Hit Me
How far should you go to follow an order?
By: Benjamin Boas | Mar 11, 2010 | Issue: 833 | 2 Comments | 2,132 views
Hit Me
Benjamin Boas is an expert on Japanese gaming.
THE IDEA OF HITTING MY VENERABLE SENSEI IN THE FACE WITH A SWORD DIDN’T SEEM PARTICULARLY POLITE”

Seniority is one of those things in Japan that I can never quite get straight. Back home in the US, it’s all relatively simple: adults address each other by their first names, and occasions requiring formal language are limited.  The only people you have to treat with any real deference are judges and your boss’s boss.

This is not the case in Japan, of course, where the age gap in any particular situation determines everything from what title you bestow upon your conversational partner to how you end your verbs. Even the Japanese-language equivalent of “I” varies depending on your age, gender and social standing relative to the person with whom you are conversing.

Of course, the implications of hierarchy don’t end wit h speech. In the presence of someone significantly high on the chart, like a teacher or martial arts sensei, it gets more complicated. If you are to conform to Japanese cultural norms, these exalted individuals must be treated with the utmost respect. In addition to using only the most polite language, you must strive to appear as deferential as possible. Openly disagreeing with or disobeying anything said to you by a sensei is a big no-no, but the list of things you have to bear in mind goes on and on, enough to fill multiple books—literally. A quick search on Amazon.jp yielded over 100,000 titles containing the word “manner.”

All of these considerations came to a confusing head last month when my 72-year-old Japanese kendo instructor handed me a bamboo sword, stood in front of me sans helmet, and told me to hit him as hard as I could.

“What,” I wondered, as my elderly teacher flared his nostrils, “could possibly be the appropriate response to this?” Clearly I couldn’t refuse; that would be insubordination and an insult. On the other hand, hitting my venerable teacher in the face with a sword didn’t seem particularly polite.“What,” I wondered, as my elderly teacher flared his nostrils, “could possibly be the appropriate response to this?” Clearly I couldn’t refuse; that would be insubordination and an insult. On the other hand, hitting my venerable teacher in the face with a sword didn’t seem particularly polite.

Illustration by Enrique Balducci


“C’mon, what are you waiting for?” the sensei shouted, clearly not appreciating my hesitation. “How will you learn to execute a proper head strike if you don’t know how to aim for the head? Now hit me!” He took his index finger and jabbed it into his forehead, demonstrating where I should be aiming. Each time he pointed, a few wispy gray strands of hair waved around his finger.

“Suppose I do hit him,” I thought. “What’s the proper etiquette for having struck a 72-year-old man in the face? Do I apologize? Do I let him save face by pretending it didn’t happen?” I wondered whether Miss Manners had ever had to cover a subject like this.

“But he asked me to hit him, so I was only doing what I was told,” I reasoned. “Surely I’m not in the wrong if I hit him because he ordered me to. But what if I actually hurt him? I can see the headline now: ‘Crazy American Arrested for Murder—Claims Victim Asked Him to Do It.’”

A shout from the sensei broke me out of my trance. “Don’t just stand there!” he barked in staccato Japanese, as only an angry oyaji can. “Come at me. Do it! Do it now!”

I began to panic. “Wait a minute. What if he’s only getting me to hit him so that he has an excuse to hit me back?” Visions of Full Metal Jacket and bad kung-fu movies danced in my head. “I am about to be beaten up by an old Japanese man. I may as well resign myself to my fate.”

Decision made, I raised my sword, shouted a battle cry, and aimed a blow square at my sensei’s noggin.

He stepped back and I missed completely.

“Haha! Now do it again!” he shouted, and his laughter filled the dojo. He made me repeat the exercise 100 times—each with the same result—before I was allowed to leave. I realized that there hadn’t been much to worry about: how could I, a rank beginner, possibly hope to hit a master?

After practice, I caught up with one of the other instructors, a 5th degree master in his early 50s, to ask him what my correct response should have been. He didn’t understand why I was confused until he realized that my sensei hadn’t been wearing any protective equipment.

“Yeah,” the instructor said, “he’s not supposed to do that. That’s not safe, especially for someone his age.”

“So why doesn’t anyone stop him?” I asked, perplexed.

“Well, he has his ways, and even though I outrank him I can only say so much,” the instructor said with a shrug. “After all, he’s older than me.”

