I am sure you were shocked and may even be offended by this title. Of course, I chose this title to catch your full attention. I expect I will get a lot of push back on this title but give me a chance to explain why I think it is better not to explain when we teach karate.
If you happen to have or have had a Japanese sensei, I suspect you have noticed that your sensei does or did not explain too much in his karate class. Many people may blame the lack of language skills such as English. It is true that many Japanese sensei are or were not fluent in the local language whether it were English, French, Spanish or whatever. Regardless of the language ability, I emphasize that this is the basic attitude of the Japanese instructors. I can say this not only because of my personal experience in karate training as well as teaching but I wish to present that there is a very good logical reason.
Before I go into the explanation of this logical reason, I want to share a little background of the Japanese word of “to learn”, manabe (学ぶ). This word’s origin is manebu (まねぶ) which means to imitate. So, the original concept of “to learn something” for the ancient Japanese was to imitate the teacher. This is why we have a saying of Shu Ha Ri (守破離). Many readers may already know the meaning of this. It is a concept that describes the stages of learning to mastery.
To understand this concept let me quote the explanation by an Aikido instructor, Endo Seishiro.
“It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.”
This is the key point. So, the main idea is while you are learning or at the stage of Shu, all you are expected to do is to repeat and imitate. This means you repeat the same thing without trying to be different or thinking.
In fact, this idea was even more prevalent when I was in school some fifty to sixty years ago. I remember that we, over fifty years ago as the karate students, never asked any questions not only to our sensei but also to our senpai. We knew that we were not supposed to ask any questions during a training session. Without any exaggeration, the only word we could use was “Oss”. If we had dared to ask any questions about techniques, kata, kumite or anything else, they never gave us any answers. They would have come back, instead, with a sharp statement such as “Keep your eyes open” or “Watch more carefully” or “Practice more”, etc.
When we had a question that we believed was important, we, only once in a while, dared to ask. However, it was important that we needed to pick the right moment. Regardless, it always had to be after the class is over. We waited till we went to a restaurant or a café after training, if we wanted to ask something. In a casual environment while we were talking about some social and casual subjects, we used to slip a question or two into our conversation. Regardless, I remember it was awfully difficult to ask our sensei about a technical question. Even though the situation in Japan may have changed somewhat since those days, I am pretty sure that this basic concept has not changed much in Japan. I suspect you would consider this as a terrible learning situation. You are half right but missed the point in the other half. Let me explain further.
Do you think this “barrier” would prevent or slow down the students from learning? I suspect it is considered so in the non-Japanese countries. If you are a karate instructor (I imagine many of you are), I am sure you try to explain a lot about the key points about the techniques and many things about karate. I have watched many classes taught by both Japanese and non-Japanese instructors in the classes outside of Japan. I found that non-Japanese instructors spend much more effort and energy in verbal communication.
The Japanese instructors tend to speak less and to demonstrate more. This is partially due to their weakness with the foreign or non-Japanese language. Regardless, we (the Japanese instructors) feel uncomfortable when we see that the non-Japanese instructors are spending so much time with great enthusiasm on the technical matters, especially on the difficult subjects. My intention is not to bash those instructors but I feel they are almost in love with themselves or in the ecstasy of showing their knowledge. I apologize if I offended anyone about this but this is my true impression and I am pretty sure many of the other Japanese instructors will agree with me.
OK, we must agree that there is a difference in the teaching styles because of the difference in culture. In fact, many of the Japanese instructors believe that giving too much explanation is bad for learning. As I had already mentioned that many of them lack the language ability, but it is still the same even in Japan where we have no language difficulty. It is probably a big mystery to the readers to find that the Japanese sensei do not believe in much explanation. You might have noticed this before but you most likely did not know why. You probably ended up guessing it was just because of the language problem.
Let’s investigate why the Japanese instructors prefer to explain less. First of all the most important reason comes from a cultural factor. Believe it or not, we do not value verbal understanding too much when it comes to learning anything but especially when it involves a physical or technical skill. This comes from the belief that words are imperfect and they are unable to describe anything in full and adequately.
