International & Global Education
As I reflect upon my 25-year sojourn in the heart of Japan, a journey interwoven with the study of Koryu and Okinawan Budo, I find myself contemplating the profound nuances that distinguish practising Japanese martial arts from truly understanding them. The crux of this contemplation lies in the dichotomy between embracing the teachings of excellent non-Japanese instructors worldwide and the unmatched depth that arises from immersing oneself in the cultural embrace of Japan.
In the global landscape of Japanese Budo, exceptional non-Japanese teachers have created a path for practitioners to hone their skills, transcending geographical boundaries. The mastery and dedication of these instructors, irrespective of their cultural background, offer a solid foundation for grasping Budo's physical techniques and philosophical tenets. Discipline, respect, and self-improvement, the cornerstone principles of these martial arts, become tangible under the guidance of devoted teachers who share a passion for the art.
Yet, the profound layers of understanding from living in Japan unfurl like a blossoming cherry tree in spring. Beyond the physical practice lies the essence of Japanese Budo embedded in the daily rituals, traditions, and societal dynamics that shape the philosophy of these martial arts. My extended stay in Japan has been a tapestry of experiences, allowing me to witness and absorb the subtle intricacies of Japanese culture that breathe life into Budo. Spend a year in Japan, and very soon, you understand that 'kata' is not confined to the dojo!
For those delving into the intricate world of Koryu Budo, the historical context takes centre stage. Living in Japan provides a front-row seat to the cultural and historical backdrop against which these classical martial arts flourished. It is an immersive journey where the past and present coalesce, contributing to a more profound and nuanced understanding of the techniques and principles inherent in Koryu Budo.
With its unique martial traditions, Okinawan Budo adds yet another layer to this cultural odyssey. While the teachings of Okinawan martial arts can be embraced beyond Japan's borders, residing in the region becomes a gateway to unparalleled exposure to local customs, language, and historical context. The nuances of Okinawan Budo unfold organically, intricately tied to the rhythm of daily life on the islands. Those who stress the difference between Okinawan and mainland karate are, in my experience, self-serving sycophants rather than genuinely seeking to understand the way of the empty hand. Indeed, one of the most respected people I know in karate has stopped reading books written in English on karate for this very reason - it has taken me a while to get there - but now I understand his reasoning and how it can save my sanity ;-) - or at least what is left of it.
So many layers and even explanations of techniques get 'lost in translation' as Budo moves between cultures. Adding to the complexity are the romantic myths, outright misinformation and self-serving lies that numerous practitioners perpetuate regardless of their national identity. People are always shocked to hear there are as many 'fakes' here in Japan as in the outside world, that the level of teaching and understanding can be shallow and that charlatans abound. Living and learning deeply in Japan takes significant time, effort, and a clear sense of what YOU want to know. Trying to unpack the politics of Okinawa and the mainland cannot be done in a few short stay visits over a few years. Indeed, understanding even the difference between bushi and samurai takes some diligence. What is the difference between a ninja and a shibobi? Why are some karate kata done squared up to the opponent, while others are done at a 45-degree front stance? Is there a difference between -Barai and -Uke?
Despite what the media presents, no mystical old sage imparts wisdom and secret techniques. However, some people have devoted themselves to their 'art' and make no mistakes for these few; Budo IS an art - it has transcended violence and competition and become a way to live and express their deepest selves. For me, such a spirit was embodied by my teacher, Miyase-sensei.
On the surface, he was just another intelligent and sophisticated salary man, but he became something entirely different when he put a jo in his hand. He possessed bone-crushing power, incredible accuracy and control, self-reliance, and discipline. Yet he was utterly free to be himself. When he was in motion, it was like water, fire and a hurricane embodied in whichever kata he was performing - he was on this planet, but for a split second, he transcended his flesh and bone and became something else - I am not sure what to call it but 'pure energy' would be close. Yet, in the blink of an eye, he was a calm breeze on a lake, smiling and warm-hearted. He was utterly unique. He could speak on any topic and was both an excellent listener and speaker. Indeed, I was blessed to spend so many hours chatting with him, and I consider these times to be some of my most profound experiences. My goal has been to replicate his "ness" within my karate and Kobudo, but I remain far, far short of the mark. I say this not in fake humility but rather in a mixture of frustration, laughter and 'gambaru'. I can always see his face with its impish smile and the samurai laugh - "Hatch-san, you are too serious".
In this reflective piece, I've come to view the decision to live in Japan not merely as a choice of geography but as a conscious step towards delving into the soul of Japanese Budo. It is a commitment to understanding the philosophy beyond the physical, appreciating the symphony of history and culture that enriches the martial arts. While the expertise of non-Japanese instructors lays a sturdy foundation, the decision to live in Japan amplifies the resonance of Budo, creating a melody that resonates with the essence of this ancient art. Therefore while my tea remains me, I do hope it is less bitter than it once was...
Okinawan and Japanese Budo
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan