Is HEMA Better than Kendo?

HEMA better than Kendo lg

Kendo and HEMA look similar, as they both use swords (or mockups of swords). But how do they compare, and is HEMA better than Kendo?

Here is what I found out:

HEMA is better than Kendo, as Kendo focuses solely on the fundamentals of two-handed sword combat, whereas HEMA goes beyond that and includes kicks and sparring.

That can leave the Kendoka at a significant disadvantage against a HEMA practitioner. And therein lies its limitations.

Kendo is highly ritualized in all its movements, and keen emphasis is placed on students who observe these rituals even though they have no practical intention of fighting.

By comparison, the arts performed by HEMA students do not contain these rituals and are designed for combat using weapons as effectively as possible.

Kendo is a great and fun modern sport that teaches sword skills, but its purpose is not to teach historical sword fighting. This is very different from what is implemented in HEMA.

HEMA students aim to be as precise as possible about the historical swordplay based on the preserved source materials from the period of use of these weapons.

What is HEMA?

Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is the study of martial arts from Europe before the 20th century. While it can include weaponless styles such as wrestling, most HEMA schools focus on two-handed sword-fighting systems invented between the 14th to 16th centuries in present-day Italy and Germany.

Alternative terms, Western Martial Arts (WMA) and European Historical Swordsmanship (HES) are sometimes used, with WMA being a broader term and HES being used specifically to describe sword-based martial art traditions.

Thus, it includes martial arts that were developed at least a century ago, such as military sabers. It also includes fighting art carried out by Europeans living during the Renaissance and the late Middle Ages.

Most practitioners study the art of swords because it was a very common weapon for military and civilian use, but not all historical European martial arts focus exclusively on swordsmanship.

In the field of historical European martial arts, everything from the use of huge axes to muskets is studied.

But there are many clubs dedicated to teaching rapiers, sabers, and smallswords as invented by Spanish, German, and Italian masters.

Sword and buckle fights are also popular, and people are now fighting with giant swords (sometimes called a mortante or zweihander).

Because it is difficult to say the phrase, shortening it to HEMA was inevitable and became a common term used to refer to this group of fighting styles.

However, other abbreviations are sometimes used in other languages ​​(it is called d ‘Arts Martiaux Historiques Européens or AMHE in French).

Does Kendo count as a martial art?

Kendo is considered a martial art. Kendo is one of the numerous traditional Japanese martial arts, or budo, derived from samurai or feudal Japanese warriors using bamboo “swords” while fighting against each other.

Kendokas wear gears of a protective nature wearing armor over kimono-like sparring wear.

In this, Kendo is not that different from many other sports. Characteristic to the traditional spirit of most Japanese martial arts, Kendo is not only about winning but also exhibiting good manners and cultivating a strong heart.

Samurai warriors in Japan who existed about a thousand years earlier until the end of the Edo period (1603-1867) were slaves to their masters.

They guarded them and fought for them with weapons such as spears, swords, arrows, and bows. During the Edo period, bamboo swords and protecting gear became a common theme in training.

Protective equipment comprises armor containing:

  • A helmet (called a men) for protecting the head
  • An aegis (called a do) for protecting the torso
  • Whole arm gloves (called a kote) to protect the wrists and forearms

This martial art was initially known as kenjutsu (swordsmanship in English), from which the current martial art of Kendo developed.

In the 17th century, Japan was peaceful, and this caused the samurai to take up false swords to keep the peace.

Kenjutsu transformed to Kendo, translated the path of the sword, which used bamboo swords as a means of training and strengthening the body and mind.

Today, Kendo has evolved into a fun sport in fifty-two countries and regions, and the World Championship is held tri-annually.

Martial arts offer a host of benefits. In a recent article, I looked at the key benefits and why we need to learn self-defense.

Is HEMA good for self-defense?

HEMA can help with modern self-defense, but knowing additional martial arts would be better given HEMA was developed to be effective for the potential threats of the time it was formed. So it wasn’t really designed for modern-day threats.

But to answer this question, you need to answer this:

What is the rationale behind learning HEMA? Do you want to learn HEMA just for fun and life values, or do you want to learn practical self-defense in particular?

For example, the Fiore dagger defense works against contemporary knives. But modern knives have far shorter blades. So this shows that some techniques will not work as well as they would with weapons of that time.

Contemporary self-defense techniques are based on exactly the same principles but have been modified for present-day threats you will encounter.

In that sense, I would sincerely recommend a self-defense class.

However, if your main aim isn’t self-defense and you want some HEMA-themed fun with a small input of some modern stuff, I’d say you should look at some wrestling, any kind of grappling, and stick fighting.

The British and Irish have some of these.

Never forget, the first thing most do in a bar or street fight is to find the nearest makeshift weapon. This makes HEMA even more important than unarmed styles in some scenarios.

Does Kendo use a real sword?

Kendo is not practiced with a real sword. Kendo is practiced with a shinai, which is usually made of bamboo.

The shinai is used across disciplines, but in these other disciplines, it can have a different look from Kendo shinai and can be represented by dissimilar characters.

The shinai is the lookalike of the katana (a Japanese sword) and is made of four bamboo slats connected by leather fixtures.

A modern version of shinai with carbon fiber-reinforced resin slats is now in use.

The soft, light wood used in a shinai differentiates it from other wooden swords, such as the bokken, which is usually made of denser, stronger wood.

The word “shinai” comes from the verb shinau, which means “to flex” or “to bend” and was originally an abbreviation for shinai-take.

In Kendo, the use of one shinai is most common, sometimes called the itto style.

However, some kendoka prefer the use of two shinais. This style of Kendo is often called ni-tō, a type that likely originates from the two-sword fighting style schools; an example is the Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū.

The ni-to warrior wields a long shinai called a daitō, normally held in the right hand, and a shorter shinai, called a shōtō, which we usually hold in our left hand although they can be switched at will. A daito is shorter and lighter than the shinai used in the kendo itto style.

But is Kendo just like fencing?

I got into that in a recent article of mine. I look at the similarities and differences and cover the 1 thing that would almost assuredly make a fencer lose in a battle against a Kendoka.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Is HEMA realistic?

HEMA is somewhat realistic. However, HEMA matches have rules that prohibit some moves that are deemed too dangerous against another person. So it is closer to a sporting event than a street fight.

Grappling is fully allowed in HEMA tournaments and rehearsals, which you often see.

A good HEMA instructor will know and teach these moves. And they may even allow the practice of these plays with soft weapons but will ban them for safety at sparring matches or tournaments.

For safety reasons, punches and kicks in HEMA competitions are not allowed.

The punches taught by the manuals of old are not good and friendly for the sports arena. They focus on the joints, groin, and eyes in order to cause permanent damage.

However, these movements are trained at controlled speeds, but they are utterly banned in competitions.


In the article, we looked at the definitions of HEMA and whether Kendo counts as martial arts.

We also explored whether HEMA is good for self-defense. And we found out if Kendo uses real swords. Lastly, we wrapped things up by looking if HEMA is realistic.

Photos that require attribution:

Image by Dance Yokoo from Pixabay and DSC_4883_DxO by RiceMunk and is licensed under CC2.0 and they were cropped, edited, merged, and had a text and graphic overlay added.

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