My Japanese Swordsmanship Training Begins: Part II

Dana Abbott

This is the second edition of an epic five-part series that details the beginning of world-renowned swordsman Dana Abbott's training.

My first day differed for me than it would have for a Japanese student. First of all, I was a foreigner. Second, since I was foreign everyone felt the need to accommodate my aspirations. Japan is so very different than where I was born and raised, and their attitudes are completely opposite in many ways. The semester had just started as all freshman students were in new uniforms and upperclassmen were returning for the start of the new scholastic year in Japan. It was interesting for me to note that school terms began in March instead of September as is done in the USA.

Again, I was in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, the angel on my shoulder had not flown away. As in everything money is the first subject that rears its ugly head. At this point I had to discover how these expenses were going to be figured into my budget.

It came to the point where I was sent to the Registrar to pay for my enrollment into the school. To my huge surprise it was only a couple hundred dollars. With my new school ID in hand I was ready and eager to go. I enquired as to why it was such as small amount in a place where most everything is tremendously expensive. They replied, "Oh it is not about the money…you will pay with your sweat and long hours of training".

The next morning, I eagerly jumped on the train and by coincidence, who do I meet a few miles down the track...but, Shizawa sensei on the 7 AM train from Yokohama to Tokyo, a distance of 16 miles and 34 minutes. Through the sea of commuter bodies, we managed to have a gesturing conversation in route. Shizawa sensei asks what station did you board at? I said Fujigaoka is where I live. Immediately we discovered that we lived just around the corner from each other. What a coincidence that in a city of 16 million people we crossed paths again. Again, my angel was still on my shoulder.

When we detrain and leave the station Shizawa sensei offers to share a taxi with me, which took about 15 minutes. Upon arrival at the university Shizawa sensei leads me through the back entrance into the dojo. The students have already started to gather for the morning session. At this point I am not quite sure what to do or where to go. There I am all dressed up and no place to go! Shizawa sensei noticed that I was wearing inappropriate attire for kendo and I guess he felt sorry for me as I stuck out like a sore thumb.

I guess he did feel sorry for me as he mentioned that there was an old kendogi (kendo uniform) from a student who had left it behind years ago. He said that I was welcome to use it until I could obtain my own. Fortunately, these are "one size fits all" for the most part. It took quite a while for me to adjust my new/old uniform. Walking down to the dojo floor I'm picking and pulling at this new mode of dress reminding myself of some kid being dressed in a Lord Fauntleroy suit. I continue walking down the stairs to the entrance of the dojo. I stop and I bow imitating the students I am following. What a different view from the dojo floor compared to the sensei's viewing area.

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On the floor everyone looks so much taller and tougher and it just surprised the hell outta me as I always thought they were a height challenged nation.

I was then motioned to go to the opposite corner of the dojo where Abe and Shizawa Sensei were sparring and teaching their senior students. I am instructed to wait in line with other senior students as they prepare to cross swords with their headmaster.

I'm almost at the front of the line when I begin to ask myself "what do I do now"? The student in front of me does this, this and this and I ask myself what exactly is this, this and this. To save face, which is very Japanese, I do exactly what the student in front of me says and does.

This is my first moment of truth! I am now standing face to face with Abe sensei. I get down to my knees in a seiza position place my shinai at my side placing both hands in front of me on the floor and bow. "Onegai shimasu" is what I blurted out of my mouth because the student before me did as he bowed. To this day I still don't know what I sounded like to them, but they must have gone along with me.

Needless to say, one of the hardest things for me to do was to get down on my knees and say, "Onegai shimasu". Without hesitation, mimicking my fellow students I bow but it did not come natural to me. Being from Arizona I had never had the occasion to throw myself down on my knees to ask for permission for anything. First of all, the downside of this kneeling would probably scuff up my cowboy boots and second, how and when do I rise. I'm on my knees with my nose pushed to the floor thinking, "This is humiliating". I must look inane groveling like a dog. I also feel I stick out like a sore thumb and I probably do. But to my surprise everyone in the dojo was doing the same thing. This is when I began to really learn the meaning of…showing respect.

Thinking respect is one thing but showing it is an entirely different matter. With my head still close to the floor I continue to hear many individual voices as each student asks for permission to spar with the instructors. Rising from my bow on the wooden floor of the Dojo I continue on with my practicing.

Days passed into weeks and the weeks changed into seasons as I slowly become accustomed and comfortable in my surroundings. Now, to my surprise, I was changing as rapidly as the seasons and becoming more ingrained with each passing day.
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