Thursday, January 20, 2011

What to Expect if you Train in Japan

That last post made me think about some of the weird stuff that has happened to me here, that never used to happen to me in Canada. And so I present a guide to training in Japan, and what you can expect. Take this all with a shaker of salt.

You'll meet some really nice people who will astonish you with their generosity and kindness.
Not that there aren't nice people in other parts of the world ... just that, somehow, Japanese people have a way of surprising you with how nice they can be to someone they hardly know.

You'll meet people who have weird ideas about the world.
Sometimes they are really good at saying crazy stuff with a smile on their face, too. For example:
Crazy Guy: Where are you from?
Me: I'm from Canada.
Crazy Guy: Oh, I thought you were from America! Because you're fat. I went to America and everyone was fat.
Me: Uh...
Crazy Guy: Where is Canada?

You'll meet people who have an amazingly narrow view of their own martial art.
Some Japanese people don't ask any questions or seem to have any awareness of other (even closely related) arts, or any knowledge of their own art. Like the guy I met who had been practicing Muso Shinden Ryu iaido for 5 or 6 years, but told me that I tied my sageo wrong and that my noto was all wrong. When I told him, "I do Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu" he looked at me like I was crazy, and immediately ran to Sensei and said, "What's this guy talking about?"

You'll meet people who know nothing about fighting but confidently lecture you about what is necessary in a real fight.
I think it's safe to say that Japan (with the possible exception of Singapore) is the place on earth where you are physically safest, see the fewest fights, and are least likely to have somebody suckerpunch you or break a bottle over your head. That's one reason why I like it here! So what I'm saying is that 99.9% of people here have never been in a fight, and yet they love telling you how what you're doing is wrong because in a REAL fight... (Wow, just like the internet forums!)

You'll meet people who think you know absolutely nothing, because you're a foreigner.
How could you possibly know anything? They don't do iaido or jodo in other countries! What? They do? Well, they don't do it right, obviously, because look at this guy!
I've been to seminars where we've started off with kihon, for example, doing honte uchi in jodo. And Sensei wearily explains to that 50-year-old 6th dan in the front row, "Yamada-san! You're still dropping your front hand!" and then wearily explains to that 40-year-old 5th dan in the back, "Watanabe-san, your back hand needs to be turned completely around!" and then reacts with shock and horror when the foreigner's back foot is too wide. "What rank are you? Unbelievable! What country are you from? Canada? Well, that explains it..."
Another time, I was asked to do Mae in iaido, and Sensei evidently didn't like how I put my hands on the tsuka, because he launched into a 30-minute explanation of how to hold the sword. And not one of those "The deepest secret of iaido is te-no-uchi" talks, but a "This is a sword. This is the sharp part. This is how we hold it! Left hand back, right hand forward" kind of talks. Ugh.

You'll meet other foreigners who act as if you're ruining their private fantasy by being in the same room.
You'll go to some seminar, walk into the gym, spot some foreign guy (who sticks out like a sore thumb, just like you do) smiling and laughing with his Japanese dojo-mates, and then he'll see you out of the corner of his eye, do a double take, the smile vanishes and is replaced by a scowl... Needless to say, he won't come over and say Hello. And why would he? Just because you're the only two foreigners there (you might even be countrymen) and you share the same rare and unusual hobby. Who needs new friends, anyway?

You'll meet a lot of cool foreigners, who can teach you a ton of interesting and useful stuff, including how to deal with all the aforementioned crazies.

And ... I'm Back

I got a few e-mails from people who, among other things, told me that I needed to post more often or that they were disappointed that I hadn't written much recently. Thanks for the kind words and motivation.

In mid-November, I guess it was, a couple guys from the Toronto area came to visit and train in Jodo. They contacted me to see if I wouldn't mind introducing them to some of the teachers and doing a bit of translating. At the time, I was a bit hesitant about getting back into practice as my knee was still quite sore, but I figured at the very least I'd help them and show my face in the dojo, as it had been a couple months.

