Martial arts and self-discipline are nearly synonymous in modern American culture. The benefits of developed self-discipline are heavily touted in advertisements for many martial arts, from karate to judo to Brazilian jujutsu to kung fu and Taekwondo. Popular images of ranks of martial artists performing technique after technique in perfect unison; “Senseis” who bark commands and students who leap to comply.
This is the image of discipline in U.S. martial arts, and if you travel to Japan, you’ll easily find more examples of this sort. Gendai budo culture was forged in the first half of the 20th century in the heat of Japanese nationalist fervor that saw the martial arts as a means of instilling “samurai values” into the masses of Japan. Modern budo that were systematized during this period often are run in a strict, formal manner. This is most clearly seen in karate and kendo dojo, especially in school dojo. These arts were molded to the service of the military culture of the day, and so they adopted many practices that are suitable for large numbers of people to train together.
Pre-modern budo, or koryu budo, in Japan weren’t designed or intended for training large numbers of people at the same time. They were, and are, about individual transmission, teacher to student. As such, they don’t really lend themselves to large group instruction, and so the military tended to ignore the classical budo.
But there is one crucial difference between US budo practice and practice in Japan: Regardless of whether the art is classical or modern, students in Japan are expected to have self-discipline before they start. I can’t imagine anyone trying to get their child into a koryu budo so they could learn discipline. It’s even more difficult to imagine any koryu budo teacher accepting a student in those circumstances.
In modern budo as well, Japanese students are expected to arrive with self-control. Teachers of modern and classical budo in Japan expect to be teaching their art, and helping their students forge themselves, not working on developing the basic self-control and focus students need to get through class. Learning self-control and focus starts at home in Japan, and it starts early. Children are encouraged from an early age to sit with a stillness that seems unnatural to an American. Behaving well in any public situation, whether it is riding the train, sitting in class at school, or practicing a sport, a martial art or a hobby, is emphasized and socially enforced from from the age of 3 or 4. It’s not that parents enforce good public behavior, but that society does it.
Japanese groups are self-regulating. School children are allowed to regulate their own social interactions, and they can be harsh. Kids who don’t play well soon find themselves ostracized and alone. Peer pressure isn’t just a thing in Japanese society. It’s the only thing, and children learn to behave in public very quickly without much interference from adults. Teachers don’t usually need to enforce discipline, and from what I’ve seen they really don’t know how enforce it when it is needed.
Japanese society is quite ruthless about excluding anyone who can’t follow the norms of good behavior. There are stories of seeing children being allowed to fight or quarrel among themselves over toys or some such, and later, when the observer returns, he discovers the child who had been aggressive and pushy is ignored and alone while the rest of the children play together.
Even when students start budo at an early age, there is an expectation of self-control. The judo dojo in Omihachiman always had a few toddlers just out of diapers running around in dogi. The toddlers were gently encouraged to copy the older children, but if they went off script and sat in Sensei’s lap, that was greeted with an indulgent smile. By the time they were about 4 years old, they were capable of taking part in class, sitting at attention when called for without anyone having to yell or make a fuss. They learned self-discipline within the culture of the dojo and society at large.
In Japan, by the time most people start a martial art, usually in a junior or senior high school club, they are expected to have self-discipline already. Anyone without it won’t last. It won’t become an issue the sensei has to deal with. Their fellow students won’t put up with them. Japanese groups won’t tolerate undisciplined members. For self-discipline, it doesn’t matter whether the budo is old or new in Japan. Students are expected to enter the gate with self-discipline.
Discipline in the traditional dojo is modeled by the members, not dictated by the teacher. All that is required of a new student is that she sincerely work to learn the proper etiquette and behavior. I’ve been in dojo in Japan long enough to have been through the process myself and to have seen new Japanese students enter the dojo and learn.
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New students in Japan don’t come into the dojo with arrogance, or even an air of confidence. New students are expected to enter the gate with sincere humility and a sincere desire to learn. As long as the student is sincerely working at learning the way things are done in the dojo they won’t have problems and mistakes will be forgiven and gently corrected. One thing you will NEVER hear from a new student or guest is “In my dojo we do it this way.” If you’re in a dojo, you’re there to learn, not show what you know or how you’ve done it somewhere else.
This applies not just among Japanese children ostracizing kids who won’t play well, but also to large, socially awkward non-Japanese as well. I’m surprised at how generously I was tolerated as I blundered around the judo dojo when I first moved to Japan. I think I was regarded much as one of the toddlers in dogi running around the dojo were regarded; I was too lacking in proper learning and development to know how to behave.
