Friday, April 29, 2011

Bow to your Sempai

During the first week of introductory Japanese classes, while the regular university students were sitting through hours of orientation, we were sitting through hours of lectures devoted to instilling in us one important idea: our place in the great hierarchy…

…The bottom.

Though the importance of status is well known, an outsider in the country may not notice the subtle shades of rank and file within the Japanese society. Once in a school or company, however, it becomes easier to observe who holds rank and who kisses ass. Our Japanese teacher—a term I use loosely here—found it extremely important that we understand how to act toward the other students at the Budo Daigaku. The degree to which you bow, the language you use, and the duties you perform are all dependent upon your relative rank. This system is known as the taiikukei [体育系] system; a word derived from the kanji for body and growth. The term, usually associated with the sports and military, has also been used to describe the manifestations of rank at an office or school.
Though there may be many levels by which people are divided, there are two important terms. Sempai [先輩] are those people who rank above you while kouhai [後輩] are those people who rank below you.

Within the Budo Daigaku, rank is determined in this order:
Your year (first year students-fourth year students),
Your rank within the martial art (shoudan, nidon…),
Your age.

So if you decided to take a few years off before starting college, prepare to have children treat you like you were… a child.

The bekkasei students, however, fall into a unique category. We are not officially first year students, yet we are older than many of the fourth year students. Since your year comes first in determining your status, we hold the very bottom rung of the social latter. Our Japanese teacher insisted upon this during three or four days of class, repeatedly forcing us to have pretend conversations with pretend people who pretended to be above us. “You are below even the first year students, everyone is above you! So you must learn how to speak very politely. Never say “Ohayou” [Good Morning]… you must always say “Ohayou Gozaimasu” [Good Morning… while bent double] and never say “たまきんに蹴るよ” [I’m going to kick you in the balls] always say “すみません、 金的に蹴りたいと思っています” [excuse me, I am thinking about kicking you in the testicles].”

I decided to put my newly acquired knowledge to the test. So, during morning practices, I bowed to the third-year student with whom I was running and called him sempai. He stopped and very quickly exclaimed, “I’m not your sempai!”

You see, one of the major problems is that the very same Japanese students do not know how to think of us. We are not Japanese, we are not students and we are older. This is partly the cause for our difficulties in finding acceptance. We do not fit into the machine!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

He's Not just a God, He's a Man!

Finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…. At least, if you know anything about Judo and the International Budo Daigaku then it’s the moment you’ve known would come. On Tuesday, the five of us foreign Judoka had our first private class with the living legend of judo: Katsuhiro Kashiwazaki.

Kashiwazaki sensei is a man who embodies the budo spirit not only for his achievements, but also for his attitude. His many accomplishments include winning the silver medal at the world championships in Vienna in 1975 and the gold at Maastricht in 1981. He also dedicated time to studying other forms of wrestling and in 1975 he one the world Sampo championships. Unfortunately, politics prevented Kashiwazaki Sensei from competing in the 1980 Olympics as Japan was boycotting the event held in Russia.

In fine form, the five of us Judoka went to the wrong building and sat attentively with other Japanese students as Koshino Sensei explained the ground-fighting class he would be instructing. We silently wondered, “Where is he…. Where is the Man?”
After 15 minutes, the secretary of the international centre politely interrupted Koshino Sensei’s lecture to say, “The bekkasei students aren’t supposed to be here!” AS we ran quickly from the room, excusing ourselves as we went, “Shitsurei shimasu!” The secretary said, “Kashiwazaki Sensei called; he asked, “Where are my students!””

Now embarrassed—as well as excited—we ran to the next building where we bowed our entrance and rushed to sit attentively at the feet of Kashiwazaki Sensei. In his soft, cultured voice he asked us to make our introductions in Japanese. AS I finished my jikoshoukai, Sensei turned to the other judoka and said, “Listen to Niko, speak like he does.”

