Fencing and Kendo: A Layman’s Observation

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch a local fencing tournament. The participants were beginners of the sport who had just finished their ten-week introductory course. Being beginners, the fencers competed with the foil, where only the torso was the valid scoring area. Throughout the experience, being new to the sport, both the newly inducted fencers and myself (watching from the sidelines) were schooled on the rules and guidelines of Olympic-style fencing. While I soaked in the competition-based instructions, I began to notice some similarities and differences between fencing and kendo, specifically how each practitioner tries to score a point.

To better track the fencers’ attacks, each competitor is attached to an electronic scoring system. Each respective fencing weapon – foil, epee, and saber – has their own color coding in relation to the strikes. For this conversation, we will focus on foil, as the rules set and scoring methods relates best to kendo. The foil, as mentioned above, only the torso – excluding the arms – is the primary and valid scoring area. Since each fencer is attached to the modern electronic scoring system, the system illuminates white or green whenever a foil finds its mark. The white light appears when a fencer strikes their opponent in an off-target area, resulting in no one receiving a point, while the green light results in a point for the fencer landing a blow in the target area on their opponent. In addition to hitting the opponent in the torso, fencers must also abide by the rule of right of way, i.e., a fencer who initiated the attack (and lands), parries/evades an attack, and/or develops a point-in-line (extending an arm towards opponent’s target area) will gain a point over their opponent. Lastly, foil fencing still requires a human judge present to help resolve simultaneous hits.

Kendo’s scoring method and valid target areas compared to fencing’s foil differs somewhat, however, both arts – or sports – uphold similar standards. The first difference; kendo has three target areas: the hand/wrist, the stomach/torso, and the head. A second difference lies in the scoring method – kendo utilizes three judges to call and agree on points as opposed to the electronic method of scoring that fencing employs. To make a valid strike and earn a point, kenshi must complete the three parts of a yuko-datotsu (making a valid strike): strike a valid target with full spirit (normally with a loud kiai), have correct posture throughout the strike, and demonstration zanshin (lingering mind/awareness after the strike hits). The nature of scoring a point in kendo has led many kenshi to push the aesthetics of the strike, making the yuko-datotsu leave so much of an impression on the three judges that they must award the point to that kenshi – a “show” if you will.

Here are where the similarities begin; firstly, both kendo and foil fencing require each participant to strike valid target areas; strikes landing outside those areas are not counted. Therefore, precision and focus is encouraged by this rule. Secondly, fencing’s right of way rules by initiating the attack and/or parrying a strike to return one in kind seems to mirror the first and third parts of the yuko-datotsu in theory. I say “in theory” because of the different ways each art’s practitioners demonstrate their zanshin. In kendo, there is rarely any celebrating after a successful strike, as that detracts from implied seriousness of the victory and could deter the judge from awarding points and subtract a point from the offender. Therefore, kenshi usually hold their guard after they complete their strike, waiting for the next attack and demonstrating zanshin. Conversely, Olympic-style fencers do not hold their guard after a successful strike, rather, as portrayed at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (held in 2021), many fencers quickly celebrate their point at the instant the electronic scoring machine goes off. However, I would argue that such fencers showed their own version of zanshin during their exchange, trying to achieve a point, rather than in the aftermath of the strike like their kendo counterparts.

Within the match, both kenshi and fencers avoid pondering what they are going to do afterwards, only focusing on the present and the opponent in front of them. It is only until an opening is presented – either by their own attack or by counterattack – that both fencer and kenshi take the initiative, seize the moment, and commit themselves to the strike. This scenario demonstrates zanshin, however, others with Japanese martial arts background might argue that it portrays mushin (no mind/thought; complete focus on one task) rather than zanshin. I would suggest that one would need both in such a confrontation – the two states of minds fusing together to assist the individual to overcome the conflict before him/her. Therefore, it would be difficult discerning the actual physical manifestation of these two mental states; who are we to say a fencer does not objectively and concretely demonstrate zanshin during their match, but every kenshi does so instead?

While on the surface, there are many differences between Olympic-style fencing and kendo, upon further excavation, there appears to be many aspects of each art that are similar. Fencing’s foil scoring method and right of way rules parallel kendo’s yuko-datotsu, as each point must follow certain guidelines in order to solidify the action. Though not discussed nor in the scope of this editorial, the foil’s ruleset and scoring methods may be a subject of discussion and consideration to modernizing kendo to a certain extent, while maintaining the of traditional aspects of the art.

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