Books

An insider's guide to surviving the world of Japanese martial arts

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

The link between Japan and martial arts is incontestable, so much so that for many people their initial exposure to Japan is through practicing or watching martial arts. Karate, judo, sumo and kendo are all common in the English lexicon, but are just four of the nine modern budō disciplines that fall under the umbrella of the Japanese Budo Association. Others include aikido, shōrinji kempō (a variation of Shaolin Kung Fu), kyūdō (archery) and naginata (glaive combat).

Japan The Ultimate Samurai Guide, by Alexander Bennett.
144 pages
TUTTLE PUBLISHING, Nonfiction.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t, at least momentarily, considered joining a martial arts club upon moving to Japan. However, comparatively few actually take the plunge. One of the biggest hurdles is that clubs can seem to be worlds unto themselves, inaccessible to non-Japanese, even those with fluency in the language. Knowing where to start, especially if you have no previous martial arts experience also puts up barriers: Which is the right martial art for you? What should you look for in a teacher? How can you hope to compete when everyone in the club already seems to have a black belt?

This is where “Japan The Ultimate Samurai Guide,” authored by longtime kendo practitioner Alexander Bennett, hopes to step in, providing answers to some of these questions from the perspective of an insider. The book is part encyclopedia of martial arts — a historical resource tracking the evolution of Japanese martial arts over the last millennium — and part present-day guide to surviving in the world of budō and, more generally, in Japan.

Bennett, 48, says that much of his inspiration came from his initial impressions of the kendo club he joined as an exchange student to Japan from New Zealand in 1987, when he was just 17.

“It freaked me out, seriously. It was loud, smelly, violent and when I walked in for the first time, the guy who was obviously the teacher was smashing the crap out of one of the students,” he reminisces. “I didn’t really understand what was going on, but at the same time, there was something compelling about it and I thought, ‘I might as well give it a go.'”

Bennett’s first six months of practice was grueling. Quite quickly, the combination of intense physical exercise, culture shock and the unbearable heat of summer in a dojo left him questioning his devotion to kendo, and to living in Japan as a whole. On the verge of quitting, a single bout with his teacher proved formative.

“Right in the middle of this period of despair, Sano Sensei decided he was going to hand my arse to me on a plate,” Bennett explains. “He just pasted me for about an hour. At first it was incredibly tiring and my legs turned to jelly. But after a while I got over it, and started to feel like I was in a different dimension. I began to feel good, the kendo version of a runner’s high. I realized in that moment how far I could push myself, and that’s what’s kept me going for the last 30 years.”

Since then, Bennett has achieved 7th dan in kendo, the second-highest attainable rank, and holds two PhDs in studies related to martial arts and Japanese history. He started Kendo World magazine in 2001, and established one of New Zealand’s first kendo clubs, Seitou Kenyukai, in Christchurch in 1988, though he spends the majority of his time living in Kyoto and teaching and training at Kansai University.

It is this wealth of experience he distilled into “Japan The Ultimate Samurai Guide,” after Tuttle Publishing CEO, Eric Oey, suggested to Bennett that he should write a primer on Japanese martial arts.

“Eric challenged me to remember the passion I had when I was 18, and I realized I’d never really thought about that,” says Bennett. “When I went back to New Zealand on a six-month sabbatical in 2015, I started channeling that passion into this book. I actually wrote the majority while hiking through the mountains on (New Zealand’s) South Island. I’d gone back to New Zealand for a detox from Japan, but through the process of writing, I began to remember that excitement, and why I’ve pursued the sport for as long as I have.”

The book is densely packed with information, but succeeds in not coming across as overly academic. Chapters range from the historical, “Who Were the Samurai?” and “Core Concepts of Bushido,” to the practical, “Martial Arts in Japan Today” and “Life in a Japanese Dojo.” Each chapter proves informative in its own way, and the pages are filled with humor, as well as anecdotes and lists of things such as Bennett’s favorite martial arts films that give the book a more personal touch. It is also fantastically illustrated, with hundreds of pictures depicting the evolution of martial arts to the present day.

“This book is supposed to be genuinely from the heart.” says Bennett. “Without the pretense, bulls—-, misconceptions or romanticization that often accompanies martial arts.”

And that’s the impression you get reading it; it’s a work of passion, but one that is both honest and to the point.