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A Brief Synopsis of the History of Kendo


  • A Brief Synopsis of the History of Kendo

    By Alex Bennett
    Originally published in Kendo World Issue 3.1, 2004

    The Meiji Restoration and Kendo

    The modern art of kendo, now practiced by millions of people in Japan and around the world evolved from tried and tested battlefield techniques. With the advancement of tenka taihei, or peace throughout the realm during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), the martial arts took on new a role for the ruling samurai class. With no more wars to demonstrate martial valour, the military arts were studied as vehicles for self-development, with increasing emphasis placed on aesthetic and spiritual values rather than just as a means to kill. The Tokugawa period saw the martial arts decline temporarily towards the end of the seventeenth century then flourish with unprecedented popularity from the mid eighteenth century. Martial schools (bugei-ryūha) increased in number exponentially during this period with an estimated number of over seven-hundred schools of kenjutsu alone. Respect for the traditional martial arts was brought to an abrupt end with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perrys Black Ships from America in 1853. After centuries of self-imposed isolation (sakoku), Japan found herself out-dated, outgunned, and out of its depth with the Western nations. Although seclusion from the rest of the world had given the Japanese martial arts time to develop into fascinating martial anachronisms, rich in ritualistic symbolism and spiritualism, they were no match for the devastating firepower of Western nations demanding special rights and privileges for trade.

    Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the Japanese set about rebuilding the nation by drawing on the latest technology and ideas the West had to offer. This essentially meant that long-established Japanese martial arts such as kenjutsu fell into obscurity due to a lack of perceived practical application. Guns, cannons, and a new conscript army were the order of the day if Japan was to catch up with the rest of the world. The era abounded with catch phrases such as wakon-yōsai (Japanese spirit, Western technology) as they strove to educate the masses, arm the nation, and match the West in terms of a new modern civil society.

    Kenjutsu, along with the other martial arts, was considered by many symbolic of the outdated feudal hierarchy which placed the minority bushi above all other echelons of society, and was thus relegated to the realms of old-fashioned nonsense with no practical use to the newly emerging modern society. With the abolishment of the Bakufus military academy the Kōbusho in 1866, and the dissolution of han (feudal domains) and the bushi controlled hankō (domain schools) in 1871, martial arts were no longer taught on a wide scale. The new national education curriculum was redesigned on the Western model to educate the masses rather than the privileged few, and martial arts classes were not included.

    Former bushi rapidly lost their special privileges, and the final nail in the coffin was the edict denying them the right to wear the item considered the embodiment of their very soul, the katana. Many of those from bushi stock found themselves in a world of unemployment and poverty. Some high-ranking bushi were endowed with positions of authority in the organs of Japans new government, but many others were left without status, employment, or income, and a significant number were reduced to utter destitution. In the midst of this social upheaval, those hit particularly hard were the bujutsu instructors in the employ of the Bakufu or domains, or those who managed their own private dōjō .

    • cr720
      cr720 commented
      Editing a comment
      Very interesting and informative article, thank you so much for sharing!

    • Kozushi
      Kozushi commented
      Editing a comment
      Enjoyable and informative! I didn't expect that Fencing influence popping in as a result of the US occupation.
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