Should students of the Japanese martial arts study the Japanese language?

posted in: Tanbukan (Blog) | 0

A student asked me this very question recently. He was considering taking up Japanese to support his martial arts training, but wasn’t sure how much value it would really add.

I told him that like everything in the martial arts, this question can be answered on varios different levels. (And incidentally, the answer on every one of those levels – to my mind – is “Yes, you should definitely learn some Japanese!”)

On the most basic level, it’s really useful for students to learn Japanese, because that’s the language we use for so much of the core vocabulary. If someone teaches you a back fist strike, it’s so much easier to remember the name Ura Ken Uchi if you already know that this is how you’d say Back Fist Strike in Japanese anyway.

So in this way, every time your sensei gives you a string of instructions – Age Uke; Gyaku Tsuki; Gedan Barai; Mae Geri – you don’t have to waste your mental energy trying to work out what on earth he or she has just said. If you’re confident with the vocabulary, you can focus your energy where it counts – i.e. the movements themselves.

On a deeper level, many teachers would advise students to study Japanese “because we train in a Japanese art(s) and it’s important to understand the culture”. And this is also true, and another very important aspect of our training.

But my favourite answer goes deeper even than this. I like to say that within the mysterious world of the Japanese martial arts not everything is always quite as it seems. It can often feel much like peeling an onion. You take one layer off – only to reveal another that you did not realise was there, or had only previously caught a glimpse of.

A practical example of this is the different levels of analysing and understanding Karate kata. At the most basic level (Kihon), “what you see is what you get”. Yes; that’s a chudan (mid-level) punch; and that’s an age uke (rising block). And at this level, all the kata you learn can basically be seen as clear sequences of various blocks and strikes.

But there’s more. When you start to study the Bunkai (literally “analysis” or dissassembly) of kata, you start to discover that what appears to be a very simple block followed by an equally simple punch is actually also a throw – or perhaps a joint lock. Because the basic movement is actually exactly the same – but astonishingly, when used in a different context the outcome is now completely different.

This is where Karate can start to resemble other martial arts; as many of these hidden techniques often appear to be nearly or even completely identical to those found in other arts.

In fact, even the bunkai that many advanced students learn are often not the full story. Because  even within the bunkai there are also different levels and layers to unpeel. So what started off looking like a simple block and punch . . . now also appears to be a classical aikido-like throw . . . but it may also be a sophisticated, multi-dimensional technique; a surprising variation of some throw, choke or lock; or even an application with and/or against weapons.

So what does all this have to do with learning Japanese? Well for me, it’s exactly the same process of unpeeling layers of meaning to discover the secrets that lie underneath.

For example – for a beginner with no knowledge of Japanese, the term uke simply means “block”. So they learn rising blocks, sweeping blocks, inside and outside blocks – and so on.

Or do they . . . ?

In Japanese, the word uke is used to describe what we may think looks like a series of blocks – and which we English speakers are happy to call blocks. But Uke doesn’t actually mean block at all. It has a range of meanings, including:

1. to receive; to get
2. to catch (e.g. a ball)
3. to be struck by (wind, waves, sunlight, etc.)
4. to sustain (damage); to incur (a loss); to suffer (an injury); to feel (influence) etc.

So the primary meaning of uke is nothing to do with smashing force against force. It’s about receiving; yielding; guiding your attacker’s body, mind and spirit . . . Which takes your understanding of whichever martial art you are studying onto a whole new level . . .

And that’s just one example – there are countless others relating to your art, which you will only ever appreciate by familiarising yourself with spoken and written Japanese.

So this is why I believe it’s important to learn the language, to whatever level is realistic and manageable for you in your own busy life. It conditions our mind and spirit to really understand that there is so much more going on, than the obvious things you can see, hear and feel in the dojo. It trains us always to look for and explore what else could lie underneath – at a deeper and hidden level.

This is why so many teachers will say that learning a martial art takes a lifetime. After over 30 years of training and teaching, only now am I starting to truly realise this . . . and wow – what a journey it is taking me on.

Life is never quite as it appears; and to my mind, nowhere is this expressed more clearly than the sometimes weird and always wonderful, multi-dimensional world of the dojo . . .