Friday, March 25, 2011

Factory or Forest?

The other night I watched "the 11th Hour" documentary about the current state of environmental issues and focusing on global warming. I couldn't help but watch it with the incessant searching eyes of a martial artist and noticed a particularly interesting bit 1 hour and 2 minutes into the show in the words of ecological designer, John Todd:

"Whether we're talking about the design of a factory, or a building, or a road, or even a town, it's much easier to design in isolation and superimpose a design on what exists. But if we were to follow nature's operating instructions, it designs in exactly the opposite way. It brings in to the pallet, so to speak, all of the kingdoms of life and then works symphonically to create an end result, which might be a coral reef or might be a forest."

So, as martial artists, is your desired goal more like a factory or forest? Are your training methods more like a superimposed plan designed in isolation, or a symphonic creation which recognizes the surrounding conditions? Of course this is just an analogy, and most likely your plan lies somewhere between the extremes, but it may be interesting to think of what your training would look like in consideration of this analogy.

Think about the lifespan and purpose of each example; factory and forest. A factory is built with a specific purpose in mind. Until the factory is built, it cannot start production. After it is built, it will have a lifespan that will inevitably end and decrease in performance along the way. It will require repair, if not a complete demolition and reconstruction. If the factory is around long enough, those who have to perform maintenance and reconstruction will only have blueprints and abstract concepts to base their idea of the original form on.

An environment of interconnected natural organisms on the other hand, has no specific purpose. If you could take a leap to make any judgements, it's goal may be to stay alive, and keep producing ... but equally so destroying and regenerating. Because there is no purpose, there is likely no beginning or end ... it simply is. Any distinctions or categorizations are inherently limiting explanations. You can analyze a flower in the forest and say that it's purpose is to produce pollen, but to dwell on this one specific would be to ignore the infinite amount of similar other "purposes", which can be a method of inquiry more misleading than enlightening.

Certainly, humanity's ability to manipulate "form" to achieve certain specific goals is something that can be of great benefit to a martial artist, but perhaps we should keep applications of "form" in consideration of an interconnected environment that has no beginning, end, or purpose. Could we say "Green Martial Arts"? Healthier on the surrounding environment and self as opposed to self-destructive and outwardly violent? For those who have thought about such dichotomies and distinctions, I'm not just talking about "internal" and "external" martial arts; or "hippy-peaceful-chi-loving-magic" martial arts and "young-male-aggressive-destructive-UFC"martial artists. This transcends style and judgements, and can be achieved within a wide variety of outward manifestations.

Anyway, perhaps I have forests on the brain because I have very important plans of travel for the next week. My first proper Gaijin Adventure in at least 6 months! Unbelievable. But yes, I am resuming true Gaijin Explorer antics by visiting far-off ...


It is now semi-spring break, (I say "semi" because there's no school, but most students still have to come for club activities, and teachers still have to come because ... mmmmm ... I have no idea) and I am using a week's worth of paid leave to initiate the coming of spring, since it hasn't happened yet. Maybe it needs a little encouragement by yours truly to break out of winter slumber. I've been planning a trip for this time period since December, and actually initially wanted to go to Shikoku (the fourth biggest island of Japan, see map below) for a whole new environment, unknown rural areas, slightly warmer temperatures, and epic mountains to climb.

BUT ... then I decided to upgrade my plan (with no disrespect to Shikoku, it's still very much at the top of my list of places to see in Japan). If I'm leaving Japan in August, then I'm damn well going to make sure I see something that challenges my imagination ... I'm looking a bit further to a kingdom of SUPER-epic proportions! YAKUSHIMA!

Super-epic mountains covered in super-epic forests of cedar trees located on a tiny circular island of the coast of the most south-western point of major Japan ... it is also going to be super-epic-expensive ... but a cache of gold means little to this gaijin.

There are many specific reasons why I want to visit this place so bad, but there's also this over-arching all-consuming mystical draw to the island. I think the source of this is that which is most famous on the island: yakusugi. (Yaku - the island, and sugi - cedar trees. Actually, sugi are often called "cedars" in English, but really belong to the cypress family of trees. In this blog I'll just refer to them as sugi to avoid confusion.) The oldest of these trees are estimated to be beween 2,600 and 7,200 years old.

7,200 YEARS OLD!!!

The island is also famed to be the inspiration of Hayao Miyazaki's anime, "Princess Mononoke" which takes place in a forest filled with magical spirits. A great film, and one of my favorites.

So, I plan to leave tomorrow, first on a 3 hour train to Osaka, and then a 12 hour overnight bus to Kagoshima. One night in Kagoshima, and then it's a 4 hour ferry ride to Yakushima, where I'll stay for 5 nights; two of which I hope to spend camping around the 1,900 meter (a little more than 6,000 feet) peaks of the island ... but this has become a very strong hope. In the winter, these mountains get large amounts of snow despite their southern location, but in all the guidebooks and information sites I read, all the snow should be melted by April. However, we've had a particularly long, cold, and snowy winter in the mountanous regions of Japan, and there is still snow at the peaks in Yakushima. I've tried to investigate just how much there is exactly, and future weather forecasts, but I haven't heard any information other than it was deemed "very dangerous" by the park authorities two weeks ago. I am feeling extremely adventurous, and this is a very expensive and important trip I've been planning for months, but I also want to practice more aikido and write more on my blog, so I will make safety the number one (or at least in the top five priority list) during this trip. It seems at best, I'll be able to freeze my ass off safely in my tent at the top of the mountains, and at worst, settle for day trips and see how high I can get. Last night I pondered postponing the trip until summer when I could have a better chance at ideal conditions, but I know too well the high risk I would be taking of never making it to Yakushima. Now is the time, and I'm going no matter what ... I just really hope I can make it to the top.

Could this quandary be any more relevant? Should I do all I can to superimpose my design on nature blindly ignorant of current conditions? Or should I adapt my plan appropriate to the conditions? Factory or forest. Again, certainly a happy-medium of sorts is desirable, but exactly how that's going to work out is a mystery to me now.

My life is not a factory of quotas, commodities, gross production statistics, or any other fancy terms I really don't understand about economics ... but is more likened to a an ongoing organism with no purpose other to live gloriously.

(If they ever come out with pills to balance right and left brain activity, maybe I should consider taking "left-brain" supplements.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Great Resource for Japanese Literature

The other day I was introduced to a wonderful site which contains a list of various works of Japanese literature throughout history: "20 Essential Works of Japanese Literature."

Below is a link to the website as well as its own introduction:

"Japan's ancient history has imbued it with a diverse literary heritage largely ignored by American literati and professors, save for a few notable exceptions. Anyone wanting to further explore the full range of the country's written works should consider this list a primer of the highlights to hit before moving on to other poems, novels, plays, comics and short stories. Plenty of amazing writers and narratives exist beyond these, of course, and anyone who digs for them will dredge up a slew of literary treasures."

The website is actually found on "bachelorsdegreeonline" along with many other informative blogs about various topics.

