The sword holds a very significant place in Japanese history. The proof of the authenticity of the emperor has been the transfer of Three Sacred Treasures which serve as the Imperial Regalia. One of these Treasures is the Kusanagi, a legendary sword said to be found by the brother of Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess), Susanoo, in the tail of an eight-headed serpent he had slain, Yamata no Orochi. The tenth Emperor Sujin deposited the Three Sacred Treasures in a shrine dedicated to Amaterasu. In 4 C.E. the Three Sacred Treasures were transferred to Uji in Ise Province.
In 113 C.E., legends tell of Prince Yamato Takeru who stopped to worship at the Ise Shrine as he passed through Ise on his way to the northern part of Japan to subjugate the Ainu. There, his aunt, Yamato-hime, loaned him the sword and a bag for his protection. When the Ainu attacked his troops by setting fires in a field, he opened the bag that his aunt gave him and found a flint. He cut the grasses around him using the sacred sword, and used the flint to set reverse fires which swept through the enemy ranks.
The katanakaji (swordsmith) belonged to the top of a highly respected social class of specialized artisans and artists, and such practices continue through the present age. Swordsmiths prepare for the swordsmithing process by calling on a guardian god. To invite a god to the workshop, the swordsmith surrounds the area with consecrated ropes, dispelling evil spirits, while conducting special rites in ceremonial dress. As they struck the iron bar and bathed it in fire and water, the swordsmiths put their heart and soul into their work, praying to receive help from the god. The sword produced through these zealous efforts was a highly refined art form.
The most renowned of the katanakaji was Masamune, who worked during the early-to- mid 1300s (at the end of the Kamakura era). His works are considered to be so superior that they continue to be sought after by collectors today. Masamune has been compared with Muramasa, another legendary swordsmith and the ablest disciple of Masamune. Legends regarding Masamune and Muramasa include a story that one day someone tested the sharpness of a sword made by Muramasa by standing it in the lower reaches of a stream and floating several dead leaves down the stream. Each floating leaf was cut in half as it drifted against the blade of Muramasa’s sword. Then he replaced Muramasa’s sword with one of Masamune’s. Amazingly, the leaves floating down the stream avoided Masamune’s sword blade entirely. The Masamune was more than a cutting implement; it was divinely inspired, while the Muramasa sword was simply an instrument of destruction and nothing more.
Samurai and Zen
Kendo and its history highlights essential aspects of the way of samurai and Zen Buddhism.
During the civil wars in Japan, there is an account of a band of marauders who kidnap the baby of a villager and holds the baby hostage in a farmer’s cottage. A passing samurai quickly shaves his head and changes his clothes for a monk’s robes. He approaches the cottage as a monk and distracts the robber by offering him a rice ball, then snatches the baby to safety. That samurai was Nobutana Kamiizumi, or Isenokami Kamiizumi (1508-1577), the founder of the Shinkage-ryu School, the most popular school of swordsmanship school during the Japanese feudal samurai era. Kamiizumi’s Shinkage-ryu trained many supreme sword fighters and established the main Kendo tradition. Kamiizumi’s disciple, Muneyoshi Yagyu, became one of the most famous master swordsmen, and the Yagyu family became the official instructors of Kendo for the Tokugawa shogunate.
Under Kamiizumi, the certification for the highest level of proficiency was a piece of paper on which there was no writing, only a circle. This signified that the swordman’s mind must be kept free from selfish and intellectual preoccupations, a Zen Buddhist state of enlightenment. Technical skill alone did not qualify a swordsman for the highest level of proficiency and the status of a master of the school.
Takuan Soho, a powerful Rinzai Zen monk, made significant contributions to Japanese swordsmanship and calligraphy. His strong character caused him to be exiled for a time until the Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu forgave Takuan and made him a political adviser. Letters written from Takuan to Yagyu Tajima no Kami Munenori (son of Muneyoshi Yagyu) explain the mastery of true swordsmanship and the basic significance of Zen Buddhism, explaining that the art of swordsmanship required more than the mastery of technique. Yagyu Tagima no Kami adopted from Takuan the concept of the stage of “the mind that is no-mind” (mushin no shin) is the ultimate enlightenment in the art of swordplay. Thus, a beginner who concentrates only on doing well, or on showing his skill or his supremacy over others, he will meet with failure because his ego becomes an obstacle to progress. When performing in a state of “no-mind” (mushin), which means the elimination of all consciousness of self, the swordsman is perfectly free from inhibitions.
Purpose of Practicing Kendo
Kendo is conceived not only as a game but also as a way to train the spirit, mind-body unity, cultivating characters, and embodying virtues. All Japan Kendo Federation states the purpose of Kendo:
Kendo, "The Way of The Sword," embodies the essence of the Japanese fighting arts. Since the earliest samurai government in Japan, during the Kamakura period (1185-1233), sword fencing, together with horse riding and archery, were the main martial pursuits of the military clans. During this period Kendo developed under the strong influence of Zen Buddhism. The samurai could equate disregard for his own life in the heat of battle, which was considered necessary for victory in individual combat, to the Buddhist concept of the illusory nature of the distinction between life and death.
