86. Should I Stay or Should I Go?

With all creds to The Clash, that song title must sooner or later ring in the ears of traditional Asian martial artists sooner or later. Do you spend the money to go to Japan, China, Korea, or whatever Asian country that was the birthplace of your art?

Another, more erudite writer, Dave Lowry (who now has his own web site!), has brought the subject up several times in his own public writing, and he asked me that same question recently to sound me out. Like him, I have been to Japan to live and train. I thought about it and concluded with a definitive…maybe.

There are many reasons to go or not to go. Economically, does it make sense? As much as you may want to go to the home dojo of your art, is it within your budget, really? Maybe if you’re young, single and without any responsibilities, jumping on a plane is easy enough. But if you’re older, responsible for a family, and have to carefully ration out your paycheck for monthly expenses, the romantic impulse may have to wait a while until you have enough to take care of any family emergencies that may arise when you’re gone.

In this age, too, for modern sports budo, there’s not so great a need to go. Seminars with visiting teachers from the home countries abound, as well as home-grown talent that can explain things better in your native English. Techniques can be learned as easily at home, or even easier because there’s no language barrier, than in a foreign country.

I could go down the list why every “go” reason can be balanced by a “stay” reason. Dave, himself has drawn those same conclusions.

One of the things he did point out, as I recall, is that while technically it may not necessarily help much (or it might, depending on your commitment, ability and instruction), what you do get is a sense of the underlying culture, and how it gave birth to the art. As Dave noted, it’s like being a classical musician and going to Europe to see the birthplace of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and Bach. To walk the same streets, to listen to the acoustics of a concert hall where Beethoven conducted, to step on the same floor at Versailles where the Sun King Louis XIV pirouetted in ballet, to simply breathe in the air along the Seine under the shadow of Notre Dame, or step past the tombs in Westminster Abbey…that is to feel and grasp how such music fit into that culture, that past, that history.

That emotional, experiential understanding will deepen your understanding as a musician. Will it add substantially to your expertise and technical virtuosity? Maybe, maybe not. But it WILL give you a greater understanding of the culture behind the music that you play.

That is pretty much what Dave wrote. To this, I might add: It’s true if you have the eyes and ears for it.

When I was a graduate student in Fine Art and Art History, I was lucky enough to receive a travel grant. Most students in my university’s art program used the money to visit and study on the West or East Coast of the continental United States. Encouraged by a painting teacher, I stretched the funds by begging my parents for a “loan” and saving a summer’s job earnings to visit Europe. Using a Railpass and staying at youth hostels, I managed to visit several countries, engaging in mental discussions with the great masters of European art when I encountered their works in museums. I also stopped in Boston and New York City, to walk through their major art museums as well. The experience was pivotal in my understanding of art history. By seeing the actual works of art, and not just projected slides on a white wall, I also came to an understanding of the technical and artistic details that I would never have gotten otherwise.

I recall entering Rembrandt’s former home, in Amsterdam. It had been converted into a museum. Here was where Rembrandt lived and worked. I saw his paintings and etchings, one after another. One particular etching, that of Lazarus rising from the grave, had me nearly in tears. By seeing the original work up close, I could trace each line, each etching and engraved black stroke of the Master’s own hand. The impact of being so close to him, as an artist I revered, just was an emotional high point of my life.

But that was because I had built up a readiness for it. I had spent years studying art history, and printmaking in particular. I knew the problems Rembrandt would have faced etching the plate, wiping the ink, dampening the paper, and then printing the image to make it just so. I studied his composition, the way he drew such expressive faces. And based on my prior knowledge of what it took to create such masterpieces in that era, I was moved.

During that trip, for a while I hooked up with some teenage kids out on their great adventure, staying at the same youth hostels. They were really not much impressed with my daily ventures to art museums, and preferred instead to spend their days finding inexpensive eats and bars where they could get the cheapest liquor. Europe, for them, was a mix of boring “ancient” historical sights and drinking and carousing.

They had eyes, but did not see. That was because they had neither the interest or the prior knowledge to appreciate the language and history of Western art. What was a sumptuous feast before them was inedible. They came back from their most excellent summer, unfortunately, probably little changed from when they left.

