Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dinner with a Sensei; or, No, Sensei, No!

It is said, in Japan, that before you marry a woman you should eat her 肉じゃが [nikujaga] or meat and potato stew. This stew consists of potatoes and beef (or pork) boiled and flavored with mirin—a sweet Japanese cooking wine—and is a typical winter dish for Japanese families. This stew, it would seem, is the best way to judge what kind of wife a woman will make. That being said, Kashiwazaki Sensei has a fantastic wife!

A few weeks ago, the world-champion Judo player and current director of the bekkasei program at the International Budo University—Kashiwazaki Sensei—invited the foreign Judoka to his house for dinner. Besides the afore mentioned nikujaga, we sampled a wide variety of Japanese foods including sashimi, clams, oysters, tempura, fried sweet potato and fried rice. In Japan, it is not unusual for a Sensei to invite a number of his students to dinner; however, it is an honor to be served in the sensei’s home. The sensei/student relationship is sometimes more akin to an adult/child relationship in the west. Sensei sometimes treat their students in an almost parental fashion.

Allow me, now, to relate the importance that alcohol plays in Judo… and every other Japanese club, place of work, or group of people who are in any way socially related. Nomikais—or, drinking parties—are a common feature of clubs and work places. Basically, the members of the club or, alternatively, the boss and his employees will go out and drink themselves blind. There is much that can be said, both good and bad, on this topic. Some believe that it is necessary for Japanese people to become completely hammered in order to express themselves freely. Others say that the Nomikai is yet another form of social pressure in which you *must* drink because your boss tells you to. Many, though, see this as an opportunity to relate to your colleagues in a somewhat more relaxed environment.

In the case of our dinner—and subsequent round of drinking with Kashiwazaki Sensei—it was just a chance to have fun and, perhaps, for Sensei to show off his wide variety of alcohol. We tried, in no particular order: traditional Japanese Sake, called nihonshu (rice wine); a sweet version of rice wine known as amazake; Okinawan Awamori (with snake venom); a very rare umeshu (plumb wine) that cannot be purchased in stores; some kind of alcohol with flecks of gold floating in it; a number of varieties of shochu, which is a potato or sweet potato based alcohol similar to vodka; and, of course, beer to chase it all down. Kashiwazaki Sensei laughed joyfully and proceeded to pull out bottle after bottle while one of our members cried in panic, "No Sensei, no!" Sensei only grinned evilly and refilled our glasses.

Amidst the revelry, Sensei took out the medal he received when winning the world championship and passed it around for us to see. I personally feel that it is inappropriate for anyone but the world champion himself to wear this medal, but Kashiwazaki Sensei insisted upon putting it around each of our necks and taking a photo. So I did not protest. After all, this quite possibly will be the only time I ever hold a gold medal in my hands.

AS with many Japanese nomikais, its all fun and games until someone pukes over the Sensei’s table. This is the traditional sign, I believe, that the party has been a success and that it is time to go home. I have lived in Japan long enough, now, to know how to hold my licker, but one of our younger members is now proud to say he puked over the bean-bag of a world champion. Far from feeling embarrassed, however, we are all quite proud of our light-weight heavy-weight.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Please Don't Feed the Gaijin

AS part of our regular Japanese language class, twelve of us foreign students studying at the International budo University went to a local elementary school today, where we were put on display like a traveling zoo. The principal welcomed us warmly to the school and explained that the students, who were studying English, had very few opportunities to meet and speak with “gaikokujin” (foreigners). We were then asked to introduce our home countries… in Japanese, of course.

Before coming to Katsuura, I worked for two years within the Japanese education system. Though I worked regularly at a middle school, I had the chance to visit several elementary and high schools. In all honesty, elementary schools in Japan are one of the few places where children are encouraged to be children. From middle school onward, strict Japanese socialization is enforced and students’ creativity and independence are slowly crushed. Nevertheless, it was amusing to see that even third graders must make opening speeches, closing remarks and bow every time someone farts.

“So how does this relate to Budo?” you may be asking yourself. Well, after introducing our countries and teaching the students how to say “hello” and “good morning” in Spanish, English, French, Turkish, Finish, Dutch and Korean…. We were asked to demonstrate our hobbies. Specifically, we were asked to demonstrate Judo, Kendo and Iaido in front of a room full of Japanese children. There was something of the “Hey, look at the foreigner do Japanese culture!” feel about the entire situation. We had an unnecessarily long argument with our Japanese teacher when two people asked if they might demonstrate American Football rather than Judo.

