Karate – Experiencing Japanese life through martial arts

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kyokushingashukuTraining under an ice-cold waterfall in the winter.

As a young boy, one of the main reasons I became interested in Japan was its martial arts culture. Now,16 years later, I am still practicing martial arts, Karate to be specific. In this entry, I would like to introduce my look on how martial arts play a significant role in Japanese society even today.

karaterei1A brief meditation session is held before and after each training.

礼に始まり、礼に終わる (Rei ni hajimari, rei ni owaru), is a common saying in martial arts, literally referring to how one should start with a bow and end with a bow for every practice. This was one of the first etiquettes I learned at my university’s Karate club. While in most other countries one immediately starts with warming up, something as simple as making a bow and greeting your teacher and fellow disciples is something that cannot be skipped in Japan. As 朝礼 (chorei, morning gathering) and 終礼 (shurei, gathering at the end of the day) are common practices at Japanese companies, I feel that a large amount of customs in Japanese modern society originated from a martial arts culture.

karatesenpaiExperienced black belts preforming a Kata, which is a Karate form.

The first things you learn as a Karate pupil is to refer to your seniors as 先輩 (senpai, senior), and to treat them with respect. Disobeying a senpai is unimaginable, and arguing with him/her over any kind of disagreement is about the worst thing you can do. This is very different from western society, where individualism is widely encouraged. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t excel past your senpai in Japan. As long as you listen to his/her teachings, surpassing a senpai is actually a way to show your gratitude. Doesn’t this explain the stereotypical image of hard working and faithful Japanese people?

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The writer of this article at a tournament in Tokyo.

Karate tournaments are harsh. Without any kind of protection, you throw punches and kicks at each other, and block them with your bare shin and arms. There are usually no weight categories. You have to fight about 5 successive fights on the same day to win a tournament. Karate is not a professional sport, so no fighting money is involved. All you bring home are bruises and maybe a tiny bit of fame.

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Two young fighters giving it their all!

While there are many skilled foreign fighters as well, one difference between them and Japanese fighters would be the incredible “poker face” the Japanese maintain. No matter how many blows they endure, they will never express any pain on their face, for showing emotion would be to expose your weaknesses. This sense of Samurai-like pride allowed me to understand why Japanese are often reserved with their emotions.

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Through the years, all these customs and etiquettes, and even the martial arts way of thinking, have become natural to me. By practicing and observing the Karate way of life, it has managed to help me to understand the many nuances and quirks of Japanese society, allowing me to smoothly adapt to it and making Japan a place I can truly call home.

Photo Credit: Kyokushin Kaikan Miwa Dojo

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