No luck in Tama but philosophical in defeat  

Monday, 28 September 2009

tama taikai

I have just returned from competing in the 27th Tama taikai, but my return is alas – as expected – sans l’argent. I’ll quietly admit to being a bit disappointed not to have even won the first round. Although, in mitigation, I was unlucky enough to draw one of the semi-finalists as my first opponent so perhaps I shouldn’t feel too bad. Also, it’s worth noting that he himself was despatched by my French-Canadian mate Yuri – a real iaido powerhouse who is achieving huge success in tournaments here at the moment. So it’s one up to the gaijin!

The 2nd dan competition was the first event this morning. So after my early bath, I had quite a lot of time on my hands to sit and chat. I spent a good part of that time talking to my new Aussie friend, Ricki. She is a visiting academic, here to study Japanese political history and an unlikely budo disciple. Nevertheless, she has really done remarkably well. Today was her first competition and she won the first round! Great achievement. We talked a lot about iaido, and a lot about its context within overall Japanese culture. I mentioned that while the Japanese are happy to see a gaijin win a class, it is unusual for more than one gaijin to go forward to the next round of competition in the preliminary heats. As Yuri had already won in my class before I went on, I was pretty much doomed before my first cut.

Ricki is quite Australian in that she has a very well developed sense of “fair play”. She finds it hard to rationalise this apparent unfairness of Japanese culture as it relates to foreigners. She feels that with research, it should be possible to analyse and explain the deepest recesses of the Japanese psyche, and thereby presumably shed light on such injustices. These advances are, however, invariably resisted by the Japanese themselves; despite the fact that her understanding of Japanese is at native level she keeps coming up against the brickwall of “You understand the words, but not the meaning”. Clearly, this is something that causes her considerable frustration at times.

But my point is – why bother? Using today as an example, I’m not unduly upset, even if my early departure was more to do with my ethnicity than my ability. I came to Tama to experience the competition and to test myself. My objectives were therefore wholly satisfied. To my mind, there is very little to be achieved by picking apart a culture and analysing it in fine detail. You could pull apart a flower and study each of its component parts, yet gain no appreciation for the beauty of the living organism in its natural setting. Plus the fact, trying to fit Japanese ideas into nice pigeon holes designed for Western ones is often impossible and can only lead to more frustration, alienation and disappointment. Believe me – I’ve tried!

It is far easier to just accept that the people around you look at the world in a different way to you. In fact, surely it is preferable to have a world were different perspectives can co-exist. Japanese homogeneity is often criticised by non-Japanese as the foundation of an institutionalised “racism” culture that must be eradicated. Yet such granularity only exists at a local level; in the great scheme of things it is only part of the human experience. If we were to analyse, dissect and codify Japanese culture in this way, we might understand more about it but we would have also destroyed it; a living flower cannot recreated from a pile of parts. Furthermore, what would we gain from its destruction? Nothing as far as I can see apart from a little less colour and beauty in the world.

Many critics of the insular nature of Japanese society are driven by the frustration that no matter how long they live here, how well they speak the language or how much they contribute to society, they will never be part of the “Club”. I can understand that.

Personally, I am happy to just appreciate Japanese culture as it is, just as I can appreciate a flower without wanting to be one.

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Silver Week – sterling performance  

Friday, 25 September 2009


This week was a very special one here in Japan; An unusual combination of public holidays meant three bank holidays back to back. This so-called Silver Week (Golden Week is the famous week-long annual holiday in May) won’t happen again until 2015.

Such a special occasion can not go unmarked, of course. And what better way to do so than with an iaido competition. So it was that last Tuesday your humble scribe packed dougi and katana and made the arduous journey one stop down the Chuo line to Ogikubo for a day of competitive swishing.

As regular readers will know, iaido is the art of Japanese swordsmanship that studies the quick draw of the blade, a swift and efficient despatch of the opponent and the replacement of the sword back in the scabbard with grace and dignity. It is very closely linked to kendo, but because we use real swords rather than bamboo ones, direct competition is – of course – impossible. You’d run out of players pretty quickly and the hall would get terribly messy. Instead, the players compete against each other in front of a stern panel of judges to see who can perform specific set-piece techniques with the greatest degree of technical skill and controlled fighting spirit.

