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Thoughts from Japan
The Order of Things

by David Hooper, Ph.D.


It struck me the other day that after so many years living in Japan, it is not the major cultural differences that fascinate people so much as the small, subtle, unexpected differences that creep up upon you. You adapt and make changes almost subconsciously to the point where some things that you do seem obvious and come as second nature to you, but are regarded as rather odd, or at least different, once you step back outside of Japan. What passes for normal behavior in a Western dojo may, on occasions, be regarded as quite unacceptable in Japan, and vice versa. Of course, I'm still a foreigner here in Japan, and always will be. No matter how long one stays in this country, or how proficient one becomes in the language, integration into Japanese society proceeds at a rate only slightly quicker than the rate at which lemon slices dissolve in tea. Nevertheless, to be involved in something as Japanese as JKA Shotokan Karate, one is inextricably bound up to a greater or lesser degree with Japanese culture, Japanese thinking and, at the very least, the strong, historical influences on Martial Arts that find their origins in Japan.

Of course, most people reading this will never have had the chance to train in Japan, nor even, perhaps, have ever trained with a Japanese instructor directly, and I'm not suggesting for a second that you necessarily need to. However, the framework within which JKA karate is taught the world over includes a number of common factors: a hierarchical structure of seniority, certain expectations regarding modes of behavior, an insistence on showing appropriate respect, and an underlying philosophy-all of which have their origins firmly rooted in Japan.

Whilst much Western karate has become inadvertently (and sometimes, deliberately) westernized, there are still many very traditional dojos which attempt to align themselves as closely as possible to what they perceive to be the Japanese way. However, cultural differences and communicational barriers in the past have almost inevitably resulted in some misunderstandings and distortion. I say inevitably because no matter how sincere a Westerner is in following a Japanese approach to karate, some things will be inherently alien, and need clarification. Japanese students with no understanding at all of karate have no problem adapting to the demands that membership of a club or dojo brings. Westerners, on the other hand, are often confronted with an alien approach that if not adequately explained leads to further confusion and disillusionment. Indeed, my early years in Japan were constantly full of surprises and eye-openers.

A few years ago, I was walking down a busy high street in central Tokyo, when a group of a dozen or more Japanese students, clad in their traditional militaristic, black, high-collared uniforms, their heads all closely shaved, suddenly snapped to attention, bowed formally and let out a unified "Osss" at a level of several decibels above the sounds of the traffic. A fairly dubious-looking character who happened to be walking alongside me, clearly the focus of this extraordinary attention, glanced nonchalantly in their direction, and gave an almost imperceptible nod of his head in response. To the other passers-by, this behavior evidently didn't warrant a second thought, as most people seemed to be quite oblivious to the entire episode. I, however, was quite fascinated by the whole performance. I spent the rest of the day wondering whether I had unknowingly been in the presence of some great dignitary or other. Discussing the episode with a veteran of Japan later that evening, I learned that this was clearly not the case. He had merely been their sempai (senior). Quite possibly, the group on the street had all been first-year members of a serious university baseball club. The individual who had commanded this overt demonstration of respect was, in all likelihood, just one of the second-year students. Or perhaps, even more likely, they had been members of Kokushikan's or Takushoku's karate-bu , and had spotted one of their seniors. Of course, the whole of Japanese society is based on a rigid hierarchical structure which is exemplified, nowhere more so, in the traditional Japanese karate dojo. The sempai/kohai (loosely translatable as senior/junior) relationship is certainly not, however, confined to the world of the Martial Arts.

I remember several years ago going drinking with a first-year university student to whom I was teaching English. At the end of a rather wild and enjoyable night, I commented, in a somewhat inebriated state, on what a splendid group of friends he had as drinking companions. "Oh, they're not my friends," he quickly admonished me, "They're my sempai, " a distinction I couldn't understand at the time, especially as everybody had seemed to be getting along so well. They'd certainly given a good impression of being friends, I thought, as I staggered off to find a taxi. Here again was another of those Japanese puzzles, which I was sure I would figure out in time. That night, however, I'm sure I gave it no further thought, as I would be getting up in less than six hours to attend Nakayama Sensei's early morning class at the Hoitsukan Dojo.

In the dojo itself, determining who is senior is, on the face of it, quite a simple matter: the darker the belt, the higher the grade. In actual fact, seniority, and, more specifically, determining who is sempai and kohai, is something that requires a certain amount of insight to comprehend fully. The color of the belt may be quite deceptive: indeed, from shodan onwards, it may sometimes be a case of the lighter the belt, the higher the grade, with some senior students wearing belts that have worn almost white through constant use. Moreover, many of the traditional university clubs have never adopted the coloured belt system. Students go straight from white belt to black belt. Anyone who is foolish enough to judge a person's ability and experience purely on the colour of their belt had better be on their guard.

