Reflecting Alexander Bennett’s Culture of the Sword

Bennett, Alexander. Kendo: Culture of the Sword. 24th ed. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015.

Upon first opening Alexander Bennett’s book, I did not know what to fully expect. I know little about kendo training and its subtle movements and skills with the shinai, let alone a succinct history of the art. Bennett, however, gives the readers a detailed history and development of kendo from Japan’s formative years to the modern era. Additionally, he speaks on the topic of internationalization of the art and how kendo is currently addressing that development. What is central to Bennett’s case is the samurai mythos that permeates throughout kendo and how it draws both Japanese and non-Japanese practitioners into the art’s training halls. In doing so, he illustrates the extent the Japanese kenshi of both old and today continue to propagate the samurai mythos and how, at times, has also created a problem for both kendo and its practitioners.

Bennett begins with the idea that kendo is part of the many invented traditions the Japanese people have created to establish their nation’s culture. Afterwards, he discusses the rise of the samurai class, linking them to their swordsmanship and the beginning of the mythos. Bennett also points out that the samurai sword, which changed over the course of history, was not the primary weapon of the warrior class on the medieval battlefield. Rather, it was the long-range weapons, like the bow, spear, and musket. Despite being a secondary weapon, ryuha, or systems, based around the sword began forming in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Bennett points to three main schools of swordsmanship schools – Tenshinsho-den Katori Shinto-ryu, Nen-ryu, and Kage-ryu – that became the basis for the many sword schools that established themselves during the Tokugawa/Edo Period.

After giving a brief biography on the numerous swordsmen and samurai who helped lay the foundation for kendo in Japan’s era of peace, Bennett dives into the changes made to the many kenjutsu systems. First, the samurai began to create a holistic approach to their death-dealing methods, promoting that such pursuits in kenjutsu helped unify the mind and body to create benefits in life and in governance. Second, the training methods of the sword shifted more toward personal education, rather than military drills meant to do harm to another. With a shift in training methods, so too did the purpose of the training change. The purpose was a heightened spiritual awareness and perfect unity of the mind and body. Killing others had nothing to do with such goals. Third and final, masters of and those proficient enough in kenjutsu began to commercialize their chosen ryu, leading to what Bennett describes as inventing more traditions, which lead to longer training periods under teachers, as opposed to the shorter periods of training during war.

These three changes and factors helped push a sport version of kenjutsu onto the samurai class, culminating into what is now called gekiken. Using protective equipment created by practitioners of different weapons-based martial arts, swordsmen could now face each other in matches without the real fear of becoming maimed in the process. Though no specific rules were enacted, this did not stop samurai and even lower classmen to take up the shinai. These lower classmen, also intrigued by the samurai mythos, began to take up swordsmanship.

The Meiji Period of the mid to late 1800s proved to be a low point of sword work, as those in the government became obsessed with modernizing the country. Though men like Sakakibara Kenkichi organized gekiken-kogyo, or public fencing shows, that allowed for poor and out-of-work kenjutsu instructors to demonstrate their sword skills, it was the efforts of the Battotai during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, where their skill with their swords against the rebels helped bring swordsmanship and martial arts back into Japan’s modern world.

Shortly after the Rebellion, the country’s police began to include kenjutsu into their training curriculum. This proposed an obstacle for Japan’s police because many of the different ryu of kenjutsu had conflicting curriculums, making it hard to learn a complete system without become confused. These differences resulted in a “cherry-picking” of kata and techniques from different ryu and compiling them into a makeshift system for the police.

During the 1880s, Japan began a process of samuraization, which placed attributes and characteristics normally associated with the samurai class to all classes in the country. This samuraization, in turn, further popularized kenjutsu and other martials, leading to the eventual inclusion of budo into schools and the creation of the Dai-Nippon Butokukai in April of 1895. With many political, royal, and military men appointed into official positions, the Butokukai began to unify isolated pockets of martial arts experts, and preserve and promote the plethora of ryuha throughout the country. From this new community of martial artists, there was a consolidation of the ritual forms of etiquette, which further pushed kenjutsu to kendo.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Japanese government slowly began to highjack kendo and its martial arts brethren for ultranationalistic purposes, breeding practitioners for the hardships of war. Many began to see sports and martial arts as a way to mobilize the youth to serve the state and emperor. Two years after the invasion of China proper, the government pushed the militarized martial arts unto the public, where it was welcomed as a way to create Japanese character. From 1942 to the end of the War, whatever was achieved in unifying the different kenjutsu systems was lost as this unified system shifted back towards kenjutsu-type training.

With Japan’s defeat by the hands of the Allied Forces, the United States began their occupation of the country. One of the many actions the Occupation took was to ban all martial arts, as they feared that such arts and training would undoubtedly lead to the ultranationalism that led Japan to war in the first place. In an attempt to work around the ban, kenshi formed shinai-kyogi, which was a hybrid of kendo and Western fencing. Shinai-kyogi was a more sports-like version of the kendo of the war years, taking out the overt aggressiveness. As a result, the Ministry of Education endorsed shinai-kyogi in physical education classes. In spite of this, there were still some kenshi who wanted to retain traditional kendo, so in 1952, they formed the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF), however, their version of kendo followed many of the same rules as shinai-kyogi. By the next year, the martial arts ban was lifted and in 1957, kendo and shinai-kyogi merged into one organization and practice.

With Japan and the United States now on good terms, the process of internationalization began with the martial arts. During the 1970s and 1980s, kendo saw a growth in its international numbers, with about 400,000 practitioners in Korea, roughly 10,000 in France, and around 5,000 in the United States. Even with these numbers, the AJKF currently does not want to compromise the spirit and essence of kendo to foreign influences, like many of their Japanese martial arts brethren. To Bennett, this is a way for Japan to retain its control on how kendo grows outside of their country and who gets to do the growing. Additionally, as Bennett points out, the general consensus in Japanese kendo circles is that there are aspects and subtle nuances in kendo that only a Japanese kenshi can see, feel, and obtain that a foreign kenshi cannot. It is of this mind, according to Bennett, that halts the art’s growth in countries across the seas from Japan. Furthermore, Bennett asserts that the AJKF and its international counterpart, the International Kendo Federation, are wary of open democratic forum, much like that of judo and the results of non-Japanese influences.

By the end of the work, Bennett summaries the journey he took the reader. With everything that he laid before the reader, Bennett is optimistic about kendo’s future and the possibility of a change, if ever so small, in Japanese control of international kendo. However, no matter who is in control of the art, Bennett maintains, it is the universality of this samurai tradition and mythos that makes it valuable to the human experience. And that is what kendo has the potential to do for its practitioners: create an experience that allows kenshi to reflect and better themselves both during training and in daily life.

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