Happiness and Harmony - The Akihabara Lesson

Japan likes to call itself the ‘Land of Wa’, or harmony. Before the 8th century, the Chinese called Japan ‘wo’, which is where the sound comes from, but ‘wo’ had the rather unflattering meaning of ‘dwarves’, and the ‘dwarves’ were one of the peoples the Chinese usually summed up under the phrase ‘Eastern Barbarians’. The Japanese took it upon themselves to find a more suitable character to denote their country. Wa. Harmony. This, they felt, distinguished their country from other countries. This was their most essential feature.

Indeed, Japan has a low crime rate. Lost wallets and mobile phones are usually turned in at the nearest police station, and foreigners living in Japan cite safety as one of the great advantages of living in Japan.

The Japanese have a very simple three step recipe for harmony. One. You do what you are told. Two. You follow the rules. Written and unwritten. Three. If you cannot comply with points one and two, you dispose of yourself.

One important concept in Japanese society is ‘kimatteiru’. Every time something is given the attribute ‘kimatteiru’, you can safely identify a rule in Japanese society. When you ask a Japanese person why they impractically dip the sushi in the soy sauce fish first, not rice first, so the fish falls off every time, they will usually shrug, smile apologetically, and answer with ‘kimatteiru’.

The most natural sounding translation would be something like ‘that’s just the way it is’, or ‘that’s just how you do it’, but it is interesting to note the more literal semantics of the word. Really, it is the intransitive form of ‘decided’. It implies that it has been decided, but it also implies a lack of individual input in this decision. It is simply something that ‘is decided’. Not by anybody in particular. But for everybody in general.

Another important concept in Japanese society is ‘Sou desu ne’. This can be translated as ‘that’s how it is, isn’t it’, and falls into the Japanese word group of so called aizuchi, or ‘phase hammers’, which are expected to be uttered by a listener in order to show the speaker that he is listening. This is kimatteiru.

Whether you do in fact agree with what the speaker is saying or not is irrelevant to the choice of phrase. The phrase is kimatteiru. So in reality, the meaning behind the words ‘Sou desu ne’ ranges from ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head’ over ‘I couldn’t agree less’ to ‘When will you finally shut your mouth, you F***ING SUNOVA B**CH?!” I use ‘sou desu ne’ in everyday conversation and can report about its wide semantic range based on my own experience.

With kimatteiru and sou desu ne a high level of harmony can be achieved. And in the rare event that somebody feels too much friction between these two and their rebellious individuality, a third Japanese concept comes into play. This is better known to us Westerners in its traditional form ‘hara-kiri’, which is no longer practised today, but has not changed much regarding its purpose. If somebody fails to be of service during his life time, he commits suicide, making the most valuable contribution he can to the common goal: harmony. It is a brilliant societal framework.

Sadly, for some time now, Japanese harmony has been experiencing difficulties. For one thing, a continuing influx of foreigners who have no understanding of kimatteiru and sou desu ne and unabashedly act upon their individual impulses has sent ripples through Japanese society for a while now. But ever concerned about harmony, the friendly Japanese have erected a nation wide empire of English conversation schools and intermarried with disorientated English teachers and other aliens. Restaurants now considerately advise their foreign guests to fly their begetable skewers on the flying pans at their tables. With touching enthusiasm, the Japanese are trying to cope with the situation that is threatening harmony in the Land of Wa.

The situation becomes more alarming, however, when the Japanese themselves jump out of character, instead of windows, and turn their individual incompatibility with society against society, and not, as tradition demands it, against themselves. When a Japanese individual finds the hidden trap door from kimatteiru to kimeru. Does not follow what is decided, but decides for himself. Does not validate the system with a suicidal sou desu ne but crashes it with a murderous ‘chigau’ – ‘That’s not how it is!’

Tomohiro Kato’s recent rampage in Tokyo’s Akihabara district has made headlines around the world. On 8th of June 2008, at 12.30 noon, the 25 year-old temporary worker drove into the crowd at Akihabara with a rented truck and fatally injured three people in the process. He then got out and stabbed another twelve, four of which died, raising the death toll of the indiscriminate killing rampage to seven.

He did not know any of the people he attacked. His killing spree was completely random. Why did he kill them?

The motive is the same one that has driven Japanese dwarves into suicide throughout history. The outside pressures of society become unbearable. Pressure builds up on the inside, until despair kicks in and makes a decision. The traditional decision is suicide. I am incompatible with society. I should punish myself by killing myself. The new decision is murder. Society is incompatible with me. I should punish society and kill somebody. Any representative will do, the higher the number the more satisfying the result.

Kato’s outburst has already caused a flood of enthusiastic imitators. Like Kato, they have posted messages on mobile phone websites, threatening to wreak similar havoc. It is a scary development. How can we stop it?

When Kato was questioned about his family, he sobbed. Ever since he entered a prestigious high school and failed to obtain good grades, he and his parents got more and more alienated from each other. He failed university entrance examinations, a common suicide motive, and trained as an auto mechanic. As a mechanic, he got a temporary job, which was likely to be cut at the end of June.

Kato considers himself unattractive and says it is the tragedy of his life that he cannot find a girlfriend.

He is a compulsive real time blogger, posting messages describing his feelings and plans on a mobile phone website every few minutes. These also included warnings of what he was about to do in Akihabara.

A recent Daily Yomiuri article discussed the sky-rocketing trend of individual blogging among young Asians, identifying it as a new development towards individual expression, which is ‘not traditionally fostered in Asian cultures’.

While this trend is certainly to be welcomed, the anonymous abyss of cyberspace hardly offers an appropriate forum for the tender first fledglings of young Asians’ self expression.

The first day after the Akihabara rampage, the papers talked about possible amendments to Japanese knife possession laws, as Kato had used a dagger in his killing spree. Considering that three out of the seven victims were killed by the truck, not the knife, this seems a blatantly short-sighted solution. Should we maybe also ban rental trucks? Stockings? Glass bottles? Fists?

Where there is a will, there is a way. The will is the problem. And the will to kill stems from unhappiness. Happy people do not spend their free time stabbing random victims in Akihabara.

And with this, there finally seems to be a little tumour in the tissue of Japanese harmony. Kimatteiru and sou desu ne might be a good way of avoiding conflict, and many of us pig-headed Westerners can certainly learn the odd lesson from the impressive Japanese skill of self-effacement, but this is also where the Japanese can learn from the egocentric Western alien.

Respect. It is time to talk about respect, something emphasised frequently by both Japanese and foreigners as a main aspect of Japanese culture. But studying Japanese culture and living in Japan, I have seen with my own eyes what Japanese respect really is. It is precisely the kind of respect called for by kimatteiru and sou desu ne. It is respect for rules, and respect for hierarchical status. But it lacks one aspect that is the main feature of respect in Western culture: respect for the individual.

It is not that Westerners have no respect. On the contrary, our intrinsic respect for the individual, validated and reaffirmed in its importance throughout centuries of philosophical thought, key factor in the development of psychoanalysis and all its sister disciplines, is what makes it difficult for us at times to adhere unconditionally to rules and superiors.

Our respect for the individual is what makes us treasure the fruitful exchange of views and opinions. We do not use sou desu ne. We say ‘I disagree’, and ‘yes, but’. Our culture is full of conflict and debate, pushing forward with a view to a more advanced perspective that takes every individual aspect into account. Nothing is kimatteiru. We encourage dialectic development.

Our respect for the individual is what makes us cringe when we hear about Japanese working hours and marriage conditions, about people living in capsules, and sixteen year olds committing suicide for failing to give the correct answer to a maths problem.

