Despite modern kendo’s quasi-sport nature, it still retains a traditional Japanese outlook which links physical effort and spiritual development. For the Japanese, the discipline, consistency, and total commitment displayed in budo are keys to spiritual and moral development. All these qualities must be developed if one is to successfully tread the way of the sword.
What sets kendo and its practitioners apart from other arts, such as judo, aikido and karate-do is a certain cold determination, an almost religious sense of discipline, that conveyes the message that kendo is more a matter of mental and spiritual development than it is a system of physical technique.
All modern budo forms emphasize, to a greater or lesser extent, the development of a fighting spirit, the refinement of quasi-combat skills, and the cultivation of moral and spiritual maturity. In the kendo dojo, however, the trainee is placed in a true forge of the spirit, where mind and body are literally hammered into shape, where relentless training and endless effort are channelled into the re-creation of the individual along philosophical and cultural lines whose roots extend deep into Japan’s past.
As a budo strongly shaped by the insights of the most profound of Japan’s swordsmen, kendo today struggles to retain its moral and philosophical dimensions, all too aware of the erosion of these values among some judo practitioners. Since kendo is an art whose appeal lies mainly with martial artists in Japan or those of Japanese descent, it has been able to retain its classical orientation. The essence of kendo is still the improvement of character and the development of spiritual maturity through arduous training in its physical techniques. Like judo, kendo has an enthusiastic sport following. Unlike the gentle art, “kendo may be practiced, or one trains himself through kendo, but one must never just ‘play’ kendo” (Draeger 1974:105).
Passive, non-threatening stances and kneeling in such a way as to be always ready to draw a sword indicate the fact that, despite its ritualized nature, kendo is very much concerned with matters of life and death. The dojo is not just a training hall but a place where a certain awareness of the possibility of serious combat must constantly be maintained. This acute awareness of one’s surroundings and the potential for danger is known as zanshin. Zanshin is the flip side of single-minded devotion to technique. A student of kendo must learn not to focus exclusively on his actions but rather to be attentive and receptive to all activities surrounding him.