Kenjutsu, translated literally as “sword technique,” was initially developed for the sole purpose of protecting oneself and defeating the opponent. Over the years, however, it has evolved Kendo (“the way of the sword”).
Although the exact origins of the Kenjutsu is rather hazy, many clay figurines bearing solders were found in various locations throughout Japan. Some date back over two thousand years. We know, however, that it was the Samurai, Japan’s ancient warrior’s class that brought about the evolution of swordsmanship from merely a battle technique into a graceful art that blends vigorous physical conditioning with mental and ethical development.
In the year 1604, when Lord Tokugawa ended a long period of civil war and received the title of Shogun from the emperor, he honored the master of a school of Kenjutsu (Yagyu Shinkage Ryu) by making him the instructor of his own son. Yagyu’s dedication led him [not clear Yagyu or son of Tokugawa?] to become Shogun.
Next to the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu School there was a Zen temple where there lived a well-known Monk named Takuwan. Takuwan celebrated Master Yagyu master for his achievements and presented a written document called ” Fudo – Chi – Shin – Miyo – Roku.” The document describes a
way to govern oneself as well as society by adapting the principle techniques and philosophy of Kenjutsu. Since the Shogun has not need to learn techniques for killing people and his prime function is the peaceful governance of the society, Takuwan’s written advice has brought about significant changes to Kenjustsu. The focus shifted from fighting the opponent to overcoming one’s own weaknesses.
To overcome yourself, however, is much more difficult than overcoming others. Neither pain, hunger, injury, nor any sickness or conditions are reason enough to prevent one from training. Rather, the starting point for training was to refine techniques for strengthening the body and mind. The aim is the endless challenge of winning “yesterday’s you” for today. This is the way, or “Michi”/”Do.”
The concept of the Kenjutsu was the precursor for Kendo. “Kendo” was not used, however, until the after the Meiji Restoration (1868), or nearly three hundred years later. At the end of the 12th century, the authority of the Japanese central government had declined. The warriors grouped together for protection, forming local aristocracies.
Feudalism had come of age, and was to dominate Japan for several centuries. With the establishment of the Shogunate in Kamakura and the control of Japan through military rule, a new military class and their lifestyle of Bushido “the way of the warrior” gained prominence. Bushido stressed the virtues of bravery, loyalty, honor, self-discipline and the social acceptance of death. Certainly, the influence of Bushido extends to modern Japanese society, and Kendo would be greatly influenced by this thought.
The Japanese warrior had no contempt for the learning of the arts. Although Kenjutsu, the “technique of the Sword” had been recorded since the 8th century, and it gained new prominence and took on religious and cultural aspects as well. The Sword making became a revered art. The Samurai often devoted time to fine calligraphy or poetry etc. Many Kenjutsu masters expressed his taught through in his poet.
Great advances in the Kenjutsu occurred during a period of upheaval and conflict in the late Muromachi Period (1333-1573), or “The era of the Warring Provinces.”This period brought an increased demand for the men trained in the Kenjutsu. Consequently, many schools of Kenjutsu arose, each being taught by a famous swordsman whose techniques earned him fame and honor in the combat.
Men trained using real blades or hardwood swords without protective gear, resulting in many injuries. These schools continued to flourish through the Tokugawa period (1600-1868). Kendo began to take on its modern appearance during the late 18th century with the introduction of protective gear, and use of the Shinai (bamboo sword). Combined with protective gear, delivery of full blows without injury became possible. This practice forced to establishment of new regulations and practice formats that established the foundation for modern Kendo.
With the Meiji Restoration, and Japan’s entry into the modern world, Kendo suffered a great decline. The Samurai class was abolished, and the wearing of swords in public was outlawed. This decline was only temporary, however, because interest in Kendo resurged initially in 1877 when uprisings required the need for the training of police officers. Later, the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) again encouraged the cultivation of the martial spirit.
Consequently in 1895, the Butokukai, an organization devoted to the martial arts was established. In 1911, Kendo was officially introduced into the curriculum of the public school, and in 1912, a set of basic Kendo forms “Nihon Kendo Kata” were established. When Japan entered into the Pacific War, Kendo became a required course for all boys.
After the war, because of its nationalistic and militaristic associations, Kendo was outlawed and the Butokukai was disbanded. However, in 1952, supporters of Kendo successfully introduced into the public school curriculum a “pure sport” version called “Shinai Kyogi.”It excluded the militaristic attitudes and some of the more rough aspects associated with the practice of prewar Kendo.
Kendo in the United State
Sensei initially attempted to start the practice of Kendo practice in the San Pedro area. One by Toyama and the other by Kijima. These ended in disappointment. However, in 1926, Dr. Toruku Fuji again revived the practice of Kendo. Joined by Tokichi Nakamura in 1930, there were two officially organized Kendo groups in California, the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai Hokubei Nanka Shibu and the Hokubei Butoku Kai. Largely through the efforts of Nakamura, Kendo spread throughout the West Coast, and by 1940, the Hokubei Butoku Kai was comprised of over 10,000 members in 60 Dojos and organized into six Federations.
With the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Kendo was halted by order of the US Government. In the year of 1950, Kendo was again revived, this time by Torao Mori. Kendo spread rapidly throughout California and Washington State under his directions. He established and led the Kendo Federation of the United States of America until his death in 1969. In 1978, the United States hosted the second World Kendo Championship in Los Angeles. After Torao Mori’s death, Torataro Nakabara, the second president, took office. Today, Kendo continues to grow. The Federation now consists of over 4,000 members, and there are a total of 14 regional federations that cover most of the United States.
Kendo in the Eastern United State
Kendo first appeared on the East Coast in New York City in 1958 when a Kendo Club was formed by Dick Olden (Renshi 5 Dan at the time of his death in 1969), and Daniel T. Ebihara (currently Kyoshi 7th Dan). After practicing in various places around the city, the club settled into its permanent quarters at the New York Buddhist Church. In 1960, Rev. Shunshin Kan (Hanshi 8 Dan at the time of death in 1995) moved to New York City from Hawaii and became the Sensei of the New York Buddhist Academy Kendo Club. In 1977 it changed its name to the Ken Zen Institute, a not-for-profit organization. There are now three Kendo federations in the Eastern United States, consist of a total of approximately 70 Kendo Dojos. This number continues to grow.
Today, Kendo continues proliferate under the auspices of the All Japan Kendo Federation, the International Kendo Federation, and other federations throughout the world. Even though outward appearances and ideals have changed with the necessities of the times, Kendo continues to foster the development of character, self discipline, and respect. Despite its sports-like atmosphere, Kendo remains steeped in a tradition that has not been forgotten. It is in this tradition that lies the strength of Kendo. It has carried it through the centuries and will carry it far into the distant future.
Written by Daniel T. Ebihara Chief Instructor Ken Zen Institute. Ken Zen Dojo Assistant Senna Abe