Becoming an Uchideshi, or How to Train Seriously in Japan
by Patrick Augé
During the last few years, several of my students have been preparing themselves to experience uchideshi life in Japan, I have also received requests from Aiki News readers who, having read my interview in Aiki News #91, wanted to know more about how to go about becoming an uchideshi. Although, under the guidance of my teachers, I had prepared myself quite seriously for the life that was awaiting me in Japan, I realized that I was able to accept the many unexpected situations I regularly encountered because of my clear goals and my formal education. The failures of many ill-prepared young people have also convinced me of the necessity of gathering my thoughts in writing. All opinions and advice given here are the result of my on-going experiences and observations. They do not constitute final answers and should be considered as guidelines that can lead the aspiring uchideshi to find their own ways according to their own circumstances. However, due to the conservative nature of the Japanese budo world, much of this advice will apply to anyone. In fact, with the exception of situations arising from actually living with one’s teacher, the uchideshi experience is not so different from that faced by anyone entering into a serious relationship with a Japanese teacher in Japan. I think, however, that the uchideshi experience takes a student one step farther, since the student lives with the teacher. It’s a twenty-four-hour-a-day matter.
What is an Uchideshi?
Uchideshi means literally “inside student.” We can compare this to the old system of apprenticeship in which the apprentice lived with a master artisan and his family in order to learn his trade. Present-day democracy, with its emphasis on individual rights and mass education, discourages this kind of system. This accounts for many of failures of would-be uchideshi I have observed over the years. According to the tradition of some schools, only uchideshi could receive such certificates of mastery as the menkyo kaiden. (Editor’s note: issues such as licenses and transmission vary greatly between traditions, schools, or styles, and even between dojos.) It was felt that only through experiencing daily life with the teacher could a student learn an art beyond its technical appearance. This may have been true during the era when budo had its secrets. Nowadays anyone can learn budo—instruction through studios, dojo, seminars, and videos is easily available—and this gives the false impression that there is little else to learn.
While this may apply to the majority of budo students (who certainly do their best by attending two or three sessions a week), the serious student who aspires to go beyond the average level of training provided by most schools needs another dimension, even if he or she comes to the dojo every day. By becoming an uchideshi with a good teacher, you can learn to draw energy from inside yourself rather than relying on tricks for motivation. This is an essential quality for an uchideshi to acquire. You will need it at all ages in order to improve yourself constantly through training and teaching. By observing the daily life of uchideshi, we may get a better understanding of this concept. Before considering any technical instruction and training, the uchideshi must take care of countless dojo matters. Cleaning up, cooking, answering the phone, taking care of visitors, preparing the furo (bath), shopping, doing repairs, opening and closing the dojo, turning on and off lights before and after classes - these are all part of the uchideshi’s responsibilities.
The uchideshi must constantly use imagination and common sense in order to solve all the unexpected problems that arise. In addition to that you must train daily (often on your own during the day-time), assist your teacher, teach classes, etc. By taking care of such daily tasks yourself, your teacher will be able to concentrate on more important matters, which will in turn benefit you. As an uchideshi you must be available anytime your teacher needs you. This can result in great learning opportunities, particularly if some teacher is visiting, when traveling with your teacher (in my experience, uchideshi receive excellent treatment when traveling with their teacher), if a book is in the making, or when your teacher simply needs a partner for his own research. Japanese budo teachers are well known for their unpredictability. You may expect your teacher to call you in the middle of the night to inform you of your immediate departure for some destination. The teacher may decide on a last-minute change to a planned demonstration, and he can also change his mind on anything without notice. The uchideshi’s mental flexibility is constantly tested to its limits. This can be aggravated by physical fatigue, lack of sleep, or injuries. You are entitled to refuse, and you may leave at anytime. But as an uchideshi you also become aware that such training provides you with the opportunity to forge your mind (seishin tanren), although it may not be obvious at the moment. This will enable you to face life’s difficulties with patience, perseverance, and flexibility.
