Ulrich_von_Lichtenstein Creative Commons License 2022.01.15 0 0 57

Reviewed by:

  • Michael Wert (bio)

Kendo: Culture of the Sword. By Alexander C. Bennett. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2015. xxxvi, 286 pages. $32.95, cloth; $32.95, E-book.


Alexander Bennett, a well-known kendo practitioner and New Zealand expatriate living in Japan, has produced an engaging survey of kendo from its putative origins in medieval Japan to the present. These two biographical details are not meant as introductory filler; from the prologue to the final chapter, the author’s project is not simply an academic study but a personal journey, “reassessing why I had embarked on this journey in the first place and why I persist in trekking down this intangible, eternal path to self-perfection” (p. 237).


Like many surveys with a long temporal scope, this book is not argument driven but a presentation of how kendo changed over time. The author offers many smaller, insightful arguments that connect his subject to other historiographical issues familiar to scholars of Japan: kendo as a device for the “taming” of the samurai, an invented tradition in the Meiji period, a vehicle for nationalism and militarism during Japan’s modern wars, and an object for postwar rehabilitation, democratization, and internationalization. The book has something for everyone. For the casual reader and martial [End Page 371] arts enthusiast (the book is priced for this market, unlike the publisher’s specialist monographs which are almost double the price), this work acts as a highly readable and intelligent survey of early modern and modern Japanese history through the lens of kendo. There are also extensive translations of rules, mission statements, mandates, speeches, and the like. I cannot imagine that anyone will attempt a historical kendo survey for the general audience that will so thoroughly cover the major issues in kendo history. For those with an academic interest in the topic, each chapter is better than the last—analytically the strongest chapters occur in the latter half of the book as the chronology moves into the modern period and closer to the author’s own involvement at the very highest levels of the kendo world in Japan and abroad.


The first two chapters cover the late medieval and early modern periods. Bennett summarizes the historical context as it relates to the samurai, for example, the “rise of the samurai” debate among Karl Friday, Wayne Farris, and Eiko Ikegami. And those who have read martial art historical works such as Cameron Hurst’s Armed Martial Arts of Japan, Friday’s Legacies of the Sword, and the late John Rogers’s often-cited dissertation, “The Development of the Military Profession in Tokugawa Japan,” will be familiar with the historical personages, sword “styles” (ryūha), and general narrative of martial art history.1 The central argument of the two opening chapters is that swordsmanship originated as an “art of killing” and became an “art of living” as it shifted from a skill set used in combat to an art form that adopted the vocabulary, institutions, and pedagogy found in other cultural arts such as  and tea ceremony. The author demonstrates how swordsmanship was part of what Norbert Elias famously termed the “civilizing process.” Citing Elias, Bennett argues that the civilizing process began during the Muromachi period as samurai created cultural practices that would not embarrass them while living among the Kyoto nobility. This process accelerated during the Tokugawa period when swordsmanship, the author asserts convincingly, became integral to what Ikegami defined as samurai “taming.”


Chapters 3 and 4 trace swordsmanship’s popularity in the early modern period, through its fall after the Meiji Restoration and its revival during Japan’s modern wars. Swordsmanship reached peak sportification in the mid-nineteenth century but suddenly dropped in popularity during the Meiji “civilization and enlightenment” boom when much of samurai culture [End Page 372] was depicted as archaic and undesirable. Kept alive as a carnivalesque exhibition by a small group of martial artists, kendo gradually began to find supporters among people who felt that kendo, and martial arts more generally, would be beneficial in education. Although initial efforts to introduce martial arts into education were unsuccessful, for reasons fully explored...