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The Japan Pilgrimage: Better be prepared

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by David Lynch

Aikido Journal #113 (1998)

Confused and somewhat bruised— and not just from yonkyo— another aikido friend returned recently from a Japan pilgrimage, somewhat ahead of schedule. He was not the first to drastically cut short a planned stay in the Mecca of Aikido, and he will not be the last.

It was a case of having great expectations, then going into free-fall when faced with reality—finally spiraling down to land with a thud amidst the debris of shattered dreams.

Plenty of others, not necessarily of stronger character or blessed with greater intelligence, survive the Japan experience, and gain immeasurably in terms of improved technique, even if they do not usually achieve satori. But the dream becomes a nightmare for some unfortunate ones.

Japan tends to evoke extreme reactions in Westerners and to divide them into Japanophiles or Japanophobes. Foreign visitors to the country pass through several emotional phases, sometimes in rapid succession, and sometimes even in the same day. There is the initial period of euphoria, inspired by the novelty, the cultural depth, the tremendous energy of the big cities and the “politeness” of the people. This is followed by a period of exasperation with language and bureaucratic barriers, and the fact you are an “outsider” openly treated as such. Then, if you have not given up and gone home already, there is a period of Zen-like acceptance of the way things are. Not even long-term residents are exempt from this emotional roller-coaster and many continue to live with it every day.

When consulted by eager aikidoka intent on making the pilgrimage, I confess I do not know what to advise that would save them from possible disappointment, aside from pouring cold water on their hopes and ambitions, which would be unfair in the majority of cases.

Unfortunately, there is no set procedure or consumer legislation to protect a person from disappointment—in love, faith or ambition—this being part of the price of being human. But I do encourage people to take off their rose-colored glasses and prepare for some possible shocks.

What sort of shock? For one, there is the intense population pressure. In contrast to the image some have of a land of spiritual tranquillity—with Zen priests and aikido masters peacefully gazing at their bonsai trees, to the accompaniment of ancient stringed instruments—the reality, on arriving in Tokyo, is insanely frantic activity, incredible noise, and pollution.

The celebrated Japanese love of Nature seems like a joke in this singularly unattractive city, with less open space per head of population than most cities in the world. Seeking to escape from the noise and crowds to find a moment to think, one might dive into any of the thousands of coffee shops (possibly full of cigarette smoke and featuring loud piped music) and end up paying several dollars for a half-sized cup of coffee. This is shock number two: everything costs far more than you budgeted for.

So you try to avoid the expensive places, and find someone to show you where the more reasonable ones may be. Ah, some Japanese friends! Well, yes, maybe, but you may find that there is a limit to that friendship that you sooner or later come up against. Something is wrong with the picture. Your friends are very polite and smile a lot, but do they really mean it?

Of course, this could be a problem anywhere, as true friendship takes time and must be earned. The difference is that the Japanese have a rather incestuous, closed society which is a legacy of their long historical period of solitary confinement. They appear to go out of their way to be friendly to outsiders, but there is an artificial quality to this friendliness. Indeed, for some Westerners, this is worse than outright hostility. (Taxi drivers, as rude as any in the world, can be a more realistic introduction to the indifference many Japanese feel towards foreigners.)

If you have plenty of money, another problem that bedevils the would-be longer-term visitor may not affect you, i.e., the difficulty of getting work. Thanks to their prolonged economic recession, the Japanese have tightened up on both visas and jobs. A job you do not enjoy, that barely pays your living costs and does not allow you enough time for training, is obviously not satisfactory. It used to be relatively easy to pick up a job teaching English, but this is now much more difficult, and you will not get a visa to work as a teacher unless you can produce proper qualifications.

When it comes to aikido, the potential shocks, again, are directly in proportion to the height of one’s expectations. In previous articles I have pointed out that Japan has its fair share of aikido senseis whose character is clearly not as elevated as their position in the hierarchy. You should not expect Japanese dojos to be free of arrogant, ignorant or sadistic individuals. They are not. In fact the weight given to authority in Japan means that such people often remain completely unchallenged in their positions. Japanese aikido instructors are human—some all too human—so idealizing them can lead to a real shock when you come face to face with the reality.

Seemingly petty issues can be enough to tip the scales for some pilgrims, and send them on their sad journey home. There are any number of such things that might demoralize an aiki-pilgrim and cause him or her to leave the country on the first available flight, but these may conceal deeper causes, that the individual may not even be conscious of. There is the fact, for instance, that the more you learn, the more remains to be learned, so that no matter how long you stay in Japan you will not necessarily feel you have mastered the art.

Aikido is a lifelong undertaking, and the prospect of spending one’s whole life in Japan does not appeal to everyone. The more anxious one is to get something out of aikido in the short term, the more difficult this seems to be. Although a Japan visit enables you to get in more hours of training with more experienced partners, than you probably would at home, the process of learning still takes time and may not be that dramatically different. No matter how good the teacher is, you are the one that has to do the work, and the internal process of absorbing the teaching cannot be forced.

If the above comments seem unduly pessimistic, I apologize, but I have felt the need to make them to help those considering a Japan trip to be better prepared. My remarks are not intended to be anti-Japanese or even anti-Japan, and I could write a much longer article (in fact I shall have to one day) on the truly positive experiences I had in Japan and the wonderful kindness of individual Japanese both in and outside the aikido world. Perhaps my point is that moving to Japan (or possibly to any other country) may add an element of culture shock and additional stresses to the already difficult undertaking of mastering aikido. It is not going to be easy, and you will need to be mentally prepared and preferably get some solid training under your belt first.

Which brings me to the wise statement made by a sensei I greatly respect: “There is nothing but the training.” How profound that is, and how many levels of meaning it can open up when you think about it. Obviously it matters where you train and under whom, but even these aspects have a way of sorting themselves out, providing you train sincerely. As the old saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” And the student will never be ready if he or she doesn’t train regularly and sincerely. If you train sincerely, these concerns should gradually dissolve and you may find that rushing off to Japan is not the answer. Or perhaps that it is better to approach such a trip, not as a pilgrimage, looking for the ultimate dojo or sensei, but as just another stage in the lifelong training you have undertaken. And if you keep training sincerely, you may eventually get to meet the perfect teacher for you—the sensei within.