Wax On, Wax Off! I’m the Karate Kid!

I study karate in Japan. SO COOL. I like saying it (a lot), but it’s pretty far from the truth. “I study karate in Japan” brings to mind images of the bowing, strong, stern-faced foreigner under the instruction of the penetrating gaze of the ever-wise, intuitive, master instructor. First the foreigner is too stuck in her ways and the instructor walks away, refusing to teach her until she can prove she understands the importance of the ritual, the rites of passage, the underlying meaning and power of the aesthetic of it all. And then there’s a big montage scene when she “gets” it and we see her try and fail to learn the hardest skills, and soon she is battling the master until finally, she knocks him down and is deemed ready to take on outside evils.

Me? I go to a karate club on Thursday nights and memorize the order in which they do stuff, because I still don’t know what they’re saying. And there is no montage sequence – well, not one that isn’t comparable to a bloopers reel. My senseis are masters, though, and they are serious and they do expect all their students to understand and respect the rituals, the aesthetic and the hierarchy of it all. And even without understanding the language and not being all too good at the discipline, I’m coming into understanding the cultural tradition that is karate, and that’s as rewarding as a black belt.

I’ve been doing karate since September’ish. I go once a week, most weeks. We meet in an elementary school gym here in Hikari. Hikari doesn’t have a formal dojo (martial arts gathering place).

After 4 months of training, I finally got my gi (karategi – uniform). Umamoto-san, one of my senseis, kindly went with me to the sports store. I didn’t understand much, but I did see her keep pointing to longer, longer, longer sizes – all only offered in the men’s section, of course! Like most of the people I train with, my gi would be embroidered with the kanji (character) for Hikari and my name. Traditionally, a foreigners name would be in katakana (used only for foreign words/names). When it came time to write what we would like embroidered, my friend and sensei showed me something she had been working on for a while: my name in kanji. It’s beautiful. It’s three characters that mean forest, poem and Japan. It’s read as “Shin shi a,” the Japanese pronunciation of “Cynthia.”

At first, the head sensei for my class was hesitant to allow me to have my name in kanji. Kanji is Japanese, for Japanese people and cannot fully express a foreign name. But he came to me and said yes, that it was beautiful. Before we placed the order with the sports store, he and the rest of my senseis finalized the characters together.

My gi is something I will keep forever. I was applauded the first time I walked into class wearing it, and bowing to everyone, saying “Onegai shimasu” (please, let’s begin, I humbly accept your instruction) in it, was a feeling of total immersion and understanding. My gi for me symbolizes becoming part of a community here in Japan and being accepted.

I get asked a lot, “How is your Japanese life?” and “What do you like about Japanese life?” I always respond with karate. It’s my favorite thing about my “Japanese life.”  They are always shocked that this foreigner is studying karate; Japanese are very proud of their culture, and I think, no amount of Western films and internationalization will make them believe that karate has been co-opted by anyone else. It’s theirs, and they consider it more than a discipline or a sport – it’s truly a Japanese art. So they get excited, and I get excited to talk to them about it.

I enjoy my senseis, who bring white boards and markers, written, translated explanations and their ceaseless patience to every class. They are kinder to me than my skills merit, and I love learning from them. I’ve even been out drinking/singing karaoke with the adults and senseis in my class – they are all incredible.

This is my class and a video of me attempting my first set (you learn sets in karate… to move up a belt, you test on these sets, the basics and basic fight sequences). This video was taken 2.5 months ago, before I got my gi. Fortunately, I am doing much better on this set (and the next one!). I at least hope I am – because my belt test is coming up in April!

Head senseis - I've become good friends with the Sensei on the left. He practices his English with me and I practice my Japanese with him.

There are adults and kids in my class. The kids got so excited that I was taking pictures and started jumping in them.

Our entire Thursday night karate crew! Umemoto-san is in the front directly to my right. She's amazing, and she studies English. These kids are insane - look at how many of them have black belts!! Don't mess with Japanese women!

karate pose!

Sorry, not a great photo. I'll get some better ones later. but this is me in my gi! It's SO BIG on me!! I'm promised that if I keep washing it, it will shrink. I hope so! You can see my name in kanji down the right side on the bottom 🙂

(ps – not only do I mess up in this set, but this is proof of me saying “arigato” (thank you) wrong for SIX MONTHS before I realized it. I mentioned it to one of my CLOSEST friends here, and she said, “You were just so proud to know that one word! I didn’t want to tell you it was wrong.” haha I lose. But I say it right now!)

~ by C on February 26, 2010.

3 Responses to “Wax On, Wax Off! I’m the Karate Kid!”


  2. yes, well, i tried to wear the club sweatshirt over it all, but it doesn’t fit anymore. BECAUSE IM TOO BIGGGG.


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