Your teacher at the local dojo trained in Japan (or Okinawa, now a prefecture of Japan), so he’s got to be the real McCoy, right? And how he teaches and conducts the class is the “traditional” Japanese style, right? Yeah, so that karate dojo down the street whose teacher never set foot in Ye Olde Nippon is lacking authenticity, you think I would say, right?
Not necessarily. Just because you trained in Japan doesn’t mean squat, without inserting a whole lot of conditions, caveats and “on the other hands.” It may sound strange, especially since perhaps all six of my regular readers would think I’m a hardliner about the “You want to do koryu, go to Japan” mantra.
There are a whole load of issues that come with whether or not the experience in Japan was a plus or not, or whether or not you’re getting a good representation of “traditional” budo training from that guy who claimed he sat at the foot of Ueshiba Morihei, Oyama Masutatsu, and Mifune Kyuzo…(which, quite literally, one of my judo sensei did do, amazingly enough. He was there at a “golden age” of martial arts in Tokyo. He used to hang with Donn F. Draeger, sparred with Oyama, learned aikido under the aegis of the elder Ueshiba and was thrown around by the judo legend, Mifune Kyuzo. He could literally point to a spot no bigger than a dime and throw me on my backside there, even with me fighting it all the way. But that’s another story…).
What kind of dojo?
The first issue would be what kind of dojo the teacher trained at. There’s a variety of training regimes within just one system of budo. If a person were to train exclusively with a college budo club and think that was the ONLY way to train, he’d be sorely mistaken. College karate clubs used to be notorious for their hazing, brutal training, and militaristic discipline. They still seem to demand strict adherence to sempai-kohai social stratification in the dojo. They’ve toned down the more sadistic aspects of their training since a karate student died from physical abuse a couple of years ago, but don’t go looking for much inward-facing meditations on budo philosophy at a college club. College judo and karate clubs thrive on competition with other college clubs, and that sportive, competitive spirit filtered into other college budo clubs, like kyudo and iaido. It’s more about competition (hence, training extremely hard) and developing lifelong friendships.
Dojo run by police stations are even tougher, since the police have a practical purpose in learning kendo, judo or aikido; if not for direct application, then for overall health and physical conditioning for the course of their work. And they also train for national police competitive matches.
Training in martial arts is no walk in the park. But if your teacher was very young when he was in Japan and trained at a college club or police dojo, then that will explain why he demands that you do 10,000 reverse punches as warm ups before you even think of doing kata and kumite in your four-hour training session that is like basic training from hell night. But that’s not the only “authentic” way to train.
There are also hombu dojo; or the main training hall of an organization. The Kodokan for Kodokan Judo is a tall skyscraper replete with several matted floors and one very large, expansive matted room, offices, meeting rooms and museum. Training at a hombu dojo like the Kodokan may mean brisk, hard training with a multitude of training partners. As a central meeting ground for members from all over Japan and across the world, you may think that budo training should be like that: with training possible nearly any day of the week, with top instructors giving structured classes, tests and ranking given to scores of students at a time, and full time, fully paid teachers, in a brisk, no-nonsense atmosphere. In actuality, even in Japan a full time professional budo teacher is a rarity. You will encounter a few such extremely gifted and talented professional budo teachers at a central dojo, or perhaps in their own dojo if they are talented enough to cultivate a very large coterie of students. But it’s the exception, not the rule, even in Japan.
The most problematic dojo is the one often found in Okinawa, with its large American military bases. I call it a “base dojo,” set up on an American base, with a teacher trucked in from outside. For postwar Okinawan karate teachers, it was a way to make money in a place devastated by World War II, when Japanese and American forces destroyed the main island’s infrastructure. The quality of the instruction was, in my opinion, uneven during the first few decades after the War. You had some teachers, I suspect, whose main motivation was making money off the Americans and their technical expertise might have been limited. One of my Okinawan karate teacher friends put it less charitably. He said, in effect, “A lot of those guys who taught at bases were considered bums by the other Okinawan karate teachers. Sell-outs. Not so much because they taught foreigners, but because they ran after the money and were the middle to bottom tier teachers at the time. To my sensei, if you wanted to study real Okinawan karate, you went to the dojo, the dojo didn’t go to you. You were good enough that the students came to you, not the other way around.” Unfortunately, many servicemen who trained in Okinawa and returned to set up the first karate studios in the States had that kind of limited exposure. To their credit, many of them returned and trained further at the hombu dojo of their sensei, expanding their technique. But many got stuck and didn’t advance further in their abilities or understanding.
My own opinion is that the major problem with learning traditional budo on an American military base is that it’s not really learning traditional budo in its proper context. Enter a fully equipped, large American military base anywhere in the world and you are not “in country.” It is as if you tore a chunk of Americana from the ground and plopped that acreage, complete with manicured green lawns, large PX (like a military version of Wal-Mart), wide paved thoroughfares, movie theatres, gym, English radio stations and TV cable, ESPN and reality TV shows, etc. in situ, right there. In Japan. In South Korea. In Germany. In Okinawa. You would have no idea you’re in a foreign country. So the teacher may be Okinawan, but the whole environment, the dojo in a gym, the surroundings and even the way the classes are conducted may be colored by American stereotypes of what budo training is about, even though it’s in-country. And the teacher won’t correct you because, for Pete’s sake, it FEELS like it’s a foreign country to him one he passes through the gates of the base.
So there’s a lack of knowledge, especially if the student doesn’t speak the language or understand the culture, with that vacuum filled up with cobbled-together stereotypes or misunderstandings from other young, inexperienced enlisted men and women, about budo.
