Aikido master's prowess lives up to literature

 

Oxford poet's book about Japanese martial art a tale that travels in a narrative arc leading to Burnaby

 
 
 
 
Robert Mustard is an Aikido instructor in Burnaby and also a prominent character in a book called Angry White Pyjamas, by an Oxford poet who trained with Mustard in Japan.
 

Robert Mustard is an Aikido instructor in Burnaby and also a prominent character in a book called Angry White Pyjamas, by an Oxford poet who trained with Mustard in Japan.

Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun

From the outside, the dojo in Burnaby looks like a pretty ordinary place.

Step inside and you will see bodies flying everywhere and hear a portly but powerful looking sensei by the name of Robert Mustard shouting instructions.

Nothing unusual about that.

What is practised here at Aikido Yoshinkai Burnaby is yoshinkan aikido, a particularly physical martial art that is deemed mandatory for Tokyo riot police and all female police officers there.

Check further into the dojo, however, and you will find that it offers a curiously named intensive course called Angry White Pyjamas.

That is your first clue that this dojo has an unusual story.

- - -

Few here know that the controversial Mustard was once the chief foreign instructor at the martial art's headquarters in Japan and is considered by many to be the best non-Japanese instructor of yoshinkan aikido in the world.

What's more, he is a central figure in the book Angry White Pyjamas. It was written by Oxford poet Robert Twigger, who took an 11-month, brutally demanding course of training at the dojo in Japan under Mustard and other instructors in the mid-1990s.

Twigger, hailed by the New York Times as a deliriously clever writer, didn't paint an entirely flattering portrait of Mustard. He called the towering man unstable, impatient, warped, a masochist and possibly brain damaged. At one point, Mustard's seemingly insensitive ways had Twigger considering ways to kill him.

Curiously, few around Vancouver seem to know this story, which has become legend in other parts of the world.

Having read the book, I wasn't sure I wanted to meet a man who was so reviled in print and who had stirred up such loathing. But I called the dojo anyway, Mustard answered and immediately invited me to meet with him. With a crusty laugh, he said he'd be happy to talk about Twigger, Angry White Pyjamas and yoshinkan aikido.

- - -

Stepping inside the Burnaby dojo is like stepping into another world. The atmosphere is a curious mix, religious yet militaristic. Students wearing stark white gis prostrate themselves, before entering the large matted area, in front of a portrait of yoshinkan aikido founder Gozo Shioda or, as he is known in Japan, Kancho Sensei.

They then proceed to throw each other in every direction using deft body positioning and wrist movements as their tools.

In this arcane world, there is the steady bark of orders in Japanese, the steady thump of bodies being thrown to the mat -- and an awful lot of bowing, exaggerated politeness and repetition of the hissing word "oss," a kind of all-purpose greeting.

Mustard has blue eyes that seem to bore into your soul. Before our interview, he teaches a children's class that is both playful and structured. He makes it fun, while reining in the kids when they become too wild.

He says afterwards he likes to teach the kids to respect him as a teacher, but he doesn't want them to be afraid of him. Perhaps he knows that without his smile and his easy way of speaking, he could instil fear.

The children certainly don't seem to be afraid of him. He fits little contests into the class, games that resemble dodge ball, and sword fights using big orange "swords" made of soft material.

In the adult class that follows, Mustard welcomes a new student and explains that yoshinkan aikido is the power of the body and mind working together. It involves using your opponent's energy against him, which Mustard easily demonstrates with Farshad Ardestani, a slim eager student with facile quickness and absolute dedication to Mustard.

After the demonstration, students divide into groups so they can practice the art of flipping and throwing each other to the mat. (It's no doubt more complicated than that, but to the uninitiated, that's how it appears.)

Every now and then, someone calls "seiza chumoku" and everyone scrambles to form lines on their knees in front of Mustard, giving him their entire attention.

There is something oddly comforting about being in a black-and-white place of strict rules and no coddling.

There is no doubt that Mustard's students, including several women, are devoted to him.

Vicki Smart, who can beat the crap out of most of the guys here, doubles as Mustard's administrative assistant. Michelle Unrau, who has a PhD in pharmacology, is an ardent fan of Mustard's who trains in the adult class and in the kids' class with her son. Mustard says he is always quick to heed Unrau's advice.

He hardly seems angry.

But still you wonder ...

- - -

Mustard recounts how after one class, a student came up to him and said, "You're not a bastard at all."

In any other dojo, the remark would seem odd, but since Twigger's book was published in 1997, that is the burning question. Is Mustard really the monster he was made out to be in Angry White Pyjamas?

