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?