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This is a rant of personal observations and personal feelings -- nothing in here is meant to be an exact depiction of the uchideshi situation in Iwama.
Recently I've been hearing stories from third parties regarding uchideshi who have "recently been to Iwama." I swear I'm not trying to be a pain in the ass -- I think some things I've heard lately about life in Iwama seem a little odd.
To explain, the uchideshi program in Iwama, like aikido in general, is continuing it's development and refinement. It changes depending on a few factors -- mainly who is the head uchideshi at a given time. Whoever is head uchideshi generally maintains the chore schedule, deciding what chores will be done, when they will be done, and HOW they'll be done. This last part can be exceptionally annoying for some -- to be told not only to do something but HOW to do it -- as if there were many different ways to sweep a room... You'll find, however, that there actually ARE different ways and that the "right way" is the way that Sensei showed the head uchideshi, or the way that head uchideshi was shown by the previous head uchideshi.
I've heard more than one person declare that they were "the first foreign head uchideshi." I'm sure there really was a first foreign head uchideshi but I'm sure he or she is a 6th dan somewhere and would probably find few opportunities to boast about that particular honor. Head uchideshi is usually the uchideshi who has been at the dojo the longest. When I first arrived in Iwama, a British guy named Tom was head uchideshi. Last April/May I was head uchideshi for about a month. I had the dubious honor of having to instruct a nidan and a sandan on the proper way to care for the dojo. When that sandan arrived, I desperately wanted to hand over my status as head uchideshi but Sensei wouldn't allow it, saying that though she was a sandan, and although she had been to Iwama before, things had changed since her last visit and I had to inform them of the new procedures. So higher rank does not necessarily make them sempai in the uchideshi sense of the word (even on the mat, if a new-to-Iwama sandan is there, they will generally choose to be treated as a regular visiting yudansha taking a back row seat... some more well known 4th dan or above Sensei will be forced to the front row, as Mehmet Sensei of Turkey and Alexander Sensei of Italy have been recently... but the movement is grudging).
Care of the shomen -- or kamisama as it's generally called in Japan -- is usually, but definitely not always, undertaken by the senior uchideshi, whether they be foreigner or Japanese. Some head uchideshi choose to rotate this particular honor among the other uchideshi while some choose to do it themselves (it's also the easiest of the morning chores -- though not my favorite, as I always enjoy taking the dojo dogs for a predawn jog). There are two kamisama that require uchideshi attention -- one in the Shin dojo, on the third floor of the building uchideshi sleep in, and one in the Tanrenkan, where regular keiko occurs. Water is changed daily for the flowers and other plantlife on the kamisama (the old water is given to the plants on the dojo grounds, never poured down the drain), all surfaces are dusted or wiped down, and the mat is swept.
As to uchideshi adhering to "stricter" Japanese traditions, I don't know anyone who bows and shouts "Hai!" to anyone other than Sensei. Those who visit Iwama are equal to one another in almost every respect off the mat. One student is head uchideshi simply because he or she has the knowledge and experience to guide the other deshi -- it's not their place to act like Sensei and expect others to bow to them or click their heels or any other such nonsense. You respect each other and commit yourself to training and the rest is extraneous baggage.
I think I let it get to me too much but... I should explain.
When I was considering coming to Iwama as uchideshi, I was bombarded with stories of how hard it would be and how I should really get that extra health insurance and maybe some life insurance etc. etc. When I arrived, yes, it was harder than I expected but it was also incredibly liberating and uplifting in ways I can't easilly describe. That's why I worked hard to make my way back here. There is a peace and dedication in Hitohiro Sensei's teaching and the training of his students that I've never seen in other dojos where politics can so easilly overshadow the idea of training for training's sake. So it gets to me when I hear of Iwama uchideshi going home and telling horror stories of the Iwama way of life or, more often, citing their Iwama experience as reason for their odd -- or otherwise -- personal behaviour.