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Is Kendo a sport or a martial art?

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  • Is Kendo a sport or a martial art?

    Hello KWF

    After reading the article by Ron Fox sensei, I wonder how many people would like to see kendo become part of the Olympic Games. Because I agree with what Ron said…even though shiai is a competition, kendo to me is a martial art and not a sport.

    The shinai is supposed to represent a sword that you kill people with which is why I do not see kendo as a sport and personally would not like it to be in the Olympic Games, but this is just my opinion. I know this question was asked before but what do you think based on the article by Fox sensei?

  • #2
    I have very little interest in shiai and started kendo being interested in swordsmanship. So I see myself in the martial arts camp but I'll play devil's advocate here and ask:

    - If we're being honest with ourselves, isn't kendo both?

    - Why do we necessarily see "sport" in such a negative light? Yes, there is a lot of money involved and hence unsavory things happening in big name sports and a lot of cultural aspects of big name international sport competition comes from Western cultural norms which may be anathema to budo culture, but does this necessarily mean we should say the word "sport" as if it is a dirty word?

    - As a teen I used to skateboard and there was the saying "skateboarding is not a crime" with skateboarders arguing that skateboarding is a healthy sport. Kendo went through the same thing back in the immediate post-war period when it was banned. Maybe being seen as a sport isn't the worst thing in the world?

    - Weird un-budo things happened in gekken-kogyo (kendo) all the way back to the late Edo Period, such as shinai getting longer and longer and someone turning up to a shiai with a pot lid for a tsuba. Isn't it arguable that the ideals of kendo were always in a ying yang relationship with the need to win?

    - Couldn't it be argued that the existence of the "dark side" of kendo is there to be overcome so that the light side can be developed?
    Last edited by dillon; 14th February 2016, 06:58 AM.


    • #3
      I've been giving this topic a lot of thought lately, as I have been working hard to try to increase recruitment for our club, and therefore have been answering a lot of varied questions about kendo... so I'll entertain you all with my brain-dump in a spirit of sharing my thoughts, hopefully no one will find offense!

      I have always felt that kendo is a very unique hybrid. I like to explain kendo to people who ask about it, as the "philosophy and mindset of a true martial art, wrapped up in the rules and techniques of a sport".

      If you consider the changes that had to be made to Kendo in order for it to be 'approved' post WW2, it is hard to argue that Kendo was altered to make it more sport-like and less practical.

      If we are being honest about the techniques that we practice, how many of them would truly be useful if we were unceremoniously dumped into a real sword-fight to the death?

      ‹By necessity, our 'cuts' lack full follow-through.
      Rather than cutting for the gaps in armor, we strike the armor itself
      Grappling, sweeps and other physical contact are forbidden

      Our footwork and techniques have evolved to suit the rules of the sport of kendo.

      I think it is pretty clear that our waza don't quite stand to the test of being practical. By the rules,kendo is very much like sport fencing. Where I think the major differences exist in the "sport" of kendo vs the sport of western fencing, is that fencing seems to be to simulated first-blood, whereas kendo seems to be to simulated-death/dismemberment.

      Now, the part that makes kendo fascinating for me:

      ‹It is the inclusion of the kata that most firmly make me believe that post-war shinai kendo was always intended to be a competition sport and not a practical martial art. The kendo kata that we must all learn if we wish to progress, preserve techniques that are more 'complete'. What I mean by that, is that they often take advantage of the curve of the sword, use more natural footwork, and help to impart a true sense of using the different surfaces of the blade to execute waza. I assume that we were left the kendo kata as a reminder of all the things that shinai kendo does not contain, and a pointer to the koryu for the practical techniques.

      So then, why shinai kendo? In the midst of this rule governed, point-scored sport, there is a deep philosophy that is designed to cultivate and preserve a warrior's mindset.
      I think that we are expected to look past the sport trappings, view each match as a life or death battle, and in that mindset, learn to be calm, to throw away our weakness and learn to strike without fear or regard for our own safety.

      So is kendo a sport? Yes. We compete under sport rules, using modified techniques that aren't entirely practical.
      Is kendo a martial art? Yes. We cultivate a deep understanding of combat and self through intense physical contests, combined with more practical waza found in kata derived from the koryu upon which kendo was based.

      Who said these things have to be mutually exclusive?

      Now with all this being said... My personal thought is that the changes that would have to be made in order to make kendo a part of the olympics would be destructive... Without external interference there is already a greater focus on the sport aspects of kendo!
      Last edited by JRS; 14th February 2016, 02:50 PM.


