Senpai 先輩

When we join any martial arts, especially Japanese martial arts, there will always be a strict hierarchy, a kind of pecking order. The junior belts will always know the more senior ones as “先輩” .

At my level, I have 先輩 and I am also a 先輩 to my junior belts. It took me a while to come to this reality, and I can still remember a couple of years back, I was taken aback when a junior belt started addressing me as 先輩, I told the junior belt to just call me by my name.

Well, it cannot be helped I guess? I am now a 先輩, like it or not.

Who are Senpais? 先輩

Simply speaking, they are senior practitioners of a specific martial arts. Even a person who happens to join the dojo a day earlier than you, is a 先輩 to you.

先輩 helps the sensei with the more mundane, boring stuff of administration, guiding the junior belts, cleaning and maintenance of the dojo. Without a decent cadre of 先輩, a dojo cannot operate smoothly. In other words, think of 先輩 as a sort of ‘middle management’ in corporate speak.

When 先輩 has an opinion

We all know who 先輩 are. I am one myself. And of course 先輩 are also human, we have our aspirations, opinions and of course, disagreements, with our sensei.

Personally for me, my direction is straight: align to my sensei; which is often easier said than done, as our sensei is also human, have aspirations and opinions, and of course have disagreements with us!

When 先輩 criticizes

Leave the critique to the sensei. I see 先輩 as a guide, helping the more junior, less experienced students maneuver over more complex techniques, or even work around difficult characters in the class. Some 先輩, out of kindness, will try to teach or correct juniors, which often isn’t helpful, as it is the sensei’s job to teach, and the 先輩’s job is to guide.

Problem begins when a 先輩 pass a disparaging remarks, or scathing opinions about the sensei, or the junior belts. It can be confusing for a junior belt, not knowing who to follow.

Of course, my 2-cents worth is not to give a f**k. It is often a case of easier said than done. It is entirely understandable that some juniors take in the opinions of 先輩, since they are the opinion leaders, and junior belts will grab whatever advise that come along. Some junior belters will look up to a certain 先輩 and that can be bordering hero worshipping, which in my opinion, bad. The only person who matters in the dojo, in terms of tutelage, is the sensei, everyone else is student, 先輩 included.

This will come to an apex when the 先輩 openly disagrees with the sensei…

When 先輩 becomes a sensei

Problem also begins when 先輩 decides to take initiative and starts to become a sensei. What happens next is going to be purely economical. The 先輩 turned sensei will want students, so that he can be a sensei, and of course, earn money.

This will tear the foundations of the school apart, which cannot be helped. We are all humans and we want things for ourselves. When we become ‘good enough’ and we can pretty much do what our sensei do, why should we listen to our sensei? It makes more sense to become one!

Money-making

Loyalty is pretty much just a word these days. Modern economics and consumerism has empowered individuals to strike out on their own. Everyone likes to be their own boss and make a living on their own. There is of course much freedom getting things done on your own. And why pay fees, when you can collect fees on your own? Be your own boss/sensei!

Martial arts is martial arts

Personally, martial arts for me, is martial arts. It is not a place to make money, and promote your ego. My sensei has worked hard to build an environment where we are all practising like a family, which is essentially what a 先輩 is, nothing more than a big brother or sister.

So as the ‘elder sibling’, I guide the more junior ones to understand the sensei, or at least try to! It is not a place to silently question my sensei. And being with Harry sensei for such a long time, it is also not a case where if I don’t like his style, I simply go to another dojo. It is again, not about going from this gym to that gym, because that gym as a better facilities. Martial arts isn’t about that.

And when my 先輩 says or do stupid things, I just choose to let it slide. It would be rude as a junior to critique my 先輩, the pecking order is there for a good reason, to maintain harmony. There is no need for me to say or do things to prove that I am smarter or better than my 先輩, or even my sensei. It is what it is, we are all good and proficient, at our own level.

Focus on the good

At the end of the day, we all go home after class, to our families and our lives. 先輩 and sensei are people and characters in our marital arts lives that helps us understand and develop coping strategies to manage relationships. You simply cannot wish away nasty 先輩 in the dojo, you still have to train with them, as complaining to sensei sometimes will not help. Pretty much like how complaining to our parents about our naughty siblings or cousins will not help.

So focus on the good, understand that there will always be a 先輩 where we go, even in work and in other endeavours, some of these seniors will help others will not, others have your best interest at heart, others hiding their own agendas. No matter what, as a student, my goal is to listen to my sensei, even when he is not saying anything.

