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Saturday, Aug. 2, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Martial and marital arts


"So. . . Do you, like, do karate? Or what?"

I used to be punched with such questions often, always while vacationing in the States and always when trapped in conversation with people whose knowledge of Japan roughly equated their knowledge of the moon.

But these days the questions never come. I am no longer of the karate-kicking age, I suppose. People look at my stomach and think "inflation" rather than "sports." With Japan, the topic tends to be one or the other: martial arts or the economy.

But I have at times been thrown to the mat for what some might call "squandering" my Japan experience.

"You don't do karate?"

"No."

"How about aikido? Or kendo?"

"Uh, no and no."

"Kyudo? Judo? Shorinji? I can't believe you've lived in Japan for so long and have never once tried martial arts!"

Now if they meant marital arts, I could answer, "Yes, I tried once." And I'm still trying, the battle of the sexes being never-ending. But I usually offer up a wiseacre answer like. . .

"I crack my head on culture all the time. So I'll pass on roof tiles."

A line that earns blinks, not smiles. The response that follows always being. . .

"What a waste."

So, yeah, I've never tried martial arts. I've never even been tempted. There's something about body contact that I find very resistible. Maybe it has to do with pain. Or the smell of armpits. In any case, I would rather slam down a beer than another human. I'm better at it too.

But there was a stretch of several years when many of my foreign coworkers flipped over aikido. They would talk endlessly about all the chuckles they got at the dojo. Not to mention the bruises. Then they would elbow me to join in.

"You'll learn self-defense. Handy if someone should rob you."

I pictured a crook turning violent. Especially when he learned how little money I had. But — what crook? Street crime here in those days was about as rare as unicorns. And still is, I think, despite the occasional heinous crime and the media frenzies that follow.

"OK. How about when you go back to the States? How about if a guy jumps you with a gun?"

Well, then, in that case, the only surefire defense would be . . . not to go back to the States.

Next argument: Exercise.

"Look at you. All you do is work. What kind of a life is that? Aikido will fire your metabolism and burn off calories."

But they were wrong. For not only did I work, I also slept. And to fit aikido into my busy schedule would have meant surrendering my snooze time, as the practices fell early in the morning. My metabolism balked at this.

But they saved their clincher for last . . .

"How can you say you've been in Japan without giving this a try?"

A hard question.

I went home and sought the thoughts of my Japanese wife over our Japanese dinner in our Japanese tatami room. She responded in Japanese. The gist of which was this:

"They're nuts."

So now — 25 years later — I am still in Japan, relatively thin regardless of my inflated tummy, and more than relatively safe. All of my old colleagues have drifted Stateside where they triple lock their doors despite their mostly forgotten self-defense skills. They also have mostly forgotten waistlines.

Of course, none of this is aikido's fault. My friends had fun. They learned some things too. I just decided to learn different things.

"Like what?" says my wife. She then rattles off a list of nonmartial Japanese arts in which I have displayed minimal interest: tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, origami, bonsai, pottery, koto and . . .

"And stop. Those are all OK. They just weren't for me."

"And so what was for you? The sofa? The TV? How is that any different than any Lazyboy husband in the States?"

Or, I reply, such husbands in Japan?

"No hobby could validate my being here, no more than it might for our next-door neighbor. You've acknowledged that yourself."

She hesitates. And while she's off balance, I move in.

"It's you. You're my validation. You and the kids."

See! How's that for marital arts!?

Yet, she is not without some skill herself.

"This is not about validation. It's about opportunity. It's never too late to l earn. Why not try your hand at something uniquely Japanese?"

"You are uniquely Japanese."

"I mean something you have a chance at mastering."

Oops. Now, that was a punch I didn't see coming. So now I counter with my finest technique. Which is to change the topic.

Back to my undying lack of passion for martial arts. No, I don't do karate, nor aikido, nor anything.

I crack my head on culture. Not roof tiles. That is enough.



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