In art theory, there is a whole system of criticism based on the theories of semiotics and structuralism. In it, the “art experience” is composed primarily of three components: the art itself, which bears the message; the viewer who receives; and the artist who creates the message. The artist can create what she thinks is a masterpiece, but unless that masterpiece is placed in the right context in front of the right audience, the language it is written in may be lost upon the viewer, hence the “experience” is wasted, no matter the possible intrinsic worthiness of the artwork itself. The viewer, as a necessary part of the artistic moment, doesn’t get it. In this theory, then, critics are the “consumers” par excellence of the viewing audience, the connoisseurs who have fine-tuned their taste buds so they can savor and explain the nuances to the rest of us consumers.

For someone going to Japan for training, the best outcome will be if he or she is ready for it. If he has the capacity to absorb the sights, sounds, knowledge and techniques, not just in the dojo, but in the culture, the environment, the atmosphere. That is basically what you can get out of a study tour in Japan: a nuanced understanding of the context of your art, in its point of origin.

Practice at your piano or violin, of course, is the only direct way to better your concert skills. But an emotional and conceptual understanding of the flavor of Beethoven’s environment may deepen your skills on an affective level. The same, I would say, is true of studying a martial art at its point of origin.

It’s probably more true in the modern, international systems of budo, such as judo, kendo, aikido and karatedo. There are quite a number of very capable teachers at a very high level here in the West, and there are also many opportunities to attend workshops and seminars. It’s more problematic with koryu arts, which are much smaller in membership and certified instructors. There is also something to be said about learning what has more of a cultural legacy embedded into it than the more sportive arts, which were intended to be national, as well as international, in scope. Many of the koryu were once specific to one area, one cultural location in a Japan that was divided up into self-contained domains with specific dialects, customs and traditions. For the koryu student, a visit to a home dojo may offer a great deal of insight into why things are done a certain way that will finally make a lot of sense compared to the somewhat esoteric nature it seems to evoke in downtown Brooklyn, for example.

So should you stay or should you go? Depends. Are you ready for it? Will you get anything out of it or will it not be worth the cost, time and effort?

Finally, a tale of two goers. One person I encountered went to Japan to pursue his dream of doing kendo. He started off teaching English as a side job, but focused primarily on kendo, to the point that he wouldn’t give up some of his training time for teaching more hours. Eventually, he lost his teaching jobs. He ended up living in a boarding house, in a room no bigger than the size of an average American closet, with no running water or plumbing. The school he was employed at felt sorry for him so they gave him odd jobs as a custodian. His life was filled with kendo and menial labor. I suppose he loved doing kendo, but he had no broader horizons, no prospects of gaining experiences that would put him in good stead if he ever decided to return back to his home country and start a career. He lived like that for years, with no improvement in his employment status. When you’re young, you can do that for a couple years. But if you’re middle-aged or older, that’s a really sad way to live, thinking that’s the way the rest of your life is going to be, with no money saved up for retirement, no medical insurance, no family or lifelong friends outside the dojo.

The other person I know: he fell in love with a koryu. He prepared by trying to study Japanese and Japanese culture, saved up some money, and flew over to Japan without much of a plan. But he was a young, strapping, healthy single guy. He wanted to train as much as possible, like the first example, but he knew he had to earn some income outside of training to pay for his everyday living expenses. He started with teaching English, as many foreigners do, but he already had other skills. In his own country, he was something of an established “personality”; he worked in communications, radio and, of all things, comedy clubs. His good looks, sunny personality, good humor and unusual adeptness at picking up the language quickly got him freelance gigs as a radio personality, print model, various other radio and print work, and even stints as a mixed-martial-arts competitor, where he often got beat up but somehow still managed a contagious, self-deprecating smile. His stay in Japan is broadening his skill set and experiences (he can now make jokes and puns in Japanese, one of the hardest things I think you can accomplish learning that language), and on top of that, by growing in his experiences outside the dojo, he became a better martial artist inside the dojo. Now he’s one of the main assistants to the head instructor. His infectiously happy demeanor attracts children, and his tall, handsome movie-star features pull in the housewives and young ladies. He’s also parlayed his experiences into knowledge he’s using to pursue a Master’s Degree, so he’s planning for his future and getting a higher education.

In the first case, the person I describe may be simply headed to a darker and darker ending, where his experiences and options in life get smaller and smaller, until all he has left in the world is his kendo training. And woe be to him if he should get a major health issue or require assisted living. In that case, going to Japan for martial arts training was more in pursuit of a sickness, an addiction that destroyed the rest of his life. In the second case, the young man is heading upwards. His whole life looks bright, and his martial arts study is not an addiction that is bringing him down, so much as it is a addition to an already rich, varied, eventful and happy life that will push him up.

