What is the “entering” process? Where do you begin in joining a Japanese martial art? In my last entry, I indulged myself and waxed nostalgic about how I got started in budo. It was fun to compare notes with some readers who talked about their own experiences and motivations. This entry will be more informative, mainly for folk who are new to budo, or classical Japanese martial arts. For the rest of you who have years behind your belts…heck, you know it. But let me indulge.
Anyway, I’ve had enough years and joined enough clubs to have some idea of what to do/not to do, so maybe some suggestions may prove helpful to those of you just starting out.
Finding your way
So let’s say you are either a teenager or adult and decided that hey, maybe some vigorous exercise would take some weight off your gut, and learning to defend yourself might be a valuable plus, and you would like to give traditional Japanese martial arts a try. You went to some MMA workout sessions, some kung fu, Tae Kwon Do, escrima, boxing, amateur wrestling, basket weaving classes…They’re all good, but somehow they don’t appeal to you as much as sweating in those cool-looking white cotton jackets do.
You find some traditional Japanese martial arts school addresses in the phone book, from posters and flyers, or from word of mouth. You call them up, ask to observe a session. Whether you show up stone cold or not, you should always ask to observe a class before jumping in. That’s not only good for you to get the “lay of the land,” but for the instructor to talk with you and go over any preflight paperwork or discussions before the training.
Having a shokai, or someone who knows both you and the sensei (instructor) vouch for your own good character is not terribly necessary anymore. If it’s a very traditional dojo, especially what we call a koryu (more on that in a while), it’s a very nice touch, but no longer a requirement. It used to be a pretty important part of whether or not you got your foot in the door in times past, however, and if you do have a buddy who is already training there, or know a friend of the sensei, that does help because it’s a traditional form of Japanese etiquette. The sensei feels a connection to you, and there is someone he trusts who will attest to your character.
Here’s the deal. When we discuss classical, or “traditional” Japanese budo (martial “arts,” rather, they should be called martial “Ways,” but nobody uses this term in the popular English vernacular), we are talking about those schools that are embedded in Japanese cultural matrix. Some of these traditions and habits are wonderful and I think it will echo or add to your own best cultural habits. Some of these traditions can be maddeningly awkward and (to our minds) backwards. But they’re part of the whole package. You can enjoy and endure it, or you can just leave and do something without that baggage, such as cardio kick-boxing. Nobody’s stopping you. But you can’t have it both ways.
Do you feel bowing to another person or the enshrined spirit of the dojo (training hall) goes against your fundamentalist Christian belief that you bow to no one other than Christ? There’s the door. Don’t let it hit your butt on the way out. Do you have a thing against training with women or people from a different religion, ethnicity or sexual persuasion? Well, as that popular YouTube video says, “Don’t be ninjering nobody that don’t need ninjering.” Don’t expect to have your prejudices and eat it too.
The traditions, in fact, are the flavoring that sets classical budo apart from other martial arts, and if you don’t like that, then you simply have to accept that your tastes run to other forms of martial arts. Case closed.
In any case, you are allowed to observe a class. I’ve been on both ends, as a teacher and as a potential student, and here’s what you really should do to get off on the right foot. Come dressed appropriately. Don’t show up in your ten-day old sweat pants and t-shirt with holes in ‘em and chili nacho stains all over. You may think it makes you look rugged and tough. That only makes you look like a scum bag. You don’t have to be dressed for a Senior Prom, but wear clean, informal clothes such as a washed polo shirt to show respect to the dojo and teacher. Don’t let your boobs hang out by wearing low-cut, tight bikini tops. And that goes for you women, too. Think more like Sunday School, less like gym class.
One of the things you have to get out of your mind is that a dojo is not simply an Orientalish workout gym that’s for purely physical grunt-and-groan training. It’s not. Whether the training space is a beautifully handcrafted post-and-beam, polished and oiled wood structure, or a rented room at the YMCA, a dojo is a place for mental and spiritual polishing, not just physical exertion. So you pay respect with your proper attire. And a traditional teacher WILL notice. He/She will notice things even if he (I’ll use the male pronoun from here on, but there are women budo teachers as well as men) doesn’t say anything about it.
As much as you are checking out the practice and instructor, the instructor is checking you out the moment you stepped through the doorway.
So you come in, introduce yourself, ask to observe the class, and sit where you’re told to sit for visitors. Sit properly, without being too stiff or without slouching over. Perish the thought, but don’t get horizontal and open up a bag of potato chips. Again, quietly observe the class as a way of showing respect. Wait until there’s a break and the instructor has time to talk to you, or wait until the end of the session. Don’t try to engage the teacher in the middle of class unless he makes the first move.
