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A Journey to the Heart of Kendo (August 11, 2003)

Trends in Japan is featuring interviews with notable foreign residents of Japan. Our interviewee this time is the noted practitioner of kendo Alexander Bennett.

As a founding editor of Kendo World magazine, Alexander Bennett has helped to fill a gaping void of information about the "way of the sword" outside of Japan. The quarterly magazine is the world's only English-language periodical about kendo - a form of physical and mental discipline that nurtures self-esteem and esteem for others through the medium of the shinai (bamboo sword). Launched in January 2002, the magazine now reaches some 10,000 readers in 72 countries.

Growing Global Interest in Kendo
"People are so hungry for information because there is nothing available," notes Bennett, a native of New Zealand who is now in Kyoto researching the spread of budo (martial arts) culture outside of Japan.

Kendo World goes a long way toward satisfying that hunger for the growing number of kendoka (kendo practitioners) abroad by exploring all aspects of the Japanese art of swordsmanship, including the philosophical, spiritual, historical, and technical sides.

"A few years ago I was watching the All Japan Kendo Championships on television with a couple of friends," he says, recalling his motives for starting the magazine. "We were saying, 'Gee how lucky we are to have access to all these resources, the hachidan [eighth degree] masters and all the books. But because we were living in Japan, we took them for granted."

Being students at the time without the pressure of full-time work, Bennett and his colleagues decided to share some of their good fortune with their "mates back home" by, initially, putting together four issues over a span of a year. "I contacted my teachers in the All Japan Kendo Federation, and surprisingly they were supportive of the idea. We took the initiative, and I think it's fair to say that we've exceeded everyone's expectations. We've had nothing but support for the magazine and its content."

Smashing One's Physical and Mental Limits
Kendo is a highly demanding discipline. It pushes practitioners to their physical and mental limits - and sometimes beyond them - but the sense of exhilaration one experiences through the hard training can often be addictive.

"Every time you go to training you're questioning your very existence," Bennett notes. "Sometimes you can't stand up anymore and think you're going to die. You're down on the ground and the teacher is standing over you with a stick. But from somewhere you get a second wind, and you pull yourself up again. The next day you do the same thing, but you'll be able to go a little longer. "You get to the stage where you're completely exposed. You enter a kind of natural high and start forgetting the pain. It's the ultimate in honesty."

The toughness acquired in the dojo (training room) naturally spills over into everyday life. "My weaknesses as a human being are also my weaknesses when I'm doing kendo." Kendo identifies the four main weaknesses (shikai) as becoming surprised, confused, doubtful, and scared.

"If you become confused or flustered even for a split second, that is when your opponent is going to hurt you. As I overcome the weaknesses in kendo, hopefully I'll overcome them in other respects as well. That's why you get hooked on it. Kendo has become a barometer of life."


Another valuable lesson kendo holds is the view of one's opponent not as an enemy but as a cooperator. "You're always communicating with two people: your opponent and yourself. You're able to push yourself because you have an opponent. That person is helping you. The ultimate goal is to make yourself a better person. And if you become a better person, then society becomes a better place as a result of that."

Despite his deep passion for kendo, the attraction was not immediate. "I hated it at first," he recalls. "I came to Japan as an exchange student for one year in Chiba, and to be honest I really wanted to play soccer. But I saw the state of the grounds and gave up."

His host mother suggested doing something traditionally Japanese. "At my school there was judo and kendo, and I took the more kakkoii [cool] version that reminded me of Star Wars."

Appearances, though, cloaked a less enchanting reality. "It was hot. It was smelly. It was noisy. And the teacher was very frightening. But before long I became hooked. The friends I made in the club were doing the same hard training day in and day out, and I formed a strong bond with them."

But it was not until he returned to New Zealand that he realized how much kendo actually meant. "I was happy at first that I didn't have to do it anymore, but after a while I started getting unsettled. It had been such an important part of my life. I was going through withdrawal symptoms."

He visited a martial arts shop in Christchurch, whose owner suggested creating a kendo club. "He gave me a few phone numbers. I rang these people up and created a small club." Before long he was flooded with inquiries from people who were interested in joining.

"I was really surprised at the interest that was there. I was just 18 at the time and wasn't really in an instructing position, especially when these older people started asking me about the more philosophical, spiritual aspects of the martial arts. That woke me up to the need to do more study myself and prompted me to come back to Japan a second time."

Importance of Mental Strength
As much as Bennett would love to see kendo gain greater international recognition, he is against moves to make it an Olympic sport. "To become an Olympic sport there are certain criteria that have to be met, and one of them is that people who don't do kendo must be able to understand what's going on. But kendo can be very difficult to appreciate if you don't do it yourself."

To gain a valid point it is not enough to simply strike one's opponent. The shinai and body must be one, and the correct part of the opponent's body must be hit with the correct part of the sword. One must also have correct posture, and the strike has to be intentional with the correct level of readiness. "Anyone who's done kendo would understand it right away, but those without experience would be wondering why a strike wasn't considered a point."

"If kendo were to become an Olympic sport, these things would have to be changed, but these are the most important aspects of kendo. It's what you train so hard to master. Mental strength is so important, and that's why you can be so strong when you're eighty or ninety years old."

In addition to publishing Kendo World, Bennett is working on several books at the moment, including one on kata, or formalized moves, and another detailing the history of modern kendo.

A godan (fifth degree) kendoka himself, Bennett was a member of the New Zealand team at the twelfth World Kendo Championships, held in early July in Glasgow, Scotland. "I train an average of three or four times a week, but of course it's never enough."

The road may be long and hard, but Bennett journeys on toward the attainment of ri - considered in kendo to be the ultimate goal: at once being in complete union with the heart of kendo and, as with all great masters, being utterly free of all its formal conventions.


Alexander Bennett
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand. Began studying kendo at age 17 as an exchange student and now holds a godan (fifth degree). Received his PhD from Kyoto University and is a research associate at the International Research Center of Japanese Studies specializing in religious studies, Japanese history, and budo culture. Also lectures at Sonoda Women's University and serves as a DJ on FM Cocolo.

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Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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