What Makes the Modern Japanese Martial Art Different?

Committee National of KendoHistory, Japanese Martial Art, Kendo0 Comments

Modern Japanese martial arts are less about killing or winning victories in real fights, than about self-improvement. There was a clear transition between the old martial arts practiced for survival or security by samurai in feudal Japan. The story of this transition can be traced very clearly through the story of kendo.

History of Japanese Martial Arts

The samurai or Bushi were significant elements in the history of Japanese martial arts. These professional military noblemen, officers and warriors of medieval and early-modern Japan made up less than ten percent of Japan’s population. But their exemplary strategy and tactical prowess in both armed and unarmed warfare have brought their legacy down into Japan’s modern martial arts.

Samurai would train rigorously in both physical and mental exercises, while maintaining their strict code of honor and morality, codified in the Bushido. They were expected to be skilled in the use of multiple weapons. As these weapons and tools improved and changed with a changing world, many different forms of martial arts developed, with different training methods, tools and philosophies.

Old school or Koryu Bujutsu (bujutsu means the actual application of martial techniques and tactics in combat) were traditional martial arts schools that came from before the Meiji Restoration in 1868. In general, these martial arts are focused more on the application of military science in techniques in the real world or in war. Forms include sumo, jujutsu, kenjutsu, ninjutsu and other forms of weaponless and sword martial arts.

On the other hand, there are modern martial arts, called the Gendai budo, originating after the Meiji Restoration. Their primary aim is self-improvement. Judo, kendo, aikido, iaido, kyudo, karate and others belong to this group of martial arts. These arts were developed with the aim of developing a “way of life” and victory over oneself, the biggest enemy. Kendo offers a perfect demonstration of this.

The Difference in Modern Martial Art

Kendo literally means “the way of the sword”. Ken is sword, do is a “way of life”. It probably began to evolve into its current form from changes beginning in the Edo period (1603-1867). This period of relative peace saw many techniques of the ken translated into philosophies and theories on swordsmanship and the samurai life.

The feudal system went on to collapse, but the philosophies of the samurai life lived on. Sparring techniques and armor to prevent fatalities were developed. Eventually they entered the sporting sphere.

Kendo, and many of the other martial arts, are combative and clearly adapted from military fights, tactics and strategies. But the aim is mental development. 

At the same time, it is impossible not to ignore the origins of kendo in actual warfare. There’s a very interesting topic of discussion that those training in Kendo come to ask at a certain stage. Why is that from a combat perspective, modern Kendo targets areas for victory that are illogical when it comes to attempting a victory in battle?

If you look at the areas where you can score points in Kendo, they are:

Men: The head

Migi-Men: Right temple

Hidari-Men: Left temple

Tsuki: Throat

Kote: Wrist

Hidari-Kote: Left kote

Migi-Do: Body, right

Hidari-Do: Body, left

The blows must only be delivered with the outer third of the shinai, with precision and clarity. A total of nine fundamental techniques called kendo wazas can be used to hit these points. The referees will look not only at the result but also good form and a strong reaction so that the player can continue at once with the same kind of focus and spirit.

All of the scoring areas are not really practicable in a real battle due to armor. For example, the head in Japanese military past would usually be protected by a helmet or some kind of band. On the other hand, the sides of the neck are unprotected. The throat would often be protected as well, even in light armor. But in Kendo, the throat is a target. The wrists are always protected in all kinds of armor, as well as the sides which usually have heavier armor.

Why does Kendo target these areas? The answer lies simply in the identity of Kendo as a combative sport derived from samurai swordsmanship. Partly, Kendo is a true combative “sport” that targets areas that are usually armored and easy to armor. Also, it is derived from Itto-ryu, which focuses on the perfect strike or kiriotoshi.

Such complex physical and philosophical combinations that make modern Japanese martial arts different from the more aggressive classical arts of the past.

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