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Training in Japan – Points to Ponder

February 9, 2018

I got these questions via Whatsapp.

“Actually, I never understood something. Why all the glamour about going to Japan? It’s the same martial art, right? What’s with all the hype? I mean, it can’t be that Bujinkan becomes a different art everyday or something, down in Japan.”

So should you train in Japan in the first place?

It depends. We are all different. Hatsumi Soke’s Budo means different things for each of us. What do we want out of Bujinkan training?

1) To be an instructor?

If the warrior disciplines and teachings of the Bujinkan resonate that much with you that you want to become an instructor, then you SHOULD go to Japan. Practically, Japan is now the only place you can go to in order to be tested as a Shidoshi, to qualify as a full instructor of this martial art. But practicalities aside, there is a transmission, an intangible vibe you get from training with Hatsumi Soke and his senior Shihan.

I personally believe that you can never be certain that you want to take on the responsibility of being a Bujinkan instructor until you have met Hatsumi Soke. That is truly the moment you can clearly decide if that is what you want. Why teach Hatsumi’s Budo, and in the name of his organization, if you discover that you cannot stand the man himself?

Besides, when you are in Japan, then you will know if your instructor has accurately represented the art to you. If you go to Japan and realize that your instructor has been teaching stuff that is 180 degrees different from what you see being done in Japan, then you will have to decide if Bujinkan Budo is truly the art you wish to represent. There are many good and respectable martial arts available, you don’t necessarily have to teach Bujinkan unless you are totally sure, correct?

2) To be a student? From a student’s point of view, one can argue that the pros and cons of training in Japan are quite subjective. So let me lay out some objective facts here, so we know what we are discussing.

Hombu Lessons

First, the Hombu Dojo (our headquarters) holds training sessions 7 days a week, 2-3 times a day.

Next, those sessions are led/taught by either the Japanese Shihan (senior teachers) most of the time, or Hatsumi Soke himself a few times a week.

Also, the people attending those sessions are NOT divided up into groups and taught according to their skill levels or rank. Everyone there, from the newbie white belt on his/her second lesson to the black belt completing his/her second decade of training, works on the same material in class.

Finally, the session contents are quite independent. In other words, the Shihan teaching on a Monday night session is not going to be build on top of whatever has been taught on Monday afternoon by another Shihan. For those Shihan who teach more than once a week, even they may not have any continuity in the material they cover. This means the teaching at the Hombu is often not progressive or systematic.

Cost of the Trip

Generally, if you fly economy and stay economy over in Japan, a 7-day trip will cost you around $3000 in Singapore currency. This includes airfare, lodging, food, transport and training fees. There are ways to save costs here and there, but $3000 is a good working estimate we can use for now. So assuming you train twice a day for 6 days during the trip, that means you are paying $250 per session. Hold that thought, we will come back to it later.

Time and Attention

We all know that the Shihan are NOT going to spend their time watching you train a particular technique, point out everything you are getting wrong, and watch over you trying it out until you get things correct. But for the sake of discussion, let us assume that they do.

So if you turn up at Hombu with another 14 other people for a two hour session (120 minutes) each person will get at best 8 minutes of such attention from the Shihan teaching the class. If there are a total of 10 students at the dojo for that session, each will get at best 12 minutes of such attention from the Shihan.

So a training trip to Japan means paying $250 for 8-12 minutes of individualized, personal attention from the teaching Shihan.

Let’s say you get that 8-12 minutes of teaching, and after the session you return to the hotel and immediately work on the points and details the Shihan brought up . You know what you need next, right? You need follow up, the teacher saying “Now you got the hang of ABC, you should carry on with DEF next. ” Go ask people who have trained in Japan, how much of that do they actually get.

If you are really loaded, and money is not really an issue to you, great! It is your time and money, you have the freedom to decide how you want to spend it. But if money is an issue, then you will need to ask yourself if spending $250 for 8-12 minutes of teaching is the best use of your money.

For normal people looking at those figures, you realize that you really NEED to travel to Japan for training when:

a) you are so skilled that you only need that 8-12 minutes of personalized attention to improve

b) there is no one else left around who can help you improve within that 8-12 minutes

Improvement comes from a good mix of working on new material and eliminating the mistakes you make doing what you think you already know. And frankly, most of the time people live in denial about their own mistakes. It is much more entertaining to learn new kata and think that means improvement, when you haven’t even learned how to coordinate your hips and legs properly.

It really all depends on what point are you at in your journey. Are your foundations of basic coordination in place? Do you understand the kihon happo well enough to make them work consistently? Do you know the common kata from the more accessible ryu? No point going all the way to Japan to seek out instruction in Gikan Ryu or Kumogakure Ryu, or trying to go beyond the densho kata, when you haven’t even mastered the shoden kata from Gyokko, Koto and Shinden Fudo Ryu yet.

In other words, if there is a decently competent sensei anywhere around your geographical region, you will probably learn and grow more from paying that sensei $250/session than spending that to travel to Hombu.

On the Other Hand

That said, training in Japan is a test of your teacher. First, you get to see if what your teacher says they do in Japan really IS what he claims it is. Early in the history of the Bujinkan, a well-known foreigner returned to his home country teaching his own material in the name of Hatsumi Soke and the Bujinkan. Because he wanted to present himself as an authority before he was actually ready, all his books and teaching seminars left many in a haze about the true nature of Hatsumi’s art. if not for people from his own country bypassing him to seek training with Hatsumi, the confusion and misinformation would be much, much worse by now.

Sometimes it is necessary to clear the haze, right?

Second, you get to see how well you have been taught the basics. How well you can pick up the material you are shown is a reflection of your teacher’s ability. If your teacher has promoted you to 4th dan and you move worse than a green belt with only one year of Bujinkan training, you ought to ask yourself if you need a better teacher. Even if you manage to pass the 5th dan test while in Japan (by trying over and over again), it is shameful if you move worse than the above mentioned green belt.

TLDR version – if you want to be an instructor, you ought to go train in Japan. If not, it’s really up to your whims and budget.

As for me…

Do I want to go Japan for training again? Of course I do. but I am very aware that there are limits to how much I can learn, even from the trip. That means coming back from Japan, even if the Shihan at Hombu insist on promoting me, is no valid reason for me to be arrogant or to think I know more than another instructor who hasn’t made the trip any time recently.

Some people use the trip for boasting rights. They will tell you “this is the latest, greatest stuff they are working on in Japan.” Use your own discernment. If a visiting 7th dan shows something as Japan material (maybe movement as weird as taiji but without taiji’s power) and a 14th dan standing nearby rolls his eyes or looks horrified, that means it is time to dig a little deeper.

In the end, if you train in my class, what you want is skill, reliable skill, dependable ability. One of my students just came back from training at the Hombu Dojo, and when we were chatting about the trip he said, “After I have been to Hombu, don’t talk to me about dan ranks.” Then he quoted from The Grandmaster, a recent movie based on Ip Man: “功夫, 两个字, 一横一竖; 错的, 倒下; 对的, 站着。”

Translated, it says “Kung Fu (Chinese expression for skill) , just two words: one is “down”, the other is “standing”. The person who is wrong, goes down; the person who is correct, stays standing.” Things are actually not that complicated.

If you train with me, if you see me as your sensei, then my job is to teach you, the best I can, how to be the one who still stands. Don’t get caught up by the trappings, the ranks, the talk. We train Budo Taijutsu, (Warrior Path Body skills). It is the taijutsu, the movement, that really matters. Keep your eyes on that, and skills will eventually follow.

See you at training!

Junjie 俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore

 

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