Much of the form and structure of the typical Western dojo is based largely on that which exists in Japan. Those countries which were fortunate enough to have been introduced to karate from experienced instructors from the JKA naturally modeled their dojos on what they perceived to be the Japanese system. The style of teaching and the structure of classes naturally followed those early Japanese examples. Inevitably, new Western teachers did their best to continue in the Japanese mould, and encouraged the sempai/kohai system that their own teachers had tried to perpetuate. Of course, the idea of a hierarchical structure was certainly not new to most of those foreigners. Any British or North American schoolboy, for example, who has endured the experience of one of his country's more traditional educational institutions, will be all-too-familiar with the concept of seniority, and all that that implies. Nevertheless, many karate-ka outside of Japan encourage an imported sempai/kohai system that is often alien to their own cultural background, and thus largely misunderstood.

Japanese people, as I have argued before, have a clear advantage when they start karate: not a physical advantage owing to some natural in-born ability to excel at Martial Arts, but an inherent understanding of the whole culture within which karate is taught and practised. JKA karate, around the world, conforms largely to a format that can be traced back to those early pioneering instructors, and thus, the JKA itself. From the warm-ups to the final bow at the conclusion of the average class, there is a common approach clearly in evidence. Even the techniques and commands are still referred to, and given in, the original language, Japanese. Whether one finds oneself in Kentucky, Kathmandu or Kawasaki, karate students are invariably inclined to bow to each other, use "oss" in response to questions, address their teacher as Sensei, and, in most cases, can adequately count from one to ten in Japanese. Whilst some of these things may be regarded as superficial, the incorporation of a Japanese style hierarchy as an integral part of the Western dojo has important implications of which senior grades, in particular, need to be aware.

Being sempai in Japan means having a responsibility towards your kohai. It is not just a question of being accorded the appropriate respect from lower grades; rather it is accepting the responsibility that seniority brings with it, in terms of the progress and understanding of those below you. The seniors are expected to look after their juniors. Certainly, when senior students in Japan go drinking with other members of their club or group, it is the seniors who are expected to pay. Back inside the dojo, discipline is enforced not so much by the sensei, but by the sempai. When kohai behave inappropriately, it is their sempai who are ultimately held responsible and held to task. Only when the sempai step out of line will the sensei take control, as I well remember from my early days at the JKA Honbu.

One morning at the JKA, a newcomer arrived from the US. He had obviously not been practising karate for very long, and was new to Japan. On this particular day, there were only five dan grades training, myself included. After thirty minutes of basic practice, the sensei put the class into two lines to do some basic one-step sparring. The American guy, sporting a brand new karate-gi and white belt, turned round to face one of the smaller Japanese dan grades whose name, for the sake of this article, shall be Saito. Saito sempai was not particularly well disposed to foreigners at the best of times. This American, however, happened to be built like a professional footballer (shoulder pads included), and, towering over Saito, seemed to bring out the worst in him. Saito sempai's first basic front kick hit the American straight in the stomach and doubled him over. That was enough. The American left the dojo floor and refused to take part in any further training.

The sensei said not a word to him. Instead, he cleared the floor and made us five senior grades perform the kata, Jion, five consecutive times. (Anyone who knows this kata will appreciate that when performed five times under the watchful eye of a senior Japanese sensei who is none-too-pleased, it is more than a little tiring.) Upon completion of the kata, he invited the brown belts to spar with us, allowing them to change partners every few minutes to rest, and encouraging them to attack quite freely with everything they had. (Brown belts are, of course, the most dangerous of grades: strong enough to be a threat, but often not skilled enough to have any control.) After several minutes of this, the kenshusei (junior instructors) were paired up with us. Needless to say, the kenshusei were formidable opponents at the best of times. By the time I faced my partner, I hardly had the strength to stand, let alone defend myself. We all got fairly well battered on account of one person's behavior -and not the American's, I hasten to add.

