japanese kendo

Sword of the virtuous, sword of the inferior

Almost straight away after graduating university back in 1996 I moved to the east coast of America and began working in the I.T. industry. I’d already started kendo a couple of years before and wanted to continue while I was over there. It took a while for work to settle down and to find a dojo (at that time kendo was not nearly as popular as it is now), but when I did get back into it I was lucky enough to become a member of Ken-Zen dojo in NYC. Different dojo do things differently and this dojo required that we say some Japanese out loud before keiko began. Not speaking Japanese at the time, I just had to memorise it as best I could:

Ken to wa kokoro nari.
Koroko tadashi kereba sono ken tadashi.
Kokoro tadashi karazareba sono ken mo mata tadashi karazu.
Ken wo manaban to suru mono wa subekaraku sono kokoro wo manabe

This is of course the well known saying by renowned late Edo-era Jikishinkage-ryu kenshi Shimada Toranosuke (1814-52). It translates as:

The sword is the mind.
When the mind is right, the sword it right.
When the mind is not right, the sword is also not right.
He who wishes to study kendo, must first study his mind.

Today in 2014, 200 years after Shimada’s birth, I think this still resonates with a lot of modern kendoka… or at least it does with me. I was happy, then, to find another quote from Shimada a while back, and I’d like to present a translation of it for kenshi 24/7 readers today:



There are two contrasting types of people (kendo practitioners) nowadays. The first looks for an opening before pressing forward and striking or, sensing an impending attack, steps back and defends. When calm, he stands like the mountain; when moving quickly, he does so like the wind or rain. This type of person neither celebrates victory nor gets angry at defeat. He learns from those stronger than him by following their example, and educates those less skilled than himself. This type of kendo is called “the sword of the virtuous.”

The second type of person arrogantly runs in to attack with a great shout. He feels joy in victory and annoyance in defeat, and his attacks are wild and without reason. This type of kendo is called “the sword of the inferior.”

Personally, like the “ken to wa kokoro nari” I learned almost 20 years ago, I find that this exemplifies simply the type of kendo I want to do ( = the type of person I want to be).

Virtuous vs Inferior

In kanji, the “virtuous” referred to above is 君子 (kunshi) and it’s opposite (“inferior”) is 小人 (shojin). A man (or woman) who is “kunshi” is one of virtue, someone who is just, moral, dignified, and cultivated. The opposite of this is morally suspect (or even bankrupt), carries themselves in an undignified way, lacks culture, acts unjustly, etc, that is, (comparatively) an inferior person.

A few years ago I was given a t-shirt from a kendo friend in China, the back of which reads “kunshi no michi”:


In a way I feel we have come about circle: “ken no michi” (the way of the sword, i.e. kendo) is the same as “kunshi no michi” (the path of virtue). I say same, but in reality kendo shugyo is just a device that helps orientate people onto or towards a virtuous path. “Help” here is the key word as many people choose not to do kendo with these things in mind. Anyway, you don’t have to believe me, instead re-read the kendo no rinen (the concept of kendo):

The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Katana (sword).

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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14 replies on “Sword of the virtuous, sword of the inferior”

Two very simple statements, that say so much to so many. It is a shame that these words will be read only by those with an interest in the Japanese sword and associated studies.
Thank you for sharing these George.

This resonates with me and likely a lot of people that have done kendo for more than just a years. Thanks for the post George, I will send a link to this article to others at our dojo.

Hey there. It has been a while since I perused the site. Came across this article. Man, it’s a good one. I’m off to keiko in an hour. Perfect timing to have read this.

The only reason is just pure rubbish – I find I spend too much time on bloody Facebook these days. All those Kendo groups, your site, Kendo World, etc.

Seriously, part of me would be absolutely fine if Facebook just disappeared.

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