Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Turning My Back on a Black Belt

My days are numbered ...

roughly about 240 more in Japan. This will be my last year teaching English in Japan, and sometime in August I will return to the U.S.

Reflecting on my time in Japan thus far, this has been such a climactic product of a great culmination of things in my life, specifically in education and living in Japan. Concerning education, I have always felt comfortable in classroom environments, and often envisioned myself in a career in education. My time teaching English in a Japanese high school has certainly answered a lot of questions I've had concerning this. As for Japan itself, it has undoubtedly been the primary focus of my interest since entering college. Since my youth, the seeds of interest were planted by images of traditional Japanese culture, training in Hawaiian Kenpo Karate, and watching anime like "Vampire Hunter D," "Ghost in the Shell," "Akira," "Berserk," and "Ninja Scroll." In college, I wasn't sure if I wanted to try Chinese or Japanese language, but I made the decision to major in Japanese language and immersed myself further into the culture.

After college, I spent a year in my hometown doing physical labor jobs such as tree-service, construction, and landscaping, and it didn't take long until I realized that I had to go to Japan. During that year I studied Japanese culture through martial arts and Akira Kurosawa movies, and decided to apply to the JET program to teach English which ended up being a long and stressful period. I was not immediately accepted and instead placed on a waiting list. During that period while I was on the waiting list, I truly realized I HAD to go to Japan, whether it meant applying again the next year or finding another means of living there. Luckily, I made it a couple of months late in October because my predecessor here in Kurobe broke their contract after only one month of being in Japan.

When I was finally called to Japan, I was exploding with excitement and could have burst out the door onto a Japan-bound plane at that very moment. But there was one thing that would suffer from the life-changing move: my relationship with Jolene. We roughly agreed that while I was in Japan, she would spend part of her time in the Fall and Spring with me in Japan and travel and work during Winter and Summer. She came to Japan last Spring for a wonderful two months, but it was not a routine that could be maintained. The unfortunate result of this is that we have spent a very minimal time with each other despite being thoroughly immersed in the throws of love. By next August, we will have spent about three and a half months out of twenty two months together; a staggering fraction now that I look at it.

But on the other hand, it has allowed me to immerse myself as much as I can handle into Japanese culture with nothing to hold me back; which is exactly what I've done. Though I majored in Japanese language in college, I came to Japan barely able to read the simplest of signs and hold the most basic of conversations. Now, I move with ease reading what Japanese I need to know and can continue a conversation with any Japanese person you put in front of me. I came to Japan looking to study traditional arts and have found myself training in aikido with partners and a sensei I couldn't imagine being any more ideal for me. I came to Japan with a desire to travel within the country as much as possible, so I spend Winter finding new places to snowboard in Nagano and Niigata Prefectures every Sunday, Spring and Fall traveling to far away places by train, and Summer exploring the forests and mountains of Toyama by mountain bike. After just recently returning to Japan from a short vacation, it just hit me how smoothly and effectively I've set up my life here in Japan. According to the ideals I had before when Japan was just a dream, I have exceeded all of my expectations after just 15 months, and have started trends that could only increase further with more years: eventual fluency in Japanese, multiple black belt rankings in aikido as well as exploring other traditional arts, and a more in depth knowledge of interesting places in Japan I haven't even thought of yet.

How is it I've made the decision to turn my back on this oppurtunity that has so perfectly fit my dreams?

Well, it seems my dreams have changed.

But not without a shattering revolution in my values.

Overall, my love for Japanese culture has been confirmed, but also worn-out in this experience. There is so much more in the world I want to explore; both new dreams I've started seeing, as well as those I have yet to find. But to keep signing myself up for year-long contracts 6 months before they even start is definitely not happening again anywhere in the near future. Contrary to what many believe, Japan is not the only place, nor the best place in the world, at least for me. So it's time to get gone.

As for the Japanese language, I will continue to study before I leave, but I do not care to spend the decades it would take to reach the fluency I desire, being able to translate Buddhist, Noh, and martial arts material. As for traveling, I plan to spend every free second I have exploring new places within the country before I leave, but I need a new scene altogether to satisfy my current wanderlust. As for the job of teaching English, with all due respect, I'm especially ready for something new. Though it allows for a lot of time for exra-curricular activities, provides a lot of perks and services to the nuts and bolts of everyday living, and pays exceptionally well for the amount of work required, at this point it's just not making me happy or fulfilled. One friend here who is staying for much longer mentioned that no job is going to be fun all of the time. Well, that's fine, but I want to keep searching in case there is something that makes me happy and fulfilled. Being subject to (or maybe "surrounded by" is a more fitting term) the Japanese system, especially in the business of teaching English, is constantly a struggle I'm unable to rationalize. I would like to find a job where I'm not treated like such an outsider, and not being galked at in amazement everytime I ride my bike around town, pick up a pair of chopsticks, or effectively say "konnichiwa" to someone. My love with Japan will last forever, but it's a relationship I can indulge from abroad, at least for a while.

