Book Review (Angry White Pyjamas)

I just finish reading the book Angry While Pajamas by Robert Twigger. It was a fairly quick read at 316 pages. This book was about a english teacher in Japan who started training Yoshinkan aikido for various reasons. In the process of starting his training he found out about a year long intensive program for the Riot Police.angry_white_pyjamas_cover

During this time he talks about the trials and lessons learned throughout the program. There was a lot of great examples of what happens to you physically and mentally when you enter into this type of program. Along with that there were some great examples of culture clash of being a non-Japanese in Japan. These stories brought back lots of times when went to Japan and worked through my own struggles with being different in Japan.

The training stories were great. They started when he first entered the dojo as a new beginner.  Through the year working under the various foreign and Japanese senseis the lessons and “small enlightenments” are enjoyed and brought many memories of my own training. He does a nice job describing the emotions people go through while learning Aikido under strict conditions.

The book was fun and even though a serious subject, you enjoy the comments and observations he makes about the training and culture. For Aikido and martial arts students you get a good glimpse into learning a martial art in Japan and what challenges that people face during that time. This is also fun for people who want to learn more about Japan and the deeper culture that it contains. Especially how you are a foreigner interact and fit into that strong culture.

There were a few times that I was caught off guard by a strange comment here or there. However, these were very few and did not affect the mood of the book at all. I think it is hard to write a book like that without interjecting your own deep ideas about what happened during events. Here are some nice quotes taken from the book from the swordsman Tesshu, that I think really reflect on our training in Aikido:

‘If single minded determination is absent, one will never advance, reguardless of years of training.’

And then lastly a poem by the same Tesshu:

Do not think that
This is all that exists
There is much more to learn –
The sword is unfathomable.

The world is wide
Full of happenings.
Keep that in mind
And never believe
“I’m the only one who knows.”

(Yamaoka Tesshu)

I would suggest anyone pick up this book and open your mind and see where it is trying to take you. It is a fun journey and it goes quick. If you would like to pick up the book you can link to it from below:

Angry White Pyjamas: A Scrawny Oxford Poet Takes Lessons From The Tokyo Riot Police

Andrew Blevins
Kiryu Aikido, Littleton Colorado

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Comments (9)

Kara StewartMarch 4th, 2009 at 11:17 pm

I agree this was a great book — providing both an insightful and often wryly humorous look at life in Tokyo as a foreigner and an accounting of the rigorous year-long Yoshinkan Aikido course taught to the Tokyo Riot Police.

The author, a 30-year-old former Oxford poet, lives in Tokyo teaching English part time. He shares a two-room apartment (each room just six tatami in size) with roomies Chris and Fat Frank in an area ironically named Fuji Heights (although a view of Mt. Fuji is nonexistent). One day, as he rides slowly up a packed escalator, with no hope of moving let alone escaping, he gets a life-changing glimpse of the future:

“The ‘down’ escalator was just as full. It slowly passed in front of me like a tracking shot in a sci-fi movie — not a horror movie but one of those hopeless, nihilistic futuristic films where minds have been wiped and everyone is content. I stared at all the blank faces and realized, this is it, your life, you don’t get another. This was it. I was unfit, unphysical, an intellectual, a bookworm, a poet, a sensitive guy. It was time to change.”

Fortunately, his expat roommates are feeling the same ennui. Early one morning, they drag themselves off their futon mats on the floor (which they immediately roll up so the space can become their living area) to visit a local dojo, which happens to be headquarters for Yoshinkan Aikido in Japan. It offers an 8:30 class for foreigners taught in English. After watching a class, they sign up, get their brand-new, plastic-wrapped gi. They’re ready to start. This is it, after all. Time to make themselves into something.

As they take their first few classes, they notice on the far side of the 200-tatami mat dojo a small group of students, who train hard and diligently, each wearing “white belts and sweat-soaked, blood-spattered pyjamas…. From their end came shouts, screams, grunts and yells. The teachers verbally and physically abused them. Sometimes it was disturbing, as if the teacher was going too far.”

These are the students enrolled in the Japanese Riot Police course, where foreigners and a class of Tokyo policemen participate in a year-long training that results — if they can make it — in their first-degree black belt.

He shares, “They seemed to be on another planet, there was something completely professional about them which made our own efforts seem tame and ineffective. At an irrational level the idea had taken hold: if you want to do the real thing you have to do the Riot Police course.”

Of course, the author enrolls. “For the next year we were all the property of Yoshinkan Aikido…. In a year we would do more training than someone practicing an hour a day four times a week for five years.”

With his evening teaching job, the author is able to commit to the training: five days a week, seven or eight hours a day at the dojo. Three classes each day, lasting 1.5 or 2 hours. Twice weekly Japanese lessons starting at 7:15 a.m. Two hours of dojo cleaning daily (the author is assigned to the toilets and showers), plus attending meetings, writing in mandatory training diaries, and eating hurried meals. “When we weren’t at the dojo there were training camps to attend as well as excursions and demonstrations.”

The course includes four tests during the year. The third test is for shodan, the final test for an instructor’s license and a police course completion certificate.

