Boy’s Love: A Dynamic Expression of Sexuality

By Taylor Drew

Introduction           

The decades following the end of the Second World War marked a significant period of development for Japanese manga. The genres of manga became divided between two primary genres, shounen, and shoujo, for boys and girls respectively, and the art of telling longer running stories became mainstream practice. As well, women began to enter the manga industry rapidly during the 1950’s and 1960’s, which would cause a significant shift in the stories that were told and how they were presented within shoujo manga that was released (Prough 2011:46-48). The stories that were produced in this new style followed patterns of using exotic locations outside of Japan as the main setting and expressing the emotions involved in human relationships, often love triangles between the main character, the heroine, and two boys that she was close to. They also employed a drawing style that remains recognized as a style for shoujo manga. Despite the many changes that took place, it was not until the 1970’s that female manga artists would begin to experiment with the portrayal of kissing and sex in shoujo manga for older teenagers (Prough 2011: 53). However, these initial intimate scenes were not between two people of the opposite sex but rather between two boys.

This new genre of shoujo manga, known as yaoi, shounen ai, and/or boys love depending on time period and context, offered a new type of story to be consumed by the girls that were reading manga at that time. Even though this new genre of shoujo manga was about the love between two boys, it was not about portraying a realistic and loving relationship between two men. Instead, the relationships within boys love manga were symbolic of things desired and things experienced by Japanese girls and women; they were a way for restricted individuals to express their sexuality in text. While the genre has gone through many stylistic changes, especially in recent years, this symbolism can still be seen even in more recent works of boys love manga. By understanding the thematic and stylistic origins of boys love manga and by analyzing some more recent works, it will be possible to see how this symbolism continued on through various dynamic changes in the genre while also developing into something new to accommodate for continuing critic from the gay community and its allies in Japan.

The Origin of Boys Love

            The boys love genre saw its origins in the early 1970’s as a type of mainstream shoujo manga. At the time known as shounen-ai, these stories followed the romance between two beautiful boys. The appearance of these beautiful boys is striking because of the androgynous nature of their appearances; with their long flowing hair and slender bodies their gender appears as ambiguous to the untrained eye. In addition to their genderless appearances, when engaging in intimate activity, the panels of the manga were placed in a way that made their sexual actions even more ambiguous by never directly showing insertion of a penis or other obviously male occurrences (Prough 2011:53). While the appearance of these beautiful boys may bring to question the true nature of their sex, interviews with artists of the genre suggest that in their eyes at least, there is no doubt that these beautifully drawn androgynous boys are male (Welker 2011: 213). None the less, it is likely that the ambiguous appearances of the boys likely helped facilitate an understanding of the characters for the readers.

Additionally, the early settings of these shounen-ai manga were placed in exotic locations just like other shoujo manga of the time. Not unlike other shoujo manga, these exotic locations were typically historical Europe in aristocratic families, all-boys boarding schools, or both. Again like other shoujo manga of the time, the focus was on the emotions and connections made by the main character to others around him.The combination of foreign location and androgynous boys allowed for the mainstream shoujo manga readers to enjoy these early shounen ai stories by distancing them from the sexual  content but also by being relatable which was an overall important accomplishment for manga because intimacy had never been expressed in such a way in manga before (Prough 2011: 54).

            By the 1980’s, shounen ai had left mainstream shoujo manga magazines and began publishing in specialty magazines for the genre. With this new vein of publishing the genre took on a new name courtesy of the publishing industry, becoming the English “boys love” that is primarily used in this essay. Stories about the love between two boys also began to thrive in another market, that of doujinshi, or self-published fanfiction (Prough 2011: 54). In this instance, these self-published works were manga though doujinshi as a term refers to all fan-published material. Within these fan-made works, the genre was known as yaoi, an acronym that stands for “no climax, no ending, no meaning.” This terminology represents the way that these stories were written without much thought or plot. In this case of boys love doujinshi they were typically a quick and steamy after between the two main characters.  These fan-made works were often much more sexually explicit than their counterparts in shounen-ai were originally and as already stated, their sexual encounter was overall the main point of the story.  Many of these fan-made works are now often based off stories in shounen manga, with those released in the Weekly Shounen Jump magazine being especially popular (Saito 2011: 180). Some of these titles include Gintama, Naruto, One Piece, and The Prince of Tennis.  The authors of these particular doujinshi displayed and still do display a special ability to shift the friendly bonding of shounen manga and turn it into a romantic encounter between two teenage boys. The development of these doujinshi as separate to published boys love is important because of the way they influenced setting and also sexual content in commercially published works. Boys love manga was already evolving continuously right from the start based on competition between the producers and the consumers.

 Experiencing Sex in Boys Love

            The boys love manga that was produced from the 1990’s until today has been able to become much more sexually explicit in part due to the influence of the market of self-published manga (McLelland 2000: 19). While not all boys love manga has sexually explicit content it is very common and much more common than it was in the past. The role of the beautiful boy has also changed. While most of the boys shown in boys love manga, there is less emphasis on androgynous features than there was before; there is little doubt by anyone that the characters are male, even without clear display of a penis. A result of this is a division between roles that have become more clearly visible to the readers, a division of roles that is essential to understand current boys love narratives about sex more clearly.

 In the vast majority of boys love manga, the relationship between the two boys is understood in terms of their individual roles as either the uke or the seme. The seme is recognized as the dominant, aggressive, male role in the relationship and the uke is seen as the passive feminine role (Saito 2011: 184). In this dichotomy, while both boys are more clearly masculine in their features, the uke typically has more feminine features such as longer hair and larger eyes as well as being more emotional while the seme shows more masculine traits. The manga The World’s Greatest First Love, by Shingiku Nakamura, is a good example of this type of character description. The story follows two men that reconnect ten years after a high school love gone wrong in the editing department of a publishing company where they are now both employed. The seme, Masamune, has a squared chin and always remains relatively expressionless even in some of their more steamy encounters.

On the other hand, the uke, Ritsu,has a more triangular chin and easily blushes in romantic situations because of embarrassment (Nakamura 2015). While not all boys love manga change the appearance between the two roles to such an extent, it is usual for the features of the uke to be more cute and feminine than those of the seme both in appearance, mannerisms, and even personal skills and interests. These personality traits as assigned by role are prominent in most boys love manga that has been published in recent years by commercial publishers.