Budo teachers in particular need this quality since the profession enjoys little recognition, even in Japan where professional budo teachers are often regarded as eccentrics. I have heard of some cases in which teachers or sempai (senior students) abused the uchideshi and it may be true. However, I have not witnessed this in my own experience. Those whom I heard complaining (Japanese and foreign students alike) were obviously preparing an excuse to change their priorities in order to return to a more comfortable lifestyle. After having idolized their teachers, they had suddenly become aware of the teacher’s humanity and could not cope with this realization. The Japanese language has an expression for this, “Jibun ni amai” which means “sweet to oneself,” a frequent cause of failure in all areas of life. Whether your teacher is wealthy or not, as an uchideshi you are expected to pay for accommodation and training fees as well. It is part of study. Unless you have enough money saved or receive support from your parents (which is seldom the case for obvious reason), you will have to find jobs that do not conflict with chores and training. It may be language lessons at odd hours, tutoring students, driving drinkers around late at night, or the like.
Many foreign students fail as uchideshi due to strong belief in their rights to make a living. First they “temporarily” teach language lessons during the most convenient evening hours, which often conflict with training times, in order to prepare themselves a “cushion,” with the intention of finding other lessons or jobs later on. However, they quickly realize that the money is good (although this has changed somewhat due to the recession and to the increasing number of foreigners in Japan) and that they could not make such an income in their own country. These students show up less and less for practice, are often late, or leave early. They regularly skip dojo chores but appear for social events. Chronic injuries seem to be the most common excuse I have heard. Nevertheless, the teacher or the sempai will demand that they move out of the dojo when it has become obvious that their priority to make money has overtaken their desire to study.
Benefits of uchideshi training
One of the most enriching experiences of the uchideshi life is what I call “back to basics.” No matter who you are or where you come from, as an uchideshi you start from nothing. By facing solitude every instant, you can learn to live in the present and assume responsibility for your own destiny. You come to realize that fate results from your thoughts, which in turn breed emotions. Thoughts can be controlled, while emotions cannot. Emotions can be temporarily repressed, but will never change unless the thoughts underlying them are changed. This is very hard to understand fully if you are not in control of your own life and never take the time to be all by yourself.
Life at the dojo runs at a different pace and this is conductive to the discovery of a variety of outlooks on existence. Another major benefit of living in the dojo is the realization that there is no one way to do anything. Through daily life, every event becomes an opportunity to grow. By living close to your teacher, you can observe how he deals with life, in the same way children learn patterns for behavior from their parents. You can see how your teacher keeps training himself and evolves in spite of age, injuries, disease, and other difficulties. A good teacher will expect his students to develop in their own unique ways and to evolve beyond what he has taught them without spoiling them, just as a loving parent will do what he or she knows is best for a child, regardless of what the child may think about it. This cannot be achieved through long lectures, but happens rather through unexpected questions, short comments, challenging requests and evasive answers to questions. Often the student will not understand on the spot, but keeping an open mind and remembering the event will lead to flashes of understanding in the future, sometimes many years later.
Such training will teach the student to find his or her own solutions to problems without having to depend on ready-made answers provided by gurus and popular doctrines. On the other hand, at many dojos, outside students who come to the dojo only to attend training sessions may physically perform better, since they have more time to rest and often eat better food. However, their commitment is different. They tend to deal with their difficulties by staying away from the dojo. Since their practice is often primarily physical, they have fewer chances to experiment with the mind-body relationship. As a result, their evolution tends to depend mostly on their physical condition. Such students are liable to stop training as their bodies change with age. Becoming an uchideshi is like being born anew. It provides the student with the continuous opportunity to look at life from different perspectives.
Preparing for uchideshi life
It is essential to understand your motives for wanting to become an uchideshi. If you want to be in charge of your own life, and to improve yourself constantly, then you must be willing to give up the “me-first” attitude that characterizes our junk-oriented society and replace it with the “being-of-service-to-others” attitude that is the first step towards understanding the judo principle of “mutual welfare and prosperity.” Meditate on those words, and if you feel inside of yourself that you are ready to do whatever it takes to find the path, then the uchideshi life may be for you. However, I warn you to think well, since you will know for certain only if you do it. Confidence comes from doing, not trying. How long you should plan to study as an uchideshi is an individual decision, but count on a minimum of two years. This should give you enough time to find your path and come to a deeper understanding of the language and of the culture. If you stay too long, you run the risk of feeling so comfortable in your lifestyle that you will lose touch with reality. It is true that the futility of most people’s lives, driven by an endless quest for material accumulation, will seem obvious and maybe disgusting after you have spent several years as an uchideshi. However, if you want to become an effective teacher, in due time, you will recognize the existence of material things as means, not as ends.
