The other day I was guest teaching at a club and listened to everyone doing the Dojo Kun in Japanese…or trying. It was kind of hard to tell what they were doing as they were all trying to do their best, but the class was not doing very well. I felt bad and told the senior to just do it in English. My thought was that while it is part of training, I think it is much more important to know what you are saying than say it well. The message of the Dojo kun is far to important to be lost because we simply don’t speak a language that is foreign to us.
But it got me thinking, Do we need to know Japanese to know karate very well….I mean we use English and Japanese during testing, and mainly we teach in English with some Japanese when we teach a class! So, do we need to know Japanese to know Karate…..Obviously not! Karate is mostly a physical art that takes practice physically, does it actually matter if you say Mawashi Geri Jodan or round house kick to the head?
So why do we use so much Japanese in our training. Well the use of Japanese is not just to connect us to the tradition. It has two real purposes that I can think of. First off it reminds us of the tradition and honor that we should be attaching to our training. It is not just simply kick boxing or fighting. It is a process of discovery of ourselves. Far to many instructors forget this or discount the need for the use of Japanese. They try and distance themselves from the tradition and honor associated with the training. It shows, in my opinion, a lack of character when one throws away the traditions and ritual that is associated with a character building endeavor. To focus so much on just learning basics to harm someone else is indeed telling!
The other reason we use Karate is the Gutteral language (meaning sub glottis) is used to train the core. When we count, use Japanese terms and move we are “turning on” or setting up our core to make good techniques. The use of this dynamic speech pattern or guttural language helps train our body to dynamically tense the core and relax after. Count in English from one to ten the way that you would normally, the tension is all in the neck and throat, do the same in Japanese the way we do in class and the tension is now in the lower abdomen. Japanese ability to train the Hara, or belly is fantastic, its like teaching the body to be ready at a moments notice. The 60% tension you should get (and that is a guess) is the right tension for a “ready” feeling.
A strange fact about Karate and Japanese came to light for me about 9 years ago when I was in college. I had “borrowed” a book from Sensei that was in Japanese only. The book was by Tanaka Sensei and at the time was only available in Japanese. Now the pictures spoke a million words, but we wanted to know what he was saying about his techniques. And trust me it is a great book, it finally came out in English and the book is fantastic. Now a funny thing happened, one of the other students was from Japan and offered to help me translate it with the help of her husband.
The ladies English was not bad and her husband spoke Japanese, but did not read Japanese…the task itself was very funny, she would read it in Japanse out loud and he would translate it with her help into English and I would write it down….but we ran into a very strange problem….Japanese terms for Karate are not exactly commonly used terms. I thought that if you spoke Japanse and read Japanese that you surely must be able to understand what the Karate people are saying…..No so much.
As it turns out our Japanese terms that we use every day are “Technical terms” and much like most of my medical terminology would for lay people….it means little to nothing to the Japanese lay person. They did not understand terms like Mawashi geri, Yori Ashi and the like. They said that some they could make out, but had to guess at…the translation process took a month to get thru the first chapter as I got things like “Kicking backwards” for “Back kick” and “snappy snap kick frontward” for “Kizami Mae geri…or snap front kick from front leg”. It was very entertaining to see what was next…..after the month and only one chapter…..we gave up! Which was fine, I found out someone had done all that work for us and I bought him the book in English!
I mentioned the terms guttural and glottal when referring to speech. I want to be clear that referring to Japanese as “guttural” means speaking from the gut or stomach area, what Japanese say is Hara-speak. NOT an insult to the language in any way. Okay, that out of the way, Guttural speaking is a more dynamic and fatiguing way of speaking, it involves training the body to tighten up the abdomen when pushing air out, not something that we are used to doing in the west. We tend to force air across the vocal cords from high up in the chest and throat, or the glottal area. Strangely, opera singers are known as guttural breathers, and this gives them the ability to speak and sing at a far greater level than glottal speaking can.
Speaking Japanese should be seen as a form of training. Those that learn to do the Dojo Kun in Japanese are learning a new way of training, kind of like learning a new way to do pushups. It’s a conditioning exercises as well has a form of homage to the traditions that we are training in.
So, how much Japanese should a student or instructor actually know? I think that as you progress from a beginner to a senior you should pick up the basic names of the techniques that you need to practice, the advanced techniques and theory are probably best learned in English however. I think that counting, the Dojo Kun and the basic movements should be known by yellow or orange belt just thru listening in class. If you get to green belt and cannot count to ten in Japanese you obviously are not listening well enough in class. However, I don’t think that unless you are interested in learning Japanese for yourself you do not need to learn conversational Japanese.
Very few instructors that I know can converse in Japanese. Perhaps one or two that have trained with that were not native to Japan could carry on a conversation with a native speaking Japanese, but even they say their Japanese is not very good. It’s to darn different a language and you have a better change of learning a language that has something in common with English, like French or Spanish!
Don’t stress over not knowing Japanese or having a poor grasp of the language. If your Japanese sounds like grunting and you cannot make out the words, again don’t stress, as long as you get down the basics and work at it you will get the physical benefits and you will be understood enough to cover what you are training in or teaching.
Having said all that I can tell you that after MANY years of training under Japanese instructors I have learned and often suffer from a common habit…speaking in broken English. Its silly and when I catch myself I often turn bright red…but since I have trained with some of the best Japanese instructors…who do speak in Broken English, I have picked up the bad and embarrassing habit of often speaking in a broken English when teaching. Its horrible and I don’t mean to do it. There is a discovered purpose from all this however. See, years ago when teaching a very senior CANADIAN born and raised instructor began teaching a class with us and he had a funny accent and spoke with broken English. I was younger and asked him why he spoke funny when teaching, he told me that the less he actually spoke the more we listened. And it rang true, by cutting out words and speaking in broken English I get students to listen more often…..at least that’s what I tell myself.
But what about instructors with perfect Japanese? Well outside of the odd Non-Japanese and the actual Japanese instructors I have trained under two people that had perfect Japanese and were not native speaking Japanese…and I can tell you that just because their Japanese was very very good…did not translate into their Karate being very good.
While your Skills in Karate are not dependent upon your learning Japanese, anymore than you need to know French to learn fencing, it is a tool. It can be used to develop your body in a unique way and….lets face it…its cool!