Kashiwazaki Sensei explained that he would be giving us a Kata class. That is to say, a class that demonstrates various techniques and fundamental aspects of the art of Judo. This would be our chance to ask any questions we might have about our favorite techniques. It’s like having Jimmy Hendrix invite you over to his house for an hour and a half twice a week and offering to teach you guitar.
Kashiwazaki Sensei went on to speak of the importance of cultivating our minds as well as our bodies. We must learn Japanese, he said, for he would not speak to us in English. He will speak slowly and help us to understand, but he will only speak Japanese. Kashiwazaki Sensei further commanded us to find Japanese girlfriends and told us the two most important words in any language are “Beer” and “Wine”.

AS he dismissed us, Kashiwazaki Sensei asked, “Do any of you have anything you want to talk to me about?” When we stood silently he looked at me and asked, “Niko, are you having any problems?”
I bowed and explained to Sensei that I still had not been accepted by the Japanese students at the Dojo. “At most, I am only doing to or three rounds of randori.”

With simple elegance, Kashiwazaki Sensei replied, “Well… go practice with the women’s team. They will accept you and they train hard. You will learn from them.”

To see a video of Kashiwazaki Sensei performing some of his signature throws, click:

Monday, April 25, 2011

Thoughts on Training

The first time I visited home after living in Japan, I spoke to some friends at my dojo about my thoughts on the training in Japan. I’d like to reiterate, here, some of the things I said at that time.

It is the dream of so many people who practice budo to one day travel to Japan and train in the culture that gave image to—if not always rise to—the martial arts. I felt this way from the very first moment I walked into a dojo in the United States. For some, it is a genuine interest in the oriental culture and people. I think for the greater majority, however, there is the idea that one will find the best training, the best sensei and the most intense emersion in the martial arts if they make a “pilgrimage” to Japan.

The idea that Japan has the best instructors or holds the secret to a deeper understanding of budo by virtue of its being the origin of many martial arts, though, is highly overrated. Japan is the epicenter of martial arts in the world. AS a result, many of the world’s greatest travel to Japan to meet share their knowledge and hold seminars. But the idea that a sensei, by virtue of being Japanese, will be a better instructor is false.
I have trained at great dojos here in Japan and I have trained at awful dojos. Likewise, I have trained at great dojos in the States and I have trained at awful dojos. What I want to emphasize here is the importance of the attitude you bring with you to the dojo, be it in Japan or the U.K. or Australia… or anywhere. The environment you create is more important than the nationality of the sensei or the address where you train.
If you go to Japan with great excitement and great energy, you will learn much and the experience will have been worth everything. If you bring that same energy and that same attitude to your dojo in the states…. You will have gained just as much without the need of a journey. If every person, then, comes to the dojo with a great attitude the experience will be ten-fold.

This is something I realized after a year of doing Aikido in Kitakyushu. Students were sometimes lethargic or slow moving when the sensei demonstrated a technique and then left us to practice. I found, however, that when I was the first person to jump up and exhibit energy and a positive attitude, suddenly I never had to wait for a training partner. To be honest, the sensei was an arrogant man who preferred to smoke cigarettes and drink tea, but I was still able to get something out of the class by showing a willingness to train.
It is this attitude that you can bring to your home dojo. Bring Japan to you. Bring that energy every day. Even the poorest, most mid-western dojo will become a dojo worthy of attracting people from around the world.

I still encourage people to travel to Japan, if they have the means, because it is an experience that can reaffirm your dedication to the martial arts. Not everyone has that opportunity, however, and that is why I’ve taken the time to write this down.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Every Silver Lining Has Its Cloud

Today marks two full weeks of training here at the International Budo Daigaku. Apart from Sundays, when the dojo is closed, I have attended every possible practice including the running and weight-lifting at 7:00 in the morning. Half of my cuticles have been peeled back from grabbing stiff dogis with dry hands, the joint at the base of my right thumb feels jammed, my right eye is black and blue from someone kneeing me in the face and one toe is slightly swollen from where I kicked a man while attempting a leg-sweep. (For the record, he fell down.) All in all, I haven’t been overly impressed with the skill level of these judoka.

