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Kendo is the modern Japanese budo discipline of fencing based on techniques of the samurai warrior's legendary two-handed sword (katana). The weapon used in kendo now, the shinai, is made up of four slats of bamboo tied together by a leather grip (tsuka), an end-cap (saki-gawa), connected by a nylon cord (tsuru), and a stabilizing strap in the middle (nakayui). The length and weight of the shinai varies depending on age and sex but must not exceed 120cm for adult males.

Practitioners wear thick cotton protective armour known collectively as bogu or kendo-gu to protect the body from the opponent's attacks. This consist of protective mask (men), torso protector (do), gauntlets (kote), and a lower-body protector (tare). The armour is attached over a thick cotton kendo-gi jacket and a traditional split skirt (hakama). Practitioners compete with each other to score points by striking the men, kote, do, and thrusting to the throat (tsuki), four valid target areas in all.

Although kendo has a long history, steeped in the traditions of samurai culture, it was banned by GHQ in the postwar period because of its wartime associations with militarism. However, kendo was gradually reinstated in the 1950s as a sport deemed appropriate for a democratic society, with emphasis placed on enjoyment, competition, and mutual respect and equality with others. Theses ideals were embodied in newly formulated match rules, and led to an explosion in kendo's popularity. Today, kendo is one of the most widespread budo disciplines in Japan, and is gaining a dedicated following around the world.


The swords used in ancient Japan had straight, double-edged blades, however, from the ninth century, curved single- edged blades were developed. From early times, swords were considered to be more than just weapons of destruction as they were used in religious ceremonies as ritualistic implements and represented divine power for protection of the realm. The sword known as "Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi" is included as one of the three imperial regalia and is symbolic of the power of the deities. According to legend, it was removed from the tail of fearsome serpent Yamata-no-Orochi by Amaterasu's brother, Susanoo-no-Mikoto, and was presented to the goddess as a sign of allegiance.

Although reputedly lost in the sea at the Battle of Dannoura in 1185, a replica is still used in the emperor’s accession ceremony.

As the tools of their trade as professional warriors, the combative applications of the martial arts were always important; however, the martial arts came to serve another significant role in the lives of warriors as a vehicle for self-development, the training of mental attitude and discipline, and ethical and moral cultivation after the military class took control of the country from Kamakura period (1185-1333). By the middle of the Kamakura period, the ideals of bun-bu-ryodo – dual path of cultural and martial arts – had become a fundamental characteristic of samurai culture.

During the Sengoku period (1467-1568) when Japan was constantly in a state of instability and civil war, a number of specialized schools of bujutsu, or martial skills, known as ryuha emerged. The more notable schools included the Shinto-ryu, Chujo-ryu, and the Kage-ryu, and many branch schools subsequently evolved from these early ryuha. By the end of the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) there were hundreds of martial art schools throughout the country, with kenjutsu ryuha, or schools of swordsmanship, being by far the most numerous. Initially, the main form of training was based on kata, the repetition of compulsory forms. However, in the middle of the eighteenth century, some schools started developing protective equipment and bamboo swords (shinai) to enable a safe form of full-contact sparring.

The development encouraged a revolutionary change in the way warriors studied swordsmanship. Although kata training with bokuto (wooden swords) remained a component of ryuha curricula, fencing with shinai and protective armour surpassed the traditional method in terms of popularity. Although kata are pre-determined movements, there was always an imminent danger of injury or death should one of the practitioners make a mistake. Shinai kenjutsu was not only safe, but was exhilarating, and allowed swordsmen to test their combat skills in a more realistic manner. There was much heated debate regarding the merits of both training methods, but eventually the realism, safety and excitement afforded by shinai kenjutsu proved more appealing. It also students of different schools to fence against each other competitively.

Centuries of rule by the samurai ended with the commencement of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Being considered a vestige of the feudal era and useless in the face of Western military technology, martial arts specialists found it difficult to make ends meet. However, during the Satsuma Rebellion (1877) carried out by former samurai of the Satsuma domain (now Kagoshima Prefecture) under the command of Saigo Takamori, the special government police unit known as the Battotai demonstrated the value of swords in battle. Their victory over the rebels served as a catalyst to reassess the practical application of traditional swordsmanship, and its value as a form of training constables in the police bureau.