Spanning from the "Kokin Wakashu" written around 905 C.E. to Haruki Murakami's, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" in 1995, a vast variety of Japanese works are presented including such traditional classics as "The Tale of Genji" and "The Tale of the Heike", and those from modern award-winning novelists such as Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe. I recognized quite a few of the titles on the list, but I was surprised to find many I hadn't heard of before. It particularly reminded me of all the modern classics I haven't read yet. One work from ancient times which really caught my eye that I hadn't heard of before was the "Taketori Monogatari". (Description from the website below):

"Taketori Monogatari (10th Century) by Unknown: Known alternately as "The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter" and "The Old Bamboo-Hewer's Story," folklorists believe this narrative is quite possibly the oldest in Japan. Because of the bizarre content, including glowing stalks of the eponymous plant, some even think of the story as one of the earliest science-fiction stories as well."

With each description, a link is given to the stories where you can purchase them online. I can think of a few personal favorites from Japanese literature that are not on the list, and there are no references for works in the past fifteen years, I highly recommend this wonderful resource for those interested in a helpful resource to dive into the vast ocean of Japanese literature with.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Recent Stumbling on the Path

My performance in aikido the past couple nights could be described as far from "flowing", "smooth", and "effective"; which is what I am ultimately aiming at in my practice. Perhaps it was the overstimulation from the current issues in Japan, but last Thursday I walked into the dojo with my head and my body going in two different directions, and niether of them seemed to be concerned with aikido. As we warmed up, I realized where I was and what I needed to do for the next two hours, but when we lined up to watch sensei demonstrate a technique for us to practice, it didn't look like anything I've seen him do before, though it was a very basic technique I've practiced hundreds of times. When we got with our partners, I didn't even remember what the attack was supposed to be. When practicing techniques throughout the night, I was constantly stopping in the middle with no idea what I was supposed to do. After about forty minutes I mentally stopped myself for a little peptalk and tried to reel myself back to some acceptable level of aikido competency, but all I could do was look over at the clock ... over and over again. Practice a move, look at the clock ... 8:06. Practice a move, look at the clock ... 8:09. Practice a move, look at the clock ... 8:10. As soon as I started this, my mind followed my body into a downward spiral of uncoordination and laziness. I just wanted practice to be over. I never did recover my drive, and so the rest of practice went on like this, and we even practiced twenty minutes longer than usual.

The interesting part about this is that sensei noticed my state very quickly and gave me physical signals like, "What the hell are you doing???" When he was my uke (the person receiving the technique), he wouldn't give me anything, and when I was his and giving a crappy ukemi, he would sit unpatiently waiting for me to adjust and give me a really sharp wrist lock or throw or whatever. I would react with frustration, and he saw me getting very hard on myself, and thus making my whole being tense and stuck in tunnel vision. He didn't appreciate this at all, and responded by utilizing the most effective method of communcation a teacher has: silence. After class, I had to pay money to Ueno-san, and we talked about potential times for an upcoming test I was due for. I said something in Japanese with a little more gaijin-accent than usual, sensei was right next to us, and he mimicked me! After I just had a worthless night of aikido, was paying my dues, and trying to get out as soon as possible, he made fun of my Japanese!!! In reality, it was a very small thing, and I probably do sound really funny when I speak Japanese, and I probably would have laughed at a foreigner in the same situation ... but sincethen, that moment has replayed in my head on average of a few times a day, and I try and say the phrase over and over again to get rid of the accent. I even had a dream about it last night! Anyway, we decided the test would be during the next practice, and I gathered my things as quickly as possible and went home ... but not without a stopping at the conbini (convenience store) for some medicine (beer).

I went home to have some very important revelations. On my bike ride back to the apartment, I was continuing being very strict with myself, criticizing myself with all kinds of ultimatums and extreme judgements: "I suck at aikido", "I started too late", "I'm leaving too early", "aikido is stupid", etc. However, as soon as I got home, it all fell away and I started laughing out loud. I must have looked really funny, even more so because I started trying so much harder and failing more, and I probably did speak Japanese extra strange tonight ... and it was probably even more funny because I got all heated up about it. There is absolutley nothing that this kind of frustration does to help me in aikido ... unless you count this revelation I was having as something that was helping me deal with this specific destructive trend; which it was, but technically it doesn't directly affect my aikido ability. I'll say it again, frustration and self-conscious worries do not directly progress your ability in aikido. If there was a direct path to progressing in aikido, these frustrations only harden yourself, making you stiff and static, distracting you away from the path, or slowing if not stopping you altogether. If I am climbing a mountain called aikido, this would be like sitting down in a cold rainy puddle in the middle of the road, or trying to punch the rocky sides of the mountain. Looking back on my life thus far, I think I would be better martial artist if I substitued all those feelings of frustration with either more honest practice or laughing and having fun. The frustration does nothing but transport me to my own personal hell of suffering ... which is about as real and relevant as a place located miles beneath the surface of the earth where large scary red people poke at you with tridents amid torture in fire ... which is not very real or relevant to me. I think this is where Hosogoshi was/is stuck, and why sensei had that strange night with him a week ago, and why he has left. Though Hosogoshi went to every single practice, and trained harder and more consistently than anyone else, I think he was stuck in frustrations, and sensei communicated his discontent casting him from the dojo.

It's the Dark Side:

"Anger leads to hate, hate leads to pain, and pain leads to suufffeerrrriiinnnnggg."

Remember who said that? Master Yoda. Though Anakin was by far the one with the most potential and thought he deserved to be on the Jedi Council as a master; and Obi-wan may have seemed lame when telling Anakin to chill and be more patient and wait for a few more years, Anakin was blinded by his passion and eventually overcome by his ambition turning him into the slave of the dark side, Darth Vader. Hehe, I hope you enjoyed that reference.

Anyway, Saturday came and it was time to test. Practice was in Uozu, the next town over, and so I called sensei as usual to see when he was going to pick me up. No answer. I called again; no answer. Crap, I was going to have to ride my bike there ... whatever. I agreed to test that day, so I was going no matter what, and sensei was going to have to show up eventually. At first I was kind of pissed at him, in case this was some kind of test of devotion, but after further consideration, I realized Saturday is usually his busiest day at work, and he was going to have to make the big drive from two towns over even if he only can be at training for 20 minutes just to see my test.

My frustrations and complaints only exacerbate already apparent less-than-ideal situations.

On Saturdays, we share our already small mat space with a karate group, and we had a surprisingly large amount of people ... maybe eight were there at the beginning when usually Saturday is a little smaller of a class. By the end, sensei did show up, along with four other people, making thirteen aikidoka in all. The last twenty minutes of class I spent practicing the waza (techniques) for my test. I was definitely a little tired and looking forward to relaxing playing poker in an hour, but my techniques were solid and I envisioned summoning a great surge of energy during the few minutes I would test. The only thing I was worried about was the small amount of ken (wooden sword) and jo (short staff) I was going to have to do. For this test, which is yonkyuu (my fourth test and three away from a black belt) by the way, there is a very small amount of weapons, and they are the most essential basics, which I am more than capable of doing. However, I can never remember the names of the moves, and am unfamiliar with the protocol of doing weapons during the test. Whatever, I'm sure it won't be a problem.

