it was clear by the end of the 19th century that considerable modifications would be necessary for Budo to flourish. The Imperial government adopted and introduced the ‘new’ entity of Judo into the physical education system in schools and a safer form of Kendo came at the same time. Girls were encouraged to take up Naginata-do but this, interestingly, remained much as it had been during the preceding period. The ‘modern’ Budo that now emerged was known as ‘shin-Budo’, or ‘new-Budo’ in contrast to the older traditional forms, often very diverse, now known as ‘ko-Budo’, or ‘traditional-Budo’. By the second-half of the 20th century the term Shin-Budo, when used, came to encompass the four dominant modern systems of Judo, Aikido, Karate-do, and Kendo, the first three unknown before the 1880’s at the most. Only Kendo and Judo could claim authentic older origins – the former tracing many roots directly from very old styles, the latter having connections with no more than eight or ten Jujutsu traditions of the Tokugawa period. However, there was in the 1960’s and ’70’s little interest in ‘Old Japan’, modernity became the name of the game, so we may view the historical development above as actually having four divisions. Japan viewed its traditional martial ‘Ways’ as old-fashioned and some elements amongst the ‘powers that be’ did their utmost to follow the international trend to reduce everything to conform to the worthy tenets of Sport. Unfortunately, sport has very little in common with the true Budo tradition but we are lucky in that a great deal of the old teachings and many Bujutsu and Budo entities have survived to the present day and it is some of these ‘classical’ styles in swordsmanship that the British Kendo Renmei seeks to encourage and teach.

We have nothing against any of the modern forms of Kendo or Iai-do where the thrust is towards competition; we only wish to give the potential student a choice and present to enquirers a more balanced point of view. After that, the choice is yours and yours alone.