Another stellar week.
I’ve really come into my own at work. I know my responsibilities and I know what those around me do for the office. I know what goes where and how to find it. I know how to complete a job correctly and do it quickly. It feels really good to be so efficient and effective at a job. I occupy a very specific position in the company and I do it well.
I have also bought into the Japanese mentality of teamwork. I have abandoned selfish principles for the greater good. During my first month on the job I put forth a 99% effort. Now, near seven months since I started, I give a 110% every day. I start early and finish late. I spend half my lunch preparing and completing lessons. As a result I find myself very satisfied at the end of the day and especially at the end of the week.
That all having been said, this week was no different from any other. Rather my awareness of the aforementioned continued to grow. Let’s see what the next week brings.
This weekend was very low-key. It was the final weekend before payday. I made a balance inquiry at the bank and made a withdraw. I paid all of my bills and enough to eat for a few days. The rest of the yen stayed put. It feels nice to finish the month in the fiscal black. Even if the amount is small, it’s still an accomplishment.
Sunday evening was the highlight of my weekend. A few weeks prior I had been haphazardly invited to a community karate class by an inebriated student. I accepted on the spot and thought nothing else of it. The following weekend the same student brought to me at school a map and details about the class. I was floored; he was serious. I again thanked him and assured I would visit the coming Sunday.
Sunday evening came and with it a tremendous storm. All afternoon a downpour of rain had hung in the sky. For most of the day I sat in pajamas and watched movies. As the clock approached six I saddled up. I put on gym clothes and above that rain wear. I stepped out of my apartment to a lighter rain. I zipped my jacket and set down the alley with only an umbrella and map. 15 minutes later I had found the middle school gym my student had circled on the map. “Well, here we go,” I thought.
I walked into the old gymnasium. I took off my shoes and shook off the water. I approached the front desk and gave a small bow. Before I could introduce myself they knew who I was, “Arex.” I looked down at the check-in list and there was my name. The only romanized name out of 50 people. “Lucky guess,” I told the little old lady. They requested I take off my socks and enter the main gym room barefooted. I complied and waited cautiously off to the side by a wall.
I was slightly anxious waiting for my student and so began to stretch and look busy. As I limbered up I took stock of the room around me. The gym was huge, two if not three full-sized basketball courts. The population was evenly split between children and adults. The adults were all dressed in white karate uniforms. They stood on one side of the gym and practiced their routines. The children, all under the age of 6, ran about screaming widely. Everyone was Japanese. I was the only Westerner in the whole building. I didn’t belong to either group.
Shortly before 6 my student entered. He was thrilled to see me. This man, who we’ll call Yoshi, is impressive. He’s in his late 50’s and his English is only slightly better than my Japanese. He actively power-lifts and is a beast of a man, especially for the Japanese. We had only had two conversations prior to today, so I wasn’t much sure of his character.
He greeted me in English, and I returned in Japanese. We both laughed. He then explained that this group practices every Sunday and today was a special event. Members of the community were free to join and try the class. He served as a coordinator for the club and knew almost everyone. He was excited to introduce me to his four senseis. The sempi of the group was an 80-year old man and an eighth degree black belt. I bowed to each of his masters and gave thanks. Then the clock struck 6 and we started.
We lined up rank and file. 50 Japanese and one American. Instructions were shouted in Japanese and all complied. A kindly man next to me spoke broken English and tried to translate, but his assistance was really not necessary. Although I had no clue what instructions were being said, I could see the sensei in front of me, and I followed his every move. Punch, punch, kick, turn, kick, punch. I quickly figured out the routine and even shouted at every eighth move, just like the rest of the class.
The practice continued for an hour with the occasional break. During these breaks I could feel a hole being burned in my back from every one’s stairs. As if I didn’t already feel out-of-place. Yoshi then brought a reluctant seven-year old to my side. The young boy explained to me the proper stances and approaches, all in Japanese. He barked directions at me in Japanese and I followed his every gesture. It was a very unique experience, following the orders of a seven-year old in a different language, not at all sure of what you’re being told. But I obeyed and by the end he seemed satisfied with my improvement. I gave my new master a deep bow and a polite thank you.
Soon after it was 7PM and the free lesson was over. I gave thanks to my many new friends and spoke with Yoshi. Together we spoke in pidgin and understood each other. We shook hands, western style; and bowed, Japanese style. I returned to the entrance to dress in rain wear and left. Although it had only lasted an hour, it was one of my most insightful Japanese experiences to date.
Maybe it’s because I studied history as an undergrad. Maybe it’s because I’m just odd. But I find it fascinating to live in a country with an ancient culture. Especially an ancient culture that has survived and is relatively unchanged today. This thought usually crosses my mind while I’m on the trains. I’ll be looking out the window at the passing scenery and think, “Wow, this place has been occupied and culminating for 15,000 years.”
I should put this into context. I’m from a country that is only 235 years old and a culture that is barely 400 years in the making. You could not better contrast old and new than between Japan and the USA. As the city of Lincoln, Nebraska was founded, iron ships from the United States navy sailed into Yokohama harbor. They demanded Japan open it’s country to trade and thus ended a two and a half century period of isolation. And then there’s me, all of 24 years old. Not even a grain of sand in this country’s history. How humbling.
There are many aspects of this history that interest me. The homogeneous ethnicity. The standardized language. The shared culture and identity. The shockingly similar mentalities. The same patches of earth continuously inhabited for 700 generations. It’s some heavy stuff.
I still can’t help but feel I’m only scratching the surface here. It’s paradoxical. I feel that after a month here you pretty well know Japanese people. But after seven months I know enough to know nothing about them. Can such a storied people be learned and understood during my stay here? Can they be understood after a lifetime? I’ll let you know.
In unrelated news, I feel myself on the cliff above a great sea of change. I just need a nudge, or an earthquake, to make a splash. More to come.