Anyway, we all lined up, and I waited to be called out to test. Ueno-san said something about making preparations for the weapons part, and I had absolutley no idea what she was talking about. After some very awkward motions and Japanese communication I realized what I was supposed to do, and started off the test thrust into a state of reddened cheeks and accelerated heart beat. This was all accentuated because of the large amount of people watching me do this by myself in an unusually small amount of space. We did weapons first, and it became very clear I had absolutley no idea what the protocol for doing weapons during the test was, and forgot all of the names of the waza I was supposed to do. Ueno san called out the techniques for me to do, and I would start doing something, something other than what I was supposed to be doing, and she'd give me a strange look and I realized I screwed up. She kept repeating in Japanese what I was supposed to do, and I started guessing what I was supposed to do in very self-conscious movements, which just made things worse. My cheeks flushed red and I felt like such a stupid gaijin standing in front of everyone during the test I am supposed to be absolutley ready for, and I was screwing up on the very first portion and unable to understand the most simple of commands. I seriously looked at Ueno-san and every drop of Japanese ability melted away from me ... she could have been speaking Chinese to me and I wouldn't know the difference. If only she would just mimic the moves quickly, I would do them. Well, somehow, I got through it, and we moved on to the empty handed techniques. I had two people serve as my uke, but both of them made things more difficult than usual. One of them is a white belt who hardly ever comes to class, so he doesn't know how to do proper ukemi for a lot of the moves and often reacts very unnaturally. The other was an experienced black belt, but he's older and unbelievably stiff, and does ukemi different from everybody else. I would perform a move and one of them would move differently than usual, and I would react, but it was not very smooth. At one point, a move was screwed up, I got really hot and knew everyone could see how red my face was getting, and all I could hear was the thunderous beat of my heart. However, the best part of my test for me personally was that I just took really calm and deep breaths, and went on with things as absolutley best I could. The test finally ended, and afterwards I went to sensei and Ueno-san to receive comments on my test. They both said my empty handed techniques were just fine for my level of my testing, but I had a big problem with not knowing the correct terms for the weapons portion. This was obvious, and I apologized for my mistakes, because it does in a way show disrespect to the system and test. Next class I'll go over them again with Ueno-san to make sure it's all in order.

Before I went to poker, I stopped for a bowl of ramen and a beer to laugh about the silly gaijin antics I had displayed over the past couple nights of aikido. In the end, I'm grateful for the honesty of my superiors. Not only their words, but also their physical actions. If I'm screwing up, no one is going to take it easy on me and ask me if I want to rest, or tell me it's fine for me to do comprable aikido. Instead, they hold fast to their standards, and it is me who needs to make the choices considering my performance and attitude towards life. I'm glad to have last week behind me for so many reasons, and look forward to what will come: more aikido class, normal life in Toyama, and maybe ... just maybe some signs that spring is coming.

By the way, I just saw Bladerunner last night for the first time ... how have I missed that until now? Absolutley amazing. From what I've seen, the 80's were the Golden Age of sci-fi movies. (Predator, the Abyss, Alien, Bladerunner, to name the favorites that immediately come to mind.)
In less than two hours and without 80% of the movie being run with green screens and computer graphics, you can get an amazing story with great action scenes that leave you with deep questions to ponder far after viewing. Now, everything has to be a 10 hour long trilogy attempting to answer everything under the sun with an overload of computer graphics. I'm going to watch Tron tonight.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Gaijin's Nuclear Report (Morning of Sunday March 20th)

I turn on the news now and can find nothing about the current situation in Fukushima. Things have settled down. Personally, I'm not letting my guard down, but will probably not be investigating any news more than once a day unless I'm notified of anything in particular. If this is my own notifaction of a personal lack of worry, I think I could have done it the afternoon of Friday the 18th. It was a long week at school were I probably spent 70% of my time actively researching the incident, and usually with a heightened level of concern. After school on Friday, I got together with some of the other ALTs (gaijin Assistant Language Teachers) to play Magic (any of you lucky enough to know the wonders of this game???) and we all commiserrated with each other our feelings and experiences of this all. Now progress is being made to restore power and cool things down at the power plant, and Toyama here has remained unaffected.

Now when I turn on the news, I see war in Libya. I think I remember hearing a Chinese curse that goes something like: "May you live in interesting times."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Gaijin's Nuclear Update (Morning of Thursday, March 17)

(While writing this, helicopters have began flying over the reactors dropping water and making readings of the radiation levels.)

Though it's been 6 days now since the initial earthquake started the chain reaction of terrifying events here in Japan, immediate danger still seems far from resolved. Even after reading tens of articles and watching Japanese news for an hour so far this morning, I'm not really sure how things are going. As an American living in Toyama, Japan, it's hard at this point to make sense of the polarized opinions, feelings, and reactions.

'"We are at the beginning of the catastrophic phase," Sebastian Pflugbeil, president of the private, German-based Society for Radiation Protection, said of Japan's efforts to pull the Fukushima plant back from the brink.' says an article from "" last night.(

"If cooling operations do not proceed well, the situation will ''reach a critical stage in a couple of days,'' an agency official said." reports Kyodo News this morning, which claims itself as "Japan's Leading News Network", and seems to present one of the most unbiased articles I've read. (

Yesterday in the school office I simultaneously swept the web for all hours of daylight while watching the Japanese news on TV and periodically asking Japanese around me what was going on. Yesterday things were steadily worsening, and if I could draw any consensus from the information I got yesterday, it's that something needs to happen as soon as possible! I read no reports that said "Everything will be fine if nothing happens over the next few days."

I've received nothing more than the initial message from the authorities of the JET Programme (my job) stating the facts of the initial tsunami and earthquake and requests to donate money. What are other JETs doing right now? What the hell are the JETs doing in the affected prefectures??? Yesterday I read an account of an Australian English teacher, who along with a few other fellow English teachers who lived in Fukushima, immediately fled to their home countries fearing exposure to radiation and upset at the lack of information and concern by the authorities in their area. (Link to the article: Have any JETs been killed in this series of tragic events? Been exposed to fatal or cancerous levels of radiation?

Well, as soon as I got to school this morning, I turned on the TV and started sweeping the news for information ... nothing seems to have changed.

Until yesterday, the news had a constant broadcast primarily focusing on the immediate nuclear dangers showing current images of the damaged nuclear reactors, substantial speeches from authorities, and animated models to inform people of what is happening in the reactors. Also, video was periodically shown of the areas destroyed by the tsunami and the current status of survivors as well as statistics and predications of those who perished. Despite criticism of the Japanese authorities, I was impressed at the level of coverage by the mainstream Japanese media.

