The Iaido Journal  Apr 2003EJMAS Tips Jar

Book Review: Complete Kendo
by John J. Donohue

Tuttle Publishing, Boston, 1999.
ISBN 0-8048-3148-3, paperback.  US$19.95.  177 pp.(1)
Reviewed by Raymond Sosnowski.
20 August 1999; 18 March 2001 (revised)

Reviewer's Comments

I can recall the frustration that I experienced when writing this review, especially in the wake of Sosnowski (1999), which is probably the most negative review I have written to date.  On the one hand, I did not want to get a reputation as a “negative” reviewer, and yet, on the other hand, I really can only just “call ‘em like I see ‘em.”  I decided to remain true to my calling.  Picking on the title in my Introduction is actually aimed more at the publishers, who more than likely gave it that unfortunate title, than the author.  Buried in the middle of my section The Book, is an articulation of the process I use to review books; I sat down to figure out what I was doing and then put it into words for the first time during this review.

Two basic types of problems seem to plague this book.  In the first type, which deals with presentation, it seems too wordy and needs more illustrations (diagrams, pictures and the like), which in turn could cut down on some of that excess verbiage.  In the second type, which is the main subject area, it attempts to address the subjects of both “about kendo” and “kendo waza (techniques)” in too few pages; the result is an unevenness in the presentation because various aspects have just not been included.  And there is also a bunch of technical quibbles like proper labels within figures.  For another point of view, there is a review by another kendo-ka (kendo practitioner), Tom Okawara (2001).

All of these problems can be fixed, and I believe that, after correcting these problems, the second edition would be a fine introductory text for kendo.  In an attempt to illustrate the sources of my perspective, in the review I included sections on Other Kendo Resources, and Beginner’s Books.  The former was meant to highlight the unevenness in various topics in this book, and provide references to complete those topics.  The latter was included to provide different examples of books aimed at beginners that I felt were rather well done.


The title seems a tad presumptuous given the content; for those of us who believe in truth in book titles, it might be more appropriate to be called Complete Enough Kendo for the Beginner.  Actually, it was somewhat difficult to determine who the intended audience was.  Due to the content or lack thereof, the short title of Incomplete Kendo would at least be appropriate, but not very fair in my opinion.  (I always cringe when I see the word “complete” in a book title; I have never found one that lives up to its title, especially in the martial arts.)  In a nutshell, this text attempts to bridge the subjects of “about kendo” and “technical aspects of kendo;” Complete Kendo tries hard, but ultimately, it simply cannot quite pull it off in my opinion.  In the end, I came away with a lukewarm feeling about this book; I can neither “sing its praises,” nor condemn it to “eternal damnation.”


The author’s chapters are named to mimic those in Miyamoto Musashi’s Gorin no Sho (“A Book of Five Rings/Spheres/Elements”); the concept seems a bit contrived. To refresh your memory, the “chapters,” although I personally prefer “scrolls” (Sosnowski, in review), of Gorin no Sho are called “Earth,” “Water,” “Fire,” “Wind,” and “Void/Emptiness;” I have a discussion of this and other aspects of Gorin no Sho in an upcoming article (Sosnowski, in review)].  It seems to me that the content could have been better organized into a more natural structure rather than force-fit into this one as a gimmick.

I must admit that I was taken aback by the first actual sentence in the book, which is given in the Acknowledgements,

“No book is perfect and, with a subject as complex as kendo, I am sure that this work is no exception (p. xi).”

I made a note in the margin of my text that this is “not a very good beginning.”  In fact, from that point on through the end of Chapter 1, I had a “bad feeling” about the book and its contents; thankfully that bad feeling was tempered somewhat as I continued reading, but I never did shake it entirely.  In the end, I felt that that opening sentence should really have been buried in the third or fourth paragraph of the Acknowledgements.

My general impression at the end of the book is that there are two general problem areas, which are partially inter-related.  First, the book is too wordy, and, second, it needs more diagrams, pictures and the like.  There are two problems with the written text being too wordy: first of all, there are sections of text that just seem to ramble on, and, second, there are segments of descriptive text that could have been replaced with or augmented by appropriate photographs or diagrams.  There are several problems with the diagrams that were included.  First of all, I personally do not like the style – it is what I see as the “rough sketch” type.  If you are going to include sketches, especially if the book is aimed at beginners, then I believe that a more precise style of sketching (or even photographs) is in order.  Furthermore, a few of the included sketches are confusing and misleading (see below).  In the end, I felt short-changed in the various aspects of kendo practice; many other aspects were missing that should have been included in my opinion.

To be sure, the book has its good and bad points.  My general approach in reviewing a book is to initially assume it is a good one, and to deduct “points” for various failings; however, the results of this approach can appear to be overtly negative since many of the good points may not be explicitly highlighted, whereas many of the bad points will be.  Let me highlight specific instances of each.

