Travel, Teach, Live in Japan
What is it like to test for a belt in Japan as a Westerner? Or to live with a Master? This article will try to provide brief insights by reflecting on my time Japan between 1995 and 2002. I will also reflect on short-term visits to Japan made by my Californian students to test for Dan ranks. I was fortunate enough to have spent part of my time in and around Japan as an “uchi-deshi” – a live in student of a master. On arriving in Japan my comparisons of East vs. West martial arts came from a somewhat experienced viewpoint since I had already been training in Japanese martial arts for more than 10 years, competed at an international level, and had my own dojo operating in California.
Karate in Japan takes all sorts of forms: some are sport oriented, and some are very traditional, some are very hard, while others quite soft. By comparison to the West (with the USA and Australia being two other places I have had significant karate exposure) karate intensity is often similar, however, the focus of the majority of dojo differs across the three countries. In particular I have found that the emphasis on sport Karate in Australia is very high, which is quite a departure from the art, and the practical application component is less in such dojo(s) (we have recently opened two dojo(s) in Australia and begun mixing with a number of other clubs there). I don’t feel sport karate is bad, but to simply state that it is a different path compared to the art of karate. Given Australia’s recent performance of fourth in the Olympics overall, which is outstanding given their very small population, one can only expect such a sporting oriented nation to predominantly follow a sporting oriented approach to karate (not to say all Australian Karate is sport as there are obviously also a proportion of traditional dojo).
From my involvement in the US karate scene I feel that, compared to Australia, it has a larger proportion of dojo(s) continuing to pursue traditional Japanese karate. As an example of this measure I often look at the content of Ippon Kumite, Kata Bunkai and Ippon Shobu (a single point sparring match) practiced in a dojo. In Japan these things are not only seen as a regular part of classes, but appear as the primary content (especially Ippon Kumite). Approaches such as Ippon Kumite and Ippon Shobu for matches (instead of six or eight point matches) reinforce the precept behind Japanese Karate of “one hit one kill” (Ikken Isatsu in Japanese). The underlying theme of these one point bouts is the concept that in the kumite bout, like in life, you only get one chance. I once asked the Master I lived with in Japan (Uetake Sensei) with why he considered Kobudo (weaponry) an important extension of his Karate as it dilutes the time one can spend mastering the Way of empty handed fighting. He replied that one key reason was that it reinforced his mindset that one hit is one kill. So if traveling to Japan expect Ippon Kumite to often be large part of each night’s training with the key point being mind state re-enforcement.
Fudoshin (immovable mind), is a “Zen” principle related to the above point of absolute technique, and I would like to give an example of another way in which it is reinforced in Japanese training. Most of my training was in Japan was at a honbu dojo where, on a given night, there would be two 8th dans, three 7th dans, and just a few other instructors in rank range of sandan through godan. In these sessions there was a surprising element to the content we practiced given the ranks in the room – it was almost entirely kihon and ippon kumite, with kihon being 50% of training. After a few years of banging out full power basic technique with a group of masters you realize that the perfection of physical technique is not the only reason for the high repetition: the point was the continual reinforcement of the mindset that each technique, if a block, will break their opponents arm, and if a strike will kill the opponent – mindset here being the reason for the repetitive training more so than physical conditioning. One often hears this in Western dojo(s) but it is not implemented to same degree (it is quite likely that most Western students would leave through “boredom” because of a lack physical technique variety in the training). The very fact that when these most advanced ranks (karate-ka who have training for 50 years) got together and chose to work single count basic drills rather than advanced forms, or technique, says something very important.
In this article we can only touch on some aspects of Japan vs. Western training. An issue to raise is that of attitude and approach in the dojo. When a Westerner walks into a karate Dojo for the first time their mindset is not quite the same as an Asian student who reads the Kanji (Chinese characters) on the door and understands that Do & Jo combine to mean – a place of studying the Way. In the West students come to understand this over time. I feel that the Japanese culture is much better at mimicking a taught action than Westerners, and therefore, there is less tendency in Japan for students to look, question, re-interpret, and then perform their version of what they saw. This also relates to Japan having somewhat of a conformist culture. The above issues tend to combine to make the standard of Kyu ranks in the Japanese dojo(s) better compared to the West. However, I do not notice such a large difference in quality of black belt ranks when comparing Japan to the West (in fact it is often lower). It seems that once the effect of time has allowed students in either country to perfect technique through repetition, and gain an understanding they are studying an art of Do, the same endpoint in ability is reached regardless of cultural differences. Interestingly, I find European students faster learners than my Australian or USA students. One of my University clubs is at a school with a very strong international exchange program, and therefore, has a make-up of approximately 1/3 of each European, Australian and American students. The Europeans appear to learn at a faster rate not so much due to a “mimicry” mindset (like the Japanese) but rather an openness to new ways.