The last two days have seen a marked improvement in the behavior of some of the Japanese students, however. I am averaging about five rounds of randori (sparring) out of a possible fifteen per day and, although Koshino Sensei still must order some of the students to go with me, a few of the boys have come of their own volition. It’s not perfect, but its four rounds of randori more than what I was getting last week.
It seems I have been relegated to a corner of the dojo, though, as I am not allowed to spar with anyone in the center of the room. The obvious answer for this is: “Oh, you can’t see the other groups sparring, so they put you in the corner where there are fewer people.” Unfortunately, this hypothesis is completely negated when you notice that the Japanese students seem totally unaware of their surroundings during randori. I could talk for hours about the importance of awareness in budo… one of the fundamental principals in my opinion. The fact that I have had three pairs of people slam into me while I stood against the wall at the edge of the tatami-mat leads me to wonder if maybe everyone here is blind.

Yesterday, I finally managed to communicate to one judoka that he should actually fight me if he didn’t want to end up on his back with my knee in his groin. I communicated this by throwing him on his back and putting my knee in his groin. It was like a light came on in his head. He jumped up, said, “Onegaishimasu!” and started sparring seriously and not just making half-hearted attempts to kick my ankles.
Since then, most of the judoka I’ve sparred with have made legitimate attempts to throw me. They might only be playing at 75%, but that is 75% better than before.

But every silver lining has its cloud. As the five of us foreigners stood to the side while the Japanese began class today, Koshino Sensei walked up to us and said “There’s a tournament coming up. Sorry. Try to make friends.”
This was meant to excuse the behavior of students who refused our requests to practice. They only want “serious” training now while preparing for the tournament. So, it’s not only me who has been having difficulties in finding acceptance. But I think the IBU will find it has a very stubborn group of gaikokujin—foreigners—this year.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Following the Yellow Arrow

On a slightly different topic—though still very much related to the training of the mind and body—I wanted to make mention of a book that was recently published regarding the experiences of young people hiking the Camino de Santiago. The book includes an article I wrote, entitled “A Journey Yet Unfinished.”

The Camino de Santiago, or Saint James Way, is a pilgrimage across northern Spain to the cathedral that marks the last remains of the apostle. AS legend has it, Saint James was chosen by Jesus to bring Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula. When he returned from his journey into what is now Spain and Portugal, he was executed in Jerusalem. His body was then taken by two of his disciples and placed into a boat that returned, by divine power, to the coast of Galicia.
Hundreds of years later, a farmer working his fields saw what he believed to be stars falling from the sky. When he followed the lights, he discovered the tomb of Saint James.

For nearly 1300 years, now, people have been making the pilgrimage to see the cathedral of Santiago in Compastela. People embark from all over Spain and Europe and come from Asia, the Americas, and Africa to undertake this journey.

In 2004 I walked 300KM of the Camino de Santiago from Leon to Santiago de Compastela. We spent 17 days rising at 5:00AM to begin walking by 6:00, carrying our clothing and sleeping bags in backpacks and walking anywhere from twenty to thirty kilometers in a day. The terrain is beautiful and, as you observe the slowly changing landscape, you also notice the changes in culture and food across the country.