Our respect for the individual is what makes us respect ourselves, and seek happiness. A happiness whose content is not kimatteiru but custom made to our individual taste and experience. We accept the search of happiness as a driving force behind our own and other people’s actions.

In Western culture, self-expression is traditionally fostered as an important gateway to fruitful communication and personal happiness.

This is the factor I find lacking in the near perfect construct of Japanese harmony. Nowhere do we find the key ingredient of personal happiness. A harmonious society without happy individuals is like apple pie without apples. It is a non-sustainable, absurdist concept, and it tastes bland to any human palate, not just the Western one.

By no means can Western society claim to have attained perfect saturation of personal happiness, but as this is something we actively seek, we are actively striving for it.

Where an individual finds himself overwhelmed by the situation around himself in the Western world, he has the socially accepted and widely available option of psychological counselling. It requires no changes in the law. It is not an immediate solution, but it is a path with a long-term view towards improvement.

In a culture where individual expression is not traditionally fostered, it will of course be difficult to take root for a useful mental health care system, a cure that relies on self expression for both diagnosis and therapy. People need help, people need friends. Firing self expression randomly into cyberspace is unlikely to make unhappy people happy, give friends to the lonely, or provide solutions to the troubled. People need human feedback, especially if they are still inexperienced in th medium of self expression. It seems like a steep climb ahead, but still, I cannot help but hope. I fall asleep at night, out of the world of kimatteiru and sou desu ne, and straight into utopia.

Here, we all live in happy harmony. It is lunch time, 8th of June 2008. We are sitting in a restaurant in Akihabara, a district in Tokyo known world-wide for its cheap electronics and geeky appeal, talking about future job options, exploring actual and fantastic possibilities, exchanging useful advice and cynical jokes.

“Why do you dip the sushi in the sauce fish first?” I ask. “I wonder,” says my friend Kato. And while he tries to dip the sushi rice first, I try it fish down. It tastes better than before. “Ah, I see now,” I comment, enjoying the flavour repercussions of the sauce-soaked fish in my mouth. “It tastes better this way.” “Sou desu ne,” says Kato, convinced after his unconventional rice first digression, and smiles. Sizzling pans are flying across the tables, offering paradise on skewers, leaving mobile phone websites empty while they fill our stomachs with warm flavours of friendship, happiness, and harmony.


The Torch and The Cougar

23rd April 2008

Among the continuing report flood about the danger ridden path of the Olympic torch, Tibetan independence protests, and worsening Chinese human rights records in the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics, I found an especially striking article in the Daily Yomiuri yesterday.
It detailed a murder and the circumstances surrounding it. The murder was carried out by a specialist veterinarian team in Chicago. The victim was a cougar who had apparently travelled about 1000 miles to finally find himself in the streets of the big city.
The murder was publicly approved. Animal rights groups joined the consensus as they had to admit that a predator would sooner or later get hungry, and that even after being tranquilised, the cougar could still jump up 12 ft into the air, and run 70 miles an hour.

Awe-struck, my eyes travelled across to the small portrait photograph of this beautiful murder victim. He had instantly turned into my hero of the day. An organic high performance machine. Born to run, jump, and hunt. Economically designed according to the laws of both functional and aesthetic supremacy.
And as my eyes zoomed in on his, I felt a hot desire run through my blood to slip into his perfect body. To fly in a four-legged run, bounce sky-high on big, sprung paws, set my perfectly geared muscles and lungs into motion, and run, dodge, and manoeuvre with the single minded, unbudging determination of a hungry predator; teeth ready to pierce through fur and skin, gums tingling in an irreversible ascent of desire, to be satiated only by the warm flow of blood, pulsing into its pores and crevices pumped by the victim’s heart, more fervent and alive than ever in its throes, until it stops beating and I get my fill.
I travel back to the crowded bus refreshed, with a bestial power running through my feeble human veins. Colours suddenly look brighter, outlines appear sharper, objects more focussed.
However, returning to my own body and mind, I decide that my previous train of thoughts would best be accommodated in a fictional psychotic killer of the Hannibal Lector type: an intelligent, sophisticated monster that evokes in readers a mixture of admiration and utter contempt and in this way gives them opportunity to explore the borderlines of their own sanity.

Thus having the cougar thoughts filed away, my eyes fall on the strass stone outline of a cougar jumping across my black trainers, and I recall the story of two German brothers, Adolph and Rudolph Dassler, who started a sports shoe company called ADIDAS in their mother's laundry in the 1920s. During WWII, both brothers got involved with the Nazis, Rudolph being closer to them than Adolph. Later, the two brothers fell apart, and in 1948, Rudolph founded his own sports shoe company that came to be called PUMA (German for cougar).
Yet again, I am caught between disgust, a rock and admiration, a hard place: acidic fluids are climbing up my esophagus at the thought of Rudolph’s Nazi ties, yet my head is shaking in admiration of his marketing talent for choosing the PUMA, that biological epitome of athletic prowess, as a sports wear brand. Staring at my PUMA shoes and contemplating the darkest years of my country’s past, I somehow return to the Olympic Games.
Wasn’t there another occasion when the Olympics were held in a country ruled by a most questionable regime? What did the world feel like in 1936 when the Games were hosted by the Nazis?
It makes for an interesting comparison. Hitler, advised by his dangerously talented Propaganda specialist Goebbels, made Germany look like a most admirable and respectable country. Signs that read “No Jews Allowed” were removed from all major tourist attractions, and the Fuehrer gave special orders not to subject any foreigners to the Nazis’ strict anti-homosexual laws for the duration of the games. Black athlete Jesse Owens who famously won four gold medals during the games was allowed to move freely throughout the city, using public transport and visiting places at his liking, which must have felt like royal liberties to a black man from the segregation riddled United States. While there was great controversy in the US about boycotting the Games, the supporting team finally won the struggle. Jewish athletes withdrew, making their well-founded positions on Germany’s government clear, but the United States ended up winning the second highest amount of medals in the world, following host country Germany.
It was at the Berlin Olympics, too, that the Olympic torch was first brought to its destination in a relay race, starting in Marathon, Greece. Two Korean athletes won marathon medals for Japan, under Japanese names, as their country had been annexed by Japan in 1910. And another high light brings us back to the present situation: chosen as best national anthem was the Republic of China’s “Three Principles of the People”, which features the principles diligence, courage, and trustworthiness, and the ideal of “Great Unity” interpreted along Confucian lines as “Great World Harmony” for which everybody is encouraged to strive. Nowadays, Taiwan is not allowed to play this anthem at the Olympics, forced to be part of the People’s Republic of China, just like Tibet, and just as unhappy about it.

It is difficult to decide whether we should be grateful to Communist China or angry, that it is rather shamelessly showing us its true ugly face. On the one hand, we should maybe be happy that we know what to expect rather than being misled by a calculatingly crafted propaganda machine, hiding beneath clean streets the red flow of blood through its power chords, pumped by the psychotic ruling heart of the country. On the other hand, one cannot help wondering why they didn’t at least try to hold talks with Tibet. Talks could have been extended and prolonged until long after the Olympics without taking real action, making China look good and cooperative rather than bad and stubborn.

But my aim is not to criticise or praise China for the way it is handling the situation. To me the chaotic journey of this year’s Olympic torch, the blood and the violence, the boycotts from Europe and the ensuing protests in China, contain another lesson. It was the often quoted point of view that the Olympic Games should be independent of politics that led the US team to its many victories at the 1936 Nazi Olympics. And while this is quite obviously an impossible postulation, it contains a spark of truth.