By the time I moved to Japan, I’d been doing Judo for 4 years, so I’d sort of learned the basics of good dojo behavior. But in the years I spent in Japan I absorbed much more. I learned to really appreciate the simple respect and expectation of self-discipline that was embodied by everyone in the dojo.
Arriving in Japan fresh out of college and quite full of what I thought I knew, I made more mistakes than I can bear to remember in these sorts of things. I lacked the awareness of what everyone else was doing and what they would think of me that is an essential part of learning and entering the dojo as humbly as students in Japan should. The patience which my teachers and fellow students showed me as I slowly learned humility and emptied my cup amazes me still.
If dojo in Japan enforced discipline in the harsh way movies often imagine I would have been beaten into silence any number of times for my cocky, heedless behavior when I first arrived in Japan. I was greeted with calm patience instead. I did eventually learn to sincerely try to see what was going on around me, but it took longer than I care to admit.
The big, bearded gaijin was treated with much the same sort of indulgence as a toddler when I first showed up at the dojo. I knew the some of the basics of dojo behavior, like when to bow, but I was completely lacking in the finer points of good behavior, of good self-discipline. I didn’t know how to properly receive an answer to a question or a particular point of instruction. I remember Hikoso Sensei teaching me about footsweeps one day. I had asked something about the timing, and Sensei carefully showed it to me once. Then he turned to someone else. I was disappointed because he hadn’t gone into the details and spent time working with me until I “got it.” What I didn’t understand then was the expectation between teacher and student that the teacher would show it, and then the student would go off on their own and work on the particular point rigorously by herself. The teacher or coach doesn’t expect to stand there making endless small corrections. The student is expected to woodshed the point until she understands it deeply and fully.
My endless questions about things that I could have figured out for myself with enough work on my own were handled with what I realize now was a touch of disappointment that I was 23 years old and still so immature. I’m lucky I didn’t find koryu budo until I’d been in Japan for several years. By then I had started to absorb some of the Japanese ideas about personal dedication and effort. I learned that if I asked a question about maki otoshi in jodo one week, I’d better show that I was listening to the answer by putting in a few hours of polishing the technique before the next practice so Sensei could see that I was paying attention. Japanese children learn to apply themselves in that way very early from their parents. If a child is taking piano lessons or shodo class or karate, she is expected to be as dedicated in her practice away from the teacher as she is when the teacher is standing next to her.
The common image of the Japanese sensei yelling and berating their students isn’t false, but it’s not as common as the mythology would have it, and it’s missing the necessary context.. A Sensei doesn’t start yelling and berating students until she feels the students are dedicated to the practice already. Most of my teachers in Japan have not been fond of yelling. They just don’t give you any energy if they think you won’t do anything with it. Whatever you do is “good” because they don’t want to waste time on you. When the teacher starts paying attention to you and tearing apart your technique you know you’re doing something right.
I do have one or two who like yelling. The funny thing is they never yell at new students. They seem to base their attention on who they feel is the most dedicated, and one sure way to show dedication is travel six thousand miles to train with them. Then you really get some attention. It can be disconcerting and downright frightening to have a senior teacher yelling at you with this kind of intensity. He expects you to have the self-control and dedication to knuckle down and do what he’s demanding. If you don’t already have it, you’re not going to survive in the dojo. Those who don’t have it tend to leave at the end of the night and not come back.
The English idea that discipline is, as the Cambridge Dictionary defines it “training that makes people more willing to obey or more able to control themselves, often in the form of rules, and punishments if these are broken, or the behaviour produced by this training”. In Western society, discipline is something imposed from outside to train Discipline is assumed in budo in Japan, whether it’s koryu or gendai. It’s just there when the student enters the dojo, or they aren’t welcome. The situation in the USA is vastly different. Society doesn’t assume children can have discipline. There is no real expectation that everyone will learn to follow the group and behave accordingly. This puts a different requirement on budo teachers in America if we want students. We have to be ready to impose a certain amount of discipline from the outside because we can’t automatically assume that our students come with it built-in. What’s thought of as “teaching discipline” in the US just doesn’t exist in Japan. Japanese students learn that sort of self-control and develop the ability and maturity to apply themselves with dedication very early. Martial arts teachers don’t have to teach that; they expect discipline to be there before the student knocks at the gate.