The book: Following the Yellow Arrow includes my article and those of many young people who have traveled to Spain and completed some part of the Camino de Santiago. If you are interested, please check it out at

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Training Continues...As Does the Frustration

After several days of training, we finally began to understand how the system works. Twenty-five red belts are given to the sempai—students with the longest time in the club—and these twenty-five students stand to one side of the room and will participate in every round of sparring. The rest of the judoka not wearing a red sash come forward each round and ask to do randori with one of these sempai. This explains why, when I asked a person standing on our half of the room if he would spar, he refused and mentioned the belt. Of course, he didn’t have the red sash!
The sempai will do anywhere from eight to ten six-minute rounds of randori. After that, the red belts are given to lower ranking members of the dojo who will go on to do five to seven rounds of randori. This randori is part of “tachi- waza” or “standing technique”. When tachi-waza has finished, we have a five minute break before beginning “ne-waza” or ground technique. Everyone participates in five rounds of ne-waza and there is no silly red sash system.

Despite our greater understanding of the dojo, the first week of training we were rarely picked for sparring. My sighted friends have had somewhat more success—though by no means a warm welcome—but I have only had limited chances to train and, these, only when Koshino sensei has directly ordered someone to practice with me. Even when two dojo members were ordered to act as my “support staff,” their aid lasted for one day.

Despite this, I walk into the center of the room between every round and hope someone will pick me. Mostly, people avoid looking at me. It’s ironic that I cannot see the Japanese students… and they pretend they can’t see me!

I knew that acceptance in Japan would be very difficult. The best I can do, for the moment, is put myself out there and be seen. Visually impaired people are very much *not* seen in Japan. Many of the dojo members think I will be a passing novelty and doubt my abilities to take a fall. Koshino Sensei, at least, is very encouraging. Despite being the man in charge, he cannot force people to understand me.

While walking back from the dojo today Koshino sensei snuck up and grabbed my arm, saying “If I were you, I could not do this.”
“I think you could.” I answered him.
“No,” he said, “I would be too afraid.”

I’ll just keep walking out into the center of that room, even if it feels like I’m all alone in the dojo.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Training Begins.... As Does the Frustration

When a break in our rigorous orientation finally left us free in the afternoon, the five of us foreigners studying Judo asked permission to “get accustomed to the dojo.” The Judo club is on a special schedule until the semester begins, with training in the morning and running in the afternoon. We were anxious to take some falls and get a feel for the dojo’s springy floor before we would be joining the Japanese students. So, with many admonitions that we not injure ourselves before classes even begin, one of the secretaries at the international office confirmed with the sensei leading Judo that the room would be open.
For three days we ran through uchikomi—technique drills—and some throws. By the fourth day, however, the moons aligned just so and orientation was canceled for the morning. We were given our first chance to join the regular judo club for training.

As we walked into the dojo, sixty pairs of eyes followed us across the length of the room. Unfortunately, this was the last time many of the Japanese students would bother to look at us for the rest of the day.

We sat in a hunched group at the far end of the dojo surrounded by a veritable sea of black belts. When the Japanese students suddenly stood up and started shuffling around the dojo in a large circle, we stood up and began shuffling around the dojo in a large circle. When the Japanese students suddenly stopped and began rushing through stretches, we muddled to a halt and attempted to rush through stretches. When the Japanese students lined up, we lined up. Then we bowed and suddenly became the center of attention, again.

Koshino Sensei, who was leading training, called the five of us up to the front of the room and asked us to do jikoshoukai (self introduction.) Learning how to introduce yourself in Japanese is the single most important bit of language one can have when spending any length of time in Japan. It is a part of Japanese custom to introduce yourself in front of every new group; it is your fifteen seconds of undivided attention.

Once we said our names, countries, and weight classes, training began. Again, the five of us huddled together to one side and now puzzled over what was going on. With a seemingly random precision, the large mass of black belted Japanese divided and went to apposing sides of the room. Then, as a line of men walked into the center of the room from the opposite side of the dojo, another line would rush forward to bow and ask permission to spar. After five rounds of randori—five “matches” so to speak—none of us had gotten a chance to participate. A friend asked me to translate for him and we approached a judo player on our half of the room.
“Will you do randori with my friend?” I asked.
The man stood silently. I rephrased my question, “The next randori, could you do it with my friend here (tapping my friend on the shoulder)”

The man said, very clearly, “no.” I was taken aback. He went on to say something about the belts, but I couldn’t understand his quickly spoken Japanese.

