Tuesday, August 09, 2005
An education in the way of the sword
This is the office I work in, the teacher's lounge at the high school. Japanese offices are not separated into separate rooms or even into cubicles, just one large room with all the desks next to each other. All of the teachers have desks in this room, along with the two vice-principals, with only the principal having his own office. I suppose it's to promote unity in the workforce, or to make sure that the vice-principals can observe everyone working. The end result is that everyone has to be busy all the time, but since nobody really has anything to do, basically everyone has to pretend that they are busy all the time. I however, having finished my assignments for the whole month already, have taken instead to watching movies or listening to music on my laptop; since Japanese people don't really know anything about computers, nobody knows what I'm doing on it. Otherwise, I wander around the campus listening to mp3s on my cell phone.
Even though it's summer vacation, the students still come to school almost every day to take part in club activities. Each student joins at least one club - out of sports, martial arts, English, chess, calligraphy, etc - and this club is basically their main social group throughout high school. Teachers volunteer their time to be in charge of these various clubs. Having time to wander around, I also started visiting various club meetings. Yesterday I went to watch the kendo club practice, on the invitation of one of the teachers I'm working with, who happens to be in charge of this club.
Kendo 剣道 (literally, way of the sword) is the modern martial art of Japanese fencing based on traditional Japanese sword fighting, but formalized into a competitive sport with specific equipment and rules. Each participant wears a kind of protective cloak with armor along with a helmet, and they fight with bamboo practice sword called a shinai. Points are awarded in competition only for strikes to certain areas of the body, and each strike is accompanied by a loud kiai, or shout, kind of like a battle cry. So kendo practice is a bunch of kids in these elaborate outfits running and smacking each other while shrieking loudly.
Enter this teacher, who pulls out students during the two-hour practice for individual sparring. Usually this guy is really well-mannered, almost timid, in his 30's. He walked me over to the gym wearing his robe and I had to stifle a laugh because I just couldn't picture him participating in, let alone teaching, an activity involving violent confrontation. However, once he put on his mask, everything changed. He pulled out this kid and after they bowed at eachother, proceeded to BEAT THE SHIT out of him for about 20 minutes. He would rush at the kid with this samurai war cry - weakly returned by his opponent - and then just whack the hell out of him; on the facemask, on the wrist, on the shoulder, and once, ducking under the swing to hit the guy full on in the stomach. The best part though, was when they would get too close to swing at each other and would start grappling, swords pressed against eachother near the hilt and masks close together. The teacher would get in the kids face and just start yelling his kiai at the kid over and over, while the kid - who I imagine is by this point weeping underneath the mask - would reply weakly with a squeal that sounded more like a stuck pig. He got so in the kid's head, it was just awesome to watch.