Modern sporting Kendo came into mainstream popularity in Japan and later the west after the defeat of the Japanese empire by the Americans at the end of the second world war. As such it definitely falls into the category of gendai budo, that is to say budo propagated after the second world war, and generally with strong focus on the sporting and competitive aspects of the martial arts (though this theme is not universal even among gendai budo arts). That is not to say that kendo does not have aspects of the koryu left in it. Many of its kata are derived or even directly transplanted from old ryuha, and in this way kendo maintains a strong link with the arts that preceded it. There is a misconception, however, more amongst those unfamiliar with kendo practice than those deeply immersed in it, that kendo is accurately representative of samurai combat, and more specifically, armoured combat.
There are four main ways to score in kendo, four different areas where strikes are considered valid.
1. Men, or the head, is a vertical strike to the top of the skull.
As we can see when we apply this strike against samurai armour, however, it is rendered ineffective by the kabuto. Many reading this article may, at this point be thinking this obvious, however, there are people who genuinely believe that a strike from a katana is enough to cleave straight through the metal of the helmet. This is not the case! For sure, if you swing the damn thing hard enough then physics will eventually win. pressure is equal to force divided by area, so by making the impact surface as fine as possible and the force as great as possible, you may eventually be able to cut into the helmet. The force required to do this, however, is immense, and would be almost impossible to bring to bear against a moving and fighting target! What is more, even if a cut from the blade managed to make an incision in the helmet, that is no guarantee of inflicting any sharp force trauma or lacerations to your opponent. Now that is not to say that the blunt force trauma would not be significant, it would! We’re just saying that it probably wasn’t the ideal way of using a sword. Now give a man a kanabo (literally one of my favorite samurai weapons ever!) and we’re singing a whole different tune.
2. Do, or body, is generally a lateral strike across the torso.
Once again if we apply this strike to a fully armoured warrior, we can see that it would have little effect against the robust metal of the cuirass or do. Sure, you might do some damage, but it will likely only dent the metal and chip the paint which, far from killing him, will probably just make him angrier!
3. Kote, or wrist, is aimed at the top of the hand or forearm.
As you can see, however, Alex’s arms are well protected, from the plates around his upper arm to the metal spines on his forearm, chainmail around his elbow and plates covering the back of his hands. While we can’t see this as a valid cut, however, we still think of strikes to the top of the wrist as a valid technique, as again, the blunt force trauma inflicted can break the joint, or force an opponent to lose his grip on a weapon.
4. Tsuki, is a thrust directly to the throat.
As you can see in the image below, however, Alex’s throat is well guarded against attack. It is important to not that some Samurai would not have worn this guard at all times, making the tsuki to the neck a valid target. There are also ways of circumventing this protection, though these are not used in competitive kendo, and we will cover these in our next article!
In modern naginata competition, the shin, or sune is also considered a valid target.
Once again, this is a well protected area of the Samurai’s body, with sune-ate, or shin guards worn to protect against precisely this kind of attack. Some shin guards use spines instead of a solid construction, however, both render cutting or slashing attacks redundant.
Now am I being entirely unfair to kendo and modern naginata? Of course I am, I’m dragging them out of the time and context in which they were created, arts for sport and personal development in the peace prevalent under the Tokugawa shogunate and concluding (unsurprisingly) that they don’t work as combative techniques in the context of armoured fighting in the 1500’s. This was a necessary development to eventually turn martial arts, ways of killing, into a sport that could be practiced in a fun and safe fashion. Furthermore, I am not giving enough credit to the sword schools from which kendo draws its kata, some of whose techniques are manifestly intended to be used against unarmored opponents as was the main purpose of the samurai sword (see For the love of the Japanese sword), in which context, strikes to the head, body, wrist and throat become not only valid, but preferable targets! Kendo is a fantastic art, and a great sport with many adherents worldwide. It does not pretend to be, in its competitive form, proper fighting with swords, and my point is simply that it should not, therefore, be used as a reference when discussing samurai combat, and fighting warriors in armour.
In our next article (coming soon, I promise!) we will come at this from the opposite angle and answer the question: “what is the best way to kill a samurai?”
All stills above from empty mind films products are used with the consent of the owner. We would also like to extend our thanks once again to the Iron Mountain Armoury for our gorgeous suit of armour!