Development of Dojo and Community in Brazil – A Garden in the Village of Santo Aleixo

By Gaku Homma Nippon Kan Kancho

I had the chance this last year to talk to a JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) volunteer after his return to Japan from the foreign country he had lived and worked in

Karaoke contest for the children in Santo Aleixo.

Karaoke contest for the children
in Santo Aleixo.

during his volunteer service. He spoke to me of the sense of disillusionment and displacement he felt upon his return. Honestly I did not pay that much attention to his words, letting them basically go in one ear and out the other. I concluded simply that his disillusionment came from having to handle tough conditions in the countries he had lived in…

One of our Nippon Kan advisors and senior students, Mr. John Cruise just returned from a trip around the world a few weeks ago. After asking how his trip was, John answered thoughtfully “From our point of view, I cannot describe how poor so many of the countries I visited were. They truly had nothing. The word “poor” does not describe someone who has nothing. I learned though that what I thought was abject poverty by our standards, was not necessarily poverty by theirs. Their measure was different than mine. They knew no difference besides what they had. I truly experienced that the measure of happiness and wealth is different to different people in different places, and that it can have a completely different meaning than what we commonly accept here”…

AHAN Rio de Janeiro, Nippon Kan Brazil and AHAN Rio de Janeiro IISA Instructor (Instructors in support of AHAN) Luc Leoni Sensei had asked me to come to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to teach at awareness and support raising seminar for AHAN Rio de Janeiro. The seminar was to be held at the Fort Sao Jao Urca Army Base Sports Complex in early October 2004. Luc Leoni Sensei has been a very active and productive IISA Instructor who has founded and developed many AHAN projects of his own in Brazil. I have been to Brazil on many occasions to teach and work on AHAN projects and was more than happy to come. Besides coming for the awareness and support raising seminar, I also had another big purpose and project in mind.

One hour west, in the mountains outside of Rio de Janeiro is the village of Santo Aleixo, the location of our newest AHAN project. This project focuses on Okaeri dojo, located

Discussing the plans; author and Luc Leoni Sensei.

Discussing the plans; author and Luc Leoni Sensei.

in Santo Aleixo and its purpose is to expand the dojo facility in ways never seen in this area. It is a development project; pioneer in dojo self efficiency and community relationship building.

Currently, Okaeri dojo serves as a mountain dojo retreat for Aikido instructors in and around the Rio de Janeiro area from many different organizations and backgrounds. It is a place to come, practice, rest, communicate and get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. The dojo sits on 6000 square meters of land and is an ideal location for this AHAN expansion project. The goal to be reached by the year 2007 is the creation of traditional Japanese gardens and expanded retreat lodging facilities. This October marked the groundbreaking for this ambitious project. It is hoped in the future that these gardens and expanded facilities will become a destination not only as a retreat for Aikidoists, but a place where anyone can come to enjoy the gardens and natural environment.

One of the underlying concepts behind this project is the future financial independence and stability of Okaeri dojo itself. Important and integral to this independence is also the development of Okaeri dojo’s relationship within the surrounding village of Santo Aleixo.

The village of Santo Aleixo used to be the home of one of Brazil’s largest garment factories, where many if not most of the villagers were employed. The factory even had its own railroad system that transported goods from the village to Rio and beyond. Santo Aleixo in those days was a prosperous and growing community. Today the garment factory has been closed and many of the buildings that it housed have fallen into ruin or have been changed for other community uses. The unemployment rate among young people in Santo Aleixo is very high; most young people that graduate from high school cannot find work there. Healthy and bright young people in Santo Aleixo are unable to find a job and spend their time helping around their family homes or hanging out idly watching the time go by. In this kind of environment, it is a difficult challenge for Okaeri dojo to attract students for its own survival. Okaeri dojo currently operates as a retreat for guest instructors on weekends. It serves the community of Santo Aleixo by teaching the children of the village Aikido, who attend practice as they can during the week. Okaeri dojo survival is currently due to the personal support of Marco and Bernadette, the owners of Okaeri dojo who support the costs of dojo operations themselves.
In Santo Aleixo we found many young adults but no local students at the dojo. Our challenge was to attract these young people to helping us in this dojo development project ultimately meant to benefit the entire community at large. To think of the dojo only was not the way to accomplish this, nor would just giving money. Both would be short sighted and not offer opportunities for the future. In many cases thinking too narrowly or just offering money as a solution can work as a deficit, making the recipients more reliant on hand outs and less dependant on themselves in the long run.