Should you go to Japan or stay? Is your life already more like the former or latter example? What do YOU bring to the possible experience?


13 thoughts on “86. Should I Stay or Should I Go?

  1. Very good food for thought. A great primer for those seriously considering a trip to Japan.

    Personal view:

    I find less Gendai people wanting to go to Japan because the cultural connection is not as strong. And because of what Wayne has said already about it, i.e. accessibility to instructors.

    But, Koryu people are more motivated to go to Japan I feel because of the cultural connection, Koryu being rooted in and highly valuing history, preservation, and ancient tradition promotes interest in people to go to Japan. It also naturally promotes personal romantic and esoteric desires in students seeking to train in Japan. People who seek Koryu, seek a cultural experience that can’t be complete unless there is a trip to Japan.

  2. To share similar stories as Wayne. I know many people who have spent thousands of dollars going to Japan not seeing the scope of their decision as Wayne point out because of what I said above about Koryu motivation. They have preconceived notions of the experience that didn’t match up to the reality of the situation, and caulk it up to an life enrichment experience. And for a few of those, a couple became a bit jaded losing the affection for Japan they once had. Their exceptions where never meant as they seen fit, and the novelty wore off. All these individuals where not enriched suffering from the reality of the situation.

    And like Wayne’s story, there are others I know who “got it.” People who could adapt and be flexible to the situations they faced living abroad. They had a different mind set than those who suffered. Those who “got it” had a more attuned perception to living abroad. I think it was due to up-bring, background, and personality that lead to success. These people never where Jaded or had a unflattering view of Japan no matter how hard it got.

    From this I understood what a sacrifice living and training in Japan was, and how it affected those who when to live there and why. I realized as much of a great culturally rich experience it would have been, my reason for training wasn’t focused on being a rich cultural experience. My purpose to train was with my already established sensei, who was highly qualified. Who embodied old school. Therefore, I reasoned, there was no reason for me to go to Japan. Everything I was seeking, I had found and I was doing it.

    Drawbacks where no “accolade credentials” from Japan to make me special on the internet. No instance celebrity because I was in the “holy land.” No bragging rights or taunting out errors of others, as I knew the “real way” from being in Japan. No inflated ego, or superiority complex. I didn’t become jaded. By not going to Japan, I was allowed to focus on doing what I intended to do and that was be able be the best I could at the art. I felling love with the art. When I seen it for the first time, it was fascinating like a magic it trick, and I wanted to be able to do that magic.

  3. Being dedicated to the magic and not the magician, I realized I could gain that magic if I worked hard at it, here or in Japan.

    I was lucky, I didn’t have to live in Japan because like I said I had it all right where I was at. The Japan I needed was inside a small building, only six miles down the road 4 nights a week at the least.

  4. Interesting stories.
    Somehow I got a feeling that those who suffer at home will suffer in Japan studying koryu or whatever they are studying. Those who do not suffer at home will probably not suffer in Japan.
    It seems to me to boil down about being ‘ cultured’ or not. I do not see those who are not interested in their own culture getting interested in a culture while living abroad.
    Those who are interested in their own culture should be abel to find martial arts from their own culture to train in (which will broaden and deepen their understanding of their own culture).
    It can be that these martial arts are lacking in some aspects and maybe these people go to other cultures to learn and acquire these aspects.
    i can understand that. But what if they return to their own culture. Do they take something of their acguired culture with them? Will that be part of their culture or will it be a form of roleplaying. As in playing but not being? When younger I thought differently about these matters but later I have put more questionmarks with all sorts of activities.
    If you are not (part) Japanese. Why try to acquire something of a culture alien to yours? To become better at what, at fighting arts? Fighting arts from your own culture which you have at your disposal just around the corner, what is wrong with them?
    Just playing advocate of the devil.

    1. Johan, goods points I have thought about myself in my journey. What I find thinking upon your points is there are some, not all, who seek out other cultures because in someway they are not satisfied with their own. Here on in I talking about these things relating to Koryu arts and non-Japanese. A number of people interested in Japanese culture will often go full tilt and completely immerse themselves in a host culture. I see it for some and understand why, who “go all out samurai” because credibility is strongly tied in with presentation.

