Fourteen years ago, while walking with a friend, a piercing yell echoed suddenly down the hall of my university. As we followed the sound, eyebrows raised, a different sense began to take over. The pungent smell of gear that can be set out to dry, but can never really be washed, led us to the dojo.

Kendo’s visual impression proved no less unsettling: Students in robes and strange armor searched with bamboo swords for openings in each other’s guard. This bristling tension was broken here and there by the indigo blur of a strike, and although the screams were warlike, the people maintained a calm dignity behind their mantis-like masks. How, I wondered, did an activity like this come to be?

A little history

Looking around Tokyo’s Aoyama district today, it takes some effort to imagine that just 150 years ago, many of the men would have been sporting daishō, the set of long and short swords that distinguished samurai. And this is the thing to remember when trying to make sense of kendo: It comes from a time when it was common to see swords worn openly in the street.

Until the dissolution of their caste at the end of Japan’s feudal period, warriors had been running the country in one form or another for about 700 years. During the Warring States Period of civil strife, bows, spears and other range weapons carried the day, but when the country was unified in the early 1600s, the sword, and swordsmanship, came to the fore.

The ironic flowering of sword arts during the near-300-year swath of relative peace known as the Edo Period (1603-1868) soon produced hundreds of schools, styles and lineages. Some of these developed protective sparring equipment, which quickly spread.

After a dip during the early period of modernization, swordplay rose to widespread popularity, buoyed by government sponsorship in the lead-up to World War II. After the war, it was included in the GHQ ban on martial arts, and only allowed to resurface in 1952 after being redesigned as a “modern democratic sport.”

The state of the art

A descendant of this practical swordplay is today called kendo, comprising the Chinese characters for “sword” and “way.” Although overshadowed by judo and karate abroad, kendo is practiced by about 1.5 million people of all ages and genders in Japan, where many consider it the quintessential martial art, due in part to its association with Nihontō, the talismanic Japanese sword.

Practitioners, called kenshi, typically wear hakama — a kind of divided skirt — and a thick cotton top dyed with indigo. The protective bōgu (armor), once the exclusive product of skilled craftsmen, is increasingly mass-produced overseas, but the handmade article still fetches high prices in Japan. Four staves of bamboo held together with leather serve as a shock-absorbing sword called a shinai, and practice is done barefoot on a sprung wooden floor.

When two kenshi face off, sword tips clack as each vies for control of the center line. It is a fierce but subtle battle of nerves, experience, and the ability to read and pressure the opponent. When the moment comes, a kenshi must lunge to cover the 1-meter gap, a maneuver requiring bold conviction and an abandon that is anything but reckless.

Valid targets are the head, wrists, the sides of the torso and a stab to the throat. To score, a strike must be delivered with good posture and a hearty yell. Alertness must be maintained after a strike, and celebration of the kind seen in ball sports (or judo, for that matter) results in nullification of the point. Kendo is deeply infused with some very old etiquette, serving to temper what can appear to be a violent activity.

Inside the armor, the experience is initially claustrophobic and always intense. There’s much yelling but almost no talking, and teaching takes place within the confines of a bout. A teacher may rebuff attacks, counter-attack or admit strikes to highlight the correct opportunities and movements. Practice is a pressure cooker, as teachers force students to walk the fine line between fatigue (an ideal time to input muscle memory) and total exhaustion (when injuries can occur).

Even kenshi themselves sometimes wonder what keeps them coming back. In a nutshell: Practiced correctly, kendo provides the rare thrill of combat without fear of injury, as the equipment allows for total commitment and follow-through on strikes. There are no “pulled punches,” and that makes kendo a mirror for self-exploration.

Crossing swords with a strong opponent gives rise to what are called the “four sicknesses”: fear, doubt, surprise and confusion. Learning to overcome them, so the wisdom goes, teaches a lesson that can be applied anywhere in life, effectively making kenshi better people.

But is it true?

The paradox of victory

Organized competition is where the theory of kendo’s philosophical aspects meets the practice of modern sport. The 16th World Kendo Championships (WKC), held every three years, will come to the Nippon Budokan from May 29-31 for the first time since the inaugural event in 1970. Competition has long been dominated by Japan and South Korea, but other nations are catching up, and the Japanese men’s team was dealt a first-ever loss by Team USA in Taiwan in 2006. This year, 56 nations will be represented.

Within Japan, the high-profile All Japan Kendo Championship is held each November. Upwards of 80 percent of competitors are policemen, and victory carries professional implications. The matches are televised, and once posted online, they become the subject of study and debate in the international kendo community.

Tournament parameters such as match area and time limit can change, but generally the rules are static. Three judges form a moving triangle around two competitors and communicate with flags. A point is awarded if two or more judges agree, and the first to two points wins. If time expires, the contestant with one point wins; if no points are scored, the match may be a draw, or may be decided by sudden-death overtime, depending on the rules of the day.

In tournaments, all the esoteric wisdom of the training hall can seem to go out the window when you’re down one point while the clock ticks away. It is even possible to lose by penalties for stepping out of bounds.

The tension between kendo’s philosophical and sporting elements is most visible during team matches, where five members face their counterparts in sequence, and aiming for a draw or stalling for time are not unheard of. At the WKC, with national pride on the line, the pressure can be extreme.

“To me, there should be no dichotomy, as an ideal, between practice and competition,” says Great Britain team member Stuart Gibson, 35, who lives and trains in Japan. “What people get out of it depends on the degree to which they can balance the facets of kendo that are available to them.” In other words, kendo can be a way of life or a mere game depending on how the baton, or rather the shinai, is passed.

The 2014 European men’s individual champion, Gibson is ramping up training for the upcoming WKC, but says it will be his last.

“To deepen my kendo, I have to be able to experiment, and that means getting hit,” something he cannot afford to do while fighting under the weight of the flag, he says.

His decision to retire from the world championships after 16 years of practice speaks to one of kendo’s most attractive qualities: It is a lifelong pursuit that matures in stages. A kenshi who begins as a child will likely peak in their 60s, and while some worry that competition is at odds with kendo’s value as a tool for self-improvement, others think of tournaments as the forging stage of a blade — a necessary part of the process, but incomplete without the honing and polishing that can only come with age.

“There’s always something to do, something to work on,” Gibson says. “It’s never just going through the motions.”

Kendo World magazine: www.kendo-world.com. The All Japan Kendo Federation: www.kendo-fik.org/english-page/english-top-page.html. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

How to get involved

Kendo is popular among people of all ages and walks of life, making it a perfect way to join a community and learn about Japanese culture. Kendo offers an opportunity to make friendships that aren’t centered around language acquisition, and although the people seem fierce while in armor, they are usually a warm, welcoming and tight-knit bunch. Going for a post-practice drink is common.

As there are kendō jō in most schools and neighborhoods, it is often simply a matter of asking around for the nearest one. Because the police are involved in kendo at various levels, the local kōban (police box) is a good place to start.

The dojo is a very traditional place, so be sure to make advance arrangements so that your visit is expected rather than a surprise. Remove shoes and hats beforehand, and always bow as you enter and leave. Beginners can expect do to a lot of footwork and shinai-swinging drills before graduating to wearing the armor, and starting fees will vary from free to easily affordable.

To learn more, visit the website of Kendo World magazine, the largest source of English-language material on kendo, for online forums, books, magazines and YouTube videos.

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