This morning the reports are diluted with uninformative round-table discussions between young TV hosts. Online, I've found articles that are already talking about nicknames for those workers who have remained at the plant to work on the crisis and are deemed heroes. These men are absolute heroes in my opinion as well, but the situation is worsening and you're already giving credit for resolutions??? The headline of Yahoo News was, "Dog in Japan won't abandon ailing friend" This is the best you've got??? This is the most current news on the current nuclear disaster???

AS I WRITE THIS NOW IN THE SCHOOL OFFICE, HELICOPTERS ARE FLYING OVER THE REACTORS... but there is no one around for me to ask what's going on! Wait ... one of the teachers just came up and helped me put the audio into English, bless his soul. (I'm doing my best to keep my biased and judgemental generalizations to myself, but it's obvious I tend to exaggerate impressions a bit sometimes. Also, at this time I don't have any classes today and so have the liesurely time to make my full-time job researching this matter while other teachers still have classes to teach. Now, a few teachers are amassing around the TV because it is a break between classes.)

Helicopters are apparently flying over the reactors, dumping water and measuring the levels of radiation. !!! Yesterday it was said that this was too dangerous because of the estimated levels of radiation. What changed between then and now? I don't know yet. Are those people consciously and willingly going into what really is probable fatal levels of radiation to take these measures of emergency? Have they confirmed that it is safe to do so? Don't know yet.

Anyway, by the current visible attitudes of people in Toyama, life has returned to normal. (Again, I'm trying not to exaggerate things, and trying to be as unbiased as possible, but am just trying to communicate what I perceive here, which is probably only a portion of the actual feelings. Though I've spent a good amount of time here and studying Japanese culture, I still often have absoultley no idea how some people here feel by their outward appearance). Yesterday, the news was on all day, and people periodically were checking up on things, but I sensed no feelings of worry. However I was able to talk with Terao Sensei about the epic possibilities of the Apocalypse stemming from this event to satiate my extreme American imagination. Ever since the event, I have been walking around expecting earthquakes at any moment, visualizing what I would do in such a case, and looking around at the air wondering if I am receiving unusually high levels of radiation. But all else in town seems to have resumed a state of normalcy. Yesterday, junior high school students came to my high school to read the results of their test scores determining if they were going to enter this school next year, so there were crowds of crying (both with excitement and despair) junior high school students, and high school students and teachers alike were observing the soon to be freshmen. Generally, it seems people high school age and younger don't know or care about what is going on, the elderly sit on street corners and in front of TVs rambling with each other, and everyone in between is running around frantically working harder than they should ... all just like normal.

Yesterday I was trying to balance myself between the normal world of Toyama, the seeming apocalypse that was proposed by a large amount of sources on the media, and what I could actually see on the media. My own personal thoughts of the whole of Japan downspiraling into a state of mass anxiety as the plants explode exposing the world to radiation drove me to spend a lot of time pondering my escape and role in the Great Apocalyse. I also drank about four times as much coffee as normal.

As school ended and night drew near, I went home to eat and prepare for aikido. Motivated by the need to "do something", I went to the dojo an hour early to practice jo; which was my solution to the end of the world. When picked up by sensei, I got in the car and we initiated conversation as usual, as just about anyone does in Japan during winter: "Samui desu ne." ("It's cold isn't it").

A few moments passed and I said:

"Soooo, the uh ... nuclear situation is pretty tough huh?"

"Yeah it is huh."

"Are you worried?"


"Are you worried about the nuclear disaster???"

"Oh yeah, it's going to be really bad for the economy."

I spent most of my day pondering the Apocalypse wondering if I was going to perish from exposure to radiation, and he seems absolutley unconcerned. I didn't really know how to pursue asking him about dangers of radiation, but I asked him about how this may affect him.

(NUCLEAR UPDATE: one of the teachers that pisses me off most just came by and turned off the news. He must be beri beri bizi.)

Sensei explained some things about the economy and how it affects his job as a Buddhist priest, but I didn't really understand and it wasn't satisfying me, so I asked him how Buddhist philosophy would address this situation. He said it was certainly a tragic event with the amount of death and loss, but it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. I didn't really understand his explanation after that, but I think maybe he was saying that it was good because it revealed to people the precious and sensitive nature of life and brought people together. He then began to explain a very interesting analogy about knives and nuclear power. He said there is no problem with nuclear power; the problem is with how it is used. Take a knife for instance, if you want to peel an apple, a knife is a wonderful tool. But that knife can also be used to kill people. The problem is not the knife, but how it was used by someone. It's the same with nuclear power. The problem is how we are using nuclear power. He was very characteristically matter-of-fact about the whole situation.

At the dojo, some chatter about the events started, but it was mostly about the fact that the usual variety shows had resumed on nightly TV, and someone had a story about someone they knew being stuck in the transportation delays in Tokyo. Somewhere in the training, very early on, I had forgotten all about the current events, and had a great aikido practice. I came home and turned on the news, but found no new updates, so I made dinner and watched the last episode of "Pillars of the Earth" on my laptop.

Now, I've been at school for about two hours, have drank way too much coffee, and am subconsciously convinced by my immediate surroundings that everything is OK, elated that helicopters are dropping water and taking measurements of radiation above the nuclear reactors, and just slightly more than annoyed by Japanese society (which is the most reassuring factor that things are normal). Now I'm going to get some more coffee and turn the news back on for a bit. What am I going to do after that? What am I going to think about if it's not nuclear apocalypse? It surely makes everything else seem a bit unimportant. Things seem to be improving though.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japanese Crisis Viewed From Toyama

Though I'm relatively far from the area affected by the earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear contamination by living here in Toyama Prefecture on the Sea of Japan, it has been a very strange experience to be in this country during this devastating time in Japan. Here is my account of the way things have played out from my perspective.

When the major earthquake hit, I was actually in an empty classroom pacing around half- practicing Japanese and half-worrying about the direction of my life and other petty distractions. After I finished, I went back up the the staff room and Terao Sensei told me a great earthquake had happened and that I had better go and watch the TV, which was on on the other side of the room. I went there and stood stunned and confused with about three other teachers as we watched in awe the spectacle of the great wave consuming a fishing village. I tried to rationalize what was happening without any previous information about this. I saw a flood of water move across the landscape, but from my perspective it didn't seem so menacing; maybe it looked a foot or two high and moving through empty portyards and rice fields. Perhaps it would stop after twenty or thirty feet and recede back to the ocean. Instead, it continued at what I realized was a very fast pace and was very much higher than a foot or two. Despite hitting buildings directly on, water just kept pouring forth, channeling the water through any passage available and pulling anything along with it. Oh my god, are those cars? There are cars that seem to be unknowingly driving parallel to the oncoming wave. Holy shit, they just got caught by the wave, there are lots of cars and people in them, and now they're flowing into each other, into buildings, with boats, and into people!

