The Kendo Adventure: Part 1
By Alex Bennett
A series in which Alex Bennett reminisces how he became involved in kendo, and the various things he has learned along the way.
As far as I can remember, I first discovered the country of Japan when I was 7 or 8 years old. I would spend hours in the school library reading books about fairy tales from around the world. Although the title has long since disappeared from my memory, one particular book which grabbed my attention was a Japanese story about ‘fireflies’. I wondered about the curious characters and the mysterious country in the book, and so the seed was planted.
It lay dormant for a few years until my interest in Japanese culture started to sprout with the opportunity to study the Japanese language at high school. This was the early 1980s, and New Zealand was in the midst of economic hardship. Japan, on the other hand, was faring much better as an economic power, and Japanese tourists began to come to New Zealand in droves. Japanese studies quickly became vogue. The language itself promptly overtook others traditionally taught in New Zealand schools such as French and German. Here was a language which was relevant to our needs, and offered a realistic future for those who learned to speak it. I remember hearing about French teachers who were told by their principals to learn Japanese. For years, language teachers were often only a few pages ahead of students in the text books they taught from, as demand far outweighed supply. Fortunately my school (Shirley Boys’ High School in Christchurch) was one of the few in the country that had qualified Japanese teachers in the early eighties.
So, from the spark of a ‘firefly’, to entering an environment where I could pursue my rapidly developing obsession with Japan, I could see my future was turning a bit Japanese. I was able to obtain a Rotary scholarship to come to Japan for one year as an exchange student in 1987.
No sooner had I disembarked the plane at Narita Airport than I was faced with a number of minor shocks. Firstly, after all those years studying the Japanese language at high school in New Zealand, my confidence was shot to pieces. I found that I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. Schoolboy Japanese was good for asking such questions as “What’s the time?” or “Do you want to go to the seaside tomorrow?”, but that was about the extent of it when suddenly chucked in at the deep end. Another unpleasant surprise was the overwhelming concentration of human beings. New Zealand’s total population then was approximately 3.5 million people. It really felt as though an equivalent number of people were squeezed into the confines of Narita Airport alone. This was all rather overwhelming for a spotty little 17 year old away from home for the first time.
Fortunately, before I was completely consumed by the confusion, I heard somebody shouting “Arekku!” At least I could recognise my name. That somebody turned out to be the president of my sponsoring Rotary club ‒ a short stocky fellow with glittery golden teeth. He barked a continuous stream of unintelligible grunts and growls with gold teeth gnashing wildly. I was at a loss as to what it was he was trying to communicate, but assumed that he was welcoming me to Japan.
After the formalities were over, I was guided to another part of the airport to be introduced to Gregg, an Australian, who had just finished a one year exchange at the same school and homestays that I was scheduled to go to, and was about to board the plane home. I stood and watched enviously as he conversed freely in Japanese. I asked him if it had only taken him one year to become so good. He replied by telling me that he didn’t have much choice. “If you don’t get good you can’t talk to anyone, and it gets pretty lonely mate.” He also told me that a good way of improving the “lingo” is to join one of the school sports clubs where, he promised, I would have a “life-changing experience” and make lots of friends. Apparently, he had spent his year with the school kendo club. “You’ll learn heaps about Japanese culture. The teacher is as scary as hell, and the guys are a bunch of hard nuts, but there’s nothing like blood sweat and tears for forging great friendships. Joining the kendo club has made my whole year worthwhile. You should do it too mate.” And, with those last words of advice off he went. I had no idea what he was talking about…