These appearances and personality traits also translate to what sexual role each character performs. The more masculine and dominant seme plays the role of the penetrator, and the more passive and feminine uke plays the role of the penetrated (Saito 2011: 184). By framing the relationship between the two boys is this way, the authors of the manga are placing them within a very stereotypical heterosexual relationship structure. The more masculine and dominant seme is almost exclusively the character that initiates a relationship and then sexual contact, sometimes initiated by platonic teasing or despite his insecurities about his sexuality. When the two boys inevitably have sex, the uke will be on the bottom, usually facing the seme and laying underneath him. The story No Touching At All by Kou Yoneda is an example of a story that follows this format. The main character Shima is a closeted gay man that has moved from his old company to a new company after a relationship with a straight man gone sour. He is therefore timid and shy because of his past experiences and catches the attention of the laid back and apparently straight section chief Togawa. Togawa is initially interested in Shima platonically because of his cute behavior but eventually falls in love with him (Yoneda 2011). The first time they have sex is somewhat of an accident and uses sexual actions that are stereotypical to heterosexual sex. The seme, in this case, Togawa, is the dominant role in the relationship that is leading on the relationship despite Shima’s hesitations. None the less it is clear that even though their first sexual experience happens largely by mistake, the experience was still pleasurable for both people involved.

By placing boys love relationships into the frame of a heteronormative relationship, the readers are able to understand what is happening between the two characters on an emotional level, but in a sense, the couple is not understood within traditional heterosexual relationship values. Instead, the boys love couple is seen as functioning within a loving and equal relationship that cannot be experienced outside of their world (Saito 2011: 180). While the roles between the uke and the seme may seem to be quite strict for determining character personality and sex roles, the fact that they are both able to feel immense pleasure from sex is an important aspect of sex that is presented in boys love manga. As a genre that is directed to straight women, the perceived equality portrayed within the boys love genre is said to be a response to traditional sexual restrictions for Japanese women (Welker 2014: 267). Therefore the narratives in boys love manga became a place for both the authors and readers to express their sexuality freely. In a society that there is still great pressure for women get married and have children within a certain time frame which puts a heavy restriction the sexual liberty of women who are expected to be primarily mothers and wives within a limited frame of time.

In comparison, men have more freedom sexually in Japan even though they are also expected to get married (McLelland 2000: 14). In this sense, the boy becomes the perfect canvas for describing the ideal sexual situation, that of mutual pleasure, for women because men traditionally have more sexual freedom than women. While it is true that the appearances of the boys have become less ambiguous, the placement of the panels in the manga still leaves a lot to the imagination. That with the combination of the more feminine features of the uke makes it easy to imagine how a woman could relate to and desire what this character may experience. A sexual experience between the two partners as portrayed in many boys love manga is, therefore, able to illustrate the possibility of giving and receiving pleasure without fear of shame. This sex acts as an extension of love as well as a confirmation of feelings and is a very important aspect of sexuality in boys love manga.

While many interactions in boys love manga are focused on the mutual development of feelings between the seme and the uke through normal means, there are also works that are much more violent in nature that seem to work in contrast to this image of pure and mutual love. These aggressive sexual situations occur within a variety of different scenarios that usually involve the negative emotions of the seme or an outside individual that has enacted some type of violent act, psychological and/or physical towards the uke. For example, in No Touching At All, Shima’s initial fear of being in a relationship with Togawa and people discovering that he is gay stems from the sour relationship that he experienced at his previous workplace because of his love for a straight man. There is also a point in the manga where this fear does not allow him to trust Togawa’s love and the two have rather aggressive sex for the “last time” in which they do not face each other in mutual pleasure but instead Shima is used as a release for frustration and violently taken from behind (Yoneda 2011). Another much more graphic and violent example of aggression in boys love manga can be seen in the series that in English known as Caste Heaven by Chise Ogawa. As the title of the manga alludes to, the main characters of the series attend a Japanese high school that the students run using a caste system. The main character Azusa has always been the King of the caste but when the next caste game begins he is tricked by the Jack, Karino, and plummets to the lowest level of the caste after being pulled from the game by a situation where he is gang-raped by a group of boys at the school. His subjugation continues as he is targeted by students who could not go against him when he was King. Karino, who has become the King, promises to protect him on the condition that Azusa will become his personal sex slave (Ogawa 2015). Put into this role Azusa is subjugated over and over again to the whims of Karino who simultaneously protects him and sexually abuses him as his own personal public toilet. In this type of situation, the dominance of the seme towards the uke is exaggerated and intensified, but they still fit into the general guidelines of the roles, even though Azusa is originally portrayed as being dominant.

Albeit disturbing to certain readers, this type of story is also essential in understanding sexual narratives in boys love manga. Unlike the example of Shima and Togawa who symbolized sex that was desired, the type of violence experienced by Azusa acts as a way for readers to become spectators of violence rather than be victimized by such an incident (McLelland 2000: 20). The acts committed against Azusa by Karino can be seen as a method of revenge as well as a way to subjugate an inferior to elevate status. While Azusa begins by appearing more dominant, he gradually gains more and more characteristics that are associated with women, and his new status as subjugated may reflect the way that certain Japanese women feel about the possibility of their position. By being the viewer instead of the victim, reading about these actions becoming committed against a boy in the story may provide the readers with comfort or some type of twisted empowerment by acting as a fictionalized revenge against a system that works against them in cases of sexual violence. As Caste Heaven is an ongoing series, it is hard to say how the story will end, but if using other manga of this style and by this author as a guide, the story will end in either a mutual love or it may really just be a case of sexual abuse with no alternative motive by Karino. These options bring to question the feelings of the authors as they write these types of stories; are they merely a kink or is there some deeper and darker frustration that fuels their creation? Regardless of what the answer may be, the portrayals of aggressive sex in boys love manga as violent, and abuse can be seen as symbolic of the suppression felt by many Japanese women in Japan.