But in this revelation of experience, I have left out the single most influential facet of my life in Japan: training for a black belt in aikido.

That sacred treasure which comes in the form of a sleek black belt and hakama embroidered with my own name, signifying a substantial level of skill and respect from my peers, and is the symbol of a quest that has lasted since my childhood, has become an absolute monster; one I will not grasp during my time in Japan.

Literally every single day I have been in Japan I have thought of the question of recontracting, and the black belt lies at the deepest center of my desire to stay. I have made such progress that even if I spent only one more year training here, I would certainly earn it with honor from my sensei. But this will not happen. In fact, I have yet to tell my aikido partners of my decision, and it will be the hardest thing I've done in Japan besides making the decision to leave.

Obsessing over the prospect of a black belt has driven me to madness. I have qualified my time in Japan by my aikido practice, making it the single most important thing in Japan, and thusly the whole world. By doing this, I've overlooked all other things in Japan I'm interested in, my whole life outside of aikido, and almost made a decision to stay longer even though every other sign points to leaving. To think of staying another year now leaves me with some very dark and lonely thoughts. I've been sizing up everyone in the world according to getting a black belt here. All Japanese who don't do aikido are stupid because they don't realize the amazing cultural gem they have before them. I look at all other gaijin here the same way, while they waste their time on more mundane activities. I look at other martial artists who haven't been to Asia as limited, and those who have been in Asia, but less than me, with an acceptable but still downward glance. Perhaps this would be tolerated by my megalomaniacal, insecure, and controlling self, except there's one problem ... there's a lot of people who have trained here longer than I have. I've searched out every martial artist I know, investigating their experience in the East and found people who have studied 3 years, 10 years, 20 years, receiving dans (black belt rankings) upon certificates upon honors which lead them to careers of becoming professional pillars of budo. And I'm leaving after just 22 months without even getting a simple shodan (first degree black belt). I will return shamefully back to the States, thrust back to the bottom of the barrel to don a white belt I have just worked so hard to get past. Even though I very consciously and confidently stated in the beginning that rank means nothing and my only concern is quality-training, this obsession has brought me to extreme states of unjustifiable judgement, fear, anger, envy, and shame. I have committed the worst of crimes of someone involved in a ranking system in the martial arts: ignoring all quality unless it's worn with a black belt. So selfish and disrespectful.

This fall I went through a gauntlet of emotional struggle, bringing me closer to that climactic decision.

At the edge of the cliff I looked. I looked down into the abyss before jumping for that single black goal leaving all else behind ... and I decided to peacefully walk away.

Aikido is not the only thing in my life, but in fact a small beautiful piece of the puzzle that is my life. I will not let a black belt from Japan turn me into a monster and negate all else that is precious in my life. I will walk away and find a new place to start over, seeking to appreciate true quality in life, not just a fancy super-hero outfit. A wise teacher once told me very personally, and a few years back even, "You are not at the beginning of your journey. Things have been long underway and carrying you through to what is now a further advanced stage in your development."

This tumultuous experience has revealed my curse: I live my life as a struggle.

Throughout my life I have set myself apart from the rest of the world, making myself into a hero and everything else a conquest to overcome, and that is not what I want anymore. I'm now beginning to realize it's ugly side-effects. I have objectified those around me, placing them into my own arbitrary hierarchy without respect for their own equal existence, and have even made my closest partners in life demons that reflect my insecurities. Just yesterday I was reading "the Masonic Aikidoka" blog (which I recommend and can be found at http://masonicaikido.blogspot.com/) where the author reveals a wonderful quote from the founder of aikido, Ueshiba Morihei, which couldn't be more relevant to my current epiphanies:

"There is only one thing that is wrong or useless: That is the stubborn insistence that you are an individual, seperate from others."

I do not want to live my life as a struggle anymore. This competitve outlook has allowed me to grow in amazing ways, and there are things that can be described as "struggles" in life, but my life does not have to be a struggle. I can't believe it's only now that I'm realizing that this is my decision. It's my decision to make my life a struggle or a pleasurable experience. It's my decision to seperate myself from others by judging them to be better or worse. It's time to take responsiblity for my emotional and psychological states, and thusly my actions.

If there's anything I trust, it's my intuition and conscious decisions, which I have spent a lot of time listening to, and both have brought me to this transition. There is no question of potential, and only the existence of what is happening. I walk proudly and confidently into the unknown that lies ahead of me in August.

Perhaps even, the black belt and aikido are not the center of my time in Japan, but a means I use to reach what is the ultimate center of my interest in Japan, the philosophies and experiences of bushido and zen.

