What does kendo teach you?

A way of life


Within the kendo community you have individuals that practice the sport for different reasons: the competitive aspect, the physical and health benefits, as a hobby or for the benefits it can bring to a kendoka’s personal life.

Kendo is a sport with the purpose of improving one’s character through discipline and rigorous training.

The -do suffix points towards a martial art with a mental focus as opposed to just a technical sport. ‘-do’ signifies a “way of life”

The principles that you learn while doing kendo, are also applicable to everyday life. The same challenges you work to overcome, fears you learn to master and skills you learn to “survive” during keiko can be used to achieve the same result with real world problems.

Overcoming the four sicknesses

The ultimate goal of kendo is to achieve a state of mushin (empty mind), which means to react instinctivly to your oppponent without conciously thinking about it.

There are four sicknesses or shikai, 四戒, that prevent us from achieving this state of mind.

Shikai can be thought of as states of being that we must try to prepare ourselves against. The four sicknesses are:

1) Surprise (kyou)

2) Fear (Ku)

3) Doubt (Gi)

4) Confusion (Waku)


Is a symptom of an unprepared mind. It arises from circumstances that you were not expecting, you are taken unaware so much so that movement of the mind and body becomes erratic and unsynchronised. This leads to you being unable to make the right decisions or to take relevant action, resulting in an inability to respond in time.


Is a natural response to an oppressive force or to the unknown.  Examples are; being scared of losing a point or getting hit by your opponent. It causes hesitation and or loss of initiative causing you to freeze and or not committing 100% to a cut or movement. 


Doubting your own ability. You need to have confidence to achieve a state of mushin (you do things without actively thinking about it). Overthinking a specific shikaki-waza (attacking technique) or oji-waza (defensive technique) because you are unsure of your ability to execute will almost certainly result in a failed attempt, you have to re-act to these impulses naturally and with confidence. If you have doubt – you have already lost the battle.


Ties in strongly with doubt. When you have doubt, it leads to confusion. You become indecisive and lose the ability to make fast decisions or swift movements. You can’t respond to your opponent if you are confused about what you need to do.

These sicknesses are difficult to avoid – they are natural responses and are ingrained into our being. An untrained mind will not recognise when they manifest, it will just give in and not fight back succumbing to the moment. You must train your mind to not only recognise these four sicknesses, but also to not re-act, and to fight against them eventually overcoming them.

How do you fight against a natural response? How do you break free from these states of mind?
1) Rigid repeated basics
2) Constant critical self-reflection
3) Experience

To truly free your mind you must do repeated basic practice, your movements must become second nature, your body a mind of its own. ‘Mushin’ cannot happen when you think about a movement, it just has to happen. A trained response that has been ingrained into your muscle fibers.

Constant critical self-reflection is fundamental to break free. How will you know that you showed one of these states of minds during a fight/practice when you do not think back, how can you train your mind to recognise them during a fight if you do not practice recognising them.

Lastly, once we have a fundamental understanding of these “sicknesses” and how we re-act to them and how they were used against us, can we finally try to use them to our advantage. How you can use them to turn the fight in your favour, by using ‘shikai’ to overcome your opponent.

So why then is kendo ‘a way of life’? How can you apply these skills to real-life?

Once again, you need to train your mind to recognise and fight against these states of mind in a different scenario; your work space, school or university. The same steps are required: basics, self-reflection, experience.

Basics: are you constantly studying, doing homework, keeping up to date, reading up, practicing your specific skills?

Self-reflection: when you failed, why did it happen? Was your knowledge lacking, your skill unpractised, did you miss a step, where are the problem areas that made it go wrong.

Experience: unfortunately, this is a reality. No one gets it right the first time every time. Repeated exposures to failures make it easier to recognise.

‘the master has failed more times than the student has even tried’