We would visit my grandparents every weekend. My great-grandmother had a bed-sitting room of her own on the main floor. I always enjoyed spending time there with her. She died when I was six years old, and my memories of her are as clear now as when they happened.
I distinctly remember that she had a statue of a Japanese woman on a shelf in her room. It was a gift from her brother, Walter, who died during WW1 at Vimy Ridge. He was just a teenager when he died. I knew the statue had a special meaning for her.
The statue intrigued me. It was so different from anything I'd ever seen before. Everything about it looked beautiful to me, the woman's style of dress, the colors, and the fan she held in her arms. Being so young, I didn't have much of a vocabulary. Now, the best word to describe what it meant to me was exotic.
Looking back on my life, it seems odd that my first connection to Japan and its culture was through my great-grandmother. That connection expanded to encompass most of my life. I've studied several Japanese martial arts, which, in turn, have led me to learn about the history, culture, philosophies, and religions of that country.
In the karate dojos where I trained before going to camp, the emphasis had been on physical training, and learning techniques and katas. I enjoyed that very much, and yet, I wanted to learn more. I was looking for the backstory of the martial arts.
Access to accurate information about another part of the world was limited back then. I read Black Belt magazine, which was the only one published at the time. It also focused primarily on techniques. The limited information I had access to was from a western perspective because it was filtered through the English language. I wanted, or perhaps needed, to access information about the martial arts from an eastern perspective.
The first summer camp I attended was the beginning of a new learning journey. Sensei Richard Kim was the head instructor and founder of the organization. He was a unique martial arts sensei in North America because he was fluent in English and Japanese, so he could easily translate back and forth between the languages. He saw the world from a western and eastern perspective.
As a young man, he had lived in Japan for a few years. He trained with some of the best martial arts instructors in Japan and China. And he was a Buddhist priest.
As much as I enjoyed the physical training during the day, I looked forward to the lectures at night. The lectures at my first camp included the following topics:
* 10 Precepts of Buddhism
* Mikkyo (esoteric Buddhism)
* Nenriki (mind power, as used by the samurai & later by the ninjas)
* Koans (riddles of life, from Zen Buddhism)
* The Esoteric Meaning of Katas
* Bad Habits & their psychological causes
Over the years, I learned that Sensei Kim was teaching us about the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of being human. He was sharing his experiential knowledge with us. Most of what he taught could not be found in books, or now, on the internet.
It's been almost twenty years since Sensei passed away. I thought the Japanese influence in my life was complete. A few years ago, my body survived the ravages of prolonged stress brought on by dementia caregiver burnout. Ten months later, just as my body began to heal, my brain broke. Prolonged stress also led to severe cognitive losses and some altered brain functions.
My doctor and I discussed the brain's plasticity which allows for the creation of new neural pathways. To bring this about, my doctor prescribed a treatment plan that involved thirty minutes of continuous cardiovascular activity. Within two hours of completing that, I was to do two different brain training activities. I chose Sudoku puzzles and learning the Japanese language.
I was to do it every day and if there was not a noticeable difference in my cognitive functioning within three months, my doctor said he would refer me to a neurologist. Fortunately, the referral was not needed. I gradually improved, with a breakthrough after four months. My full recovery took a year and a half.
My interest and fascination with the Far East have felt like a thread moving through my life. It's been there since before I was school-aged. It's still weaving its way through my life, as I continue learning the Japanese language.
Over half a century later, my great-grandmother's statue
of the Japanese woman sits on my bookshelf.
Note: A special thank you to my student, Lyndsay Dobson, for catching my error. Vimy Ridge was during the first world war, not the second. Lyndsay is one of the best proofreaders I know.
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.