Recently, when I was in Japan for advanced training, a fellow student approached me for some personal advice related to martial arts. I suppose it was because I had been training in our school for some 26-odd years, not because I was any good at it yet. He was in his late 20s, had been in Japan for three years, enjoyed a whole of fun training and was now at a crossroads. He could sign up to continue teaching English in Japan and thus enjoy more years of budo training at the source, or go back to his home across the sea. What to do?
In summary, this is what I told him, and it’s what I would tell every young student who’s enamored of budo training: Get a job, get a life first, then think about budo.
When you’re young, your passions take hold of you and doubtlessly, I’m sure that you want to do martial arts forever and ever. I was like that, but being mediocre at best also made me realize that I could never make a living off it. So I balanced training with going to school to get an education.
I told my friend that he needed to look at things long term. How will you survive in ten years, in twenty years, in thirty years? Will you be able to pay your mounting bills, look to a secure retirement, and take care of yourself as well as any family you happen to create? Taken in those terms, budo training should take a backseat. Cool your jets, young man (or woman). Project yourself out to thirty years from now and think, where would you like to be in your life in the future?
If you forsook career advancements to pursue budo, what happens in the future when you want to take a trip to Japan or China for advanced training and can’t afford it because your job doesn’t pay enough for that luxury? What happens when some of your youthful aches and pains become full blown structural damage that may require surgery to fix, and you can’t afford to pay for medical expenses? If you forsook a family because you devoted yourself solely to martial arts, would you feel your life was rich and full if you were still living by yourself in a tiny one-bedroom apartment at age 60?
Even Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary “lone samurai,” actually ended up in his latter years living with his adoptive son and then as a guest of the Hosokawa clan, who gave him enough of a stipend to live a comfortable old age. Being a traveling loner is hard when you get into your 60s, even for Musashi. With his lodging and food taken care of, Musashi was able to write his “Gorin Sho” (“Book of Five Rings”).
I know a friend who, as a child, was crazy about karate. He wanted to do karate more than anything in his life. But he also was pretty analytical for a kid and he realized that unless he was very, very luck and very, very good at karate, he would not be able to make a living purely from martial arts. So he shrewdly chose his current profession of real estate law. Now he quickly breezes through his daily casework, finishing by the early afternoon. The rest of the workdays, he says he gets to go to watch martial arts movies, hunt for rare martial arts books, and he is able to teach and train in the evenings. Plus, his income allows him to support a large and growing family, and he feels most fulfilled now as a grandfather. Every now and then he closes his office and flies up to Okinawa to study with some of the top Okinawan karate teachers there. As a lawyer, his social status is very respected in Okinawa so he has had entrée to some of the best, most intelligent budo teachers there, some of whom are also university professors and corporate heads.
Life is good for him. It wouldn’t have been so good for him had he chosen to just do martial arts and forget about studying and establishing his career.
Here’s an opposite, cautionary tale. I have another friend. He’s probably one of the toughest guys I know in a very tough martial art style. Back “in the day,” he refused to take on anything but freelance work for his profession because he felt a regular 9 to 5 job would take too much time away from his martial arts training. He eventually became a martial arts instructor, but in a town like Honolulu where you can throw a stone down a street and hit ten martial arts teachers, making a living at it is very, very hard. Only a few really good teachers can do it. This friend manages to hold classes at his rented one-bedroom apartment once a week where he trains for up to six to eight hours at a stretch, with his students pounding each other to exhaustion. He loves it. But because he had forsaken a professional career path, and because his brand of martial arts is not easily turned into a system that can entice lots of tuition-paying children, he barely ekes by on the occasional freelance work and the low tuition he gets from his martial arts students, who are similarly income-challenged. He can’t afford a car and can’t pay for car insurance. When he gets injured in training, he has to make do with home remedies because seeing a doctor is too expensive without health insurance. He lives alone, with no family, no retirement income in the foreseeable future. And he’s pushing 60 years of age.
I suppose he’s doing what he wants to do, but is this what YOU want to do? Is this where you want to be? He might be happy with this situation, but will you be happy?
So I told my fellow student: Think long term. Where would you like to be years from now? What kind of personal relationship would you like to be in, what kind of financial situation would you like to be in? Then aim for that. And budo will have to take second place. But on the other hand, if you think long term and secure yourself personally and financially, everything else will fall into place. Doing budo and paying for the expenses of budo won’t be a struggle. Do you stay in Japan or do you return home? It’s up to you. If you stay in Japan you can study at the main dojo all the time, but does staying also add to your future career plans? Surely, if you return home you may not be as close to the “source” as you like, your training will be curtailed, but then again, if returning is your better career choice, then eventually you will be able to better finance your training, your travel to return to Japan, and everything else.
Twenty-six years ago, I continued, I lived in Kyoto in between finishing graduate school and finding a long-term career and job. It was a wonderful time in between my academic life and my “real world” life. At the end of the year, I was sorely enticed to stay, but I realized I needed to really start on a long, hard road of becoming an artist, writer and/or teacher, and it would take a lot of hard work and years of professional apprenticeship, one that would better be served back in my home of Hawaii than in Japan. It took me 26 years, but I finally managed to reach my goals, and now I’m relatively quite happy with a family, a dog, a house in the suburbs, and a retirement account that will allow me to retire some time in the future (hopefully, as long as the my retirement fund doesn’t go bankrupt and Social Security still exists). I have enough disposable income to enjoy evenings out with my wife, and we can travel a bit. I can pay my medical bills, which seem to mount each year the older I get. I also have enough money to now and then travel back to Japan to train.
I may not be as good in martial arts as I could have been had I stayed longer, but I was realistic. I had no Sugar Daddy, I had no family endowment fund to live off. I had to pay my own way, and this is the best situation I could create. Nowadays I go back for training and I can continue my advancement. It’s slower, but I can do it and still have a rich life.
When I lived in Japan, I met someone through a mutual friend who took a different path. He loved martial arts so much that he went to Japan to study kendo. He scraped out a living teaching English at first. When those teaching jobs dried up, he decided to stay rather than return home. Some school administrator felt sorry for him and gave him a job as a part-time janitor. When I met him, he had already spent many years living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with no running water, doing kendo four to five times a week and cleaning toilets during the day. He loved it. But he was young. What happens when you start to feel the aches and pains of middle age, and living like that hand-to-mouth loses its youthful, idealistic, romantic appeal? Do you have a fallback? Do you have a career, a life?
It’s the same advice I’d give any student, even those I teach in my regular college classes in computer graphics. Sure, I’d tell a surf bum. Being young it feels like going surfing is one long endless summer. But sooner or later your good looks and your parents are not going to let you get by. You’re going to have to pay your own way, and unless you’re one out of many thousands of surfers, you won’t be good enough to become a pro surfer. Do you have a backup or are you going to end up on welfare? As much as you love surfing, or cars, or nightclubbing, or whatever, what’s your backup? What happens when you get to be as old and ugly as me? Do you have that figured out or are you going to become just some mean and nasty irrelevant surf bum, budo bum, icky old man in a bar whose life just passed him by?
Success is measured in many ways. Even if you don’t become a millionaire, I’d say you’re successful if you lived a full, rich life, loved someone, and was loved in return. Budo training, in my opinion, can enrich such a life. But budo training alone doesn’t lead to such a life. It’s just the topping on a cake, and as much as you may love budo, don’t mistake the topping for the cake.