Stephen Naoyuki Matsuba

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Kendo means “the way of the sword,” and many people who have seen it think that it is about hitting people with bamboo sticks. I have noticed that some people come into a kendo dojo for the first time with visions of samurai films and flashy moves. That is probably why dojos get a influx of new members soon after the release of a film with katana fights (à la Kill Bill and The Last Samurai). Others see it as a kind of sport.


But kendo is a martial art. It is a complex mix of physical activity, philosophy and spirituality. And every practiionner of kendo (referred to as a kendoka or kenshi) builds their own combination of the three to create their kendo.


Kendo is a great physical challenge. You can push yourself physically. You can fly through attacks until you are ready to collapse, but your sensei (teacher) will tell you to do one more it. But kendo is not about strength. Women can compete on the same level as men, and people practice kendo even into their nineties. At the Seattle dojo where I started kendo, we celebrated the ninetieth birthday of Kiyoshi Yasui. And the next day, he came to practice as he does every week and whipped our asses.


Kendo also challenges you mentally. It has its competitive aspects that force you to re-think your approach with every practice. There are competitions (taikai) and people spar with each other during practices. During taikai, you experience something of the immediacy that the samurai would have felt going into a fight. You go against an opponent, and after one or two strikes, you are eliminated. And while it is not a truly life and death situation, you still feel the do or die situation as you face your opponent.


You also study kendo. You can read up on technique. You can watch videos of competitions suchs as the World Kendo Championships or the All Japan Kendo Chapmpionships. You can read about the philosophy underlying the discipline. You can talk about kendo with your sensei and other kenshi.


In the end, kendo is about the person practicing it. What you put into kendo is what you will get out of it. If you challenge yourself mentaly and physically; if you study other people's kendo and draw what you like about their technique; if you live your life as you do kendo—then kendo can be the most rewarding activity you will ever experience.


Iaido is the art of Japanese sword drawing. Beginners use bokuto—a wooden sword—but more experienced practionners use an iaito (a sword with no cutting edge) or shinken (a “live blade”, that is, a real katana). There a several different schools of iaido each with its own style and set of kata (model forms). However, the All Japan Kendo Federation has developed a set of standard kata that is used to test candidates for ranking examinations. The Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei draws from the different iaido schools and consists of twelve forms.


Iaido has a strong association with kendo. But not everyone who does kendo does iaido, and not everone who does iaido does kendo. Unlike kendo, you work against imaginary opponent and follow set moves. This iaido involves a higher degree of mental discipline over physical work than you will find in kendo. Nevertheless, I feel that the two martial arts compliment each other. Practicing one improves my understanding and practice of the other.




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Kendo and Iaido