Sunday, 13 December 2009

Children of the sword

Little Dick Whittington’s, their brown canvas bags slung over sticks on their shoulders, are converging in the dark, heading for the Mikagurakan. My son was happy for me to carry his bag until he saw the other children. Then, with grumpy embarrassment he took it from me, so that dressed the same, he was now carrying the same as the others, fitting in, belonging. The bamboo sticks become swords when the threshold to the dojo is crossed, and are treated with a seriousness that smells of blood.

Bow to the senseis
Bow to the flag
Bow to the senseis again
Bow to each other

Then a jumping, stretching, striking circle, led by the oldest child shouting out the numbers, answered by the rest.

Taking up their shineis, they began the ritual stepping forwards and backwards, rhythmically presenting their shineis at the correct angle, and swinging them over their heads to whack their behinds, shouting ‘Meh! Meh! Meh!’ in time with the imagined front strike. Then the speed doubles, then again. ‘Meh! Meh! Meh!’ Then sideways.
The teachers hover, correcting details, angles, steps. The older children finish with a fast leaping backwards and forwards, finishing with a releasing rush forwards. Everyone grins and the tension breaks.

Then fingers fumble with the complex bows and ties to secure the padded aprons and breast plates that begin the transformation into proto-warriors. All the first year children need help, but the results, for a generation reared on Power Rangers, are undoubtedly cool.

While the older ones begin their attacking in full helmeted garb, striking and defending patterns, the same every week, over and over again, the younger ones are drilled in the details of how to bow, the angle from hip to head, the tucked in chin, how many steps to take when presenting and squatting with the shinei. Any child whose attention wanders is fiercely shouted at. This is because discipline, control and mental strength are central to Kendo. Some teachers balance this with smiles, with playfulness and affection in the short breaks, and with praise for something well done. Others don’t, relentlessly bellowing and pushing around young teenagers whose technique and attitude they don’t like. Sometimes this looks like bullying, but the kids seem happy to keep coming back each week.

Darth Vader is running the kindergarten. Steiner would have kittens – and the ickle pickle kittens would cry. I am led by my son’s feeling about it, and for now he is happy – apparently he hasn’t reached the age for being shoved around yet. When he does, I hope he shoves back, or leaves.

The younger ones then struggle to wrap their headscarves into a complex turban. I have seen this sleight of hand a hundred times and still can’t see how it works. They have to put their head guard on over this without pushing the scarf off, and to cope with another complex of cords which have to be tied at the back of the head in a huge bow with loops and ends of equal length. Hard enough when you can see what you are doing, and the children’s patience at repeated failures is extraordinary.

My boy’s transformation is complete, and the DS obsessed, laughing lad disappears behind the chrome grill and the padded gloves, into the unbroken stream of Japanese history, submersion in the group, the subjugation of self. This something that I am glad he can experience as a half Japanese boy. On the other hand, it can send a chill of fear down your spine. Does it play to conformism and to conflict with an opponent as a model, rather than co-operation; to rigid routine rather than creativity; and to unquestioning obedience rather than assertive questioning? In the eyes of a liberal westerner, undoubtedly yes.

But then it also increases self–control, formalising aggression into a harmless ritual, two things that English young people struggle with at the moment. It would be hard to survive in the very demanding Japanese work environment without some steel in your spine, tolerance for the long working hours and self abnegation. And I’m not aware of Kendo hooliganism. Millions are not paid to its bratishly skilled adepts, so that millions more people can passively watch, ceding their own striving to symbolic heroes and occasionally breaking out into acts of mindless violence. Sport as cultural hyper-inflation, anyone? Give me and F! Give me an O! Give me an O….

The evening finishes with the teachers facing the long row of children ordered by age, kneeling in silence. The silence extends and thickens, punctured with an explosive reprimand for any child that looses concentration, caught inside a few minutes for what seems an age and extending to the few parents who have stayed.

Then they burst into life, fizzing and whirling like fireworks into the night. They are children again, and the swords are just sticks.


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