Us teachers looked around at each other absolutley dumbfounded, flinching and gasping as we saw everything consumed, foot by foot ... it was happening right at that moment. How could these people not know what was happening? How come this wave isn't stopping. A teacher came up with their jaw open and asked if it was Japan ... "REALLY??? Oh my god!"

The camera switched to this group of large dome buildings, one of which had caught on fire and the fire was growing. Why isn't it stopping? Why aren't there firemen there right now? I watched as the fire grew, building and rising, beginning to consume others surrounding it. They're all going to blow. Slowly, more teachers amass in front of the TV, but most everyone is silent and shocked.

Over the next few minutes and soon hours, it becomes a well understood fact that there was a massive disaster happening in eastern Japan of unparralelled magnitude. The news was warning of more earthquakes, and other areas around Japan that may be at risk. All of northeastern Japan was under extreme warning, Tokyo and southern Pacific regions were at great warning, north western Japan just reaching down to Toyama were at warning, and southwest Sea of Japan regions had no threat. It was said that a tsunami of 50 cm was going to hit Toyama at 5:30, no one seemed worried about this ... and nothing really happened. I left school on my bike to take care of a few errands, but had my head fixed towards the sea in case I too was about to be overtaken by a menacing wave. All was well, and I met Terao Sensei for dinner as we planned at an izakaya (Japanese pub) for yakitori and asahi. Of course this was all over the news, and video of Tokyo was being shown: offices shaking violently, pieces of concrete building falling into the streets, and ceilings collapsing. Also, I saw parts of eastern Hokkaido that had been flooded. Death tolls began to be posted, and the number started at meager hundreds. The feeling was that this was a horrible event, but as we saw the death toll rise, nuclear plants on fire, and affected regions spanning all the way from Hokkaido to Tokyo, it was unbelievably ominous. There was a weird feeling that things were going on as normal in Toyama. People were finishing work, eating dinner, and meeting with friends on this Friday night, but also that a tremendous amount of death and destruction had occured only hundreds of miles away on the other side of the mountains.

Terao Sensei and I finished our dinner and went our separate ways. My friends were playing poker that night, but I declined at first to instead go home and try and make some sense of things. I went online to find many people from home emailing and facebooking me to see if I was affected. People seemed to the brink of panic, and it further convinced me of the magnitude of what was happening. I became very sentimental and decided that this was not a night to be spent drinking alone in my apartment, but rather spent with people I care about here where we can talk about this. So I went to poker. My friends were all proceeding to set up the games, but the news was on the TV and we couldn't help but talk about it. At this point, it was deep into night, fires were burning, people were dying, and we thought about all the survivors stuck in the freezing nights of northern Japan. My best gaijin friend who's house we were at, turned off the TV abruptly and put on music for the poker game. All the rest of us looked at each other shocked, but didn't say anything and just began the game. My friend seemed very much averted to watching this, and is the type to shy away from death and tragedy. We just went along with it and would check back in a bit. Periodically we would turn on the TV to see the increasing disaster, but after minutes of changing a cd, my friend would turn off the TV again. How could he not be watching every second of this?!?!?! Well, that's just his deal. A few of us were asking if we felt the earthquake. One of my friends lives in a very old farm house, and he said his whole house was shaking violently. After the initial quakes subsided, he ran outside to safety next to rice fields. I had a really weird experience, where I think I had one of those experiences where I felt something strange, but naturally deemed it nothing because it seemed to out of the ordinary and no one else to confirm it at the time. So now looking back, I'm not sure if I felt it or not. After poker I went home and went to sleep, grateful for my safety, and deeply affected by the amount of devastation that was still happening at that time.

The next day was an unbelievably bright and sunny day in Toyama. One couldn't help but be refreshed from the immediate change of weather towards spring, but the feeling was also very ominous around. Everyone seemed very quiet and concerned, and yet still proceeding with their day. I rode my bike to the store and tried to imagine my own small town of Kurobe being consumed by a tsunami of such magnitude. I looked at the ugly glaring concrete buildings that were spattered throughout the town that would stand defiantly against oncoming surges of water and manipulated automobiles and bodies. I looked at the flimsy 50-year-old-plus housing that would have absolutley crumbled immediately under such force. I looked at all the elderly that frequent the streets at midday, and they as well would have absolutley zero chance against such a happening. Shit ... I would have no chance against such a force. Just immediate and inevitable absolute destruction. Like newspaper in a fire.

I turned on the news in the morning and was amazed to see the death toll above one thousand and only burning skeletal remains of those large industrial domes I had seen consumed the day before. And now, a nuclear plant in Fukushima was just destroyed and vain attempts to keep others from going as well were in order. Alas, the aftermath of such immediate destruction only increases the building terror. Nuclear threat? This is unbelievable. All this happening while I cleaned my house on this beautiful spring day, pondering the bachelor party I was going to attend later that night. Throughout the day the situation was still building.

I was to have a friend from the U.S. visit me in Toyama the next weekend, and just realized this may not happen. He had apparently arrived in Osaka around the time of the incident, and thought people frantically running around in industrial uniforms was normal for Japan. It wasn't until he checked his email that he had realized that the largest recorded earthquake in Japanese history had just occured and the country was in a national state of emergency. He was safe in Osaka, but was planning on headed to Tokyo before coming to Toyama. At that time there were delays and frequent blackouts in Tokyo, as there still is, but I figured by the time he got there, things would be relatively normal and he could at least get a train to Toyama.

Sunday came and things were slowly getting worse considering the death toll and impending nuclear disaster.

Monday, more of the same. At one point, I was in the school office alone while the teachers were in a meeting and I heard a very strange alarm-like buzzing noise. Heh? Was it coming from me? I could hear it coming from all around me too. My head darted from side to side trying to figure out where the alarm was coming from and I stood up shooting my chair behind me as I did a chase-my-own-tail maneuver looking for the source of this sound. I grabbed my cell phone and realized that it was coming from all the cell phones left behind in the empty classroom. It was a national earthquake warning sent to all cell phones, so I positioned myself next to a doorway and listened with my whole being for any quakes. I looked towards my desk and imagined myself huddled beneath it as the whole ceiling collapsed trapping me inside. This did not happen of course, no earthquake was felt, and since that time my alarm has gone off maybe 5 times warning of earthquakes in neighboring prefectures like Nagano and Niigata.

My friend who was to visit is returning home early with the work party he was with due to the general nation-wide as well as Tokyo-specific status ... delayed transportation, frequent blackouts, possibly more earthquakes, questionable nuclear meltdown. I don't blame them at all, especially because he's on a business trip and was merely making a side trip for fun to see me.

On this Tuesday, four days after the tsunami, things are strange in Toyama. Life here is progressing as normal, but the news is utterly occupied with the status of the disaster and the nuclear question is not getting any better. Throughout this time, I have been asking the Japanese around me about the details of what is happening, but I have gotten little more than what is immediately on the TV. Live images of the affected areas, nuclear updates from the authorities, and statistics of people dead and lost. I've asked about the sake my own safety, and people don't seem to be worried about being affected here in Toyama very much at all. I asked Terao Sensei about things in Tokyo concerning my friend getting around, but I didn't get any more information I already knew: transportation is delayed.