Immediately after Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895, the Dai-Nippon Butokukai (Great Japan Society of Martial Virtue) was established in order to promote the ideals of bushido, the way of the warrior, and preserve traditional system of bujutsu. In 1911, the Ministry of Education revised the national curriculum for physical education and elevated the traditional martial arts (kenjutsu and jujutsu) to regular subjects for study in secondary schools. This was the beginning of a progressively important position for kendo in the education system.

The appellation “kendo” first became widespread in the 1920s. Before that, traditional Japanese swordsmanship was called gekito, gekken, tachiuchi, kenjutsu, kempo, tojutsu and toho. Of these, kenjutsu was the most commonly used term. In 1919, the Butokukai resolved to add the suffix of ‘-do’ (Way) to the various martial arts so that kenjutsu, jujutsu, kyujutsu and bujutsu became kendo, judo, kyudo, and budo respectively. Furthermore, with amendments made to the national physical education curriculum guidelines in 1926, the Ministry of Education (MOE) officially recognized the terms of kendo and judo.

Kendo was prohibited for a number of years after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. Democratic ideals were stressed in postwar Japan and traditional Japanese budo arts were targeted by the occupying Allied Forces General Headquarters (GHQ) with policies designed to purge Japan of the vestiges of wartime militarism. School kendo was eliminated in November 1945, and was prohibited in the general community from August 1946. GHQ refused to authorize any organizations that included the word kendo, so in order to facilitate its resurrection, a hybrid form called “shinai-kyogi” (shinai sport) was created in 1950 by enthusiasts as a way to circumvent the statutory restrictions.

At the time, the new national governing body – the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF) – was in the process of being formed. Its initial main objective was to negotiate with the MOE to remove any restrictions placed upon participation in kendo, and to have it reinstated in the school system once again. The slogan of this movement was the proclamation of "Kendo starting again as a sport", as an activity suitable for the new era. With a growing number of kendo practitioners, and the establishment of local organizations to revive it throughout Japan, the national body was inaugurated on October 14, 1952.

The efforts of the AJKF to have kendo accepted were realized, and in May 1953, it was permitted in the wider community once again. In July of the same year it was also endorsed in high schools and universities. Subsequently, the previously inaugurated All Japan Shinai-kyogi Federation and the AJKF were combined in March 1954. The former was consequently absorbed into the AJKF and eventually dissolved. The AJKF became an affiliated member of the Japan Sports Association in March 1955, and the MOE authorized its foundation status in February 1972.

Two other related martial arts, iaido (sword drawing) and jodo (short-staff combat), also came under the auspices of kendo. The AJKF Iaido Section was formed in 1956, and a special committee was established in 1968 to create a set of federation iaido kata in order to promote it. In 1969, the committee announced three tachi-waza (standing techniques), and four suwari-waza (sitting techniques). Another three tachi-waza were added in 1979, and a further two in 2000, making twelve in total.

The AJKF is made up of forty-seven auxiliary prefectural federations. A census was taken in 2006, and as of March 31, there were 1,429,718 people (including 401,121 women). Of those, around one half hold the rank of shodan, the equivalent to a first-degree black belt.

The international spread of kendo began in the early twentieth century with Japanese immigrants in Brazil, United States, Hawaii and Canada. Kendo came to be practiced in Korea and Taiwan as well, as a result of Japan's earlier colonial expansion. Kendo became increasingly widespread internationally in the postwar era thanks in part to Japanese kendo enthusiasts travelling abroad.

The Olympic Games were held in Tokyo in 1964, and kendo was featured as a demonstration sport. The 1st International Goodwill Kendo Tournament was held in Taipei the following year in 1965. In October 1967, the AJKF sponsored an international goodwill competition which was viewed by the Emperor, Empress, and Crown Prince and Princess. The countries and territories that participated were the United States, Canada, Brazil, United Kingdom, West Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, South Vietnam and Japan. Hawaii and Okinawa were also represented at the competition. This provided the impetus to create an organization to govern the international dissemination of kendo.

The International Kendo Federation (formerly the IKF, but now referred to as the FIK) was established in April 1970. The first affiliated countries and territories were Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, West Germany, United Kingdom, Korea, Morocco, the Netherlands, Republic of China, Sweden, Switzerland, United States, and Japan. Hawaii and Okinawa were also accepted as affiliated as organizations at a special meeting.

The first president of the FIK was Kimura Tokutaro, who concurrently served as the AJKF's president. Since that time, the AJKF president has always assumed the presidency of the FIK. As of 2009, there are forty-nine affiliates in the FIK, with a general assembly for all affiliates conducted every three years. The Board of Directors consists of nineteen directors, including the president, four vice presidents, and two supervisors. A Board meeting is conducted annually. The premiere event of the FIK, the World Kendo Championships, is conducted once every three years.