      When I started martial arts, my native cultural martial arts where based on the sport of boxing and wrestling. Wrestling has been stripped from it’s ancient traditions, rituals and customs worked into a culturally modern sterile sport. Boxing being modern never had a rich ancient culture at its start. Neither did it have the appealed of having a code of conduct/chivalry where a person could hang their self-esteem, etc. If my culture had taken National pride and identity maintaining the martial arts of the Old West, gun slinging, and hand to hand combat of the Native Americans, I would have taken that up instead. In American culture in terms of martial arts, we don’t have a strong rich culture. As a result, many look else where to fulfill such needs.

      I also think too because we are a melting pot, and because at once time it was fashionable to seek out other places championed by the likes of the Bronte Sister’s to Hemingway. It has carried over today where it is accepted to take from other cultures, to get lost in them, to fantasy. Our liberal art culture is also a factor in our acceptance and losing ourselves into others cultures, like when we look at the prized works of Monet to the movie “An American in Paris.” Do I dare give the example of “Star Wars”? And there was a time where Europe was looked to for high culture, other then our own. It is a part of American culture to be culturally flexible, ductile and malleable. We allow people to drop the American culture for another. It’s part of our culture.

      *I can’t tell you how many Japanese living here in the US have said to me in someway not to confuse myself with being Japanese. Now, I don’t emulate Japanese dress or customs other then those expected by my sensei, and it is only done in the dojo. And on rare occasions with reserve to dojo protocol and customs outside the dojo in the company of my sensei accordingly to a particular situation. I never forget that in these situations my culture and replacing it with the Japanese. I’d make a terrible reenactor. Yet, I am cautioned frequently by established Japanese natives, not to mix up the cultures, the moment they find out I train in Budo.

      That is my take on it anyway. My culture, America, seeks out and experiences others culture at the risk of for getting it’s own culture. We didn’t have Knights, or Samurai, we had Cowboys we romanticized up until the 50s. Even then it was mostly a product of Hollywood and not the culture it’s self. We as American’s are good being what we are not, if we choose. Because of that, Japanese Budo has gotten a boost in the arm, be it a double edged sword, or not.

  5. Hi Jon, I think it is very possible that American’s are more flexible or can cope with different cultural influences more easily than most people from Europe. This is of course generalizing but maybe that is sometimes not to great a sin. From my own experience (I have traveled and trained widely in Europe but never went to Japan) I stopped training in a koryu which was taught in The Netherlands because I could not make a link to this day and age in my culture. Maybe this is not such a problem when you are living in Japan as a part of that society for a longer period.
    Strange enough this was not so with jujutsu. This art has been in my country for nearly a century and is pretty much a household name. The Japanese cultural influence in this art, as taught overhere, is probably watered down so much that most people (including myself) do not find it very alien so to speak. We got our share of people who, in my opinion, go overboard with playing samurai. From wearing traditional Japanese clothes, to making fake traditions. Complete with Toshiro Mifune beard and hairstyle. In a way these people are suffering in their own country it seems to me. Not finding themselves interesting enough or not being found interesting enough by others they turn to the exotic.
    In a way if this is what makes them happy it is okay with me.
    That being said it is not honest towards people who seriously want to train and learn. This is where the forums on martial arts and blogs like Wayne’s fulfill a very important role. We can get info, and anyone not mature enough to sift out the sillys from the sublime well how goes the saying?
    You get the teacher you are looking for?

    Another thing, many years ago I was saving money to go to Japan to train. At the point when I got enough to last me a while I met a woman. I figured Japan would wait and she might not. Call me a romantic but I never went to Japan…. and the rest is history.
    Having said that. Others did go (and still do). Some of them returned so one of the good things is that I can train in Europe, even in my own country, if I should choose to do so, in several koryu. All taught by people who can explain their history and concepts and all sorts of things in a language I can understand.
    That is a big plus.

  6. Johans, hello. It was very enjoyable reading your comment. It was a good one.
    Johans, hello. It was very enjoyable reading your comment.