The cougar jumping across my trainers, across countless Olympic football fields and running tracks, and across the pages of my newspaper, represents the core ambition of the athlete: to maximise his physical efficiency, excel in his chosen discipline and reach his chosen goal.
The difference is that the cougar is given his disciplines and his goals by nature. He is a predator, and designed to hunt for meat. This is why even animal rights groups agreed to have the Chicago cougar shot down.
Athletes, on the other hand, are not natural predators. They choose their own disciplines, in which they compete in a collective display of human strength and potential.
Looking at our own physical composition, it seems that we are more likely to excel in intellectual than in physical pursuits. We have a choice as to what our goals are and have the potential to understand the size, nature, and quality of our resources well enough to avoid killing altogether. Yet the killing doesn’t stop. The political quibbling doesn’t stop. Can we not be wiser in our choices?

Athletes work focussing on maximum achievement, and the ensuing exploration of their own limitations serves both as a model for everyone, and a valuable counterpoint to ongoing political struggles around the world. When you have completed a marathon in 2 hours 15 minutes, or swum 1,500 metres in 14 minutes 58 seconds, exhaustion and exhilaration make all national boundaries run into a blurred periphery of insignificance.
Effort and achievement rule the individual, extended to team efforts, in which human interaction and cooperation become the number one principles to reach a common goal. Showing the world that people from its every nook and cranny are able to push themselves to breathtaking achievements, and to exchange their individual skill and beauty is an important token of world-wide human potential.

We are not compulsive predators who need to go hunting, only to be shot down by more intelligent, fearful prey. We are intelligent, thinking beings who have created a symbolic gathering of nations: in the Olympic Games, the limitations of the human body and mind are put to the test at regular intervals, the excellence of humankind is united in the workings of one world event, regardless of the national and cultural differences of its participants and spectators.

It is this constant human responsibility to improve as a whole, and the necessity to provide a peaceful working environment for this, that should be the goal WE pursue. And now that we have chosen World Peace as a sensible goal worthy of our intellectual capacities, we can cast another glance at the striking portrait of the cougar, and emulate his unbudging determination, his jumping and his running skills, and his beautiful efficiency of movement in pursuing what is the sustenance of his life.


Breathing in Death, Breathing out Beauty

On Monday, Shihan’s theme throughout the session is “feeling the techniques breathe”. Especially memorable as an illustration of this is a flowing irimi-nage starting from shomen-uchi. As uke’s arm comes up to be brought down in shomen-uchi, nage’s arm rises simultaneously and without touching uke’s arm, simply moves, drawing uke’s body forward in an open and inviting gesture as nage steps around in tenkan, and forms a wide open ring of energy with the additional use of his other arm, then steps around again and finishes in an elegant pose, the front hand slightly rising up as an afterthought, “zanshin”- as if he was waving good bye to uke, who is gracefully rolling away at this stage. In this particular irimi-nage, there seems to be hardly any direct physical contact between nage and uke.
While we are in the middle of practising this, Shihan interrupts to comment that right now, our technique is breathing, and we should be conscious of that and remember the feeling.

The following Wednesday, he takes up the thread saying: “Last time I said your techniques should breathe. Yamada-Sensei often spoke of breathing trees. I suppose the tatami in this dojo are also breathing. Practise in that spirit!”
When he is demonstrating another technique, he pauses to tell us about a Moroccan researcher who bought one of his DVDs in the Netherlands and thereupon decided to come to Shosenji this summer to study aikido.
“On this DVD,” says Shihan, “it said ‘The aikidoka uses his opponent’s own power to topple him.’ Many Western people seem to be under the impression that once you start training aikido, the world is going to turn into a Steven Segal movie. What people often fail to see is that in aikido we are trying to achieve harmony with our partner. What we are trying to do is not to topple someone, but to be really good friends with everybody we are practising with.”
And with this, he demonstrates a beautiful, flowing kotegaeshi, with a slight fermate on touching uke’s arm with his arm closest to him, maintaining a light but irresistible connection, keeping it at bay, before the other hand and the tenkan come in and lead to a harmonious finishing chord.
I get to practise a seated nikyo with Sumiyoshi-Sensei who kindly enlightens me on some technical basics, like moving off to the side with a sweeping atemi to set up the finishing move that has uke lying on the floor with a sore wrist, unable to get up.
With Itamar, I practise a sankyo to yonkyo transition, and Shihan comes in to explain to us how in the sankyo part uke’s arm, needs to be twisted towards him, turning the outside of his arm in the direction of his centre and beyond, with a tendency to aim the movement behind him, in order to make him uncomfortable enough to want to move out of it. Then follows the yokomen sword cut-like yonkyo, stepping around into ura to bring uke down.
I get to practise a pretty throw from ushiro-ryo-kata-dori with Hattori-san, and again Shihan comes to our help, this time explaining that before we can put the finishing touch to this move, we really need to wind up our body and take uke’s balance away in order to then have an easy time finishing off the throw.
We do a kokyu nage with nage sitting, and uke attacking him from the side with a katatedori. We witness a demonstration of this being achieved mainly by inviting uke using hip-movement while seated. Consequently we try to give the technique this subtle, powerful twist, which proves to be a difficult quest.
We finish with our usual seated kokyu nage, another breathing technique.
Meanwhile the wind outside is breathing the flowers off the trees, and for these weeks we have to watch the flowers fall, I suggest that everybody has a listen to Schubert’s string quartet “Death and the Maiden”, a European exploration of the topic of youth and death. But it has to be the Amadeus Quartett performance. In most other performances, the piece is distorted beyond recognition because it doesn’t breathe.
Listening to this work while watching the blossoms fall, European artistic romanticism meets Japanese seasonal romanticism. And although their shapes are as different as night and day, the Japanese subtle and seeking individual, internal harmony with nature, the European pronounced and seeking the communicative articulation of every emotion, we can see a common theme here. The cherry blossoms are beautiful and die young, at the height of their beauty: a close link exists between the seemingly opposing factors of youth and death.
Motojiro Kajii creates an even starker contradiction to be contemplated at the sight of the pure, pink beauty of Japanese spring. In his famous short story “Under the Cherry Trees”, to appreciate the unbelievable extent of the blossoms’ beauty, he has to conjure up images of sickening multitudes of dead bodies buried underneath the trees, crawling with maggots, pouring their detrital juices into the ground to feed the trees’ roots and thus give them the power to grow their celebrated beauty.
His European counterpart Schubert who took on the same subject around 100 years earlier knew what he was talking about when he wrote Death and the Maiden. Out of his 16 brothers and sisters, 11 died in infancy. He witnessed the sudden transition from youth to death as a natural phenomenon, just like we do here in Japan every year, seeing the blossoms sprout, bewitch the world with their beauty for a few weeks, and then come down in soft spring snow storms, melting into the sun of May, then dissolving into the rain of June.
Like in the Tao Te Ching, however, it is only this contradiction of opposites that makes the world whole and enables us to exist and perceive inside it. At Fred’s Café recently, they were playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. A good choice, as the spring flowers and their death make us especially sensitive to the change of the seasons. But I cannot even hear a single season in the flat sound that comes dripping out of the speakers. There is no depth, no articulation, no imagery, no life. In Japan many people seem to be under the impression that once you start learning how to play the violin or the piano, you can conjure up the beauty of Mozart, or Bach, or Beethoven, and the world turns into a symphony. What they fail to see, however, is that what we are really trying to achieve in performing is to achieve complete harmony with instrument or voice, to breathe through it, and let it breathe. Only then will they come to life, and youth and beauty spring forth from places where before, there was nothing but ugliness and death.
So, let’s hear the wind breathe, watch the blossoms fly, listen to the maiden die, feel our techniques breathe, and make really good friends while training aikido. This is the principal of life, and of the arts, including the martial arts. You breathe in death. And you breathe out beauty. Ah, here comes the blow. Um, here comes the throw. The eternal circle expressed in the open and the closed mouth of the two lion dogs guarding the temple. Spring is almost over, and as the sultry summer heat is fast approaching, we have to remember to keep breathing.


