Opinion: Kendo and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

So, even though the Olympics is to be held in Tokyo in 2020, the most representative of its martial arts, kendo, is not to be added as an Olympic sport. Judo, however, was introduced at the 1964 Olympic Games, which was also the last time the international sporting event was held in Tokyo.

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If kendo, which literally means the way of the sword, is ever to be introduced as an Olympic sport, then surely a Tokyo Olympics would be the best chance to do so. However, the kendo world at large seems split over this prospect - and understandably so.

As someone who practices kendo - and who recently took part in the World Kendo Championships held in Tokyo this June - I agree that kendo is not like any other sport.

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Each kendo match starts and ends with "rei", or a bow, as a sign of respect to the opponent. This match is Singapore vs Japan in the Quarter Finals of the World Kendo Championship 2015.


For one thing, to show any sign of glee or to do a victory pose or to punch the air and cheer - an understandable natural reaction to a hard-earned point- would result in an immediate cancellation of the point just scored as this shows disrespect to your opponent.

Scoring a point, is also not a straightforward affair. Other than actually hitting the right place (head, hand, torso or neck), the process (showing an active attacking stance), spirit in which the point was scored and follow-through (by showing continued physical and mental alertness - hence, no victory poses) are equally important.

Electronic scoring, as in fencing, or judgement made after watching a video replay, as is now possible in the case of sumo, is not used.

A scene you will never see in a kendo match.


Hence, the fate of the player lies in the hands of the three judges at hand, and their understanding of the game at play. It is not uncommon for players to feel that they lost the match due to nebulous judgement calls, but then the spirit of kendo dictates that one should reflect on how the point you thought you scored just wasn't good enough.

A revered swordsman in the Edo era - when kendo started its roots - once said, "There is such a thing as an unfathomable victory, but no such thing as an unthinkable loss." Which means that one should always reflect on one's losses, and not bask in the glory of a win.


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Kendo is a Japanese martial art that uses a bamboo sword and involves rigorous training geared toward developing both combat technique and character by instilling virtues like courage, honor, etiquette - in a bid to overcome one's greatest enemy: oneself.


Unlike other martial arts such as judo, one's grade (or "dan") is not indicated in any visible way. There is no differentiation by colored belts. How one carries oneself and the maturity of play is the only indication - short of asking one politely, "Excuse me, but may I ask what dan are you?". (Usually for purposes of standing in line with the more senior person nearer to the higher seat of authority.)


If kendo were to become an Olympic sport, its popularity would rise and more people may take up the sport. But, it could risk declining into just that - a sport, where speed and strength dictate a win, over technique and spirit.


So, the irony will remain, for a long time to come, that kendo is its own greatest enemy to becoming an Olympic sport, yet, it is the one sport left in the world that remains true to the original Olympic spirit of cultivating friendship, respect, solidarity and fair play - and not the pursuit of fame, gold medals or sponsorship deals.

Read also: Five places to enjoy the Olympics in Tokyo before 2020

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