Thursday, October 10, 2013

Training In Japan Isn't What You See In The Movies

I just came back from a wonderful visit to Japan.  I was able to train intensively in iaido and jodo, including 3 days with 4 or more hours of training.  Practice in Japan is like practice everywhere.  You go to the dojo, you dress, and your teachers kick your butt all over the room.   Then again, it’s not.  I attended a training session where there was one 7th dan instructor for every 2 students below 7th dan.  How often can you get that kind of attention?

There seems to be a popular image people have of practice in Japan, with everyone lining up with military precision and shouting “Oss!” at everything Sensei says, standing rigidly at attention all the time, and jumping at every command.  The reality is quite different, more relaxed and more focused and, frankly, more effective.  

Classical Japanese martial arts don’t require military style discipline, and they don’t need it.  Teachers in Japan of classical arts aren’t looking for overdone displays of rigid behavior and military-style behavior. (You do see this sometimes in school clubs and and arts such as karate  and Yoshikan Aikido that were popularized during the years when the militarists were running things in Japan). They expect students to already have self-discipline, and if a student doesn’t, the correct behavior is on display all around them.  The atmosphere is subdued and relaxed, but very focused.

In nearly 25 years spent living in Japan, or traveling there as frequently as possible for training, I can’t remember a teacher ever yelling at me.  It’s just not a part of how things are done.  Everyone trains hard, and we all focus.  It’s sort of necessary in arts where training involves your partner trying split you with a nice piece of oak.  We come in, change our clothes, bow together for the start of practice and go from there.  We’ll do the warm-ups together, but eing the leader isn’t much of a position.  Everyone takes turns calling out sets of 10 reps as we work through the various warm-ups and fundamental technique practices.

If Sensei has a correction for me, it’s done gently and my response is a gentle “Hai”.  No yelling or big displays.  Just demonstrate that you are paying attention.  Sensei walks over and makes the correction, sometimes with a little smile that suggests to me that I really ought to have figured it out on my own.  Corrections are quick and simple and low-key.  Kiyama Sensei will walk by and pat my butt if my posture is off.  I know what he means, so he doesn’t need to say anything else.

Fukuma Sensei spent an hour patiently watching me do kata over and over as he carefully corrected every aspect of what I was practicing.  We worked on posture. We worked on cutting technique.  We worked on foot position. We worked on how the movement corkscrews up and around to deal with the kaso teki.  He would demonstrate or explain a little, maybe move a my foot to where it should be or adjust my grip slightly.  Everything was done quietly, simply, without flourish or shouting or berating.  We were focused on what we were working on, and we didn’t have any side comments of off-topic conversation.  Everything was as focused and concentrated as we could make it, but in a relaxed atmosphere.  There was none of the barking like drill sergeants or the rigid postures of military recruits.  This isn’t the military.  It’s koryu bugei.  Your attention and focus are expected to be developed and refined as natural parts of your being rather than imposed from outside.

Truly worthwhile discipline comes from within.  It’s not imposed from the outside.  That’s the atmosphere in koryu budo dojo, and in the better gendai budo dojo in Japan.  At Jodo keiko the training is incredibly intense.  Your partner is genuinely aiming to hit you with a big piece of oak, and it hurts if you screw up and let him do it.  My partner on Thursday was a very nice 7th dan. His intensity as he approached for the attack was wonderful, and pushed me to meet it with an equal level of intensity.  Then the kata is over and we can relax.  Matsuda Sensei comes over to give me corrections. There are smiles and gentle, but powerful, corrections made.  Sensei shows me exactly what I’m doing wrong.  Just like at iaido practice, the instruction is low key, with great respect given and received by everyone.  The 7th dan I’m training with is powerful and intense, but never brutal.  There is no unnecessary violence and no yelling or abuse.  I show him how much I respect him, and he treats with just as much respect.  