For the rest of this entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking book, you’ll live this experience alongside the author, from his numb feet from a class spent in seiza to the effects of daily and lengthy suwari waza training.

The vocabulary is also glorious, befitting an Oxford poet. He uses words I’ve never seen and I take to keeping a piece of paper in the book to jot them down so I can look them up later. Two of my favorites: skewwhiff and rictus.

As he nears the conclusion of this life-transforming course, the author realizes something:

“Aikido isn’t about self protection, not really; it is a way of self perfection, however imperfect its methods, and the pain is necessary because the pain makes it real.”

This book gave me a lot to think about on a variety of levels and topics, and one completely unscientific gauge I use for how much I learn from a book is whether I think about it days, weeks, and months later. I took this book with me on a business trip, finishing it literally as my return flight touched down back at DIA a few days later. More than a month later, I was still thinking about this book…and six months later, as I’d made the decision with Andrew Sensei’s guidance to apply as an uchi deshi (live-in student), I started thinking about it again. Angry White Pyjamas sort of gets under your skin.

AndrewMarch 5th, 2009 at 9:59 am

Kara, thanks for posting your review you did a while back. I think it adds and gives some other details on the book!

Val LittfinApril 16th, 2009 at 3:31 am

I just finished Angry White Pyjamas. I didn’t find it to be a fun book as Blevin Sensai did. I did find it thought provoking as Kara-san did. I also found it disturbing, dark with moments of wry and twisted humor. I did think Twigger did a realistic job of writing about his life experience among the Japanese and his training.

There is a fine line between discipline and brutality. The mental and physical brutality of the course really stood out. Had I read this earlier in my very young aikido life, it would have frightened me. Instead, I found it unsettling and disturbing.

Like Kara-san, I will be thinking about this book for a long time to come. But unlike Kara-san, if someone offered the opportunity for me to become uchi deshi I would say thank you but no. Based on this book, the price is too high.

AndrewApril 16th, 2009 at 8:01 am

Thanks for your comment. Yes I agree there is a fine line between discipline and brutality and from the stories probably some crossed the line here. However, I don’t think you should judge all uchi deshi programs on this intensive police course in Japan for all :). I would take each one and do your research and maybe find some reviews. Great to hear from other people.

Val LittfinApril 17th, 2009 at 3:33 am

Blevin Sensai,
I take your point about comparing the uchi deshi program directly to the police course. However, when I hear or read Yoshinkan style aikido, I will think burtal and martial.
I check the Bamboo Grove site frequently and always find something of interest along with ideas to apply to my aikido and my life.
I suspect there are quite of few who read and choose not to comment. val

Val LittfinApril 17th, 2009 at 3:33 am

Blevin Sensai,
I take your point about comparing the uchi deshi program directly to the police course. However, when I hear or read Yoshinkan style aikido, I will think martial bordering on brutal.
I check the Bamboo Grove site frequently and always find something of interest along with ideas to apply to my aikido and my life.
I suspect there are quite of few who read and choose not to comment. val

AndrewApril 17th, 2009 at 9:24 am

Thanks again for the comments. Keep coming back. I have a few posts coming soon.

Kara StewartApril 17th, 2009 at 2:39 pm

I don’t want to speak out of turn here, just thought I’d share a perspective.

I have only three years of experience with Aikido in general, and all of that is with the style that Blevins Sensei teaches. In my experience in our dojo, we practice strong, martial, serious Aikido with respect and support, and one of the most incredible things I’ve found is the amazing softness behind the power.

While I have little experience directly with Yoshinkan Aikido, what I do know about the style is from my horse trainer, Mark Rashid, who is Nidan (second degree black belt) in Yoshinkan Aikido.

His Aikido is very strong AND very soft and he’s very good at finding holes and openings (much like his approach to horse training — direct, matter of fact, and using as little as possible and as much as necessary and working with the openings). His Aikido is martial, but not brutal. I’ve practiced a few times at his dojo and the feel is very friendly and helpful. There’s strong Aikido being practiced, but no hint of anything but cordialness to all.

I have zero grounding for this gut feeling, but I’m just wondering that perhaps the experiences shared in “Angry White Pyjamas” are more reflective of the police training course than Yoshinkan style Aikido as a whole. I wonder if there can be a bigger extrapolation that perhaps no matter the Aikido style (or whatever the sport or activity), there will be practitioners who are brutal (or ruthless / cruel / egotistical / sadistic) and those who are not. I’m wondering if it may be more of a reflection on them than on the style they practice.

Just thinking out loud.

Val LittfinApril 19th, 2009 at 7:07 am

Like Kara, I am unsure of the etiquette of Blog comments and discussions, in particular a blog associated with a aikido dojo that honors the tradition of correct etiquette.

Kara and I ‘met’ on a Rashid list and have developed a very deep frienship. I am particiapting in a Rashid clinic this summer.

I have been trying to figure out how to resolve what I perceive as a very hard style of aikido to someone I understand to be one of the top horseman / instructors in the USA.

I do know I shall be more aware, more wary when I ride under Mr. Rashid’s guidance. Then again, those rides are still three months away. So perhaps the impact of Angry White Pyjamas will have faded and dulled.

Respectfully, Val

Leave a comment

Your comment