Keep in mind that your teacher may assign you to teach anywhere, anytime, and you must be prepared to move, even if you think that you are not ready. True evolution and maturity will come when you are on your own. Japanese people are generally kind to foreigners. But there are no free rides and a lot will be expected from you in return. In Japan, everything is linked - privacy, work, social life. If you behave yourself properly, then your teacher back home will be praised. If you goof up continually, then he or she will be blamed for sending you unprepared. Consequently, the first step is to talk to your teacher and follow his or her advice. If you belong to an organization that has a hombu dojo (main school) in Japan, then your teacher should be familiar with the proper procedure. If your school has no hombu dojo or connections with Japan, then matters may be more difficult. You will have to do some research on your own. In any case, you should follow your teacher’s advice. Be patient and take a little extra time in order to prepare yourself. A work of caution. Your teacher may encourage you, but may also feel threatened by your plans. If you intend to open a dojo after your return, make sure that you will not be competing with your teacher. Make your intentions clear from the outset. Bear in mind also that your own students will one day treat you the same way you treated your teacher.
A good first step is to observe your attitude in the dojo and correct the blunders for which foreign students are famous. Do it now, since in Japan nobody will tell you until you have gone too far, a situation that is very easy for a gaijin (foreigner) to get into. In Japanese dojos, salutations are mandatory upon arrival and departure. Beginners and yudansha (black belts) treat each other with similar respect. Start doing so now, no matter what others think about it. Also if you ever miss class, notify your teacher, and always apologize when you are late for practice. This will force you to be honest with yourself and in the process you will be taken seriously. Remain silent during practice, even if everyone else is verbalizing whatever they are doing. Budo is meditation in motion. In a traditional, strictly-run Japanese dojo, no one talks. This facilitates concentration and awareness, and allows the student to respond more easily to any instructions that are given to them. You must also politely acknowledge all remarks from your teacher and seniors. Never talk back or say “I know,” or “I was going to,” after being corrected. You are coming to the dojo to learn. If you take your teacher’s or your sempai’s comments as an attack against your dignity, then you have a problem and your priorities have to be reassessed.
Erase from you vocabulary self-limiting expressions such as “I can’t,” “I wish I had,” “I should have,” “I’ll try,” “I’m not good at,” and the like. Replace them instead with “I am going to find a way,” “This is what I must do,” “I’ll do it,” “I can improve that.” Practice it. This will help you find alternatives and develop a sense of responsibility for yourself. Practice being quiet when you do something. No noisy music, no TV, no unnecessary chatting for a few days, until it becomes natural. Travel alone to some unknown place, do some solo camping. Your strength will depend on you ability to stay alone.
In Japanese dojo, sometimes teaching seems to be quite irrational, especially to Westerners who are used to systematic pedagogy and “positive reinforcement.” Techniques change constantly and come in any order, and everyone wants you to do a certain technique “their way, oblivious to the fact that someone just showed you another way. Do not let frustration distract you. Concentrate on learning the “new” way. By accepting this process, you will end up adapting instead of having to rely on memory to cope with different situations. If you do not agree with something, make a habit of listening and then taking some time to think about it. Then the whole situation will appear from a different perspective, often to your advantage. Your patience will be challenged, especially when dealing with insincere or negligent visitors (Japanese and foreigners alike) who try to take advantage of everything and everybody. You may also have to deal with other uchideshi, sempai and kohai alike, whatever their levels of competency. Remember that you are being watched and tested. Your acceptance by your monjin (dojo mates) will depend on your attitude. I often heard that in Japan, you are never completely accepted. It may be true when dealing with occasional careless or arrogant individuals or drunks. But in reality, most of the people of Japan are ready to open their hearts to those who respect them and make an effort to understand them and their customs.
As an uchideshi, you are expected to look for jobs that need to be done without being asked. If you arrive when people are busy with some preparation, do not ask if you can help when some tasks obviously have to be done. If you notice something that needs to be picked up, cleaned up, or repaired, do it right away or someone else will. You want to develop your ki, your awareness? Start your training at home. In Japan, energy is very expensive. Make a habit of turning off lights, the TV, and other appliances when you do not need them or when you leave the room, Take cold showers. Many dojo do not have running hot water, some have only a Japanese-style bath. You will have to observe what other people are doing. In most cases, the teacher and his family will take their bath first. Most dojo have no heating or air conditioning systems. Expect living quarters to be very cold in winter and quite humid and hot in summer.
