The Japanese language is supposedly one of the more complex languages, with its three different sets of scripts, which makes it hard to learn for people who had not the good fortune or otherwise to be born into it. Contrary to the popular and somewhat nationalistic perception that it is impossibly hard to learn for foreign people, I have known many who are as fluent in Japanese as they are adroit in using chopsticks, another inconceivable accomplishment. (Incidentally, those types tend to have the audacity to actually savour the hitherto sacred national food, natto.)
Roughly speaking, there are two types among these miraculous linguists: anime fans and martial art enthusiasts, and hapless JETs who found too much time on their hands alone at home during cold winter. Three. Three types. Of the three types, martial art enthusiasts tend to be the most devoted Japanophiles, presumably because of their intense nature, which thrives on adverse circumstances and self-torture.
When I first started college in Dublin, I joined the Aikido Club, no doubt temporarily overcame by homesickness. Much to my surprise, our instructor, a huge Irish man, turned out to be more radically Japanese than most Japanese men. He maintained strict order in his dojo; when it was near the time for lessons, without anyone uttering a command, we would sit down in a neat line in silence, from left to right in the order of our grades, awaiting the instructor’s arrival. No idle chatter during classes, as we took fall after fall in a graceful dance of ki.
Which means, in reality, a gentle grabbing of your opponent’s wrist, who would then gently urge you to take a careful roll on the tatami mats. I always thought of Aikido as a martial art for the softies; none of our club members was a stoically aggressive, martial artist type. That is to say, they did not strike me as macho men/women, not necessarily in physique, though that too, but in mentality. I cannot imagine any of us shouting “I’ll bust your face” in a brawl.
In my final year, our club was led by a girl who was so gentle and slim that you would not expect her to inflict any more violence on others than …well, with her sharp wit. Much to my alarm, however, this delicate flower has turned into a dangerously devout Aikido practitioner lately. She even “fondly” remembers our training weekend, when our instructor made us practice taking rolls endlessly. She bemoans the lack of vigorous treatment by the male population of the dojo.
If I’m honest, however, I do sympathise with her sentiments to some extent. I had toyed with the idea of going back to Aikido myself since I came back to Japan, and the one time I went to a local dojo, the abominable lack of order and discipline entirely disgusted me. Order and discipline. This has to be my inner ultra-right speaking.
What is it about martial arts that turns the laziest of us ever so slightly aggressive to yearn for vigorous training? Is it because of our savage past that we never had? Or is it because martial arts work on our instinct to submerge ourselves in something larger than our individual beings? Can it be that it is akin to religion in that sense? Maybe it is not coincidence that martial art practitioners come across as “devout” about their art. Religious people have their faith; North Koreans have their songs to march along to. Hippies have their marijuana and each other. Japan may not have the backbone of religion or nationalism; but we have martial arts. For hardcore maniacs, and for dyed-in-the-wool softies.
*Disclaimer: I do adore martial arts; just that I cannot personally muster enough ardour to devote myself to them. Also, I firmly believe natto is for everybody, not just for Japanese people.