Training in Japan

So Ya Wanna Go ta Japan?

Okay, you’ve been training for, what? several years now and you think you’re ready to make the “Big Step,” and train in Japan. A big step, indeed, going to a foreign country where customs are very different, where you can’t speak the language, where even the simplest daily tasks and errands can suddenly become major problems and seemingly insurmountable challenges. Whatcha gonna do? Whoya gonna call? (Nope, DojoBusters is not it.)

First of all, where will you go? Have you got the name and address of a teacher and/or a dojo? Have you an introduction? Do you need one? (Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.)

Next, where will you live? Do you plan to rent an apartment? What about hoshokin (key money, usually equal to two months rent payable to the landlord, non-refundable), reikin (one month’s rent, a payment to the realtor for finding a place for you), shikikin (deposit money, first and last months’ rent), and a cleaning deposit (also a month’s rent; depending on the landlord’s personality, you may get all, some, or none of it back when you move out). Did I mention that rents in Japan are, to put it mildly, a bit on the steep side? If you think it’s bad in New York, San Francisco, or other popular cities, wait’ll you get to Japan! Did I also mention that you may need a guarantor to co-sign the lease as well? A lot of landlords won’t even let foreigners in the door. (Too much hassle, etc., etc.)

Work? How will you support yourself? Not too long ago, it was fairly simple to find work. Many, maybe most, foreigners studying budo in Japan could find work as language teachers. It was a given that you’d be able to find a suitable job that would enable you to support yourself and still maintain a good training schedule. Those days are long gone. There are still a lot of teaching jobs available, but the pay rate isn’t much different from what it was ten years or so ago and prices have continued to rise. Maybe, provided you have all the necessary qualifications and they need somebody, you can find technical or managerial work in an American or Japanese company that enables you to train a lot and support yourself. Jobs like that are somewhat scarcer than hen’s teeth, though, and I wouldn’t want to gamble on finding one very soon. Too, you’d have to be able to fit into the corporate culture. Otherwise, you’ll likely be washing dishes, waiting tables, or working construction. Long hours, lousy pay, not much free time. These are things you’ll need to think about before you leave home.

Does this make the situation a little clearer? It’s not impossible, but it’s definitely not the easiest thing you’ll ever do. That being said, living and training in Japan for an extended time period can be a most rewarding and meaningful experience, one that will teach you a great deal about yourself and your home country, about your host country and its people, as well as about the art you came to study.

It’s a lot easier now than it used to be. It’s possible to order pizza for home delivery now. There are washing machines! and DRYERS! (There was a time when there was only one, that’s right, ONE, laundromat in all of Tokyo that had dryers. You’ve absolutely no idea how important that can be until you’re training three to five hours a day during the rainy season.) And there are any number of support groups available. Use ’em! If you’re in a major city, there is probably an English language telephone directory, or you can call your local government office (town, city, or ward) for the information you need. Many of them have somebody who speaks enough English to answer your questions. They’re very helpful.

Visas and other bureaucratic obstacles

Visas, work permits, and residential status. This is a very complicated subject that never seems to stand still. And it’s different for people from different countries. People from the U.S. have one of the less enviable situations, if you compare it to those of folk from some other nations. Check with your local Japanese consulate or embassy for the conditions that pertain to you. One thing you need to keep in mind, though, is that the Japanese government is not tolerant towards people who are working here illegally. They will and do deport people who break the law. Nor are the Japanese tolerant of some of the other things that might not be considered serious offenses in your own country. Don’t even think about illegal drugs. Maybe you could get away with it, maybe not. One guy who made that mistake spent considerable time in prison (not a fun thing in Japan–do you really want to be required to sit in seiza in absolute silence for eight hours a day?) before being kicked out. For just a bit of marijuana? Yup, it can be that way. It could be a lot worse, too.

You have undoubtedly noticed by this time that I have raised more questions than I have given answers. This is because it’s almost impossible to give you specific information for all of the questions you’re sure to have, or to offer advice on how to deal with the unique situations you will encounter. There are, however, several very good guide books to Japan (I’ve listed some of them as an appendix), and you can refer to the advice and information given in Patrick Augé’s excellent essay in the The Aiki News 1995 DojoFinder for more specifics. But there is some general advice that may be of use to you, which I’d like to offer as a sort of list.

General stuff

1. Keep your sense of humor and a sense of proportion. One of my grandmothers used to say, “No matter how bad it is, it could be worse.” She was right. A thousand years from now, no matter what the problem is, you’ll probably laugh about it.

2. You’ve heard of Catch 22? There’s another way to say it here: “Case by case.” You’ve got a problem, one involving some bureaucratic procedure, requiring interaction with, surprise, a government or corporate official. It’s very similar to one that’s arisen before. You attempt to take care of it in a like manner but are told it is impossible to do so. Remember “case by case” as you start to protest vehemently (with accompanying loss of savoir faire). Oh, yes: it helps to refer to Rule 1 in such situations.

