Article by Nagao Susumu (Professor, Meiji University)
(Kendo’s Not-so Common-sense, Kendo Nippon, Aug. 2010)
Translated by Kendo World (Bunkasha International)
Budo World thanks Kendo Nippon Magazine for allowing us to reproduce this article
Why are there only four target areas to strike in kendo:
men, kote, dō, and tsuki?
In modern kendo’s regulations and refereeing rules, the areas designated as datotsu-bui (striking areas) are men (left, right and centre [top] of the head), kote (right and left wrist), dō (right and left trunk), and tsuki (thrust to the throat). Additionally, the subsidiary rules of kendo state that when striking men on the right or left side of the head, contact should be made above the temples. When striking kote, the right wrist of the opponent should be struck when he/she is in chūdan-no-kamae,or the left or right wrist when he/she is in a position other than chūdan-no-kamae. These rules have not changed much since the Dai-Nippon Butoku-kai made modifications to their rules and regulations in 1927.
Datotsu-bui in pre-modern times were quite different from the current ones described above. To begin with, when warriors wielded real swords and wore armour, the conventional way to strike an opponent was to aim for the gaps in their armour. This type of striking and thrusting can be seen in old-style kenjutsu which teaches kacchū kenjutsu (kaisha kenjutsu) i.e. to defeat opponents protected by traditional armour. According to research by Fukushima University’s Prof. Nakamura Tamio in recent years, it has been speculated that kenjutsu practice was already conducted with protective equipment in the late 1600s. However, just because practitioners used protective gear does not necessarily mean that the current target areas were introduced into kenjutsu straight away.
In the document Ikkan Seizan Shiai Shimatsu (1750) which was kept by the Sagawa-ha Shinkage-ryū of the Sendai domain, there are descriptions such as “Struck the right armpit near the gap in the side plate of the armour and won by ippon” and “Struck the right upper arm and won”. Normally Sagawa-ha Shinkage-ryū allowed their students to practice with a men (protective headwear) and kote (protective gauntlets), and considering the fact that the two areas mentioned above that were struck were not protected, we can assume that the protected and target areas were not the same. (According to research by Prof. Enomoto Shōji of Nanzan University.)
In a document titled Shintō Munen-ryū Kenjutsu Kokoroe-sho (1833) which is related to the Shintō Munen-ryū of Mito domain, there is an entry in a section that refers to the Ittō-ryū that states, “Thrust into the right armpit”. Furthermore, in the section referring to the Ryūgo-ryū, it says, “Hit the opponent’s leg, which is not something other schools would do.” The type of protective equipment that was worn depended on the school. According to the above document, students wore men, kote, and bamboo dō in the Ittō-ryū and Jikishinkage-ryū schools; only men and kote in the Kyōshin Meichi-ryū school; normally men and kote, but also dō, depending on the opponent, in the Shintō Munen-ryū school; and men, kote, dō and bamboo shin guards in the Ryūgo-ryū school. As you can see, there were many variations.
Perhaps it became self-evident to strike the protected areas. Also, an understanding to strike each other on common target areas must have been established between the Tenpō period (1830-1844), when bouts between different schools became popular, and the closing stages of the Tokugawa shogunate, when kenjutsu protective equipment resembling that used now became available and worn by people beyond the boundaries of schools. Reforms in the Tenpō period encouraged active participation in the literary and military arts. Because of that, government policy became less severe with regards to the prohibition of inter-school matches. Then, in the process of establishing means and manners for executing inter-school matches, target areas seem to have been gradually incorporated to guarantee fairness and ensure safety.
The datotsu-bui for thrusting was not consistent until the Tenpō period. However, between the closing stages of the Tokugawa period and the first few years of the / start of theMeiji period, the target area was narrowed down to the front of the throat as men with throat guards were developed. (It is also possible that many accidents deriving from thrusts to the men-gane helped facilitate this.) Later on, between the late Meiji period and the Taishō period (1912-1926), a thrust to dō was reinstated in the rules and regulations of the Dai-Nippon Butoku-kai. In the 1927 provision it was clarified that the point of contact had to be the throat guard. With the men target, striking centre men became somewhat admired around the final days of the Tokugawa shogunate. This came from the idea that it is difficult to strike centre men in practice sessions or actual matches, and therefore it was meaningful to strike the front. Not to mention the fact that cuts to the centre of a human head would be fatal.
The driving force behind the confining of datotsu-bui throughout early modern times was the notion that choosing to strike areas deemed difficult to achieve in actual combat would lead to more efficacious training. As Kumamoto Sanemichi states in BudōKyōhan (1895), “You are supposed to stab your opponent’s chest with a real sword, but instead go for the throat guard which is higher than the chest and harder to thrust.” Or, “In comparison to a real sword, none of the attacks should be made on areas that are easy to strike. The same goes with thrusts. Do not target easy points to thrust, and become engaged in your training.”
Regarding kote strikes, perhaps fencers targeted both right and left, but around the final days of theTokugawa shogunate it became popular to strike only the right. For example, in 68 Kenjutsu Techniques taught in the Hokushin Ittō-ryū, there is a section called “12 Kote Techniques”, in which 11 out of the 12 were based on the assumption that the right kote was the target. The one exception was a technique simply called “left kote”. (Chiba Shūsaku Sensei Jikiden Kenjutsu Meijin-hō by Kōsaka Masataka, 1884).
Why did the right kote become the target from the chūdan-no-kamae stance? There are various theories, but perhaps it was due to the fact that samurai would use their right hand to draw the sword which they carried on their left hip, and an injury to the right hand would result in a tremendous loss of ability to fight. Also, considering how people normally use chopsticks in Japan, people have traditionally had more respect for the right hand. Because of these reasons, maybe it was their intention to force their opponent to acknowledge absolute defeat through a cut to the right wrist.
Another possibility was out of concerns for safety. In my youth, I engaged in a practice match with the condition that we were allowed to aim for left kote even when taking chūdan-no-kamae (with mutual consent). When my opponent struck my left kote his shinai tip slid up to my left armpit. It was extremely painful and it hurt for a long time. Something like this may well be one of the deciding factors behind right kote being designated as the target area.