When I called Jolene to tell her the news, we were both excited to begin our lives together again on neutral ground, but she was apprehensive of any regrets I may have later on about this decision. I told her with absolute confidence, that that would be impossible. I personally follow a philosophy that anything is possible at any time no matter what, but it seems I have found the exception. Amid the fickle chaos of the universe, I have found that solid path just wide enough for my feet, and it is the conviction to follow my instincts towards where I feel I must go. By kankaku (feeling/perception), I nanto naku (somehow) know I must do these things, and do them with zanshin (absolute follow through). Surely I will get periodical psychological pains stinging every once in a while and let loose turrets-like exclamations when thinking about walking away from a black belt. Maybe when looking back I will see what a wonderful and rare oppurtunity I had practicing aikido with the people I do in Japan which ended up being so short. But I will never regret this decision. This to me, is my most profound understanding of Bushido.

So, what's next for gaijin explorer if not more Japan? This question leads me to the greatest love I would have turned my back on if I would have stayed: Jolene. This whole time she has been nothing but understanding and supportive, all the while being the most passionate and honest person I have ever met. Through the frustration of loneliness and negligence, she has not once hastened me to make a decision. I almost let Japan and aikido tear us apart forever. My only plan in August is to reunite with her, find a warm place where I can continue walking the budo path ... and grow a longer beard.

Essentially, the plan is no-plan.

At this point, I know I will find myself just where I need to be. To me, how much more zen can it get? Soon I will begin a journey into the true unknown after releasing myself from some very heavy chains. I realize I still have many other limiting demons to understand and release myself from, but I will do so from the most profound feelings of emptiness and perception I have ever experienced.

Now, perhaps some of sempai are reading this thinking:

"Alright, this sounds great and all, but what the hell are you going to do for a fricken job gaijin???"

What am I possibly going to do to get fed and keep a roof over my head? Well, I guess I'll really see how far all this trust and optimism will go when I'm thumbing through classifieds. To all of you readers, if you have kept up with this blog, or even made it through this post, you probably have a good gauge of my personality. Any advice or leads you can recommend for a 25 year old gaijin with experience in teaching and random physical labor jobs, an interest in writing and eastern philosophy, and an unwavering desire to practice martial arts which will lead me to a life of quality, would be greatly appreciated :) Please feel free to leave a comment or email me at gunther_k33@hotmail.com.

Well, it's time to make the most of the next 7 months I have here practicing aikido like a madman, using every ounce of reluctant effort to complete this Japanese language course I'm in, exploring new places in Japan, and trying to understand the merits of my time teaching English. All the while of course, tending to this blog. During the year I've been writing on this, I have surprisingly come into contact with some wonderful blog writers, and look forward to the future sharing of material. Please contribute to the progress by contacting me if you like.

Onward and upward.


  1. since aikido is based on not struggling with an opponent--even if the opponent is one's self--i'd say this lesson is as huge as any from your time in the dojo... from the outside it seems you had already made your decision when you went home for a visit last time but needed to grow into accepting it.... and hey, seven months is a good chunk of training time so keep us updated!

  2. Well, it is your personal decision, of course.

    But as I had been there at some point in my life, you should know that there is also the possibility of staying.

    I did that 13 yrs. ago, but I had already lost, more or less, my cultural identity after travelling to more than 45 countries and some 8 yrs on the road. There was just no way back, and the strange thing is that I ended up here in southern Taiwan, with wife, job and house and all, though it is by far not the most beautiful place I have been to.

    We live a happy life, though at a price, as both of us lack this kind of cultural home. Close friends are countable on 2 hands, and when I'm here, I daydream of the advantages of the West. Then I go there for a vacation and come back early, 'cause it's not where I want to live anymore.

    Maybe you should hurry back home, in order to not loose any more cultural identity.

  3. Hermann: First of all, thank you for the short blip of a personal story. Half of this blog is trying to see what other kindreds are up to in the world.

    I haven't racked up as many countries or years as you have of course, but maybe I am in the middle of it. As much as my experience can lend, I feel as though I understand a lot about you and what you said through your short message you left above. I have made the decision, and will follow it through, and by doing so I guess it is the ideal as it is what is happening, but as far as "rights and wrongs", I can only laugh.

    I told one other whitey here that I was tired of feeling like a gaijin, and he said that he felt like a gaijin everywhere. It then occured to me, that I feel the same way. I plan to keep moving for a bit, and then find somewhere I can stay and probably feel very much the same way you communicated.

    I sincerely thank you for leaving this comment. Good luck on the path.

  4. You are wellcome, and I also wish you all the best. Live is funny and we all choose what suits us.
    Happy Chinese New Year of the Rabbit, comming up Feb. 2nd.

  5. We might could arrange an uchideshi position for you here at SW ms... Maybe...