      • #4
        Originally posted by G-CHAN View Post
        Hello KWF

        After reading the article by Ron Fox sensei, I wonder how many people would like to see kendo become part of the Olympic Games. Because I agree with what Ron said…even though shiai is a competition, kendo to me is a martial art and not a sport.
        The shinai is supposed to represent a sword that you kill people with which is why I do not see kendo as a sport and personally would not like it to be in the Olympic Games, but this is just my opinion. I know this question was asked before but what do you think based on the article by Fox sensei?

        G-Chan thanks for the question. First it will make me more comfortable if people don't put sensei after my name. I appreciate the respect with which that was intended but I have practiced with people very deserving of that title and I'm not in that league. I'm just an opinionated old fogey that loves kendo.

        I think there are really two questions in your posting...with answers that are not mutually exclusive.

        - Is kendo a martial art or a sport?
        - Who supports the addition of kendo to the olympics.

        To the first question I have to answer yes. It is a martial art and it is a sport. My essay was intended to make people think about how they should approach the sportive part of kendo in a way that harmonizes it with the martial art aspect. Dillon says that he has very little interest in shiai. I went through a period like that. One of the great benefits of driving the Hayashi senseis around the Midwest U.S. was not just the nightly practices with them but the in car and out of car discussions of kendo and its nature. Hayashi Nobuo sensei was quite firm that for me _not_ to compete would stifle my kendo growth. He named several pillars of kendo:

        - Kendo kata.
        - Kendo keiko.
        - Kendo Shinpan
        - Kendo Shai
        - More recently bokuto kihon ho.

        His view was that turning one's back on kendo was to pull one of those pillars out of kendo and by doing so impoverish one's own practice. Partly as a result of that discussion and as a reflection on Nakamura sensei's comments to me a long time ago, and partly after having watched the WKC in Tokyo last summer, the idea for that article was born on the flight back from, not relevant to the discussion delayed my completion of that article.

        The second question. Should Kendo be in the Olympics?

        First of all, I don't think so. I look at the history of other martial arts that have made it into the Olympics, and I feel that they have been cheapened by that transition to an Olympic sport. Having said that. A couple of years ago, at the North American Zonal referee seminar, the sensei giving the introductory talk mentioned that in many countries, especially Europe, it is difficult for 'sports' not affiliated with that country's national Olympic organization to get space to practice (European members of the forum can comment on that as I don't know first hand). Note that it is possible to be affiliated with a national Olympic body without being or without pushing forward as an Olympic event.

        Second my impression is that the IOC has been trying to trim the less popular sports out of the Olympics. Much as we all love kendo I don't think we can claim that it would have an audience other than a niche one, in spite of kendo's large Asian following. As such I don't think the climate is such that kendo could be come an Olympic sport in the near to mid term future (say next two or three decades). A demonstration sport possibly (as I believe pushed for in the Seoul Olympics 1988?). I think a better venue for kendo, in keeping with what kendo is has already been achieved by its inclusion in the last two Sport Accord Combat Games.


        • #5
          Sorry for multiple posts the silly forum told me my first attempt failed.
          Last edited by rfoxmich; 15th February 2016, 06:56 AM.


          • #6
            I agree with Fox-sensei (I say out of respect) about shiai being an important part of kendo even though it doesn't interest me. I can see that those who I practice with who went through the Japanese high school shiai regime or still participate in adult kendo shiai have a certain "hunger" and instinctiveness in their kendo that I find very much lacking in my own. That is why in a past thread I asked if there are any 8-dan out there who did not go through a immature shiai phase where the physical ideals of kendo are compromised (e.g. being a bit bendy) but strong "killer" instinct is developed. Despite the negative aspects that one would acquire and have to overcome, perhaps there is also value that comes with the phase. It's a bit like going through a rowdy teen phase... a bit messy but do you really want to reach adulthood having not done a few memorable if embarrassing things?

            I also practice with some adults who never seemed to have grown out of that phase and it's a bit like the old geezer who still goes to the club full of people half his age and trying to party like it's 1986.
            Last edited by dillon; 15th February 2016, 09:36 PM.


