Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Christmas Gift from Sensei

This blog entry comes somewhat late due to the general busyness of the holidays and flagrant laziness of the writer in question… but it is an entry worth posting nonetheless.

For the first eight months of this course year—from April to November—only two people wore brown belts in the entire judo club of the International Budo University: myself and one other Italian bekkasei. In most western countries, a black belt is very difficult to earn regardless of the martial art. In Japan, however, most children earn their shodan while in middle school. By the time they reach university, Japanese judoka have second or third degree black belts. Shodan, after all, comes from the kanji 初段 or “beginning step”. The first degree black belt is just the first step along the path of learning a martial art.

For this reason, the two of us wearing brown belts were sometimes ignored or taken less seriously in the dojo. Why would a third-degree black belt waist their time with such a weak opponent? Of course, the color of a belt only matters to someone who has reason to question their own abilities; especially at a university club where pride comith mere moments before the fall… to make a pun.
Our sensei, however, seemed to understand the difference between western and Japanese ranking systems. Kashiwazaki Sensei, in particular, made it clear on a number of occasions that a brown belt meant little when compared to the falling standards of training in Japan. This is a topic I will touch upon at another time, but it is one that came up frequently in our courses. It was somewhat vindicating when, through a friend, I heard that Kashiwazaki Sensei had told a room full of Japanese Judo players that “the foreign brown belts” knew how to do the Judo Kata better than they did. (Kata, for those of you who don’t know, are sets of techniques intended to demonstrate basic principals of a martial art.)

When Kashiwazaki Sensei found out that I won all my fights at the ranking tournament in November, he was delighted. He immediately said, “I’m going to buy you your first black belt.” Then he paused, “No, I am going to give you one of my belts.”
I was more than a little stunned. I did not tell Kashiwazaki Sensei the results of my tournament expecting anything more than his approval and, perhaps, congratulations. It is an honor, however, for a Sensei to give his own belt to a student. This not only means that a Sensei feels that his student is deserving of the belt, but that he is willing to stake his own name on that certainty. The belt, after all, carries the Sensei’s name written clearly in Kanji.

To my knowledge, only a very small number of people have a belt from Kashiwazaki Sensei. One of these people happens to be the Italian bekkasei who, with me, began this program as a brown belt.
Wearing this belt comes with its own responsibilities and, one might say, dangers. Especially in Japan, where people can read and understand the kanji of my sensei and will, therefore, have an expectation. Kashiwazaki Sensei is one of the most famous living judo players. I have little choice, though, as Kashiwazaki Sensei made it clear that, "From now on, you will wear this belt."

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