Boys Love Moving Forward

            With increasing popularity and stories that reach out to many types of female readers, the boys love genre has been able to expand far beyond being a subgenre of shoujo manga. While unstable, the market has expanded to include many different forms of boys love narratives including anime adaptations, novels, PC and video games, voice-only drama CD’s, live action movies, and other boys love related character merchandise as sold in stores such as Animate in Ikebukuro.  As already explained, sexually explicit content as also moved out of doujinshi and into publisher released boys love manga.  While boys love films are not new, there has been a great about of recent success, especially with the release of the movie adaptation of No Touching At All last year that this year was rereleased for additional screening (Taiyou Garden 2015). This level of success has likely contributed to an increased released of live-action adaptations of manga such as Seven Days and Wait for Me at Udagawachō. With the release of live action films that are more popular, the fans and genre of boys love will only become more visible from now on. None the less, these fans remain to stigmatize in Japanese society until today because they are essentially seen as consuming gay pornography. This stigmatization makes a full evaluation of the boys love market impossible because many fans consume boys love in secret as not to be shamed by their acquaintances that are also not fans (Saito 2011: 176). This expansion also represents an increased importance of the symbolism and representations of perceived equality in boys love manga as well as approaching issues of gender fluidity.

            This increased attention has also affected the types of narratives that are seen within boys love manga today. It was already shown how the development of doujinshi influenced the amount of explicit sexual activities shown in boys love manga, but the exposure to critics also affected the narratives that were being told. These types of criticisms can be cited as far back as the early 1990’s to both gay men in Japan and their supporters criticizing what they claimed as completely fictional and unrealistic representations of homosexual relationships (Nagaike 2015: 65). More and more often, the main characters of boys love manga are openly gay from the start, such as Shima who was previously described. Shima’s situation also shows an increased representation of some of the problems and fears that gay men in Japan may have to face such as alienation at the workplace (Yoneda 2011). Previously published stories often diminished or ignored the seriousness of these issues real life and important issues. While No Touching At All displays some of these improvements, other works have taken it a step further, perhaps as the pioneers of something completely new. One such work is called Koi Monogatari, meaning “love story” in English. This story is told through the perspective of Hasegawa, a high school student who discovers that one of his classmates, Yamato, is gay when he catches him stroking the hair of one of his friends. Given his carefree personality, Hasegawa is initially shocked because his friend is the subject of interest but gradually gets to know Yamato and starts to wish for his happiness (Tagura 2015). In becoming friends with Yamato, Hasegawa is able to learn more about some very real struggles and insecurities that gay young men have and comes to realize that there is nothing wrong with being gay because that is just the way they are; they cannot do anything to change it even if they want to. This narrative suggests that there are authors in the boys love community that are starting to take the lived experiences of gay men very seriously and are being to incorporate that narrative into the genre through an understandable shoujo manga style lens.

Conclusion

            From the beginnings of shoujo manga following the Second World War and the introduction to shounen ai narratives in the early 1970’s, boys love as a genre has gone through many dynamic changes since its creation. The genre that began sexual expression in shoujo manga developed over the years from ambiguously gendered boys that participated in equally ambiguous sex, to some less ambiguous and much more sexually explicit. Even with that level of change, boys love as a genre was still able to maintain the symbolism that it originated with, the narratives of expressing restricted female sexually and subjugation. These narratives have remained relatively unchanged as since through Shima and Togawa, Ritsu and Masamune, and Karino and Azusa. Boys love has always been a way for women to voice their dissatisfaction and also a way for them to experience their desire through fiction. More recently, the genre has expanded the way that it has reached its audience, making boys love have even more influence over the way in which participants express their sexuality through fiction. However, the dynamic changes of the boys love genre are not stopping with just increased styles of expression but also increasing the type of narratives that are being told. While the genre may not be and may never be able to be completely embraced by gay men in Japan given its shoujo feeling, this does not discount the fact that more and more narratives that express the sexuality of gay men in Japan are being released such as the story of Yamato by Tohru Tagura. All of these narratives, regardless of homophobic tones or not, are an important representation and expression of realities and desires of sexual equality in Japan. While it cannot be understood now how far the influence of boys love will expand, the genre is without a doubt an important place for those that are restricted to express sexuality without worry or fear.

References Cited

McLelland, Mark J.

2000 The Love Between ‘Beautiful Boys’ in Japanese Women’s Comics. Journal of Gender Studies 9(1): 13-25. EBSCOhost. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.library.smu.ca

Nakamura, Shingiku

2015 The World’s Greatest First Love. Adrienne Beck, trans. San Francisco: SuBLime.

Ogawa, Chise

2015 Kasuto hevun. Tokyo: Libre Shuppan.

Prough, Jennifer S.

2011 Straight from the Heart. United States of America: University of Hawai’i Press.

Saito, Kumiko

2011 Desire in Subtext: Gender, Fandom, and Women’s Male-Male Homoerotic Parodies in Contemporary Japan. Mechademia 6: 171-191. Project Muse. http://muse.jhu.edu/

Tagura, Tohru

2015 Koi monogatari. Tokyo: Gentosha Comics.

Taiyou Garden

2015 News. http://www.doushitemo.com/news.html

Welker, James

2011 Flower Tribes and Female Desire: Complicating Early Female Consumption of Male Homosexuality in Shōjo Manga. Mechademia 6: 211-228. Project Muse. http://muse.jdu.edu/

2014 Beautiful, Borrowed, and Bent: “Boys’ love” as girls’ love in shōjo manga. In Gender and Japanese Society: Critical Concepts in Asian Studies Volume IV. Dolores P. Martinez, eds. Pp. 256-281. New York: Routledge.

Yoneda, Kou

2011 No Touching At All. Jocelyn Allen, trans. California: Digital Manga Distribution.

From 98-Pound Weakling to Black Belt

The author is thrown during the 2012 National Yoshinkan Demonstration
The author is thrown during the 2012 National Yoshinkan Demonstration

 

By Benjamin Boas

Mou ikkai! Do it again!

Punching someone properly is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It was not enough to simply drive my fist forward and connect with the target. No, when selected to play the role of the model attacker for the Aikido training of a Japanese police officer, this is nowhere near sufficient. Hips must be aligned with shoulders. The wrist must only extend at the peak of the strike. And I must always, without fail, put my full weight into the punch, driving my front knee forward, as if it is the last punch I will ever make. “Chigau! Chigau!” my teacher screamed. Wrong, wrong!