By the end of the first training session, the five of us combined had only had one or two chances to spar with Japanese students. We were very confused.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

First Days

The regular semester at the kokusai budo daigaku doesn’t officially commence until the 18th of April. The two weeks leading up to the beginning of the semester, however, are filled with such exciting activities as…

More orientation!
Ping pong!
[When you put a large group of martial Artists together—the majority of which are men—there are only two topics of conversation: fighting and…

Day one of orientation set the stage and dimmed the lighting for the general proceedings to come. The first hour and a half were dedicated to the explanation of the rules of conduct at the dormitory and the proper separation of garbage. If you have never been to Japan, you might find it interesting to note the extreme complexities of garbage. There are burnables, plastics, cans/glass, organic, small chunks of metal/glass and corpses. Each individual city/prefecture makes further classifications: sometimes combining plastics and burnables, sometimes dividing plastics based on material or shape. Perhaps, due to all this, it is damn near impossible to find a garbage can when you’re walking around and you’ve just finished eating an onigiri (rice ball) and are now looking for someplace to throw the wrapper.

The second hour and a half of orientation was dedicated to the fire drill. After a brief explanation of the extinguisher—pull the pin, hold at arms length, aim for the base of the flame not the outer edges—we were shown the fire doors and alarm. Then, the staff of the dormitory told us to go back to our rooms and wait for the alarm to ring. When the alarm rang, we all filed calmly down the stairs, through the doors and across the courtyard to a nearby hill. Meanwhile, the secretary of the international office shouted, “Hashite Hashite! (Run run!)” We were then scolded for not taking the fire drill seriously and running out of the building.

Days two and three of orientation followed in a like manner. We filled out paperwork and signed our names to documents we couldn’t understand. In the afternoons, we worked out in the weight room and in the evenings we walked around the city. (Note: there is one shop that specializes in budo-pornography.)

Of course, when you put a bunch of board budoka together in a confined space, they will eventually decide to test one another’s strength or fighting prowess. One simple wrestling match progressed quickly through friendly tussle to serious scuffle and ended by two more budoka pulling the combatants apart.
“He tried to break my arm!”
“He wouldn’t stop!”
“I said stop!”
“Then he just kept going!”

For the sake of us all, let training begin… soon.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Arrival to Katsuura

Wake up: 3:30 AM.
Grand Rapids-Detroit flight leaves at 5:58, in D-town by 6:30AM.
Eight hours in Detroit.
Detroit-Japan flight leaves 3:30PM, twelve hours thirty minute flight.

Two and a half hours off the plane found me in Katsuura-shi, Chiba-ken via the Budo University’s bus. By way of introduction, one of the secretaries of the international office told us as we walked in to our dormitory for the first time, “Earthquake, OK! Tsunami, OK! Katsuura OK!”

Katsuura is a small, mountain town that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. The population is something over 20,000 and if you know anything about Japan, the following statistic will give you a clear idea of the relative size: there are only five conbinis in the entire city. (conbini = convenience store)
There are no Mr. Doughnuts, no Moss Burgers and a complete lack of Royal Hoasts or Joyfuls. The dinner options pretty much consist of Japanese, Japanese or… that one really shitty looking “European” restaurant. (Note the lack of a definite cuisine.) And you better take care who you pick a fight with in the street because half the population has a black belt in kendo, judo, karate, naginata, aikido or all of the above. And I’m quite certain the umbrella their carrying will work just fine as a shinai… your head wouldn’t notice any difference.

There are fifteen students in the scholarship program of the kokusai budo daigaku: six studying judo and nine studying kendo. We come from the U.S., Mexico, Chile, Peru, France, Finland, Holland, Turkey and Korea. The dormitory where we live is a paradise compared with most American universities. Though we share rooms, the space is ample and each room has a private bathroom and shower. The downstairs is equipped with a free laundry and kitchenette, although many of us have rice cookers and microwaves in our rooms. This is, of course, completely against school policy... A staff member told me where I could buy the rice cooker. OH, and there is a ping pong table.