    I think your decision to stop training in a koryu maybe one of natural progression when training over many years. I too come to that thinking possibly from a different point. I often find myself more and more reevaluating the relevancy and my purposes for training. I respect and appreciate the cultural relevancy Koryu arts have to Japan, the Japanese, and those of Japanese ancestry. But, the honeymoon fro me has long worn off. I have been lucky enough to be in the art long enough to get a good cultural education and understanding. By education and understanding is purely academic. I had nor have any interest in indulging in any kind of samurai/or wannabe Japanese fantasy. I am realistic and realized unlike others, am not Japanese, nor ever will be. Being of fair mind, there is a point where you exhaust your resources, where there is nothing more significant or fresh to learn, thus the interest and motivation to continue fades. That is what happened to me. In some ways I guess too, for me as well, it is a relevancy issue of a different type.

    I just talked to a friend who reminds me pointedly  the importance of taking serious consideration when going to Japan to train. He is jaded about the frequent traveling to Japan multiple times a year for training over a decade.When he goes, it is no less than 2 weeks and up to a month. He says, the hardest part is has become disenchanted with the whole ordeal. He has to deal with long periods of down time between classes that can be days. What makes it torture is that he has done it all many times over. From traveling to sight seeing, when he is not working. It is difficult to work remotely. He recognizes how the general Japanese public feels about him, and the difficulties he faces because of that. He has gotten to know the culture and all its faces, even the one with all the warts. This has allowed him to see the Japanese people and more realistically and accurately. And how much different culturally he is from them. He didn’t grow up in any part of a Japanese culture. The experience he says, has given him a greater understanding and appreciation of his culture.

    In terms of the training in Japan, he over all doesn’t feel he has learned as much as he anticipated. That being Japan there is a great emphasis and stress on endless repetition for hours on kata. He understands the value of that, yet realizes that he doesn’t necessarily has to Japan for that. He also has come to the realization that when he is taught, within the dojo traditional teaching philosophy, he is given a small abstract amounts of key information at a time, once a year. Which, he said is to be practiced and mastered before any new information is given. On top of that, in his Koryu dojo, the Sensei’s job is to guide, and point in the direction, and not teach directly or concretely per Westerner teaching methodology. Independent study is 99.9% of instructional philosophy. He says that philosophy is sometimes breeched and more information is given based on the reason people have jobs and can’t spend all day practicing and figuring things out for themselves. He mentions if the sensei’s lectures or gives tips aside from normal instruction it is usually is abstract and coded, not directly applying to mechanical technique. Instead it applies to philosophical abstract concepts that have an obscure relation to the technique in some way. All of which can be difficult to learn under if your are not accustom to it. Then of course issue of the trips costing a fortune. All in all, as a result, my friend seriously wonders why he even still goes to Japan. He also supports the idea that there are just as good and conducive training opportunities outside Japan.

    The other thing brought to mind is Koryu arts are such a small field of interest that the only real true reason in my opinion is for practicing is cultural preservation. Something that is highly important and relevant to the Japanese. Does a non-Japanese training in Japan really have an impact on cultural preservation, I don’t think so. It is not our culture and therefore, it has no bearing for us culturally. Another friend of mine said once about Koryu arts, “…when you say Koryu you really mean museum.” I understand that and feel Koryu arts have great cultural significance to the Japanese, and I applaud that. But, most people who practice Koryu who are not Japanese, nor of Japanese ancestry, Koryu arts are a novelty. There is no culturally significance or connection to us non-Japanese. Overall the result of us non-Japanese practitioners, more than not, leads to a natural attrition. I ask myself how does this help the Japanese culture, when I practice Koryu as a novelty, and at best as a docent.

    Japan, in terms of significance to other countries cultures, Koryu arts are just an obscure exotic novelty. I know my Japanese sensei understood this, as he always pushed the purpose for training in Budo was to build character and share the positive cultural aspects of Japanese thinking, and behavior. For him the dojo and the art, serve as a vessel in developing the understanding of the power of community, concentration, determination, and a hobby that allows a reprieve from the hassles of work and life. That being my sensei’s philosophy on things, he would artful try and dissuade those student who wanted to go to Japan to train. There where exceptions, for some he would encourage it, so they would get a dose of reality, or learn something they needed to. Though it often didn’t work out as he planned. They came back, often, more arrogant, or missed the whole point of the lesson of being there. He knew exactly what Koryu was us, and our limitations of it. So he turned training into a greater lesson, something I don’t think happens in Japan.

    *Being realistic there are those who have gone to Japan and it all worked out fabulously from them. It is my experience that isn’t the norm.