You want to forge your mind and your body? Practice concentrating on your tasks under such hard conditions. Wash your keikogi (practice uniform) frequently - after every practice if you sweat heavily. Japanese people are quite sensitive to odors. Wash pans and dishes right after using them. Put food and leftovers away, wipe tables, sink and cooking facilities immediately. It will help keep rats and cockroaches away. Return all tableware to the common area after use, even if they belong to you. Again, you will show your concern for others by doing so. Train yourself to eat all sorts of foods. It will help you open your mind. Strong likes and dislikes indicate a lack of balance. If you are serious about studying budo, do no let such trivial matters distract you. You just have to set your mind to it and your body will accept.
Start studying Japanese. There are plenty of courses available. Japanese is not a difficult language to learn, it just takes more time than most languages. You do not need to master the language. Study the basics and learn enough vocabulary to be able to get by and build up on your own during your stay in Japan. Languages are like budo. If you master the fundamental principles, you will progress and a fascinating world will open to you. Claiming to be bad at languages is another self-limiting excuse. Another common cause of failure among uchideshi, Japanese and foreign alike, has been malnutrition. I have seen people with wonderful talent and motivation ruin their health and their bodies because they could not recover from injuries and fatigue, primarily due to their poor eating habits. You must discipline yourself to eat properly, with what is available where you live. Your teacher will not have to worry about your health and you will save his attention for other more important matters.
Learn how to cook, especially basic things such as rice, misoshiru (fermented bean paste soup), salad, tofu, stir-fry vegetables, etc. In Japan, restaurants are generally too expensive for most budgets and those that are more affordable use low grade ingredients, a lot of sodium, Ajinomoto (MSG), fat, and starch. In spite of their appearance, portions are also too small for the average Westerner. Bear in mind that the restaurant’s business is to make money. By learning how and where to shop, you can eat quite well at a reasonable price. This is one of the factors that will help you maintain your health and set an example for your own students after you become a teacher. Japanese people have their own table manners. They are also quite familiar with Western table manners. If you have any doubts about yours, get a tune up. Make sure you know how to use knife, fork, and spoon properly, don’t cut up or mix all the food in your plate before eating, don’t play with food while talking, don’t chew with your mouth open. Whenever you are invited to eat, do not pounce on the food, and control your hunger despite your host’s encouragement to eat more. Be proud of your origins, but never give anyone a chance to put you down due to ignorance of some fundamental rules of etiquette. Some Japanese boys and men act and talk quite rudely, often in the presence of females. Such a macho attitude is to certain people the Japanese equivalent of being “cool.” Don’t laugh, especially in the presence of street punks (whom you will easily identify), who may take it as a provocation. Ignore it, both in and out of the dojo.
Dealing with injuries is another reality you will have to face. Japanese budo students’ attitude towards injuries differs from their Western counterparts. Although injuries should not be inflicted either to others or to oneself for any reason, they cannot be avoided in the context of learning budo. Do not expect to make anyone feel bad nor to get any sympathy. When injured, it’s your responsibility to deal with it. You will end up a stronger person and in addition you will learn how to practice while avoiding injuries. If you are injured, come to the dojo (if you can reasonably do it) and do whatever you can. A good exercise consists in observing the practice by sitting quietly on the side. Focus on the good students, visualizing yourself as one of them, and anticipating each move. You can devise your own mental exercises based on this method. Take anything that occurs as an opportunity to learn. There are always alternatives.
However, on the practical side, buy National Health Insurance, which is affordable and easily available at the local city office for anyone staying in Japan for more that three months. Your impression upon your first arrival in Japan is that you have landed on another world, a tiny and clean planet where everything has its place but you. Homesickness is another common cause of failure among foreign uchideshi. It may lead to malnutrition, injuries, disease, and romances with disastrous consequences. I have seen some uchideshi who quit everything and left for home in a moment of depression. Mature people do not succumb to homesickness since they consider change to be a learning experience and enjoy every moment of it. Before reaching this state of mind, however, you will need to exercise sheer willpower. If you can make it through the first six months, then you can stay another six, and so on. Such strength of character will help if your teacher assigns you to represent him somewhere since you will probably have to be entirely self-sufficient, from obtaining a visa to financing your operations.
