Review of Kendo: The Culture of the Sword (2015)


Reviewed by Paul Bowman, Cardiff University,

Alexander C. Bennett’s monograph, Kendo: The Culture of the Sword (University of California Press, 2015) is an ideal starting point for students or researchers beginning to look into Kendo and other Japanese martial arts. It assumes no prior knowledge and walks the reader through a narrative arc beginning from kendo’s relationship with other Japanese budō arts (1-25), into kendo basics (xvii-xxxv), through swordsmanship in medieval Japan (26-56) to early modern kenjutsu (57-85), the fall and rise of samurai culture and kenjutsu’s nationalisation (86-122) to its place in Japanese imperialism (123-162), the passionate 20th century debates about kendo and/as sport (163-199) and the current vicissitudes of kendo’s global diffusion (200-237).

As a principally chronological history, framed by statements of the author’s personal introduction to kendo at one end and concluding reflections on kendo within the cultures of the contemporary world at the other, Bennett’s work is reliable, accessible and to be recommended. Each chapter is informed by pertinent theoretical debates from the fields of sociology, anthropology and cultural studies, but none of these debates are centralised, nor are they allowed to dominate the historical perspective. So, although we frequently encounter concepts from the likes of Pierre Bourdieu (87, 195, 197), Dipesh Chakrabarty (232, 236), Eric Hobsbawm (87, 121), Joseph Svinth (206), Denis Gainty (23, 116) and Brian McVeigh (22, 182, 199, 219, 225, 229), these encounters are mainly brief and tantalizing. The theoretical dimensions of the work have the status of occasional descriptive stepping stones as we walk through the historical narrative.

Aside from a rightly recurring attention to nationalism, which Bennett approaches in multiple ways, perhaps the most frequently mentioned thinker is Norbert Elias (57, 69, 70, 73, 125), whom Bennett frequently cites on matters such as boxing (83), games of war as displays of warrior virtues (82), etiquette, rituals, protocols (120–21,152, 153, 184, 189, 191), and so on.

Bennett’s use of Elias is exemplary of his use of perhaps all other theoretical concepts and arguments. That is to say, Bennett takes a reasonable, non-controversial interpretation of, say, Elias on civilizing processes, and deploys that interpretation descriptively throughout. The problem here is that sometimes the descriptive gain comes at the cost of an analytical loss. So, although approaching kendo in terms of a binary between civilizing and de-civilizing dimensions is interesting, it is based on a slightly reductive (binary) reading of Elias – a reduction that other recent studies of martial arts have fruitfully sought to challenge (Gong 2015). The point to be emphasized is that, sometimes at least, it could have been beneficial for the study if Bennett had done more with theoretical problematics than use them to add a richness of description.

Conversely, at other times Bennett makes valuable contributions to theoretical and analytical debates – albeit perhaps unintentionally. For instance, I am confident that Bennett’s opening discussion of his own introduction to kendo, whilst visiting Japan on a study exchange as a child, is merely intended to set the scene and describe a ‘baptism of fire’, that started as trauma but ended in his love of and devotion to kendo. But whilst reading it I was immediately reminded of recent attempts in martial arts studies, sociology of the body and sociology of sport to describe and account for any kind of ‘martial habitus’ (García and Spencer 2014).

To my mind, most sociological attempts to demonstrate the existence and operation of a ‘martial habitus’ have failed. This is because the concept of habitus used in these studies is derived from Bourdieu but refracted through Wacquant’s ethnography of boxing (Wacquant 2004), a study that centres on the intense and overwhelmingly closed communal world of a boxing gym in a poor pre-21st century ghetto community in Chicago.

Few social situations in the contemporary world truly meet the requisite criteria of the stiflingly closed context required to make the (pre-internet and media-blind) concept of ‘habitus’ analytically useful. But Bennett’s opening account of being thrown in at the deep-end of intensive and extensive kendo training, from which he could not really escape, certainly does. In this sense, I found in this dimension of the book a way to articulate more clearly my sense that ‘habitus’ is essentially a historically bounded concept that, other than in specific intense contexts, is less pertinent to social and cultural analysis today than it may have seemed in the past (Bowman 2015).

Overall, I found the final chapter of the book to be the most wide ranging and stimulating. In this chapter, Bennett moves much more freely out of the historical narrative and into reflections on the contemporary cultural issues, problems and dynamics of kendo’s present states of existence and elaboration, in which all the forces of globalisation, nationalisation, sport and identity politics are currently condensed.


Bowman, Paul. 2015. Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

García, Raúl Sánchez, and Dale C. Spencer. 2014. Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies of Martial Arts and Combat Sports. Anthem Press.

Gong, Neil. 2015. ‘How to Fight Without Rules: On Civilized Violence in “De-Civilized” Spaces’. Social Problems, September, spv014. doi:10.1093/socpro/spv014.

Wacquant, Löic J. D. 2004. Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.