Saturday, March 7, 2015

Judo Belt Examination: A Day in the Life of a Japanese Child

A couple of Saturdays ago, between the time my husband and I were recovering from illness and the time my son got sick the following Monday, I managed to accompany him on a field trip with his after-school judo club, which is taught by a Japanese-Thai student of my husband's and her Japanese father. The trip was to the Thai-Japanese Association School, a Japanese school in Bangkok, so the kids at our school could practice judo with Japanese students and take the belt test to get their belts. This school has students from grades 1 to 8, and has about 3000 students, making it a larger school than our school, which has approximately 1200 students pre-K to 12. The school, being a Japanese school, teaches a Japanese curriculum and follows the routines of Japanese schools, such as having school on Saturdays (half day) and requiring all students to learn one of three forms of Japanese martial arts offered at the school, one of which is judo. The students practice martial arts regularly, at least every other day.
The Thai-Japanese Association School
We went to this school via a shuttle ride arranged by the judo sensei. In the van with us were the sensei, his Thai wife (who is also fluent in Japanese); the sensei's son, who also participates in judo (his daughter, my husband's student, is a brown belt in judo, but was on another school field trip); a Japanese alumnae of our school who now acts as the liaison between our school and Japanese parents and students, and who was along on the trip as translator for our students, who do not speak Japanese; and three Thai students. On the way there, the two boys who were my son's age were wrestled each other, shouted loudly, made obscene and inappropriate gestures, and talked about killing and video games nonstop.

The trip took us well over an hour, but our first stop was at a McDonald's, where the sensei and his wife bought everyone lunch. Everyone was excited about stopping there and went to town ordering everything on the menu. I had brought along sandwiches for my son and me, but I allowed him to purchase French fries. Everyone with us looked at me like I had two heads when I told them we wouldn't be eating McDonald's for lunch. It's so funny how differently McDonald's is regarded here.

Once at the school, we went to a large multi-purpose room where a group of Japanese parents was already there, laying down mats on the floor. Once the mats were on the floor, all the judo students were given a towel and put to task to wipe them down, which reminded me of my school days as a first-grader in Taiwan, where the students were required to clean their classrooms every morning prior to starting school (though I was usually able to get out of it). All the Japanese students and my son got to work right away, while most of our Thai students generally goofed around and did nothing. I wonder if they even know how to clean if their lives depended on it, given that most of them have been waited on hand and foot for their entire lives.
Cleaning the mats before the event.
The belt examination was one of the most intense experiences I've ever had, lasting for about three hours. All the judges, except for the judo sensei from our school, were judo instructors from the Japanese school, and some of them were professional judo champions in Japan. They all looked so serious, watching all the examinees carefully, and didn't crack a smile during the entire examination. All the parents present -- the Japanese ones, that is -- also took it very seriously. There was only one parent from the Japanese school who was not Japanese -- he was French -- and except for me, no parents from our school showed up to watch their children. The moment the event began, the Japanese parents all quieted down and watched solemnly. During the event, it was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop in that room. I almost broke down in giggles myself, it was so nerve-racking.

The Japanese kids also took it very seriously; they were extremely disciplined, even the younger ones, but they still played and goofed around like all kids do during the breaks between each round of the exam. During the breaks, the kids broke loose, ran around, and socialized. One of the Japanese boys, who was between 10 and 12 years of age, and my son took a liking to each other, and spent all the breaks with each other, running, chasing, and playing with each other. At the beginning of the event, the boy took it upon himself to show my son the ropes of the event, and made sure he knew where to stand and sit. All this, even though the boy spoke no English. It was sweet to watch.
A sign at the school.
The event, all in Japanese, began with warm-up exercises. Then each child individually performed ukemi (techniques of falling down) across the width of the room -- twice, no less -- under everyone's watchful eyes. Watching the Japanese kids perform was amazing and enabled me to see, for the first time, the beauty and art of judo. They were so exact and precise in every move and bow. My son, who usually knows those moves during judo class, was so nervous he forgot a couple of steps. He looked like he was going to start crying at any minute, but he didn't.

For the second round, each child was paired with another child to pin and throw each other down while sitting/kneeling and while standing. All the kids were paired two more times with other kids. My son enjoyed this round much more because he was no longer in the spotlight by himself. He was first paired with a little girl from our school; then with a Japanese girl older, taller, and much more experienced in judo than he; and lastly, with the French-Japanese boy, with whom he seemed to enjoy sparring the most. Both of them were smiling and giggling through the match, and appeared to be doing some kind of dance, grabbing each other by the collar while trying to topple their opponent, and avoid being toppled, by a sweep of the leg.
The program, with all the students' names translated into Japanese.
For the third, and final, round, two children at a time were called up to spar with each other. My son sparred with the little girl from our school, then with another older Japanese boy. He held his own, despite his size and inexperience. Some of the other more experienced kids from our school didn't last nearly as long as he did. Then there were the experienced teenagers whose matches lasted for at least 20 minutes, and elicited gasps and murmurs of excitement from the spectators. After each match, everyone clapped formally and gravely.

Towards the end of the last round, the Thai parents finally showed up -- in time to pick up their kids. After the examination was over, the entire Japanese school community came together to put away the mats and clean up after themselves and each other. The Thai parents stared at their phones while their kids goofed around.
Let the games begin.
This trip really highlighted for me the differences in parenting across the Japanese, Thai, and American cultures, and try to take the best from all the cultures. We American parents are our children's biggest cheerleaders; we want our children to be happy, but we also want them to be achievers. American parents can be hovering and become overly involved in their children's lives. At past martial arts belt examinations in the U.S., parents showed up to document their children's achievements with their camera phones and video recorders. At times, they would become so exuberant and intrusive in their documentation that the testing instructors would have to ask them to be quiet, step back, and give the children some space.

The Thai parents, on the other hand, tend to be uninvolved, from what I've seen. At our school's sporting events, parents usually don't show up to watch their children play. When they are around, their attention is usually on their phones. They are undisciplined and their children are usually the same. Their first priority is their children's happiness, but if there is a problem, they outsource it for someone else to resolve it, even if (or, perhaps, I should say "especially if") their children are the source of the problem. They tend to think about, and live in, the here and now, and look for quick solutions.

Then there are the Japanese parents. Like most Japanese people, they were reserved, serious, and organized. During the examination, they watched their children's performances like hawks, and were unobtrusive to a fault. Hardly any of them took pictures or videos of their children's performances. At first glance, they seemed cold and unloving. But they all worked together as a community, helping each other. And watching them interact with their children showed them to be supportive and loving parents.
My son doing ukemi.
Now I have yet another cultural experience to add to my list. And the past two years have certainly given me a lot of food for thought when it comes to parenting. I hope I don't return to the way of parenting so common among middle- and upper-middle class American women: neurotic, hand-wringing, and judgmental. If there is one thing I admire about the Thai mothers, it's their lack of judgment about their own and others' parenting -- though I admit their often careless way of approaching almost everything (except when it comes to their physical appearance) does bother me -- and the way they're able to let go without overly thinking and analyzing the consequences of their actions or lack thereof (whether good or bad). Having the freedom to parent (or not) any way I want without any pressure or judgment these last two years has been informative and instructive in how I do and don't want to parent in the future.

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