Examiner’s Report on Alexander C. Bennett’s Ph.D. thesis:
“The Cultural Politics of Proprietorship: The Socio-historical Evolution of Japanese Swordsmanship and its Correlation with Cultural Nationalism”
This is an excellent thesis, well-written, well-argued and well-structured, and it makes an important new contribution to scholarly knowledge about its subject. The author, Alexander Bennett’s, mastery of the subject is obvious on every page — clearly he has studied it and thought about it over many years, far more so than the average PhD candidate. It is also important to note that the author proves his ability to read the Japanese language at an advanced educated level and to conduct research in Japanese scholarly sources. This is an essential skill for a PhD in any area of Japanese studies. Thus he is able to demonstrate a thorough grasp of the relevant scholarship available on his subject both in Japanese and in English.
More specifically, the author is fully justified in his claim that his thesis is “the first in-depth historical analysis in English of the development of the culture of Japanese swordsmanship from medieval times to the present day.” (19) There has indeed been a dearth of scholarship in this area, surprisingly in view of its key importance for an understanding of Japanese cultural history. Thus the author’s thesis will fill a significant gap in the Western understanding of Japan, especially once it is published as a scholarly monograph, as it deserves to be.
In terms of methodological approach, the thesis applies the latest historical and cultural theory to demonstrate that both “traditional swordsmanship” and “modern kendo” were “invented traditions” that were made to serve the changing ideological purposes of the regimes of the day: from the aristocratic-aesthetic pretensions of the Muromachi samurai shogunate, to the “pacification” imperative and bushi elitism of the Edo regime, to the nation—building “nostalgic nationalism” of the new Meiji state, to the violent militarist ethos of the fascist regime of the 1930s and ‘40s, to the postwar “liberal-democratic” government’s need for a “gentle cultural nationalism” that would restore the pride and international prestige of a defeated country. The author successfully demonstrates throughout that “nationalism has been a major factor in the way in which kendo has been developed” and that kendo “represents a ‘cultural ethos’ considered to be a manifestation of ‘Japaneseness,’ especially over the last century.”
To take a closer look at each of the thesis’ six chapters: In Chapter l, Bennett outlines the history of the rise of the warrior class and of the “cult of the sword” in the Japanese Middle Ages. More specifically, he demonstrates how and why a professional warrior class emerged in early medieval Japan, and investigates the realities of Japanese medieval warfare. In particular, he shows that, against conventional or stereotypical expectations, the honourable customs of samurai warfare as claimed by the myth of bushido were far from the reality of the “victory at all costs” ethos of actual medieval warfare. Most surprisingly perhaps, he points out that the famous samurai swords were only used as auxiliary weapons, the main weapons being bow and arrow and pike. What Bennett calls the “sword fetish” arose only in the late Middle Ages, after the samurai assumed power in Kyoto and came under the influence of the aestheticism of the court aristocracy. He argues convincingly that it is to this period that we can trace the origins of the martial art schools of swordsmanship. Bennett develops his argument further in Chapter 2, giving an in—depth analysis of what he calls the “civilizing process” of the art of sword fighting and of the samurai class as a whole. In the early l7th century this became a priority of the new Tokugawa regime which had a high stake in the “pacification” of the warrior class — to forestall disorder or rebellion.
Through this process sword fighting, as Bennett aptly puts it, “was essentially tamed, and crystallized into a sophisticated pseudo-religious cultural pursuit for developing mind and body.” (285) As Bennett explains in Chapter 3, after the abolition of the samurai class in the late l9th century, the art of sword fighting had to be “reinvented” as a new and more democratically based sport. Fortunately for its survival, it was adopted by the Japanese police force as part of their training regimen, and it was also introduced into the school curriculum as a way of character—building for young men who might be conscripted into the new national citizen’s army. The founding of the Dai—Nippon Butokukai or Greater Japan Society of Martial Virtue, a private society dedicated to preserving Japan’s martial arts, further consolidated the position of sword fighting as a national sport and, as Bennett writes, “its reinvention into modern kendo.”
Ultimately modern kendo, as Bennett points out further, “served to reinforce sentiments of Japaneseness, and provided Japanese with a direct link to a common cultural heritage as state and popular nationalism started to materialize in various forms.” (285)
One of the most important and original contributions of this thesis comes in Chapter 4 when Bennett gives an in-depth explication of the ways in which the modernized sport of kendo was turned into a fascist and militarist training or indoctrination device in the 1930s and 40s. Basically this involved turning it back into a form of aggressive combat rather than merely a competitive sport. As Bennett also points out, because of this association with fascism and militarism, there was a reaction against kendo in the immediate postwar period and, for instance, it was eliminated from the school curriculum.
In Chapter 5, however, Bennett demonstrates how kendo was rehabilitated and “re-civilized” as a “modern democratic sport” suitable for the newly pacified Japan of the postwar era. As he shows, however, this too was not without controversy, as kendo traditionalists believed that to turn kendo into an ordinary sport was to betray its traditional martial spirit. A counter—reaction came with a reassertion of kendo as a “spiritual way” of Japanese tradition – “a kind of physical Nihonjinron,” as Bennett aptly puts it, contextualizing kendo in the mainstream Nihonjinron movement of the 1960s and 70s — again, an important and original insight.
In his very interesting final chapter, Bennett explores the issues involved in the “internationalization” or globalization of kendo, with its spread abroad to Korea, the Americas, and Europe. On the one hand, Japanese cultural nationalists were proud that foreigners would show interest in and be influenced by such a very “Japanese” element of their culture; on the other hand, they worried that they would lose their “ownership” of kendo and that its “true spirit” would be lost through its internationalization and alienation from Japan. Bennett argues importantly that “the internationalization of kendo has actually fueled its nationalization in Japan.” (287) This controversy has important implications not only for the world of kendo but for Japan as a whole, which finds that many of the major markers of its national identity seem to be under threat at present from the forces of cultural globalization.
Thus Bennett’s thesis possesses a significance and originality beyond its immediate topic of kendo, fascinating though that topic is. It will make an important contribution to current ongoing scholarly debates about the present condition and future fate of Japanese culture in the 2lst century. Once published in book form, this work will also become a standard and definite study of the cultural history and politics of kendo, which is regarded by the Japanese themselves, as Bennett points out, as the most “Japanese” of their martial arts, mainly because it is seen as the one that most faithfully embodies the culture of the samurai. Bennett is certainly correct to argue that kendo has been undeservedly “discounted as a serious field of academic inquiry.” (287) This thesis goes a long way towards correcting that oversight.