Paper Tigers

By Toby Howden

Martial arts and misadventure in Japan

Biography
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Publication date: August 2017

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Pain is the best instructor, but no one wants to go to his class.’ – General Choi

For any aspiring martial artist having a real-life, hard-drinking, humorous version of Mr Miyagi turn up on your doorstep offering to teach the secrets of the Samurai would be a dream come true. So when Toby's best friend Bryan returns from travelling in Japan, along with Suzuki Sensei, an enigmatic fencing master, they jump at the opportunity to move to the foothills of Mt Fuji to study Kendo (The Way of the Sword), and embark upon the ultimate martial arts adventure. But from the very beginning, life as a modern-day migrant ninja, particularly one required to work in a stifling sweat shop turns out to be anything but romantic.

Dealing with authentic medieval living conditions, sadistic factory supervisors, breaking bones up mist-shrouded mountains, proving their manhood on the world’s biggest rollercoaster, whilst all the while plotting to escape the “Factory of Dreams”; Toby and Bryan desperately attempt to emulate Suzuki Sensei’s apparent imperviousness to pain and hardship.

Toby arrives in the rural town of Yoshiwara in the fierce heat of summer armed only with the ability to say ‘this is a pen’ in Japanese. Suzuki Sensei’s ancient family home resembles a faded Kurosawa movie, with sliding wooden screens, worn tatami mats and little else. By the time Toby has been painfully initiated into the joys of full-contact martial arts and succumbed to the constant pressure to drink Saki and cultivate ‘fighting spirit’ he is unsure if his teachers are traditional or just sadistic.

If the Kendo is challenging, then working at the paper factory turns out to be soul destroying. The “Factory of Dreams” as Bryan calls it resembles a Dickensian sweat shop inhabited by a bizarre mixture of brain-dead co-workers, mulleted disco-dancing Iraqi refugees, mini-bosses with all the people skills of concentration camp guards, and a saintly old box packer who’s transformed her menial labour into a meditation. The work is torturous and to make matters worse, Toby’s arrival is reawakening Bryan’s rebellious British identity.

Suzuki Sensei and an array of colourful Kendo teachers try in vain to instruct Toby and Bryan in the true spirit of combat, dishing out advice, alcohol and trying increasingly unorthodox teaching methods, such as riding the world’s highest roller coaster, experimenting with different martial arts and getting naked in the public bath-houses.

A crushing sense of frustration and exhaustion, and a near-fatal run in with the Yakuza pushes Toby and Bryan’s friendship to breaking point and life working at the paper factory begins to eclipse the challenges of kendo mastery in unexpected ways. Despite a toe-curling disregard for Japanese rules and social etiquette, they are drawn kicking, screaming, and laughing into the rare and fascinating no-nonsense world of Bushido – The Way of the Warrior.

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