Never let the desire to quit invade your mind or you will not recover. Quitting is like a drug - it brings quick and sweet relief followed by deep depression and lasting grief. What is willpower, then, and how do you develop it? This sounds a little old-fashioned. Salespeople of the “no-pain-easy-gain” popular doctrines never use it, because it does not sell. Willpower is the ability to do the things that you do not like and that are necessary in order to do the things that you do like. Willpower is like a muscle, if you train it, it grows. With time, it becomes an attitude. Willpower is what allows ordinary people to make up for lack of talent and become experts. It’s the indomitable spirit. To train willpower, start by doing on a regular basis all the little things that you don’t like or usually neglect to do, such as sleeping on the floor, getting up early, taking cold showers, cleaning up, cooking, controlling your thirst and hunger, sitting straight, listening to others. Focus on one or two at a time until you are comfortable with them. If something bothers you and if it does not conflict with your principles, just think about it, visualizing the advantages. The fact that you are willing to think about it is the first step towards removing the obstruction.
Daily life offers many opportunities to train and improve oneself. If after a while you still see no improvement, keep it up! We are the sum total of years of thinking and doing. It takes more than a few weeks to change. Practice willpower and it will grow slowly but surely. Understanding will come later. Relationships with persons of the opposite sex are a delicate matter for a foreigner in Japan. Japanese budo teachers are often quite conservative in this regard. As long as this does not affect your attitude or your practice and as long as it does not bring problems to the dojo, your teacher will pretend to ignore any relationships you might establish outside of the dojo. In spite of what you might have seen in the West, never bring “special friends” to the dojo in order to impress them with your skills. And never invite them to your living quarters! Keep your relationships separate from the dojo. Never become emotionally involved with your teacher’s children, family members, or students. The dojo is not a hunting ground for sexual partners. Your teacher and your sempai will not tolerate such conduct. In the Western way of thinking, this attitude is considered an invasion of privacy and that is why some many people can never accomplish anything. Your teacher has a responsibility to let you know what is wise and proper, for you, for the other person involved, and for the reputation of his dojo. What you think of it is your own choice. However, when you have your own students, remember that you will have to deal effectively with this sort of situation when it occurs, so that you can stay focused on your teaching. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to complete my eduacation before leaving for Japan. Japan has one of the highest standards of education in the world. In addition to the fact that it may make it easier for you to support yourself through teaching, it will help you make friends.
Many Japanese people have a prejudice against budo, largely due to the way the military authorities used it in the past to manipulate young people for belligerent purposes. They often wonder why someone they consider intelligent and educated has an interest in such an old-fashioned activity. After knowing you, they may rethink their position and send their children to the dojo. Another advantage of having completed your education will be obvious when you start a dojo - the sort of student you will appeal to will have a major impact on the future of your dojo. If you are not sure of what subject to study, choose a field that is related to budo, such as physical education, business administration, or philosophy. Do not get involved in something because of possible openings in the future or in a field that is completely dependent on a technology that can become obsolete at any time. This leads to the next bit of advice: do not go to Japan because you are unemployed, bankrupt, or heartbroken. Changing your location will not solve your problems. In Japan, nobody will sympathize, since escaping is considered to be a shameful solution. Your attitude will speak louder than your words.
One of the first things that I learned in Japan is that people tend to hide the truth in order to avoid embarrassment to themselves and to others. As a result of this they develop a deep sense of perception that enables them to know more about you than you might think. Japan is a society based on teacher-student relationships. Consequently, the role of hierarchy must be understood and respected. Most Japanese dojo are ruled by the sempai-kohai (senior-junior) system. No matter what your rank or how long you have been studying budo, you will start as a kohai. You will have to consult with the senior students before approaching the main teacher with any important request that may affect the dojo or create a precedent. Many Westerners have a hard time understanding this, I will explain. Many budo teachers owe their survival to students who voluntarily support the management, organization, and maintenance of the dojo though their various skills and financial help. Naturally, the sempai expect to be part of the decision-making process for all matters that concern the dojo. By consulting with the sempai, you will show your concern for their situation, you will gain their respect and their acceptance. You will also strength the bonds that will keep you together forever. Be aware that whatever you do will have an effect on the way other foreigners will be treated after you. Many teachers like to have foreign students. Nobody is a prophet in his own country. The presence of one or more foreigners in a dojo constitutes proof of recognition and this may bring more native students who will be willing to pay attention to what the teacher has to teach. However, if foreign students pose a threat to the smooth functioning of the dojo (such as getting all the teacher’s attention to themselves and continually ignoring the local monjin’s existence), the sempai will eventually refuse to cooperate and the door will be closed to foreigners.