Far more common, but not frequented by many foreign students, are what can be called machi no dojo; the typical dojo on a neighborhood street in a typical city. They dot the urban landscape. The dojo may be only as big as an American two-car garage. It may be tucked away on private property, nestled between domiciles, with only a small kamban (placard) announcing their name and hours of training). The neighborhood children and adults gather there as much for an excuse to meet and gossip as to train. Such training is spotty. Some dojo are really too lax and laid back, more an excuse to get out of the house and gab with the gang than real hard training. Others combine a nice balance of relaxed atmosphere with focused, individualized one-on-one teaching.
One of my sempai (student senior to myself) used to spend several months in Japan every year, during his summer breaks. He would do iai at the large gathering at the Butokuden training hall in Kyoto, where many iai students from all over the city and college teams would gather to study together. The Butokuden training was wonderful for experiencing all the variety of teachers, and working out en masse. Then he would also train at two of his teacher’s own personal dojo. One of the dojo was above the sensei’s place of business. It was no bigger than an apartment room, which is what it really was before it was commandeered to be a dojo. He would do iai in close quarters with only the sensei and two or three other students. Sometimes the sensei would have to leave for an appointment or business meeting in the middle of class. Then he’d return and pick up where he left off. It was very informal but led to many hours of refinement, detailed instruction, and precious experiences.
Another friend of mine ended up in Japan for an extended period of cultural study and he decided to continue his kendo training. He found two neighborhood dojo near his apartment. One machi no dojo was more overtly competitive-bent. It displayed its tournament trophies in a window looking out on the street and focused mainly on winning competitions. He thought their basics and form, however, were weak. And it charged a lot of money. Instead, he found a machi no dojo that was on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. The building it was in was an old wooden structure and there were ample kids and youngsters, but the instructors stressed proper form over winning tournaments, and he liked the laid back but precise, old fashioned atmosphere. Plus, it was cheap, something he had to consider since he was a student on a stipend. It was only later when he was in the dojo’s locker room that he discovered a whole bevy of tournament trophies when someone slid open a cabinet. He asked, “Hey, what are those?” One of the sensei replied, nonchalantly, “Oh, those. We always win a lot of trophies at tournaments, but win or lose we tell the kids don’t get hung up on them, because the training is the main thing, not winning. So when we get those things, we just stick ‘em in here.” My friend loved training at that dojo.
In some ways, some of the returnees who have experienced only one kind of dojo setting are like the tale about the blind men and the elephant. If one only felt the trunk, you would say that an elephant was like a snake. Only if you experienced or observed all these varieties of dojo would you realize that there are a multitude of dojo situations, and they are all valid in terms of what they offer and the kind of training per the clientele base they service.
Want competition and tough training? Train like a college or police dojo. Want a pastime you can do for years on end, develop friendships and learn more about the lore and history and technical minutiae? Try a really good small little dojo. In the military, in Japan or Okinawa for a very short time, don’t speak the language, afraid of the natives, don’t know your way around downtown Naha, don’t feel comfortable outside of your cultural comfort zone? Try a base dojo. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just there are limits to a base dojo in terms of really understanding the underlying culture of the budo unless you make the individual effort to learn for yourself.
Note, however, there isn’t mention of a martial arts “studio” as we often find in America: a stand-alone training hall (usually karate or aikido) run for the benefit of a full-time professional teacher, in a business environment, like a strip mall studio that is all about location, location, location. It’s often got big glass windows that display tournament trophies, martial arts gear, and signs and slogans in slashy, pseudo-orientalish typeface. Although that kind of dojo is beginning to pop up even in Japan, I suspect that its origins lay as an American invention. I’m not panning it (much). I know some really good karate and aikido teachers who make a decent living and deserve their income because their instruction is first class, and they have to advertise, offer all kinds of incentives, and tailor their classes to their clientele in order to survive as a business. That’s just how it is in our own capitalistic society. You have to pay the rent, feed your family, make a living. It will be interesting to see as cultural interchanges expand, whether or not this kind of dojo succeeds if it attempts to make inroads in Japan or China.
But I keep going back to the best times I had in dojo in Japan, and they were usually events more of the intimate nature, not easily replicated in Western dojo unless a concerted effort is made: like when there would be only two or three of us students and our jujutsu teacher, who was in another room playing his shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and checking in on us only now and then, as we clacked our bo together and the bamboo outside knocked against each other, buffeted by the winter winds. Our sensei was practicing the song “Shika No Tone,” a plaintive, haunting melody representing deer lost in a barren winter forest, calling out for each other in the night. Or just before class in the main dojo at the Butokuden in Kyoto, at my first encounter with my iai sensei. I sat in the shadows of a wooden pillar waiting to be introduced while a student trained before the evening session in the mottled lighting of old incandescent bulbs hung from the dark rafters, and the only sound I heard was the sliding of his feet on the worn, polished wooden planks, and the cut of his sword in the autumn air. Sudden, deadly movement, followed by a slow, precise turn of the wrist to return the sword to its scabbard. It was a beauty that caught my chilled breath in my throat. Those are the kinds of experience that even my own dojo can only hint at but never, ever replicate being that we are in a community center’s well lit dance studio near a busy, noisy intersection in downtown tropical Honolulu.
And I think, too, of what my jujutsu sensei said once; that before dojo structures, martial artists used to train outdoors, out in nature, so they were in tune with the greater natural world, the “daishizen,” much more than we were. Handling a sword, maneuvering for a throw, handling a weapon, were part and parcel of their total world experience, as much a natural part of their lives as cutting firewood, knowing when it would rain or snow, intuitively sensing the lay of the land or knowing the changing of the seasons. In that sense, even the most “traditional” dojo is still a controlled environment at least one step removed from the roots of ancient martial arts, which came out of being embedded in nature’s own environment and rhythms.