I just received my copy of Alex Bennett’s new book, Kendo Culture of the Sword. Having previously read the book in PDF form and contributed a blurb for its jacket, I am familiar with the content, but having the book in my hand and seeing it with the illustrations in place; I am raring to read it again.
This is a very different book to the kendo manuals and philosophical summaries currently on offer. Alex has used his professional expertise as a budo historian and his knowledge as a senior kendoka and created an academically precise but far from dry account of kendo’s development, from its feudal origins to modern day. As a trusted advisor to the AJKF and FIK, he has also had access to people and records that would be beyond the reach of an outsider.
The result is a passionate but “warts and all” account of how kendo transitioned from a medieval fighting form to the sport and self-development form we know today.
The account of kendo’s early origins is fascinating, but it becomes increasingly interesting as we get closer to modern times. The description of post Meiji gekiken is reminiscent of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows with redundant samurai treading the boards to pay the bills. Even more interesting are the accounts of kendo’s history before and during World War 2.
Alex deals with this period in an open and unbiased way and I imagine that this time accounted for a particularly difficult piece of research as this period is far from an open book in current Japanese history teaching.
The post-war re-assimilation into society and the educational syllabus is again interesting, but where Alex’s insight becomes particularly concerning is on the future direction of international kendo and the stresses caused by the obviously different agendas of Japan and Korea. The ongoing debate of whether kendo is a sport, art or self-development method; whether its future lies within the Olympics or whether we continue to tread our own path is highlighted by some of the final chapters.
This is a book that everyone with an interest in Japanese society and culture should read. For serious kendoka it would be a sin not to read it.