Since the FIK's inauguration, the international spread of kendo has been steady, although it is difficult to gauge the total population accurately. It is estimated that there are four to five hundred-thousand practitioners in Korea, making it the second largest population outside Japan. France reportedly has seven to eight-thousand members, and there are approximately three-thousand in the United States. In total, there may be around six hundred-thousand practitioners in other countries and territories outside Japan. Kendo is also practiced to some degree in counties and territories that are not yet affiliated to the FIK; however, given the high cost of kendo equipment and the shortage of qualified instructors, it is unlikely kendo will become popular to the same extent as other budo arts such as judo or karate.

Many of kendo's international activities are sponsored by the AJKF. Broadly speaking, AJKF activities fall into the three categories of competitions, examinations, and seminars. The most prestigious tournament on the kendo calendar in Japan is the All Japan Kendo Championship (men's division) which is contested each year on November 3. The first Championship was held on November 8, 1953, in Tokyo's Kuramae Kokugikan, but the venue was moved to the Nippon Budokan from 1964. To qualify for this prestigious event, the sixty four contestants must be over twenty years of age, and are nominated through a rigorous selection process in their respective prefectures. The coveted Emperor's Cup for kendo has been contested from the sixth tournament in 1958.

Other significant tournaments include the Todofuken (Prefectural) Kendo Yusho Team Tournament, and the All Japan Tozai Taiko (East vs. West) Kendo Tournament. The Tozai Taiko tournament is a popular event in which thirty five competitors selected from east and west Japan, are pitted against each other in a team match. The sempo (first fighter) must be over twenty-seven years of age and be 6-dan or higher in rank. The taisho (captain) may be up to sixty-five years old, and hold the rank of Hanshi 8-dan. From 1997 onwards, five women have been included on each team.

The National Sports Meet (Kokutai) is an annual inter-prefectural event for boys, girls, men, and women. The All Japan Women's Kendo Championship was started in 1962 to accommodate the growing number of female practitioners. It became an Emperor's Cup event from 1997 at the time of the 36th tournament. The sixty-four competitors must be over the age of eighteen and have qualified in their respective prefectural preliminary tournaments. There is also a National Housewives' Tournament, a five-member team event that was first held in 1984.

The All Japan Youth Budo (Kendo) Rensei Tournament started in 1977, and is held each year at the Nippon Budokan over two days during the summer holidays. Teams of five children compete to decide the best team in Japan. Children are also assessed on the level of their kihon (basic techniques) to decide aggregate-score winners. The focus of the tournament is on education, with over five-thousand children in attendance.

The All Japan Kendo Embu Tournament (also known as the Kyoto Taikai) is held each year in May during the holiday period known as Golden Week, at the Butokuden hall in Kyoto City. This tournament originated as a Dai-Nippon Butokukai event in 1895. It was suspended after the war, but was resumed in 1953. Only kenshi (fencers) who hold honorary ranks beginning with Renshi, and are 6-dan or above, are allowed to participate. Each kenshi fights in one demonstration match with an opponent of comparable rank and age.

The All Japan Invitational Hachidan (8-dan) Championship originated as the Meijimura Tournament, named for the location of the venue, but was changed to the present Invitational Hachidan Championship in 2003. Thirty-two 8-dan master kenshi are invited to attend each year. In addition to these aforementioned events there are as well many other national tournaments in Japan organized by subsidiary kendo associations for men and women, boys and girls of all ages and occupations.

Also, the annual AJKF All Japan IaidoTournament started in 1966. The forty-seven prefectures field one competitor in each of the three divisions of 5-dan, 6-dan, and 7-dan ranks. The prefectures' rankings are calculated by the aggregate scores of their three representatives. The All Japan Jodo Tournament was first conducted in 1974. In this tournament pairs competitors from shodan (1-dan) through to 7-dan compete in rank divisions.

5-dan are held by prefectural federations, with 6, 7, and 8-dan, and the shogo titles of Renshi, Kyoshi, and Hanshi evaluated in national examinations overseen by the AJKF. The highest rank possible in the AJKF now is Hanshi 8-dan.
The AJKF also manages a museum containing historical documents, the Kendo Hall of Fame, sponsors the annual Kendo Culture Lecture Series, and presents various awards to people who have made great contributions in the development of kendo.