Even if you’re so excited you can barely hold your pee in because you so badly want to join, wait. The worst thing you can do is go up to the teacher in the middle of training and tug on his sleeves and beg him to join. You can jump up and down with joy and wet your pants later, at the end of class. The teacher is busy. And out of the corner of his eyes, he’s watching you.
–This etiquette of sitting quietly, by the way, nearly did in a friend of mine. We had a nice laugh over dinner as he recounted the situation. Having trained in various forms of Asian martial arts for decades, he was steeped in their culture and tradition. One of his friends one day suggested a Western body-movement studio to help rehabilitate his nagging back ache. So he called, made an appointment to observe a class, went to the studio, and sat in a corner and watched. Quietly. All six-foot-six, heavily muscled, bald-head of him sat quietly, without uttering a word, through a whole session while the female teacher and her student worked through body stretching machines in tight-fitting leotards. Shoulder rotations. Leg splits. The teacher (who eventually overcame her initial qualms and actually married the lug) felt unnerved, she said, because of his stoic silence. Was this guy a masher?
In a Japanese budo setting, my friend was being very polite. In a small room with two women spreading their limbs apart, the silence and attentive behavior seemed like stalking. So you should temper your behavior when it is appropriate!
In sitting quietly and observing class, you are already starting the process of entering the training. Observing (kengaku) is, after all, one form of training. The instructor is also observing your behavior and bearing and if you appear attentive, that’s a positive character trait for a potential student.
In a typical traditional dojo, classes are often small, maybe 20 or less students. Bigger dojo, even in Japan, can range higher, but there will be more assistant instructors to spread the teaching load around. Any bigger than 20 without higher ranked students helping to teach and I wouldn’t recommend the class. In Japan I’ve trained in dojo that sometimes only had two people, including me and another student, besides our teacher. And I’ve been in classes where several clubs would train together that had upwards of 50 people, but at least ten of them were fourth dan (a high “black belt” rank) or higher. So the ratio of beginners to advanced people still ended up about 1 to 5. Personal, specific instruction is one of the nice traits of classical training.
Look at the class and study the environment. Besides the student-teacher/higher ranked student ratio, is the dojo hygienic? My first judo hall was in a dilapidated meeting hall whose walls were more termite bodies than wood, but the mats were always kept clean.
Observe the interaction between the teacher and the students and between students.
Dave Lowry, an author whose writings are an excellent resource for any martial artist (his books are available at Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com), advises that you look at the sensei and try to envision him without that magical cloak of sensei-ness. Strip him of his black belt and white gi (training outfit) and in your imagination place him in an outside environment. Is his character someone you would trust in an office setting? In the streets? In a school? With your children?
The difficulty of training will range, depending on the level of skill and the style of martial arts. Back in the early 1960s and 1970s, during the first American martial arts “boom,” a lot of dojo sprang up run by former military servicemen or college exchange students who received a couple years’ worth of training in Japan or Okinawa. Their version of training, therefore, sometimes ran towards the militaristic and–some might say–fanatic. –Ten thousand push ups before you have knock-down-drag-out sparring sessions. That’s how they learned it in the Old Country and they mixed it up with gentle tidbits gleaned from their own modern military boot camp workouts. (“Yes Sensei! Five thousand front kicks, sir! Right away! Hoo-yah!”) I daresay if you like that kind of training, some of those sensei are still around, leading the exercises with arthritic knees and deformed fists. But by and large, I think you should find that modern budo training should be a lot more along the likes of a very focused, attentive physical workshop than a drop-dead from sheer exhaustion test of nerves. –Unless you LIKE that kind of training, and I’m sure you’ll find it.
There are also different forms of traditional budo: The “modern”’ forms such as judo, aikido, iaido, kendo, karatedo, naginata-do. There are also the rarer “old” forms, or koryu, which are distinctive subsets of swordsmanship (kenjutsu), sword-drawing (iaijutsu), grappling (jujutsu), jo, and so on.
Maybe you’re not so drawn to competitive grappling after you’ve seen a judo class. Well, maybe you might enjoy fistic sparring a la modern, AAU-type karate. Or you like karate kata more than sparring, so you could find your way to a traditional Okinawan style karate school. Or you like banging people over the head with a bamboo stick: try kendo. Or you just want to go through forms for the sheer beauty of it and your competitive days are behind you: try the koryu. There are a lot of flavors and tastes in just classical Japanese martial arts alone.
–Just a caveat: The modern budo forms are often run in America through large national governing bodies. There may be some maverick schools, but by and large, most of them adhere to a standardized and clearly discernible training method. There are national and state organizations for judo, aikido, kendo, and karate. So if you join a judo club and the teacher begins to teach you “secret judo-ninja stars throwing methods,” it’s easy to find out whether this is legitimately part of the art or not.
