How different is Japan?

by Colin Watkin (from The Iaido Newsletter, Volume 6 number 8, #48 AUG 1994)

Most Budoka have a yen (pardon the pun) to go to Japan at some time in their lives, to broaden their knowledge of the arts and to try to relate them to the Japanese way of life. Going is of course dependent on one's family and financial situation. For those who have this opportunity, what should we expect and what is expected of us.

I should start by saying that my title "How Different" is the uppermost thought in everyone's mind but at the same time it should be the last! For many, going to Japan is a dream come true. However, one has to step off the dream cloud to the reality that we are all human beings, and that the main differences are those of character, not of nationality. If my words appear to be a little harsh, it's because sadly I have seen so many people arrive here, and return thinking that certain people's peculiarities were "because they are Japanese". It is possible to live in Japan and at the same time be outside its culture. It seems that in some cases only a personal involvement of some kind will dispel the train of thought that the Japanese are so

Japanese language:

Not being able to understand the language can be a tremendous drawback. Poor communication sometimes leads one to false conclusions. The history of martial arts and a lot of the language used to describe it goes back to Chinese kanji (calligraphy) and is deep in meaning. For example the word Keiko (practice/study) is translated as "to plant a seed". As opposed to "the pen is mightier than the sword" the Japanese saying is Bunbu Ichi (pen and sword in accord).

We see communication problems all too many times in the west. A student not able to understand will simply copy their visiting sensei's actions. Then, on watching another Sensei do things differently will assume that things have changed. Japanese, unlike other languages is politely suggestive and cautious, aimed at consensus rather than sharp clarification. To the foreigner with a limited amount of time in Japan wishing to acquire precise knowledge, this is indeed a frustrating problem.

Two percent of Japanese (not the same 2%) use a wooden bath, eat peanut butter, and practice what is generally considered to be a sportlike activity called Kakutogi (combat techniques) which encompasses Kendo and Judo. With its warlike connotation the original word "Budo" has not been used for some time in connection with education.

At the end of the war General MacArthur wrote a letter to Japan's then Prime Minister Yoshida which said that it was the decision of the occupying forces that the practice of "all Martial Arts should be suspended forthwith", and that they would possibly be reintroduced at a later date based on the "individual merits of each art". This process took seven years.

Nowadays Budo has little meaning in a country that is so preoccupied with copying the West. Going to Japan and seeing a country that looks "more western" than the west is one's biggest "culture shock". This preoccupation will cause Japanese people to completely drop their busy schedules to entertain what are respectfully known as gaijin (outsiders).


Going as a guest to Japan is an important subject to touch on. The Japanese as people are no different but the system is! They communicate from a series of bubbles. The main bubble and innermost sanctum is the family. Next comes osananajimi (early childhood friends). These bonds develop even further should people have other things in common, going to school together, work etc. The outer bubble is acquaintances, business contacts and other associations. These bubbles are distinctly separate, gently bouncing off each other, sometimes joining together and Japanese people are at ease with this system. As in the dojo, newcomers usually enter from the bottom of the hierarchy until their position is established. The visitor then is in their outer bubble. Sometimes visitors are entertained at home, but this is purely for their curiosity value. For the same reason, they may want to visit you! However, most Japanese prefer to meet out.


The Japanese family would perhaps be considered to be very old fashioned compared to the West. Of course this depends upon the way one has been brought up and the standards one sets for oneself. Do as I say, not as I do, is usually the regimen. Younger members of most families, particularly women, have mongen (lockup time). In saying youngest, I mean if the youngest daughter is 40, this rule will still apply. If one wishes to do one's own thing, the answer is to make a separate home. The foreign visitor is indeed fortunate if being given a homestay for a long period. However, be warned that you will possibly be accepted into the home as the "junior member" with limitations on where you go, who you meet, what time you come back.

Most people who have the finances to go to Japan don't have any close family ties. The purpose in going is to study Martial Arts. However, with so many unattached pretty girls it is all too easy to get sidetracked. For this reason I should perhaps touch on this facet of relationships. According to Japanese tradition, the eldest son or daughter of a family is expected to live with and look after their parents when they get older. For this reason many people do not marry, as their first responsibility lies with their family. Further to this, as parents want some say in who their child will wed, many marriages are partially arranged with a view to securing the future of all concerned. Nowadays some Japanese people themselves are finding this system somewhat constrictive.

Japanese use the grand name of Kokusai Kekkon (international marriage) for a mixed race marriage. However be warned that friendly Japanese people are a fiercely proud race who are naturally not keen on mixing things too much!


Japan has drawn vast numbers of people from poorer neighboring countries. A lot unable to acquire work permits have been entering and working with Holiday Visas. This has forced Immigration to tighten its conditions of entry to Japan, and has undoubtedly made it harder for anyone wishing to stay and study. The general rule now is that you should acquire a Visa "before coming", stating your reasons for wanting to come. Also, it's necessary to find a qualified martial arts teacher in Japan who will take you into their dojo.

Diplomatic rules between countries do vary, and people holding

To sum up, one could liken one's first visit to Japan to entering a dojo for the first time. Continued visits over a period of time will eventually allow you to form your own bubble and drift into warm and lasting friendships and associations and gain valuable experience in the sword arts.