History of Kendo

Years ago when I first came to Japan I read Taiko and Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa.  These two books were the beginning of my life long study of Japan and Japanese culture.

After living in Hokkaido for a couple of years I decided to try Kendo which was introduced to me by my Japanese friend who has kendo sandan… so I did Kendo for a few years and managed to achieve shodan before returning back to Australia.  I am back in Japan, but I have not taken up Kendo again, I think that part of my life has passed but I still love Kendo and its history.

In this blog I am only going to talk about Kendo up to the beginning of the Meiji period. The last battles fought by true samurai was during the Meiji restoration and the development of cannon and guns rendered the sword and the prestige of one on one, hand to hand fighting obsolete.

For those of you interested in sword fighting and the history of sword fighting I recommend the following books I have read from my collection:

Kendo – The definitive Guide
This is Kendo – The Art of Japanese Fencing
Musashi – The story of Miyamoto Musashi
The Book of Five Rings – Mushashi’s sword fighting philosophy
The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War – Yagyu Munenori (Master swordsman under Tokugawa)
The Art of War – Sun Tzu and Sun Pin
The Samurai Sword – Comprehensive facts about the samurai sword.


The development of the katana, the art of Kenjutsu (the art of fencing) and the samurai code of behaviour we know as “Bushido” can be traced back to the Heian Period (794-1185). Although the modern principles of bushido I believe were made during the Edo period, long after the samurai had disappeared.  The first written evidence of samurai in battle is found in the Japanese literary classic “The Tale of Heike”. The tale of Heike accounts for the Genpei war between the Minamoto and Taira clans which came to an end in 1185 leaving the Minamoto clan victorious. Minamoto no Yoritomo established a new capital away from Kyoto, in Kamakura and was the first military style government we know today as the Shogunate. The art of sword fighting and samurai philosophy flourished in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) and Kendo was the means to practice swordsmanship.

Civil war raged in Japan from the beginning of the Muromachi Perod (1336) through to the beginning of the Edo Period (1603). Fighting was initially localised between Kyoto and Kamakura but eventually led to full civil war or the Sengoku Jidai beginning with the Onin War in 1467–1477 (which pretty much destroyed Kyoto and left it a desolate city full of bandits) then spread throughout the country. During these years many schools of Kenjutsu were established. Among the finest were the following:

Tenshin Shoden Shintoryu – founded by Iizasa Choisai
Aisukageryu – founded by Aisu Ikosai
Ittoryu – founded by Chujo Hyogo no kami Nagahide

Japan began to experience a relatively peaceful period from the beginning of the Edo Period (1603-1867). During this time, techniques of the sword were converted from techniques of killing people to one of developing oneself. This was achieved through concepts such as the Katsunin-ken which included not only theories on strong swordsmanship, but also concepts of a disciplinary life-style of the samurai. These ideas were compiled in books elaborating on the art of warfare in the early Edo Era. Examples of these include: “Heiho Kadensho (The Life-giving Sword)” by Yagyu Munenori; “Fudochi Shinmyoroku (The Unfettered Mind )” by Priest Takuan which was a written interpretation of Yagyu Munenori’s “Ken to Zen (Sword and Zen)” written for Tokugawa Iemitsu, Third Shogunate for the Tokugawa Government; and “Gorin-no-sho (The Book of Five Rings)” by Miyamoto Musashi. Many other books on theories of swordsmanship were published during the middle and latter half of the Edo Era. Many of these writings have become classics and influence many Kendo practitioners today.


Edo samurai who lived under a strict hierarchal system studied these books and teachings daily, lived an austere life, cultivated their minds, and devoted themselves to the refinement of swordsmanship, learned to differentiate between good and evil, and learned that in times of emergency they were ready to sacrifice their lives for their han (clan) and feudal lord. In present day terms, they worked as bureaucrats and soldiers. The Bushido spirit that evolved during this time, developed during a peaceful 283 years of the Tokugawa period. Even after the collapse of the feudal system, this Bushido spirit lives on in the minds of the Japanese.

The art of Kenjutsu continued to develop but the use of battle armour during practice was troublesome and archaic.  Naganuma Shirozaemon-Kunisato of the Jiki Shinkage Ryu school developed a new foundation in techniques of the sword. In the early 18th Century Naganuma developed new light weight type protective equipment and established a training method using a Shinai or bamboo sword.  This new method for training enabled full contact practice without the fear of accidently killing someone. Soon after Nakanishi Chuzo-kotake of Itto-ryu started a new training method using an iron men (headgear) and kendo bogu made of bamboo, which became prevalent among many schools in a short period of time. By the turn of the 19th century inter-school competition became popular and samurai traveled beyond their province in search of stronger opponents to improve their skills.

As competition increased throughout Japan new types of equipment were produced such as the Yotsuwari Shinai (bamboo swords united by tetramerous bamboo). This new Shinai was more elastic and durable than the Fukuro Shinai (literally, bag-covered bamboo sword) which it replaced. Also, a do (body armor) that was reinforced by leather and coated with lacquer was introduced. During this time, three Dojos that gained great popularity became to be known as the “Three Great Dojos of Edo.” They were: Genbukan led by Chiba Shusaku; Renpeikan led by Saito Yakuro; and Shigakkan led by Momoi Shunzo. Chiba attempted to systematize the waza (techniques) of bamboo sword training by establishing the “Sixty-eight Techniques of Kenjutsu” which were classified in accordance with striking points. Techniques such as the Oikomi-men and Suriage-men and other techniques that were named by Chiba are still used today.

Kenjutsu was tarnished throughout the 20th century as it was associated with Japanese imperialism but luckily from 1952 the Japanese Kendo Association was formed promoting Kendo as a sport which continues today.

Written and researched by Stuart.


  1. You’re confusing the Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari) with the Heike Monogatari. The tale of Genji was written in the early 11th century, and doesn’t mention the war between the Minamoto and Taira clans, which didn’t happen until nearly 200 years after it was written. The Heike Monogatari, on the other hand, is an epic description of that war.


Comments are closed.