Reflecting on Shambhala’s Guide to Kendo

Kiyota, Minoura. The Shambhala Guide to Kendo: An Essential Introduction to the Principles of the Japanese Art of Swordsmanship. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala Publications, 1995.

After finishing Alexander Bennet’s Kendo: Culture of the Sword, I searched for another book that covered some of the same topics and themes. Finally, I came across professor Minoru Kiyota’s Kendo and began reading without haste. Published much earlier than Bennett’s manuscript on Japanese swordsmanship, Kiyota’s work helped establish a general historical and philosophical basis of kendo during a time when there were not many English books on kendo and the history of the art. Much like John Steven’s biography on aikido’s founder, Kiyota opened up the gates for English-speaking practitioners for a better understanding of the art and its Japanese roots.

Kiyota begins his book by defining and differentiating kendo from other activities and sports, explaining that kendo is influenced by Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism and is designed to “destroy the ego and to realize vision beyond that dictated by the ego.” This lofty purpose for kendo, as Kiyota further explains, is to achieve mushin, thus, taming and controlling the ego. Additionally, he provides examples of samurai and sword styles that were influenced by the above philosophical and religious thoughts; Iizasa Choisai, the man who systematized Katori-ryu, and Yagyu Munenori, the inheritor of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, both incorporated aspects of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism into their respective sword styles.

Shortly after defining and differentiating kendo, Kiyota gives a brief historical synopsis of the Heian period (794 – 1185) and the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), giving the evolution of Japanese swordsmanship context. After which, he provides brief biographies on four influential samurai from the Sengoku Jidai: Tsukahara Bokuden, Kozumi Ise-no-Kami (Kamiizumi Nobutsuna), Miyamoto Musashi, and Ito Ittosai. The first two created or further developed their own sword styles to survive in the chaotic and violent times of the Sengoku Jidai, while the last two attempted to adapt the killing techniques and mindsets of swordsmanship to the peaceful times of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Kiyota moves to other important figures and swordsmen in the evolution of kendo, touching on Yamada Heizaemon who, along with his son, invented the forerunner of the kendo armor, or bogu, and the shinai. Additionally, Kiyota describes Chiba Shusaku’s commercialization of swordsmanship, welcoming all who were interested in training, no matter what social class they originated from. Lastly, he explains how Sakakibara Ken’kichi began a short-lived trend of gathering unemployed swordsmen and allowing them to demonstrate their skills to crowds in Edo (what would become Tokyo). At the end of these biographies, Kiyota makes the connection again that swordsmanship allowed these samurai to apply their training to the changing times of the late Bakumatsu period (1853 – 1868) into the early Meiji Restoration (1868 – 1912).

Kiyota ends his book by bringing the reader up to the present day (1995), which includes the establishment of the Dai Nippon Budokukai in 1885, the inclusion of kendo into the Japanese education in 1931, and the founding of the All Japan Kendo Federation in 1953 and its work in the postwar years. In doing so, Kiyota comes full circle with kendo philosophy, with the art’s deep roots in a long, historical Japanese tradition and the infusion of Buddhist thought. These qualities, as Kiyota asserts, is the difference between kendo and other sports.

Though Kiyota’s book is filled with information that is now easily accessible by way of the Internet and YouTube. For the time it was published, however, it provided an overview for new and existing kendo practitioners on the art’s history and philosophy that was essential to their overall learning.


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