Everything I was doing was wrong. I had to focus every fiber of my being on what the Fieldman, the head teacher, was saying to me. In all things his word was final; in all things he was right. “What you are throwing is not a punch,” he said as he towered over me. I knelt obediently on my knees. “What you are throwing is shit!” I planted my face into the mat of the Tokyo dojo in apology.

This was yet another day in the 11-month senshusei (専修生) course, the professional instructor training course of the Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu Dojo (養神館合気道本部道場), known to be one of the hardest martial arts courses in the world. Participants are taken from the absolute basics to a black belt and instructor certification in less than a year. The process to become a black belt in most martial arts normally takes several years of training. Yoshinka Akido typically takes four. But the full-time senshusei course is not normal. Training like the live-in dojo students of a foregone age, we braved 8 hours of exhaustion and injury day-in and day-out. My day as a punching model ended like many days did, running around the mats with a rag in one hand and disinfectant in the other. I cleaned the blood that had spattered out of my knuckles, rubbed raw from hundreds of full-contact punches. Far from thinking about the pain, my only concern was that if I did not work fast enough the Fieldman or his assistants would see the red spots and yell at me for having carelessly sullied the mats yet again.

If you had asked me anytime before 2011 if I would consider joining a program like senshusei, I would have laughed. Me? The computer nerd who only started studying Japanese in high school because he wanted to play the video games and read the comics that hadn’t come out in America? The self-confessed “otaku” who spent whole days in the giant video arcades in Japan hunched over a screen? Prior to Yoshinkan I had never set foot in a dojo, let alone thought I would one day be a certified instructor. In fact, I had pretty much given up on myself athletically.

The author at 98 pounds
The author at 98 pounds

Secondary school for me was an all around horrible time of life. I spent more than half of school involved with junior varsity level athletics, but never achieved any level of success. When I think back to these times, I mainly recall struggling to keep up with stronger classmates, most of whom had a year of puberty on me. It’s easy to realize in retrospect how much of a difference one year of growth can make in athletic ability but I couldn’t fully comprehend this as an 12-year-old preparing to start 8th grade. What I could comprehend was that I needed to pick a sport. Afraid of the beating I would receive were I to pick football, I chose wrestling, where at least only one person could beat on me at a time.

Junior high school wrestling was not too bad. I had a wonderful wrestling coach in 8th grade named Scott Schulte who encouraged me to never let myself down. The only athletic figure in my teenage years to ever take me seriously, Coach Schulte was one of my favorite memories of that year, often letting us take breaks from practice as he told us anecdotes from his side business installing stereo equipment for Japanese clients (“You must unprug machine!”). At the time, my only athletic successes in life had come from using my Nintendo controller to propel an 8-bit avatar to victory in the many video games that cluttered my room, so I always enjoyed hearing Coach’s stories. Unfortunately, I remained as inept at the end of the year as when I started, and Coach Schulte left the school soon after.

The rest of my coaches for junior high and high school sports – cross country, track and field, and wrestling—were not as supportive. Some tried to help me as I flailed around with a javelin or discus, but most gave up quickly. Many were content to simply watch me run clumsily about.

My first high school wrestling coach was a good man who simply didn’t know what to do with someone as uncoordinated as my 98-pound weakling self. While he had worked with improving athletes before, it was as if I was the first specimen of a completely talentless teenager he had ever seen. I enjoyed the wrestling itself and can still remember techniques after not having done them for close to 15 years, but nothing I ever did was right and most of it was so wrong it didn’t even merit a comment from him. When I attempted to replicate the moves he had just demonstrated, he would watch from the side and just kind of shake his head.

The one time I remember him actually correcting me is during the last day of practice in 10th grade. We were going over one of the fundamental techniques in high-school wrestling: the one-handed takedown. This was one of the first moves a young wrestler learns and I had known how to do it for almost two and a half years at that point. Of course, like all of the other moves, I still couldn’t do it right. I remember being told to do the move again and doing it wrong— and then being told to do it again and losing my balance and falling. The coach then turned to me and said, “Ok, Ben. Last chance. This is your absolute last chance to get something right before the end of the year. Now do it right!” I took a deep breath, focused, and looked my partner straight in the eye, prepared to do it right and show the coach I was capable of doing at least one basic move.

I did it wrong.

This wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the coach’s reaction. Instead of consoling an obviously miserable me or even getting angry, he said, “Well, I guess that’s that,” and walked off. That was the last wrestling practice I ever attended. This was also the moment that I remember more than anything else from my teenage brush with athletics: me failing and the coach walking away. I didn’t even merit a correction because I was just that bad.

While my failures with the wrestling team were probably the latent trigger for my interest in martial arts, it’s my memories of the running teams I was on that were most painful.

 

3-track
10th grade track and field. Author is sitting in the front row, second from the left.

 

Running wasn’t an organized sport in my school until the beginning of high school so I waited until the spring of 9th grade to finally join the track team. I was very excited about this. I learned all of the coach’s names before the first day. I learned all of the captain’s names and what events they did. I figured I should be able to make captain myself in 3 or 4 years.

Things did not happen this way. I initially only did running events and although I wasn’t the slowest person, I was the slowest boy. Far from making varsity, or even junior varsity, I was relegated with the other underdeveloped boys and girls (mostly girls) to “thirds,” where our main job was to fill in slots at track meets for the less-popular events so that the races looked full. I was normally assigned to the hurdles, a race I grew to enjoy, having remembered playing the virtual equivalent so many times as a child on Nintendo’s World Class Track Meet. My skills with the Power Pad did not, however, translate to a physical track and I performed pitifully, often finishing in double the time it took the 1st place finisher to reach the goal line.

Like any human being, I have had plenty of failures in life and these sprinting non-successes would not stand out so much had it not been for the nightmarish presence of my cross-country coach. Sure there was the track-and-field coach who reminded us all that a sports team is like the human body, “and there’s only room for one asshole and that’s me.” There was also that fencing coach who insisted that any student who didn’t practice enough to get blisters on his hands was “not an athlete of mine.” But this was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the sheer malevolent force of my high school’s most successful running coach in history, the aptly named Mr. Swift.

