This was a question that was asked in an interview with Iho Kiyotsugu hanshi in 1993.
Iho hanshi held various kendo teaching posts during his lifetime (Police Academy, Kokushin university, Chukyo university, etc), had a successful shiai career (All Japan high school championships 1st place 3 times, 9th All Japans 1st place, Nippon Budokan 15th Anniversary hanshi 8dan shiai 1st place, once defeated 26 opponents in the tozai-taiko, etc), and is the author of numerous kendo books. He is said to have been of the most influential figures in the kendo scene during the kendo-boom in the late 60s and early 70s. He died in 1999.
This is his reply to the above question.
The reason that kendo has changed is because of the changes in the shiai rules. These changes have made shiai both better and worse at the same time. When I was a student (before the war), there were no lines marking the competition area, no time limits, and only 2 judges (omote and ura shinpan). I wonder if the rules today have become too restrictive.
I think the biggest problem lies in how we time a competition. Once the time of the closing ceremony has been decided – which is something that usually happens first – this basically decides the length of individual shiai. From that stemmed the introduction of the hantei [where judges decide on a winner without a point being scored. Used exclusively with children]. Back in the day, there was no ippon-shobu. The shiai went on until one of the kenshi got 2 points.
Shiai used to be a lot more fun as well. During competition, once guy would fly in at full speed, hit men, and his power would carry him into the spectator area. The other guy would chase him into the area and keep attacking. The referee would be yelling ‘Stop! Stop! Oi, can’t you bloody well hear me!!” There were still even scenes after the war where the referee would yell “Kote-ari!” and both kenshi would say “No, no, that was never a kote!” Of-course we can’t let things be completely unregulated, can we.
Kenshi used to enter shiai lighter hearted. If you don’t enjoy shiai, you won’t be able to continue if for a long time, right? At that time the TV, radio, newspaper journalists were a lot more interested than today, and when they did come you had to look like you were enjoying it. This is one of the reasons I think 3 shinpan are unnecessary. A third person gets in the way of the spectators and also [due to the more-regulated manner in which referees have to move] it makes seeing waza/ippon more difficult.
One other thing is that kenshi have also become technically more advanced: they have got faster and their strikes have become lighter. This makes it more difficult for referees to spot an ippon. You often see such things as one referee raising a red flag and the other white.
The reason strikes are fast is that the shinai are too light. Years ago people used various lengths and weights of shinai, but now both length and weight are defined. People nowadays, however, have a different body type than those before and just after the war [in Japan your average person has become stronger and taller], so we should have a shinai length and weight that matches their proportions. We must do some fundamental research into this area. However, there are many things we have to consider on this point before we can put it into practise, including even the shinai manufacturers themselves.