            • #7
              Anyone who has attended one of the recent FIK shimpan seminars has been instructed in multiple aspects of exactly what yuko-datotsu is supposed to be. This complicated thing we call yuko-datotsu would never survive Olympification. Even in what some would call the sportiest aspect of our training (a referee seminar) we are asked to consider things from a budo point of view. Was the opportunity there? Was the hasuji correct? Did the cut have sae? Was there zanshin? This is sport with a decidedly martial view.
              Last edited by Neil Gendzwill; 16th February 2016, 08:21 AM.


              • #8
                Originally posted by dillon View Post
                I also practice with some adults who never seemed to have grown out of that phase and it's a bit like the old geezer who still goes to the club full of people half his age and trying to party like it's 1986.
                Ummmm .... some of us old geezers already had kids in school in 1986.

                I agree with Neil in that kendo would not survive Olympification. Luckily, I also think Ron is correct in that there just isn't enough audience for kendo to be considered as an Olympic sport.


                • #9
                  Originally posted by pgsmith View Post

                  Luckily, I also think Ron is correct in that there just isn't enough audience for kendo to be considered as an Olympic sport.
                  This has always been my belief in the whole "kendo/olympic" debate as well. There simply isn't enough of an audience.


                  • #10
                    This probably won't progress this discussion much but...

                    Although broadcasters' concerns are central to the Olympic business model (and the North American audience being the most important market), if having an appreciable built-in audience were a requisite for inclusion in the Olympics, I would dare say (without data to rely on) that the vast majority of sports in the Olympics would get left out. Is there a sizable built-in audience for badminton? Or table tennis? Or curling? Or fencing (the closest one to kendo)? I dare say, for even the headline anchor events like in athletics, swimming or downhill skiing, most people only watch these sports during the Olympics and MAYBE during a world championship tournament held by their respective federations.

                    For most sports in the Olympics, I believe it's the cart leading the horse. Rather than being included in the Olympics because a particular sport can bring an audience, it's rather that the Olympics gives athletes in niche sports that are normally deprived of funding a chance at national pride and personal professional/financial success. Getting a gold medal in some obscure sport is one's 15 millisecond of fame and most likely fortune as the sponsorship offers come from Kellogg's/Gillette/Citizen/Omega/Rolex/Tag Heuer/Alsok/etc. Or if the athlete comes from a country that is not a market for these sponsoring corporations their government might give them a house and a lifetime pension for bringing home some national pride. That sport's national federation will also usually see an increase in funding if they do well (or the coach doesn't get shot in some countries).

                    IMHO, kendo being too esoteric for TV audiences wouldn't be enough for some stripped down version to get co-opted. Judo is arguably also too difficult for lay audiences, even in its current Olympic mutation with emphasis on points for waza-ari rather than full on ippon. Olympic audiences are never going to watch or care about these events for more than the TV running time every four years (and some glow honeymoon period if their country does well). They just want to see a hero emerge, preferably from their own country. They don't really care to know how that hero got there as long as they don't get caught doping.

                    So I believe it is up to the kendo community to remain vigilant in resisting inclusion in anything that will water it down for mass consumption. My understanding is that the ZNKR decided to get the IKF to join SportAccord (thus now having to use the French acronym FIK) in order to at least not let a potential rival federation jump in as the representative of kendo. So there is some awareness/strategy at the federation management level.


                    • #11
                      Very nice points Dillon, the thing is, if kendo were in the Olympics, it would probably get very minimal exposure on television. This is just pure speculation on my part but, the exposure it does get people might start to modernize/reinvent kendo. (mc dojos popping up all over the globe) I shudder to think all the various kamae they might invent.

                      This example is a little extreme but, *Learn the ancient martial art of Kenkarju (kendo, karate and judo) from the grand master of all martial arts Mr. X.*
                      A nightmarish thought indeed.

                      P.s. Im very sorry Ron, I meant no offense.
                      Last edited by G-CHAN; 19th February 2016, 02:11 AM.


                      • #12
                        There are already weird McDojo without any relationship between kendo and the Olympics... with some even claiming to be kendo.

                        Just pure speculation but I would imagine that inclusion in the Olympics would have the following possible results (none of these ideas are original and usually came from something someone already said on KWF):

                        Cosmetic Changes
                        1) Like judo, kendo players will have to wear different colors (fencing gets away without doing this because the athletes stick to one side so there's little confusion about who is who). This might not necessarily amount to much since we sometimes already see one player in blue and another in white or white keikogi + blue hakama. It would mean the players would have to have multiple sets of kit ready during the tournament.

