18. Want to do martial arts? Get a job!

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.

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17 thoughts on “18. Want to do martial arts? Get a job!

  1. Thanks for this Mr. Muromoto. I’m a young English teacher in Japan and I have been studying martial arts the whole time I’ve been here. My time in Japan is ending and has gone by in a flash. I am planning on going home to go to law school but everyday I worry if I have made the right choice. It is tough to leave this place that I love so much with so many things I still want to do. I have made a bit of a life here in 3 years which includes martial arts, great friends, and a girl that I love. So, while there’s a little voice in the back of my head that keeps asking me, “Are you sure you want to leave???”, my thinking is along the same lines as yours. I need to secure my future and worry about everything else later. The road ahead is daunting at times and my future, like everyone’s, is uncertain but I know that putting the work in now will make my 40s 50s and 60s that much more enjoyable. Thanks for making me feel more sure about my decisions.

    -Ross

    1. Ross, I’m really glad and humbled that my words helped you in some way. I think you’re making the right choice. Mind you, sometimes staying is a good idea, too. One of my friends is the highest ranking non-Japanese national in our budo school. He has been a resident in Japan for several years now and intends to stay for quite a while, if not forever, but he has an excellent job in Tokyo as an international investment consultant, due to his education and multilingual fluency. An American friend in tea ceremony had many years’ work experience in graphic design and public relations before going to Japan to study tea and he ended up after tea training with a good job, a wonderful family, and a great life. His oldest daughter is now in college. He’s now the head of his division in his Japanese company. But they, like me, looked at things long term beyond their passions for martial arts or tea to consider if their decisions were best overall, not just for the moment or for just one aspect of their lives. I know it’s hard. I had a hard time coming back myself. But I think law school will enable you to have a great career and the position and ability to return one day. And your friends and dojo mates will be even more proud of your accomplishments. Good luck, and keep in touch.
      –Wayne

  2. A woman from the high society attended a piano concert. The pianist was a famous one, tehrefore the concert was wonderful and so the woman was amazed and marveled.
    The concert ends and in the private gala afterwards the womand had the chance to approach the famous pianist and exchange some words with him:
    “Sir, I would give my whole life just to play the piano like you do”
    “Thank you Madam, thats exactly what I did” answered the pianist.

  3. “Budo is supposed to enhance your life, not replace it.”

    One aikido teacher I know made a pretty clever career choice when he was trying to figure out how to become a teacher full time, or *nearly full time.*

    He became a fireman. He’s got a regular salary, pension and great benefits. He works about one full (24/7) week a month and has basically the rest of the month to teach at his school.

    Because he has a regular salary and benefits, the expectations for the school supporting itself is a lot lower than it would be otherwise.

    When he’s at the fire station, his senior students carry on the class, where they work on testing techniques in his absence.

    1. Nice example, Rick. Sounds like your teacher has figured out a way to teach aikido and not stress on having to make it pay all the bills. That works for him, and it sounds great.

  4. Great post, Mr. Muromoto. I’ve always loved and admired martial arts, but only in the last couple of years have I joined the ranks. The more I do it, the more I want to throw myself into it headlong without regard to anything else. (I know, I’ll drop everything and go to Japan tomorrow!) Thanks for the reality check.

    Keep the blog posts coming. I find them all enjoyable and enlightening.

  5. I really appreciate this article Wayne!

    I was just thinking about the advice you gave me in Kyoto, and wishing I had made a couple of notes in my journal, when suddenly I remembered your blog! Needless to say, it was a pleasant surprise to see you had written on the topic that has been consuming me over the last 3 months.

    I’m applying for my new visa here in Japan tomorrow, and my brain has been working overtime thinking about what I’m going to do in the long term. But I’m glad I’m thinking about it. Planning well just makes good martial arts sense!

