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.

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