Why Japanese?


Have you ever trained with Honda or Yamaha, or …?” (The names have been changed to protect the innocent). So goes the changing room banter. “Oh, yeah, I went on a seminar with Mitsubishi Hanshi and he was brilliant! He’s a 12th Dan you know, and he was one of the original Uchi-Deshi of Funakoshi’s great nephew’s postman”.


It seems we all want a piece of this Oriental magic.  I’ve trained with a few senior Japanese sensei. Some were very good. Some were just appalling! In many cases, the classes were huge (over 100 students). How many of you recognise the following scenario?


The class assembled in front of the Sensei. The guy was so old, lacking in the mobility he may have had in his heyday.  Furthermore, his Pidgin English was unintelligible. He was probably a bit jet-lagged, and a bit dicky from all that foreign hotel food. It’s rather like going to see the Rolling stones, average age that of my Father, and expecting to see dangerous, cutting-edge Rock’n’ Roll. (Apart from anything else, Rock ’n’ Roll could hardly be considered to be at the cutting edge of popular music these days. Similarly, I’d like to think that karate has evolved, for the better, since the 1920’s.) To make things worse, the class was probably split into three, with the Nidans and above subjected to the mumblings of the geriatric foreigner, the middle ranks relegated to instruction under the sensei’s translator (who speaks pretty good text-book English, but can’t maegeri her way out of a wet paper bag) and the juniors being tutored by their regular club coach. An absolute bargain for all at only fifty quid a day!

But hey, it gets worse. The great malaise of the karate fraternity is the mantra “That’s the way I trained and it didn’t do me any harm”. The House of Lords is full of barmy old reactionaries, buggered, beaten and deprived of maternal affection for the first sixteen years of  their lives. These guys are clearly mad as hatters, eccentric at best, sociopathic at worst, but claim that Eton was the making of them. And we entrust to them far more than the mere management of our leisure time! Perhaps it’s in the British make-up to accept this nonsense.


By the same token the British karate scene is now full of psychopaths subjected to all sorts of abuse from their Japanese sensei since the 1960’s  (not least of these abuses being financial ones) who continue this sordid tradition amongst their disciples. Hence it is now possible to go on courses with Caucasian instructors, who mutter in unintelligible dialects to classes of 100, and delegate most of their teaching to lesser mortals, and again all for tens of pounds per willing, gullible head.


This problem is endemic, and self-perpetuating. I am told that one of our major karate organisations charges for Dan gradings on a sliding scale, with Shodan being 100, Nidan 200 and so on. The rationale, apparently, is that like the Pyramid salesman, it is worth that initial investment because as you progress, you become part of the machine and can, in turn charge your underlings for courses and gradings, and on the pyramid goes. I guess this organisation’s dogi have a special reinforced wallet pocket sewn in, but you only qualify for this embellishment when you get your Menkyo.


Personally, whilst I’ve had my fair share of beatings and fleecings from my seniors, I follow a different path. I like to train and to be trained along the following (radical, perhaps) lines:


1.Learn the language of your students

2.Speak clearly and plainly

3.Keep classes to a manageable size and narrow ability range

4.Charge a reasonable rate

5.Keep abreast of current trends, and thinking- particularly with regard to physiology, and health

6.Give the students the benefit of personal tuition

7. Try to impart something new, or approach an old theme from a new angle (honestly, I don’t need an eighth Dan to tell me how to trim my toenails, tie my obi, or hold my hikite)

8. Make the class stimulating


Consequently, some of my best, most rewarding, stimulating seminars have been with Europeans. (In fairness, I have been on some ropey courses with Dutch, German and Belgian sensei whose English left a lot to be desired, but this is not a racist tract. I just want to be taught by people I can learn from). Of course, it’s not sufficient to be a good communicator with a good course plan. It is vital that the teacher both has the knowledge (ability is impressive, but, hey, we all get old) and the stature to carry the message. Often reputations can be created, but I’m sure you’re as likely to find B.S. merchants in the oriental as occidental communities. Real class soon shows through, even to the novice. But aren’t such people hard to come by? Yes. Of course they are! But if you’re asking whether there are native English speakers with the raw abilty to compare with the Japanese, GET REAL! Billy Higgins, Steve Morris, Dave Hazard, Terry O’Neill. The list goes on. Further, though, there are many lesser graded men with whom I’d much sooner train than a decrepit 90 year old Japanese.


Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of highly respected Japanese Sensei, whose respect is justly deserved, and with whom I have trained, or would like to train. All I’m saying, and will continue to say in future articles is, emphatically THINK FOR YOURSELF. Don’t be sucked (or suckered) into the sensei-knows-best world that gives karate a bad name. The English invented cricket, and football, but that doesn’t mean we are the best in the world by right. Who would you rather see coach the English football team- Arsene Wenger or Malcolm Allison? Look for the best, but keep a truly open mind. Just because we all wear white we don’t have to act like sheep!