Flowers Dancing at the Old Temple

On Saturday, the 29th of March I see the first cherry blossoms on my way to Iga.
One week later, on the 6th of April the cherry tree at Shosenji Temple in Osaka is in full bloom, its luscious pink branches hovering in the air, to which they give the proverbial magic touch of Japanese spring.
Today we have come together for an afternoon training session, a kyu and dan grading, and, finally, a hanami party under the abundant pink clouds of the big tree. Some good souls, may the spring god bless them, have been preparing food and setting up the grounds for the much anticipated hanami since one o’clock noon, filling the garden with promise and good spirit.
A large number of people have come together to train, and although the dojo is crowded, and special care needs to be taken not to tumble into and onto others while practising, the flow of energy seems undisturbed, as people who have never met are united under the parasol of Shihan’s words and demonstrations, by the mechanics and the spirit of aikido. To use everything they are given and give everything they have. Thus energy is kept unbound, and spirits mingle freely.
Shihan has told me to grade for my third kyu. During the practice session preceding the grading, he tells me I will be called up for the fifth kyu grading because I have never been graded before, so the system allows nothing else. I am happy about every glimpse I can get of Shihan’s eyes, so his news about the grading are a welcome opportunity for this and become yet another factor to contribute to my sunlit mood. My mind and body are travelling along the bright rays dancing through the big white dojo, along the fluent lines of my partner’s movements. She is a beaming little woman with a determined gentleness that is infectious. I admire her style and my body easily yields to cooperating with it and emulating it. “Your waza are very pretty!” she tells me, and I tell her I feel lucky I get to train with somebody as good as her.
My objective is not a certain colour of belt, and the thought of wearing a hakama like the more able people in the dojo seems more intimidating than attractive. I will not be able to be a carefree white belt anymore always entitled to helpful advice from senior aikidoka. I will have to be one of them, and make sure my aikido does not fall below a certain level of skill. But if I am bestowed with that responsibility I shall treasure it and do my best to fill the big black skirt.
After all, whatever I might be wearing, my objective in practising aikido remains the same. Even though at my present level of skill I have had only the tiniest glimpse of its actual implications, I sense in aikido a magnificent teaching that helps understand and master the flow of energy in any situation, that helps take in whatever hard blows are dealt, and gives the will and ability to hold on to and feel the impact of whatever attaches itself, however leechlike and unwanted; to accept it wholly for what it is, and return it to the world cleansed of its negativity, neutralising its aggressive energy, re-enforcing both one’s own and the aggressor’s right to existence, leaving the flow of energy undisturbed, and thus purifying it. On the horizon I glimpse peace of mind, and a power that consists of harmony.
The grading seems very short. All waza to the right are to be performed as omote, moving to the front, all waza to the left as ura, moving back, or rather around. I forget this at one point but catch on from the next technique. We are asked to do ikkyo, shiho-nage, and irimi-nage. As customary, we finish with seated techniques, or zagi, doing kokyu-nage, the breathing throw. The dojo seems to be breathing with us, a breath of fresh air in a world otherwise jam-packed with exhaust.
After we finish our grading requirements, we close with the same ceremony we have started off with, bowing again to the front, to Shihan, and to each other, then return to sit and watch the rest of the grading in seiza. This gradually takes all sensation out of the lower legs, so that by the time the dan gradings are finished, I am surprised that my numb legs do not buckle as I go through the usual mechanics of standing up and moving around again.
It is interesting watching the dan gradings. How many people can display a similarly high degree of aikido skill, yet their way of moving takes on shapes as different as the people themselves. I get to admire my friend Brown’s aikido from close by, as he is working with his partner directly in front of me. I feel reminded of a large, strong bamboo plant that moves back where a breeze attacks, and springs forth again where a void presents itself. But rather than a docile bamboo in the wind, this plant takes everything and everybody with it that dares to blow its way. I am surprised when he tells me later that he merely served as an uke and was not part of the actual grading.
We finish the session with another twenty minutes of training, and start crowding the changing rooms in order to move from the white world of the dojo into the pink world of the cherry blossoms. Outside under the flowers, a cornucopia of food and drink awaits us. A big, steaming pot of nabe – a brown broth containing chunky ingredients such as cooked daikon radish, eggs, chewy gelatinous triangles made of devil’s tongue starch, or konnyaku, deep-fried congealed fish-paste, and tofu. Trays laden with onigiri seaweed wrapped rice balls, fried meat and vegetables. Tubs full of water filled with treasures of silver and golden beer.
We pour onto chairs and staircases. Shihan appears in the middle of the crowd and welcomes us to this year’s Shosenji hanami party. The celebrations are sent safely on their way with a big “Kampai!”
People gather in groups and couples, hover across the trays like a swarm of locusts and run their tentacles through the treasure chests like an army of octopus-shaped pirates, all the while breathing the intoxicatingly cherry flowered air.
Our friend Itamar has come back from a long holiday at home in Israel with short hair. At first nobody recognises the mysterious young stranger, but when they hear him speak, their eyes double in size, and they say: “Otokomae yan!” (“Wow, you look good!”). As he has now assumed the position of part time priest for Japanese Christian style weddings, he feels that this style suits his solemn responsibilities better than his hippie curls. And on top of his re-styled well-received self, he has brought back with him a whole bag of caramelised pecan nuts which turn out to be a popular flavour in the second, sweet load of epicurean beauty presented under the pink flower canopy.
A smile spreads across my face as I spot Dave who I thought would be busy tonight. But he is here, and we eat and drink together and earn ourselves new buckets full of surprised comments mentioning how well we get on. While this should not be such a surprising component in a couple, it frequently surprises and amazes myself.
Thus, with a refreshed smile on my face, I start passing a note book around to honour something I had always thought to be an ancient Japanese tradition: the writing of poetry under the cherry blossoms. “Would you contribute a haiku?” I ask here and there and everywhere. After three first contributions from Dave,

Sakura ga ii
Mina-san daisuki
Kimochi ii wa!

Cherry blossoms are great.
I love you all.
Man, I feel good.

Pooche, our little Chihuaha, who fell in love with the temple’s own Poodle lady Chocolat that night and was experiencing the pain of unrequited passion under the beautiful blossoms,

SO many smells and
SO many bitches in heat
I STILL can’t get laid.

and myself,

Under the blossoms
Beer and food and talk and smiles
Warm and warming hearts

Matsumoto-san takes my book and swiftly pens a smoothly crafted poem.

Chiriyuku sakura
Yutaka kana


Filled with
Falling cherry blossoms

After that, I earn mostly hesitation noises at uttering the haiku request I had thought so perfectly natural. People demand thinking time, or politely withdraw. I manage to collect two sweet poems featuring my smiling face:

Anna no egao
Sakura kana


Is Aikido Anna’s smiling face not really a cherry blossom?

Anna-chan no egao ni soete
Shosenji zakura no utsuru


Along the lines of little Anna’s smile
Shosenji cherry blossoms
Cast their reflections onto the surface of cloudy sake

I get a contribution in Hebrew from Itamar, which, unfortunately I am unable to reproduce here in Latin transcription because embarrassingly I am unable to decipher the language of my ancestors. But he was kind enough to give me an on the spot translation:

Cherry blossoms above,
Pink, diluted with white,
The path is still very long.

And finally, I ask Shihan for a contribution. He thinks for a long time, his eyes directed at the blossoms above him, and then honours the pages of my book with the following contribution:

Kodera no niwa ni
Ranbu no sakura kana


In the garden of the old temple,
Cherry blossoms are dancing.