Training at the Honbu was a continuous learning process. After several years there, I found myself as the most senior grade amongst the foreign students who used to practise. One morning, a new Englishman arrived at the dojo. He informed us that he had practised for several years at a particular club in Britain, and that he was now a second or third dan. He joined the class, but it soon became evident that despite the belt around his waist, and what he obviously considered to be a certain degree of competence in competition-style kumite, his basic karate left much to be desired. His stances were poor, his basics ineffective, and all the bouncing around and flashy kicking techniques that he tried to come out with in jiyu-ippon kumite, did little to impress the Japanese students in the class. At the end of the lesson, the senior Japanese student (the class sempai) came marching up to me and demanded an explanation. Why was this newcomer's karate so abysmal? Who had given him his grade? And, perhaps most importantly, what was I, as his sempai, going to do about this situation? As far as the senior Japanese student was concerned, I was the most senior foreigner, and thus responsible.

Strictly speaking in Japan, the sempai/kohai relationship exists only within a particular group to which both parties belong. At university clubs, for example, the year of entry into the university (and thus the club) is what determines who is sempai and who is kohai. It may well be that a second-year student is technically better than a third-year. That, however, bears no relation to who is sempai. It thus follows that once the sempai, always the sempai.

There was one particular Japanese character who trained regularly in the JKA morning class for years. He was very slightly built and very small in stature. He probably weighed no more than the average twelve-year-old American schoolgirl, but he trained diligently and regularly. He was eventually awarded second dan-a grade not given purely for his physical ability, but partly in recognition of his many years of continued effort and struggle. He was considered sempai to many of the other members of the class, some of whom were considerably stronger and faster. He was, therefore, irrespective of strength and ability, always shown appropriate respect, whomever he came up against. On the few occasions that visitors were deemed to have behaved inappropriately towards him, other members of the class made it abundantly clear when they, in turn, came up against those visitors.

Of course, showing respect is also not as straightforward as one might imagine. Indeed, it often requires treading a very narrow line. Facing someone who is sempai means that one should attack strongly. Half-hearted attacks are interpreted as being either unbelievably arrogant, or lazy. Either way, the response is likely to be quite negative. Taking advantage of one's sempai, however, is also inappropriate, and very likely to lead to some kind of retribution.

A few years ago I watched a grading in Britain. A Scottish karate-ka was taking third dan, and he was "invited" to spar with a young visiting Japanese instructor from the JKA National Team. As they squared off, the Scottish contestant, looking relaxed and confident, leapt forward with a strong front leg sweep. The technique failed to floor his Japanese opponent, but it did, nevertheless, catch him by surprise and caused him to momentarily lose his footing. I casually commented to my neighbors that, grading or no grading, such a move was asking for trouble.

Sure enough, the next and final technique was a swift punch from the Japanese-hard enough to knock his opponent out cold, but controlled enough to prevent any serious damage. To me, anyone facing an opponent who is obviously failing to put up a proper guard is bound to be considered arrogant. In addition, adopting a casual fighting posture and then trying to foot sweep would simply would be interpreted as really taking liberties. (These were lessons that I learn, sometimes painfully, over many years in Japan.) When some of the spectators commented on the Japanese instructor's lack of control, I realized how much they had misunderstood. It seems to me that practising JKA karate is not just about learning how to move or how to fight, but coming to understand a whole non-Western approach to learning itself. It's an approach that is sometimes difficult to follow, simply because we are not all Japanese. It is an approach that has produced, in my unashamedly biased opinion, the best karate-ka in the world. This is not to say this is necessarily the best approach, but it is a way that has worked, and one that many hope to follow.

The JKA has introduced karate to the world, but in a rather haphazard way. When the late Nakayama Sensei first had the vision to expand and promote karate abroad, none could have foreseen how rapid that expansion would become. In hindsight it is easy to be critical, and argue about what should or shouldn't have been done. The fact remains that the random and almost arbitrary way in which karate travelled beyond Japan's shores has left a host of people with no real leadership and very little guidance. What is abundantly clear, however, is that many individuals and dojos around the world have a great interest in the JKA, and are doing their utmost to follow its teachings.

Much of that teaching goes beyond simple form and technique, but is concerned with development of character and behavior. In Japan, it is the whole structure of the dojo and the style of teaching through which this knowledge is imparted. Very little is ever taught in the sense of verbal instruction. The philosophy underlying karate is something that one would be expected to understand in Japan in time, through training. It is not something that students would ask questions about or even expect to be told.

Like many things in Japan, karate, for me, is, on occasions, a mystery. I remember once asking a senior Japanese sensei just what he thought karate was really all about and what was the secret of success. Not speaking much Japanese at the time, I had selected a sensei whose command of English would, I hoped, be sufficient to enable me to gain some important insight. He considered my question very carefully, frowned several times and then gave me the answer: "I think better, train harder!" - advice that I am happy to pass on.