Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why I Don't Like University Clubs

Please take most of this post with a grain of salt. It's largely the rantings of a grumpy old man. You've been warned!

Let me begin by saying that I started martial arts at a university club in Canada. But I want to talk now about Japanese university martial arts clubs. I don't think these clubs are a good thing, based on my experience with them.

First, a bit of background. Japanese students go through a long and grueling process to get into university. Most of their time in high school is spent learning very specific knowledge that will prepare them for passing the university entrance examinations. (This is a large part of why most Japanese people can't speak English; they spend all their time memorizing word lists and grammar rules, and almost no time using the language to communicate.) The entrance exams are tough, but once you're in a university, you're in, and it's almost unheard of to flunk out, no matter how little effort you put into your classes. So, most students devote the majority of their time and attention to their club activities. Their club defines who they are, and establishes their social circle. It also prepares them for Japanese corporate life, because in a club (like in any Japanese hierarchy) the new people are scum and do all the work, and the older people (who have put in their time being scum) get to push around the juniors. As my friend put it, Japanese clubs are a "shit totem-pole".

I happen to think that Budo should be something that enriches and gives purpose to your life. What it entails, exactly, is up to the individual, of course, and so Budo might mean many different things to different people. But Budo as it is practiced in Japanese University clubs is, as far as I can tell, just a nasty excuse to get together and for juniors to show their "humility" by kow-towing to the seniors, and for seniors to lord it over the juniors. The best Sensei I have known have been people who, despite their skill, rank, and position, were remarkably humble, courteous, and gracious. This is not what I see being taught in Japanese University clubs.

At the iai dojo I (used to?) attend, about half the students are members of the iaido club from a prestigious Tokyo university. It's not the Harvard or the Yale of Japan ... but it's probably #3. The students there barely acknowledge the presence of anyone who is not in their club ... although of course they are smart enough to bow to the Sensei. It is quite a different story when a 3rd- or 4th-dan "Old Boy" shows up. Then they fall over themselves (sometimes literally) to get down into seiza and put their faces to the floor. They raise a cacophony of meaningless "Osu"-s while the 24- or 25-year-old subject of their affection smiles and waves like a rockstar. I said that they know enough to bow to Sensei, but even a hachidan hanshi does not warrant this degree of adulation from them. (Unless said hachidan hanshi also happened to be an Old Boy - a possibility which, frankly horrifies me...)

When I first started at the Dojo a couple years ago, Sensei introduced me and pointed at all the university students. "They're all studying English, so do them a favour and speak to them in English, would you?" It ended up being a moot point, because I barely ever exchanged words with any of them. My greetings were returned with a blank look or an unenthused, canned response. Certainly none of them was ever anything approaching "friendly".

When a group of Canadian iaidoka came to the dojo for a visit, the university students asked for a photo of them posing with this group of foreigners (whom they hadn't spoken a word to previously) to post on their club website so they could advertise how "international" and cosmopolitan they were. This is what typically passed for "cultural exchange" in Japan, sadly.

My Jodo dojo (Jo-do-jo?) has also recently seen an increase in the number of students who are attending from an associated university club, which is overseen by some of the senior members of our dojo. These students tend to sit in a big circle in the dojo before practice, chatting and giggling with each other. This is in distinct contrast to what I've always been told: the dojo is not a place for idle chit-chat, and time before practice is to be spent warming-up. I've often felt that someone needs to tell them how to behave in the dojo, but I feel it is not my place, and the language barrier holds me back. Plus, there is a nagging feeling that I'm just being a killjoy.

Like the students in my iai dojo, they basically ignore everyone around them (except Sensei, of course). Lest you think I am ticked off because I feel they should be kissing my ass, it is not on my behalf that I am irritated. Our dojo has a number of 7-dan jodoka who have being practicing for 30, 40, or more years. They deserve to be shown respect, and yet they are ignored by these kids who know they should bow to the guy at the front of the room, but otherwise have never bothered to find out who anyone else is.

