Karate vs Kendo: A Comparative Analysis

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Many people who have been practicing karate for a while wonder if they can take up kendo, or vice versa. Many trainers and masters will encourage individuals to learn other forms of martial arts besides the one they have experience in. What is interesting is that karate and kendo actually share a link. In fact, kendo has influenced most forms of Japanese karate as it is practiced in the West by senior karate instructors.

However, the influence is not always direct or intended, but indirect. In fact, many karetaka in the west may never have practiced kendo and may not even know about it. But their karate techniques may still be flavored by it. This comparative analysis of karate and kendo takes a look at the two martial arts side by side, with certain points or principles as focus.

The Principle of Ikken hissatsu

The term Ikken hissatsu is commonly used in karate, especially in Shotokan. The literal translation is “One fist, instant death”. It actually means “one punch kill” or “kill with one strike”. Of course, this is a principle not to be taken literally. There are debates on whether or not such powerful killing blows are even possible given our physical limitations.

In other words, Ikken hissatsu is not to be taken literally. Instead, it is an attitude or state of mind. It means always putting your full intent behind every punch; not to weaken because being weak is cruel to yourself and drags out the conflict. Always expect the first blow to be the last. At the same time, don’t rely on it.

The same principle is more vital in kendo. For samurai swordsmen, a single strike could end things. Since swordsmen went into fights with this expectation, they were always prepared with a certain state of mind.

But neither in karate nor in kendo should it be forgotten for a moment that things may not go as planned. That is where the principle of Zanshin comes in.

The Principle of Zanshin

In Japanese philosophy, zanshin is a state of relaxed awareness. In martial arts, the term is used to refer to body postures after a technique has been executed. Both in karate and kendo, the applied meaning is the same.

In the context of karate, the principle of zanshin means “total awareness”. In other words, it is the state of mental awareness and spirit that allows us to be totally aware of our surroundings and opponents. We should be prepared to react if there are more attacks directed against us.

In practical terms, for example if you do a front punch or the last movement of the Heian Shodan, after you step back into the ready position, you must hold your stance for a little longer and keep your focus.

In the context of kendo, zanshin refers to a state of “the spirit that remains”. In other words, it is the alertness that continues after the victory has been won. In practice, this means a posture that allows you to respond to a counterattack after you have made a strike. Referees consider zanshin as a necessary element of a successful yuko datotsu or the perfect strike.

These were two significant similarities between karate and kendo. There are also certain differences.

The Concept of Seme

Seme in Japanese martial arts is the use of psychological pressure on the “uke” or the defensive opponent. It is a term and technique used most commonly in kendo and in Karatedo Doshinkan.

In kendo, seme is simply “to attack”. Whether or not you physically strike your opponent, it is still a “seme” if you put mental pressure on your opponent. To achieve this, there are techniques like San Sappo and San Satsu, which refer to the “three things that you must kill” for victory. These include, your opponent’s sword, techniques and ki. You can do this in various ways.

In karate, you are not likely to come across seme techniques at early levels. But highly trained karetaka and masters do use seme to attack. The difference is that in karate, there are four possible weapons that come from different directions, irrespective of the kamae.

Training in kendo with its encouragement of seme can actually benefit new karate practitioners, and vice versa.

Overall, karate and kendo are both striking arts. Some differences are superficial – karate uses punching and kicks while kendo is purely a sword-art. But there are many similarities that lie at the core of the two martial arts.

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