                        2) Mengane completely or partially replaced with clear perspex shell so that faces are more legible. The Japanese TV show Teppan already has famous kendo playing Japanese celebrities fight the kendo version of the Stig while wearing a men with the middle 50% of the mengane replaced with perspex. Again, this would be a purely cosmetic change that does not necessarily change the nature of kendo itself.

                        3) More clearly discernible national emblem or flag on the uniform.

                        Fundamental Changes
                        4) Non-human scoring. With today's analytical computing though, I imagine electronics built into the shinai and armor can be skipped and there could be multi-camera setups that a computer can get feed from to analyze a strike. Conceivably it could be sophisticated enough to discern things like hasuji, striking the correct area of the target, etc. I am not sure if it could be sophisticated enough to register the other elements of yukodatotsu but technology regularly shock us.

                        5) Arguing points, which is of course, related to the above

                        6) The worst change would be changing the definition of yukodatotsu to be less reliant on abstract concepts and more on measurable effects (e.g. what fairly simplistic electronic can achieve with little effort and off the shelf products).

                        Change 4 could be nipped in the bud if the ZNKR/FIK were to adopt a page from FIFA's playbook and require that all kendo shiai has to be run under exactly the same rules. The reason FIFA games, despite being of huge international interest, does not rely on video playback is because this rule basically says that if a youth soccer game cannot rely on video playback then neither can the pros or national games. So if your machidojo cannot rely on scoring equipment to run a kendo match, then neither can an Olympic kendo match. I am of the opinion that the human error element in soccer is actually part of the charm of that game. It's loads of fun being down at the pub in London watching a German and a Spaniard arguing about a referee's call.

                        Changes 5 and 6 would be politically motivated because the Japanese dominate kendo and basically dictate what is and what is not kendo. The Olympic audience, and probably the IOC, would not tolerate a competition where only one country has any hope of gold. There would be a howl for removing Japan's dominance without doing what should be done, which is develop kendo talent from a young age outside of Japan (which isn't going to happen as long as Japan is the only country requiring kendo in school). If you look at association football (aka soccer), the successful countries have youth programs to ensure a steady stream of talent. While Brazil may be the one with the most World Cup wins, it is hardly a given that it will win every single tournament so every tournament has a healthy element of uncertainty.

                        If kendo, for the sake of argument, went down the road of changes 5 and 6, then the community might split between sports kendo (SpoKen for short?) and budo kendo (unSpoKen for short? ...that was a joke son, work with me here). In the worst case scenario, a new generation running the ZNKR/FIK decide to go along with the change and from sheer political inertia the whole community gets dragged along.

                        Which then makes me wonder whether we should be clear what it is we object to when we talk about the potential effects of Olympic inclusion of kendo.

                        Do we object to kendo changing?

                        Or do we object to something splitting off from budo kendo and hogging all the glory?

                        If we object to kendo changing perhaps we should let some other competitive swordplay like activity take kendo's place (say Sports Chanbara) so that kendo can be left alone despite remaining in relative obscurity. As for the second objection, the koryu community already has experience with this when kendo was basically co-opted into the Japanese education system (remember that it was initially still called kenjutsu). They decided to basically part ways (although still in somewhat collaborative co-existence). We can't have our cake and eat it too.


                        • #13
                          It's a moot point. Recent additions to the Olympics have been all about the moolah. The IOC isn't interested in fringe sports. They already have fencing, they will try to get rid of that before adding yet another sport with almost 0 potential for TV revenue. Look what happened with wrestling.

                          I think everyone can just relax. We aren't going anywhere unless we add beach kendo to the program. How's your swimsuit bod?


                          • #14
                            Having read George McCall's 'Kenkyu and Kufu' and practised back in the 80s I have to say it's a sport with a mostly fabricated martial history to give it some credibility (which is doesn't need). Shiai is hugely emphasised, the targets are limited to strikes on the armour which only count if you shout out the name of it correctly. It's not swordsmanship because you can't use a sword in the way a shinai is used... it's just not possible but some practitioners think they need to give it credibility (again) by saying an overly long, thick straight bamboo stave with a disproportionately long handle is treated as a sword and that Kendoka have the mental attitude of swordsmen. The phrase ' thou protests too much' comes to mind.

                            Now, there's NOTHING WRONG with being a sport.....


                            • #15
                              I agree it can be a sport as well as martial art but why complicate things? I think that kendo is best as it is now. which is not widely known martial art.