Seniority is one
of those things
in Japan that I
can never quite
ge t s t r a i g ht .
B a c k h ome
in the US, it’s all relatively
simple: adults address each
other by their first names,
and occasions requiring
formal language are limited.
The only people you
have to treat with any real
deference are judges and
your boss’s boss.
This is not the case in
Japan, of course, where the
age gap in any particular
situation determines everything
from what tit le you
bestow upon your conversational
partner to how you
end your verbs. Even the
Japanese-language equivalent
of “I” varies depending
on your age, gender and
social standing relative to
the person with whom you
are conversing.
Of course, the implicat
ions of hierarchy don’t
end wit h speech. In the
presence of someone significantly
high on the chart,
like a teacher or martial arts
sensei, it gets more complicated.
If you are to conform
to Japanese cultural norms,
these exalted individuals
must be t reated with the
utmost respect. In addition
to using only the most polite
language, you must strive
to appear as deferential as
possible. Openly disagreeing
wi th or di sobey ing
anything said to you by a
sensei is a big no-no, but
the list of things you have
to bear in mind goes on and
on, enough to fill multiple
books—l iteral ly. A quick
search on Amazon.jp yielded
over 100,000 titles containing
the word “manner.”
Al l of these considerations
came to a confusing
head last month when my
72-year-old Japanese kendo
inst ructor handed me a
bamboo sword, stood i n
front of me sans helmet, and
told me to hit him as hard as
I could.
“What,” I wondered, as
my elderly teacher f lared
his nostrils, “could possibly
be the appropriate response
to this?” Clearly I couldn’t
refuse; that would be insubordination
and an insult.
On the other hand, hitting
my venerable teacher in
the face with a sword didn’t
seem particularly polite.
“C’mon, what are you
wait ing for?” the sensei
shouted, clearly not appreciating
my hesitation. “How
will you learn to execute
a proper head strike if you
don’t know how to aim for
the head? Now hit me!” He
took his index f inger and
jabbed it into his forehead,
demons t rat ing where I
should be aiming. Each
time he pointed, a few wispy
gray strands of hair waved
around his finger.
“Suppose I do hit him,” I
thought. “What’s the proper
etiquette for having struck a
72-year-old man in the face?
Do I apologize? Do I let him
save face by pretending it
didn’t happen?” I wondered
whether Miss Manners had
ever had to cover a subject
like this.
“But he asked me to hit
him, so I was only doing
what I was told,” I reasoned.
“Surely I’m not in the wrong
i f I hit him because he
ordered me to. But what if I
actually hurt him? I can see
the headline now: ‘Crazy
American Arrested for Murder—
Claims Victim Asked
Him to Do It.’”
A shout from the sensei
broke me out of my trance.
“Don’t just stand there!”
he barked in staccato Japanese,
as only an angry oyaji
can. “Come at me. Do it! Do
it now!”
I began to panic. “Wait
a minute. What if he’s only
getting me to hit him so that
he has an excuse to hit me
back?” Visions of Full Metal
Jacket and bad kung-f u
movies danced in my head.
“I am about to be beaten up
by an old Japanese man. I
may as well resign myself to
my fate.”
Decision made, I raised
my sword, shouted a battle
cry, and aimed a blow square
at my sensei’s noggin.
He stepped back and I
missed completely.
“Haha! Now do it again!”
he shouted, and his laughter
filled the dojo. He made
me repeat the exercise 100
times—each with the same
result—before I was allowed
to leave. I realized that there
hadn’t been much to worry
about: how could I, a rank
beginner, possibly hope to
hit a master?
After practice, I caught
up with one of the other
inst ructors, a 5th degree
master in his early 50s, to
ask him what my correct
response should have been.
He didn’t understand why I
was confused until he realized
that my sensei hadn’t
been wearing any protective
equipment.
“Yeah,” the inst ructor
said, “he’s not supposed to
do that. That’s not safe, especially
for someone his age.”
“So why doesn’t anyone
stop him?” I asked,
perplexed.
“Well, he has his ways,
and even though I outrank
him I can only say so much,”
the instructor said with a
shrug. “After all, he’s older
than me.”

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  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/jamesch/ Charltzy

    Haha, brilliant!

    The thing that I can never get used to is when people use the person’s name who they are talking with.
    For example, if it were in English:

    John: “Hey Steve”
    Steve: “Hi! I just got back from Karate, how about John?”
    John: “Me? I’m just about to go to the Dojo now, but Eric said he had a great time, did Steve?”
    Steve: “Yeah it was awesome!”

    It’s still weird to me!!

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/japaul03/ Paul

    i like the comment as much as the article
    just shows how stupid the jap culture is

    and i really wish you had whacked the old b’stard. your lessons arent teaching you much if you cant hit a pensioner. etiquette… bollox. keep it real

    peace. :P

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