Many of the martial arts we discuss at Martial Tribes are empty-handed styles that you typically see in mixed martial arts. However, because the martial arts have their origin in military operations and warfare, there are of course some that make use of weapons and armor.
Here we take a look at Kendo, a Japanese martial art in which practitioners wear armor and wield bamboo swords.
Kendo means “the way of the sword” and is based on kenjutsu, the centuries-old way of Japanese swordsmanship which was practiced during the time of the samurai. Its katas, or forms, evolved from the training of kenjutsu warriors, and the practice of using bamboo training swords and armor became part of kenjutsu training during the 18th century.
Kendo practitioners are known as kendoka. They wield flexible bamboo swords known as shinai, which are modeled after the Japanese sword known as the katana. It consists of four bamboo pieces held together by leather, and either the tip or the edge are used to represent strikes. Kendoka may also make use of rigid wooden swords known as bokuto when appropriate.
For protection, kendoka wear armor known as bogu, which covers their bodies. The bogu consists of a grilled helmet, leather and fabric segments that cover the throat, shoulders and neck, and heavy gloves that cover the arms and hands. It also includes a breastplate, as well as waist and groin guards.
Kendo training consists of katas, which teach basic techniques through the memorization of fixed forms. Every kata features a teacher and a student, with a defense and counterattack component, in which the student always “wins” the engagement.
Kendo makes use of thrusts and strikes with their weapons. Strikes are only allowed and targeted at certain points of the body, all of which are covered with the bogu. Thrusts on the other hand can only be made for the throat, and generally are only practiced by higher-level kendoka.
We’ve previously covered kiai, which is the use of shouts to focus one’s energy and project it to one’s opponent. While practiced in many martial arts, kendo takes kiai a step further by requiring it for every strike, and indeed competition kendo requires kiai for students to be graded based on successful hits.
Read our article: Kiai projection in combat
One specific feature of Kendo is that the martial artists don’t wear a belt to classify the level reached. Instead, kendoka rise up the ranks known as kyu, and then move on to higher degrees known as dan. The eighth dan exam is considered the most difficult one in the Japanese martial arts. Only one percent of candidates pass that exam.
While swordsmanship as a military art is long dead, thousands of people in Japan still practice kendo as a martial art. It’s a testament to the rich culture that the martial arts possesses, and a concrete example of their ties to the old ways of war.