Since that time many warriors have become enlightened through the practice of Kendo. Those swordsmen established schools of Kendo training which continued for centuries, and which form the basis of Kendo practice today. The names of the schools reflect the essence of the originator’s enlightenment. Thus the Itto-Ryu (Single sword school) indicates the founder’s illumination that all possible cuts with the sword emanate from and are contained in one original essential cut. The Muto (swordless school) expresses the comprehension of the originator Yamaoka Tesshu, that "There is no sword outside the mind." The Munen Muso Ryu (“No intent, no preconception”) similarly expresses the understanding that the essence of Kendo transcends the reflective thought process.
The formal Kendo exercises established sometimes several centuries ago are studied today using wooden swords in set forms, or kata. The present form of using shinai and bogu began in the eighteenth century by Naganuma Sirozaemon Kunisato (長沼四郎左衛門国郷; 1688-1767). Training using bamboo practice swords and substantial armor includes both formal exercises and free fencing. Concepts such as Mushin (or “empty mind”) as professed by exponents of Zen are an essential attainment for high level Kendo. Fudoshin (“unmoving mind”), a conceptual attribute of the deity Fudo Myo-O, one of the five “Kings of Light” of Shingon Buddhism, implies that the fencer cannot be led astray by delusions of anger, doubt, fear, or surprise arising from his opponent’s actions.
In 1920 Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (大日本武徳会, developer of the Japan Martial Arts Foundation) changed the name of Gekiken (撃剣, "hitting sword") to Kendo (“Way of the Sword”).
In modern Kendo, there are two types of attacks: strikes and thrusts. Strikes are allowed against only certain areas on the body called datotsu bui. The valid targets are men (top of the opponent's head), sayu-men or yoko-men (the left and right side of the opponent's head), kote (the protected area from the wrist to the elbow), the left or right do (the protected sides of the body; in tournament situations, however, points are rarely awarded for striking the left side of the opponent's do). Thrusts are only allowed to the throat (tsuki). However, since a wrongly done thrust could injure the neck, thrust techniques are often left out at the starting level and practiced at later levels.
In matches, a point is only awarded when the attack is done firmly and properly to any of the allowed targets with Ki-ken-tai-ichi (spirit, sword, and body united as one), as well as with Zanshin (continuation of awareness). For an attack to be successful, the shinai must strike a proper target at the same moment that the attacker's front foot makes contact with the ground and the kiai (shout that displays good spirit) is shouted. Though it is common, especially in matches within a dojo, that the kiai need not be the name of the target that is being struck.
In a tournament, there are three judges (shinpan), who each hold a red and a white flag in opposite hands. Each competitor has either a white or red ribbon attached to his or her back. The judges raise the corresponding colored flag of the player who scored the point. For a point to be awarded, a minimum of two judges must agree. The first to score two points wins the match. If the time limit runs out before two points are awarded, several things may happen: If one player has one point and the other does not, then the player with one point wins. In cases of a tie, the match may be declared a draw or decided by a period of overtime, sudden death overtime (the first to score a point wins regardless of time left), or a hantei (judges' decision).
There are ten Kata (set forms) which are performed with either a wooden sword (bokken/bokuto) or, occasionally, with a blunt-edged sword. Kata numbers one through seven are performed with both partners using a bokken of around 102 centimeters in length. Kata eight through ten are performed with one partner using a bokken and the other using a kodachi (a short bokken around 55 centimeters). During kata, the two participants take the roles of uchidachi (teacher, this side always is the “losing” side in kata) and shidachi (student, this is the “winning” side).
Technical achievement in Kendo is measured by advancement in grade, rank or level. The kyu and dan system is used to assess the level of ones skill in Kendo. The dan levels are from 1- dan(sho-dan) to 10- dan(ju-dan). 1-dan is equivalent to a first-degree black belt. 1- dan(sho-dan) to 8- dan(hachi-dan) are awarded after a physical test and submitting an examination paper. There is no physical test for 9- dan(kyu-dan) and 10- dan(ju-dan); a special committee awards those levels. Additionally there are seven ranks below dan known as kyu. The number preceding the kyu is the number of ranks it is below the first dan rank (sho-dan). In Kendo there is no external sign of rank, meaning that an expert may be dressed just like a beginner.
Kendo in Other Countries
Many national and regional organizations manage and promote kendo activities outside Japan. The major organizing body is the International Kendo Federation (FIK), established in 1970 with 17 national federations. The number of affiliated and recognized organizations has increased over the years to over 50. The FIK is a non-governmental, international federation of national and regional kendo organizations. An aim of the FIK is to provide a link between Japan and the international kendo community and to promote and popularize kendo, iaido, and judo.
Other organizations that promote the study of Japanese martial arts, including kendo, are the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (DNBK) and the International Martial Arts Federation (IMAF). The current DNBK has no connection to the pre-war organization, although it shares the same goals. The International Martial Arts Federation (IMAF) was established in Kyoto in 1952 and is dedicated to the promotion and development of the martial arts worldwide, including kendo.
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