Twigger, who has won awards and prizes for his writing -- including the William Hill sports book of the year in 1998 for Angry White Pyjamas -- said Mustard threatened to punch him in the face and kick him out of the dojo in Japan if Twigger didn't show him more respect.

"He kept up an atmosphere of insecurity," Twigger wrote of Mustard. "A momentary lapse would result in a sweeping denigration of all efforts."

Mustard "was so much on my case that when I made one mistake at the beginning of a session, he barked, 'No good.'" wrote Twigger.

After the book was published, Twigger sent Mustard a copy along with the message, "Sensei, here is the book that you probably haven't been waiting for."

Mustard read it cover to cover in one sitting.

"It was bizarre to see my name in ink. I didn't even care that he called me crazy and unbalanced. Who knows, maybe I was. Basically, he loved me, then he hated me, and then he loved me again. So he had come full circle."

Twigger does seem warmer to Mustard at the two book ends than he does in the middle. But, I asked Mustard, was it really like he portrayed it? He answered with an unequivocal Yes.

Twigger's descriptions of the yoshinkan aikido practiced in the Japanese dojo weren't exaggerated.

You do knee walking around the dojo until your knees bleed. You work so hard that you sweat and vomit and faint. There's plenty of screaming, yelling, bleeding and smashing.

But, Mustard said, "I let them smash me, too. I let them hit me really hard."

That is just the reality.

"My job was to kill them or make them strong."

He had to do whatever it took, he said, to get the poet through the brutal 11-month course.

"Basically everything he said was kind of true, although it cut a bit too close to the bone."

Mustard holds nothing against Twigger for writing about it. He's a "great guy" who was a bit too stubborn and would sometimes fight the strict code of conduct in a Japanese dojo. One of his weaker students, Mustard gives him credit just for finishing the course.

He didn't think he'd ever see him again.

- - -

One day while working in the Burnaby dojo -- well after the book was published -- Mustard looked up; who should be standing there but a slightly nervous Twigger.

"I think he was really scared because he had called me crazy and unbalanced," Mustard said.

Mustard's wife, a Japanese-Canadian whom he met in Japan, and their daughter were away on Vancouver Island at the time, so Mustard invited Twigger back to his place.

The two wound up eating pizza, drinking a bottle of whiskey and talking about Japan "and all the crap" until the wee hours of the morning.

By the time Twigger came to town for a second visit, he had written several more books, all of which he dutifully sent to Mustard. Hemingwayesque, Twigger wrote about crossing Western Canada in a birchbark canoe and hunting for lost oases in the Sahara desert and for zombies in Haiti.

Mustard never was able to get through those books. He'd make it about halfway and then put them down. Nevertheless, he went out for Chinese food with Twigger on his second visit and, once again, they talked until the wee hours of the morning.

Mustard knows he's probably changed since his days as chief foreign instructor at the world headquarters. A friend told him so over lunch a few months ago.

"When I first met you, Mustard, you were a hard, tough, son of a bitch," said his friend. "You never really smiled. You were martial all the time."

Mustard thinks the world changed for him when his daughter, Emily, was born 11 years ago.

"I take aikido very, very seriously, but I don't take myself that seriously," he said.

He's a tough taskmaster, but he doesn't ask his students to do things he has not done. He says he operates a traditional dojo because most people are inherently lazy and need strict structure to keep them going.

"They talk about living under the sword so when you are out there training, you are prepared to die. When you get tired, you want to stop. In a traditional dojo, you have got to push it a bit."

Mustard's body isn't as supple as it used to be, bearing some of the scars of so many years of hard training, but he has quit smoking since Twigger's book was written. He still likes beer, but he figures that's okay. "I have a strong spirit. That gets me through."

As for the book, it's given him a certain amount of notoriety, drawing e-mail from people all over the world and leading to some interesting friendships. It is particularly popular in Europe and Australia. "When I went to Australia two years ago to teach, everybody brought their copy and asked me to sign it."

They all ask the same question: Was he a bastard?

"I don't know," he said. "I don't think so. Maybe. Most people love me. When I left, a lot of people were quite sad."

He is so devoted to yoshinkan aikido, he says he will die in his dogi. Maybe they'll bury a copy of Angry White Pyjamas with him. Even if, in the end, he wasn't all that angry.

yzacharias@vancouversun.com

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Robert Mustard is an Aikido instructor in Burnaby and also a prominent character in a book called Angry White Pyjamas, by an Oxford poet who trained with Mustard in Japan.
 

Robert Mustard is an Aikido instructor in Burnaby and also a prominent character in a book called Angry White Pyjamas, by an Oxford poet who trained with Mustard in Japan.

Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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