Like many things Japanese, it looks easy. It isn’t. The techniques are physically challenging – especially for westerners with our longer arms and legs. The sword itself (for those that use a “live” blade) is very,very dangerous and easily capable of removing a thumb or finger in an instant. The degree of skill required just to cut properly with a Japanese sword takes years to master, and the attention to detail within the techniques themselves is extraordinary. A foot 1cm out of place or an eye-movement in the wrong direction is often all that separates the winner from the loser. There is also a lot of formal etiquette, reiho, that forms an integral part of the demonstration and this too is extremely detailed and difficult to master. Everything has to be performed technically perfectly, but also with a demeanour that demonstrates a Zen-like calm and mental focus. All accomplished under the withering eyes of three judges, who are all 6th dan or above (most are 7th or 8th dan). Believe me when I say, demonstrating under these conditions is extremely stressful.

DSC_0432CROP I have never liked competitions much, but they are a very necessary part of iaido training because they add the “combat stress” element to your studies. There’s no other way of safely pressuring yourself to see whether you can control yourself well enough to perform good technique in challenging circumstances. I have competed in the UK nationals a few times, but the prospect of actually competing in Japan was quite a daunting one. Nevertheless, encouraged by my teacher and fellow students, I took part in a competition in the Tokyo Budokan earlier this year. The experience was scary, but exciting and, having done so, I felt very much part of the scene here, rather than just a visiting foreigner dabbling in martial arts.

So, I was not completely new to the situation when I took the court on Tuesday. I’d practiced my five kata fairly diligently and was feeling reasonably confident. Plus the fact – I was wearing my new lucky Union Jack boxer shorts under my hakama (thanks mum!). After walking forward and being given the command hajime (begin) I took the seated position and began my embu (demonstration). My first technique involves rising from a kneeing position whilst drawing the sword and cutting the opponent across the eyes before finishing him off with a large vertical cut. My cut felt very weak compared to how I’d practiced it, and my heart sank a bit because I realised it wasn’t going to be my best performance. Nevertheless, I got a grip of myself and resolved to try and at least acquit myself well for the rest of the demonstration. After finishing and performing the end etiquette, the lead judge rose with flags in hand. All the judges carry a white flag in their left hand and a red in their right to indicate which demonstration was the best. On the command, the judges raised their flags – bugger me, three red flags…I’d won!

True, I went out in the next round having drawn the guy that eventually won it, but for me I was very pleased to have taken my first step towards the Japanese silverware. I’ll be competing in another contest this weekend in Tama. Maybe this time my luck will hold through to the third round? Maybe not…this competition is much bigger so I don’t hold out much hope of success. But – as we British so rightly say, it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts. Even in distant lands, how true that is.

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Desiderata Mages 2009  

Friday, 18 September 2009

A good friend of mine recently sent me a poem she’d written. It’s an update on the famous Desiderata that achieved much popularity in the 60s. The author is an exceptional person; someone that has faced and overcome many problems. I feel traces of some of the scars those battles have left behind can be seen threading though these words. They are however all the more noble for it. I think this is a great piece of inspirational writing and one that expresses my personal philosophy far better than I could ever do. Enjoy!

Being born in a human body is the greatest of all opportunities. Your time in that body will pass in the blink of an eye. Make the most of your life.

Adventures are to be welcomed and embraced. A life with no adventure is like a car that never leaves the driveway.

Be tolerant, especially of yourself. The rest of the world will find ways to beat you up. It needs no help from you. Being born is an opportunity to attain perfection, and that takes a lifetime of endeavour. Don’t expect perfection of yourself. If you were already perfect there would be little point in living.

Justice and fairness are concepts for children. The world is not a fair place. It is what it is, for good or ill. All you can do is deal with whatever is handed to you with a determined heart. None-the-less, be just and fair in your dealings with others, without expectation that others will do the same for you.

There are as many paths as there are people on the planet. As long as your path has a heart, it is a good path and it is yours and yours alone.

There will always be disasters. They are a fact of life. Living to avoid them is unrealistic, they’ll happen anyway.

Love is the most enduring experience. Love and beauty are the things we most value and live longest in our memory.

Have faith in your own abilities. The world is unpredictable and it can change for the worse or the better very quickly indeed. You can’t control the wave you’re on, but you can be good at riding it.

All attachments are temporary. Attachments to things slow you down and make you fearful. Attachments to people, especially those you love, are the most dangerous of all. All things and beings must pass.

Happiness matters more than all other things. Happiness is a state of mind, not a state of affairs. Helping others to be happy is the best way to ensure you own happiness.

Whatever your endeavour may be, get on with it. All things in life can be replaced, with the exception of time. Time is an arrow that goes only one way. Time is the most valuable commodity there is. Respect time, and make the most use of it. Even one second can never be regained.