To put it simply, the man had presence. This was probably the main reason why our school began winning championship after championship soon after he became head coach. Runners treated him as if he were a demi-god, all chipping in to buy team T-shirts that read, when viewed from the back by an opposing runner they had passed, “You’re not Mr. Swift.” Standing at 6 feet with an ever-present smirk visible under his Lucifer-esque goatee, Mr. Swift had certain beliefs – namely in winning. He did not believe in many other things, including the concept of an injury.

“It has come to my attention that some of you are not attending every practice,” he said during a team meeting, pausing to hold one finger to his left nostril and blow the contents of its pair onto the grass beside him. The issue at hand, which had given rise to the team meeting, was that one of the captains had taken off for a sprained foot. “I will not have my captains setting a bad example. I do not believe in injury.” The captain in question, Keanu, who was normally Mr. Swift’s star pupil, shifted nervously beside him. From that point forward, injuries on men’s cross country team ceased to exist and were replaced by shame, the only recognized reason for an athlete’s absence.

Mr. Swift soon took an interest in me as the slowest member of his “pack” and began sending “encouragement” my way. During roll call, my name was left off the roster. After a few times, I spoke up and Mr. Swift grinned and replied, “Oh! I forgot Benboas!” pronouncing my first and last names as if they were a single word. From then on I was either “Benboas” or “Boas,” the only two names I now dislike being called.

Another day, as I huffed and puffed my way up yet another trip up the long slope leading from the road to my alma mater, Mr. Swift would trot gracefully behind me, always staying only a few steps away so that I could hear the jazz-like crooning he used to remind me of the task at hand.

Oh why do I even try
That hill is just so high
It’s just too hard for me
Why won’t he let me be?

At one point I asked him what song he was quoting. He blithely replied that he had written it on the spot for me.

This “encouragement” continued for some time, but Mr. Swift realized that a special case such as me required special attention and thus decided to assign his top acolyte, Keanu, to supervise my “improvement.” The captain of the running team, Keanu, was everything I wasn’t. He was tall; I wasn’t. He was fast; I wasn’t. He was good-looking. I was covered in pimples. Keanu had a girlfriend and would regularly discuss with his teammates the potential demerits of exhausting yourself by having sex before a track meet. The closest I had ever come to sex was asking out my math class partner and being told that she was a lesbian.

While Mr. Swift’s methods of encouraging me to move faster were somewhat subtle, Keanu eschewed indirect shaming for out-and-out bullying. Runners under Keanu’s command would shadow me as I struggled along, throwing rocks at my head and then giggling when I turned around, saying that I must have kicked the dirt up myself “because you were running so fast.” One day while dealing with shin splints, Keanu decreed that because I was moving so slowly, I should spend the rest of practice out of sight in the nearby construction workers’ port-o-potty. After this day, another hated moniker was added to my list of nicknames: “Royal Flush.”

It was a rainy day when Keanu decided to unleash his worst on me. We were running around the lacrosse field in the pouring rain, because Mr. Swift apparently did not believe in unfit weather conditions, either. As we ran through a particularly muddy patch, Keanu stopped. He looked up at the sky for a moment in silence, raindrops pelting his face, then at the rest of the runners, and then at me. He seemed to be considering something. Then, suddenly, the rhythm of the raindrops was broken by his clarion call:

“It’s beat up Boas day!”

All of a sudden, I was surrounded by muddy figures. The pushing immediately began and I was thrown from runner to runner, struggling to keep from falling into the mud as a cackling Keanu hovered beside me kicking sludge high into my eyes. Slipping and sliding as I tried to keep my balance, all I could think about was how much I hated Keanu. I hated his stupid laugh, I hated his talent. I hated everything about him, and craved to be the one inflicting punishment on him for once. Finally gaining purchase on the ground, I ripped myself free from the pushing and charged him, yelling as loud as I could, consumed by rage as I tried to get my hands on him. My mind was blank with pure unadulterated rage as I lunged forward at Keanu. Once, just once, I was going to be the strong one. I was going to be the one in control.

Keanu waited for me to get a foot away from him before neatly jumping back, laughing as I finally lost my balance and fell into the mud, my yell turning into a pathetic gurgle. Keanu went back to kicking mud on me and then, satisfied with his work, rallied the team and ran off without me. It was the most powerless moment of my life. I will never forget the rage and frustration I felt then. Like so many other times, I was a failure and there was nothing I could do about it.

I dropped out of the running team the next year and spent the last two years of high school having nothing to do with organized sports, instead doubling my focus on video games. Deciding that I wanted to be able to play video games that had not yet been brought over from Japan, in my senior year I successfully petitioned my principal to allow me to study Japanese and the next year went off to college as an East Asian Studies major. Some years later I graduated and found a way to move to Japan, the video game capital of the world. Having moved to the homeland of Mario and all of my virtual athletic successes, I thought I might be able to find solace from my physical failures. But during all those years, the rage and hurt never went away. I wondered what Keanu was up to, if he ever faced restitution for what he had done. I wondered what would happen if I ever met him again. Of course, even if I were able to confront him, what could I do about it? I wasn’t capable of harming anything, let alone someone bigger than me.

The mind works in mysterious ways. I had never thought I’d wind up doing athletics again, but after several years working in Japan, my subconscious sprung a trap on me. After a bad breakup and subsequent existential crisis, everything seemed pointless. I was so desperate to get out of my head that I told a good friend that I would try “anything” to get my ex off of my mind. “As long as you’re in Tokyo, why not try Yoshinkan?” he said. The very next day I called the dojo to ask if I could join. After receiving a brief reply in the affirmative, I informed them that I was coming over right then. I did not tell the man on the phone that I had very little idea what Yoshinkan was. But my subconscious seemed to have had a good idea.

 

1-Flip

 

Yoshinkan is a branch school of Aikido, a Japanese martial art that is known for being non-confrontational. Founded by Morihei Ueshiba in the early 20th century, it is one of the newest Japanese martial arts and arguably the most unique. Instead of defending by dodging or counter-attacking, Aikido practitioners use the energy of their opponents’ attacks against them, redirecting their energy in such a way that not only is the attacker subdued, but also left unharmed. Philosophically, Aikido is perhaps superior to all other martial arts in that, if done right, it results in the fight never having occurred in the first place. This philosophical side is probably what Aikido is most known for in the West. Most of the time the Aikido that is taught in America is presented as very peaceful and harmonious; many of the techniques looks almost like a martial arts version of ballet.