This poses a very interesting difference between Japanese and American culture. People seem to be viewing all of this in a very distant and accepting nature here in Japan. We are all watching the news attentively, but I don't hear anyone talking about it, and people seem to be taking the updates in a very matter-of-fact way. Eyes are wide, mouths are closed. I think everyone feels a great amount of sadness and terror from the incident, but is dealing with it by doing their best to work hard at their jobs for the national benefit. This is drastically different than the reaction abroad, specifically in America. I was surprised to receive so many concerned emails, because I was far from the affected area, and had been wondering if widespread news of this had already reached the U.S. during the night of the incident. I very quickly started reading English coverage of the incident for any specific updates I couldn't understand in Japanese, but initially there wasn't much. It wasn't until after a day or two that widespread fears of nuclear meltdown were the focus of discussion. People were evacuated from the surrounding area of the nuclear crisis, but there hasn't been so much worry in other areas. The American media is portraying things much differently, with an increasing concern for the potential nuclear crisis. I now settle in the middle, calm as the authorities are attending to the problem, but ever-ready for absolute nuclear meltdown and contamination of the country I currently reside in. Nevertheless, I am sure to get both English and Japanese updates hourly.

It is very easy, as a foreigner here in Japan amid such a disaster, to criticize the Japanese for their methods of dealing with such an incident. Why are the authorities so calm? Why aren't they doing more to prepare the people in case of nuclear meltdown? How come no one is talking about the meaning of this? In America, the authorities are reacting with great worry, people all the way across the world are even talking about mass nuclear contamination, and everyone is talking about it. But as a matter of fact, Terao Sensei just passed by me and asked me if there was anything I'd like to know about what's going on. I asked him if the authorities are preparing the people for nuclear meltdown, or addressing the risks, and he said not so much. I gave him a strange look, and he explained that in fact many Japanese people are unhappy about the way the government is dealing with this and want more legitimate and trustful information; not just the authorities protecting their image and telling people to calm down. People are people, and the Japanese culture is changing. What if a meltdown occured, and all of Japan was unable to save themselves because they weren't warned in time? How come Japan had to be firebombed almost completely and been the target of two nuclear bombs before surrendering in WWII? How come so many millions upon millions of Japanese have suffered in medieval times from greedy lords and shogun who wanted power? This is obviously going a bit far, but maybe we need to address how culture can affect the reaction to a disaster. But in the end, like I said, people are people, and right now there are lots of people reaction in a very generally human way to recent events.

Logistically, JETs (Japanese Exchange Teaching Programme I'm a part of) all over the country are organizing donation stations and potential, collecting non-perishable food, clothing, and monetary donations to bring aid to the affected areas. I wonder what has happened to the JETs in that area??? Has any died? I'm sure I have an email about it in my inbox as I type.

You know what's really interesting, is the earthquake hit exactly where I wanted to go in Japan before I was assigned to Toyama. I wanted to be on the Pacific side, close to Tokyo, in a culturally interesting area like Fukushima or Sendai, close to nature and small towns ... that is EXACTLY where the earthquake and tsunami hit. If I had had it my way a couple years ago, I would have placed myself right in the middle of the disaster. Is the work of my own personal kami (spirits, gods) that sent me to Toyama instead? How about the kami of those living in the affected area?

No joke, just last night before I went to sleep, I picked up a book of short stories, "Sleeping Willow, Blind Woman" by the famous Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, and resumed reading from a week earlier at a chapter about a boy who experienced his friend consumed by a tsunami-like wave from a typhoon. I couldn't go to sleep with this burning my mind, so I had to read it.

What is happening? I'm now looking at the TV next to me of the scenes of ravaged towns, and it's still very hard to believe. Let us pray that the nuclear threat is contained, and things can be brought back to order as quickly as possible. In my view, there is no country better suited to deal with such a disaster, culturally, financially, and infrastructurally, but what can humans do against nuclear meltdown and contamination? We'll see won't we.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tsunami Japan

Holy s*%t, if you haven't checked the news already, leave this site of flimsy abstractions and check out what's happening in this country of Japan: major damage from earthquakes and tsunami. Here in Toyama on the Sea of Japan, we're about as safe as can be, but on the Pacific side things are real bad. I really don't have anything to say, but am shocked to be seeing this happen ... please send some positive thought waves to eastern Japan if you have the time.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Strangest Night

Last night's training, or lack of training, has left me obsessing nonstop over its reasoning ever since; or maybe it was the lack of training.

What has been a very cold and snowy winter here in Toyama, warmed up drastically for about a week and a half convincing everyone that spring was coming early this year, but just the other day it dropped below freezing again, sheeting all with a layer of fresh snow. Luckily sensei called me just in time to pick me up before I set out on my bike for training in the next town over. I was feeling especially good for some reason, and so did sensei, so I asked him about his kids for the first time who are now in college, and he asked me about what I was going to do after I left Japan. These were good omens for the night.

We arrived at the dojo a little late to find Hosogoshi and Ii warming up, and a lone kendo-guy who is often there practicing adjacent to the mat making the strangest rumbling, gurgling, grunting sounds I have ever heard from a human. If he had a super-hero nickname, I bet it would be "Grumbling Thunder-Toad." Within a few minutes of getting dressed, we began practice just as usual.

Sensei will demonstrate a move, and then we'll all practice it on each other on both sides with about three rotations of everyone each. On only the technique we practiced, something happened that would change the rest of the night, along with a lot of our concepts about aikido and our training partners: Hosogoshi asked a question. Actually, it wasn't so much the question, Sensei is happy to answer questions and continue with training, but it was Hosogoshi's reaction that changed everything.

We were practicing a move where your partner grabs your wrist with two hands, and usually the partner's intent is supposed to go straight into the person's center. Hosogoshi felt like sensei was giving pressure downwards instead, and so he changed his position a little bit to compensate. Sensei called him out on it, and Hosogoshi gave his reasoning. Sensei gave his explanation. But when people usually say, "Ohhh oh oh oh, OK OK OK," even if they don't quite understand and just continue trying their best, Hosogoshi instead sent the feeling that Sensei was contradicting himself. Now, if you ask me, Sensei did sound like he was contradicting himself, and he was putting more energy downwards in the move than it seemed like he said we were supposed to, and his answer to this physical problem of doing the technique correctly didn't seem like it was possible ... but this happens all the time. Sensei will always try to explain techniques, but he knows well that he can't explain a lot of them, and will conclude his explanations by saying that they can't really be explained effectively and we have to learn them by just doing them and practicing. I don't think sensei is particularly bad at explaining things, and he's not lying, tricking, or cheating his students, but most of us cannot do these moves as well as him and don't understand how it is he can do them. Hosogoshi understands this extremely well I think, but for some reason, he was expressing his confusion a little more obviously and antagonistically than usual. Sensei picked up on this and I think I could see him flip a switch in his head, and he started explaining something for a very very very long time.

