Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Three Wiseass Monkeys

Over the past few weeks, I have been writing blog entries primarily regarding my last couple months in Japan. Though I do have a few more of these tales yet to tell, I have not been idol in the meanwhile. I have continued my training here at home with renewed vigor. It is about this training, then, that I would like to devote the next three posts.

Several months ago I posted an entry about the Three Wise Monkeys. This is a famous symbol in Japan used during the Tokugawa Shogunate to represent the proper way to live: hear not, see not, and speak not. Some have given the ancient phrase a more modern interpretation: hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil. In 17th century Japan, however, these were maxims by which a samurai lived his life.

This age-old symbol was given a new meaning today as I was training with my father and our Sensei, Dave Mata, at the Grand Rapids Kyoseikan dojo. Due to the fact this was a day-class, when many people are working, it was just the three of us. My father, who began training in Aikido at the age of 67—who says you can’t teach an old dog knew tricks—is legally deaf. He usually doesn’t wear his hearing aids during class for fear of damaging them. Mata Sensei, on the other hand, claims to find verbally explaining techniques to be very difficult. As for me… well, I’m just blind.

So here you have a deaf monkey, a blind monkey, and a monkey who can’t explain what he’s doing; how do they work together? After spending several minutes trying to describe his movements while taking ukemi—safely falling—Mata Sensei suggested a very intuitive strategy for the three of us. While Sensei slowly moved through a fall, he asked my father to explain, in his own words, how it looked. Does this sound simple? Try to explain, in detail, the position of your body as you climb the stairs or even move from standing to sitting in a chair. Are your hips forward or back? How is your balance distributed over your feet; is your weight forward or back? These motions, which we take for granted, are very difficult to explain when moving slowly. Sensei, who has been “learning how to fall” for over fifteen years, does it without thinking. I myself have been training in Aikido for nine years and the falls have always been something I enjoyed. My father, though, has only been training for a year. These movements are not yet ingrained so deeply in his muscle memory.

Ukemi—falling—is not a simple, once you’ve learned it you’re finished, process. AS you age and your body accrues injuries and stiffness, ukemi is something you must develop and think about. The intent of this entry, however, is not to focus on a discussion of ukemi but rather on this interesting style of teaching. I believe Mata Sensei’s casual suggestion touches upon a very important piece of teaching methodology for the blind or visually impaired. I believe it can also serve equally well for sighted people both beginners and advanced, if for a slightly different reason.
Each person “sees” the world slightly differently. I realized this in particular when visiting an art museum with two friends in Japan. Each of my friends would describe the same painting, but using completely different words. While one friend spoke of the emotions she felt while looking at the image, the other friend talked in more detail about the specific techniques used to create the image. Though each person described the same picture, for me it was as though I had viewed two separate paintings: one a moving, emotional picture while the other was more detailed and graphic. Similarly, the same technique or, in this case, ukemi described by two separate people can touch upon details that one person alone might have missed. A concrete example from today’s class occurred when my father mention the way Sensei turned his hips to keep balance while falling forward into a front ukemi. While Mata Sensei had described to me how he kept weight back and lowered his knee as close to the ground as possible before shifting forward, turning his hips was something he had done without realizing. Again, I am not trying to teach ukemi with this post. I am only discussing a strategy for teaching.
Similarly, this same process of describing a technique can apply for sighted people as well, but the other way around. Especially when first learning, talking your way through an action may help you to more fully understand what it is you are doing. If anything, it may help you become a better teacher in the long run as it helps you to continuously think about your movements. Sometimes, talking yourself through may help you find the point you are missing. It really helps to bring a more conscious awareness to the activity you are performing.

The three little monkeys finally all fell successfully off the bed and landed safely on the tatami. Mata Sensei is, in the end, a very skilled instructor. I would not return to his dojo each time I am in G.R. if I did not feel I could learn from him. Sensei is constantly seeking to become a better teacher—a better “sensei—and this is more valuable than knowing how to describe each technique in detail. It is more important because, after all, each person learns differently. Mata Sensei seeks ways to adjust his instruction for his students.


  1. This is definitely one of the coolest posts you've put up. Awesome stuff from the worked example/pedagogy perspective.

  2. Especially now that I am training regularly in Aikido, my posts will probably become more closely regarding my own thoughts on teaching. Sensei is trying to prepare me for becoming an instructor--I am usually the person who runs warm-ups now. It's a great opportunity.

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