    I know you said you where playing devil’s advocate, but I seen it more as dose of good advise that needs to be taken under consideration. A fool goes in half-assed, not taking a serious consideration of these things. This is true for when going to Japan to train. We all agree there are comparable, if not better, resources outside Japan that will work better. The proper perspective and understanding concerning the whole ordeal is a must for real success. Otherwise, it is an expensive exercise for the ego, and to impress the newbies. I agree, you do get the teacher you are looking for. And you do get out of it, what you put into it… as well. Add then the the cultural misunderstanding in language and culture that you pointed out. Something that occurs to be fatal to the foolish. There is nothing more of a waste of time, money and effort in going to Japan to only come back with the wrong information. This is a result of having doors closed, given wrong information or misunderstanding information because of language and cultural barriers, or insulting them because of cultural ignorance. In the end, if this is the case than what have you really gotten out of it?

    I am of the opinion, each person will make their own decision, but most will not take make serious considerations and thus the whole affair ends up an epic waste of time and money. Not to mention the negative perceptions, behaviors and effects it has on the Japanese toward those that go there to train. If asked my opinion, if training in Japan is desired, it is given in a world of caution. Whether it hits them when I say it, or later, but I admonish them they will not come back a Donn Draeger. His shoes will not be ever filled so don’t try.

  7. Just a couple observations, to go with some very interesting comments by Jon and Johan. As Johan wrote, “…those who suffer at home will suffer in Japan studying koryu or whatever they are studying.”

    I agree. Drawing on my own experience observing people from abroad studying tea ceremony and martial arts when I was in Japan, there are some “seekers,” people who never quite fit in their own culture and society, and end up in Japan where they think they find a fit, immersed in a study of something. But what dogs their social insecurities in their home country often manifests itself even more pointedly in a totally foreign environment, except that without the usual social cues, they don’t see it. They blank it out and remain placidly ignorant of how out of place they are.

    On the other hand, there are those who are non-native Japanese who have an affinity for something, such as the Japanese tea ceremony, or traditional martial arts, who have a very healthy social, emotional and personal life beforehand, who go and become quite adept. In their case, their study is not a crutch to hide from their lives, but an addition that adds to their already fulfilled life.

    While the koryu are more embedded in traditional culture than the more modern sportive budo, I would, however, argue that their study can be appreciated and enjoyed fully by non-native Japanese, just as being someone who specializes in Beethoven’s piano concertos doesn’t mean you have to be German (or Austrian?), or go to Europe…although, as I argue, it helps. It helped me to go to Holland to actually see the real artworks of Van Gogh and Rembrandt, in the cities they walked, to understand how the light and colors and culture affected their works for me, as an artist. But could I have learned the same painting technique in America as I would in Europe? Probably. We have good art schools too. I think the same is true for modern budo or koryu.

    I would, however, disagree with the idea (I know you’re playing devil’s advocate) that non-natives don’t add anything to koryu. Historically, I think the impact of Donn Draeger and several other “non-native Japanese” had on a study of such arts in the 1970s to 1980s were significant. These first people opened the doors for others to follow. There is also an interesting phenomenon that Draeger once discussed with me and several others, about a funny Japanese tendency to devalue their own arts and culture unless someone outside their culture takes an interest in it. Then, all of a sudden, to them it’s, “Gee, that foreigner is studying something I took for granted. I wonder if there’s anything special about it?”

    One or two foreigners, Draeger said, in a koryu group in Japan (which is usually very small, numbering at most in the tens) helps to revitalize the art. (Although, he also added, “Too many foreigners will turn it into shit.”) They generate interest among other Japanese, opens up the group to possibilities of establishing branches outside of Japan, thereby making the group consider how and why they would spread the art, rather than simply hunker down in survival mode to barely keep alive, add excitement to the social mix, encourages new Japanese students to join (and be part of an international mix! How exotic and enticing!), and so on. I think at least for the teachers I encountered, they enjoyed discussing technical and conceptual roots for the kata with me, and I had no compunctions to shut up and only train. As a foreigner, I could get away with asking questions (at appropriate times) and I found my own teachers enjoyed answering them, because so many of their Japanese students were trained not to ask, just do. It led to rote repetition, and perhaps decent form, but no true understanding.

    That may not be true of all Japanese teachers, but I luckily ended up with very good ones in tea and martial arts. They understood that true learning came not just from physical mimicry, but a true mental and emotional understanding of the art forms.

