I just came back from a wonderful visit to Japan. I was able to train intensively in iaido and jodo, including 3 days with 4 or more hours of training. Practice in Japan is like practice everywhere. You go to the dojo, you dress, and your teachers kick your butt all over the room. Then again, it’s not. I attended a training session where there was one 7th dan instructor for every 2 students below 7th dan. How often can you get that kind of attention?
There seems to be a popular image people have of practice in Japan, with everyone lining up with military precision and shouting “Oss!” at everything Sensei says, standing rigidly at attention all the time, and jumping at every command. The reality is quite different, more relaxed and more focused and, frankly, more effective.
Classical Japanese martial arts don’t require military style discipline, and they don’t need it. Teachers in Japan of classical arts aren’t looking for overdone displays of rigid behavior and military-style behavior. (You do see this sometimes in school clubs and and arts such as karate and Yoshikan Aikido that were popularized during the years when the militarists were running things in Japan). They expect students to already have self-discipline, and if a student doesn’t, the correct behavior is on display all around them. The atmosphere is subdued and relaxed, but very focused.
In nearly 25 years spent living in Japan, or traveling there as frequently as possible for training, I can’t remember a teacher ever yelling at me. It’s just not a part of how things are done. Everyone trains hard, and we all focus. It’s sort of necessary in arts where training involves your partner trying split you with a nice piece of oak. We come in, change our clothes, bow together for the start of practice and go from there. We’ll do the warm-ups together, but eing the leader isn’t much of a position. Everyone takes turns calling out sets of 10 reps as we work through the various warm-ups and fundamental technique practices.
If Sensei has a correction for me, it’s done gently and my response is a gentle “Hai”. No yelling or big displays. Just demonstrate that you are paying attention. Sensei walks over and makes the correction, sometimes with a little smile that suggests to me that I really ought to have figured it out on my own. Corrections are quick and simple and low-key. Kiyama Sensei will walk by and pat my butt if my posture is off. I know what he means, so he doesn’t need to say anything else.
Fukuma Sensei spent an hour patiently watching me do kata over and over as he carefully corrected every aspect of what I was practicing. We worked on posture. We worked on cutting technique. We worked on foot position. We worked on how the movement corkscrews up and around to deal with the kaso teki. He would demonstrate or explain a little, maybe move a my foot to where it should be or adjust my grip slightly. Everything was done quietly, simply, without flourish or shouting or berating. We were focused on what we were working on, and we didn’t have any side comments of off-topic conversation. Everything was as focused and concentrated as we could make it, but in a relaxed atmosphere. There was none of the barking like drill sergeants or the rigid postures of military recruits. This isn’t the military. It’s koryu bugei. Your attention and focus are expected to be developed and refined as natural parts of your being rather than imposed from outside.
Truly worthwhile discipline comes from within. It’s not imposed from the outside. That’s the atmosphere in koryu budo dojo, and in the better gendai budo dojo in Japan. At Jodo keiko the training is incredibly intense. Your partner is genuinely aiming to hit you with a big piece of oak, and it hurts if you screw up and let him do it. My partner on Thursday was a very nice 7th dan. His intensity as he approached for the attack was wonderful, and pushed me to meet it with an equal level of intensity. Then the kata is over and we can relax. Matsuda Sensei comes over to give me corrections. There are smiles and gentle, but powerful, corrections made. Sensei shows me exactly what I’m doing wrong. Just like at iaido practice, the instruction is low key, with great respect given and received by everyone. The 7th dan I’m training with is powerful and intense, but never brutal. There is no unnecessary violence and no yelling or abuse. I show him how much I respect him, and he treats with just as much respect.
Matsuda Sensei, who outranks us all, treats us with respect and what I can only describe as gentle affection. This is not the image of a Japanese dojo that you get from movies and television. He doesn’t bark, he doesn’t yell, and he never hits anyone. When he approaches, he doesn’t yell. He is quiet and understated. He’ll set me up in a position and gently but inexorably show my why my stance or movement is weak. Then he’ll move my foot or my hand to show me what I need to do.
There is great mutual respect within the dojo. One of the great drivers for improvement, at least for me, has nothing to do with external pressure. It is the respect that everyone shows me and the gentle affection I feel from my teachers. I work far harder to not disappoint them then I ever would in a situation where it was all about external pressure. My effort is the best way I can show them how much I appreciate their lessons and patience. I’ve never seen them reprimand anyone. They don’t have to. The idea of doing anything that would embarrass them is horrifying to think about. What more motivation is needed?
If you haven’t been there, classical budo training Japan probably isn’t what you imagine. It is tough and challenging. Not harsh and brutal. The dojo are actually fairly quiet because people are focused on good training and not yelling at each other. Teachers and students are treated with respect and honor. Oh, and the level of training is amazing.