When practice starts, they are generally made to keep to themselves, which is fine, I suppose, except that I keep seeing someone who has done Jodo for about a year, "teaching" someone who has been doing jodo for about a month. Remember what I said about the shit totem-pole? Well, picture someone who has next to no idea what he is doing, acting like an arrogant know-it-all, teaching incorrect techniques to someone who has absolutely no idea what he is doing, while the junior bows and scrapes to this so-called "senior" the whole time. It takes all my concentration not to intervene. Someone who has done Jodo or Iaido for 1 year should not be teaching anyone anything, much less should they be viewed as something approaching a Sensei, and yet this is what regularly happens in university clubs.

On a few occasions, I have seen someone do something slightly dangerous, that might get them or someone else hurt, and I have intervened and told them what they were doing wrong. This always gets me a confused look (as if to say "Why are you talking to me? You're not in my club!") and a hesitant, somewhat dubious "Oh ... I see ... right ... thankyouverymuch" followed by a quick retreat.

Once, in the iai dojo, a fairly tall student was practicing overhead cuts quite close to a basketball hoop. His "senior" was standing there supervising. I felt as though I should say something as he got closer and closer to hitting the hoop, but kept thinking "It's not my place..." Eventually, of course, the inevitable happened and he hit his sword with force on the metal hoop. Luckily, it didn't snap the tip off his sword or injure anyone. I was left thinking how stupid it was that I didn't say anything, just because of this ridiculous separation between the university students and the non-university members.

Another anecdote. I'm not sure how it fits in really, or what it means, but maybe you can tell me what you think.

It was September and we were just starting second semester at the university where I teach. I ran into one of my first-semester students, named Mariko. I asked her how her summer vacation had been. "Oh, so-so" she told me. Really? I asked. Why only so-so?
"I spent every day, only doing club."
"What club do you belong to?"
"Kyudo club."
"Oh really?" I said. I told her that I had done a very little bit of Kyudo in the past, and that I found it to be a beautiful and interesting art.
She looked a bit skeptical. I asked her "How many days a week did you practice Kyudo?"
"Every day. Seven days a week." Wow, so she was being literal!
"Oh, well, how long did you practice Kyudo every day?"
She counted on her fingers for a second. "Mm... six or seven hours. Verrrrry tired!" she said with a grimace.
"Really? You practiced six or seven hours!?"
"Well, not practice all time. Sometimes practice, and cleaning dojo, and talking with seniors..."
I was reminded of something Haruna Sensei always used to say. I repeated it to her:
"It is better to do something once, while thinking about it, than to do something one hundred times without thinking." And then I added my own, overly-blunt thoughts: "You can't concentrate on anything for 6 or 7 hours. You should do 2 hours a day and then go home, or go study, get a job, enjoy your life. 6 or 7 hours is way too long to spend doing Kyudo every day!"
She smiled in that way Japanese people do when they feel uncomfortable. "Mmm. Very deep idea. Maybe."

The thing is that Mariko probably didn't have a choice how much time she practiced. With Japanese clubs, you are fully in, or you're out. If you don't do what your seniors tell you to do, you're criticized and eventually ostracized until you quit. And that's your social circle and group identity, gone.

There's something sick at work in the university clubs here. Budo here might be partly about overcoming obstacles, building self-discipline and self-development, but I get the feeling that it's largely about torture, too. Another friend told me about a kendo summer gasshuku where juniors were forced to run around in a circle while seniors beat their ankles with shinai. What in god's name does that have to do with kendo? What does sitting around in 40-degree heat for 7 hours a day, cleaning the dojo or mowing the archery range grass or collecting arrows or fetching drinks for your seniors have to do with Kyudo?

The most important things for seniors and sensei to learn are compassion, generosity, encouragement, understanding, and courtesy. You learn this as a junior, from your seniors, who should be good role-models. I don't see much of that in university clubs, unfortunately.


Anonymous Aaron McCloud said...

Thanks for sharing that. My own experiences in Japan have been very positive, but I was privileged to be allowed to practice at private dojo with dedicated students.

I'd always heard that university budo was different, but those stories take the cake!

3:28 AM  
Blogger Noah said...

I have heard some horror stories about university judo clubs, and it saddens me to see that this type of behavior extends beyond the judo clubs and into all the other clubs. Some parts of Japanese culture amaze and impress me, but others are quite terrifying and as someone who was bullied throughout school, I have to say that I would likely not have survived the kind of atmosphere you describe.

5:59 AM  

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