Really, now. Is this any way to treat a friend? Why is that man whomping the other in the head with a stick as hard as he can? Isn't life tough enough, guys?

It sure is. But for more than 700 years, the Japanese coped with life's toughness with an activity called kendo. It was a stylized form of fencing, somewhat like judo with swords, in which a fencer ironically showed his opponent great respect - as he tried to slice him into cold cuts.

The stainless steel version of kendo went out of existence in Japan in 1868, when the use of swords was legislated out of Japanese life. But kendo changed rather than vanished. For 110 years, it has been conducted with bamboo poles. Its spirit of respect is as strong as ever.

One place it is strongest, every Thursday night, is in a dingy former church at Fort Meade, Md. There, one recent evening, a mild-mannared Laurel mathematician named Kurt Schmucker faced off against an even milder-mannered Upper Marlboro librarian named Jadine Jue.

Both barefoot, and both wearing pajama-like uniforms, Schmucker and Jue bowed deeply. They saluted each other with their bamboo poles. They minced toward one another with the grace of cats. Then, with wrenching suddenness, the joint started jumping.

"Eeeeyah!" or something equally unintelligble, growled Schmucker. And he bashed Jue in the ribs with his stick.

"Meeeyooo!" or something like that, replied Jue. And she clouted Schmucker over the skull as if she were trying to hack a gopher to death.

After about five minutes of this, Schmucker and Jue were sweaty and breathless. They were wearing heavy padding, so injuries were impossible. But what was this? They were smiling.

The reason was that their kendo bout had not been some sort of violence therapy designed to vent aggressions. It had been, as Jue put it, "a way to understand a lot of Japanese cultural tradition."

Unanimously, the members of the Washington Kendo Club don't know exactly how to characterize their favorite activity. But they do know that cultural uplifting is the point.

"It isn't exactly a sport," explained Schmucker, "because the competitive aspects are far from the whole kick." And it isn't exactly a ballet, because it isn't scripted in advance.

More than anything else, kendo seems to be a ritual dance. If you just want a vigorous workout, kendo will give you that, certainly. But so will running around the block. If you want a sample of Japan's unique blend of hostility and gentleness, you won't get it anywhere else.

"It's kind of stylized exercise in killing, you might say," said Bernie Glassman, a Bethesda businessman and a self-styled fan of all things Japanese. "I'm not into killing at all. But no one gets killed in this. No one even comes close. How can you miss?"

"I'm really a very passive person," said Jue, the club's only female member. "I don't like hitting people. This appeals to my artistic sense; let's put it that way."

Kendo has never appealed to many people in the U.S. for a number of reasons.

For one thing, decking oneself out in protective armor from head to toe, and buying a sword and a bamboo pole, can easily cost $100. That weeds out the half-hearted very effectively.

For another thing, kendo players cannot expect Olympic glory or prime-time television exposure. For a third thing, judo and karate have gotten a much better and wider press.

"It's kind of a private pleasure," said Schmucker, who is president of the Washington club. "The point of kendo is not to have a big yearly tournament. Competition is good, but when it becomes the all-important factor, people start missing the boat, or at least the boat goes in a funny direction."

Kendo has definite rules and a definite scoring system, however. Points can be scored only if one fencer touches the head, right glove or chest of his opponent - and the opponent isn't touching him at the same time. "In other words, you score only with clean hits," with William Dvorine, a Baltimore dermatologist.

But just as many kendo "points" are scored by skillfully demonstrating ritualized techniques. One cannot earn a white, brown or black belt in kendo without being proficient not just as bamboo jousting, but also at drawing a real sword.

Kendokas (practitioners of the sport have seven "draws" that they have to perfect. Each is designed to cope with a surprise attack from a certain angle. Even though no one ever really sticks anyone, a "draw" is never complete until a kendoka wipes off the "blood" of his victim with a forefinger before replacing his sword.

Kendo does not have as much fast footwork as tennis. It does not have the religious intensity of a Sunday service. It is not as outwardly spiritual or emotional as a good argument with one's spouse. And it will never be as freewheeling as this week's teen-age dancing rage.

But it has all four for the price of one. "Exalting," said Bernie Glassman, as he packed up his sword.