As I read my haiku collection, I notice that the idea of a haiku seems to have a completely different shape in the Japanese mind than it does in the Western one. What we learn first of all about a haiku is that it is a poem that consists of 17 syllables taking the structure 5-7-5 in three lines. Apart from Matsumoto-san’s haiku, none of the haiku I had collected under the Shosenji blossoms corresponded with this structure. All of them, on the other hand, again with the exception of Matsumoto-san’s poem, ended with the syllables “kana”, which in my mind, schooled by the sound of contemporary Japanese, expresses uncertainty, but might have a different meaning in the ancient Japanese Japanese people seem to perceive as typical of haiku poems. It is an interesting new insight into the Japanese perception of a Japanese cultural phenomenon well known abroad, yet obviously pictured by Japanese and Western thinkers in rather divergent ways.
With golden streams of beer and crystal fountains of sake flowing through everybody’s veins, we engage in a bout of bingo, numbers being called out by Noriko, compelling everybody to punch through little squares of cardboard, until the winners are determined and little packages of prizes handed out.
A friendly speech by Yano Sensei finally concludes this year’s celebration of fast dying spring beauty, and people unite in a swift tidying up effort to leave clean this territory where the flowers dance every year, and spirits and bodies dance every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday on their everlasting search for harmony and gentleness.


Aikido Heaven

“Feel the impact of the attack instantaneously, and react to it accordingly.”

So we practise. Free style aikido. Choose whatever waza fits the particular attack you receive. “Morau,” says Shihan about receiving the attack. A word choice that suggests that the receiver appreciates what he gets, rather than simply getting something.
We attack and receive, and try to appreciate whatever is there, to truly feel whatever is there, or feel first, and truly appreciate through that- cause and consequence blur, and that is the aim of the exercise. The key word today is “tossa” – instantaneous. That is the aim of our practice, to be instantaneous, to tailor our waza precisely to whatever is given to us.

I want to simply flow and react, but realise painfully that my aikido vocabulary is not big enough to rely on mere instinct. I would need more possibilities, more ways to move (with) my partner, in order to react appropriately to the multitude of attacks I am given. I do not want to endanger my opponent or myself. This adds pressure, while the thought Shihan has put in my mind creates an unusual kind of freedom, makes room for inspiration and a learning experience different from our usual training.

“I apologise,” says Shihan after our second bout of free style aikido, our second attempt today to practise enforcing a particular way of thinking, rather than the technicalities of a particular waza. “Today’s training is rather theoretical. But if we never do this, we will not proceed beyond primary school level with our training.”

Then the second speech follows. “There is a saying that goes kan ippatsu. Kan is written with the kanji meaning “interval”, followed by ichi - “one”, and then hatsu -“hair”. Imagine that: only a hair’s width between you and your partner when you interact during the waza. It is a very small space. But on the other hand, you could say – wow, a whole hair’s width fits in there, where, really, there should be nothing at all! Where we should perceive one single being, no dividing line? So what I would like to practise today is try and reduce this hair’s width to first half a hair’s width, then a third, then a quarter of a hair’s width, until you manage to perfectly connect. Don’t push for it. Just perfectly glue yourself to whatever part of himself your partner gives to you.”

So we practise, feeling for little gaps and tiny crevices in our partners’ fingers, hands, forearms, seeking to fill each empty space we find, with ourselves, connecting to every bit of live tissue that touches us with a sense of complete appreciation, welding ourselves to it, giving up ourselves completely, fully committing to the creation of a new entity born out of the interaction between two centres of ki that Meet. I. Love.

I feel reminded of a story I read in a book called “The Empty Force” and believed by most scientifically minded people to be complete nonsense. “Master Wang,” it said about one old Chinese master of the Empty Force, “could keep a bird on his hand when it alighted there, simply by applying the power of ki.”
Although this is most probably a myth, this story conveys a powerful image. Even when I read it a few years ago, without the first idea about aikido, it conveyed to me a the image of what aikido is meant to be. Glue yourself to the bird, and the bird can’t take off.

Although I would personally add one thing to the story. What I am striving for is to learn how I might glue myself to the bird so subtly and gently that the bird, without noticing the slightest change, would just take off with me and fly me through the sky.


5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – Zen! - And a Happy New Year!

And there’s the sound of the gong again. Once, twice, three times, gradually reawakening us to each other and the world around us, AND to the New Year: 2008, year of the Rat.

Dave has told me that at the New Year’s ceremony, Shihan wears a funny hat, and does this: (he acts like he is holding an accordion in his hands and pulls it apart vertically, then brings it back together, while his tongue vibrates noisily against his palate). “Wow!” I say. “I want to see that!” (whatever it is!)
The next time, I am chatting to Shihan after training, with a small group of people who are talking to him about the New Year’s zazen gathering at the temple.
“I heard for the new year ceremony you’re wearing a funny hat." I tell him. "I can’t wait to see that! I’ve been looking forward to that ever since Dave told me about it!” Dave joins us. “Ah, the funny hat, hm?” Shihan looks at him and laughs.

Finally, the day of the funny hat has come, and I am tense with anticipation. Before we start our meditation, about half an hour before midnight, Tomoyuki Sensei, Shihan’s son and successor as head of the Zen temple and adjacent aikido dojo, gives us a short introduction on how we will conduct the zazenkai, the meditation gathering.

Before you sit down on your zabuton, a thick, round cushion the size of a Christmas cake, you put its edge on the tatami mat and turn it around, squeezing it lightly here and there, fixing its shape. On one side it has a white tag, which is there to carry the name of more frequent zazen practitioners. In our case it is white or carries somebody else’s name. When you finally put down the zabuton, this tag should be in the middle, facing away from you.
The first time you do this, everybody is sitting along the walls of the room facing the room and each other. Then, you stand up and turn right and left, both hands together in a praying gesture called gasshō, and bow to your neighbours. You sit down on your zabuton, and, already seated, take a 180 degree right turn until you are facing the wall.

This is how you sit: first put your right leg on your left, if you can, then, definitely, put your left leg on your right, so in the end your legs are crossed. The lotus seat. Then your hands: your fingertips are facing each other, until they meet and the left hand slides on top of the right, like paper sliding doors. Your thumbs meet and make a circle out of your hands that must not be broken throughout your meditation.
You close your mouth and try to imagine your palate where your eyes are. With your tongue you make a shape as if you were pronouncing an “l”. Then move your body left and right, until you have aligned your belly button and your nose in the middle. You do not close your eyes. Then, sit, and think of nothing.

A gong will be sounded to start the session, and then again to end it. In between, if you should start feeling sleepy or unfocused, you can ask for assistance by tilting your head left or right, and putting your hands together in gasshō again. Consequently, Tomoyuki-Sensei will come around with a long wooden stick the shape of a small oar, and whack you on whatever shoulder your tilted head leaves free. After this, you keep the gasshō for a little bow to thank him for beating you back into concentration.

We go through one round of meditation. My chance to get a free hit. I am slightly nervous when I put my hands together and tilt my head, and to intensify the pressure, I have to wait for a long time, before Tomoyuki-sensei discovers my request. First I feel the flat end of the stick lightly touching my shoulder and pushing my head further to the left, in order to avoid hitting it instead of the shoulder. I oblige, and get a rather gentle hit on the right shoulder.
Somehow I was hoping for something harder and more violent that would send a thrill of wakefulness through my body, but I take this surprising gentleness as a Zen message from Tomoyuki Sensei. In Zenshū, the school of Zen followed at Shōsenji, they believe in 経外別伝 kyōgebetsuden, 不立文字 furyūmonji, or 以心伝心isshindenshin, meaning that enlightenment cannot be achieved by relying on scriptures or oral explanations, but has to be transmitted from heart to heart, on a more direct, emotion based level.
After our session, Shihan demonstrates to us with a loud slap on the tatami floor how hard other people get hit sometimes and I catch myself looking for a red welt on the tatami mat when he is finished.

