There's no sayonara without tears

Out of JAPAN
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Tokyo - We learnt a lesson in respect and dignity at the kendo club last week, a lesson I will take with me as I prepare to leave Japan this month. I have no unique insights on Japan's trade surplus, on its political turmoil or on the perennial qu estionof whether change "is really coming" to Japan. But I started to understand a few things in the past three years, and a lot of my lessons came from my kendo teacher.

By its nature, kendo commands respect: it is the art of sword fighting, made safe for practice by the use of a bamboo sword instead of the real thing. In the days of the samurai, no one was under any illusion that kendo training was anything other than learning how to kill another man.

Today, no one uses a real blade except in special, highly choreographed slow motion displays. aimed at concentrating Kendo does not aim to promote feelings of power or of swaggering machismo, but rather a sense of respect for an opponent, who barely morethan a century ago could have been fighting a duel with only two possible outcomes.

My teacher, a 30-year kendo veteran and one of the most accomplished men in the club, was putting me and a couple of the other junior members through our paces. Usually there are about 40 kendoists at the training sessions - a handful of teachers, and s e veral dozen ordinary club members with varying levels of skill. The teachers line up , and the rest queue up opposite to solicit a training session or practice bout. Every encounter begins and ends with a respectful bow, during which eye contact is never broken.

During our practice session, a newcomer insinuated himself into our group: he was a "wandering warrior" from another club who had reached a certain level of proficiency and had been told by his teacher to seek out a wider range of opponents to improve his skills.This is a notable exception to the normal regime in Japan of sticking to your own group, with all the safety and security that implies. Even if inconvenient, it is usually incumbent on teachers to accept such challenges.

The challenger was about half my teacher's age, stocky and quite heavy. From the beginning it was clear that he was quite good: although my teacher had the edge, he had to work hard to avoid the younger man's persistent attacks. Our group stood back to watch: experienced kendoists move with the grace of ballet dancers, strike as quickly as snakes, and withdraw as smoothly as if they were on castors. This is art, not sport: thus the Kendo Association of Japan is keen to avoid it becoming an Olympic event. Judo, many Japanese feel, was ruined when it became a competitive sport with medals and rankings.

After a while, the younger man became more aggressive - perhaps out of frustration, perhaps because of his nature. He hit from behind, where the head is not so well protected by the padded vizor. Such blows are not allowed, but perhaps he thought he could intimidate the older man. Then he started barging,: this is not against the rules, but clearly the younger man thought that if he kept it up, he could wear down his opponent and destroy his concentration.

For a while it seemed to be working, even if it did not look very graceful,but never once did the older man lose his dignity by showing signs of flinching, or by trying to back away.

Then came the lesson that no one watching, and particularly not the young challenger, will forget quickly. The teacher emitted a loud bellow, and squared up to the younger man, who suddenly lost all his composure and stood frozen, as if caught in a spotlight against a prison wall while trying to escape. Something had changed in the bout, but he didn't know what. With a forward lunge that none of us saw coming, the teacher struck him on both sides of his head before he could even move his sword or body in defence. Too late he tried to parry, received another few blows for good measure, and stumbled backwards.

The teacher moved forward, and with one sharp blow knocked the younger man's sword from his hands. This was the ultimate humiliation. The younger man, beaten mentally, was trembling as he bowed and shuffled away. The teacher, who must have been tired from the bout, nonetheless just grunted just once, and continued with our lesson.

If anyone had told me before coming to Japan that I would embark on something that would necessitate bowing with my forehead touching the floor in front of another human being, I would have laughed. I am more humble now. Like everyone else at the end of a lesson, before leaving to shower and change, I kneel in front of my teacher, and bow to the ground. Being Japan, his formal response is to bow also - not quite as low - and to say: "I have been rude" (in apology for all the potentially `insulting' corrections he has had to administer during the lesson).

The lessons have been many, and nothing is too trivial to be taught in the highly-stylised kendo regimen. On my first day I was shown what type of knot I must use to tie up the thick kendo jacket and skirt-like trousers, and how to bow. I got a whack over the backside with a bamboo once when I forgot one such bow - it comes more naturally now.

You have to learn your place in the hierarchy - which for a beginner means the absolute bottom. Once I unwittingly put my clothes on someone else's shelf in the changing room: when I came back I found them thrown unceremoniously on the floor. Harsh, but

part of a pattern.

Much of the reason that kendo does not deteriorate into crude stick-fighting lies in the attention to discipline and the correct "way" of doing things: the angle you hold your sword as you bow, the precise way of placing the gloves and head-guard in fro n t of you when you take them off and above all the way you strike with the sword.

"After ten years, you may have learnt how to stand correctly. But I doubt whether you will know how to hold the sword properly by then." This from another kendo teacher, who was not trying to discourage - just to put things in perspective in a world where people increasingly want things on hand instantly, if not before. Kendo "without tears" does not exist. But some things are worth spending time at.Japan does not have a convenient culture - it demands time and effort. The Japanese admire dedication, above inborn ability or virtuosity. And they admire true humility, the sense that there is something bigger than the individual. Once my kendo teacher advised me during part of a lesson to practise striking him with my eyes closed. "It stops you using too much force, do you notice?" As usual, he was right.