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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