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Meeting My First Aikido Sensei

Lim Joo Lay sensei, 3rd Dan, Aikikai
Left, Lim Joo Lay Sensei, 3rd Dan, Aikikai

I almost forgot my first Aikido sensei, until James mentioned that he was Harry sensei’s sempai.

It occurred to me that Harry sensei seldom mentioned anything about ‘Takemusu Aikido’ and back then Lim sensei mentioned quite a bit, as he was directly schooled by Nakazono, who first introduced Aikido to Singapore. That got me thinking about Lim sensei and James passed me his number so that i can contact him.

I tried a couple of times to reach him and he finally replied my SMS. It was a good feeling and we chatted a bit over the phone, and agreed to meet him at his place. He hadn’t moved since the last time I dropped by to visit him during the Chinese New Year festivities, probably decades ago.

I told Tri about it, and he was keen to go. I knew he would because he has a keen interest in the history of Aikido in Singapore. Lim sensei can provide us some links as to how the old Singapore Aikido was in the past.

The Meeting

It was a good meeting, Lim sensei still has a good grip and a mighty pair of hands, despite of leaving Aikido more than 15 years ago, due to a bad knee. We chatted over a lot of things, and also asked about how he has been these years.

Good Old Days!

He reminiscence the good old days where things were much simpler. Techniques back then were of course, a lot harder. There were no tatami mats, so they have to find the next best thing, sawdust; which they apply in generous amount, and draped a canvas over it. When they fall, ‘poof!’ sawdust flew up!

Training was 5 times a week, and Sunday was reserved for senior belts and instructors only. they would try all sorts of techniques on each other and with them gripping so hard, they started to grow hairs on their wrists.

Still has it!

He showed me a few moves, and asked me to strike his him hard in shomen uchi; he still has it in him! His wrists is still tough and hard. His emphasised that the wrist must not meet uke’s attack straight on, a slight rotation, will help to glance the force off.

He also showed a few elbow locks and it is of course, very close contact, and very effective.

Hard Grip

In class, I’ve always been notorious for my hard, tight grip. It ha always been how I trained, and I have always thought that, that is me. Until I meet Lim sensei and remembered he liked his uke’s grip to be hard and tight. He still holds on to old style, hard Aikido. Meeting him helped me remember why I am such a hard gripper, Lim sensei taught me that!

Beginner’s mind

While sensei, at a ripe age of mid eighties, he hadn’t forgotten his techniques, he can still move, tenkan still good, and wrists still tough as hell, from those decades of training. The body remembers all those years of training, but his mind has all but forgotten the names, dates and places.

So while we all talk about beginner’s mind, the truth is, you can only reach The Beginner’s Ming when you have given up, and abandon the names of the techniques, the hows, the whens, and the whys. All you possess is movement and that is enough. Why would names and mental attachments matter? When you become proficient, you simply move, the body simply comply, then there is spontaneity, and life. Life is not all about thinking, and remembrance, it is also about moving.

Returning to Source

Without his guidance, I wouldn’t have continued in Aikido, and it wouldn’t have lasted 20 odd years. This  a quiet, gentle, nice man, who simply did what he did, teach and train Aikido, he didn’t ask for anything in return. Many, many Aikido student came and went, influence by his teaching and wisdom, and like me, almost forgotten where I learned my Aikido from. Returning to meet him, helped me remember the me when I first started, that scrawny white belt, not know what he was doing.

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When I was a white belt, first time on Aikido demonstration in Takashimaya

Talk to the Hand!

Talk to the Hand!

Harry sensei is very particular with how your hands ‘should’ be. Can anyone guess which is the ‘right’ kind of open hand for practising Aikido?

There is no wrong or right answer, some schools teaches this some school teaches that, but Harry sensei is very specific and often nagged at us for going into our default hand.

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Default hand

He says that the ‘default hand’ is soft, and while he didn’t say that it is ‘wrong’ he did say that ki cannot flow. it will be stuck at the palms, or worse, wrist, elbow or shoulder. This is soft, and he doesn’t want soft aikido. Soft aikido has no life.

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Aikido hand

Harry sensei constantly reminds us to keep our hands extended and relaxed, like pictured above. He says this way, the hand is extended ki can flow underneath the pinky. such hands is not ‘stuck’ nor it is soft, but when we encounter a partner who gripped our hands tight, the tension in the grip around the wrist will cause the ligaments and muscles inside to get pulled and close the palm. Hence focus on keep the palms open and extended helps us counter that collapse and open the wrists to movement and oppose the constriction.

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Fingers will start to curl under a tight grip

While there is no scientific proof that opening the hands like how Harry sensei suggested can improve ‘ki’ flow, he has however demonstrated in every lesson how he can displace a younger stronger person. simply by opening the hand.