My partner and I did, in fact, demonstrate Judo. In the above photo I have just completed a Haraigoshi throw—sweeping hip throw—and in the photo below you can see a little more of the environment. (For anyone interested, in the following photo I have thrown my partner with Sumigaieshi, a fun throw which involves falling backward and flipping your opponent over. The children quite enjoyed this one.)

Our demonstrations were very short and, afterwards, the children themselves showed us a wide variety of Japanese traditions and games. This was quite interesting as a third grader taught me how to fold an origami crane and paint the kanji for 光 hikari (light).
Finally, we sat down to lunch with the elementary school students. I can’t help but wonder if the children were warned, “Don’t feed the Gaijin,” as we ate the same small meal as the students with one small difference…. We all had to return to the University and begin three hours of training!

Monday, November 14, 2011

You Look Tired; Why Don't You Sit down?

My third partner for randori today seemed not to understand or, possibly, not to remember that I am blind. He grabbed me roughly by the sleeve to drag me across the room to an open space where we could fight. He attacked me very aggressively—which I enjoy—but when he threw me he would stand and wait, expecting me to somehow find him amongst the confusion of fighting pairs of judoka. In a word, he seemed reluctant to play me. As I stood up to continue our randori, the kid came in fast and immediately started fighting for a controlling grip on my sleeves. I pushed him backwards a few paces and, finally, caught him with kosotogari, putting my foot behind his leg as he stepped backwards and pushing him off balance. The kid toppled hard… right into a row of folding metal chairs.
The noise his fall made was nothing short of cacophonous and drew the eye of every person in the room. For someone who was already uninterested in fighting me, having a blind foreigner throw him into a row of seats was probably not his cup of green tea. AS he frog-marched me back across the room I really doubted I would have another chance to play judo… not just with him, but with anyone.

It has been too long since I last updated the blog. As this little glimpse into my Daly randori may indicate, however, I am still struggling to find acceptance in the men’s dojo. Every day I go to training, hoping to fight as much as possible. At the beginning of every round I walk into the center of the dojo and wait for a partner…. And, inevitably, the space around me fills up while I remain an isolated island. I realized last week that, on the few occasions that a Japanese Judoka comes to play with me, it is only because the sensei has pointed at the judoka and then at me, a silent order that he *must* play with me.
Though I appreciate the efforts that Koshino Sensei—the sensei in charge of the men’s dojo—is making, let me put the situation into perspective. People *only* play with me as they are obligated. When I walk to the center of the room and stand, hoping for a partner, people pass me by as though I were not even there. It is the most humiliating feeling, to know you will never be taken seriously no matter how hard you work or how skilled you might become. It is no wonder the Japanese have such a high suicide rate; no other culture I have ever before seen is as skilled as the Japanese at isolating and outcasting individuals. I am safe in the knowledge that, at the end of this program, I can return to my own country where I have friends and people respect the efforts I am making. Imagine what it must be like for Japanese who feel as I do… but have no home to return to.

When I train with the women, I am never short of partners. I realized last week, however, that one girl has been put in charge of doing drills and uchikomi with me. Perhaps my mistrust of Japanese people has infected me too deeply, but I can’t help but wonder…. Is this girl only working with me because she is obligated? Does she take me seriously, or is this an unpleasant chore that must be done? For the most part, the girls do treat me as an equal; but I must squish my pride down into a corner of my ego every time I play with the girls because the boys won’t accept me. I hold women’s judo in the highest regard and I do not mean this as a sign of disrespect, but I think most men would feel somewhat uncomfortable in a similar situation. But pride is something I’ve had kicked around quite a lot and I’m interested in learning Judo at any cost, so I’ll continue playing with the girls if that is what it will take.

I do not like to harp on the negative of Japan, especially in a blog such as this, but honesty is more important in this case and I have shown Japan every respect. I keep my sanity because I am surrounded by foreigners, sighted foreigners none the less, who are treated little better. I will try to continue this blog as before, focusing on aspects of learning judo, Aikido and whatever other martial art might come up. Every now and then, though, I must also update readers on the actual situation and experience I am living.