There is a very nice, two paragraph section in the introduction that starts “Kendo is not, however, the same art that was practiced by the feudal swordsmen of Japan, the bushi or samurai (p. 2).”  It puts kendo in a proper perspective that is rarely stated, and does it well.

In Chapter 1, “Ground,” the shinai (kendo’s mock-sword made from a quartered bamboo staff) diagram on page 20 could be bigger; with detailed diagrams as given here it does not pay to be stingy with the space in my opinion.  Furthermore, the main shinai diagram seems incomplete with respect to terminology: three “named” key elements missing from the diagram are the kissaki (tip), tsuba (guard) and the tsuru (the connective string/cord); and the label for tsuka (handle/hilt) erroneously points to the tsuba.  I believe it would be quite helpful if the picture of the various elements of bogu (body armor) on page 22 had the individual parts labeled.

Chapter 2, “Water,” starts out well; the introductory paragraph beginning with

“The process of learning kendo is at once simple and difficult (p. 36).”

is inspirational, and the following section called “The Lesson” (pp. 36-37) is quite matter of fact.  However, there are a number of poor and misleading diagrams that ruin this chapter.  The “Basic stance – feet” diagrams (p. 45) are ambiguous.  “Gripping the Shinai” (p. 49) is too small and should just concentrate on the hands.  “Gripping the Shinai” (p. 50) with a full frontal body picture is useless; you cannot tell what the hands are doing (and the tsuba is missing to boot).  The “Striking Points” on page 54 is utterly confusing: parts of the uniform and bogu are named here that are not striking points like keikogi (jacket) and hakama (Japanese “culottes” for the full length of the legs) in the former case and tare (waist guard) in the latter case; furthermore, legitimate targets such as sokumen (side of the head), and tsuki (thrust) to the nodo (throat) – the men or head protector has a reinforced tab that is the throat guard which is the target here – are not indicated.  Figures of the individual strikes, men (p. 56), kote (p. 56), do (p. 57) and tsuki (p. 57) are poor; furthermore, the people are not even pictured in bogu, which you would be wearing when executing these strikes.  Kiri-kaeshi, the basic kendo drill, is just described in words; several pictures or figures along with a foot diagram would have been a welcome addition.

Of all the chapters in the book, I liked Chapter 3, “Fire,” the best.  It is “about kendo” techniques and shiai (competition sparring), and contains a number of illustrative photographs.  It has a balance that the other chapters seem to lack in my opinion.

Chapter 4, “Wind,” is divided between history and kendo-[no-]kata.  There is not much information in the history portion – this is true in most kendo books; the development of kendo always seems to be presented in such general terms so as not to say anything except “kendo happened.”  Only half the forms of kendo-[no-]kata are presented, which I find to be a disservice – either do them all or don’t do any (actually, another possibility is just do one for illustrative purposes).  All the kata could have been relegated to an appendix, while just discussing kata in general in the chapter.  On the positive side, the drawings used here seem to be adequate.  In any event, it just seems to me to be an odd mix of material for a chapter.

In Gorin no Sho, Chapter 5, “Void/Emptiness,” was the shortest of all of them, but not here.  Its content seems to be misplaced; it reads more like an introduction than a conclusion.  Furthermore, the prose is rambling, as if the author wanted to say one more thing before ending, but could not come up with an ending.  The “Glossary” seems to be well constructed – I did not go through it word by word, but I saw a great number of terms that I would expect to see.  The Table of Contents says there is an index, but there was none in my copy; in my opinion, many kendo texts need to have an index but do not.


There are other books that cover the various aspects of kendo better.  For kendo-[no-]kata, see Budden (1992), Finn (1985a) or Ozawa (1997), which I reviewed in Sosnowski (1997).  For kendo practice, see Finn (1985b), Ozawa (1997), or Sasamori and Warner (1964) – this is a dated classic, but still a very good read.  For kendo history, see Hurst (1998), which I reviewed in Sosnowski (1999).  See Kiyota (1995) for “about kendo.”  And for character building through kendo, see Sayama (1986).

To be sure, there are a lot of books here, but you will get a solid foundation in the various aspects of kendo; if you can only afford one, then Ozawa (1997) is the one to buy in my opinion.  I have noticed that even the Japanese texts on kendo do not try to stuff everything into one text.
For instance, the following represents a progression of Japanese texts from youth-oriented sports-like books to those for sophisticated adult kendo-ka: Nojiri (1994), Kawakami (1986), Matsunobe, Yamazaki, and Nojima (1994), Shiraga and Matsunobu (1976), and Hirakawa (1993).  They build on each other: no one text is complete.  And these just deal with kendo practice.