He says he walks like that too, with the hands extended and like us, he sometimes forgets and goes into the default hand.

Different dojo teaches different ways of extension and how your hands should open, some may not find it effective doing what Harry sensei suggested, but it is a way he has discovered that allows him to train and still consistently displace his students.

While I am still on the way to discovering my own Aikido journey, there are certain truths to Harry sensei’s way of open hand. With his teaching on how the hand should be held open, I am able to extend and displace my partners, and not just get stuck at the point of the grasp.

United we Stand, Divided we Fall

Harry sensei also advise against us, opening out our palms like that. He wants us to keep all the fingers close, like sticking together, instead of spreading them apart, where the ki will dissipate into 5 different directions. He often says ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. as an analogy to explain why we need to keep the fingers together.

Ki as a water hose

He explained that ki is like a water hose that flows out from our hands, and not having the correct hand extension, restricts the ki at a specific spot, the wrist, elbows or even the shoulders. Proper extension would mean that you can extend beyond the physical limits of your hands. Improper extension, he describes as a runaway hose, out of control, spraying water all over the place.

We all need to bring that hose into our control and that can only be done by understanding ki flows from the under hand, through the pinky.

Hitchhiking

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Hitchhiking thumb

Of  course that is not the only way, he has also shown the hitchhiking hand gesture. And used the thumb to stab towards the direction he wants to go. He is able to direct the energy through his fingers and you will follow, holding his hands, going wherever he wants you to go, and more often the trip ends up with me on the mat.

 

 His logic of explaining direction and ki flow is quite normal and seems like an everyday thing. However in the dojo, in practice we all seem to be caught up in the habit of overdoing it, and making things worse, instead of simply listening to his instructions.

 

Knowing and labeling your medication

Knowing and labeling your medication

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Dear Boys,

You need to know your meds when you grow up. A lot of people I know, colleagues, friends and families do not know their meds. Some only know piriton as the ‘little yellow pill that makes you drowsy’. Others only know Panadol, or Ponstan as pain killers, and other generic association to medicine.

If you boys are adults and you are self medicating, then that is fine, the probability of ‘OD’ or overdosing yourself is quite minimal with over the counter (OTC) medicines. But if you have your own kids and you are medicating them, then it is important to know your meds and what you are giving the children.

I don’t remember how we started this, but since Ian’s time we have a habit of writing down a couple of things:

1-The type of meds

2-The time we gave the meds

3-The dosage

4- The temperature, if you boys are running a fever

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An example of an entry in our medical diary

This helps us keep track of the types of meds we have to give and the timing. We also knew that you can mix a certain kind of ‘fever’ medicine. For example, when your boys have high fever, we can give the slower acting Nurofen which will only take into effect after an hour’s time, we can also give Panadol, which is another class of painkiller, about 2 hours after we have given Nurofen. So with a book we can track what was given and if the temperature went down.

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Knowing your meds.

You need to know your meds, and what works best for you and what doesn’t. At our age and time it is impossible for you not to know your meds, all you need to do is go on Google and you can find out what this meds does and the potential side effect. Of course not everything you read on the net is real, so we usually cross check it with a couple of medicine site, and of course, Wikipedia.

It also helps to know your meds and engages your doctor when you go to the clinic, so don’t just be a patient, be an educated patient and get to know your medicine well.

Getting educated in medicine is part and parcel of becoming a parent. It is our responsibility to feed you boys the meds so that the both of you gets well. We take this healer role very seriously and sometimes it can be a challenge feed the both of you, and when you were babies, there were vomits to clean and we have to handle some side effects of the meds.

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Promethazine causes soft stools!

Medication when travelling

We will always, always bring the necessary medication when we go abroad. And your dad is usually the ‘medic’ of the family, who carries the meds. It is important that we have your meds ready, well, at least the more common ones for allergies, cold and fever.

Penang Hives

The Anti-Histamine came in useful one afternoon during our trip to Penang 2 yeas ago. We were out walking in the afternoon, and for no reason, Wayne had hives and we need to get back to the hotel quickly to get medication. While the rest of the afternoon was spent in the hotel room for the medication to work, and Wayne to get some rest, it was a good testament of packing our meds for the trip.img20170531152309.jpg

At the end of the day, this is part of parenting, and we are used to it, taking medications as adults can be a no brainer, but we wouldn’t want to take a chance when it comes to giving medicine to kids, as the slightest wrong does can be a very big problem for children. It is better that we educate and arm ourselves with the right information so that when we need it, we will know what to do.