Alex Bennett was 18 years old when he first read the wisdom — “From one thing, know 10,000” — in Miyamoto Musashi’s “The Book of Five Rings.” Now living this maxim, Bennett is a scholar, teacher, translator, writer, coach and active competitor in the martial arts.
He holds two Ph.Ds in studies related to budo, has achieved seventh dan in kendo and fifth dan in naginata, and recently coached the New Zealand national kendo team to a top-eight finish at last year’s world championships. That’s only a few of Bennett’s accomplishments in the martial arts world.
Like any lifelong pursuit, Bennett’s road has been paved with both challenge and tragedy, gifts and joy, and persistently hard work. From winning second at last year’s Naginata World Championships to overcoming the tragedy of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, which killed two of his kendo team members, Bennett says “everything in my life is somehow connected to kendo.”
Bennett first came to Japan in 1987 as a high school senior on a Rotary Exchange program to deepen his Japanese studies. An avid sportsman in New Zealand, Bennett hoped to play soccer in Japan, but “the soccer ground was just dirt as opposed to the lush fields of grass that I was used to in New Zealand. I hesitated; it seemed kind of unnatural.”
His host family encouraged him to try a martial art, and after observing judo and kendo, Bennett casually chose kendo: “Even though kendo was very loud and looked very violent, was smelly and the teacher scary, it looked a little like ‘Star Wars,’ and I thought I could play samurai for a year.”
Bennett admits the year was like a “military boot camp” and was relieved to leave the “pressure pot” of intensive mental and physical training. His year in Japan ended with a return to New Zealand and no plans to ever practice kendo again, although he had achieved shodan, a first-level rank.
Not sure what he wanted to study, Bennett worked in construction to save money for college. “While I was working at a building site, I started getting a little jittery because I wanted to do kendo again, and every time there was a piece of wood lying around I would pick it up and start doing suburi, much to everyone’s surprise.”
A quick stop at a martial arts shop in Christchurch told the 18-year-old Bennett there were no local kendo clubs, but the shop owner did have a list of interested participants who had earlier made inquiries. Bennett decided to contact a few and suggest training together. From that simple start, Bennett soon had over 30 people gathering for informal training sessions, many with other martial arts experience.
“The students wanted to do kendo specifically because they felt something was missing in their other martial arts experiences, and they hoped kendo was a martial art that could teach them more about the spirit or culture of budo or even this rather nebulous idea of bushido. I had absolutely no idea how to reply to them, so that’s when I first read everything I could find on the martial arts, [Inazo] Nitobe or Miyamoto. I felt a responsibility to the students, and I decided I should spend the rest of the year saving as much money as possible and then go to Japan to study kendo properly.”
At 19, Bennett returned to Japan and enrolled at the International Budo University in Chiba. After completing its one-year program, Bennett stayed an extra year working for the All Japan Naginata Federation.
“The federation wanted to create an International Naginata Federation and needed someone who could speak both Japanese and English, who was prepared to work for only a little money as long as they had a place to live and a place to train. It was perfect for me. Kendo, iaido and naginata: I could study three martial arts at a high level.”
His club in New Zealand waited, and Bennett came home to enter a university and help train the Christchurch kendo club. “I was able to pass on all of the new knowledge I had acquired in my second stay in Japan, and the club grew into quite a significant entity over five years, with over 50 members at its peak.”
Kendo had given Bennett focus for his life, and after graduating from the University of Canterbury, he passed the Japanese exam for attending graduate school. By 1995, Bennett was studying at Kyoto University. He has lived in Japan ever since.
“My academic career is completely entwined with martial arts,” Bennett says. His masters thesis from Canterbury (completed at Kyoto University) discusses important budo texts in early modern Japanese literature; his first doctorate, written in Japanese from Kyoto University, covers budo and its place within Japanese history and culture. The second, recently completed in English from Canterbury, traces the changes in kendo from the Muromachi Period (from 14th to 16th century) to today.
Four years ago, Bennett accepted an associate professorship at Kansai University in Osaka. He teaches three martial arts classes and trains with the university team every day.
While immersed in his studies in Japan, Bennett noticed a dearth of English information on kendo, and he and a former member of his Christchurch club, Hamish Robison, started Kendo World Magazine in 2001. Bennett admits he and Robison knew nothing about creating a magazine, yet they now have over 7,000 regular readers in over 80 countries, and have watched the popularity of kendo grow worldwide in the 10 years since their first issue.
“We’ve managed to survive and gradually thrive. It was really just pioneering our way through this completely different world. Of course the only way we could do it was because of our passion for kendo.” The magazine also initiated Bennett into the world of publishing, and they now manage Bunkasha International, a publications company dedicated to martial arts and cultural texts in English.
“The quality and number of works are gradually increasing. I never make any money off of them, of course, but it is so rewarding to create something valuable to martial arts, and now organizations like The All Japan Kendo Federation or Nippon Budokan trust us to complete works for them in English, so it is very gratifying.”
Physically, Bennett has never stopped learning from the martial arts. His most recent personal triumph in kendo was achieving the second-highest level, seventh dan. Last year, he competed at the World Naginata Championships and placed second in the men’s competition. A competitor at the Kendo World championships for over 20 years, Bennett was asked to coach the New Zealand national team three years ago, but that triumph also brought tragedy.
“I was back in Christchurch for a training camp on Feb. 22, 2011, when the Christchurch earthquake struck. Pretty much, the city was decimated — especially the central business district, where we were renting an old building with a high ceiling and a wooden floor. All of those old buildings were completely destroyed.
“Two members of our Christchurch kendo club were killed — two Japanese nationals studying English in New Zealand. We had to overcome the grief and personal tragedy of losing two of our members, but also the practical problem of no longer having anywhere to practice. It was almost impossible to find a place for us to continue our club.”
Bennett returned to Japan in time for the calamity on March 11 and then back to New Zealand to check on the families of his club members. Driven by the dual tragedies, Bennett was determined to do something tangible to make a difference.
He found property “the perfect size for a kendo dojo” in the unscathed western part of the city and finally secured a loan through Kansai University. Family and friends throughout the kendo world raised money to install the wooden floor necessary for martial arts practice. Bennett’s team placed within the top eight of the 47 countries that competed last May at the World Kendo Championship in Novara, Italy.
With Bennett’s own translation of the seminal martial arts text “Hagakure” due out from Tuttle Publishing next year, and as a director for the Japanese Academy of Budo, busy organizing an international conference on the martial arts, his accomplishments really do seem endless. To Bennett, it all goes back to that one thing: “I am just trying to disseminate this wonderful culture to the world.”