Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Mount TBR #12

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Angry White Pyjamas: An Oxford Poet Trains with the Tokyo Riot Police – Robert Twigger

This expatriate in Japan memoir presents an interesting twist. At thirty, an English poet feels weak and out of shape so he enters what is probably the most hardcore training program in the world.

The Yoshinkan Aikido Senshusei Training Course (養神合気専修生コー) offers about a year’s worth of hellish regime in order to earn a blackbelt in aikido. Designed with the Tokyo Riot Police as the target audience, the program takes people from zero skills to deadly weapon. A typical day takes seven or eight hours in the dojo 道場 the spartan training space for martial arts. A couple of hours go to Japanese lessons for foreigners, meetings, delivering reports, and cleaning the space. About four hours are devoted to brutal and effective training. Considering that foreign trainees are also working at least part-time, on top of taking a year or so to live in Japan, it’s demanding to say the least.

The Japanese have a peculiar way of turning hobbies into marathons of self-torture, abetted by teachers who mutter Yoda-like injunctions as instruction. When foreigners join such hobbies and sports, they see the culture without any party manners. Whether or not they continue depends on how much they love and want to get better at the activity.

Twigger’s experience underlines the basic idea that people are willing to undergo the pain both acute and chronic, yelling and grunting, bullying and meanness of hardcore training if it means that they will grow. Their improvement makes them appreciate the bullying and shouting instructors. Students learn that it is easy to quit and hard to keep going.

The most interesting idea in the book, to me, was the process of becoming indifferent to pain. It is not so much the physical discomfort that must be overcome, because, as everybody who exercises already knows, something is always sore, more or less, so one just gets used to aches and endures chronic pain. What novices must get past is the emotional response that whines "Pain is terrible, unfair, and shouldn’t be happening." There is no should or should not, we must not act as if the world should be something or other, but act according to the way we know it is.

Twigger mercifully avoids the tone of the dotty English intellectual abroad. His brief comments about things Japanese are pretty funny: “The Japanese obsession with their food is a cover for deep embarrassment about its adequacy.” Like most expatriates who write in this genre, he’s coy about costs and his level of proficiency in Japanese, the two things I always yearn to know. I highly recommend this book to people who have lived in Japan or who are curious are what it was like to live in Japan in the early 1990s, just before the Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks in 1994.

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