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How to Invite a Japanese Sensei to Your Country

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #63 (September 1984)

Our activities in connection with AIKI NEWS include a great deal of contact with both Japanese and foreign Aikidoists. We frequently find ourselves in situations involving cross-cultural communications and have witnessed first-hand the many difficulties and pitfalls inherent in such interactions. We have seen well-meaning individuals come to Japan and many Japanese go abroad and behave in ways that seem perfectly natural and appropriate within their cultural contexts only to discover that their intentions are completely misinterpreted. Fortunately, many of the stumbling blocks common in these encounters are overcome through the miracle of actual Aikido training with its many conflict-resolving dimensions. One such area of intercultural contact that comes to mind involves the travel of Japanese teachers to foreign countries for instructional purposes. The potential for promoting Aikido in countries outside of Japan and for improving friendship ties among practioners offered by such trips is enormous. The possibility of misunderstandings arising is also high within this framework and a few pertinent comments would I think be timely.

Let me first offer my thoughts on some do’s and don’ts for groups inviting Japanese sensei abroad on teaching tours and then I will venture a few observations which Japanese senseis travelling to foreign countries might find helpful.

The first and foremost thing to keep in mind when inviting a sensei from Japan to your country is that such an undertaking is an expensive proposition. Even if the trip should be a financial success and many students should attend seminars held, the initial outlays required are not insignificant. Consequently, dojos entertaining such ideas should have sufficient financial means already in hand before inviting the teacher of their choice and avoid the use of projected figures or estimates.

These are some of the expenses involved by category: air fare, hotel and meal expenses, publicity costs, facility rental fees, and a monetary gift to the instructor and, possibly, one companion. The amount required to bring such a trip to fruition will be the sum total of all of these and any other miscellaneous expenses.

Let’s take a closer look at these items. First, air tickets. Keep in mind that many teachers prefer or even insist on travelling with a “tomo” or companion who usually takes ukemi, perhaps serves as an interpreter and, in general, looks out after the needs of his sensei. As a result, it is often necessary to purchase two tickets in making all travel arrangements. Sometimes a sensei will feel comfortable in travelling alone from and/or to Japan, but in my experience, this is the exception rather than the rule.

Next, hotel and meal expenses. Depending on the number of locations visited it may be necessary to put up the sensei in a hotel for part or all of the trip. I think the main guideline for selecting a hotel would be to choose one that you know to be comfortable and which offers good service. First class hotels are fine, but keep in mind that the more expensive the hotel, the less money you will have left to present as a gift at the end of the trip. A similar approach to meals is prudent. Try not to incur large restaurant expenses or, alternatively, draw the money from a separate fund in order not to run up high bills which are later deducted from the teacher’s remuneration. When treating the teacher to a meal with a group of students and friends, make sure that everyone understands that it is “dutch treat” all the way for the same reasons as above. A final thought while on this subject. It may be feasible to have the sensei stay in the home of a student or local teacher and eat most meals in. If the sensei agrees to this sort of arrangement it can result in large savings and perhaps more personal treatment not to mention a larger gift.

Now we come to publicity and facility rental fees. Naturally, you will want to publicize the appearances of your sensei as widely as possible both to guarantee him or her the largest exposure and also to make the visit a financial success for the local dojos as well. This way everyone stays happy and will want to invite the teacher back again in the future. Remember also that the owners of dojos should receive some kind of compensation for offering their facilities as a venue and for their efforts in making the event a success. It is best to make the arrangements as clear as possible and a written contract may be in order. In any case, if you rent an outside facility, you have to go through this same procedure.

Finally, we come to the delicate subject of the monetary gift customarily presented to the sensei for his efforts. Here, again, a good rule is to come to a clear agreement beforehand as to what the financial terms and conditions of the visit are. To complicate matters, many senseis do not feel comfortable in openly discussing such matters. This difficulty can sometimes be circumvented by communicating through a trusted student of the teacher who, preferably, has experience in dealing with both Japanese and foreigners. This, however, does entail involving a third party and the possibility of introducing errors or losing time in communicating. In any event, it is a topic which must be broached. As far as I know, there is no hard and fast rule or sliding scale based on rank or status when determining payment, but I know of one case where a daily base fee for days of instruction of US $200 plus a certain percentage of the profits is used to arrive at this figure. They are many circumstances or special arrangements which might affect this amount, but the important thing to keep in mind is that if you are having a hard time raising the necessary funds for such a trip, it is probably premature to invite the sensei.

