Why the ‘unrealistic’ targets in modern kendo?

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 posturesambo 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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  1. Hello,

    This is nice toughts about this question. However, i don’t want to be rude but… isn’t it a “battlefield-obsessed’ point of view ?
    What if modern kendo was made for civilian fights ?
    Without armor. Do, Kote and Men are great targets : they will end the fight and there is no armor to protect those areas in civilian life or duel.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but this text seems too partial to me. Judging “civilian” (warriors without armor during the daily life) techniques as “battle” techniques won’t work.

    Thank you very much for your toughs, i wish you would answer me.

    Your sincerely.


    (I’m sorry for my poor English, i hope it’s still possible to understand the subject of my message.)


  2. Nauo. Thanks for your response. Actually, I would suggest that you read it again a little more carefully. There is no criticism of kendo. I’m tracing simply historically what happened. Kenjutsu as dueling, really flourished from the 1600’s, if not earlier. I underscore very clearly that there was a clear shift to unarmored combat. I also emphasize that dueling, actually a very rare event, was supplanted by shinai competition. Once that happened, rules essentially developed naturally. And bit by bit, people considered this activity less and less for combat–it was a sport, albeit a very rough sport. For example, one of the creators of modern jukendo (bayonet sport) was asked why they only hit certain targets, and never used a butt-stroke. He said, “We used to do that pre-war. But we aren’t practicing how to kill anymore. We turned this into something different, to improve humanity.”
    Of course, one could be a very dangerous person with a sword while only targeting men, do, kote, but one would be more dangerous if also targeting neck, thigh, knee, and on and on and on. I’ve sparred with shinai where the whole body was a target. It looks and feels very different from kendo. When one considers kendo from a dueling perspective, we see competitions where one strikes men and the other twists his head to the side, allowing the shinai to strike the neck, or side of the head – no point.
    In sum, I trace how killing techniques and killing systems evolved over time, just as modern fencing has in Europe, into a competitive martial sport.


  3. Dear Ellis sensei,
    that is a nice article, touching upon this many times argued point of view.
    While agreed with you please allow me to add something which may help. Indeed there are only specific targets in Kendo, many times kendoka are based just on speed however this comprises a not deep study. As you grow up in kendo, your practice change to the more use of hips, to a better cutting action and this can be seen in the practice of high grades, either in keiko or in shiai (like 8 dan championships). Plus to this higher level kendoka are include in their practice ishhu-jiai (kendo vs naginata) where you learn that shin is a target as well.
    Also for a deeper study of the sword, most kendoka are practicing Iaido as well and kenjutsu school, like Ono ha Itto ryu, Mizoguchi ha Itto ryu, where you ”discover” more realistic targets.
    Everything is depending on how deep your study of the Way of the Sword you like it to be.
    My 1 yen worth


  4. Hello, congratulations for the article, very interesting. I think that your opinion is fair even if few may be important details are missing.
    When the kendo had origin no longer there were great wars, whereas the duels (no armour was needed) were still common practice. From there perhaps it was that, to beat the wrists and the chest of the adversaries, not covered by any protections, was practical and effective. Another interesting and quite unknown detail is that in reality the sword was not properly a weapon of war. As Alex Bennet writes in is book “Kendo: Culture of the Sword”, in war the main weapons were the spear and the bow. In fact in the chronicles of the time very few were the wounds by sword, the majority were by arrows and spear. The sword had a more symbolic value and was reserved for the duels of honor.
    But the most important thing is that the logic that led to the exclusion of some of the most realistic objectives, as you say, was probably due in part to the attempt to select the techniques most suited to the creation of a new educational tool, the Kendo. For safety and efficacy, the objectives were selected between the not dangerous, without this leading to the loss of the essence of what was wanted to transmit.
    I hope you will find this usefull in some way.

    Your sincerely.
    Andrea Zanoni


    1. Mr. Zanoni – thank you for your note. I do not disagree with you, particularly in the assertion that Kendo’s development included an “attempt to select the techniques most suited to the creation of a new educational tool . . .” – however, I fail to see, for example, how a sportive contest in which a strike to the head can be ‘countered’ by twisting one’s head and exposing one’s neck to a ‘non-point’ strike is the best educational tool. Regarding your citation of Alex Bennett’s work, you might, in fact, have cited my own, as I discuss the utilization of various weapons, in every period of Japanese history in Old School (http://edgeworkbooks.com/old-school/) in considerable detail. Also, the data that few wounds on the battlefield were caused by sword is based on limited data – the evidence of wounds is by examination of skeletons (and not that many, to date). Flesh wounds, which would not show skeletal injuries, are not included – and coup de grace, for example, with tanto, would not be evident. It certainly is true that the sword was a ‘sidearm,’ and the major battlefield weapons were spear and bow/arrow and later guns, but there was not a simple transition to kendo when warfare stopped in 1638 (Shimabara). The sword became the primary weapon of the bushi–and that most studied by people of every class –from the 1600’s. My chapter on Homna Nen-ryu in Old School discusses the very gradual development from pure combative art to kata (pattern drill) practice to ‘live training’ with sparring to gekkiken to kendo. It was a process that could have gone in very different directions – kendo, with it’s specific rules, was not inevitable. The result of kendo is that one moves and strikes in a way radically different from kenjutsu – many would disagree, but I find that regrettable. (I do not object to ‘live training’, having practiced it myself throughout my martial arts career – I find unfortunate the form that it developed in Japan, at least with weapons-based systems).


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