After a while of sitting and meditating, we are told to stand up and turn left. This time, our left hand should clasp its own thumb, then the right hand is wrapped around the left, both hands held about a fist’s breadth away from the point where the ribs start curving down and back, forming the lung’s protective cage. Your elbows are pointing left and right, away from you.
Now, you slide one foot halfway past the other foot, and then proceed sliding the other foot forward. In this fashion, forming a large circle along the walls of the room, we walk forward, covering half a foot’s length at a time. In front of me walks an elegant old lady, her grey hair fixed into an old-fashioned hairstyle suited to her black kimono. She is wearing a black and white hairclip, and white tabi socks with cleft fronts to separate the big toe from the other toes. A ghost? I watch a grey curl on her white neck and try to keep my balance and not shift it too much from left to right as I walk.
“This,” says Shihan, “is exactly the same thing as zazen, except that now you are walking, not sitting down. You should be doing this with exactly the same objective in mind.”

Then, we are told to proceed at normal walking speed until we arrive back where we started to thank our neighbours and sit down for another round of zazen.

We are facing the wall, our eyes open, trying to think of nothing. Then Shihan’s voice comes in, friendly and bright, and provides a welcome object to focus our thoughts on. Concentrating on something is infinitely easier than concentrating on nothing.

“You have now spent almost 30 minutes in zazen meditation. Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Happy New Year.
Starting the New Year with zazen has the objective of resetting yourself. It is done in an effort to go back to your true, original, unsullied self. When we are born, all of us, every human being, is as pure and complete as the Buddha himself. We call this state of being 自性 jishō, written with the kanji for “self,” and then the kanji that consists of “heart” and “life, birth”. At this stage you are still completely void of any outside influences. Then you begin to interact with the world, and in this respect, on one level, you grow. We all grow from the time we come into being. On a different level, however, you start moving away from your original Buddha self. You accept the world of objects as reality, the world that shapes your everyday life. You become part of it, and it now costs effort to return to your origin, to the peace you were born in. This is what we are trying to do in zazen.

In zazen, there are five levels. Just like the grading system at school. One is not so good. Two is only slightly better than one. Three is average. Four is good. And five is very good.

The first stage, level one, is called 外道禅 gedōzen. This means that you are simply moving about, living your life. You are taking a bath, training aikido, or having your dinner, you do not have a set perspective in life yet. You are taking in the world, and forming a part of it outside the Way.
Then the second stage, level two, is called 凡夫 bonpu. Bonpu means that you have entered the way. You have understood that the world is ungraspable. We have this sensation at night, when it is dark, and we don’t know what is what. Bonpu means you have understood emptiness.
The third stage, level three, is called 小乗禅 shōjōzen. The kanji for this are “a little”, then “to ride, or to board”, then “Zen”. This means that you have grasped the logic of life. It means you have understood that whenever you do something good, something just as good will come back to you. That whatever energy you send out, it will return to you. At that stage, you are doing whatever you are doing for yourself. You are doing it to improve your own personality, to perfect your spirit of humaneness, and act accordingly.
The fourth stage, level four, is called 大乗禅 daijōzen. This time, the kanji are “big”, “to ride, or to board”, and “Zen”. When you reach this stage, you are extending your efforts to create a harmonious exchange of energy, to other people. You make yourself part of a communal effort to achieve harmony. You work with others towards the same objective. Reaching this stage is already quite something. There is only one more stage that can be achieved after this.
The fifth stage, level five, is called 最大乗禅 saidaijōzen. Written with the kanji “highest or most”, “big”, “to ride, or to board”, and “Zen”. This means that you manage to return to your original self, your Buddha nature. We call it 新起源shinkigen, which can mean a new era, but here, written with these kanji, it means new beginning, and this is achieved as you return to 自性 jishō, and your heart becomes like the surface of a completely still lake.
If the lake is completely still, whatever moon is in the sky is reflected in complete, unrippled likeness. If there is a half moon, the water reflects a perfect half moon. If there is a three day sickle moon, the water reflects a perfect three day sickle moon. We call this 水の心 mizu no kokoro, heart of water. This is the final level of zazen, our ultimate objective. But I would like to remind everybody that your objective is always to do the best that YOU can, without comparing yourself to other people. If you want to compare yourself, compare yourself with yourself. For zazen, this individual devotion is called 只管打坐 shikantaza.”

Translating each single kanji, this means “only this matters, hitting, sitting”. So we sit, our best possible selves, focusing on nothing, the place we have come from. Shihan continues.
“You have now spent a total of about 50 minutes in zazen meditation.” Shortly after, the gong is sounded again. We are told to move our legs and let them recover, then stand up and turn left and right, hands together, to bow to our neighbours again. In the end, everybody bows to Shihan, who is standing in front of the room, dressed in a ceremonial golden robe with excerpts of scripture sewn onto it in white rectangles.

People start walking around, wishing each other a happy new year. There are four other gaijin at the ceremony. Itamar and his friend Yair, Roberto, a performing artist and yoga instructor, who happens to be Itamar’s neighbour and an old acquaintance of Dave’s, and finally Thomas, engineer and ballroom dancer from Hannover, and my mum’s old classmate.
We catch up with Thomas and Itamar, tell them how we started the night watching the K1 fights at Osaka Dome, with 30,000 other people. People, people, people, flash and light, flames getting spat into the air as the fighters enter through a giant gate to booming songs, a group of dancers introducing them with large arm movements like opening flowers. I feel like I have entered the arena for a modern gladiator fight.
We get to watch some great fighters in the ring. The Korean giant gets beaten by knockout! His downfall is Pettas from Denmark, a tough guy with a German footballer’s face, half his height, who fights like a little terrier. Akah, beautiful, muscly, black, his hair in breids, puts up a great fight against Japanese legend Musashi, who looks slightly flabby, seems slow, tired and pale, as if he has drunk too much at all the year end parties. Akah seems to be pushing for a clear win, but then in the third round, Musashi knocks him out with a smashing right hook, followed by a high kick without actual effect, but great for additional entertainment value. Masato offers a nice spectacle against a skinny Korean and secures a clear win. We get to see Yamato the kid, another muscle packed little terrier, his body completely Y-shaped, packed with upper body strength. The kid wins, too. In the last fight, the main event, we see two big Japanese fighters. One of them has the look of a cool fighter, sure to win. The other one looks like an unpopular kid, eyes too close together in a wide, moon face, a cauliflower ear. His intro movie on the giant screen shows him returning to Japan especially for this fight, and fighting an anime dinosaur, which, in some parts, is shown with his head on his reptile body, jumping around with boxing gloves on his claws, ready to fight. True to his cauliflower ear, the dinosaur wrestles down the cool kid and twists his arm round the elbow axis until cool kid has to tap out. Wonderful. A wrestling win at the end of the spectacle. Just what I wanted.
“Pure violence!” snarls Itamar. “No,” I defend my love of fighting. “It’s a skill. You are watching skill at play. The art of fighting.” He shakes his head. Thomas, who has misunderstood us and thinks we have been watching TV, asks us if we saw the ballroom dancing, too. We explain to him that we went live. “Aaa! Now I understand the excitement!” he laughs. Then we are interrupted.

