Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Writer's Guide to Kendo

I may have mentioned this before, and if not I'll mention it now, I practice kendo.

What is kendo you may ask? It is a SPORT based upon Japanese swordsmanship. Why the emphasis on it being a sport? Because it is not a practical sword art, and authors should not treat it as so.

Okay, a little bit of background may be in order on this one, so that you understand why I feel the need to post this. I was reading the first book of the Safehold series by David Weber, an author who produces work I normally enjoy. Heck, he can put vampires in military science fiction and make it work. (Look for it and you will find it, don't want to spoil the story it's in.)

Anyways, in the first book of the series, the character Nimue's background mentions that she was turned on to practicing kendo by one of her mentors/friends. So far, no problem. The real issue for me arises when she starts fighting in a world regressed to a medieval level of technology. Not only fighting, but fighting well and utilizing an "odd fighting stance".

My problem with this is that while there is competition in kendo, the goal is not to strike down your opponent. Kendo players (yes, you play kendo, you don't fight with it) are taught to hit, not to cut. So someone trained in kendo wouldn't have the instinct to slice someone down. Also, the fighting stance is very straightforward, with the feet shoulder width apart and right leg in front and the left heel slightly raised. Not really an odd stance.

You may be wondering, what is the difference between a hit and cut, after all both involve striking someone. To hit someone with a real sword would be ineffectual. A sword works best, especially the swords used in Japanese martial arts, when slicing. The hits in kendo are achieved with small movements and targeted at armored areas, places that would have been covered by traditional protection. Cutting requires a larger motion, the idea being to make contact in an unprotected area on the body and then follow through and slice through any resistance and therefore wound your opponent.

So, you may be wondering, if kendo isn't what we call a practical Japanese sword art, what is? Easy, it's kenjutsu.

Notice, both terms share "ken". An easy translation for this would be "sword". "Do" means way, and "jutsu" means art, so kendo is the "Way of the Sword", while kenjutsu is the "Art of the Sword".

Yes, this may seem an artificial distinction, but it's not. With a "jutsu" the focus was on a practical "art" that one could use to survive in a hostile world. With the coming of the modern age, a lot of the "arts" translated into "ways" and the focus changed primarily to spiritual development. So while kendo is not a combat art, it is a way of finding a deeper spiritual center within yourself, like a lot of modern martial arts who's focus is on self-development rather than practical application. Practitioners of a "do" can still be fearsome in combat, but only because part of their spiritual development is achieved through physical toil, meaning they can often be fitter even if they don't look it.

Are the jutsu arts still around. Of course! Jiujitsu is one focused on hand to hand combat, and there are even kenjutsu schools still operating. A lot of the remaining kenjutsu schools are family affairs, the art passed from father to son, or even daughter in these modern times. I myself had the privilege of practicing Ono Ha Itto Ryu years ago, one of the spiritual ancestors of modern kendo, and I know of at least one school of Katori Shinto Ryu in North America. These are both different styles, just like there are many different schools and styles of jiujitsu.

Another thing the bears mentioning is the difference in attitude. Different schools each had a unique, well, psychology is the best thing to call it. The art I practiced was very straightforward, brutal even, with lots of sword contact and forward motion. Other schools of kenjutsu are more subtle, having the practitioner lay traps for his opponent.

Kendo on the other hand is extremely forward and aggressive, much more than any kenjutsu school, since you don't have to worry about getting hit as points are scored only if the correct area is struck with the correct footwork and follow through. It can be very hard to score a point in kendo, depending on how strict the judges are calling things. You can whack at a person for an hour and not score if you don't have everything lined up just right, and kendo players are trained to ignore hits that wouldn't result in a point. More than once I've been whacked on the shoulder or ribs, spots that if I was in a real sword fight would result in severe damage and loss of life. All I ended up while playing kendo was, at most, a rather impressive bruise.

So, this goes out to all you authors, writers, scribblers, and scribes. Know the difference between kendo and kenjutsu, and write accordingly. It's a small detail, but it does stand out for those in the know.

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