Before making arrangements for your stay, you must train yourself. Once in Japan, you will discover that you could have prepared yourself still better. You will have to deal with so many crises on a daily basis, particularly in the first few months, that it will be too late to learn what you could have learned before. The initial impression that you make on people will have a determining effect on the success of your stay. And you never get a second chance to make a first impression! Your physical preparation will help you endure workouts that are usually longer and more vigorous than in foreign dojo, although nowadays the tendency is towards a similar level of intensity. For example, you should run, train with weights and weapons, and engage in long practices with one or two partners, increasing the time by five minutes a week, until you can workout for one hour without interruption. Practice attacks with bag and makiwara (striking pad), looking for speed and precision. The point to remember is that you develop the energy system that corresponds to your regular pace of training. Set goals for yourself and start your program of personal training.
As your level of concentration improves, you will be able to monitor your progress and adjust your exercises accordingly. Again, the sooner you begin to train yourself, the better prepared you will be. Once you have arrived in Japan, you will experience jetlag for a few days. You will want to start practicing as soon as possible. Another word of caution here. Freshly arrived foreign students tend to rush enthusiastically into vigorous practice, without listening to their bodies and without realizing that the monjin are also eager to test them. This is the time most injuries occur. It is worth waiting two or three days before you join regular practice. In Japan, if you put on your keikogi, you are expected to complete the practice. Some enthusiastic monjin may challenge you. Do not take it personally, but the way you deal with it will definitely determine people’s attitude towards you. Since Westerners are generally stronger and stiffer than Japanese, they tend to resist when their partners do not apply their techniques properly or in a way with which they are not familiar. On the other hand, Japanese are generally faster and more flexible, which is a cause of frustration for their foreign partners and often leads to injury. Forget your ego and accept the situation as an opportunity to learn.
Your Japanese teacher may request that you study one or two other martial arts. At some dojo, students engage regularly in sumo and/or judo practice after regular workouts. Take it as an opportunity to gain more experience even if you have no plans to become an expert in these other arts. If you want to be strong and respected, you must be familiar with other ways. You may also find that warm-ups before practice are insufficient or that no one warms up. Look at the average age of the seniors. Do they participate in practice, do they take ukemi (breakfalls)? Your answer may give you a valuable hint as to the importance of warming up properly. Take action. Arrive earlier and warm up on your own. Most dojo have soji (clean up), before and/or after practice. At some dojo, only the kohai clean up, while at others everyone does it. Set an example, get a broom first and do not hesitate to prod the young students who often are shy and need directions. Some sempai like to go out to drink after practice sessions. Do not get involved with this custom on a regular basis or your health and your budget won’t last long. However, observing people while drinking may give you important clues as to those people’s real characters, which may be quite useful in the future. [Editor’s note: for groups that do not have a permanent dojo of their own—and there are many very respectable such situations in Japan— these after-practice sessions are an important part of the group culture. There’s no need to go out every time, but if you want to be a full member of the group, do attend regularly. Drink juice, if necessary, but do not skip this chance to tsukiai (“schmooze,” hang-out together”)]. Frequently budgets are taken into consideration, and those who can afford less are partially subsidized by those who have more.)
In Japan everything is expensive - food, accommodation, transportation, energy. You will need twice as much money to support yourself as in North America. For this you must save enough to survive five or six months without having to work. I have seen too many foreigners who arrived in Japan without a return ticket or sufficient funds, expecting to be helped. In most cases, monjin and people associated with the dojo helped in the beginning, but got tired of it as it became obvious that the foreigner’s lack of financial preparation was mostly due to carelessness. By being prepared, you will show that you are serious and others will be more willing to help you if necessary. You will also be in a better position to repay their favors, which is a custom that you must carefully follow if you are planning to stay in Japan and maintain ties with its people, both for your sake and your future students’ as well. You must also be prepared for unexpected expenses such as buying snacks, food, and drinks for all sorts of occasions, such as informal gatherings after practice, taking visitors out, and the like. If you go out with someone, play it safe by expecting to pay for the entire bill. If they insist on treating you, find an opportunity later to treat them. Never use lack of money as an excuse. In Japan, people use this as a joke when they do not want to mention the real reason for not doing something. Japanese people are big savers by education. This way they are prepared for anything. In Japan, loans and credit are not things to talk about, since their systematic use indicates a lack of self-discipline, although this attitude has been gradually changing.
