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 a 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
very soft. By comparison to the West (with the USA and Australia
being 2 other places I have had significant karate exposure) karate
intensity is often similar, however, the style in which it is taught
is more varied both from a traditional/philosophical viewpoint and
technical approach. In particular I have found that the emphasis
on sport Karate in Australia is very high, leaving the art, and
the practical application to the side (I have recently opened two
dojo(s) in Australia). 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, even given a very small
population, one could 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 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
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 – not the physical strength of the technique.
One often hears this in Western dojo(s) but it is not implemented
to same degree, nor is “Fudoshin” the true focus of
high repetition based training (it is quite likely that most Western
students would leave through “boredom” because of a
lack physical technique variety in 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. West 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. The above issues tend to combine to make the standard of Kyu
ranks in the Japanese dojo(s) better. However, I do not notice such
a large difference in ability of black belt ranks when comparing
Japan to the West. It seems that once the effect of time has allowed
them 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. More
on Zen, Japan and Karate is outlined in our video series.
It is not uncommon for black belts to sometimes
travel to Japan and test for a higher Dan rank. However, 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 2 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.
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
downloadable videos (www.AppliedZen.com).
About the author: Dr. Jason
Armstrong, 5th Dan
Sensei Jason Armstrong
has a 5th degree black and has been training for more than 20 years.
His training began in Australia, and then moved to
the USA in 1991. In 1995 he began regular
travel to Japan and spent time living
in Japan for karate. While in Japan he worked in the corporate environment
and ultimately became the CEO of a company in Tokyo. He holds a
Ph.D. in human physiology. Today he has founded Applied Zen which
operates in the USA, and, Australia passing on Japanese karate through
dojos, and through a video e-learning site (www.AppliedZen.com).
Additionally, his organization (www.AppliedZen.com) provides corporate
seminars on the integration of the “Art
of War”, and Zen into corporate team development, and business.
1. Sotokawa Sensei and Jason Armstrong in 1997. Sotokawa sensei
is a 8th Dan in Shito-Ryu and received his 3rd Dan accreditation
under Mabuni sensei the founder of Shito-ryu.
2. Sensei Jason standing near Himeji Castle at Sakura time (Cheery
Blosson season). Himeji Castle is Japan’s largest castle and
is rumored to be the place where Musashi carried out his academic
studies for samurai training.
3. Sensei Seto (Shotokan) and Jason Armstrong in 2002 in Tokyo.
During Jason’s one year stay in Tokyo Seto sensei’s
dojo was one of the clubs he visited.