Since the school is presently on holiday—classes don’t officially begin for another week—our first weekend consisted in staggering around in a haze of jet lag, wandering to the local convenience store for food and staring with our noses pressed to the windows of the dojo and drool running down our chins. “I’ve never seen one so big…” said with awe. “That’s what she said!” said with… sarcasm.
As the international students trickled in throughout Friday and Saturday, introductions went as follows: “Judo or kendo? Where are you from? What is your name? How many dogi did you bring?” The dogi (uniform) question was surprising, but I found myself equally curious to hear how many dogi each person brought. Dress code on campus is either tracksuit or dogi. This is like heaven for me. I don’t have to worry about shirts matching pants, shoes matching pants, socks matching pants… hell; I don’t have to wear pants! Tracksuit, dogi, tracksuit, dogi.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Nakajima Sensei

Takeshi Nakajima Sensei is a truly encredible individual. The more I discover about his life and character, the more I am left smiling at his non-prepossessing manner and open attitude. I was first drawn to his exuberant personality and, since, have been deeply impressed by his lifetime dedication to budo. Nakajima Sensei is an expert in both Judo and Aikido and is director of the Japanese academy of budo. He has traveled throughout the world, promoting the martial arts and encouraging people’s with disabilities to get involved. Most recently, I spoke to Nakajima Sensei about his experiences learning how to snowboard at the mature age of 68.

I first met Nakajima Sensei through my Judo instructor in Kitakyushu, Japan. Masamitsu Haga Sensei was concerned about the difficulties I was having in finding a university where I could study Japanese. He made some calls and, finally, set up a meeting for me in Tokyo with Nakajima Sensei at the Kokushikan University.

Nakajima Sensei is a short, energetic man with shriveled ears that have seen many years of judo. I know this because he proudly grabbed my hand on our first meeting and said, “Here, feel my ears! They’re like potatoes!” I shook his hand—then ear—and, in the customary Japanese tradition, offered him a souvenir from Kitakyushu, saying, “Sumimasen, Kore tsumaranaimono douzo…” [Excuse me, this is a boring thing but please take it].
In his cheerful manner, Nakajima Sensei said, “If it’s boring, than keep it! I only want delicious things!”

After some debate, we determined that the box of Ramen I had brought from Fukuoka—where ramen is famous for being prepared in a pork soup—was, in fact, possibly delicious.

As we sat down at his desk, Nakajima Sensei asked me, “When did you go blind.”
“I went blind when I was eight years old,” I told him.

With that, Nakajima Sensei jumped out of his chair and slapped his hands on the desk, exclaiming, “That’s great! You must be so strong!”

I must admit, I’ve told many people about my childhood illness and, inevitably, they have reacted with sorrow or commiseration. Never before had someone exclaimed how wonderful a thing it was to go blind, however.

“We all have a weakness,” he went on to explain, “I am short. You, though, you know your weakness. You are blind. So now you can deal with it and become strong. You have had so many years to become strong.”

Even now, I laugh to remember his excitement. What he said was true and, despite all my years of travel and adventure, I had never quite looked at things in this way. Some people have spent their whole lives wondering what’s wrong with them. Me, though, I know what my problem is. I’m blind. Done and done; let’s move on.

And move on we did. Nakajima Sensei took me around the Kokushikan University to meet professors and students and told me stories about the amazing people he had met who have overcome diversity to achieve greatness, each in their own way.

Upon our parting, he said, “I think you should study judo at the kokusai budo daigaku.” The course at the international budo university was something I had researched and dreamed of attending. With Nakajima sensei’s encouragement, I applied to the course.

So here we are, sitting in Katsura, Japan.