Finding a teacher and a dojo
Japan has many fine and dedicated teachers. However not many teachers take uchideshi and only a few dojo have an uchideshi program. There are many reasons for this. Young people in Japan are so dependent on the fashion and leisure industries to satisfy their desires that the uchideshi life appeals to very few. Also, many Japanese parents want their children to get the best education in order for them to be hired by the top employers in the country. Entering a dojo and making a career of teaching budo will create a lot of parental opposition. Also many teachers teach as a hobby and have a full-time job. Very few can afford a private dojo, hence uchideshi accommodation is scarce. If your organization does not have connections with teachers in Japan, the easiest way is to contact one of the headquarters dojos and go there to study as a regular student. I recommend The Aiki News DojoFinder as a good source of information. You will have to find temporary accommodation, and you can be sure that your study of the Japanese language will help you. After making some acquaintances, you will get to know the network. If you are serious, your teachers will notice it and they may become your best source of advice. The type of teacher and dojo you should look for also depends on your preferences. I personally believe that a professional teacher who owns his dojo, teaches every day and has only a few uchideshi will be more committed and accessible. If your organization is connected with a hombu dojo in Japan, the matter will be easier. However, you will need a letter of recommendation from your home teacher (very important in Japan). But be aware that your teacher’s reputation will also be at stake. You cannot back out once you have committed yourself.
Staying in Japan
Japanese Immigration has very strict rules. Depending on your country, you may obtain a visitor’s visa (usually good for 90 days) upon your arrival in Japan or you may have to apply for it before leaving for Japan. You should contact the Embassy of Japan (Visa Section) located in the capital city of your country of residence or the nearest consulate. First inquire about the conditions to obtain a visitor’s visa for yourself and state your country of citizenship. Then you may also inquire if they have any programs for bringing over language teachers from your country and what types of visa are available. Never mention working, unless you already have a contact with an employer. There is no such thing as an uchideshi visa. A student’s visa can be obtained if you register with an official school or university. Do not expect much sympathy from Japanese consular officials if you tell them about your plans to study budo.
First find out if anyone is involved in some sort of budo training and ask to meet him/her. An invitation to lunch is a good approach since in Japan establishing a good relationship should always precede business talks. Again your home dojo teacher may have some good advice for you. If no one seems to be familiar with budo, do not insist. Japanese diplomats often lack information on budo matters and are rarely aware of its importance in Japanese culture. However, there are exceptions, and it is worth looking from them. You must remember that if you are employed while in Japan, whether teaching languages or doing any other kind of work, it will interfere with your first priority, which is living and training at the dojo. Your employer will expect you to stay late at night or socialize with fellow-employees, students, customers, etc. If you refuse, he may make your life quite miserable in all sorts of ways. Therefore, unless you know your employer well and trust him, and unless you are sure that he understands your purpose and is willing to help you, I do not think that it’s a good idea to commit yourself to a job before taking a first trip to Japan.
Your best strategy may be to enter Japan with a 90-day visitor’s visa. Usually it can be renewed for one more equal period and you will need a guarantor (a working, tax-paying citizen of good reputation), a return ticket, and proof that you have sufficient funds to support yourself. Inquire at the nearest immigration office shortly after arriving in Japan and obtain the necessary documents as soon as possible.
If you want to stay longer, you will have to leave the country. Inquire what kind of longer term visa may be available in your case, gather your documents and take a short trip to a nearby country such as Korea or Hong Kong. There you can apply for your new visa at the Embassy of Japan, respectfully requesting them to process your case rapidly. If this does not work, go back to Japan with a visitor’s visa and repeat the procedure. You still won’t be allowed to work officially. Keep up to date with regulations and changes - there are many! When dealing with immigration officials, be well dressed and always remain polite. Be firm but flexible. Never show any impatience or frustration! In Japan, Immigration checks everyone upon their arrival and departure. The police may request you to show your passport, or Alien Registration Card, which you must obtain if you plan on staying more than 90 days, at anytime and immigration inspectors may also drop in unexpectedly, especially if you have already applied for several visa extensions. If you overstay your visa’s expiration date, you will be arrested, jailed, and deported. Your guarantor will run into problems and you will never be allowed into the country again.