“Teatime!” says Shihan in English and laughs. There is a low table in the front right corner of the room, and Mama-san, his wife, kneels down in front of it. The other women gather around her, and prepare to serve green tea and yōkan, a sweet made of red beans and sugar, crushed into a paste and shaped into a roll that is cut into slices and eaten with a flat, wooden stick.

“Anna-chan,” Mama-san calls me. “Will you help us serve?” It is the women’s job to serve the tea and sweets. Normally my European sense of gender equality would probably result in feelings of resentment at this request, but as I feel part of a big Pagan ritual, and her call to me seems more like a sign that I am accepted as part of the family than like an admonition, I am happy to help and kneel down next to her with the other women. I discover the old woman wearing the black kimono next to me. "What was the fifth stage of zen meditation called again?" I ask her to find out whether she is in fact a ghost or not. Her eyes turn to a helpful spot on the ceiling, and she slowly but conscientiously recounts all the five stages Shihan has told us about. "Yes, and the last one was saidaijozen, wasn't it?" I'm still not sure whether she is a ghost or not, but now Mama-san calls my name, and I have to pay attention.
There are several serving trays, a dark, lacquered red brown, round with a long stand like wine glasses, elevating the serving platform. The ones for tea have a hollow cylinder attached to the middle, to balance the rounded tea bowls. The trays for sweets are flat. Mama-san places a white napkin on a tray, a slice of yōkan, and a wooden eating stick.
“Now you hold it like this.” She balances the tray in her left hand, and holds her right hand parallel to the stand, fingers pointing skywards, so that both hands are perpendicular to each other. “Then you get up. Get up beautifully, without bending your back, and walk to the person you are serving. You kneel down, turn the tray so the wooden spoon is lying on their side. You bow and wait until they take the napkin with the sweet off the tray. Then you bow again and carry back the tray to serve the next person.”
I get up and try my best to obey her orders. On the way, Shihan sees me and corrects my hand gesture. As he shapes his hands in the air, I suddenly feel reminded of the hands of Buddha statues, which eternally bless the world with this same gesture.
Shihan opens the sliding door to leave and turns to his wife. “They,” he nods in our direction, “came to see the funny hat!” He erupts into a bright little round of giggles and leaves the room.

We see him again downstairs. In front of the room, there is a large altar full of gold and flowers, and wood, and a whole host of things that make the place look like a holy site, a shining place of worship for a divine entity that has the power to put our world in order or disorder.
To prevent disorder, the ceremony has to be in order. Shihan is wearing his funny hat. Golden, it stands high on his head and is part of a cape that falls down over his shoulders. We line up in front of the slightly elevated altar part of the room. One by one, we walk up to the left column and bow. Then on to the middle, where smoke is emanating from a tray. We cleanse our hands in the smoke and put them together, facing the altar, making a short wish for the new year, or conversing with its supernatural denizens in whatever manner we like. We proceed to meet Tomoyuki Sensei’s wife who is standing near Shihan with a friendly smile, waiting to hand out white, flat packages to everyone. Omamori, lucky charms, bearing the temple’s name.
Finally, we get to face Shihan with his funny hat.
It is my turn. In his hands Shihan is holding a long book containing the sutras. Moving it like an accordion, he fans the content of all the holy scriptures into my face. Afterwards, he closes it and touches my forehead, then my left and my right shoulder. I want to comment on his hat, but the seriousness of this strange pagan ritual sucks me in, and I can’t step outside of it and joke about it while I’m right in the middle.
We all get our blessings. Most people leave, but we kneel down to witness the rest of the ceremony. Tomoyuki Sensei is sitting in a hidden away corner of the room, chanting sutras with a nasal voice, breaking and fluctuating across the holy words, the chanting monotonous, with only slight variations, accompanied by an eerie combination of percussion instruments, gongs, drums, and other objects he is operating from his hidden corner, producing sounds as he hits them with his gentle teachings. Shihan is standing in front of the central altar, sometimes chanting, other times engaging all kinds of other mysterious actions. He is holding a kind of broom with long horse hair that he throws towards the altar, then behind his back. The whole ceremony is a complete mystery to me, yet it is utterly compelling, and I can’t stop watching. Not just because of the funny hat.
Mama-san comes into the room. Shihan interrupts his sutra singing and addresses his wife: “All right, love? Is the tea stuff cleared away? Would you like to come for your blessing now?” And like all of us before, she walks up to the column and bows, then cleanses her hands in smoke, and receives her blessing. Then she sits down joining us, Tomoyuki Sensei’s wife, the old lady ghost, Dave, and me, to witness the ceremony until the end. It is long. I try to make out what words they are chanting but I can’t. I try to discern how father and son interact, where they join their chants, where the percussion comes in, try to find some meaning in the horse hair and the golden hat. But I can’t. A mysterious pagan ritual. The last part involves Shihan putting down his hat on the giant zabuton in front of the altar. With the ceremony finished, Shihan turns around and sees us.
So immediately he goes and puts his hat back on. “There! The funny hat!” He smiles and poses, two fingers for victory. A Kodak moment missed. I get out my camera and beg him to do it again. “That hat looks so good on you!” I say, and Mama-san and Tomoyuki Sensei’s wife giggle. I manage to catch a nice awe-imposing posture of Shihan, and a picture of Dave and Shihan together, the men of the night dressed in their separate professions, perfectly harmonising in this bizarre environment where rituals are performed, and all actions aimed at directing life onto the Way. Impossible to express with words, it encompasses all and nothing, an expanse unimaginable to the human mind. Thus the Way remains forever mysterious until we rediscover nothing, and thus ourselves. We start the New Year looking for nothing. Nothing can go wrong. We shall not be disappointed.

In the spirit of fighting, Zen, and the funny hat, I wish everybody a successful, harmonious, and happy New Year.