    Speaking from my own experience, the Japanese tend towards xenophobia, but then again, most people in different countries tend towards that as well. But there’s also a streak in Japanese culture that, because of the relative isolation of being an island country, really is intrigued by the foreign and exotic. It’s true historically and it’s true of the general population nowadays. When I was studying tea in Japan, NHK TV was doing a documentary on the school of tea I was in, and so one day all the students in the foreign section were called to a special practice session with the headmaster, the Oiemoto, of the school. He could have called upon any number of thousands of students all over the country, but he asked that we participate in the taping of a teaching session, with some of the regular full time students. The assistants placed the obviously foreign-looking students (with Caucasian or African American features) up front. My roommate, who is Chinese American, and I were placed in the back with the other boring Asian-looking faces. Our faces? Boring. A blonde, blue-eyed woman and a brunette, green-eyed, tall male? Hey, put them in front. Better yet, they’re in kimono, they can do tea (when most Japanese can’t), and they can speak and understand Japanese. How cool is that? And wouldn’t YOU want to be cool studying tea too, and be so international? (There’s even a buzz word, “kokusaiteki” to describe someone who’s comfortable moving about in foreign lands and being with foreigners. That leads to a kind of social status among Japanese, and that’s why English teachers still can make a living there.)

    We had a laugh afterwards about the taping, but it shows the tendency for many Japanese groups to “show off” how international they are by putting non-asian faces up front, whether it’s materially significant or not.

    In my own jujutsu group, the last couple of times I was there, one of the chief assistants to the headmaster was a tall, good looking guy from Canada. He has become a significant part of the dojo, and often leads the warm ups and cool-down exercises, and takes the lead in many other teaching moments. The headmaster of that school sees no barrier to teaching when it comes to nationality. And it does help in other ways. I suspect that student’s good looks and “exotic” features helped to attract a whole new bunch of middle-aged housewives and young girls (and little kids who like his good humor) to the class. Training is not so dour anymore.

    In another example, I was just talking to a student of a friend of mine. I told the student that, in my opinion, his teacher is probably among the top exponents of the ryu in this era, now that our mutual teachers have died. Even compared to peers of his age and rank in Japan, I thought his technical skills and knowledge were top flight, with few rivals. And he’s not teaching in Japan. So I told him to consider himself lucky.

    In both cases, I think not being “Japanese” either didn’t matter, or it actually was a positive factor.


  8. Jon, that was a quite formidable post. I think I agree with what you write. If one really want to take training in Japan seriously it seems to me one has almost got to have the idea of emigrating to another country even if one’s stay would be only for a couple of years in the host country. One would go prepared. Have money, speak the language (more or less), find a job, etc.
    Wayne this was more what I had in mind when talking about being (partly) native Japanese. I did not mean that non-Japanese could bring nothing to koryu but more about the hindrance they have when dealing with a culture alien to theirs. Although there are cultural differences in the different countries in Europe I can (and have) more easily adapt since the differences with my own cultural background are not that big and I speak several European languages good enough to get by in those countries. Me in Japan? I would be lost.
    I know of teachers in my country who train in Japan, some really good – they do have very good teachers in Japan, others mostly token visits with a lot of photographs of them with all sorts of teachers. Others will boast of having a lot of diplomas (which we cannot read since these are in Japanese)while their technique really …. well as Jon wrote “an epic waste of time and money”

    I guess it really takes a very special kind of person to go and train for a longer period in Japan and be succesful at it. And although a lot of people would like to think they belong to that little group the truth is (in my opinion)most of us are not that special no matter how much we want to be.

    Wayne I can relate to your comments on the Rembrand house in Amsterdam. I have visited it several times and keep going back whenever I am in Amsterdam.
    Somethimes they demonstrate how paint was made in those days at the top floor and you can smell the ingredients while the paint is being prepared that is just great.

    1. Johan,

      Yes, agreed too there. There are people, as one friend said, are “dan collectors.” Or “kata collectors.” They go and accumulate as much rank and kata as they can and present all sorts of certificates as their claim to mastery, but the truth is, you (the potential student or “consumer”) have to trust your own eyes and ears and heart to guide you to see whether or not that person really has anything worth teaching. There are also teachers who are more than willing to issue certificates of rank for enough money.