The koryu schools, however, are by their nature smaller and more fragmented. Where there is only one kendo standard of training, to which many state kendo federations work towards, there are a variety of, say, kenjutsu schools based on different strains and traditions. A Yagyu Shinkage-ryu kenjutsu school will have different kata (forms) and training methods compared to an Ono-ha Itto-ryu kenjutsu school. This is great for preserving a variety of ancient, historical techniques. But it’s also a lot easier for a scam artist to make up his own koryu form because there’s no comparative national and international standard against which to compare it. I’ll discuss the problem of fake teachers later. For now, be forewarned.
There is no national certifying body for koryu in America, but you can go online and make a query in discussion sites like e-budo.com, or at the Shudokan Martial Arts Association, or by reading up on posted stories about koryu at koryubooks.com.
Sign me up!
So let’s say you really like what you see, you like the vibes of the class. You want to join. You talk to the teacher or one of his sempai (top students) for more info.
The reality of modern day martial arts practice is that you have to pay dues. Even in Japan or China, there’s no such thing as the romantic notion that you are going to mooch off your sensei and train 24/7 in martial arts for years and years until you master the Dim Mak Death Touch of David Carradine, God rest his whacked-out soul. Your teacher has to pay his bills, just like anybody else.
How much tuition is reasonable? That depends. Professional or semi-professional martial arts teachers need to eat, so they will charge you appropriately. I’ve heard that in some places, upwards to $100 a month is considered ho-hum. I charge $35 a month, and all of it from my five students go towards covering the rent. My friend uses a spare room in a recreation center for free so he charges only $5 a month to cover sundry supplies. I would think, however, that if you pay more, you should expect more, such as more training time, relatively speaking, or better facilities. Due to its popularity, MMA and composite grappling schools charge a pretty penny, but you may find that nonprofit judo clubs, which teach pretty much the same thing except you do a lot more bowing, may even be free for little kids, or only a few bucks a month. So tuition varies wildly.
Some schools will charge an initial sign-up fee. That’s appropriate. I’m not a big fan of long term contracts. If you end up not liking the class after one or two sessions, you should be able to quit without taking a big monetary hit due to a contract.
Practice times: I only train once a week due to my busy work schedule, although I really would like to have structured training times at least twice a week. For larger, better-run schools, two or three times a week is a really good schedule. You should try to see if the training times meet your own work and family schedule. Ask what they think would be the best frequency of training for you if you can’t make each and every session.
It is not bad behavior to ask a teacher, at this point in your steps toward enrolling, what the provenance of the school and his own training are. If a teacher sniffs and says, “Only the top students are allowed to learn the secret origins of my Baka-Tare-ryu,” then thank him and leave as fast as you can. Something is rotten. In asian cultures, a mark of pride is the ability to trace oneself to one’s teacher and teacher’s teacher. That shows a connection to an appropriate lineage, like how proper breeding records are a mark of pride for dog owners in the American Kennel Club. If it’s a purebreed, he’s got papers. If it’s a mutt, then he should say it’s a mutt.
The sensei may then ask about your own background. He’s as curious about you as you may be about the school. Be forthright and honest. Consider it like a job interview. If you were in a different martial art school, but left, be honest about your training history, but (like describing a former job) don’t badmouth the previous teacher or school needlessly. It reflects badly on you. If you had legitimate reasons for leaving, then of course you can offer them up: You moved across country. You hurt your back so tumbling is out, kendo is in. You can’t do competitive judo anymore due to bad knees so you thought you’d try naginata…
I wouldn’t say things like, “Man, I didn’t like krotty point competition and quit because it’s unrealistic in a street fight, I wanna learn your jew-jits because it looks like it kicks ass!” Uh-uh. Bad idea.
When my jujutsu sensei encouraged me to start a club in Hawaii, he said, “Don’t worry about how strong or tough new students are, or how good they are in martial arts to begin with. Get students who have good character, because your students’ personal character is how people will judge your school.”
I’ve made mistakes in character judgements over the years, but by and large, I’ve come to realize the truth of my teacher’s words. I try to encourage people with good character to stay, and shady characters to leave. When you are talking to a potential teacher, be on your best, most humane behavior. You don’t have to make “big body,” you don’t have to show how macho you are. Just be yourself, and hopefully you, unvarnished, are a person that the teacher will like.
In other words, how you comport yourself, how much respect and self-control attitude you display may have more impact on a teacher like me than any physical or technical skills you may have in the beginning. And at least for me, having a sense of humor is a plus. Budo is serious. It can be deadly. It can be exhausting (but hopefully NOT sadistic). But really, the reason you signed up is because it’s a whole ton of fun, isn’t it? Laughter, when appropriate, should be allowed in the dojo.
Readers: Comments on your first encounters with a budo school?