So last November, I was fortunate to have passed the yondan exam after the Covid hiatus.
Part of kendo exams are the essay questions. I chose “Describe the benefits of the Kendo kata （剣道形）검도형 and its relevance to shinai keiko （竹刀稽古）죽도계고;.”
Kata is defined as prescribed, choreographed movements or a training exercise meant to preserve and pass on knowledge or techniques of a martial art. It is not only a physical but a mental and spiritual exercise. With much practice, the elements of kata can be incorporated into shinai keiko.
Prior to the development of kendo bogu and the shinai, students of the sword could only practice kata and engage in live duels. But with modern kendo, new techniques were adapted for bogu and bamboo swords that were not true swords. To remain true to the study of the sword, it was necessary to continue the practice of kata with bokuto that simulated the heft, feel and dynamics of a katana. Otherwise modern kendo would become a sport rather than a martial art.
Like shinai keiko, kata requires two participants. For there to be set patterns of behavior and choreographed movements, just like dancing you need someone to lead. So, in kata we have the uchidachi or striking/attacking sword (the one that leads/acts) and the shidachi or doing/receiving sword (the one that follows/reacts). In shinai keiko, the participants assume these roles, alternating between uchidachi and shidachi in the same match multiple times but less formally and less choreographed.
Kata and kendo training start with respect (reiho). It begins and ends with a bow. Respect for your partner translates to caring for the other person because we don’t want to injure them while practicing with a wooden sword and no armor. This should also reinforce respect for each other during shinai keiko.
In order to be safe during kata, we learn the correct distance, timing, posture and correct body movements through repetition. Correct distance, timing, posture and correct body movements or mechanics also translate into better striking during shinai keiko. With enough repetition, these mechanics become internalized or muscle memory and the mind can become free (mushin) from surprise, fear, doubt or confusion.
We learn to harness our spirit or energy through proper breathing, kiai (yaa and toh) and zanshin. We also learn to conserve energy by becoming efficient and minimize unnecessary movements by keeping things simple.
Kata teaches focus. There should be no relaxation of concentration. The same goes for shinai keiko.
While kata relies on repetition, it is not a static or rigid process. The kata forms have been revised multiple times (1906, 1912, 1917, 1933, 1981) since being instituted. Although there are prescribed movements, they are slightly different for each person (and for even for the same person) each time they are performed. It is the mental focus, the spirit, and the response that should remain the same.
Kata as a part of kendo fits in well with the purpose of practicing kendo as espoused by the All Japan Kendo Federation. It molds mind and body through intense mental focus and physical repetition. It cultivates a vigorous spirit through “yaa and tou” and response of the tachi/kodachi. It is correct and rigid training through carefully choreographed movements, striving for improvement with careful attention to courtesy and honor (respect), sincerity (seriousness) and cultivation of oneself through ten kata that we practice and continue to improve.
Bennett, Alexander C. Kendo: Culture of the sword. University of California Press, 2015, page 44.
Donohue, John J. Complete Kendo. Tuttle Publishing, 1956, pp 110-12.
Inoue, Yoshihiko. Kendo Kata: Essence and application. Kendo World Publication, 2003, page 156.
Ozawa, Hiroshi. Kendo: The definitive guide. Kodansha Intl, 1997, page 98.