What is Kendo – What You Need to Know

What is Kendo? Kenjutsu, founded on the principle of setsunin-to (life-taking sword) was the base for Kendo historically. Katsujin-ken (life-giving sword) and Katsujin referred to as “the sword that animates the sword fighter” are now the modern principles for Kendo. In essence, the focus shifted from taking a life to improving ones own life through Kendo’s Practice.

What is Kendo: The Practice

In classical bugei [traditional Japanese military arts] parlance, the connotations are concrete. The “sword” refers not to the weapon itself but to its usage. When referring to combat the opponent’s responses and fighting spirit taken, not his life. When a combatant uses force of will to overpower, immobilize, and strike down an opponent before he can react, this is called “setsunin-tõ” (i.e. “sword[smanship] that transfixes”, or ‘swordsmanship that kills response”). “Katsujin-ken” (“Swordsmanship] that animates”), on the other hand, involves drawing out the opponent, inducing him to strike, and then going inside his technique, countering it either at the moment of origination or at the point of its most complete extension. Setsunin-tõ is an egoistic and risky approach to combat – the slightest miscalculation will result in the swordsman walking straight into the opponent’s counterattack. Katsujin-ken, by contrast, involves a sophisticated manipulation of the opponent and his actions by means of utter selflessness, properly conducted, it is virtually undefeatable.”

Taken from: “Karl F. Friday, Legacies of the Sword: The Kashima-Shinryu and Samurai Martial Culture, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997: p. 31″.

The Tools of Kendo: SHinai and Kendoka

In short, The concept of Kendo is to apply the principles of the katana to discipline the human character. Consequently, seldom does kendo ever use the actual katana. Kendo practitioners, called Kendoka, utilize a Shinai for full contact sparring practice. The Shinai formed from four bamboo staves and leather. Alternatively, Kendoka would use a bokken or bokuto made from solid wood to practice basics and forms (or kata). 


Karate, Taekwondo, and Kendo, etc. Employ a system of detailed patterns of movement or Kata. Moreover, each form of Kata deeply illustrates numerous aspects of the art. Kendo’s Katas are usually performed with a bokken as previously noted. Overall, each of the Kendo katas “…studies a single set of concepts in a very pure setting allowing the practitioner to delve deeply into these concepts” (kendo-usa, 2009). Kendo kata is performed with two people, the Uchitachi and the Shidachi. The Uchitachi always sets the pace and distance. In addition, the Uchitachi is also the first to attack and the Shidachi initiates the proper response to it. Participants demonstrate the first seven Katas equipped with a long sword. Finally, Kendoka perform the last 3 with a short and long sword. The short sword demonstrating the proper defense against a long sword attack.

All things considered, Kata is only a part of the training in Kendo. Like our training here at Sifu Och Wing Chun, as well as many other martial arts, Kendo requires a great deal of discipline and dedication to its training. From its teachings one will learn etiquette, proper sword handling and different postures and foot work. With these instructions and training one will be able to define their way in life as well as develop a rich outlook on it—“they will be able to put the culture of Kendo into use, thereby benefitting from its value in their everyday lives through increased social vigor (AJFK, 2007).

What is Kendo

The purpose of practicing kendo is:

To mold the mind and body,

To cultivate a vigorous spirit,

And through correct and rigid training,

Strive for Improvement in the art of Kendo;

Hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,

Associate with others with sincerity,

And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.

Thus will one be able to love his country and society,

To contribute to the development of culture,

And to promote peace and prosperity among all people.

History of Kendo – The Way of the Sword

Not many martial arts base their concept on the use of an object. Fencing, Iaido, and Kendo are the few which do. Fencing revolves around the use of the rapier. Iaido Practitioners utilize the katana. Finally, similar to Iaido, Kendo’s training involves preparation for the use of a Katana with a Shima. Here in Kendo’s History, we will focus on the history of Kendo including its origins as a 2 part series. In Part 2, we will change our focus to its practice.

KenDo’s Meaning

Kendo structures its art around the Japanese sword. Coincidentally, Kendo derives its name from the same. “Ken” is the Japanese character meaning sword, and “Do” is the character meaning way or path. Kendo is literally translated as “The way of the sword”. Like Wing Chun kung fu, the exact origin of the art is unknown, and its history does not link back to any founder. Based on historical studies, the history of Kendo stems from kenjutsu (the art of the sword) over several centuries. Both swordsman and Samurai played key roles in keeping it alive.

HISTORY of Kendo

Like Kendo, Kenjutsu’s origin is uncertain. The history of Kendo can, however, be traced back to the Heian period (794-1185). During that time its congruent years allowed the Samurai to perfect their sword techniques. The martial art was not highly sought after until the late Muromachi period (1336-1568). At that time, a long civil war ensued and resulted in the establishment of more Kenjutsu schools. After the turmoil in the early years of the Edo period (1603-1867), the concept of kenjutsu underwent a change. The techniques of the art initially focused on killing. Setsunin-to (the life-taking sword) eventually changed to the opposite: katsujin-ken (the life-giving sword). Katsujin-ken focused not only on swordsmanship but also on the discipline of one’s inner-self. Swordsman published many books relaying their theories on swordsmanship. One notable work is Musashi Miyamoto’s “The Book of Five Rings”.

Modern Kendo

Modern kendo did not take its form until the Shotoku era (1711-1715). Naganuma Shirozaemon Kunisato of the Jiki-shinkage-ryu school improved on the use of the bogu (armor) as well as the shinai (bamboo sword). He also established a shinai training method. In this continuing era of peace many Samurai established schools (dojos), teaching their art of kenjutsu or traveling from region to region honing their skills in inter-school competitions. Of the many schools during the Edo period in the 19th century, three schools became recognized as the “Three Great Dojos of Edo”. These included Renpeikan led by sinsei Saito Yakuro, Shigakken led by sinsei Momoi Shunzo, and Genbukan led by sinsei Chiba Shusaku. Several of Chiba’s techniques are still practiced today.

Kendo’s Rise

With the rise of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and the abolition of the Samurai, the practice of kenjutsu witnessed a drastic decline. It was not until after an unsuccessful resistance movement on the government in 1877, that the government noticed the benefits of kenjutsu. It began teaching the practice to its Tokyo Metropolitian Police. The forming of the Dai-Nippon Butoku-Kai organization in 1895 allowed for the nationalization of the practice of kenjutsu. The rapidly growing popularity of Kenjutsu soon demanded a universal form. After careful deliberation between schools, Kenjutsu masters created the Nihon Kendo Kata, a set of kendo regulations.

Kendo Resurrected

Kendo and its practice remained uninterrupted into World War II, where the occupying allied forces saw kendo as undemocratic. They also saw it as having militaristic associations and outlawed the practice. This also resulted in the disbanding of the Butoku-kai organization. The Ban did not last long. The All Japan Kendo Federation revitalized Kendo with its founding in 1952. The Federation changed Kendo to take the shape of a “pure sport” martial art which was vital to its resurrection. The focus shifted from combat to the development of mind and body with the purpose of obtaining a better life for oneself. Furthermore, since the establishment of the International Kendo Federation in 1970, Kendo has made a popular appearances globally with many people wanting to practice the art.


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