After about five minutes, Ueno showed up and went into the dressing room. By the time she came out and started warming up, I started moving my toes around to bring back some feeling and couldn't believe Sensei was still talking about this. In the early stages of his explanation, he was trying to show us how the move is related to a lot of other movements we do, how it's related to kokyuu, and that we can't bend our arm too much and must point it straight into the partner's weak point by using our form instead of muscle strength. He said this is not only really hard to do, but it requires proper ukemi by the partner, which I personally am still very far from doing correctly. After about ten minutes or so, he would grab one of us and try and demonstrate something for about a minute or two showing us a problem, usually about how the technique is largely dependent on the uke (partner receiving the technique), looked at us for an awkwardly long pause, and then continued talking.

The funny thing was the reaction of Hosogoshi, Ii, and I. I was standing there just doing my best trying to focus on figuring out what he was saying in Japanese; eyes wide open and my head slightly forward staring at him, which is hard after about two minutes of intense listening for me. Ii is the type to be amazed at everything sensei does, so he would mutter sounds of approval and amazement at whatever sensei said. But after Hosogoshi realized that sensei was going to explain this until he got a certain absolute approval from everyone around even if they didn't understand, he wasn't going to stop. So, Hosogoshi does whatever smart kid does when they're being lectured to and want it to end, which is say, "Yes, I understand," not say anything else that could possibly make the person keep talking, and give just a small amount of the impression that the more the person explains, the more time they're wasting. I think sensei picked up on this, stared right at Hosogoshi, and went straight to the heart of him ... by continuing the seemingly unnecessary explanation.

About twenty minutes into this standing and talking, another member showed up and started getting dressed. Ueno was ready to join in, but was patiently waiting for us to resume practicing a technique. The conversation eventually evolved to the nature of ki and kokyuu, two very difficult terms to describe. Sensei was trying to show us that ki follows kokyuu which follows the base physical factors such as balance, speed, timing, and positioning. Hosogoshi was progressively seeming to get more annoyed from all of this because sensei has gone over these things many times before with us on Wednesday nights, Ii was acting shocked and amazed at everything sensei did, and I was just standing there trying to keep my focus on figuring out the Japanese and trying to see exactly what he was doing.

At the thirty minute mark, I think us listeners had finally broken down a bit, and knew something really strange was going on. Sensei is not stupid, and seems to conduct his teaching in a very conscious and directed way, and I think he realized that we realized some point was being made, though none of us knew exactly what, and I'm sure we were all thinking drastically different things. Sensei transitioned to admitting that he cannot explain these things in words, and they cannot be understood from books, but must be felt, and felt from someone who "has" the ability and technique. He started talking about his experience with his teacher Kobayashi Sensei and being an uchi-deshi (living at a dojo and practicing everyday), which was really interesting, but I really had a hard time understanding what he was saying. I think he was saying that the feeling of good aikido arises from constant practice, and he's only really found it consistently with people who were uchi-deshi. Or maybe also that even people who were uchi-deshi didn't really understand this concept.

Now, a lot of this is my own speculation. My command of Japanese is fairly limited, and I've only been training here for a little over a year, so my aikido isn't even very good, but even more so, I'm sure I only see the tip of the iceberg of personal and emotional experience these people have with each other; especially between sensei and Hosogoshi. I think Hosogoshi is a shodan (first-degree blackbelt), but is preparing to take his nidan (second-degree blackbelt) in a month or two, and I get the impression that sensei doesn't hand out dan grades very easily. Though he may not be the of the highest ranks that show up to class, he is by far one of the most skilled. Moreover, he is at every single practice, is always the first to arrive and last to leave ... every single time. I remember the one time he didn't show up all of us at practice were deathly worried about him. He practices hard, consistently, listens to what sensei says, never shrugs at practicing with lower belts, and fully embraces the idea of feeling your way through aikido with diligent practice. But sensei was doing something to him tonight. If this conversation about uchi-deshi is what I think it was, I expect Hosogoshi was pretty pissed, because we don't have an uchi-deshi experience at our dojo, but Hosogoshi nonetheless tries to get as much aikido as possible. I've never seen Hosogoshi so ... something ... and while sensei become quiet just standing there, waiting for something, Hosogoshi began talking. He said, in an honest but un-Hosogoshi-like manner, that aikido is great because there is never and end, and it's never perfect, and the only way to get better is just to do it. But sensei was not appeased.

Timewise, at about thirty or forty minutes, I realized how long this had gone on, and thought "Christ, sensei's probably going to just start doing solo weapons probably and we won't get a chance to practice the things he's been ranting about for so long." All the while, Ueno has been waiting freezing her ass off for about a half an hour, and the other member as well for about twenty minutes. I had certainly broken down, and just expected I was going to spend the rest of my life in that freezing dojo while sensei just continued to ramble on.

Then, a little over forty mintues he said, "That's it, I'm done." He left our conversation circle, bowed out, and started getting undressed. Sensei will often say important things and leave us hanging, and while he did this we all looked at each other, even more amazed by this than the fact he had just ranted for forty minutes. We didn't really know what to do. Hosogoshi quickly realized something, and bowed himself out and began getting undressed. Ii looked around to see if anyone else wanted to do anything, and I guessed I had to follow suit because sensei was my ride home. Ueno and the other member who showed up quietly undressed from their gi's they didn't even use. I got changed very quickly and quietly, and to my dismay found that everyone else was only half-way done, so I just sat there quietly staring at the wall. Sensei was standing in front of us all undressing with an awkward silence, and he would look at us strangely, and I'm not sure exactly was going on, but it was awkward and I just sat quietly and kept calm. I expected an equally awkward ride home with sensei. The funny thing is, this whole time, he didn't seem angry or really distressed, just more matter-of-fact.

A little chatter had started between some people while we were packing up, but when Hosogoshi finished, he said the usual "tsukaresama deshita" (~thanks for your hard work, goodnight) but then gave a deep bow to sensei and said a couple sentences and walked out ... very unusual.

We all left, and I put my stuff into the back of sensei's car and took my seat, anticipating an excruciating ride, but told myself I wasn't going to say anything unless he did. To my surprise, after he started the car, he apologized for the night's training and asked me if I understood what he was talking about. I answered, "Mmmmmmm, kind of but not really." I told him that I knew he was talking a lot about ki and kokyuu, and that these things can't be defined, and that we need to learn them through concepts like nantonaku (somehow), daitai (generally/roughly), and kankaku (feeling/perception). I told him that I know when I'm messing up, but I'm not quite sure how to fix it, and he said that that was great and no problem. I told him that when I practiced with people below me, I can very easily see how they're screwing up a technique and he seemed very happy to hear me say that. I then said that I can't really tell when someone better than me screws up a technique, and I mentioned Hosogoshi and sensei made affirming noises but wasn't really saying anything. In the end of my own explanation of my experience in aikido, I said that I am trying, but I really don't understand, especially ukemi which seems to be the most important part of aikido, and he exploded into assuring me, "That's absolutley fine! No problem there. It's when you think you understand that you start to have problems."