The Yoshinkan School is a bit different. Founded shortly after the end of World War II, it quickly grew to prominence as the dojo where the Tokyo Metropolitan Police sent their instructors to be trained. Instead of smooth techniques that flow peacefully, Yoshinkan practitioners focus on form and precision, preferring to do a technique powerfully rather than peacefully. Although the school is no different from mainstream Aikido in that the aim is to defend from an attack without injuring the attacker, Yoshinkan tends to cause a lot more pain along the way— non-injurious pain, but pain nonetheless.

Yoshinkan was founded by Gozo Shioda, known to be one of Ueshiba’s top disciples. Gozo was known as the “god of martial arts” back in Japan’s post-war period and is the only person to have been awarded the top dan level in Aikido by the International Martial Arts Federation. Although barely over 5 feet fall, Gozo was a monster in his heyday, taking down everyone from yakuza gangsters to judo masters. After the war, he began his own dojo, specializing in teaching Japan’s growing police and corporate security forces.

Gozo’s skills were so amazing that he soon became legendary. Famous figures ranging from the Japanese crown prince to Mike Tyson visited his dojo. When Robert Kennedy made a visit to Japan, he ordered his 6-foot-tall bodyguard to face Gozo on the mats. Although a full foot shorter, Gozo easily pinned him down – much in the way a spider effortlessly spins a fly into its web. The man was a true master.

Of course, it being my first day at the dojo, I was a long way from mastery. Beginners in Yoshinkan are drilled in a series of six basic movements to develop body coordination and lower-body strength. Although simple, actually doing the movements is brutal. All six emphasize a low center of gravity while extending the front knee, putting as much weight as possible forward while keeping the back straight. It’s like doing a forward lunge, but in a completely controlled way in which the final hyper-extended pose is held.

The worst of these six movements is a horrible number called hiriki-no-yosei-ni (肘力の養成二). Imagine being precariously perched all the way on your right knee, lunging all the way forward with your arms held up in front of your head. From here, you slowly shift your hips 180 degrees while extending your left arm directly forward as your weight settles onto your left knee. You’ve gone from being extended on one knee to being extended on the other, keeping your center of gravity down the whole time. Holding this position for any amount of time causes your knees, arms, and hips to burn.

It was this burning which was at the core of my relationship with the Fieldman. The head of the main Yoshinkan dojo, the Fieldman, was a piece of work. He came to Tokyo from the countryside hoping to find a martial arts master to apprentice under and found one in Gozo Shioda, the founder of Yoshinkan. The Fieldman then spent the next ten years living within the dojo itself, tending to Gozo’s every need and dedicating himself to the man and his practice.

The Fieldman, like Gozo, was not tall at all. He was also not much of a talker. Shying away from long lectures, he preferred body language to communicate. So when he came over to me struggling to move correctly, instead of telling me what to do, he pushed down on my hips as low as they went and then slowly pulled on my outstretched arms so that my center of gravity was gradually moved further and further forward. My knees began to burn more and more, and my body began to gradually shake and shake from the pressure.

And then, I fell. Just like so many times before.

From my vantage point on the ground, I looked up to see the Fieldman looking down at me. His lips slowly formed a round shape. “Hoo!” He half-hooted, half-laughed at me as he turned his back on me to walk towards another practitioner.

Well, I thought to myself as I got back up to my feet, I guess nothing ever really changes. Another attempt at something athletic. Another failure. And another teacher giving up on me.

With thirty minutes still on the clock until the end of the training session, I figured I didn’t have anything better to do but try doing hiriki-no-yosei-ni again and slowly eased my way back into the painful position, closing my eyes to calm myself from the strain.

When I opened my eyes the Fieldman was in front of me. “Hip down,” he said as he again pushed my lower back down so that my center of gravity was as low as it could painfully go. “Knee bend,” he said as he pulled my hands forward so that I was yet again precariously teetering on the brink of falling. My knees burned. My body once again shook from the strain. And then, I fell again.

“Hoo!” hooted the Fieldman as he looked down at me again and wandered off.

Not really understanding what had just happened, I got into position again only to find that the Fieldman was already behind me guiding me back into a body posture that I had now decided was actually impossible for me to maintain. But no matter how many times I fell, as soon as I was up again the Fieldman was ready for me, helping me to face the impossible yet again.

While changing out of my martial arts uniform after class, I tried to wrap my head around what had happened that day. I had failed, and people had laughed at me. This much I was used to, but it didn’t usually happen multiple times in a session.

From then on, I started going to all the Fieldman’s classes.

As the weeks went along, I continued my twice-weekly pilgrimage to the dojo to huff and puff as the Fieldman continued to chuckle at my attempts to become adept at the basics. Eventually, I progressed to actual techniques, although these were not very effective. “Your technique should be strong, but it’s weak!” the Fieldman would say while pointing at my partner who had been unaffected by my joint lock. “Your partner is supposed to be straining, but he’s relaxing!” He then bent his arm behind his back to imitate being held in my hold and then used his other hand to mime smoking a cigarette, emphasizing how ineffective I had been. Mou ikkai! “Again!”

This routine continued for some time. As I became a regular, I started to become familiar with the other members of the dojo. There was the 64-year-old black belt who loved Aikido for its accessibility, having only started four years earlier at the age of sixty. There were the office staff, who were all black belts themselves. And then there were the senshusei.

Part of a program, which dates back over fifty years, the Yoshinkan senshusei are a special group of students who undertake an Aikido apprenticeship. Unlike regular members of the dojo who can come and go as they please, senshusei must treat their training as a full-time job, coming in early five times a week to clean the dojo before beginning their training, which involves at least four hours on the mats. Made up mostly of full-time policemen with an emphasis on those with riot duty, the senshusei course had opened itself to foreigners twenty years ago in the hopes of spreading Gozo’s teachings abroad.

