Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Shorinji Kempo across the globe

Shorinji Kempo is a fairly new martial art common in Japan and around the world. It has its roots in kung-fu, karate, judo, and aikijutsu. Add to that a strong Zen Buddhist influence, and you get an art that is as much or more a lifestyle than a sport.
Kai has been practicing shorinji kempo for 3 years, starting when he was 5 years old. Martial arts are a very important part of traditional Japanese culture, and Haj felt very strongly about giving the boys this experience. Having been a practitioner of Kendo, the art involving body armour and bamboo swords, Haj naturally hoped that Kai would lean toward that discipline, but being of a much more pacifist nature, Kai was drawn to the non-combative harmony of shorinji.

After 3 years of practice, he has advanced 5 'kyu' levels, bringing him to the rank of 4th kyu, the 3rd level of the green belt (junior rankings). His next test will give him a brown belt. Taiga finally joined the class when he turned 5 last November (actually taking his first class on his birthday). He hasn't reached the lowest official rank yet, but is enjoying going through the moves with his big brother.
As we are currently in Canada, visiting Grandma and Grandpa, we thought it would be fun and interesting for the boys to experience some shorinji classes here. As members of the World Shorinji Kempo Organization, they are able to join classes anywhere in the world. We found a dojo fairly close to home, and the boys eagerly attend each Saturday while we are here.

Although the basic structure and techniques of the classes are standardized across the globe, many differences in the classes became apparent almost immediately. Kai was asked to give a talk to the class, so I asked him how he would describe the differences. The first thing he said was that Japan was much more strict. There certainly was a much stronger sense of 'fun and play' involved here than in Japan, and much less in the areas of discipline and respect. I think some basic cultural differences play a strong role in this.

Progress in martial arts in Japan is very gradual. There is certainly no rush to advance, and commitment to the art is expected to be long-term. Often when I see the head sensei informing a parent that their child will soon be testing for their next level, there is an expression of surprise. As the levels get higher, many parents suggest that their child is not ready for the advancement.

In western cultures, people usually join an activity such as a martial art with the end result in mind: the mastery of the basic form, the black belt. Those who really know martial arts know that the black belt is by far not the top of the ranking scale, but there is a certain prestige to having reached that level. When children are enrolled in the classes, more often than not it's the parents who are the most critical of the progress (or lack thereof) of the child. It is I think because of this that there are fewer levels involved leading to the junior black belt.

The discipline (or lack of it) of the class was the biggest surprise when we attended our first class here. Before the start of the lesson, each child showed respect for the dojo with the standard 'gassho rei' greeting, but aside from that there was no indication that the area was any more than a wide open play area. The kids were wild. When the class officially began, they did settle for the most part. Then the warm-up began. To our shock, the kids were talking, complaining, panting, and moaning. The effort shown was minimal. Extreme cases were called out and dealt with, but for the most part, this behavior was not addressed.

When Kai gave his talk on shorinji in Japan the next week, he told them how strict his classes were, how the students would never complain or moan, and how talking and fooling around when the sensei was talking or demonstrating would be unacceptable. He told them that the kids want to show their sensei that they are strong, so they don't whine or stop doing any activity until they are told to stop. Of course he also mentioned that in Japan, they aren't asked to do sit-ups, push-ups, or jumping jacks.

The most senior member of the Coquitlam dojo, where we were practicing, commented at the end of Kai's talk that he was "ashamed and embarrassed" by his dojo, after hearing about the way things are in Japan. I know though, that the level of structure and discipline in Japan would be very hard to enforce in Canada. Our practices are twice as often, we have a far higher teacher-student ratio, and the kids often spend over half a class being lectured on proper behavior in and out of the dojo. In Japan this is normal and encouraged. In Canada, it would be seen as a waste of the kids' time and the parents' money.

One thing the boys are both enjoying is the fact that techniques are not limited by ranking here. The non-ranked white belt kids practice kicks and rolls, and the coloured belts all practice together, learning the patterns required for every level up to brown. This is quite different from our Japan dojo, where each level practices separately, and learns to master each pattern or form required for that specific level. Upper forms aren't introduced until upper levels are reached. So for the boys, this is a rare opportunity to practice some moves they won't have access to for some time yet in Japan.

In all, it has been a great experience for the boys. I hope that Kai will take what he has seen and learned here back to Japan and tell his classmates about shorinji in Canada.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

"Demons out! Luck in!!"

"Oni wa soto!! Fuku wa uchi!!", we yell as we throw dried soy-beans around the house...

Well, it's a bit deeper than that I guess. February 3rd is 'setsubun' in Japan. Technically, the word refers to the day that the season changes, so there are 4 in a year. Traditionally though, in Japan it's used for the spring transition. In Japan, spring marks the official beginning of many things, including the school year. In past times, it was considered the beginning of the new year as well. In accordance with this, there is a ritual spiritual cleansing that occurs on this day.

In largely agricultural Japan, rice and soy-beans are considered sacred, and are accorded certain spiritual powers. Soy beans have the power to dispel evil spirits, which are responsible for bringing illness and misfortune to any home. Thus, the head of the household first 'blesses' a wooden masu box containing the beans, then travels through the house 'evicting' the spirits which may have taken up residence throughout the previous year.

The front doors are opened wide, to allow the spirits to leave unhindered. Then the beans are thrown up to the ceiling in each main room for luck, and out toward the doors to dispel the spirits. Often a family member will 'dress up' as a demon, with a mask usually, and act out the part of the spirits being chased out by the beans. The final cleansing takes place at the entrance itself, to ensure that the demons are good and gone.

Taiga enjoyed the enactment at the preschool, where all the kids made demon masks, and ran around while the head-master (and also junior priest of the temple) cleansed each classroom. He then brought home a package of 'blessed' beans for the home ritual. Jiichan and Kai did the bean throwing at home, while Taiga ran around as the Oni demon.

Of course, even after a good cleaning, we find beans in odd corners for weeks, and sometimes months afterward... Maybe a good warning to any errant spirits who might get the idea to come back.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Welcome back Daddy!

I looked up from the computer a moment ago and smiled. Haj is lying on the floor, sleeping, and Taiga is snuggled up against his back watching "Dora the Explorer" over his shoulder. Kai is snuggled up against Taiga's back, watching over his shoulder. The peaceful moments that make life so special.

Haj came home today after spending a week in Vancouver. His appointment to pick up his PR card came 2 weeks earlier than we'd hoped, and he had to make the trip alone. His thoughts of spending the time with all his old buddies from work were thwarted by the flu, which hit him pretty much as soon as he got off the plane. He managed to get all his essential paperwork done in the first two days, and then proceeded to spend almost all of the next 4 days flat on his back in bed. Poor guy.

Of course, I could be insensitive, and take the 'serves him right' stance, as he did give me the same flu before heading off... I too spent most of the last 3 days in bed, and barely managed to take care of the boys. I am grateful though, because Haj's parents took very good care of me, and did what they could for the boys as well. Haj's dad cooked dinners for the boys, and made me a special 'vitamin rich' soup as well, and Haj's mom took Taiga to preschool every morning to save me the trip out. Kai did his share as well, cleaning the bath one day, and the dishes another, and helping Taiga brush his teeth every night.

Sometimes it takes a strong knock on the head (in our case nothing more serious than the flu, thankfully) to show you how strong your family really is.