Above all, love your self.

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ブラーヂ ガイジン  

Saturday, 12 September 2009

nippongo Certain quarters of the expat community are up in arms over a new advertising campaign by McDonalds in Japan that centres around the exploits of Mr James – a geeky, westerner with broken Japanese and a singular lack of decorum. In short, a stereotypical gaijin (foreigner). Some long-term residents have reacted angrily to this, claiming its portrayal of westerners is both offensive and racist. McDonalds has issued a statement saying that no offense was intended, and there’s no serious suggestion to the contrary. But nevertheless, it has rubbed a few people up the wrong way and once again raised the question of how Japanese relate to foreigners in their midst.

There is no doubt that had McDonalds decided to run a similar campaign in the UK or US featuring a buck-toothed Asian with thick-rim glasses asking for “orliental chicken burger”, it would be banned instantly as unacceptable. And rightly so. Why then is such a characterisation permitted in Japan? The answer – simply – is that the Japanese do not consider such portrayals of foreigners as offensive. To westerners, this seems a puzzling point of view. But examining it closely reveals much about what it means to be able to fit-in here.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions for racism:

  1. The belief that there are characteristics, qualities or abilities specific to each race.
  2. Discrimination against, or antagonism towards other races.

To me, I think the first definition of racism is a bit of a misnomer. The Japanese are of course famous for their homogenous society and traditionally insular attitudes. For a long period of its history, Japan was closed to the outside world and as such has developed in quite a unique way. Thus, the Japanese think of themselves as a unique people, quite distinct from other races. And personally I feel they have every right to do so - just as every other culture is entitled to feel they have a distinct cultural identity. By the textbook definition, this makes everyone a racist! But that’s not really what we’re talking about when we talk about racism: What we are discussing is the second definition; discrimination against other races that you believe to be inferior.

The Japanese do not necessarily consider themselves superior amongst the world’s races, but they do consider themselves uniquely bound together by a common set of values and beliefs; a creed developed over countless generations that it is all but impossible for a foreigner to penetrate. From the outside, this looks like racial discrimination. But in reality, it is simply another manifestation of Wa – an invisible, unspoken harmony that allows society here to function effectively.

Western racial prejudices are based on skin-colour,language or religion; in Japan, it is the foreigner’s ability to sense Wa that determines how well they will be accepted and how far they can integrate into society. It is actually this ability – or lack of it – that McDonalds is parodying with its Mr James character. And it is something that you see all the time here. For example, just the other day as I was passing through Tokyo station in the early evening (an extremely busy place to be) I noticed a westerner standing absent-mindedly on the right side of an up escalator. The right side is for people walking up – the left side is for standing. He was completely oblivious to the 30 odd people quietly fuming behind him. Or a British colleague visiting Japan stepping up onto the raised floor of a restaurant in his shoes – an absolute no-no. This is classic Wa-breaking behaviour. The Japanese see it everyday, and so do I. It is therefore no surprise that people – myself included – tend to develop a wariness of green-horn foreigners because we expect them to be ignorant of Wa. That sounds very arrogant – I don’t mean it to be; I’m sure I’ve been just as guilty many times.

Where I’m going with this is that it is a mistake to slap the racist label on Japanese society, because the second dictionary-definition simply does not apply. Where discrimination does occur it is not based on race, it is discrimination based on attitude: While you can’t change your race, you can change your attitude. We British have a phrase - “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Yes it happens that foreigners get refused for flat rental or banned from public baths. But it’s not because they are foreigners per se but typically because of a lack of faith in their ability to act with decorum. The famous case of the public baths that banned foreigners came about because the regular patrons were fed up with having to share their baths with Russian sailors who didn’t know how to use them properly – i.e. the bath is NOT for washing your socks in! While I might be personally aggrieved to be tarred with the same brush and refused entry, I do understand, and sympathise, with the reasoning behind it.

For a final word, I shall quote from a very eloquent and perceptive gentleman named Kerry Berger who I think hit the nail on the head with regard to the whole Mr James racism debate:

“Japan has so much to offer if one accepts the reality that exists rather than trying to change it from day one. Things are different on Mars. What is different isn't necessarily good or bad; it just different and it IS the way things are! Take it or leave it, the choice is up to those who adventure outside the confines of their home countries.”

And in case you’re wondering, the title of this blog is my rendering of the phrase “Bloody Gaijin” –  much used by Mrs Beerhound and I on our travels.

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