How did Kendo come into being?
Apart from the fact that Kendo is essentially a Japanese form of combat, the origin of this martial art is still shrouded in mystery courtesy of two explanations vying for the credit. What renders the situation confusing is that both claim to be more genuine than the other and adding to the confusion is the absence of any historical evidence that could either prove or refute any of the claims.
While one explains Kendo as having originated in Japan courtesy of the age-old art of fencing, the other attributes its arrival to Chinese infiltration that occurred more than 1000 years ago. If the first theory is to be believed, there are several volumes tracing the history of Japan since ancient times that contain word 'kenjutsu', the present-day Kendo's predecessor.
Tracing the History of Kendo
Owing to this form of martial art having spanned several centuries, Kendo's history is best understood by drawing a brief timeline and outlining its role during each era and under various rulers and dynasties. Following is the manner in which Kendo evolved through numerous ups and downs to survive till this day -
Heian Era (AD 794 to 1184)
Although sword fighting formed an integral part of the life of a Japanese warrior, it was during the Heian Era that curved swords made their appearance for the first time. Referred to as Shingoi, these comprised of arched blades and were particularly favored for their raised ridges. Because this era marked a peaceful time in the history of the country, combat was mostly treated as a pastime and hence the practice of kendo was limited to the Samurai, meaning the warrior class who perfected the art under the able guidance of a skilled master.
Evolution of Kendo Schools (From 14th century AD till 19th century AD)
Subsequent to the Heian Era, Japan underwent a period of turmoil wherein wars became an everyday part of life and this propelled Kendo into limelight as a form of fighting. Swords formed a significant part of the arsenal and with fencing playing an important role, Kenjutsu were accorded a stature of importance. Sword wielding and fencing techniques continued to evolve during the Kamakura Era and not only did the Samurai gain expertise in using the sword on the battlefield but there was also a marked improvement in production and overall quality of swords.
The first school that was established with the aim of imparting formal training of Kendo came into being during the 14th century under the rule of the Muromachi dynasty. Christened as 'ryu', this school served as an institution of learning wherein the Kenjutsu not just trained the students in the art of sword fighting but also in war strategies. Style of kendo which was taught at that time was very different from the version that came into vogue during the 20th century and came to be known as the lost art.
17th century was witness to Kendo undergoing drastic transformation and one of the first changes entailed a modification of its objective. In comparison to the earlier purpose of kendo which emphasized on destruction of enemy or opponent, under the Edo dynasty, Kendo began to be taught with an intention to develop personality and propagate social justice. This era was also witness to improvement in the protective gear and training apparel so as to grant better protection during the competition.
As many as 300 schools of kendo flourished all over Japan during this era and this was regarded as the golden period in the history of Kendo, a fact that was epitomized by the founding of three great 'Dojo' of Edo. Many of the techniques perfected during this era are still employed by contemporary practitioners, thus proving that it laid the foundation of modern Kendo.
Abolition of Samurai and Sword Fighting (19th Century AD)
When the Meji Dynasty came to power, one of the first orders that were passed called for abolition of the Samurai and an extensive 'sword hunt' was carried out with the intention of putting an end to this form of combat. Creation of the standing army implied that no-one other than those in armed forces were allowed to carry swords and for the Samurai, this meant looking for other forms of employment to earn a living.
Resurgence of Kendo (20th Century AD)
Not only was this form of martial art reinstated as a way of life as it had been earlier but the Taisho Dynasty was also responsible for coining the word 'Kendo' for the first time to refer to this form of fighting rather than 'Kenjutsu' as it had been previously called. Another replacement that was made pertained to the traditional Japanese sword being discarded and a bamboo version, namely shinai, being used in its place.
Kendo in Modern Times
Training of kendo continued into the 20th century and led to the establishment of All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF) in 1928. Kendo suffered another setback subsequent to the Second World War wherein it was banned by the Allied Forces. However, it made its way back in 1950 wherein the AJKF explained its importance as an educational sport rather than a form of combat. 1970 was witness to the founding of International Kendo Federation (IKF) wherein Kendo travelled beyond the boundaries of Japan for the first time.
At present, Kendo enjoys the stature of an international sport with championships being held at an interval of three years. Today, Japan is one of the 42 countries that boast of kendo practitioners and participate in world championships.