Nippon Kan Instructor Scott Olson was a volunteer in Guatemala where he helped build schools in the countryside there. He once told me an interesting story that I thought of here in Santo Aleixo.

While he was in Guatemala the medical staff gave free medicine to the native people to use against illness and infections. The native people that he was aware of used the medicine maybe once or twice before the put it on a shelf forgotten. However, Scott told me “if we charged a little bit of money for the medicine, it became greater in value to them, and they used every bit of the medicine. Of course Scott concluded that any money collected from the native villagers was used for projects in support of their community. We have also experienced this kind of reaction with AHAN projects we have been involved with over the years. I wondered how this concept might fit into our new current situation.

Santo Aleixo and Okaeri dojo were to be a new test model for the dojo development and community support. These are the basics of AHAN philosophy in action in the community and Okaeri dojo would be a testing ground to see if this philosophy really worked in a practical setting.

Author making a scale model of the garden

4-loading-rocks-1The first step in making the garden at Okaeri dojo was to try to get the Santo Aleixo young people involved, and we asked them if they would like to help. The second step was to try to get the necessary permission, instructions and directions from the village elders, and that was our next stop. We needed to get permission to remove huge boulders from neighboring ranches for use in the garden landscaping. The boulders, we wanted for free…

With a little help from a village elder leader we got permission to get the boulders. The next step was to physically get the boulders (which weighed tons in some cases) to the Japanese garden site. Luc Leoni Sensei and I using the assistance of some ancient heavy equipment set about trying to move the boulders one at a time. The neighboring 5-loading-rocks2people thought we were out of our minds of course and watched the spectacle we were making of ourselves from a distance. It wasn’t long however before we had about fifteen young people from the village lending a hand. They became part of our rag tag mud drenched crew. Luc Sensei told me that they started to take a little pride and excitement in making a Japanese garden in their village “with their hands!” Even the rain did not seem to discourage our new helpers and I was satisfied that the garden project was starting to “take root” in this community.

After the long, hard workday came to an end, and we put our tools away and washed some of the mud off. I wanted to

thank our new friends with a round at the local bar. At first the Santo Aleixo locals looked at me as if I was some strange kind of oriental

Moving the boulders from neighboring ranchlands.

Moving the boulders from neighboring ranchlands.

guy, but after a few days of working together we became quite the team, and our visits to the local bar after work became a fun filled ritual. Even the village elders commented that the young people that were working with us seemed to be energized and excited, qualities they had not seen in them in a while. “We appreciate this” he exclaimed. Isn’t that right everyone he asked? And everyone agreed. Even the exhaustion from the day could not dampen the way these simple comments made me feel.

For the first phase of this project, our biggest obstacle was yet to come. Now that we had gathered almost fifty boulders and moved them

With the native Santo Aleixo elders.

With the native Santo Aleixo elders.

near the Okaeri dojo property, we had to figure out a way to get them inside the outside property walls. The front gate in the surrounding wall was too narrow for the heavy equipment to get through, and the wall was too decorative to ruin by knocking it down. We went back to the elder who had assisted us before and once again he rescued our mission. He negotiated with the neighboring property owner who had a wide gate to his property and convinced him to let us break down a section of adjoining wall between the two compounds to get the rocks through. We were very happy with this negotiation, and went out to thank the elder for his help. He was busy though, already breaking down a section of the property wall with a spike and sledge hammer. Everyone was starting to get into the act!! Once the break had been started, it took only one swipe with the machinery arm to knock a hole large enough to get the rocks through; our biggest challenge had been overcome! or so we thought at the time.

Moving the boulders with the guidance of the elders.

Breaking the hole in the wall. In comes the heavy machinery.


The making of the small garden on side of dojo.

With all of the rain, the neighboring property near the hole we had knocked into the wall conveniently turned into a swamp. Our next challenge became apparent rather quickly; even trying to step onto the property would make you sink up to your knees in mud. If you stood still in the mud too long, you would get stuck and need to be pulled out. We first drained what water we could from the mire, and then set up a pulley system with cables so that we could pull the boulders one at a time over the swampy area. This took the next two days to accomplish. The work although hard went well due to the experience of our Santo Aleixo crew, who had much experience with hard work, rain and mud.
The making of the small garden on side of dojo.

After twelve days, we finally completed the first stage of the garden. The boulders had been set, and we began the digging for the 1000 square foot pond that will be the center piece for the garden. We also made a small garden on the side of the existing dojo. The heavy equipment rental, the hauling of 15 dump truck loads of debris, the gravel, construction materials and supplies, village worker wages and meals for all were sponsored by AHAN for the future of the young people in the village of Santo Aleixo and the future of Okaeri dojo.

