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Beginner’s Mind: The Fast Track

By Sara Aoyama

I hear a lot of discussion about how martial arts students from Japan differ from those in the west. It might even account in some part for why in Japan students are often promoted to shodan (first degree black belt) more quickly than students are in the west. But I think the reason is that the Japanese student beginner’s mind may not be our beginner’s mind.

What does a Japanese student bring to the dojo? In a sense, they are already versed in the dojo culture, which shares much with their everyday culture, and is arguably rooted in their own (Asian) culture. Any child anywhere must be socialized to his or her culture and for most of us in the West who train in a traditional dojo, the Japanese/Okinawan culture is a new and foreign one. But in order to train within the system, some of it must be internalized, understood and learned. It’s kind of like pre-school preparing us for school. But we Westerners often go straight into the dojo with no preparation. It’s a sink or swim, or a learn-as-you-go, type of situation. Easier for some than others, and assisted possibly by helpful hints and guidance from sempai, or by any written material on cultural expectations and norms that a dojo may provide. Some of us are open to these new ways, but some of us have a lot of resistance.

To see some differences, let’s look at what Janie and Taro bring to the dojo.

I was once told by a first grade teacher in Japan that the whole entire year is devoted to socialization, and academics come a distant second. In Japan there is no kindergarten in the elementary school. There are private kindergartens or pre-schools, but first grade is the first step they take into the school they will attend for six years, and it is the beginning of academic life.

In Taro’s school he will start out by studying who he is as a person, and then widen the circle to include family, school, and lastly community. He will learn at each level the different roles, rules, and expectations in place. Traditional learning in first grade will include raising a morning glory plant from seed to plant and charting its growth, learning how to do shopping errands for his mother, learning to wash his shoes, and learning to clean his classroom, the school yard, and the streets of the community around the school. Taro will attend hansokai (reflection meetings) after each event to discuss what could have been better. This teaches cooperation and good listening skills. The curriculum in Japan is almost the same in every school, something unimaginable to Americans.

For Janie, while some attention is given to behavior at school, she’ll be primarily concerned with the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic). Socialization might consist of learning the Golden Rule, but though she may be expected to keep her desk neat and clean, most likely she won’t actually be taught how to do this. And in America, unlike Japan, there is a huge difference in what is taught at each and every school. So we don’t really know what Janie will be learning in her first academic year of school.

What do Janie and Taro need to learn to be a member of their traditional dojo community? A few things might be:

Bowing (Japanese kids learn this one very quickly in life)
Cleaning (Japanese kids learn this in first grade at the latest)
Dojo Kun (Recitation is also a skill taught in Japanese schools; Americans may get it in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, an optional activity)
Group Work (We all get this, but in different ways)
Sempai/Kohai (This is very familiar to Japanese kids, and unknown to Americans)
Staying in tempo with each other (Americans walk to the beat of their own drum)
Lining up Shoes and People = Order (Japanese are familiar with this early on)
Terminology (Due to language differences, the Japanese have an advantage here)
Focus (I suppose this one has a range of individual differences)
Neat Appearance/Uniforms (Most Americans are unaccustomed to uniforms and Japanese kids wear them often, if just for gym class. In America, "neatness counts" means "I’d better be able to read your handwriting.")

No Japanese person is going to misunderstand the meaning of senpai (one’s senior), forget to bow, or think that having to clean the dojo himself is strange. Terms won’t be hard to understand either, and concepts will come faster. Of course, in the end, being an American myself, I think it depends on the individual!

Japanese martial arts usually teach a lot more than technique. They usually stress “do”, which incorporates mental training and group socialization. Students learn to develop discipline, etiquette and an unquitting spirit, along with control of ego, self-control, and appreciation and cooperation with others in their martial arts group. Thus, Japanese and western martial arts students usually start from different places. I don’t know how much, but the social-mental training among Japanese students might account for the speed with which some Japanese reach the dan (black belt) level.


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About the Author:

Sara Aoyama is a 1974 graduate of the University of Kansas, where she majored in Japanese Language and Literature. She spent over twelve years living in Japan where she dabbled in a number of other arts such as Ikebana (flower arranging), cooking, and Shamisen. While living in Kyoto, she was able to see many hidden aspects of Japanese society. Currently she lives in Brattleboro, Vermont where she trains in Shorin-ryu Karate. Currently she continues her studies in Kishaba Juku karate under Sensei George Donahue. She is a freelance Japanese-English translator. Most recently, she translated "The Art of Lying" by Kazuo Sakai, MD., and “Karate Kyohan” by Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura. Aoyama is a regular contributor to FightingArts.com.


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