A New Job

A New Job

One Sunday, I get an unexpected visitor in my secret life. It is the bright, environmentally conscious vegan photographer –JET teacher Timdesuyo who trains aikido with me at Shosenji dojo, here to take some pictures and get some information from the world of shadows for an article in this regions’s popular foreigners’ magazine Kansai Time Out, short KTO.
Only a few weeks later, I’m holding a copy of the magazine in my hands, to have a look at what he has written about the place I devote my weekends to, and the people that populate it. His pictures are good, the article a summary of parts taken from the recently published bilingual edition “A Journey to the World of Ninja and Kengo”. With nothing but Kansai Time Out to accompany me on my train journey from Sone to Umeda, I dejectedly leaf through the classifieds section, and my eyes fall on an ad placed by the German European School in Kobe. They are looking for an early years teacher and an English as a Second Language teacher. Somehow I can’t take my eyes off the ad.
German European School. It sounds like a place that would give me work. Me being of distinctly German-European heritage, and with language skills in German, English, and Japanese. Also, to me European values seem especially attractive in a workplace right now, since I am working for a Japanese company, crushed daily by the weight of corporate pressure, spending every night painstakingly resurrecting the individual I am before I go to work, from the paste of muscles, blood, and sweat, the raw materials used throughout the day to contribute to corporate profits.
Teaching. Well. It is what I’m doing at the moment. It is something I CAN do. My main worry is my secret life. There might be opportunities there for me which would grant me better access to the world of shadows than this. But then again, there might not. And if I should get this, my working hours would decrease, and I would get more holidays to escape into this world, and become a bigger and stronger part of it.
Taking the ad as a sign, I give my CV a quick once-over and put together a cover letter that emphasises my Germanic roots, language skills, teaching experience, practising fondness of European values, and most of all, my enthusiasm at taking on this position (either one of the two offered, yes that’s how far my skills go). My internet connection is stubbornly denying me access that night, but I manage to send everything off the next morning before I go to the gym and move on to have myself crushed and used once again.
A few hours later, I have escaped from work for a short period of time to grab a snack at a nearby kombini, and my phone rings. “Moshi moshi.”
“Ja, Frau Sanner, Müller hier, Deutsch-Europäische Schule Kobe. I have your CV here in front of me. Are you still interested in this position?”
Hearing a German voice in a kombini in the middle of Osaka startles me so much I forget which three kinds of yoghurt I had narrowed my choices down to, but as it has been a mere three hours since I applied for the position, I reply promptly that I am indeed still interested.
“Dann müssen Sie ganz schnell hier her kommen, sonst wird das dieses Jahr nicht mehr!“ (In that case you have to come here, and soon, otherwise it won’t work out this year.) “
“OK, would that still be possible tomorrow morning?” I ask, as I am working till late tonight, as usual, and have to dash back to the school in a minute.
“It IS still possible tomorrow morning, but that will be the last chance, Frau Sanner. After that I’m off to the UK and Germany to do conduct some more recruitment activities and then go for a long summer holiday.”
Long summer holidays. Various instances of my present superiors trying to talk me out of even the seven days of holidays I dared to take for the whole year come floating back to me. I am definitely still interested in this job.
“How about tomorrow 9 o’clock,” Herr Direktor Müller suggests efficiently.
“Tomorrow 9 o’clock. Certainly.” I efficiently agree, feeling perfectly at home in this conversation. Herr Direktor Müller describes to me how to get to the school, and we end our pleasant and efficient call.
As the yoghurt shelf comes back into focus, I find myself looking for Müller yoghurt, the one with the corner you can flip around and pour jam, or little chocolate balls, or cereal into the bigger corner that holds the yoghurt. “Alles Müller oder was?” goes the commercial. But the choices offered bring me back from Germany to Japan, Hannover to Osaka, and I have to make do with a new blueberry edition of shibō zero (non-fat) blueberry yoghurt instead, featuring health-inducing pieces of jelly-like aloe vera.
Then I rush back to the school, and for a change, at the prospect of leaving this establishment for good, my business smile comes naturally.

The next morning at nine o’clock I knock at Herr Direktor Müller’s door.
“Guten Morgen Frau Sanner, bitte nehmen Sie Platz!” he gestures me to sit down in one of the three chairs lining my side of his giant desk, and I marvel at his air-conditioned office, which is almost the size of Juso school, my present work place. It is only 9 o’clock, yet, already, Mr. Müller is stressed. There is a mother in the office, molesting the secretaries about her own failure to officially withdraw her child from the school, and as a result, having to pay for tuition this year. She simply doesn’t want to pay. Mr Müller touches this forehead with the inside of his hand and rests the whole forearm face construction on his elbow for a while. Then he attacks the coffee the secretary has carefully placed in front of him in the meantime. I decline the coffee I am offered. I have already had my morning dose and am too excited about what is to come.
Mr Müller asks Miss A, the Japanese secretary, who speaks good German, to take care of the trouble for now, as he has an interview to do, and Miss A retreats from his office with a strained smile.
Mr Müller tells me that in Germany, he used to work for a school with five times as many children. And still, in Japan he is faced with a lot more stress. Staff are extremely unflexible, and as soon as a child comes into the office with a bleeding knee from playing outside (an everyday type of incident at a school that instructs children between 2 and 13 years of age), it digresses from their written code of conduct, and they are at a loss. I express my genuine empathyf or Mr Müller’s trouble and remind him of his privileged position. “At least here you are allowed to exercise European values and common sense to fight the occasional shortcomings in simple management skill.” Mr Müller agrees with an amused chuckle and asks me about my teaching experience and my language skills. He seems satisfied with my answers.
“As for your language skills, I cannot rely on my own expertise.” He continues. “So we will shortly be joined by Mr Inman, head of the European section.” Mr Inman is a friendly looking young man from Yorkshire. I have read his personal profile in Kansai Time Out. “He will take a look at your English skills, but at the moment he is still busy.” Mr Müller takes another sip of his coffee, which seems to inspire him to come up with yet another efficient idea. “In the meantime, I will have Miss A talk to you in Japanese for a little while, to check your Japanese level. If you really are as good as you say, you would be gold to us. We could use you for whatever needs to be done. You could teach Japanese to begins, take the German kids when they need a sub, and obviously fill the position as ESL teacher that we need filled…” Herr Direktor Müller calls Miss A away from her brave stand-off with the irate mother who is still unwilling to pay, and she sits down next to me and asks me about my present job. I tell her how I enjoy teaching but despise the business side of things. She asks for some more detailed information about what this business side entails, and I tell her about the publishing branch, selling text books, the foreign exchange branch whose molestations are never ending, monthly specified campaigns and contract renewal promotions. She empathises and kindly tells Mr Müller she has never heard a foreigner speak such good Japanese before.
Next, Mr Inman joins us with a big, welcoming smile, and we all converse in English for a while. He tells me that their concern is that sometimes foreigners apply for English language teaching positions, but when you meet them, they make grammar errors and cannot be accepted as English teachers. “But in your case,” he continues, “it is clearly not an issue. I can even hear your Bath accent.”
Mr Müller smiles and tells me to leave them alone for a while, so they can consult about the matter. I walk around the area and inspect the cute little café selling cakes made with organic ingredients across the road, locate the nearest kombini, and enjoy the patches of green that are surprisingly abundant here, compared to concrete djugle Osaka.
I arrive back at Herrn Direktor Müller’s office, and Mr Inman says: “I think we have good news for you.” I got the job “The only problem I see with this,” he goes on, “is that you’re seriously undershooting yourself. You have all these language skills, and here you’re just going to be teaching little children, which is not the most stimulating job. So if you’d say you wanted to work here for two or three years, I wouldn’t believe you. But if you just want to get away from your present job, that’s fine. ” Mr Müller tells me he is having the contract prepared as we speak, and would I be so kind as to sign it right now, so he can reduce his recruitment activities in the UK and enjoy an even longer long summer holiday? Aber natürlich kann ich das. Of course I can.

When I arrive at Juso school today, I have trouble suppressing my smile when I force a polite introduction to open up the news to manager. The Japanese English teacher has announced her premature retirement from the company only two weeks ago.
“I’m really sorry,” I say as soon as we sit down for our morning meeting, “this is probably the last thing you want to hear, o honourable manager. But I’m going to quit.”
Manager is shocked. But she is not overwhelmed by the news. She rather professionally accepts it with a “Shō ga nai.” (That can’t be helped.) She asks me about the new job. When will I start, what will I do, where is it, and how much will I make. When I tell her about the money, which will go up by about 50%, together with a rise in holidays by about 700%, her eyes light up. And her next reaction comes as a surprise. “Isn’t there a job there for me?”
And slightly incredulous at how my news about leaving have affected her, I write an e-mail to Herrn Direktor Müller, instructed by manager, asking him about possible secretary positions at the school. Unfortunately, the e-mail arrives at the wrong place: at GEOS head office. When I realise my mistake, I promptly send another e-mail to my trainer, apologising for the miss. I get back an irate message, rebuking me of gross abuse of the business e-mailing facilities for private purposes. Luckily, the content of the German message is lost on my trainer, otherwise the consequences for my manager might have been deplorable.
I use this golden opportunity and retort by giving a phone call to head ffice and renouncing my retirement from the company by the end of august. Surprisingly, my trainer is not only professional but even kind about it and tells me she will promptly inform me of what needs to be done in order to leave. Another advocate and practising member of efficiency. I put down the phone, and pop a red pill into my mouth that has been hiding in the deepest corners of my jacket pocket somewhere, for a long, long time. And as it dissolved in my throat, I see a bright future opening up before me, far, far away from the mines.