The second phase of this project is scheduled to begin in January 2005. This phase will include finishing the garden construction and planting and the setting of ten large Mongolian traditional ger (nomadic dwellings). The ger will be used for guest lodging and meal service for visitors to the Okaeri dojo retreat.

If plans go well, the garden and the new guest lodging will serve as a small source of income to not only support the dojo but to also support job opportunities for the local young people. It is our hope that the Okaeri dojo retreat will be able to hire up to ten people to staff the facility. One of the opportunities that will be available for the newly employed staff will be the practice of Aikido at Okaeri dojo. In this way new generations of instructors can be trained directly from Santo Aleixo.

As part of AHAN Nippon Kan headquarters current used computer distribution campaign, ten computers will also be brought here to Okaeri dojo to set up a computer skills learning program for the village. Since Santo Aleixo’s economy used to revolve around a garment factory, there are still many people in the village with sewing experience. A future consideration is to help develop and utilize these skills with donated portable sewing machines.

Luc012 (1)

Everyone worked so hard until the project was done!!

The AHAN Okaeri dojo development project has been approved by Aikidoka from many parts of Brazil. The purpose of this project is NOT to make a branch for Nippon Kan. The purpose is to make Okaeri dojo and the village of Santo Aleixo self sufficient for the enjoyment of all including Aikidoka from any organization or affiliation. What makes this project exciting is that so many Aikidoists from Brazil with different training backgrounds have come together in support of this unique facility and opportunity. AHAN Nippon Kan’s wish is simply to support Okaeri dojo in their endeavors. The first two paragraphs in this article, I spoke about the comments I had heard from the JICA volunteer and Nippon Kan advisor John Cruise after his world trip.

I myself have just returned from the village of Santo Aleixo where I spent much of my time drenching wet and covered with mud. We had worked together until our bodies could work not make one more move, yet moving a simple boulder became a major victory and accomplishment. I think now I can understand the JICA volunteer’s sense of disillusionment or sense of displacement upon his return to Japan. He was not complaining about the harsh conditions of the experience, in fact, they had become part of him. I could understand now that he had come back to a Japan where the economy is relatively good, everyone is well educated and well fed yet many young people there have little else to occupy their time than the latest phase or craze. Living in a country with fewer comforts and “opportunities” leaves one questioning what is truly valuable, truly happiness and truly wealth.

Four days after returning from Brazil to Nippon Kan headquarters in Denver, Colorado, I left on an AHAN IISA (Instructors in Support of AHAN) educational exploration and training tour to Japan. On this trip I

A bonus, and a day off brings smiles to all.

A bonus, and a day off brings smiles to all.

was accompanied by instructors from Mexico and the US. I could not help compare the young people I met in Santo Aleixo, barefoot and clothed only in a pair of shorts with the young people I saw in Tokyo, decked out head to toe in $1000.00 matching outfits, with cell phones and headphones. It made me think of both, but made me worry more about the future of Japan.

I concluded that I had my own thinking to do about what is wealth and happiness, and that I could understand the feelings of the returning JICA volunteer. This feeling called tsubureru in Japanese is something I have learned since my return. From the people of Santo Aleixo I learned something different…something I will never forget.

In Santo Aleixo the young people stood up together to achieve one goal. This in itself was a great satisfaction for me. In Santo Aleixo the elders became involved and offered their wisdom. This was also a great satisfaction for me. If we had just hired a landscaping company to do this work, we never would have harvested the riches we found together amongst the rocks, in the mud. We never would have built the relationships we built with members of this community.

As Aikidoists, if we want Aikido to be a martial art of the world, we can’t use a Japanese measuring stick to measure happiness or accomplishment. We need to approach each country differently and learn each countries different sense of what is valuable. We then need to have the flexibility to adapt to each environment individually, yet be able to include each community. We must do this for the future of our Aikido.

I have talked of these ideals in articles I have written before and all AHAN activities are meant to reflect these ideals in action. It will be interesting to see what the future brings

Luc Leoni Sensei’s feet covered in blisters.

Luc Leoni Sensei’s feet covered in blisters.

in Santo Aleixo. I respectfully give my thanks to AHAN Rio de Janeiro, Nippon Kan Brazil, Luc Leoni Sensei and his students for all of their hard work and sacrifice.

Gaku Homma
Nippon Kan Kancho
Dec 8th, 2004

Accompanying article by Luc Leoni Sensei click here
Read what Luc Leoni Sensei and his students had to say here.