    1. Philip, good luck on your decisions. To be honest, I didn’t look very much ahead to the future for a long time myself because in my day, I thought I was going to eventually be drafted, sent to Vietnam, and killed, so what was the use? Well, the war ended before I was inducted (I was 1A, which means I was top flight material for being drafted in the next round), and I was stuck having to figure out what to do next! It took me a long, long time, but along the way, I kept plugging along, adding to my experiences and knowledge whenever I could so that when I finally “grew up,” I would have enough tools to survive. See you in August? Say hi to the gang up there in Kyoto for me.
      –Wayne

  6. I’ve been slowly working my way through your blog, a couple entries every night trying to get caught up to “today.”

    As a 41-year-old who has had an interest in studying martial arts for as long as I can remember, but never got “around to it” until a little over a month ago, I needed to read this post. Tonight at the dojo as the 20-something students were demonstrating advance techniques while I worried about working on the one technique I have just now started to be fledglingly (a word?) comfortable with, I started to wonder if I had waited too long. Will my overweight, under-used, inflexible body be able to do this for ten or twenty more years? Will I ever be able to advance to a dan level and truly begin my journey? Had I waited too long?

    Reading your post, I realized I had lived my life for the good stuff: Of my three children, the oldest is out of the house and has blessed us with a wonderful granddaughter. My sons are in high school and doing well, I’ve enjoyed 20 years in a fulfilling career, and I’m still married to the girl I fell in love with 20 years ago.

    At the end of my life, I won’t be wishing I was just a *little* better at ukeme no kata, I’ll die blessed to have had these other experiences in my life. Whatever experiences and skills I pick up from budo will just be “icing on the cake.”

    arigatou gozaimasu

  7. Eric,

    All I can say is, “Amen, brother.” We go through different phases at different times in our lives. If your life is full, then you have your real “base.” Everything else is accessories, even martial arts, as much as I myself love it and enjoy it. Just don’t get frustrated over the young ‘uns. We got what they don’t got: maturity (well, some may say that we’re just old farts, but I like to think of us as really well-aged wine!).
    –Wayne

  8. Dear Mr. Muromoto
    I visit your blog from time to time and read all the new articles.
    Thank you for another nice post. And thank you to all the other people for the replies!

    Now i will describe myself as another example (only reading without giving something back is not that good.):
    I started my dojo in Germany as a full time dojo 7 years ago. I´m still young and i´m sure it is not a bad running dojo, but… a dojo of a classical School will never be able to make you rich or even pay a car. We have one, but it is from the income of me and my wife.
    I still love it and i will run the dojo as long as my health will allow me to do, but soon i will have the change to start as a court police and i will take it.
    There will be less time for training, but more money to spent for live and to invest into the dojo and the art.
    Many people have to make the experience, before they believe it. And then some start to corrupt what they love to make money instead of searching for other ways.

    best
    Tim

    1. Tim,
      Thank you for your thoughts. If you are young, it is good to try many things and learn from experience, but with a family, you must always consider their well-being first. I’ve been told by many of my sensei: family first, job second, then martial arts at the end. If the first two are not good, then your martial arts will not be good either. So good luck!
      –Wayne

  9. Hi Wayne. I’ve been re-reading your blog recently and this post in particular applies to my situation. I’m in my 20s and have a good career in front of me, but I’m intending to quit my job and move to Japan for a while. It means giving up comfort and financial security, and potentially not being able to get back into such a career should I ever decide to give up and come back home.

    Having said that, your post gives voice to my feelings of hesitancy. It’s quite possible quitting my job is not a good idea. It’s an absurd prospect to most people, and it would be so easy to stay home and live a traditionally successful and otherwise normal life. But I don’t have any passion for that – budo is my passion, and the only question in my mind is: what am I willing to sacrifice for it?

    For me, I suppose I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d rather take a shot and fail than not have the stones to try. I think people tend to regret the things they don’t do more than the things they do. At any rate, it’ll be an adventure.

    1. Matthew,

      While I caution young folks to think about the future, you also should balance that with doing things when you’re young that you can’t do when you get old and crotchety like my current age…So think about all things, but sometimes, as they say in “The Hobbit,” you just have to have an adventure!
      –Wayne

    1. …Still here. But swamped with work so I can’t write this blog much lately for free. Got to keep up with my day job. I will maybe write some this summer.

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