Mmmm ... well ... I certainly know to never tell sensei that I understand aikido to stay on his good side. But isn't he saying he knows something about aikido by teaching ... and thusly falsely saying he knows something? Or does he really know something so it's OK for him to say so? I don't understand.

We had a good talk for the rest of the ride, and despite the strange night, and my ominous feelings considering Hosogoshi, I felt supported by sensei and my mood was greatly elated. I'll reiterate again, this whole time, Sensei did not seem angry or upset at all of this, but very matter-of-fact.

We had training the following night, but no Hosogoshi. To not see him there gave me very ill-feelings in my stomach considering the night before. I wondered if that was it; did he quit? No, no way. He must just be taking a night or two off. Perhaps sensei was doing whatever it took to make Hosogoshi take a break without telling him to directly. It's not unlikely that he could use it. Like I said, Hosogoshi is at every single practice, super early and always staying late. When I was warming up by myself before practice, he was going over something with Ueno, and then called me over very excitedly and said "Hey Zac, check this out!" and was showing me some movements. Strange. Sensei is usually very distant before practice, and seemed to be expressing more enthusiasm than before. A weight seemed to have lifted. Practice was good. But I had a very lonely feeling the moment we were excused from class, because I didn't have the one of two feelings I always do at the end: either I go straight to Hosogoshi to practice more, or be slightly embarrassed because I want to go home right away instead of practice more with him. Well, I guess I'm going home now.

Next night, no aikido, and too much poker.

Next night, Saturday, aikido practice. No Hosogoshi. Sabishii, lonely.

Next day, snowboarding. Just after I was dropped off at my house with my board and gear and while I was searching my pocket for the key to my apartment, I got a buzzing call on my phone. Hosogoshi! I quickly unlocked the door, threw my stuff down, and answered the call. We said a few things about snowboarding (he's almost as avid a snowboarder as he is aikidoka) but he then said sorry for not being at practice. I asked if he was just taking a break, but he said that he was done. I was both shocked, but also understood. He said something happened the other night at the Wednesday practice between him and sensei, and he can't do aikido now. I said I thought it was really weird, but to be honest I didn't really understand the nuiances of what happened. We agreed that we need to meet and drink together very soon, and then I'll be able to find out what really happened.

The practices since have gone very well. More people have shown up, and sensei has seemed very much relieved of something; undoubtedly it must be connected somehow with what happened that Wednesday night. Also, sensei has been giving a lot more attention towards me, which makes me feel a lot of strange things. I really wish Hosogoshi was still coming to practice because he's one of the best training partners you could ever ask for. Sensei's enthusiastic attention towards me is like magic and leaves me uncontrollably enthusiastic myself. The other night I thought to myself I have never once, not once, done a technique perfectly, or even close to what I would call thoroughly acceptable. But, I feel like I'm making a lot of progress. I feel a little strange when sensei gives me more attention than other members of the same or slighly higher levels, but I also come to more practices and pay more attention to what sensei is doing than the other members. I get along well with all the members in class, but in a culture where "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down", this bearded blonde kid might be drawing some attention to himself.

This post has taken a long time to write, and so it's been one week since that very strange Wednesday night. I have a lot of time to think about it all, but am still left with more questions than answers.

What was sensei doing to Hosogoshi and the rest of us?

My answer is that he was teaching us a lesson.

What kind of lesson?

Don't question sensei? No, that's not it. Don't do something other than what sensei says in class? Maybe. Don't ever say that you "understand aikido." Probably. Was he reaffirming his dominance to a student who may be questioning his authority? Something like that.

Why don't people just say what they mean in this country?!

But this is less about differences between "East" and "West", or "American" and "Japanese". This is about following a path that is supposed to progress you somehow, and it's about doing so with someone more experienced and skillful than you who is trying to show you the way. It's not about ego, and it's not about perfection. Perhaps it's about following the path as best as possible, which ultimately means doing it by yourself. Perhaps sensei was challenging each of us to legitimize our lives and techniques by our own means.

If Hosogoshi wants to do more aikido, he'll be back. I miss him already, but I know he's doing what he must to progress in his own way. Regardless, I've got to get to practice tonight.

In the words of the great Warren G, "Tha game don't wait."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ukemi & Push-Hands

In aikido I am very consciously striving to become better at ukemi by reacting to movements appropriately. This can be extremely difficult because each partner and each technique will be different, and so you must react appropriately, naturally, immediately. What I mean by "appropriately" is that you must follow your partners lead without beating them to it (moving to where you're supposed to be before your partner does anything), but doing so without giving excessive resistance. While doing ukemi, if you do nothing, then the particular technique you're partner is doing is probably lost and would require a different technique altogether. If you resist everything your partner does, then that could change the technique as well, or make it very difficult for your partner to learn to do the target technique. For those who criticize aikido as being too scripted to be considered a practical martial art (including myself a while back), some one truly proficient should be able to execute a working technique under any circumstance, but that takes far more skill than I have, and could also seriously injure the partner. The best two adjectives I can think of to describe appropriate ukemi are "full" and "alive." If you do nothing in your ukemi, the technique your partner is trying to do is empty and probably won't work. But, if you ukemi appropriately then the technique is alive and constantly changes reacting to the movements of your partner. SO, appropriate ukemi is very important, and I'm trying to learn how to do it.

Yesterday while I was watching a Tai Chi Chuan "push-hands" video on youtube, I had a bit of an "Ah-Ha!" moment related to the nature of ukemi.

When two people are doing competetive push-hands, they remain in contact the whole time maintaining movement that is "full" and "alive". Appropriate, natural, immediate ukemi, and you never even had to tell them about this term "ukemi"! (Well, those terms would describe highly skilled push hands probably). When doing push-hands, if one person stops everything and does nothing, then they get pushed over very simply. Because no one does this, push-hands is always full because the person is always trying to not get pushed over. This is "full" technique. Also, each partner is reacting to each other competitively so the technique is alive because at any second something is changing. In this way, any physical competition that includes two people who make contact are naturally doing some kind of ukemi(?) I think it is just especially evident in push hands because it focuses on concepts of "non-resistence" and "flowing" over "antagonistic" movements.

Have I gone too far? Is ukemi incorporated into any physical competition that includes two people that make contact with each other?

In trying to be good aikidoka, perhaps we can apply ukemi to the activities and relationships of our daily lives. Is it possible to have a life that is "full" and "alive"? Is it possible to have a life that is not "full" and "alive"? Do you have relationships with people who do nothing when interacting with you? Do you have relationships with people who constantly resist everything you attempt. These can be very annoying qualities in a relationship ... and by doing bad ukemi I am subjecting my fellow aikidoka to this everytime we practice together! It's a wonder they keep inviting me back to class! I sure hope I start performing appropriate ukemi soon.