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Angry White Pyjamas
This book caught my eye for two reasons, firstly it is about Aikido, a martial art that I practised for nine years (but gave up about 12 years ago) and secondly because it is about an English guy living and working in Japan.
My wife read the book first and gave it to me saying, "I hope you get on better with this than I did, it was all a bit dull". Was she right?
This is an autobiographical account of 'Twigger' who was living in Tokyo during the 90's, teaching English in a school and sharing an apartment with a couple of friends. One day he wakes up (not literally) to the fact that he is putting on weight, eating junk food, drinking too much and is generally unfit and unhealthy. He decides that he will take up aikido (of which there are many styles).
His plunge into Yoshinkan aikido, a particularly tough style is total. He does not dally with the odd lesson here and there but enrolls on a year long course (well almost a year) with the Tokyo riot police. He trains five days a week, for hours at a time, experiencing unbelievable levels of physical and mental hardship and pain. The aim of the course is twofold: get to black belt and, complete the course. there is a supplementary goal as well....stay alive and do not get injured too badly!!
This is a fascinating book on many levels:
We get a no holds barred, personal view of how he mentally and physically fares throughout the course, whilst of course trying to hold down his 'day job'. The descriptions of the pain he goes through are graphic and intense.
He talks for instance of the repeated kneeling exercises that leave his knees bleeding so that everyday for weeks there is no opportunity for the skin to heal and each time he kneels he sees the blood and pus stain his clothing. He talks of the repeated injuries that participants on the course suffer, sometimes enforcing their withdrawal. More than the physical elements he talks of the intense mental endurance skills he learns and develops throughout the course and how sometimes he and others 'break'.
We also get to see a bit of how foreigners are viewed by the Japanese, especially Western foreigners attempting something as Japanese as this course, steeped in 'spirit' and history, there is undoubtedly a harder time given to the foreigners by the mainly Japanese instructors, but especially by the Western instructors who must show no favours.
Alongside this we get an interesting insight into both how the Japanese culture views martial arts in general and in particular how the progression and spirit of this particular course and its elements are viewed.
We also get an insight into what is like to be a foreigner living in Japan, I love the way Twigger 'courts' a girlfriend and the mires he gets into trying to do the right thing and not come across as the clumsy Englishman, which of course he does.
I really enjoyed the book, my wife was wrong, the book is not 'dull' it is just quite detailed. It is the detail and the personal observations that made it for me. I loved the fact that I knew most of the moves he describes, even more, I loved his accounts of his thoughts as and when he had taken part in a practice session.
He is a great narrator and observer, his social commentary on other members of the dojo are really quite cutting and insightful. This is the joy of this book, it pretends to be nothing other than what it is; an account of one mans journey, through a martial arts course, as a foreigner, in Japan.
As to whether he makes it, gets his black belt and/or finishes the course, I'll leave that for you to find out.
As a non-fiction book, one of the better ones I have read for a while, you might like to know also that this book apparently was the winner of the Somerset Maugham Award and the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, interestingly however these are not the authors first awards as he is a quite well known poet and his previous awards have been for poetry.
Possibly the best book about martial arts ever written.
Now when I say that don't misunderstand me, you can't learn any martial art from this book. It is the story of an Oxford poet living in Japan, who realises his life isn't really going anywhere and in an attempt to do something about this sets himself the challenge of completing the Toyko Riot Polic Aikido course, 1 year of high intensity training under merciless and sadistic teachers including some of the finest aikido practioners in the world.
The book works so well simply because of Robert Twiggers honesty, you can really feel the emotions he expresses and (especially if you have done martial arts yourself) understand where he is coming from in so many of the sentiments he expresses. From his relasionship with his housemates, Fat Frank and Chris, to the way he relates to his teachers, some of whom appear to be there simply because they enjoying bullying and torturing their students, everything he express seems to be totally honest and believable.
I have read some reviews that complain that Twigger never really feels the aikido spirt and this is summed up in the way he celebrates Kancho's (his dojo's founder) death as if gives him a day off. I however feel this is honestly how anyone who went through what he had been put through would feel at the news of a day off. I am sure that he wasn't celebrating the founders death merely the chance of a break and I applaud his honesty in admitting this.
This book is well worth reading wether you were previously interested in martial arts or not, it is a truely great story of how you can achieve things you didnt think you were capable of as long as you are pretend to work hard and, certainly in this case, suffer to get there.
Angry White Pyjamas is a really unusual book. It is well worth a read if you want to try something a bit different.
It is classed as a travel book. It is set in Japan. The author is a poet from Oxford who is in Japan teaching English. He decides to learn martial arts. Not any martial art but the toughest kind there is. He signs up for a course that the police do. He finds it really difficult and the book details his classes and how he feels about them.
On the face of it, this is a book about martial arts and if you are interested in this field, you will enjoy the book. However, it also gives lots of information about life in modern Japan. It is therefore also good for people wanting to learn about Japan and its culture. To be honest, I was not particularly interested in either of these topics and yet I still throughly enjoyed the book.
Robert Twigger is an excellent writer and this is a very easy book to read. He gets a good balance of history, story-telling and humour. You can really empathise with his pain and struggle, even though I doubt many people reading it will ever have gone through a similar experience.
A random book that is very enjoyable to read.