Living and Training Karate in Japan & differences across Western countries

Japanese and Western dojo(s), comparisons made by a Westerner who lived in Japan with a karate master
 by Dr. Jason Armstrong, Ph.D., authored 2005

sotokawa sensei 8th dan shito-ryu karate
What is it like to test for a belt in Japan as a Westerner? Or to live with a Master? Karate flavour differences between the USA & Australia relative to Japan?

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 (but have returned to living and teaching karate in Australia).

Pciture: Sotokawa Sensei an 8th Dan who gained his 3rd Dan with Kenwa Mabuni sensei (founder of Shito-ryu) on hits belt test panel (photo taken 1997).

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 (WKF) in Australia is very high, which is quite a departure from the art, and the practical application component is less in such dojo(s). I dont feel sport karate is bad, but simply state that it is a different path compared to the art of karate. Given Australias 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, bit it is far less that way than the USA or Japan). 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, as well as the focus on perdonal development in training. 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 reinforce the precept behind Japanese Karate of one hit one kill (Ikken Isatsu in Japanese - while unlikley in a fight it emphasizes impact, not point scoring & bunkai heavily includes such things as head buts, knees to the groin and these things are a high proportion of training). In comparsion, the six or eight point matches in WKF fighting favor such things as jodan mawashi-geri or ushiro mawashi geri by scroing them the highest, when in fact the emergency deaprtment and police records show these are the least likely to be effective in the street. The underlying theme of the one point ippon shobu 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 nights training with the key point being mind state re-enforcement.
kumite fighting karate
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 the 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 i.e. if a block, will break their opponents arm, and if a strike will kill the opponent's mindset in addiiotn to the impact damage. The reason for the repetitive training was mindset (fundoshin) 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 had been training for 50 years) got together and chose to work single count basic drills rather than advanced forms, or technique, says something very important.
kyoto shrine
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 (an exception lies in those above 5th Dan of course as they enetr the "ha" of "shuhari"). 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 appeasr to me to be not often mentioned in a large majprity of Australia karate dodjo(s). In Japan I found it is often not mentioned, or talked about in the dojo directly, but innately exists (as was eluded to in a couple of examples above). The US in comparison, appears to me to have a very large percentage of very avid teachers of this side of the martial arts. Howevre, in Japan I did have many insightful discussions on "Zen" related topics over post-training drinks, and out-of-office situations in business, which seemed to be the forum for the heart of such matters to be really opened up. 

Picture: Jason Armstrong with Seto Sensei of the Shotokan JKA at his dojo in Tokyo 2002.

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