      There are stories of Japanese who go to visit different universities and colleges on short term stays, or travel through Europe “studying” European cuisine, but they are just tourists. However, they go back to Japan and present themselves as “masters.” I encountered one such person, who was traveling around Europe and he said he intended to become a French chef when he returned to Japan. I asked if he had studied anywhere and he said he washed dishes once in a French restaurant. Perhaps he learned something by observation, but I didn’t think that was as valuable compared to if he had studied at a cooking school or under a master chef in Japan.

      In this day and age, many of them don’t last very long because there is more information available, but people need to know that it takes more than a visit or piece of paper to make a master teacher. It takes true skill, experience and insight.

      …Memories of visiting museums and galleries always make me want to take up the etching tools or oil paints again. There’s something about “real” painting or drawing that I find more “real” than computer art, which I teach. Unfortunately, the time to actually paint or draw so is so rare nowadays for me!


  9. Everyone, I might have sounded a bit jaded myself, over looking what Wayne is stressing; the value of the experience as referenced to painting and music in Europe. I remember being in college and all the upper class man art students romanticized the opportunity to study the masters in Europe, the same thing was true for the Architect students to study the great architecture where it stood. But for martial artists,it seems this isn’t the case. We have a different approach and experience.

    I think this is true because accolades, credentials, and adulation are involved for martial artists that are absent with college students. Only a few marital artists I know experience Japan like Wayne is describing about art and music. For college students it is an opportunity to further their interests and study in their careers. They know that studying aboard doesn’t make them instant experts or professionals. Secure and confident in their academic pursuits they don’t wear the experience as some kind of validation, like some kind of badge of honor they can wear on their lapel. They know returning from European study means instant credentials of expertise in their field. They maintain a realistic perspective in these terms. Whereas, many martial arts get confused what the opportunity to study in Japan means. And it is understandable, people don’t listen to you if you haven’t been to Japan. Going to Japan means have been to the Holy Land, you drank from the Holy Grail, per se, you are now special. You have the golden knowledge, pure and correct . The masses fawn and look to you for ivory nuggets of knowledge. Sadly this is abused and is myth. But, never the less it gives people who go to Japan undue credibility. For me personally, it takes more for me to give someone credibility then them saying they studied in Japan. 

Therefore, for me it is about the right attitude and perspective. Something, I was trying to communicate in detail before. I was a little unfair because I was too focused on stressing points about those who go to Japan who don’t appreciate the experience in the way Wayne has pointed out. For me that is the majority of people who I know that went to Japan, sadly. Few people really are capable of understanding the opportunity and handling it properly. These few, have a rich and rewarding experience. I don’t want to over shadow that, but it isn’t the biggest part of the pie chart.

    I personally think you have to have the right frame of mind and attitude to fully appreciate and approach training in Japan. You have to do your homework, with some serious considerations, considerations that have been finely pointed out. You can’t go over their with the wrong mind set. Otherwise, it is a great waste of time, money and effort. Finally, if someone does go with the right mind set, and attitude, and with the excitement and exuberance as pointed out and described by Wayne, with great appreciation and humbled by the experience, then it is something really special.

  10. Hi Wayne,

    I think what you said about having the eyes and ears for the experience is important. I can compare my experience walking through the Metropolitan Museum in New York a couple of years ago, before my current educational adventures, vs. recently at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Only two years apart (or is it three . . .), and there was a completely different quality to the visits. I remember the feeling of awe at the brushstrokes evident in the Van Goghs at the Met, but not really having much context. Yet at the MFA I was actually surprised to find myself explaining to my husband *why* certain of the pieces are considered very important works — to point out “The Sower” as a piece that obsessed Van Gogh, to call out the Picasso from 1909 at the birth of Cubism. Before, I would have passed both of those pieces by, not understanding what they meant for what we know of as art today.

    (With regard to the anecdote about the Japanese person desiring to train as a French chef in Japan, French cuisine was actually developed in the late 19th century, according to what I’ve recently learned — and this new cuisine was adopted by the Japanese when entertaining Western diplomats & etc during the early Meiji. So the tradition of French cuisine in Japan is almost as long as the overall tradition of French cuisine. The next time you’re in Japan, you might want to check that out. I’m told there are some highly respected restaurants in Tokyo!)


    1. Beth, Nicely put, as one fellow artist to another!

      There are actually a couple of pretty good French restaurants (so I heard) in Tokyo. I knew of one in Kyoto that I visited only once (the price was pretty steep for my ramen-student-budget). It’s popular I think because like kaiseki, it’s got a lot of visual appeal.

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