Further, probably shocking to the western people, we do not believe in logic too much. We avoid people who like to argue. In fact, have you noticed that most of the Japanese people are poor at making speeches and presentations? In school we never learned how to speak eloquently. Using a joke to relax the students in the karate teaching in Japan is almost unthinkable and impossible for a Japanese sensei (excluding those who have been living abroad).
We consider it is almost impossible and unrealistic for a student to understand a physical thing (something that happens inside of your body which is very personal) fully with a verbal explanation. The instructors feel that a student must learn physically with his own body by repeating a technique thousands of times. In other words, a student must feel and “know” it with his body.
The Japanese martial arts instructors tend to give little explanation during their class because they believe explanation results in a long period of time of not doing anything and is not that good for the students mentally as well as technically. As they put less value in thinking they encourage you to keep moving and repeating the techniques.
In addition, the instructors expect that most of the students, initially or at least during the first few years, would not understand, not only about the karate techniques, but also the concept of kata, kumite, bunkai, etc. In fact, they consider this is a necessary step or stage.
Think of a situation where an instructor spends a lot of time and energy to explain something difficult such as ki, breathing method, gamaku, muchimi, etc. Then, the students may gain some understanding about this subject. So, what’s wrong with that? If the students understand something, didn’t the teacher complete his duty well? Yes, that is how it will be regarded in the countries outside of Japan. The Japanese instructors think that even though the students may feel like they had gained some understanding, it was not a true or full understanding. In fact, the students were unable to demonstrate “that something” even if they thought they understood it. We consider a pure mental understanding a dangerous state as it does not comply with physical understanding in most cases. We fear that those students were not ready and premature “understanding” would only harm their natural development of their karate skill.
Let’s look at another easy example. How about swimming, which is also an acquired skill? You cannot swim unless you learn how, especially a difficult swimming method such as the butterfly stroke. Let’s take a student who happens to be so novice he does not even know how to float or is afraid to put his face in the water. If he is impressed with Michael Phelps (right) and this student asks his swimming instructor how to swim the butterfly stroke like him. Of course, you do not want to crush their excitement or interest, but an instructor in Japan would not spend time to explain how to do a dolphin kick, etc. He will tell him like this, “Yes, Phelps is great. I will teach you how to do a dolphin kick once you learn how to float.” Once the student learns how to float, they may realize they have to learn other important things such as how to do a dog paddle, how to hold their breath while their face is in the water, etc.
As you know karate skill requires much more complex physical and mental techniques. In the water, as long as you can float you can save yourself even if you cannot swim the butterfly stroke. However, in a life or death situation or even in a street fight, failure to perform a technique could mean a serious injury possibly even death.
As I have mentioned earlier, we do not rely too much on verbal understanding and communication when it comes to learning a skill. We put the value on “physical understanding”, instead. This is exactly why the instructors demand our students to look closely or imitate them as much as possible. This is not only true in karate or martial arts but also in other arts. You can find the same method in teaching carpentry, cooking, brush writing, zen study, etc. When you become an apprentice to a master carpenter, your boss would never teach you any carpentry skills, at least for some years if not never. It is your job to “steal” such skills by watching your boss. This is the same in cooking such as sushi (photo above). Why does sushi taste better in Japan? It is not because the fish or rice is better. It is because the sushi chef has been properly trained for at least several years before they can begin to prepare and serve the food (sushi) to customers.
Another good example is a zen monastery where they train the monks by having a very strict and harsh (as the secular people see it) daily schedule. First of all, the monk candidates have to beg to be admitted by the temple by waiting at the entrance in a half sitting position (photo right).
This challenge is called Niwazume (庭詰 photo below). Literally, it means “staying in the garden”. In the early morning, you need to arrive at the gate of the zen temple you wish to join. You have to stay there half sitting and bowing down to show your desire to join. You will continue this position 9 to 10 hours that day. During that period, the monks in the temple will ask you to leave. Sometimes, they will even drag you out (but gently) of the gate. However, this is a part of the ritual so you must not give up if you are determined to become a monk at this temple. You will have to continue your request to be admitted by sitting at the front entrance all day long. After the long day of sitting, they will admit you to come in to eat dinner and stay overnight. But this does not mean they were admitted. Then, the next morning you need to restart this waiting at the front entrance at 4 or 5 am. This harsh ceremony or patience testing ritual lasts two or three days.
