Fencing vs Kendo: some of the differences may surprise you!

Fencing vs KendoBoth Europe and Japan have developed sporting styles of sword fighting.  In Europe it is known as Fencing, whereas in Japan it is referred to as Kendo.  In this article we look at fencing vs kendo and explore some of the similarities and differences between these two sword fighting styles. 

History of Fencing

Fencing was originally used for self defense and duelling purposes by the military and is thought to have originated in Spain.

The sword used evolved from a double edged blade design to cut and slash to a pointed sword designed to be thrust into the opponent’s body,  a far more effective and deadly weapon.

As the Spanish Empire grew, the army carried the art of fencing with it, including to Southern Italy, a major area of contention between these two nations.

Modern fencing stems from the Italian School of Fencing during the 1700’s during the Italian Renaissance.  These techniques were further refined by the French school of fencing.  

Fencing moved from a purely military application to one that was more sports orientated in 1763 with the establishment of Angelo’s School of Arms by Domenico Angelo.

He began to teach the rich aristocracy the art of fencing, a practice that continued through three generations of his family.

Towards the end of the 19th century, fencing associations began to appear in America, Great Britain and France.  

In 1880, the first fencing tournament, the Grand Military Tournament and Assault at Arms, took place in  the UK, involving competitions between army officers and soldiers. 

The first set of fencing regulations were drawn up in 1896 by the Amateur Gymnastic & Fencing Association and in that same year, fencing became part of the Olympic Games.

History of Kendo

Kendo evolved out of Samurai sword fighting.  Between 1467–1603, Japan was in a state of perpetual  civil way which involved armies of samurai warriors fighting each other.  Each clan had their own system of sword fighting.

As Japan moved into a more peaceful period, in order to be able to practice their techniques in a safer way, Naganuma Shirōzaemon Kunisato introduced bamboo swords and padded armour.  This took place during the during the Shotoku Era (1711–1715), at around the same time as the Renaissance in Europe.  

It developed initially under the name of Kenjutsu and as participants became keen to demonstrate their prowess in the art, competitions became increasingly popular.

The techniques of Kenjutsu began to become standardized and in 1926 the art was renamed to Kendo.  The All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF)  was founded in 1952 and from there its popularity has been spread worldwide.

Whilst Kendo and Fencing developed in different countries – fencing in Europe, Kendo in Japan – they did develop at around the same time: in the 1700s.

The Type of Kit Used

Swords used in Kendo

Kendo is designed to replicate fighting with a samurai sword.  However, instead of using an actual metal blade, kendo practitioners (kendoka) use a bamboo sword (Shinai) and a wooden sword (Bokuto).  

The Shinai is made from bamboo and has a maximum length of 120cm.  The Bokuto is much shorter and looks more like a wooden version of a samurai sword.

Swords used in fencing

There are three types of sword used in fencing.  Each type of weapon has a slightly different set of fencing rules that govern the competitions they are used in. 

Epee – the blade is triangular and quite stiff and difficult to bend.  It was developed during the mid-1800s to train individuals for duelling.  In competitions using the Epee, the whole body is considered a target including the hand, which explains why it has a large bell shaped guard.  Hits are made only with the point of the blade.

Foil – This is a lighter and more flexible weapon and in competitions, only the front and back of the torso is considered a target.  The guard is therefore much smaller than that found on an Epee.  Again hits are only made with the tip of the blade.

Sabre – This sword features a v-shaped blade that is designed to be used for both cutting and thrusting movements.  The targets are the arms, head and the torso above the waist.  Again because the hand is a target, it features a rounded guard to protect the fingers.

Armor in Kendo

Even being hit with a wooden or bamboo sword is likely to hurt a great deal and so the kendoka wear protective clothing based on the design of the armor of the Samurai.

The hemet (Men) protects the head, neck and shoulders and features a metal grill  that covers the entire face. 

The gloves (Kote) are heavily padded and look more like mittens.  Whilst they look cumbersome, they do allow the Shinai to be gripped and used effectively.