“Zen” in the martial arts is not even mentioned in some karate organizations in the West and in others it is. In Japan I found it is often not mentioned, or talked about, but innately exists (as was eluded to in a couple of examples above). I did have many insightful discussions on “Zen” over post training drinks in Japan – the place where both in business and the martial arts world, the heart of matters are really opened up.
It is not uncommon for black belts to sometimes travel to Japan and test for a higher Dan rank. Testing for black belt is a stressful event even if you do it in your home town. Imagine if you elected to do all your training in the West and then travel to Japan for the big day with no real knowledge of the sensei testing you, the students you will fight, or the Japanese culture. That is exactly what a number of my brown belts have done over the years. It was a real testament to their courage to join me in Japan and two days later, still with jetlag, perform their Shodan Shinsa (black belt test). All were nervous, however, all rose to the occasion and learning occurred from both the involved Japanese and Western students. In 1997 my first student to perform this task (Dave Cohrs) obviously had the largest factor of the “unknown” as to our knowledge, he was the first Westerner to try it. As is usually the case Dan rank tests are more about Kata and Kihon than fighting. Within Japan, especially in the case of Westerners, these are the things under the most scrutiny.
Westerners choosing to engage in kumite, in a belt test or a tournament in Japan, should be forewarned that they will most likely need to score about 2 or 3 points for every point they are given, and their Japanese opponents may only need to look like they scored a point before the point is issued. Bias is an absolute reality on the dojo floor and competitive scene. Most Westerners who have trained in Japan share that experience. It simply means you have to be much better than your opponent to win so it is undeniable.
The formality of belt tests in the West is also often much higher than in Japan. While in Japan there are special grading days, it is also common to see ranks issued after a regular class – sometimes the fact a grading was going to happen was pre-announced, sometimes not. I have observed this in Shito-ryu and Goju dojo. Formality in the karate scene itself is an interesting topic. As quite often Westerners seem to take a Japanese idea, or approach, and exaggerate it to an extreme. So for this reason, particularly in the USA, dojo etiquette is often more regimented than you ever see in Japan. Like all things a good balance is correct rather than extremes of behavior. Such Western extremism can be seen at any Western karate tournament where in Kata competition one often sees stance depths (e.g. cat stance, horse stance and long stance) which are too low. These low stance draw good scores in Western competition. Japanese masters are very quick to point out why Western stances are often too deep/low for mobility and strength (e.g. have someone put weight on your shoulders while you are in a horse stance, or cat stance, which is too low and see what happens).
Another common difference between Western black belt tests and Japanese test is the degree to which fitness and endurance is pushed. In the West it is common to see belts test be very long, fight many opponents and really push an individual (which is of course aimed at a physical and mental challenge). However, in the Japanese dojo I was exposed to in Japan & Okinawa (which included styles of Shotokan, Shito-ryu, Goju & Kyokushin) tests were short and much more about technical ability rather than “fitness” and pushing oneself to a limit in a marathon effort. This could also be related back to the idea that if one gets into a fight and it does end with about 10 seconds the situation was not handled well – the need for mental & physical fitness that rivals a boxer is not often part of the mindset.
Pilgrimages to Japan for Karate are amazing experiences for martial artists. A number of my students have made one or two week trips to join me while I lived there, and they all took home memories of culture and training they will cherish forever. On the other side of the coin, simply visiting Japan for a week or two does not provide true insight into training and living in Japan. This is because the Japanese instructors will cater to the visitor, and like any cultural exchange it takes well over 3 years to start to get a handle on the true mindset and culture of a foreign place.
The experiences briefly outlined in this article are now covered in a documentary series on living, and training in Japan, recently published on the web in the form of free streaming videos. More on Zen, Japan and Karate is outlined in a free streaming video production at www.DownloadKarate.com
Dr. Jason Armstrong, 5th Dan