A Journey to the Heart of Kendo (August 11, 2003)
in Japan is featuring interviews with notable foreign
residents of Japan. Our interviewee this time is the noted practitioner of kendo
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
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.
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.
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.