In the summer of 2011, I went on a scientific pilgrimage to Japan as part of a quest for knowledge and self-discovery…or at least that’s the way I’ll present it in my autobiography and made-for-TV movie life story. In reality, at the end of my 2nd year of my PhD I was awarded an incredible fellowship, the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes, from the National Science Foundation. This fellowship was coordinated in Japan by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Summer Program, and the program is also available for those of you from Canada, Germany, UK, Sweden, and France. During my two month fellowship, I worked at the Center for Integrative Bioscience in Okazaki with of one of the molecular toxicology greats, Dr. Taisen Iguchi, and under the direct tutelage of Dr. Yukiko Ogino. Her papers on sonic hedgehog gene regulation in mosquitofish were some of my most-read papers in grad school and she was something of a science hero for my PhD project. Trying to finish in situ hybridizations and fish exposures in such a short window of time was exhausting, but I loved the work and the lab and the chance to spend a summer in Japan.
In between work, sightseeing, sweating, and eating copious amounts of katsudon and unagi, I spent some time getting back into martial arts, not really as a pre-planned activity but rather something that came about as a whim. I had mentioned to one of my Okazaki lab mates that I was curious if there were any karate schools in the area, and with that one brief mention she set to work and I was whisked off the next week to my first class. I didn’t have time to back out or say no thank you, so instead I went with it. It was only two days a week for an hour at a time, so I thought it wouldn’t be that much of a hindrance on the rest of my jam-packed in situ hybridization, sightseeing, and sweating schedule for that summer.
As with everyone I met in Japan, the instructors were incredibly friendly and helpful. While English didn’t come easily for some, all of the black belts tried their hardest to teach me the moves and to explain the stances and forms as best they could. I never really felt that I caught on as well as I could, likely only partially due to the language barrier and more with the fact that karate was very subtly different from tae kwon do. A bit more of a flourish to a block, a foot that was slightly at an off angle for a stance, and at the end of a long day at work it was easy for my arms to get twisted in knots instead of making smooth movements. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed my time as the class’s gaijin (foreigner) and white-belt-in-training.
As the summer progressed and I became less awkward in my movements (and better at following the commands in Japanese), I was invited to attend a class at the main dojo in the neighboring city of Aichi. I soon learned that my little Okazaki karate school was affiliated with a HUGE school, with branches and classes all over the Aichi prefecture, all coordinated by an absolutely enormous dojo at the prefecture capital where I was headed to meet with the Grandmaster himself. The instructors at my school did quite a bit to prepare me to meet with the Grandmaster. Between the small language barrier and their descriptions of how I needed to be polite and respectful at all times, I had the impression that I was meeting the Lord and Master of Karate himself. I was a bit nervous to meet him, especially as the only American in a room of Japanese karate students, and I wanted to do my best to leave a good impression. Needless to say, the train ride to Aichi for the first lesson was a bit nerve-wracking.
I soon found that Grandmaster Jun Tamegai was actually one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He was so excited to meet me and had one of those electrifying and warm smiles that made you feel completely welcome and relaxed. Then when class started, he suddenly became very intense as he instructed his students, myself included, with one of those auras that made you want to do everything he said and do it at 110%. Even after the very warm welcome, I could see why I was prepared by the black belts at my school for this meeting, and why all the other instructors both adored and respected him. He seemed like the kind of person who would invite you into his home for tea and katsudon while being ready at a moment’s notice to take someone out at the kneecaps if they snuck up behind him.
I went to the main school in Aichi for a few lessons at the main dojo, each time being given the honor of a one-on-one lesson with the Grandmaster. His English was good, although hesitant, but that seemed more from nerves at speaking with a native speaker as opposed to not being good at English, or perhaps he just wasn’t that talkative. I cherished these one-on-one lessons and was even more surprised when he invited me to a barbeque along with the other black belt instructors from my school. It was my last weekend in Okazaki and I spent the day at a lake with these wonderful people, enjoying some lakeside activities, and eating delicious teppanyaki. At one point in the day, I went on a jet ski ride with the Grandmaster, speeding around the lake at more than 90 km/h (he seemed to get a kick out of my incessant screaming as we drove around the lake at seemingly impossible speeds). At the end of the day he gave me my last lesson and I went back home to Okazaki (after even more delicious izakaya food). I was truly and deeply thankful for everyone in the school’s patience, hospitality, and guidance that summer. I was happy for that whim of mine that became a reality.
While I’ll probably never really get the hang of karate due to too many years of training for tae kwon do motions and stances, I took home several lessons from my summer karate camp, lessons that reflect back not just on martial arts but on my work as a scientist and on living a life of balance. In one of the private lessons, the Grandmaster introduced me to the concept of rubber and steel in karate. Rubber meant being flexible, relaxed, fast, and able to move freely and easily. Steel meant being strong, unwavering, persevering, and able to withstand whatever you’re put through. Grandmaster told me that both rubber and steel were important, that you couldn’t just be good at one, you needed both if you wanted to excel at martial arts. He told me this in the context of his own views of me and how I looked when going through the motions in class. He was the first person to tell me that I had so much steel, so much power and fury, but that I needed to be more rubber if I was going to improve.
