What is Kendo?

by Ben Sheppard


Kendo (剣道) which translates as “the Way of the Sword” is a one-one-one, competitive martial art. Kendo utilises a shinai (竹刀 bamboo sword) and bogu (防具 protective armour) to allow full contact strikes the opponent’s body.

There are three legal strike areas in Kendo: the head (面 men), the right wrist (小手 kote) and the torso (胴 do). There is also a thrust to the throat (突き tsuki). There are no kicks, punches or takedowns in modern Kendo.

Kendo exponents are called kenshi 剣士 and also kendoka 剣道家.

Kenshi wear a kendogi, similar in design to judo jacket, but most often dyed indigo blue, and also pleated culottes, called hakama. Kendo is practiced barefoot.

An effective strike in Kendo is known as yuko datotsu. In a match it scores ippon or one point. There are no half-points in Kendo. Yuko datotsu is comprised of five conditions, which must be present in order for ippon to be awarded:

  • Correct target area (datotsubui)
  • Correct striking area of the blade (datotsubu)
  • Correct posture (shisei)
  • High spirits (including kiai vocalisation)
  • Follow through (zanshin)

The purpose of yuko datotsu is to ensure that winning attacks are the product of deliberate effort, not “lucky hits”. Historically these conditions were developed over many years by swordsmen of different traditions, to try and approximate the kind of decisiveness required to deliver a winning cut in a duel with live blades.

Kendo also includes the Nihon Kendo no Kata, a collection of 10 kata or forms, which are practiced in pairs using the bokuto/bokken (木刀/ 木剣 wooden sword). Kata are non-contact. The first seven kata are for long sword versus long sword, and the last three are for long sword versus short sword. Kendo kata preserve the way of training that was handed down from feudal times, when hundreds of sword schools existed to transmit techniques from generation to generation via the practice of kata.

Kendo is administered in Japan by the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei (全日本剣道連盟 All Japan Kendo Federation). Japan is also the headquarters of the International Kendo Federation (FIK) the governing body for Kendo recognised by SportAccord (formerly the General Assembly of International Sporting Federations, a sister organisation of the International Olympic Committee). The Australian Kendo Renmei and Victorian Kendo Renmei are recognised by the FIK as our national and state governing bodies for Kendo. Gradings and competitions held in Australia are therefore fully recognised in Japan, as well as internationally. Although it is the fervent dream of most sports to one day become Olympic, Kendo is unusual in that there is widespread consensus amongst practitioners and administrators alike that becoming an Olympic sport would be detrimental to the spirit and meaning of Kendo.

The guiding credo of Kendo is contained in the Kendo no rinen (剣 道の理念The Concept of Kendo), a single sentence issued by the All Japan Kendo Federation in 1975:

The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Sword.

The meaning of this statement is that although Kendo is competitive, winning matches should not be the main purpose of the art. The true purpose is personal development via correct and diligent practice, with competition and gradings as indicators of progress towards the larger goal of overcoming mental weakness and the ego-attachment that puts self before others.

Kendo competition is called shiai and matches can be from 3 to 10 minutes in length. A kendo shiai is judged by three court judges or shinpan, of which at least two must judge a strike has met the criteria for yuko datotsu before an ippon can be awarded. The winner is the first person to score two ippon, except where a match has gone into overtime in which case it is the first person to score. The match area is called a shiaijo and is a square of 9 to 11 metres. There are no weight divisions in Kendo, and although usually separated, men and women can compete against each other.

The World Kendo Championships (WKC) are held every three years and more than forty countries compete. Japan has only been defeated once in the 40 year history of the event. Australia is one of the founder members of the FIK and is one of only a handful of countries to have competed in every single WKC, which include both individual and teams events for men and for women.

Kendo gradings are classified into kyu and dan: 6th kyu to 1st kyu are equivalent to yellow belt to brown belt in judo or karate. Dan grades start at 1st dan (shodan) and go up to 8th dan. There are no honourary grades in Kendo, all are earned through performance tests. Kenshi do not wear any outward indicator of rank, such as belts or badges, however the seating arrangement of students and sensei in the is usually in grade order from highest to lowest.


Click here to see a list of kendo clubs within Victoria and information on their training times.