history kendo

The end of one era, the start of another

With the scheduled abdication of the current Japanese Emperor on April the 30th 2019, a new era will begin. Well, not a really a new world-changing epoch or anything so exciting, but a change in the Japanese calendar name that happens along with the succession of a new head to the imperial family.

For people outside of Japan the name change has zero impact and, to tell you the truth, apart from filling in forms (which, admittedly, is a favourite pastime of people in this country!) the impact is almost non-existent in Japan as well.

Even though the “nengo” (era names) as they are known here in Japan have little actual effect in people’s daily lives, they do kind of end up acquiring their own “zeitgeist” over time. Something described as “Showa” nowadays, for example, has an antiquated, anachronistic feel to it (which can be good, bad, or both) – your clothes, ideas, interior decorating style, etc, can all be described as “Showa.”

Though it might seem almost arbitrary to non-Japanese kenshi 24/7 readers to split the last 150 years up in this manner when discussing kendo, but since it is actually something that people actually do here, in today’s article I will attempt to name the kenshi who and event that most embraces the zeitgeist of that particular era. Some are indisputable, others maybe not. Anyway, here we go.

Dai Nippon Gekken Kai (1873)

Meiji (1868 – 1912)

The Meiji period was a chaotic and confused one driven by the new nation of Japan trying to free itself from feudalism and Westernise rapidly.

Kendo, of course, didn’t really fit into this new world-view. However, there was a lot of support (including serious research and discussion) for the inclusion of kendo in any new school P.E. curricula that was introduced. As kendo – or kenjutsu as it was still called – was haphazard and random, it is during this time that we first see the first inklings of systemisation.

Representative kenshi: Sakakibara Kenkichi
Representative event(s): Founding of the Dai Nippon Butokukai

Sakakibara Kenkichi is known as one of the founders of Gekken Kogyo which you can read about here and there on this website. For all the negative press that the events got, they did in fact help save kendo (and probably a lot of other budo) from probable extinction. The direct result of these exhibitions was an increase in interest in budo and employment for a few people in the fledgling Japanese police system.

If we take a longer look at the period, the creation of the Dai Nippon Butokukai came out of Gekken Gogyo (though windingly), with which came other defining moments in kendo’s history, for example, the start of the Butokusai (Kyoto Taikai), the building of the Butokuden, and the creation of a kendo teaching school (originally named Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo, this would go on to become Busen).

Other contenders: Matsuzaki Namishiro (widely regarded as the strongest kenshi of the period), Ozawa Aijiro (for driving the discussion of kendo in education), and the writing of the Gekken Saikoron (which influenced the inclusion of kendo training at Keishicho).

Taisho (1912 – 1926)

This period is considered a liberal period in modern Japanese history, and is sandwiched between the confusion of the new nation of Japan trying to define itself in the Meiji period and the increasingly militaristic period in the early Showa period.

Kendo-wise, it is probably during these years that some of the most important things in the history of kendo occur.

Kenshi: Naito Takaharu
Event: Birth of the professional kendoka (Busen and Koshi), Kendo in schools, and the creation of kendo kata

I personally consider Naito Takaharu to be the single most important person in the history of modern kendo. It was he, as head teacher of the Butokukai (and Busen), that taught some of the most renowned kenshi that lived in the 20th century, and it was his preferred style of kendo (kirikaeshi and uchikomi, large strikes from a far distance) that became the basis of the kendo that we do today.

The three events listed above are cannot be looked at independently: Busen and Koshi was where people were trained to be professional kendo teachers, they were then employed in schools, universities, and police stations around the country; kendo kata was created (by Busen and Koshi instructors) for the express purpose of training kendo students in the fundamentals of kendo quickly. These three things taken together were the beginning of kendo losing it’s randomness and starting to become a single “entity.”

Other contenters: Nishikubo Hiromichi (as head of the Butokukai for a number of years, his opinions about budo were important, for example, it was Nishikubo that changed kenJUTSU to kenDO) and Takano Sasaburo (the only person close to Naito’s influence).

Showa (1926 – 1989)

The Showa period was the longest reign of any Japanese emperor, spanning over 60 years of tumultuous human activity and cultural change. For obvious reasons I have decided to split this into two phases – pre and post WW2 – and treat each other differently. Of course, the single largest even that happened during the Showa period was WW2 itself.

The pre-war period:

This period was a conflicting one for kendo: a massive increase in practitioners (through media exposure, introduction in schools, and better teaching methods) followed by the usurping of the Butokukai by the military government.

Kenshi: Mochida Seiji
Event: Showa Tenran-jiai

Mochida Seiji was a student of Naito Takaharu at the Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo, and was widely respected from even a young age. In 1929, when he was teaching kendo in the Japanese-occupied Korean peninsula, he won the kendo processionals section of the first Tenran-jiai (competition before the Emperor). This skyrocketed him to fame and soon after he returned to Tokyo to take up a teaching position at Noma dojo. There, his position within the kendo community rose, and he became highly sought after. Unlike many strong kenshi at that time (and maybe today as well…), he was known as being taciturn, having great humility, and never treated anyone with anything other than respect.

There were three large Tenran-jiai during this period – in 1929, 1934, and 1940 – and each was covered comprehensively by the Japanese media (newspaper and radio). Due to this coverage, and the fact that you could compete in front of the Emperor, the already semi-popular kendo exploded.

One effect of such large national competition was, as you can imagine, increased emphasis on winning shiai (and the prestige for doing so). This emphasis is why, before the first shiai was held in 1929, Naito Takaharu tried to stop it. However, he could not disobey an order from the Imperial Household and reluctantly accepted the position of head of the competition committee (he died a month before the shiai took place). As Naito predicted, the fallout from the Tenran-jiai (both good and bad), was large.

