A question was recently raised in a discussion group where I participate: why, from a combative perspective, does modern kendo target areas for victory which are not congruent with those necessary for victory on a battlefield? Here are the point-scoring areas: let us consider them in turn, looking at the armor of a classical warrior, viewing one version linked here. To be sure, there are myriads of variations of armor, worn in different periods of Japanese history, but some general principles can be derived, even from more limited armor such as this kogusoku here. The head, protected by a helmet, or even a reinforced band, is not really a viable target, whereas the sides of neck, eschewed in kendo (and in older kenjutsu schools) certainly is. The throat is certainly a target, but note that even light armor often had a protector for the throat. And even in light armor, the outer surface of the wrists (unlike the inside) is well protected. And finally, the sides (do) are certainly well guarded with heavier armor, unlike the hips or backs of the legs.
The easiest answer is one that I heard from Donn Draeger many decades ago: true combatives attack the most vulnerable areas; combative sports deliberately attack the most protected or guarded (“hitting below the belt” is forbidden in boxing, for one of almost infinite examples).Not only does kendo attack the armored areas, it attacks the areas that are easiest to armor.
The answer is more complex that this, however, although this is certainly a part of it. Kendo is primarily derived from Itto-ryu. Itto-ryu focused on kiriotoshi (the perfect straight downward cut, based on the principle that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, the winner being the one with perfect integrity of physical organization). With a secondary cut to the wrist (kote), and in my opinion, dogiri being the flowing response to an enemy partially neutralizing one and two above. Itto-ryu pioneered, in many ways, dueling kenjutsu, the predominant innovation of the Edo period. (A perfect kiriotoshi can even ‘cut through’ a kesa-giri as much as it can an opposing menuchi). As people quite naturally wished to test – and develop – their skills, we have the development of shinai-geikko, which surely had an Itto-ryu base. Yes, there were many other ryu involved (as I write in Old School, even Annaka Araki-ryu emerged into an Itto-ryu variant, the last type of ryu that one would think would function that way, and became the pioneer of kendo in northern Gunma in the Meiji period. Many han began to see that the samurai trained in competition were more effective in suppressing farmer rebellion – ikki: not necessarily because their techniques were more “complete” than those of older kata-only, warfare based ryu, but because the men training that way were much tougher. And the daimyo actually demanded that competitive shinai geikko be instituted, and in some cases in bakamatsu, that ryu close down and amalgamate into a “han-ryu,” centered around shinai-geikko. Among those bushi who were not rural and impoverished enough to also farm, the tough guys were those who did competition, and they had a better chance of beating farmers armed with clubs, hoes and mattocks than all the elegant kata-kenjutsu in the world, especially if done by those lacking requisite toughness, or the shock of being smashed or beaten occasionally All of this resulted in the development of a competitive system that hewed rather closely to Itto-ryu, the dominant ryu (and those 100’s who adopted its operating system). Kiriotoshi became men (and kote – note from the linked images how close they are in Ono-ha Itto-ryu!) And once the rules were even informally codified for inter-han competition, or inter-dojo competition, those rules became reality. (Like there were really no physical culture reason in early judo to demand an upright posture – sambo players turned judoka shocked the Japanese in the 1960’s when they first competed – it started out as an expression of “moral uprightness” and probably to make a clear distinction between judo and sumo –and older yoroi kumiuchi as well).
(I remember a friend of mine with a 6th dan in kendo who said how much he hated practicing with bogu with Donn Draeger because, “He just couldn’t stop himself. He kept hitting me in the legs.” And, the man continued, his reflexes were so bound by decades of kendo that he never could protect himself either).
Once the rules became reality, deviation seemed odd or even inconceivable. Finally, once one codifies the rules, it is natural to try to win within the rules. If dancing on the balls of the feet will allow you to move faster, why sink the hips like one would for kenjutsu on rough ground? And if whipping the wrists with a flexible snap will generate more speed with the bamboo shinai than an integrated cut with the entire body, why would a sportsman give up winning for an abstract principle (the perfect ‘cut’ with a shinai is no more likely to sever anything than a wrist-led strike, given that the ‘weapon’ is four strips of bamboo or carbon fiber bound together, not a sword).
In short as odd as kendo looks if you compare it to, say Kashima Shinto-ryu and wonder how it got from “there to here,” it’s actually a rather natural evolution, quite congruent with cultural developments within Japanese culture.
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