When it comes to martial arts, I am very much of the Karate Kid generation. At the time when I started with karate, my idea of sensei was shaped after the enigmatic words of Mr. Miyagi: “Man who catch fly with chopsticks accomplish anything.” This was the time when Chuck Norris was a bona fide action star, rather than an internet meme.
By the time I met Takeda sensei, my very first kendo teacher, I knew a little better. However, after many years I have come to realise that despite of all the silliness and cliche, The Karate Kid actually does capture something important about Japanese sensei. Many, if not most of them do tend to speak a little like yoda masters and just like Mr. Miyagi, they are genuinely warm, friendly and often funny. But there is something deeper and more interesting that The Karate Kid touches upon – and that has to do with the ideas of “learning” and “teaching” in Japanese martial arts (and probably in Japanese culture in general).
Many Japanese sensei that I have met seem to be struggling when teaching westerners – they are quite clearly out of their element. Which struck me as strange initially, as I knew them to be professionals in Japan, having taught kendo at the highest level for a long time, often for decades. Surely by that time they must have came across all kinds of different students and situatuons. And they certainly had, but the point was in something else.
When we “learn” something in the West, in general we have the idea that before we can actually do something we need to first understand it. For the western mind, understanding tends to be an abstract way of conceiving how something works. Why this is so is an interesting topic in and of itself that I have no time to go into here and now. However, at least traditionally, Japanese martial arts are not taught like that – and indeed, one could ask if they are “taught” at all, in the western sense of the word. In some ways it would be much more precise to say that they are learnt rather than taught, and learnt in a very particular way.
As everyone who has practiced any eastern martial arts knows, it is a very repetitive affair – especially in the beginning. This is something that tends to put many peiople off, as instead of learning all the cool and flashy stuff they’ve seen from TV or imagined in their minds, the actual training turns out to be something very similiar to polishing the car or painting a wall. Be it in karate, aikido, kendo, iaido or any other Japanese martial art that I know, in the first couple of months a beginner is doing very little else than repeating the most basic movements – practising ukemi, doing suburi, moving across the dojo with gyaku-tsuki. It gets boring pretty fast, yet you’re told to repeat the same thing over and over again. There seems to be no progress in all that for most of the beginners, and this is why they yearn to move on to new and interesting stuff.
But there is progress, a lot of it. And this is what brings us back to Mr. Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi’s method of teaching karate to Daniel Larusso was, despite of all the Hollywood cheesiness, fundamentally a very zen way to go about it. I cannot possibly do justice to zen in this post, but I might take a stab at it some other time. However, the basic idea is quite simple – you don’t learn something by being explained, you learn it by doing. And once you have done it enough times, you will know. Or, perhaps more precisely, you will know that the questions you had at the outset were not meant to be answered, as eventually they will simply go away. Answering them would not help you to get any closer to what you wanted to know – as martial arts cannot be taught like you can teach someone how to solve a Rubik’s cube. It is not a realm of abstract knowledge, rather than that of practical experience. Knowledge, if you want to call it this, will follow the experience – it is not a prerequisite of doing something, rather than vice versa.
This, it would seem to me, is the reason why some many great senseis struggle with westerners. They try to adopt and “teach” martial arts the way they know how westerners “learn” things. But it is very difficult, if not impossible. To be sure, some senseis are doing great work at it, but in the end I still think that there is only so much that they can do, no matter how hard they try or how good their intentions. The way I see it, teaching martial arts is not really about explaining or telling how something is ought to be done, it is about inspiring and guiding, about cutting short the wrong ways and encouraging to follow the right ones. But in the end it is you who has to do the walking.
Today we left Yamagata and Takeda sensei after three days of keiko. It has been, in a way fully expected, rude awakening. The first two days we were practising with Yamagata University students, and both Luis and me were getting ground to powder. Of course, I know that they are not simply students, they are studying kendo and are set to go on to become professionals (and on top of that Yamagata is apparently the reigning champion of university level kendo in the whole Tohoku region) – but still, it feels utterly humiliating to be so completely and hopelessly dominated and overwhelmed. When we finally finished the first keiko at Yamagata, the first words Luis said after taking off his men and being able to speak were “how can they be so €%&# fast?!” Anyway, luckily today we had a keiko at Nishikawa with some civilians – and this was great for recovering some of the self-confidence before we will face Sendai students tomorrow, who are apparently even tougher than Yamagata ones.
And I am only about 10% done with my trip. Wish me luck.