However, this is only the first step of the entrance examination. If you can sustain these few days of waiting at the front entrance, they will let you in and ask you to show your interest in joining the temple by sitting in zen meditation all day long (about 12 hours a day). This second test will last one week. After succeeding in these two tests, a monk candidate can finally be admitted to this temple as a regular training monk. After this he will start a zen monk life that is filled with zen meditation and work around the temple.
Here is a typical daily schedule at Sogenji in Okayama Prefecture:
3:40 a.m. Wake up
4:00 Morning service (sutra)
5:00 Zazen (meditation)
8:00 Niten Soji (daily cleaning)
8:30 Samu (cleaning)
1:00 – 2:00 Bath (1st group)
2:00 – 4:00 Samu (garden work)
4:00 – 5:00 Bath (2nd group)
9:00 Kaichin (lights out)
Even though I am writing about karate teaching, I spent a lot of space explaining about zen monastery rules. This is to show that they consider doing is much more important than the words. As you know zen is a religion in which they seek to be enlightened. During the hours of zen meditation, a monk will try to reach the enlightened state of mind. However, during the meditation he will encounter many questions such as “What am I?”, “What is the purpose of my life?”, “How can I be enlightened?”, “Why there is good and bad in this world?” etc. The monk master is supposed to have been enlightened so a training monk seeking an answer may ask such questions of the master. The master will never explain anything or even try. He will simply say “Do not think” or “Get busy”. He demands the monk to do things and discourages thinking. During zen meditation, a monk is supposed to empty his mind but it is very difficult. However, by spending many hours just sitting, he learns how to do this. He may see the light when he is engaged in garden work, hall cleaning, chanting sutra, etc. rather than when he is thinking in meditation.
So, these examples illustrate the Japanese instructors believe in the value of demonstrating the techniques with their own body and much less in the explanation using words. You will see the same tendency in Japan not only in karate but also in other martial arts, such as kenjutsu, iaido, kyudo, aikido, etc.
Lastly, we must consider the fact that karate skill (not just the techniques but the total structure and system of empty hand fighting) requires one of the most difficult physical skills. You may not agree with this statement but this can be theoretically proven as sound and correct. Thus, the Japanese instructors believe it is almost impossible to explain the most critical part of the techniques, thus they will tell the students “Practice more”.
Then, is this approach of not explaining better than the method found in the western world? My quick answer is “It all depends”. I believe this practice of not explaining method can be an excuse for a Japanese instructor so he can hide his ignorance or lack of knowledge. If he has to face all kinds of questions, the instructor will be forced to study and learn more. So, in this sense I like the western method.
On the other hand, karate skill development comes in a gradual ascending form or in slow progression. In other words, you need to go one step at a time which means your body needs to be trained. Understanding or believing that you understand a technique is totally different from being able to do that technique. A proper understanding comes at a right time after repeating the technique thousands of time. Trying to understand these things in your head before that proper time may not only act as worthless self-satisfaction but also could become hazardous to your sound karate achievement.
The similar effect is found when a student learns an advanced kata before his level. I have seen a brown belt doing Unsu in a tournament. The instructor of this student is responsible and should be blamed for this ignorant action. We must all know that karate achievement is similar to building a house. If the foundation or the walls are weak, the house will not be able to withstand an earthquake or a storm. Life time karate training is more like building a skyscraper of 50 stories or taller, the importance of the solid foundation and the firm structure becomes even more critical.
When you teach karate in the western world, it is important and necessary to include some verbal explanation. Karate training must mean being truly physical but at the same time, thinking must be encouraged.
The instructors must remember that they need to be very careful in determining how much explanation is appropriate and necessary. It is because too much explanation can not only be wasting valuable training time but also harmful to the students who are not ready mentally and/or physically. This can be equated to a situation where an instructor teaches a black belt kata to a color belt student or to engage a beginner in jiyu kumite (free sparring).
The skill level of a karate instructor should be determined not only by his karate skill but also by his teaching skill including knowing how much explanation is appropriate. This is what I believe. What do you think?