I continued to think about that lesson in the rest of the summer, at the same time busy finishing up my project in the lab and trying to travel to as many places as I could get to before my flight home. I thought about Grandmaster himself, the man with a welcoming smile and a ferocious intensity, both coming from the same person. I thought about his vision of me, of all my steel. Was I just too much steel in martial arts, or was I too much steel in other parts of my life as well?
The concept of rubber and steel isn’t just about how you punch and kick, it’s about how you react to the world around you through good times and bad. Work as a scientific researcher, and as a graduate student especially, is a place where you can certainly feel like you need to punch and kick your way through, the fight for survival in academia and the cut-throat world of science. It’s here that the concept of finding the balance between rubber and steel is something that the Grandmaster can teach all of us, in order to help us find the balance between our own natural tendencies and to help us recognize when we need to be more rubber or more steel in order to improve and succeed.
As Grandmaster noticed, I was more steel, and in hindsight I probably was more steel long before starting the karate lessons. I have always been very hard-working, determined, strong of mind, and unwilling to give in. I always did well in school, from my first day in kindergarten all the way through my undergrad studies. I worked hard to get good grades and hear praise from my teachers, and after getting my bachelor’s I set out to do a PhD program and to change the world through my research. On the flip side, I would become frustrated when I ran into walls and couldn’t progress with what I was doing, feeling like I had nowhere to go. I was self-confident when doing well but would lose that confidence if I slipped even a small amount. I always worked relentlessly, coming in on weekends and after hours to try to get as much data as possible. I was set to succeed and would let nothing get in my way. The problem with being all steel is that it makes you rigid and frustrated when you can’t do something right. It can make you feel anxious and tight for no reason other than your need to succeed. Steel might not wear out easily, but being 100% steel all of the time will undoubtedly wear you out.
But if steel is where all the strength and perseverance is, then what’s so great and useful about rubber? Rubber is about relaxing in the face of stressful moments, of going with the flow of life and the problems that come at you. Rubber is about coming to a wall and bending around it instead of trying to break it down. Rubber is about not doubting yourself even when you slip and stumble because you know you can adapt and mend. Being rubber means you stay loose and free instead of tight and anxious. But as with steel, being too much rubber does not make for a balanced life. Too much rubber can mean that you’re so relaxed that you don’t do anything and don't feel an urgency to work hard at something. Too much rubber can lead to too much flexibility and wavering instead of following a plan of action. Rubber is fast and flexible and free, but if you’re 100% rubber then you won’t stand up for what you believe in or persevere when things get difficult.
When you examine your own tendencies, you’ll likely find that you tend to spend more time as one over the other. While steel people are hard-working and tough, if driven too hard they can end up defensive when challenged, short-sighted about finishing a task because it needs to get done, working long hours without having a concrete reason, and when stressed may not be as likely to ask for help or reach out to others. On the other side, rubber people are cool and calm but may find themselves being lazy or distracted during working hours, may lack of motivation in completing a task, can have a tendency to procrastinating, and can end up juggling around side projects or ideas instead of staying focused on a single project or concept.
In addition to knowing your own tendencies towards rubber versus steel, another point of the Grandmaster’s lesson is to know when to act like steel and when to act like rubber. There are times when you need to be steel, when you need to stand up for your project and your work and defend what you know to be true and right. There are times when you need to just power through something, whether it be data analysis or a day’s worth of pipetting, in order to get things done. On the flip side, there are times when you need to be flexible to changes in direction in your project, times when you need to stop doing the same assay over and over and look at what the data is telling you about where you should go instead. There are times when you will be challenged and the only way to come out ahead is to walk away or change directions instead of fighting back.
The key is to recognize the need to find the balance and to focus on embracing the good parts of rubber and the good parts of steel. Finding a balance is about knowing yourself as much as it is working towards that balance, because knowing your tendencies will help you figure out where you need to go. Steel people need to know when to relax and be flexible to challenges, rubber people need to know when to stand firm and stay focused. By recognizing if you’re more rubber or steel as well as seeing when to embrace either your rubber or steel side, you can get closer to achieving that balance between cool, calm, and collected, yet ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
While I’m still striving for finding my own balance of steel and rubber, I often think back on that summer and the tutelage of Grandmaster Tamegai. I finished my time in Japan with a 5-day excursion exploring around Hiroshima and Kyoto on my own. I found myself really relaxed, reflecting on a great and productive summer, but at the same time a deeper sort of relaxation than I’d had before. Was this what being rubber was all about? I still strive for that relaxation in my life, which is sometimes more difficult than it was during that 5-day train trip exploring oceanside shrines and eating katsudon. For me, becoming more rubber is still a work in progress, but recognizing when I become too hard or shortsighted or frustrated helps me know when I need a break or when I need to step back and take a breath. At the same time I’ve learned to embrace my steel side, knowing that it can bring me focus and determination and can help me push through difficult times that need to be pushed through. I hope someday to have that same balanced demeanor and attitude that Grandmaster had, with the warm smile that welcomes you as his friend accompanied those powerful eyes that stay focused and locked on target. Although I’ll likely refrain from driving around students on a jet ski while going 90 km/h. But maybe that’s just another lesson I didn’t learn yet.
A final note: If you are still a graduate student from the US, UK, Germany, France, Sweden, or Canada and are interested in having a rewarding research stay in Japan, check out the JSPS summer program and apply to go on your own spiritual summer science quest. やった!!