Once you know when you will leave, shop around for an open (the longer, the better) round-trip ticket several months before you departure. Call several airlines and be flexible. They compete fiercely with each other and are hungry for cash. Local Japanese grocery stores and supermarkets are also a good source of information - check also about the possibility of buying a ticket with Hong Kong or Seoul as your final destination. It costs little more than a round trip to Tokyo and may come in handy when you have to leave the country in order to renew your visa. Inquire about the penalties for changing your ticket and have them written down by an airline representative, not by a travel agent. This will reduce your chances of getting stranded or incurring heavy penalties.
Also, some international flights land in other major cities such as Osaka or Nagoya. If you know where you are going, it may be advantageous to find out about other flights to nearby cities. Consider the high cost of inland transportation. Do your homework, since regulations change all the time. Japanese clothes generally do not fit Westerners, so you should bring along whatever you need - warm sweaters, and underwear, light cotton clothing, several keikogi, jogging suits, etc. Dryers are not popular in Japan, due to the cost of energy. You will have to hang dry your laundry. This process may take quite long, particularly during the rainy season (June-July). Plan accordingly. Japanese people dress up for many occasions, so a couple of good suits or dresses should also be part of your wardrobe. Stock up on a variety of omiage (presents). These will come in handy in many situation, such as meeting new teachers and people, calling at someone’s house, thanking someone for a favor, or returning from a trip. This will show that you care and people will appreciate you for that. Decide the value of the present according to the situation, the status of the receiver and/or the importance of the favor for which you are showing your appreciation. Something too expensive or too cheap may cause embarrassment to the receiver. In any case, use common sense and follow your heart. Also, bring some nice wrapping paper (quite expensive in Japan) and learn the fine art of wrapping presents, a requirement in Japan. If you are planning to take practice weapons (jo, bokuto, katana, etc.), wrap them well to protect them but also to show your intention not to use them during the trip. At the airport, when checking-in with the airline, send them with the rest of our baggage, never attempt to carry them on board with you. If you plan on taking a practice katana, never take one with a sharp blade. Japanese customs will hold it until you obtain a proper license - if you are unable to do so the weapon may be destroyed or permanently confiscated.
Some last words of advice
All teachers have their own styles and philosophies. Some appear to be so eccentric that one might at first question their sanity. If you are determined to learn, see your teacher as a human being. Most of the great budo teachers whom we know kept studying under their own teachers in spite of their idiosyncrasies. Accept your teacher as he is, not as you would like him to be. This way you can focus on your own learning. Stay in touch with your teacher and dojo mates back home. Even if no one writes back, send them a few lines once in a while. If your teacher visits while you are at the dojo, make sure that you show respect for him, even if you have an informal relationship back home. If some of your home dojo mates visit, invite them, take them out, and be ready to assume some of the expenses. Take leadership. Always make a point of visiting your teacher first whenever you go home. Never display your newly acquired knowledge. All this will pave the way for your final return. Remember that other people will be changing too, but pace and direction often differ. I believe that you have now an idea of what to expect and how to prepare yourself if you decide that the uchideshi life is for you. We cannot cover everything in this article, but with an open and aware mind, you can solve most problems that will occur and learn from your experiences. Read this article several times. Paying particular attention to the points that apply to you. This should give you a base of ideas that will help you find your own answers to other questions that will come up. In all cases, please think well while reading and remember that when there is a will, there is a way. I invite experienced readers to send suggestions that may benefit present and future uchideshi.
Patrick Augé began training in Judo in 1962 in France, and later trained in Karate and Aikido with a student of Hiroo Mochizuki. He was active as a Judo competitor until 1970 after which he lived for seven years at the Yoseikan dojo in Shizuoka as an uchideshi of Master Minoru Mochizuki. Augé was named the representative of Yoseikan Budo Aikido for North America in 1977. He then founded multiple dojos in the region of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) with his wife, Kaoru Sugiyama. He is currently in Los Angeles developing Yoseikan Budo and regularly travels between Canada, the United States and Japan.