Martial art training in Japan - Karate and Kobujutsu

The context of this essay is mainly in Yuishinkai style karate and its “sister” school of Ryukyu kobujutsu. Most of the assumptions are made based on the personal experience by the writer upon his visit to Japan in April 2010.

Structure of the dōjō

Guardian of the roof cornerIn most cases when it comes to a more traditional group of practitioners, the training place is often located at a home of the most of devoted person. This often translates to the teacher of the given art in the area.

This was the case with most of the teachers and training places I visited during my journey.

Exceptions were nevertheless nothing less special, for example one training area was inside a temple and another one upstairs of a car repair service.

Where people position themselves depends of the group hierarchy. This will be expressed more in detail further in this text.

Each of the three prefecture branches that I visited had their own, slightly different style in the training formation.

While in Tokyo the first part consisted of yuishinkai karate kihon, in Shimizu the trainings were either completely devoted to karate or kobujutsu. In Wakayama the training was solely for kobujutsu.

It often occurs that the clubs affiliated to the Preservation society, have done already for decades some other karate style and therefore take part only in the kobujutsu section.

Sitting and practising order is highly dependent of ones status in the group. This will by far translate directly  as the belt grade one possesses.

Members listedThis might struck many foreigner practitioners as the difference in years spent practising are often much higher with the foreigner as oppose to their counterpart, a Japanese holding the same grade.

For example it is common to achieve a first grade black belt, shodan, in two years of active training while in Japan. The case for most foreign countries the years are doubled or tripled easily.

It might seem that their technical level is lower than of those who have practised longer, but it is often the case that the Japanese have a better understanding of the culture surrounding the martial arts. This is what most foreigners lack.

Having said that, often there is a backfire and the foreigner who needs to struggle much further, becomes more skilled in all the areas of martial arts, after a certain amount of more years are spent in the study. This could be 20...30.

It all comes down to the requirement of constant progress.

In the dōjō or a specific place just for the given group, for example the Meiji University kobujutsu club has their own office, has a collection of all the names of the members. These are usually place on a wall, in a high position. Each name is on a separate wooden plate, which hangs aligned with the others, in a specific order of hierarchy.

These names are never positioned to the shomen side of the room, nor to the back side. Common place is on the side wall, which is further away from the entrance.

Often the walls are filled with ancient group pictures, certificates granted by the founder and kobujutsu weapons. Surprisingly one wall was usually left without any decoration. The position of this wall in relation to the shomen and the entrance would differ and therefore a rule for its definition is hard to come up.

Structure of the training followed always very similar path. Bō kihon was done from both sides, each part (kamae, uke, seme) were separated with a bow.

Consistently this was followed by bō kata, primarily shuji sho and in depending of the location and their daily plan, followed by perhaps sakugawa sho and shuji dai.

After these basic kumite for bō were executed, this was performed from both sides as were the basic techniques.

In general the way of practising kobujutsu in Japan seems more formal and less aggressive from the surface but with more experienced opponents the fight still continues even if hidden.

Twisting this way... Foreigners seem to miss this while viewing the differences and therefore make wrong conclusions.

Surely in training this way it will take longer to grasp the idea of the proper fighting spirit and mentality which then eventually creates the understanding of peace and harmony.

It just might be that the native Japanese understand the aspect of harmony much better, it is after all, a part of their daily life.

Green tea has a great importance in the Japanese society thus it is often present in the martial arts. Between the trainings or immediately after the practitioners might gather together to discuss of the things that went down in the training and what to look in the near future while having a cup of green tea. Surely this kind of an opportunity depended of the location and the time of hour when the training took place.

It seemed that Japanese practitioners never go out for an alcoholic drink after the training.

This is something that the foreigners might do while staying just for a little while in the country.

Northern European countries share the same custom. Only on a special occasion would the practitioners go and have drinks. Where as in the Southern Europe it seems to be more like a rule than an exception to go after the training to relax with a beer or two while chatting in similar manner as the Japanese with green tea.

Important lines of kata

The harmony which is greatly involved in every action taken by the Japanese, is also expressed by certain rules of arrangements in the trainings.

For example the techniques always begin and end from a direct line towards shomen. Practitioners are aligned with the surrounding walls or anything that could be considered as a distinction of space.

If the angle of 90° or 180° degrees is not use, then it is by far 45°. Any other angle is considered to be a momentarily adjustment when it is found in the official version of the technique.

At first glance these limitations might seem overshoot of control but one must remember the small space each practitioner has in the traditional Japanese dōjō and perhaps realise by then that they are primarily for safety.

Those who can run in the vast wilderness of Nordic countries, have plenty of space to yield their bō around. This of course is not the proper mentality of budō.

Lines and angles give structure and accuracy to the technique. Without them a kata would be just a collection of random techniques to a random directions, if any. When one needs to face the sometimes problematic requirements of keeping a certain line on which the performance is made, one would most definitely keep progressing technically up to a certain point.