3. Try to avoid being an “Ugly Foreigner.” I don’t like saying this much, but it’s necessary. Remember that you are a guest, a foreigner visiting somebody else’s home country. Try to act accordingly. You’ve just run into a real mixed-up situation, a la Rule 2, and are at wit’s end. Or you’re really mad at all of the inconsistencies, seeming lies, outright hypocrisy (or ignorance)–something that people here do just infuriates you. The only thing you can do, really, is to laugh and enjoy it. Sure, it’s a major hassle, but you’re having an adventure! Remember Rules 1 and 2. Stay cool.

Martial arts stuff

4. Keep your eyes, ears, and heart open. What you know, what you learned before is certainly of value, but isn’t likely to have a great deal of immediate relevance to life and training in Japan. You came here to learn, right? Well, one of the best ways to do that is to place everything you already “know” on hold for a bit. Let it ride. Watch. Listen. By all means, ask questions–but do so when it is appropriate. Budo is a good example of a traditional Japanese activity, with all of the accompanying cultural trappings. This includes being more formal in behavior than is common in the West, and learning through direct experience rather than intellectualization. Wait a bit, then ask the question. You may well find the answer was right in front of you all along. This holds true for situations in daily life, too, of course.

5. Train smart. This is especially true just after you get to Japan. Hey, you’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and you want to get down and boogie. That’s very nice, (here it comes) BUT! you’ll be going through a great deal of stress: mental, physical, and emotional. It’s not at all uncommon for newcomers to train for a while (a month to six weeks, say) and then the differences and stresses catch up with them. They suffer one or more very serious injuries. Sometimes it’s physical, but it might be mental or emotional: disillusionment at discovering that martial arts training is not a big romantic adventure, or from finding out that your idols, Japanese budo teachers, are, after all, just like the rest of us. They have some pretty amazing abilities, they may seem (and likely are) very special people, but they put their hakama on one leg at a time, just like everyone else in the dojo. (Refer to Rules 1, 2, and 4.)

6. How to choose a dojo? You’re F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat) and everything looks new, exciting, fantastic. What’s the best way to find the right place for you? Where will you train? Who will be your teacher? You may have a situation already set up for you, courtesy of your teacher or some of your dojomates. Or you may have heard about “X” Sensei, or “Y” Dojo. Or it might be that you just wander in off the street, with no particular plan in mind. I’ve done all of those things at different times and they all worked for me. Sometimes better, sometimes not so well. My sincere suggestion is to take it easy, go slow, check it out before you commit to training with a particular teacher or at a particular dojo. I like to look at general training to see what the atmosphere is like in the dojo. How do the senior students (and teachers) relate to the juniors? Is there a good feeling, of trust and respect, among all of the people who are training there? Is it a happy place? Could you, would you, be confident in trusting these people with your well-being, both physical and mental? You will be, you know. Which’s not to say that training should be some sort of light-hearted grab-ass or that you aren’t going to get the wood put to you. That’s all a part of the process. Nope. It’s deeper, more subtle than I can describe in mere words. Your dojo becomes home and the folk in it become your family. Thing is, you get to choose, so why not be careful in doing so? (Rules 1, 4, and 5 apply here.)

Might’s well stop with the advice. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. To sum up: read up a bit, ask questions of people who’ve been to/trained in Japan, take your time, and stay loose. This budo stuff is too serious not to have fun.

Uchideshi programs

Finally, there are a couple of places where one can train as an uchideshi (live-in disciple). This kind of training is both much more intense and intensive (as in thorough) than regular practice, where one goes to the dojo to train, then goes to work at one’s job. The training is your job, the dojo is your workplace. But it’s a lot more than just getting on the mat to learn all the “tricks of the trade.” It’s getting up early and going to bed late, making sure that everything is prepared for the teacher and for the next practice. It’s learning how one’s teacher wants things done, and when, and (eventually) why. You will have to be good at self-control because you may be living in close proximity with some very different people, and have to subsume your own desires or ways of doing things to those of the group since individual fulfillment is not as important the harmony of the group. It’s an up-close immersion in a side of traditional Japanese culture with an entirely different way of looking at and doing things.

If there is one word that describes uchideshi training, it’d probably be “austere.” It’s very demanding, but very rewarding in the end. It isn’t the right thing for everyone, but might be for you. If you think that this is what you’re looking for, that it’s what you need, then you can contact a number of dojo for information regarding their application procedures and the requirements for admission. Ueshiba-style dojo with uchideshi programs include the Shindo Dojo in Tokyo, the Kobayashi Dojo in Kodaira, the Aikikai Kumano Juku in Shingu, and the Ibaragi Dojo in Iwama. There may be others. For people who’re studying Yoseikan budo, the Yoseikan Dojo in Shizuoka has provision for live-in students. If you practice Yoshinkai aikido, ask the Yoshinkan Dojo in Tokyo about the kenshusei course. It is not an uchideshi program, exactly, but it is close enough in its intensity and thoroughness. I am unaware of similar training in either Tomiki or Tohei-style aikido, but you can ask about it by writing to the addresses provided above.

Copyright ©1996 Meik Skoss. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in The Aiki News 1996 DojoFinder.