A must-read for any Japan-bound budoka
The past two decades have seen a significant increase in the number of foreigners practicing aikido in Japan. From long-term expats to short-term tourists, it is not rare anymore to see foreigners represent one-third of the class at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo on a given day. When I had the chance to take part in the afternoon classes there recently, it even happened that there were more foreigners than Japanese on the mats.
Being a foreigner who has spent much of his life in Japan immersed in the martial arts world, I am often asked to give advice and help to other foreigners with life at the dojo and in Japan. I do it as part of my senpai responsibilities, but I have always felt uncomfortable with this role, as I felt any advice lacked enough context to be as useful as it could be.
I have decided to present a preview of this book to the community because I believe it gives pertinent advice and context at the same time. If you plan to come to Japan to study aikido or another budo, read it. It will significantly improve your experience, be it for a long or a short-term stay.
Who is the author?
Alexander Bennett holds the rank of 7th dan in Kendo, and the rank of 5th dan in Iaido, Jukendo, Tankendo, and Naginata. He received his Doctoral degree from Kyoto University in 2001, and another from the University of Canterbury in 2012. After working at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, and then Teikyo University’s Department of Japanese Culture, he is currently employed as a Professor at Kansai University’s Division of International Affairs where he teaches Japanese history and society.
I do know Alexander Bennett personally, as I interviewed him about a year ago. I’ve met him a few times since then, but although I have deep respect for the man, we are only acquaintances, which is why I feel I can still give a fairly objective preview of this book.
He is one of the very few non-Japanese who actually does serious academic research on budo and bushido. He has previously published a few books that are mainstream repacks of his academic research, and they are great books.
I also see a lot of his own experience in mine, and he offers much to learn from. Alex has spent nearly two decades more than I have in Japan, and in a far more challenging context. His experience is of incredible value to me.
What is this book about?
The purpose of the book is not (just) to recommend details like where to stay in Japan or to know which is the right dojo to go, but rather how to fit in from a psychological perspective by understanding the history and culture. I’ve seen so many foreigners unable to find their place in Japan who left, abandoning their life plans — sometimes to the point that they even quit practicing. With the proper tools and perspective to approach Japan, this could’ve been avoided.
The first and second parts of the book are about the history of samurai culture and budo. I will not cover these parts in detail for this preview, but I will say they are very well synthesized and useful for anyone who is new to the topic. These parts of the book provide a great primer for any friends or family of a Budo practitioner who wonder what and why a Budoka is doing in the pursuit of the martial arts. And even experienced martial artists can gain valuable insights from these sections of the book.
The third part is more focused on the present day. Bennett shares many of his personal experiences in this book, and while that would be out of place in an academic paper, this is a guide to a subculture written from the heart. Needless to say, what Bennett chooses to present in this title and his experiences are subjective and personal to him. As someone who has lived in Japan since 2005, however, I have found in the experiences Bennett chose to share in this book most of my own experiences. The storytelling is done with tact and fun at the same time, making those experiences pleasant to read about while preserving their essence.
The last part of the book is written in the manner of a guide, but it is not in the form of “you should do this,” but more in the form of “you might be able to hack it in a different way, but there’s a reason to how things are done, and here is why it’s done this way.”
To me, that’s the most interesting part of the book, because that’s where you really get Bennett’s advice — advice from someone with not only over 30 years of experience in Japan, but also 30 years of forging his own path on the one hand and helping the community to move forward on the other. No matter which budo you practice, Bennett has had an impact on it, somehow. He participated in hundreds of projects, most of them aiming at improving the international diffusion of budo as well as the way budo are taught to non-Japanese.
In this section, you’ll learn about daily dojo life in Japan, such as how practice is organized, winter and summer intensive practice, how competitions are organized, how the student/teacher and the senpai/kohai relationships work in context, and more.
Bennett also reflects on many controversial topics, such as the focus of Japanese organizations and leaders on leadership (and the fear of losing that power because of internationalization). He shares interesting reflections on how practitioners with a black belt newly arrived in Japan should (or should not) behave, with explanations of the Japanese stance on piercings and tattoos (spoiler: unwanted!), gender issues, language, potential injuries, nationalism, politics, dan grades, and other topics. Bennett has an opinion, and it can be seen when reading between the lines. But he does good work by presenting facts and opinions objectively so that the reader, through further experience, can form their own opinion on those subjects.
The last chapter is focused on life outside the dojo. It’s more about giving you some basic references than guiding you through your life in Japan, but then Bennett is a budoka, not a travel agency. This is the same information you’d get in a good guide, and a good conclusion.
I am now far into my own budo and Japanese life journey, but looking back at the completely ignorant state I was in when I first set foot in Japan fourteen years ago, I wish I could have had such a concise and approachable book in my library.
The Ultimate Samurai Guide is not just for those preparing a training trip to Japan or currently studying there — it’s also for their relatives, beginners, and budoka with no desire to train in Japan but with desire to contextualize their practice in the greater world of budo. It is the first book that must be placed in the hands of the one who wants to enter the Japanese culture by the “martial arts” door. I’m looking forward to the day I will be able to bring the same level of wisdom to the community.