The Kendo Adventure
Part 2 – Out of the Frying Pan
By Alex Bennett
In Part 1, I wrote of my arrival in Japan for the first time in 1987 as a Rotary exchange student. The old fella with the golden teeth who met me at Narita Airport trundled me into his Mercedes and drove to downtown Chiba where my host family was waiting. The family was made up of Mum and Dad, and three children. Dad was a rice merchant, older brother was a “ronin (master-less samurai?!) studying his gonads off to get into university”, one sister was about to go to New Zealand on a one year exchange, and the youngest sister was at junior high.
Initially I was nervous about meeting my new family, but wasted no time in smashing cultural barriers with my pioneering Kiwi spirit. It wasn’t as if I did it on purpose, but immediately ran into the house without removing my shoes. I then got my ‘mords wuddled’ ever so slightly as I decided to go out and explore the new neighbourhood. I confidently proclaimed “Tadaima!” (I’m home) instead of “Itte kimasu” (I’m just popping out for a while). An understandable error, but made even more embarrassing by the fact that I had bright red toilet slippers on my feet as I charged outside. Subsequently, the first Japanese phrase that I learned actually in Japan was “Arekku, dame da yo!” (Alec, don’t do that [you mug]!). Ah, the joys of learning the hard way. I embarrassed myself too many times to mention that year.
Before I had time to get myself mentally prepared for the occasion, I was reluctantly taken to my new school the following day. I was about to experience the infamous Japanese school system with all its “exam hell” so often portrayed on television in New Zealand back then. I perhaps would have been a bit more excited by the prospect if the enduring image of Japanese schools was based around the colourful culture of the enigmatic “gyaru” (trendsetting high school chick) as it is today. Back then in the 1980s though, the representation of Japanese school life was a much darker picture with depressing entrance exams, 1000-yard stares, and high rates of youth suicide because of the stress…
The school was called Chiba Municipal Inage High School and it was a good 30 minute drive away from home. Upon arriving, I was marched to the principal’s for inspection (he obviously didn’t like foreigners), and then introduced to the rest of the staff members. I found it difficult to pronounce the all the names let alone remember them. Apart from a few suspicious glares (I later learned these were the English teachers), most seemed totally indifferent. I was saved by the bell, and my homeroom teacher guided me through the corridors to my new classroom. I was the same age as the third year students, but as they were all preparing for those loathsome university entrance exams I was placed in a class two years my junior, for their sake as well as mine.
My class consisted of 40 students, which far exceeded the average 30 student class in New Zealand at the time. I gave a little set speech in front of my new classmates, and despite my awkwardness, they seemed to understand and welcomed me with a very warm round of applause. Whenever exchange students came into our classes in New Zealand no one ever gave a damn, so this reception was a pleasant surprise.
It wasn’t long before I realised what a zoo I was in. Only, I was the rare animal on display. Rumour had gotten around, and during the recess literally hundreds of students came to see the new ‘attraction’. Some plucked up the courage to come and talk with me, while others stood outside the classroom peering through the windows. They seemed so betwixt that I wondered if they had ever seen a foreigner before.
Even when I went to the WC, I was accompanied by a throng of interested onlookers! The corridors resounded with bizarre English phrases not known to me, such as “Harooo, I amu a pen. Hehehe!” I was certainly the centre of attention, but I quickly grew tired of it. When Japanese students visited my old school in New Zealand, it was not exactly an event we got excited about. Maybe a few of the students studying Japanese would try and test their new found communicative skills ‒ “I will go to the seaside tomorrow” (Ashita umi ni ikimasu~) ‒ , or more likely a few of the filthy profanities high school students have a proclivity to discover and remember in one breath, but that would be about the extent of it. Needless to say, this was the first time in my life I had received so much attention. It was a complicated feeling, somewhere between Justin Bieber and a white Rhinoceros.
I managed to survive the confusion for a whole day. At the end of classes I was escorted to a strange room emitting a damp pungent stench, the clackety-clack of sticks beating bodies, and a raucous cacophony of the eeriest and most tortured screams I had ever heard. “Out of the frying pan, it’s where they slaughter the animals!” I thought to myself. This was the kendo training hall that Gregg had mentioned. I entered with nervous trepidation… Perhaps, I should have run.