The Chest Protector (Dō) covers the entire front of the torso and was traditionally made of lacquered bamboo; today, modern plastic versions are now available.

The belt (Tare) has sturdy, wide straps that cover the groin and upper legs to protect them from mishits. 

Armor in Fencing

Fencers also wear protective clothing made from tough cotton or nylon but may also have kevlar or dyneema woven in to make the fabric even more puncture resistant.

The jacket provides protection to the chest and arms.  It also incorporates a collar of folded fabric to stop an opponent’s sword from slipping under the mask and into the neck.

The pastron is worn under the jacket and provides an extra layer of protection for the upper arm on the sword arm.

A  glove is worn on the swordarm which not only provides some protection but also improves the grip on the sword itself.

Breeches are short pants that are worn that cover the knee and overlap with the jacket by at least 10cm.

Perhaps most important of all is the mask which consists of a metal mesh which covers the face. 

Both kendo and fencing involve the use of protective equipment to protect the wearer from being injured.  The weapons involved in the two sports are completely different: in Kendo they are made of wood, are relatively, thick and rigid and are designed to be held in two hands, whereas all the swords in fencing are made of thin metal and are held in one hand.  

Fighting style

Kendo involves holding the sword (or Shinai) being held in both hands.  As a result of this, the body remains upright and the feet relatively close together.

Kendo vs Fencing

In contrast, in fencing the sword is held in one hand.  This allows the whole body to really stretch out: when striking, the legs lunge into position, the body is twisted to the side and the sword arm is thrust out as the sword is pushed out towards a target area in the opponent.

Kendo vs Fencing

The positioning of the hands, as well as the design of the weapons used, means that in fencing there is a greater emphasis on thrusting attacks using the point of the blade.  Kendo uses a greater number of slashing and swiping techniques.

Both Kendo and Fencing have very different fighting styles.  Kendo is fought in a much more upright position, whereas Fencers frequently adopt a lunging position.  Fencing also uses a greater number of thrusting movements, as opposed to the slashing and swiping techniques of Kendo.

Kendo is not just a sport 

Fencing is taught and practiced as a sport, whereas at the heart of Kendo is the desire to continue the martial spirit and honor system of the Samurai.  In the words, of the All Japan Kendo Federation:

 “[Kendo]is a process undertaken to understand correct deportment and social responsibility and to develop a steadfast mind, just as the training of swordsmanship was to the samurai. In other words, it is our hope at the AJKF that people in Japan and around the world appreciate kendo as form of budo, a martial Way studied for self-improvement and the betterment of society.” 

Kendo is very much viewed as a way to develop the human character.

Summary: Fencing vs Kendo

Kendo and Fencing both use protective equipment and were developed at around the same period in history.  However, the weapons involved in the two sports are completely different: in Kendo they are made of wood and are designed to be held in two hands, whereas all the swords in Fencing are made of thin metal and are held in one hand. 

As a consequence, Kendo is fought in a much more upright position, whereas Fencers frequently adopt a lunging position.  Fencing also uses a greater number of thrusting movements, as opposed to the slashing and swiping techniques of Kendo.  Kendo also has a much greater emphasis on spiritual and character development.



Is Kendo good for self-defense?

Kendo teaches the sword fighting techniques of the Samurai.  In a street scenario where you are attacked, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be in possession of a sword.  For starters, in most countries, carrying a sword or long bladed knife is illegal.  If you’re looking for a self-defense system to learn then you might be better off studying something like Krav Maga.


Is Fencing for the Rich?

Whilst traditionally Fencing was taught to the rich aristocracy of Europe, today it is accessible to all.  Most clubs have kt that they can lend to beginners who are interested in learning the sport.



“Kendo” flickr photo by Sklathill https://flickr.com/photos/sklathill/215009071 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

“Fencing” flickr photo by WhyOhGee https://flickr.com/photos/whyohgee/3470404821 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license