Showing posts with label self-discipline. Show all posts
Showing posts with label self-discipline. Show all posts

Monday, February 19, 2018

Discipline and the Martial Arts in Japan

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.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Martial Arts Lessons and Character

Self defense
Self discipline
Self confidence
Self respect

Google “martial arts advertising” and you’ll find a limitless supply of advertisements proclaiming that martial arts practice teaches these. They are good things. I certainly won’t dispute that developing good self defense skills, self discipline, self confidence, and self respect is good for anyone.

Yes, self defense skills are wonderful. No one is going to argue that self discipline isn’t important. Self confidence and self respect are both awesome. All of these traits are drilled and reinforced by martial arts practice. My concern is that I’ve encountered too many martial artists who haven’t developed these things in a healthy, balanced manner. What happens when things get out of balance?

Learning self defense by training in martial arts seems redundant, but it has to be addressed. Everyone who trains for a while will run into people who have learned this lesson badly. These are the guys who develop some skill but never quite learn when and where to apply the skills.  They have self defense skills, and perhaps self respect, but they haven’t learned to respect others, and it shows in how they use their skills. They can be seen subtly, and not so subtly, bullying the people they train with, making strikes and throws harder and more brutal than necessary. They use the implied threat of their skills to intimidate their training partners and the people they deal with in and out of the dojo. Hardly the ideal of what self defense training should develop into.

Self confidence is often what gives us the courage to attempt something new or to go into something that isn’t a sure bet. Having it means not hesitating to do little things.  Being self-confident means being willing to take risks, even if the main risk is to our ego. It’s amazing how often the biggest thing being risked is our ego or a little personal embarrassment, and that risk is too great. Healthy self-confidence includes being able to take those risks and be ok with the results whether you succeed or fail.  Where self-confidence fails us is when we have too much of it. Think of all the arrogant jerks who really believe they can do no wrong in the dojo. Where do they get it? Where is this arrogance learned?

Self discipline is a wonderful trait, and I often wish I had more of it. I’ve seen what can happen when when you have a good stock of this. I’ve also seen people get too disciplined. That guy in the dojo who wants to make it into a lower weight division who diets to an unhealthy level while bragging about how his self-discipline helps him do it. Or the woman who trains day in and day out without taking a break, never giving her body time to rest and recover, even when she’s injured. There’s self-discipline, but it isn’t leavened by any wisdom.
Self-respect is wonderful. It’s the healthy recognition of our own value as human beings. That knowledge gives us the mental strength to not be destroyed by every bit of criticism. Even more, it braces us against the pressure that comes from all sides of society to change or do things just so other people will like us. Without self-respect, we can be talked into all sorts of things because those around us want us to do something. Peers can push us to dress in a certain way, behave badly, they can even convince us to be disrespectful to one person in order to impress another. Self-respect though has to be balanced with respect for those around us, or you’re just a jerk.

Most of the advertisements I run across seem to be aimed at parents, but there are plenty of adults who would like to have self-defense skills and improved self-confidence and self-respect. Martial arts training, without question, should make us better at some sort of combat, but the other stuff? How does learning to fight really improve general self-confidence, or self-respect, or self-discipline? Frankly, does the combat training really improve self-defense skills, or does it teach something else?

Beautiful handmade weapons bags

Martial arts are often taught in a style that I don’t think will do too much for developing any of the character traits advertised. How does standing in rows repeating techniques develop personality traits? Even practicing techniques and skills with partners won’t necessarily teach anything but the techniques. It’s even quite possible to learn bad lessons that develop poor character from working with partners.

Training with partners, you’re likely to learn what sort of character your partners have. Someone who has learned to boost his own self-confidence by abusing less skilled partners will abuse you. He’ll make the pin too hard or crank the joint lock a couple degrees further than is really necessary or throw you hard while doing nothing to take the sting out of the fall. This is certainly not the way to learn how to respect your partner, much less yourself.