I soon met two foreigners taking the course that year, a Canadian and a Scotsman. From their heavily battered arms and constant exhaustion, it was clear that the course was not regular training. Whereas I had struggled with maintaining hiriki-no-yosei ni for ten seconds, senshusei from their first month are forced to hold it for close to sixty seconds multiple times an hour. Participants toughen their arms by repeatedly striking them against their partners’ and regularly participate in usagi tobi (うさぎ跳び), rabbit jumps, an exercise so bad for your knees that it was banned in all Japanese schools thirty years ago.

The course is, to put it bluntly, a year of hell. Known throughout the martial arts world as one of the toughest courses on Earth, the dropout rate for the course is close to 40 percent. One day in the locker room I asked the Scotsman what the toughest part of the course was. He looked at me and gave a weary shrug. “It’s not how bad you get beat up. It’s showing up every day. Every damn day. The slog. That’s what gets you.”

Weeks turned into months and I continued my visits to the dojo. January came along and still dealing with my existential crisis, I decided that my job as an academic researcher was pointless as well. I had no idea what to do instead and surprised myself by beginning to consider what would happen if I were to join the senshusei course.

God knows why I thought this, since I was bad. I was really bad. Really, really bad. I couldn’t do a single technique right, my break falls were more like thud-falls and seiza (正座), the kneeling position that forms the basic stance of half the techniques, was so painful for me that I would keel over after two minutes of it. Although it had been over ten years since my wrestling coach wrote me off, I felt as if nothing had changed. I could not do a single thing right and there was nothing I could do about it.

Oddly enough, there was something very freeing about this realization. If my studies were all pointless and my efforts at training completely fruitless, then in effect I had nothing to lose by training for a year since anything else I would do was pointless anyways. I had become so depressed that in believing everything was impossible to succeed at, I had ironically made it possible for myself to do anything.

But even this sense of existential bravery wasn’t enough to keep my hands from shaking as I approached the Fieldman during the only occasion I had to see him outside of formal training: the annual party held near the end of that year’s senshusei course. I held a beer bottle in one hand as I approached so that I could offer to pour his drink, giving myself an excuse to ask him the question that had been on my mind all month: “Do you think I might be able to join the course?”

I politely got his attention and, after ritually pouring him a glass, asked my question. He took a sip of the beer and then looked at me. He spoke slowly. “To be senshusei you must be physically tough,” he said. “And also mentally tough.” Before he could say anything else, another student had come up offering another refill. I was left alone to ponder the meaning of the words, “mentally tough.” In keeping with my earlier thoughts, I decided to take it as follows: Even if I spent the year failing every test and not being able to do anything, as long as I didn’t quit, then I would have been “mentally tough.” And so, without anything better to do for the next 11 months, I handed in my application to become a mushikera (虫けら), a worm at the very bottom of the totem pole in one of the most hardcore dojos in the world.

 

Senshusei class of 2013. Author is front row, 2nd from right.
Senshusei class of 2013. Author is front row, 2nd from right.

 

Being a senshusei is the equivalent of a full-time job in martial arts and then some. Senshusei show up every day before 7 A.M. and race around the dojo cleaning every inch until it’s time for the first hour’s lesson. Then the daily formal greeting to the administration, in which the senshusei squad leader must, at the top of his lungs, formally announce that all members are present. Then another ninety minutes of training, half an hour to gulp down lunch, and finally another ninety minutes of blood, sweat and – particularly in my case – tears.

Once a crybaby, always a crybaby. The tears came nearly every single class. Anything the class was told to do, I couldn’t do. Movements that I struggled with during my time as a “normal” student became hell since, once I had become a senshusei, I was required to do moves not only correctly, but also at top speed. Any mistakes at all are quickly reprimanded by a scream from the instructor at which point the offender must repeat the technique from the top while the rest of the class waits. As I picked myself up from the mat after falling from the strain of yet another hyperextension exercise, painful memories from my adolescence started forming in my vision. Through the pain in my knees I was somehow aware of my wrestling coach walking away from me, Mr. Swift jeering at me from behind his perfectly groomed goatee, Keanu gloating over my mud-soaked self. Everything was impossible and there was nothing I could do about it. Every day, every hour, I wondered why the dojo didn’t tell me to stop coming. But management never said a word and so I kept showing up. The months passed, and the blood and tears continued.

It was halfway through the course when I found out that there was, indeed, something that I could do, though it was not related to technique or form. Even after six months, I still flailed my way through most basic techniques and even had problems simply standing in the basic stance. Two tests had come and gone, both of which I failed, and my reputation as the weakest link had largely been accepted by my training partners, the foreigners so gung-ho to learn Aikido that they travelled halfway across the world, and the cops who largely accepted my existence on what I can only assume was a Japanese sense of mercy for the underdog. Thankfully there was one thing that I had that no one else in the course could even hope to obtain, but it didn’t come out until the most grueling day of the course.

Tasudori (多数取り) means “taking on multiple attackers.” Aikido places a special importance on being able to deal with multiple opponents and, as a result, nearly all forms of the art incorporate practice sessions involving as many as five attackers all converging on the same defender who must navigate through them, interrupting their flow as s/he nimbly evades and parries. Yoshinkan is no different and requires all practitioners testing for anything higher than a first-degree (lowest) black belt to take on two or at most three opponents at once.

The thing that sets Yoshinkan apart, however, is that the attacks are more-or-less for real. Whereas mainstream Aikido involves attacks that are largely for form and will not do much damage if they connect, participants playing the attacking role in a Yoshinkan test will punch and strike with almost full force. Bruises and blood are not uncommon.

Naturally, the senshusei take this a level further. First, there are four attackers, something which even the highest black belts never have to face. Second, they are armed. One of the attackers holds a wooden dagger and the other a wooden sword. Third, rather than the attacks being more or less for real, they are for real and anyone who happens to connect with the dagger or sword will feel it for at least a week.

 

The author and his training partner showing off war wounds after tasudori

 

It was in this class in which I finally proved myself useful. I couldn’t do any techniques right and I didn’t have proper balance. My knees had never gotten flexible enough to even do a proper seiza. But being a good attacker tasudori is less about precision and more about endurance. You must become a meat bag, being hit and hit again, getting up every time as you lunge at the testee another time. And I’ll be damned if I wasn’t the best meat bag in my group.

