Foreign Dojo Branch
May 14, 2006 · 8:45pm EST · Posted by D. Seidman
Fujiyama Dojo
P.O. Box 20003
Thorold, ON, Canada
L2V 5B3
(905) 680-6389
My first feeling for Japan was one of gratitude. My parents escaped Nazi Europe thanks to the help of a courageous Japanese diplomat. To any Jew familiar with the holocaust, this is a memory hard to ignore.

My second feeling for Japan was of fascination. My father's friendship with several Japanese gentlemen gave me my first glimpse of Japan's very colorful history and of great traditions that had not been affected by their portrayal in the media. The first day I had formal martial arts instruction was the day my life came into focus, and I have had the satisfaction of having remained in the martial arts ever since.

I have received so much! But now it's time to return what I have received, and I am faced with a problem that has bothered many other instructors: How is it possible to teach at a gaijin no bunko (a foreign dojo branch)?

My training in Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu began in Japan. The teachers belonged to a very old, private, independent organization that was concerned with tradition rather than expansion. The teachers believed that only a very small portion of Japan's new generation is capable of abiding by the precepts of true, old-style martial arts. So, the idea of a dojo overseas seemed to them to be absolutely absurd.

My proposal for a foreign dojo met with many objections. It was explained to me that non-Japanese students would not have any point of reference for understanding what it means to be faithful to a dojo or a teacher. I was told that their feeling for the art would be like their feeling for a sport or a hobby - that, being ignorant of the art's history and tradition, they would not consider it an honor or privilege to be taught its techniques. I was told that foreign students would think that they could "buy" the right to be taught and that they would therefore be arrogant and detached. The result of "teaching" such students (my teachers told me) would be mere physical activity that would lack the proper spirit.

Deep down, I was afraid that my teachers might be right.

My instructor's permit was issued and the challenge was afoot. The country in which I was going to teach was not only outside Japan, but also foreign to me. For my dojo to be recognized, I had to prove that the students accepted the art's spirit, not its technique. No excuses, no rationalizations.

The Rengokai requires personalized instruction. For each ten new students (kohai), there would have to be a senior student (sempai) whose proficiency in technique should be matched by his discipline and dedication. With that in mind, I set off to structure the dojo's foundation: the sempai.

The experience proved frustrating. Some students immediately wanted to know how soon they would get a black belt. Others wanted to know when they would be able to wipe out their whole neighborhoods.

After practicing a technique for about three months, one student "discovered" that he was wiser than all the masters, and he declared the technique "useless." From then on, he tried to find ways to counter every technique as it was being taught to him, thereby wasting the time of everyone involved.

Some students were unable to learn because they were too arrogant. ("I learned it differently in another dojo.") Some "students" were really members of other dojos who were "sniffing out the competition." And one student was unable to learn because he held a peculiar theory of reincarnation! ("All I need is a reminder. You cannot actually teach me anything because I learned it all in another life.")

Some students would miss classes if a certain rock group was in town, or if they were invited to join a soccer game, or if they got involved with a game at a video arcade.

Although some students would spend three times their tuition on clothes, make-up, or video games, they viewed it as a hardship to pay the dojo on time. How dare I demand punctuality?!

When called on their errors, students would sometimes talk back: "You may teach me technique, but I won't change my ways. You cannot change what I am." Sadly, in most cases, these students did not have the slightest idea what they were. All they knew were their names, ages, and tastes in fashion. "Effort," "dedication," "respect," and "faithfulness" were alien words to them. What they called their "identity" was really their greed and arrogance.

Once, I asked an artistically inclined deshi to paint a poster for our dojo. He agreed, but time passed and nothing happened. When I inquired about the poster, he produced one - rushed and incorrect. From the time the poster was commissioned, the student had spent hours playing baseball, watching soccer games, and drinking beer at the local pub. There was no point to trying to teach him something: A teacher can do nothing for a student whose spine is porridge.

When it came time to report back to the Rengokai, I was less than enthusiastic. I had students who were tired of training on the hard floors of a basketball club, students who seemed intent on showing that they could get drunk on weekends and still be good Budoka, students who resented every cent they had to invest in their instruction, and students who were bitter when I requested that they complete their half-done chores. In their eyes, I was a demanding, picky, irritating "broad."

Hearing about my students, my sensei pointed out that the bunko (branch) had failed. I wish I could have argued with him, but I had no grounds. Sadly, I had to let the bunko go. The students were outraged, but it was too late.

I felt bad about my first try at establishing a bunko, and I blamed myself for its failure. I thank N. Ichikawa Sensei, son of my teacher, for pointing out that I had done my best and that I had showed the way. I had allowed the students to make their own decisions; the choice was theirs. "Do not worry," he added. "One day, if only for the sake of one, it will all be worthwhile."

My next commission was to teach in a military environment. Students were allowed into the group by recommendation only. My selection of sempai was based solely on dedication. I offered no glamour, just hard work. And I made it clear that I was not interested in "broadening" anyone's horizons.

The guys in the new group trained for their lives; training was their highest priority. The group was small but completely dedicated, and teaching them was very rewarding. The deshi did not complain. They trained hard and were faithful in all their duties. Their help was constant, unconditional, and invaluable.

This time, Sensei was pleased.

One of my fondest memories is of an event that happened many years ago in a dojo in a diplomatic mission, very far from Japan. That day the class had been dedicated to a visiting teacher, who was also a respected metallurgical engineer and researcher. At the end of the class, the sensei asked the students to repair a defective sliding door in the dojo. The deshis nodded in agreement. Later, past midnight, my friends and I saw that the mission's the lights were on. Looking through a window, we saw that the visiting teacher was fixing the door himself! Alarmed, one of my friends went in and asked the instructor why he was working by himself when fixing the door was the duty of the dojo's students.

"Your sensei outranks me," the visitor replied. "When he asks that something be done, it should be done as quickly as possible. It would be disrespectful to keep him waiting, since he represents what we learn. It saddens me that none of you seem to understand this. I'm afraid that his teachings may be wasted on students like you. You should be ashamed."

Later, I recorded this man's words in my journal. He was a great teacher, but he never forgot how to be a good student. His example offered a profitable lesson in dedication, respect, and humility.

Not long ago, a woman student at a friend's Karate dojo was reading one of our newsletters. When she was done, she said, "This is boring - nothing but a long lecture." Later, I overheard one of my students saying to another, "I wish I could have read this article five years ago. I have wasted so much time!" When I heard this, a feeling of immense satisfaction filled my heart. I know that I am doing my part as a teacher, and that some of what I have to offer is well received.

Ichikawa-sensei's son was right. "If only for the sake of one, it will all be worthwhile." Indeed it is!

A gaijin no bunko is possible. All we need is the right deshi and the right spirit. There can be no compromises, since half way is no way at all. We should not be overly concerned about hard floors, stained walls, or lack of coal for the furnace. A dojo's foundation is in its deshis' hearts. We can start to build there. If we fail there, we have no need to invest in brick and lumber. If we succeed, we have all the time in the world to build a dojo, since a true deshi's loyalty will never waver.

Originally printed in Aikido Today Magazine


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