Other contenders: Saimura Goro (he brought Busen style kendo to Tokyo) and Noma dojo (one of the first dojo to be open to anyone and everyone regardless of background).

The post war period:

The initial post war period was a difficult one for kendo and kenshi, not only because it was banned and many people lost their professions, but when it did come back it was democratised in such a way that it was changed irreparably (some would argue for the better). Some kenshi would fight to keep the old ideas alive.

Kenshi: Ogawa Chutaro (Concept of Kendo)
Event: Dissolution of the Butokukai and foundation of the ZNKR and the creation of Shinai-kyogi in the interim

Ogawa Chutaro was a kendo student at Takano Sasaburo’s Shidogakuin/Meishinkan before being taken under the wing of Saimura Goro (and later Mochida Seiji) and attending the newly founded Kokushikan (he eventually taught kendo there as well as at Keishicho). Right from the beginning, his teachers noted that he wasn’t the usual type of kendo student, that there was something different about him. He came to believe that there was something deeper to be had from kendo than mere fighting with sticks.

He studied zen and kenjutsu, and placed emphasis on the process of shugyo more than anything else. In the early 1970s, when most of the older generation of kenshi were complaining about the shiai-centricity of post-war kendo, he was charged with re-stating what “kendo” is by the ZNKR. The result, published in 1975, was The Concept and Purpose of Kendo:

The Concept and Purpose of Kendo


Kendo is a way to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana.

The purpose of kendo is

To mold the mind and body.
To cultivate a vigorous spirit
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo.
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor.
To associate with others with sincerity.
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.

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.

Then, as today, although most people have been exposed to the above at some point in their kendo careers, they basically don’t follow the tenants therein (in or outside of Japan). However, I personally posit, that as kendo matures more outside of Japan, more people will start to struggle to figure out what kendo is and why it is they do it. At that time, people will realise very quickly: when it comes to deep kendo philosophy, Ogawa Chutaro was a giant.

Moving on to the events mentioned above – they follow each other in a straight line:

A. Control of the Butokukai had been taken over by the Japanese government during the war and was thus seen as a sort of propaganda instrument by the occupying Americans (the Butokukai had been promoting nationalism for years before the government completely co-opted it anyway). The result was, it was forcibly dissolved and members purged from the civil service.

B. To get around the banning, a softened down, democratised, Western-looking sportified version of kendo called Shinai Kyogi was created. This was a Trojan Horse.

C. Eventually, kendo was allowed to be practised again and a new national body called the Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei (ZNKR or AJKF in English) was formed. After a while the Shinai Kyogi association and the ZNKR were merged. However, the changes brought in by Shinai Kyogi (especially shiai rule changes and it’s democratisation) remained.

Other contenders: Nakakura Kiyoshi, Chiba Masashi, Shiai-centric kendo becomes the main, the foundation of FIK (IKF) and the rising popularity of the WKC

Heisei (1989-2019)

The very start of the Heisei period saw the peak and then soon after the bursting of the “economic bubble” in 1992. The next twenty years saw the Japanese economy stagnate, which has ushered in a period of non-confidence within the country.

It is in this era that the ZNKRs “one kendo” consolidation plan finally bears fruit and that we see a “completed” kendo for the first time.

Kenshi: Miyazaki Masahiro
Event: nothing particularly era-defining (at this point in time)

Already well known here in Japan as “Heisei no Kengo” (the great swordsman of the Heisei period) it’s no wonder that Miyazaki Masahiro’s name appears here.

Between 1990 and 2001, he represented Kanagawa prefecture in the All Japan Championships 12 consecutive times (no mean feat in itself), winning six times and coming second twice. He won the WKC team event four times and the individuals once. In the All Japan Police Championships six times, coming second one, and third three times. btw, he won his first All Japan title in 1990 on his first attempt. At that time, the minimum grade required for competing was 6th dan. Had there been no restriction (like nowadays) we can only imagine how much more dominating he would’ve been. He passed 8th dan on his first attempt in 2009, and won his first 8th dan tournament the next year. In 2016 he won the All Japan hachidan invitational tournament.

Other contenders: none

BTW, the very first kendo event in the start of the new era – whatever it will be called – will fittingly be the Kyoto Taikai. I am looking forward to taking part in it and hope to see you there!


Enjoy watching the change in kendo over the Meiji, Taisho, Showa, and Heisei periods:

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
For more information check out the About page.

6 replies on “The end of one era, the start of another”

I like it very much. Have you ever thought about an interactive timeline considering the evolution of sword schools and kendo?

What do you mean by “interactive” Stefan?

A great topic of discussion would be the reverse impact of kendo (i.e. shinai and bogu) on the evolution of older sword schools. Nobody discusses it, but it was massive.

Hi George,

sorry for the late reply.

Since I read the series “sWords of Wisdom” and “Tradition and Transmission” in KW magazine and similiar articles here I’m thinking about an application or web site which displays in graphical form how the sword schools and their representatives evolved, are connected to each other, who influenced who, etc. Something like a family tree.

By interactive I mean interaction with a map of Japan if reasonable. The places of the schools and persons are marked as are possible journeys, movings. Maybe influence areas, too? Each marker provides additional informations.

The content of the map changes with a selected date. Additional content can be displayed (rulers and their influence ares, battles and other events, …).

Maybe a timespan can be selected (e. g. from 1345 to 1620) and then the development is played.

You see, quite callow and it sounds after a lot of work :). Maybe a case for Google Earth.



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