If the teacher is arrogant and disrespectful of his students, then the students will learn to be arrogant and disrespectful to those around them. Even if the teacher is not arrogant or disrespectful, if he permits seniors to be arrogant and disrespectful towards more junior students, the students learn that arrogance and disrespect are acceptable.

In classes where students are not treated with respect by teachers, there is no reason to expect the students to learn self-confidence or respect. A self-confident teacher isn’t afraid to make a mistake or be wrong. That’s what her self-confidence is all about. A teacher who has confidence in herself, and respects herself, will give students individual respect and the room to develop self-confidence.

There are far too many ways a teacher can give students lessons in poor character, and sadly there are far too many people with less than wonderful character teaching martial arts. Martial arts practiced in such a way teach students the physical aspects of the art without learning anything about character or maturity. Teachers can be arrogant and teach that anyone who isn’t good enough should be ridiculed. Students who ask difficult questions can be treated with condescension.  Everyone can be abused, and only those who suffer the abuse without complaint or cry can be called worthy. When I think about it, it’s as if there are more ways to teach martial arts badly than to do it well.

There is a delicate balance. How do we teach self-defense without teaching how to bully and abuse?  How do we teach confidence without teaching arrogance? How do we teach students to value others while we are teaching them to value themselves? How do we teach confidence without shading over into cockiness?

Martial arts studios, dojo, and dojang, have to make time to emphasize something other than the raw violence of what we train. In the judo dojo that I love to be in, the reminders for safety and mutual concern and respect between partners are as frequent a part of the discourse as are the suggestions for improving throws and joint locks. No one is going to learn a lesson that isn’t being taught. If a martial arts school advertises that they teach self-defense, self-respect, self-confidence and self-discipline, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask “How do you teach that?”  

Rory Miller and Marc MacYoung are always making the point that self-defense is a legal concept, and that if you don’t know what constitutes self-defense legally, you can put yourself in all kinds of trouble. If the school claims to teach self-defense, do they teach anything about appropriate response and the complexity of the situation, or do they default to cheap slogans like “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six”?  Does the school spend time emphasizing how rare the use of force should be and what might appropriately call for it, or do they throw out techniques and let students figure it out for themselves?

When a school says it teaches self-discipline, do they teach self-discipline or just discipline? Self-discipline is about being able to focus and do something on your own. Does the school give students time to work on things on their own, or is every moment scheduled and directed and driven by a teacher? Unless students have time on their own, they’ll never learn how to direct and discipline themselves. No one can learn self-discipline while external discipline is locked down tight. Students need room to develop their internal self as well as the cool physical skills.

How does the school teach self-respect? Or more importantly to me, do they teach respect for self and others? Do the teachers and senior students model respect and treat everyone with respect? Or do they belittle and abuse anyone below them in the hierarchy? Are students treated with appropriate praise and legitimate criticism or are they yelled at and demeaned when they make a mistake?

Self-respect and self-confidence are closely aligned. Do students have the opportunity to work on goals without the constant pushing and driving of instructors and fellow students? Do students have the opportunity to fail? Real self-confidence comes from knowing you can do things yourself, not that you can be moved along a track with others as long as you pay the monthly dues and the test fee. It’s not until we’ve experienced some failure and kept on going that our self-confidence and self-respect become genuine and deep. If the bar is set so everyone always passes, or if students don’t have the chance to fail, they won’t develop genuine self-confidence or self-respect. At best they’ll have the illusion of it, which will be fine until something happens to put stress on that confidence and respect, and then it will shatter.  Genuine self-confidence can handle the setbacks. Genuine self-respect won’t be damaged by what comes from outside because it has the depth to absorb the damage that life inflicts.

If the school isn’t actively working at teaching these lessons, it probably isn’t teaching them passively either. Despite the myths and legends, good character is not an automatic byproduct of martial arts training.  Advertising is nice, but what do students really learn in martial arts class?