Matsuda Sensei, who outranks us all, treats us with respect and what I can only describe as gentle affection.  This is not the image of a Japanese dojo that you get from movies and television.  He doesn’t bark, he doesn’t yell, and he never hits anyone.  When he approaches, he doesn’t yell.  He is quiet and understated.  He’ll set me up in a position and gently but inexorably show my why my stance or movement is weak.  Then he’ll move my foot or my hand to show me what I need to do.

There is great mutual respect within the dojo.  One of the great drivers for improvement, at least for me, has nothing to do with external pressure.  It is the respect that everyone shows me and the gentle affection I feel from my teachers.  I work far harder to not disappoint them then I ever would in a situation where it was all about external pressure.  My effort is the best way I can show them how much I appreciate their lessons and patience.  I’ve never seen them reprimand anyone.  They don’t have to.  The idea of doing anything that would embarrass them is horrifying to think about.  What more motivation is needed?

If you haven’t been there, classical budo training Japan probably isn’t what you imagine. It is tough and challenging.  Not harsh and brutal.  The dojo are actually fairly quiet because people are focused on good training and not yelling at each other.  Teachers and students are treated with respect and honor.  Oh, and the level of training is amazing.


Jesse Nichols said...


Is it your belief that you cannot truly understand Budo without training sometime in Japan or at some point visiting Japan?


The Budo Bum said...

I would say that it is possible to truly understand Budo without training in Japan, but that it is really very unlikely. There are a few teachers out there who might be able to transmit the whole contents, but not many. In the US, I'm thinking of people like Phil Relnick, Ellis Amdur, and Meik Skoss have a shot at doing it, but it's really tough. I'll be brief here, and go into detail in a full blog post. Budo is not the techniques. It's everything else. The techniques are really a vessel for carrying the all the things that are Budo: the values, the customs, the expectations and behaviors, the honor and the duty and the loyalty, the way of thinking about things and the way of interacting with the world as you move through it. These all make up what Budo is, and to think that by learning techniques and kata you are learning budo is a great mistake. Budo is so much more. As I said, I'll elaborate in a full blog post.

Ronin scholar said...

Of course, training is depicted in movies as being harsh and loud, because that is more dramatic than the quiet, respectful scene you describe. I spent part of my weekend with a gentleman from Great Britain who said he (like many of his peers) gained a lot of his assumptions about American culture from watching action movies. While it's true America is more violent than some other places, it is hardly "Lethal Weapon."

My point is that you are right, of course, and the sad part is that people actually believe what they see in the movies, rather than trying to find out how things actually are.

Jesse Nichols said...


I know that studying and attempting to live Budo is much more than studying techniques. I've been at it for around 35 years and was lucky to start my training under a teacher who insisted that we were not training martial arts but Budo. I've also taught many years and always remind my students that Budo is what we do in our lives outside the dojo. The dojo is only a place to perform kenshu through keiko. However, I've always believed that, as my teacher constantly reminded us, Budo is "nothing special". It has to be transcultural or what's the use of keiko. It's a bit like saying you can't study Heidegger or listen fully to Beethoven without being German. I can't tell you how many times I've been told that I will never truly understand Budo because I'm not Japanese and this was by high level Senseis' of their particular art. If that is the case then Budo can never impact the world in a powerful and lasting way.

The Budo Bum said...

I agree that budo is "nothing special". In Japan that is. The techniques you are practicing, the craft one is learning, is just a tool for practicing all the "do" 道 aspects. So much of what is the "do" is embedded cultural knowledge that Japanese take for granted as shared cultural and historical knowledge and experience. Outside Japan, we don't have that basic cultural and historical knowledge, so what is ordinary and a given in Japan, is exceptional an unknown outside Japan. This is true whether we are talking about budo or any of the other cultural ways from Japan. The teacher outside must have a thorough understanding of these cultural elements to be able to fully transmit their budo. For a foreigner training in Japan, these elements smack you in the face so often that you learn them almost as organically as the Japanese do growing up. Training outside Japan, the teacher has to consciously include them in the instruction. It can be transmitted across cultures, but the teacher has to understand what elements beyond the techniques have to be taught as well for a student to fully grasp the "do" portion of budo.