It is that point where the practitioner has become too accustomed to the prearranged form, that the form looses its essence.

Kata is considered to be an encyclopedia of a given area in that martial art, thus containing plenty of secret material. Without paying attention to this vast amount of information which is actually practised while performing a given kata, it becomes only executing the outer image of those movements. Therefore each kata comes with its corresponding drills for paired fights. These simply contain the mere surface again of all the possibilities but work as a good starting point for expanding the martial knowledge.

After studying a bit further one can realise that most of the different kata contain the same basic elements. This is natural in a sense that in comparison all books have pages and those pages are made of paper. Kata can contain a similar sequence of individual techniques such as sukui uke – ura uchi – furi age – jodan uchi. As can many books share similar words, even similar sentences. The variation in this sequence often occurs as dropping out the technique in the middle or replacing it with something else, often to point out a different direction of evasion.

Now this importance was eminent in Japan, kata performance was followed by a basic versions of explanation drills.

One another thing to point out on the limitations made regarding the use of equipments was the demand for fixed grip of the bō. This too had its differences between the training places and teachers but initially all share the similar rule, while both hands on the stick, they should divide it in three parts each of equal length.

道As an example that rule is one of the ways to make the art standard and that way more consistent with the expanding number of practitioners around the World. More advanced practitioners can and should study the different aspects in holding the weapon. During a fight one might partially or completely loose the comfortable grip and need to find a different way to come out of the situation.

In relation to belt grades and specially to their colours, only the students in Meiji University used other colours than black or white. All the other places the practitioners had either been training too little for becoming a black belt and so they wore a white belt, or just wore a black belt. In distinction for the leader of the dōjō, in case the teacher was not yet achieved the level of shihan, they had a golden stripe throughout the belt. A belt of shihan has a red stripe.

None of the practitioners needed to carry any weapons with them, as all the equipment needed except the training outfit was stored in the dōjō. This makes it much safer to walk as one does not need to convince the police in case they would have stopped one carrying the whole arsenal of ancient tools.

Here others respect each other and others property in such a way that one can leave their expensive weapon to the dōjō.

Outside Japan this would be impossible, that is why we foreigners need to carry all of our weapons with us.

This could also be a sign of trust between the dōjō and the practitioner. As one has their name on the wall, one belongs to this group and in this sense has a lease on the dōjō.

No one ever wore any inappropriate outfit in the trainings, Japanese wore always a clean white training outfit. As the dōjō was usually small and located at someone’s home, in the first floor, there were no showers nor changing rooms. Changing the outfit was done at the opposite side of shomen, where there were open closets for placing clothes in them. It was paid attention that the outfits were tidy during the class, before and after the changing was done swiftly.

How one handles weapons, would they be hands, feet or any other, is only a part of the martial art. How one carries him/herself, the manners outside the dōjō and the overall discipline of life is how the martial valour is measured.

Therefore one should try to become better person, not just become technically better to use ones body as a weapon. Ultimately the true value is seen in all the other actions.

Manners when not in a battle

One should keep in mind the relation of ones seniors and juniors. These are called sempai and kohai, respectively.

It is not always clear the relation between two practitioners or persons but as it comes to martial arts, in Japan the grade, noted with a belt colour or number of stripes or any other means, is the most valuable measurement.

An occasion of one having a sempai who has only half of the years spent in the given martial art is more likely to be inevitable.

Respect, honour and dignity. The essence of a bow.Foreigner can be easily tricked to think that their superiority has now been recognised and they now can step up in the hierarchy. It is a mistake to believe that. One should never forget the humility and sincerity which is by all effort taught by the Japanese masters.

Important point to remember is that the relationship between two people never changes when it comes to sempai and kohai relation. The initial positioning is kept until the end of life. This is why it is considered a conflict is someone would become in a position, perhaps with grades, that it would supersede some of ones previous seniors.

Balance must be...

When it comes to entering a place, picking up something, or similar, one should always be alert to offer assistance to ones seniors. This should be done in a polite manner as well. Rushing to open a door is not right kind of approach. Instead this should be foreseen and one should situate oneself in a position where opening the door is with the natural flow.

This kind of action should appear everywhere. That is how harmony is found inside and outside dōjō.

Another example would be of a seating position. In case of ones senior sits on the floor, even if there is a sofa behind them, one should also sit on the floor if a permission to such approach is given.

These kind of ideologies are not easy to grasp by a foreigner and that can be one of the reasons why getting progressing in grades will never be the same as with native Japanese who has been taught to this culture from birth.

Donate blood, also in JapanPouring tea, sake or choosing weapons should follow the same hierarchy. Seniors should be able to drink or to choose weapon first.

It is a fortune for Nordic people to have slightly similar culture, even thought far from it, but if we can understand to respect our own elders, we can start to grasp the ideas behind the Japanese culture.

The path is long, curvy and sometimes misleading, but we each travel it with our own speed and in our own, sometimes different, direction.