There is something that happens when I put on my practice outfit, or keikogi, that colors that particular, current training time. I remember the past. It’s fitting, after all, because the Japanese word for training, keiko, is made of two Chinese characters that means “to consider or reflect upon the past.” So in teaching, I try to inculcate in my students what I myself had learned in the past from my own teachers, as best as possible, in my own way.
But lately, I’m thinking that when I tighten my obi, I also reflect upon the ghosts of my own practices past. Like a doddering old geezer, when I slip on my white training pants, white quilted uwagi, cloth belt and hakama, I recall the many times I did so in the past, in memorable training sessions that lasted far into the night. Maybe it’s because I long ago turned 50 years of age. That’s half a century. That’s more years behind me than ahead of me, probably. That’s all my youth gone and went, and now I’m in the autumn staring at the twilight years. That’s…as some college kids would blurt out….really OLD, man. “Man, you’re like my father,” some of them used to say. Now they say, “Man, you’re as old as my grandparents!” Sheesh.
So I put on my keikogi, we bow in, warm up, and work on our techniques. I’m focusing on what the students are doing at the moment. But behind them, behind the way I teach, the way I emphasize certain things, are all the ghosts of practices past.
There’s the ghost image of my jujutsu teacher, when I first met him, at the peak of his physical prowess, moving like a greased monkey throwing people around, then losing interest and going into the back room of the dojo to play his shakuhachi while we fumbled over the techniques. In the cold, wintery Kyoto nights, sometimes it was just me and Takagi-san, hammering away at each other while our sensei played the evocative bamboo flute, watching us and sometimes getting frustrated and stepping back on the mats to correct our moves.
There’s the fleeting image of my Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu iai teacher when I first met him in the Butokuden in autumn, cupping his ears so he could hear me better, a gentle old soul, I thought, whose iai was so expansive it truly was like the nickname given to that particular strain, “tonosama no iai,” or the iai of a warrior lord.
There’s the memories of the tough judo practices and fun times over beers afterwards that I enjoyed with a sensei and friend. I learned that he later ended up passing away in a frenzy brought on by an extreme bout of his chronic manic depression, striking at enemies of his mind in a bamboo thicket.
There’s the ghost image of another judo friend, who later counseled me when I was going through a divorce. He had gone through his own problems and was telling me things will get better; he found his wife in bed with another man, he hated his job, and he finally crashed his car into a tree…and walked away from it all, to a new town and career…and he built a new life, becoming a professor in a field he enjoyed, with seven great kids and a supportive wife.
There’s the great sempai I had in karate. We used to train outside of regular sessions on the beach on the North Shore of Oahu, going over kata and kumite over and over again. A few weeks before I had my thesis presentation and fine art show for graduate school, one of my sempai, who had become a police officer in the toughest beat in Honolulu, called me out of the blue to ask if I could come over for a few brewskis and to talk story about the old training days. I had to turn him down, saying I really needed to work on my master’s degree final presentations. That moonlit night, after the phone call, he walked on the beach where we used to train and put a bullet in his head, probably due to the stress of his law enforcement duties and his personal life.
There’s the training sessions that I was allowed to participate in with the U.S. Olympic judo team. It gave me a glimpse into how great a gap there was between me and the cream of the crop. There was just no comparison, and I realized that I had better pay more attention to my schoolwork because there’s no way I could ever be a professional athlete. The U.S. representative in my weight class dumped me all over the place. If anyone has any question as to whether judo is an effective martial art or not, I’d just say, try getting thrown by one of those guys in an asphalt parking lot. You’d be lucky if you can stand up after that in one piece. Surprisingly, for both him and me, however, when we ended up grappling on the mat I easily pinned him. There was nothing he did on the ground that I couldn’t easily counter. That’s when I realized I owed a debt to my judo sensei, whose own teacher was Mikinosuke Kawaishi, the renowned judo teacher who taught a very balanced, technique-oriented style of judo that emphasized equal dexterity in both standing and groundwork techniques.
There’s the training sessions I used to have in jojutsu, out in a park on a mountain top, come rain or shine, even in the middle of tropical thunderstorms, where we’d be slipping and sliding in the mud and trying mightily to keep hanging on to our jo so that it wouldn’t slip out and whack our partners in the head.
There’s the winter time judo training sessions I had on the Mainland, where we ran barefoot in the snow in Upstate New York, us adults freezing our toes while the kids in the group were traipsing and laughing at the novelty of the experience, unaffected by the cold.
There are so many memories of really good times, and really hard times, times that made fast friends, and times that drove unbreachable wedges between me and other people.
And there’s the very first memories of when I first stepped onto a dojo mat, even before I owned a keikogi, and took my first lessons in breakfalls. The dojo was a former sugar plantation meeting hall, termite eaten, old, cobwebbed in the corners, retrofitted with a canvas-covered mat. It was taught by blue-collar workers: sugar plantation workers, garage mechanics, tractor drivers. That was well over 40-odd years ago, when I was barely entering my teens, and those gruff old men were my first role models besides my father and school teachers on what it was to be an adult.
So I knot up my obi and cinch up my hakama and for a brief moment, those ghosts come up from the past, making the instant bittersweet with its memories. Then I put those nostalgic bursts of recollections aside and train. And I make new memories.