Kendo: Martial Art or Sport?

With Karate making headlines as it tries to become an Olympic sport, one can’t help but consider other martial arts as potentials for the Games as well. There is certainly a contingent of the population which believes any martial art should see the Olympic spotlight, but others believe that martial arts shouldn’t take the stage because they would lose their roots, become diluted, and evolve into a sport. Kendo is a good example.

“The Way of the Sword” has always been about self-discipline, whether in its pre-“kendo” form as Japanese swordsmanship or as its current iteration. Like other martial arts, kendo focuses on the relationship between teacher and student, training practitioners to progress through 10 levels to achieve the highest possible ranking. Kendoka hold opponents and fellow students in high esteem and follow traditional kendo rules of etiquette during training and competition. When Kendo was revived in Japan after years of martial arts bans, its form remained in tact, however it was perceived more as a sport rather than a martial art. And this is where kendoka of the traditional schools fear a move toward Olympic competition will lead.

As a martial art, kendo is highly focused on the individual practicing, using traditional rules and weaponry. Many are concerned that if the art evolves into a popular sport, new forms will develop, changing the art, watering it down, making it more competitive, and moving it away from the art form it was originally intended to be. “Acceptable” rules must be developed, especially in Olympic sports, that are agreeable to all practitioners of the various forms of the given sports, and kendoka who perceive the art as the truest iteration are reticent to have it altered for sport or competition.

There is merit in preserving art, any art, as it existed when it was created. But the nature of art (at least good art) is that it reflects culture while leading the culture to a higher standard. The challenge to kendoka and others who wish to preserve the original forms of their arts is to find a way to nourish its growth while maintaining its original principles, providing a mirror to the culture of its past while offering a light on the path to a better future. The Way of the Sword is in no danger of disappearing, regardless of adaptation. “Thus will one be able to love one’s country and society; to contribute to the development of culture; and to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples.” (The Concept and Purpose of Kendo, 1975)