I’m surprised I hadn’t noticed it earlier. All those years of only being able to see myself as physically weaker than those around me had rendered me unable to see the truth: I was physically bigger than every other senshusei. The Japanese cops may have learned more technically from the training, but going to the dojo every day had put 20 pounds of muscle on me and made me bigger than anyone there. I couldn’t use the muscle properly, my techniques still didn’t work, but that wasn’t my job during tasudori. I didn’t have to be accurate or remember complicated steps. I just had to chase the other senshusei like a man possessed.

How would you feel if you had license to run up to a martial artist, an actual law enforcement professional, and punch him as hard as you could, not needing to fear any sort of violent reprisal? And not just a regular punch either, a full lunge with all of your body weight in it. As someone who had spent his whole life only being on the receiving end of beatings I can say that it felt, well, liberating. All of a sudden, I was the one with the strength. Other people were running away from me. In the real world I would have never wanted to play this role— the last thing I ever wanted to do was become someone else’s Keanu, but this day the dojo required me to. And I was good at it!

For nearly an hour, I ran around punching Japanese policemen again and again, getting thrown and rolling off the ground to run up and punch again, punching so hard and so repeatedly that by the end of the day half the class was covered in my bloody knuckle prints. I had beaten my knuckles into so many uniforms so many times that the bleeding took two weeks to stop. If you look at my right hand today you can still see two pink scars on my knuckles.

The practice ended, like so many others, with the Fieldman telling all of us that we had done it completely wrong. I was told to get up and demonstrate my punching posture to the rest of the class so that the Fieldman could imitate it and show exactly why it was, to return to the beginning of my story, a shitty way of punching. But as I bowed in apology for my imperfect form I hid the biggest grin I had had that year. The Fieldman had used my mistake as a demonstration for the class. This meant I had actually done a good job!

 

6-friend
The author’s birthday present from a fellow senshusei

 

Training ended and after mopping up the blood from the mats I still couldn’t believe it. Although indirectly, the Fieldman had actually complemented me. It was like being hit by lightning. Dazzled, I had to take my time changing into my street clothes. As the cops changed out of their dogi and into the suits they were required to wear, I overheard a couple of them talking about their new Nintendo 3DS games. One of them mentioned that he was saving up to buy the newest title in the Zelda series.

I began listening closer since they had never talked about video games before. Excited to have found a fellow connoisseur, I turned around and the atmosphere chilled. The policeman who has been talking cut himself off and rushed to finish putting on his belt. The rest of them avoided eye contact as they put on their jackets and shuffled out of the room silently.

Figuring I had made yet another cross-cultural faux pas I blithely continued changing. Then it hit me. The cops were just like me. They liked video games; they just weren’t allowed to talk about them. They were there because of their job so they had to put up a tough act but inside they were no different from I was. I hadn’t realized it because I spent the whole course assuming that I couldn’t do martial arts because I was and always would be a nerd. For all I knew, some of them were thinking the same thing. After all, they had just gotten beaten up by someone bigger than them.

The rest of the course was a blur. We soon reached our next test, which I naturally failed. Then it was time for our performance at the annual winter party, where only a year ago the Fieldman had told about being mentally tough. After the performance, an old man came up to me and explained that he was so happy to see a young American trainee because it reminded him of the time when he was my age and an American named Robert Kennedy came to the dojo. I convinced him to do the technique that had pinned Kennedy’s bodyguard on me. Weeks later we took our instructors exam and all passed.

Finally, the last day of the course came. It was my turn to face the multiple attackers punching me so hard and so properly that their fists bled. Fists pummeled into my sides and the wooden sword came crashing down on my arm, turning it purple. And then – it was over. I got my black-belt and instructing license and woke up the next day trying to figure out what to do now that I had completed my senshusei tenure.

 

Graduation 2013. Author is front row, far left.
Graduation 2013. Author is front row, far left.

 

It’s been over a year since I finished my year-long martial arts course and I have now settled into a lifestyle that doesn’t involve getting my butt kicked for hours a day. When I decided to sign up for the course, I had expected things to be different when I finished, but they don’t really feel that way. I still don’t know what I’d do if I found myself in a fight. I still don’t feel like I’m athletically adept.

Of course, even though I don’t feel like things have changed, I can still point to things that actually have. The coolest change is that I can now do flip-breakfalls on a carpeted floor. This is excellent for entertaining children. I’ve also probably gotten better at dealing with stressful situations. Calmness is perhaps the best thing you can learn from a training environment.

Sometimes I wonder how the calmer me would have handled the situations I struggled so much with as a teenager. A little while ago, I decided to look up some of my primary tormentors from my school days. The coaches have aged and the adolescents have somehow transformed into adults. It didn’t take long to find a photo of my old track and field tormentor, Keanu. Back in high school he was tall, handsome and a pretty good athlete, all things I thought were completely out of my reach. Now he’s fat, pimply, and works in an IT office. And the boy who he used to torment is a black belt.

Part of me wants to say that it’s karma that the tables have turned. Keanu was the only person in my life who ever regularly physically roughed me up. Now I could do the same to him if I wanted.

But I don’t. I don’t want to do that. There’s no real use dealing with schadenfreude and besides, Keanu’s not a bad guy. Goodness knows he probably had his own problems. I may have been the originator of some other poor teenager’s high school nightmare. Keanu and I met when we did and I’ll probably never forget what happened then. But neither of us are who we were then. Things change. He’s different now. And so am I.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember I’m not who I was before. I still go to the Yoshinkan dojo and there is a new crop of senshusei who didn’t know me during the course. They only know me as the big foreign black belt and insist on calling me sensei, teacher. I don’t see myself as anything near a teacher-quality model, but they nevertheless compete to be my training partner and ask advice about how to perfect techniques that I myself am still working on. I suppose this is just how things work. My time as a trainee has passed. No matter how much I want to see myself as an inept practitioner, to people who are new, I am nothing other than a seasoned veteran.

It’s a role I’m still new to playing, but, thankfully, I’ve realized that I don’t need to be perfect. A part of me will probably always see myself as a weakling. I’ll certainly never become the best martial artist around. I’ve realized that I don’t need to be perfect to contribute; I just need to be a bit better than I was the day before. Going from a nerd to a black belt didn’t solve all of my problems, but it did help me move on.