There are some other considerations which merit attention. For example, when planning the actual teaching schedule be sure to include appropriately spaced rest days (not including days in transit). Probably 2 to 3 consecutive days of teaching should be considered the maximum. In a similar vein, limit the number of hours taught per day to a reasonable amount. Perhaps about three hours a day would be a safe limit. Always keep in mind that travelling away from one’s own country into unfamiliar surroundings can be an exhausting experience.

Also, in some cases it may be necessary to provide an interpreter. Don’t automatically assume that any Japanese person can do the job. I have seen Japanese without special linguistic skills who are unfamiliar with the sensei prove completely unsuitable for such a specialized task. It may be better to use a student of the sensei who is familiar with his teaching method and vocabulary, regardless of his native language, wherever possible.

Another area which is often overlooked and which can cast a negative light on the trip has to do with the subject of “territoriality”. As a result of the steady growth of Aikido in recent years and the frequent travel of foreign students to Japan, the number of Japanese teachers travelling abroad has increased proportionately. You may find yourself in a situation where there is already a Japanese teacher residing in or near your area who, quite conceivably, regards it as his “territory”. It would therefore be considered a matter of courtesy to inform him well in advance of your sensei’s visit even though you may not normally have any dealings with this person. His response may not be favorable but at least the element of surprise concerning the trip will have been removed. Another positive effect is that your own teacher’s possible concerns over invading another’s territory will be allayed. In the best of cases, you may have even succeeded in opening up a line of communication for future mutually beneficial interaction with the resident Japanese teacher.

Another word of caution. It is not fair nor is it regarded as polite to expect or ask a sensei to make any outlays out of his own pocket even if he is to be reimbursed later. You should be prepared to handle all advance expenses and to minimize the number of matters he must attend to prior to his departure.

Now let us consider the matter from the opposite viewpoint. What can the teacher reasonably expect of his host? I think that the experienced teacher will be able to tell from the nature of the invitation whether or not his student has the financial means to shoulder the responsibility for the trip. If such is not the case, he would be doing his student a favor by encouraging him or her to wait until a sufficient financial base has been established. It is also helpful to keep open an active line of communication and have any questions or doubts in regards to the trip answered as far as possible in advance.

It will naturally be necessary to obtain a passport and visa to travel to most foreign countries. Based on past experience it is far less complicated to simply ask for a “tourist” visa and state that you are “visiting a friend” when dealing with embassy and immigration authorities.

On questions of etiquette, it is probably best to adopt a tolerant attitude when a guest in a foreign country. Even within the context of dojo practice, few foreigners will have more than a superficial understanding of proper behavior and may act in ways that would be out of place or even rude in Japan through no ill will on their part. Just as you are likely to commit cultural gaffes when abroad, you can likewise expect foreigners to have failings of their own.

Although I commented on the subject of expenses above I feel it is worth returning to it briefly here. It is helpful to remember that your host and his or her students will likely be tripping over themselves in order to show you a good time and are likely to consider that you are entitled to “nothing but the best”. This is laudable but at the same time it would be worthwhile remembering that the expenses incurred for such items as expensive hotels and meals will in all likelihood be deducted from the amount given to you at the end of the trip. I have personally witnessed such a case where the size of the gift was reduced by more than half because of several high restaurant tabs.

I hesitate to broach this last subject but feel this article would be incomplete without at least a passing mention. Activities such as drinking and smoking and other male-oriented pursuits are considered commonplace in Japan. This is not always the case abroad where many young people especially tend to regard Aikido as a highly spiritual discipline much akin to meditation, yoga and other ascetic activities. I have seen such persons exhibit shock, dismay and even disgust upon witnessing the habits of their once-enshrined Aikido heroes. This can probably be dismissed as naive behavior on their parts but it is nonetheless a factor to be borne in mind when abroad.

I’m sure that I have not exhausted the subject with these comments and there are doubtless other considerations worthy of mention. Readers may be able to relate pertinent experiences and observations of their own. These we welcome. In any event, I hope that there is material in this article which will be of help to you the next time you invite your favorite sensei to your area to teach.