What does a good beginner’s book look like?  Some of the best examples that I can find come from the aikido literature, which has a definite category of beginner’s books.  A personal favorite is Homma (1990); it is “about aikido,” and covers various aspects in a humorous fashion – I especially like the way that the simple line drawings illustrate various points being highlighted within the text.  In the same vain, there is O’Connor (1993); be sure to check out the illustrations of Some Common (And Not So Common) Gi/Obi Mistakes on page 37.  A more verbal approach is taken by Reynosa and Billingiere (1988); however, this is my least favorite.  A photographic approach is taken by Stevens (1996).  Klickstein (1987) presents an illustrative set of basic techniques, which incorporates many photographs.  So we see here several different approaches and formats to beginners’ books.


Anyone who attempts to write a budo (martial way) book for beginners has a tall order to fill; it is a delicate balancing act, knowing how much is enough without trying to cover too much.  Given the dearth of kendo books in English, there is a need for good, solid introductory books.  Unfortunately this book suffers from a great deal of “unevenness” in my opinion.  It attempts to address the subjects of “about kendo” and “kendo waza” in too few pages; as a result, some things just get lost.  There is no sense of what is important to the (potential) beginner; it appears to me to be more of a stream of consciousness presentation by the author.  Needless to say, it is difficult for me as a kendo-ka to read this as if I were a beginner with little or no knowledge about the subject, but I do have enough knowledge to recognize the “sins of commission” as well as the “sins of omission.”  It is my sincere hope that many of the problem aspects will be taken care of in a second edition because I feel that this text has the potential to be a great introductory kendo text.


Budden, Paul
1992 Looking at a Far Mountain: A Study of Kendo Kata, Ward Lock, London.  128 pp.

Finn, Michael
1985a Kendo no Kata: Forms of Japanese Kendo, Paladin Press, Boulder, CO, 64 pp.

1985b Kendo: The Way and the Sport of the Sword, Elite International Pub’s, London.  100 pp.

Hirakawa, Nobuo
1993 Kendo: Kihon o Manabu Tame ni [“Kendo: the Benefits in Studying the Basics”]              (in Japanese), Baseball Magazine Sha, Tokyo.  286 pp.

Homma, Gaku
1990 Aikido for Life, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.  110 pp.

Hurst III, G. Cameron
1998 Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery, Yale University Press, New Haven.  234 pp.

Kawakami, Takashi
1986 Za Kendo (in Japanese), Nihon Bugeisha, Tokyo.  158 pp.  [out of print.]

Kiyota, Minoru
1995 Kendo: Its Philosophy, History and Means to Personal Growth, Kegan Paul International, London.  156 pp.

Klickstein, Bruce
1987 Living Aikido, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.  158 pp.

Matsunobe, Yamazaki, and Nojima
1994 Kendo (in Japanese), Seibido Sports Series, Tokyo.  207 pp.

Nojiri, Tadakatsu
1994 Kendo Kyoshitsu (“Classroom”) (in Japanese), Junior Sports Series of Seibido, Inc., Tokyo.  191 pp.

O’Connor, Greg
1993 The Aikido Student Handbook: A Guide to the Philosophy, Spirit, Etiquette & Training Methods of Aikido, Frog, Ltd., Berkeley, CA.  108 pp.

Okawara, Tom
2001 “Media Reviews: Complete Kendo by John J. Donahue,” Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 10(1), 109-110.

Ozawa, Hiroshi
1997 Kendo: The Definitive Guide, translated by Angela Turzynski with illustrations by Tamiko Yamaguchi, Kodansha International, Tokyo.  173 pp.

Reynosa, Larry, and Billingiere, Joseph
1988 A Beginner’s Guide to Aikido (2nd ed.), R & B Publishing Co., Ventura, CA.  130 pp.

Sasamori, Junzo, and Warner, Gordon
1964 This Is Kendo: The Art of Japanese Fencing, Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland, VT.  159 pp.

Sayama, Mike K.
1986 Samadhi: Self Development in Zen, Swordsmanship, and Psychotherapy, SUNY Press, Albany.  160 pp.

Shiraga, Toshio, and Matsunobu, Ichiji
1976 Tsuyoku Naru Kendo (“Becoming Strong with Kendo”) (in Japanese), Seibido Publishing, Tokyo.  278 pp.  [out of print.]

Sosnowski, Raymond
in review   “Prelude to Translation, or Translation Prior to the Acquisition of Foreign Language Skills, Using Gorin no Sho as an Example.” To be submitted to EJMAS (Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences,

1999 “Book Review: Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery by G. Cameron Hurst III, 1998,” Journal of Japanese Sword Arts #101, 11(4), 9-14, April; submitted to EJMAS (Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences,

1997 “Book Review: Kendo: The Definitive Guide by Hiroshi Ozawa, 1997,” Journal of Japanese Sword Arts #83, 9(8), 12-14, August; submitted to EJMAS (Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences,

Stevens, John
1996 The Guide to Aikido, Shambhala, Boston, 132 pp.


(1)  Originally published in the Journal Of Japanese Sword Arts #104, 11(9-10), 6-9, September-October, 1999.

TIJ Apr 2003