Kevin and David turned out to be really nice guys, and very serious about training. They were doing 4-6 hours of training a day, sometimes going to a morning Aikido practice, then an afternoon practice, maybe a bit of sightseeing, and then coming to Jodo in the evening. How they had the energy to do that, I don't know. When they turned up for Jodo, I decided to practice too and see how it would go. Sure, my knee was fairly tender, and the next day it was nice and swollen (even after icing it) but I had a good return to practice, basically thanks to these guys showing up and making me get off my butt.

Everyone at the dojo was impressed by their hard work and easy-going, friendly attitude. They were also pretty amazed that someone would come to Japan just to train. (How about coming to live in Japan for 10 years just to train??) On their last night of Jodo training, we all went out for drinks at our local watering hole. That was a lot of fun. Thanks, guys!

But if there's anything I've learned, it's that Ups are usually followed by Downs. A couple weeks later, maybe the first week of December, I went to practice only to find that nobody was there and the lights were off. I asked at the reception desk, and the guy told me that they were all out drinking. It was the End-of-the-Year drinking party, and nobody had even mentioned it to me!

I tried phoning anybody whose number I had, but everyone was unreachable (turns out they were in a basement bar). I hung around the area for 30 minutes or so, feeling increasingly miserable.

Looking back, I know that it was just an oversight. I hadn't been out to practice much that fall, and even though I had just started coming back, maybe the party organizers didn't realize I wanted to come. Probably there was a perfectly legible notice up somewhere in the change room that I hadn't read. But at the time ... I was absolutely disheartened.

And why? I had to keep telling myself: "These people aren't your friends. They're just people you train with. Don't take it so hard. It doesn't matter." But I couldn't help but contrast my situation in Japan (show up, exchange a greeting with Sensei, warm up by myself, train, go home) with my situation in Canada (show up, talk to everyone, have a few laughs, train, have a few laughs during training, go for a beer or two, lots more discussion and laughs...) And so it became a kind of "us against them, foreigners against Japanese" situation, as so often happens in our minds whenever we foreigners have problems in this country.

One of the things I realize about myself is that I want my training to have a social dimension. No "lone samurai" ascetic training for me; you won't catch me waking up at dawn and lugging my bokuto out to the woods, where I pound on a tree for a couple hours and then meditate under a waterfall. The few times I've shown up early and found an empty dojo, I've half-heartedly done a bit of stretching to kill time until someone else shows up. If I washed up on a desert island with a trunk full of budo equipment, it would stay in the box until I was rescued or someone else washed ashore.

So not being invited to the party, and feeling rejected by these people at my club, was pretty damn disappointing. I kept thinking, "Why do I bother?" or thought, "Is there some other club, somewhere, where they would welcome me and I wouldn't be the elephant in the room?"

The thing that made it worse, I think, was the reception that the visitors, David and Kevin, had received only a couple weeks before. When they were here, everyone was friendly, and curious about Canada, and why they were here. After I had done my (very humble) best translating, they said, "Good thing you're here, Jeff! We really needed your help!" It was a big love-in. Then, once they left, I was back to zero again.

I once heard the same sentiment from an American Jodo instructor who had lived in Japan and was amazed how nobody wanted to teach him -the longterm resident - anything, but whenever a visitor showed up at the dojo for a few days of instruction, everyone was falling over themselves to teach him. At the time, I thought he was just being bitter or was exaggerating. Now, for better or worse, I find myself thinking the same things. Was he right? Partly. Am I getting bitter? Definitely.

So, what do I do? Focus on the positives; the cool people I've met, the good training I've received, the fact that training with 5 hachidan Sensei is almost routine. The times when I have gone out drinking after a practice and had a great time. And when I have a crap experience, run home and put it on my blog for everyone to see and commiserate!

And remember that Downs are usually followed by Ups. A week later, I went back to practice, determined not to mention anything about that stupid party. Everyone was very apologetic, and after practice we went out for the REAL party; the one I had missed had been the expensive, formal, not-very-much-fun party where you sit around and listen to speeches and get berated by Sensei about how you haven't practiced hard enough this year so buckle down next year. This party was just the regulars, at the local watering hole (again), with lots of good food and beer and sake flowing freely. And as much as I wanted to stay angry about the week before, I had a great time and felt ... kind of ... like one of the gang.