Monday, April 9, 2012

Reviewing the Budo Specialization Course; Part I

Now that the 2011-2012 Budo Specialization course at the International Budo University has finished, I would like to give my thoughts and opinions in a detailed review for anyone who might have an interest in applying to this—or some similar—martial arts program in Japan. This review will be separated into two entries looking at training and budo classes, in the first, and the Japanese classes as well as living conditions in both the dormitory and the city of Katsuura in the second.

The budo Specialization Course at the Kokusai Budo University is open to people who have an interest in training in either Judo or Kendo. Though the program’s application may give the impression that a black belt is required to attend this program, this is not the case. Five out of the thirteen “bekkasei” or special course students from this past year entered the course without a shodan. Applicants are accepted from a variety of backgrounds from countries around the world. Students have ranged in ages from as young as eighteen to members over the age of forty. No Japanese language skill is required, nor is it necessary to hold a university degree in one’s home country.

Training is divided into two parts: asageiko or asaren (morning training) and bukatsu (normal, club activity.) Morning training is held Monday-Friday beginning around 6:30AM. Bukatsu begins at 4:30PM Monday-Friday and, depending on the schedule, 9:00AM on Saturdays.
It is important to understand that training at a university club—the sort of training one will experience at the Budo University—is very different from the sort of training one might expect when imagining Japan. This is a problem that many, more mature Japanese Sensei are noticing as an increasing number of foreigners come to Japan to practice the martial arts. In Japan, Judo and Kendo are as much “sport” as they are “budo” or “martial art”. AS a result, training at the university level is somewhat cut-throat.

What does this mean for you as a foreigner? Well, if you are weak in your chosen martial art, University students will not train with you because they will not feel they can improve. If you are very strong, however, Japanese students might refuse to train with you for fear of losing against a foreigner. Japan is a famously exclusive country and, when you consider the fact you are training with young men and women, ego plays a large roll. The situation is made yet more complicated due to the fact that not everyone can train simultaneously; there just isn’t enough room in the dojo.

What can you do, then? The best way to deal with this complicated training situation is to show your willingness to work hard. Unfortunately, most Japanese university students will either like you… or not. This has little to do with you, personally, and more to do with how they feel about foreigners in general. By working hard, however, you will win the respect of both the sensei and those Japanese students who are disposed to like a foreigner. Respect, in Japan, is everything. If you can become friends with even one university student, it will help to open the door to a better training environment.

Regarding Judo, there are major differences between the men’s and women’s training. This is a result of the methodology and mentality of the sensei. Regarding the men, morning training is important as a symbolic gesture of your willingness to wake up early. Some people will run while others lift weights. The sensei themselves only show up, bow, and go back home to bed. Though people will tell you asageiko is “very important,” the truth is that very little changed when the bekkasei stopped showing up. No one really seemed to notice. It is much more important to show up regularly to the afternoon Judo bukatsu. For women, however, this is very different. The women’s morning training is very important and extremely difficult. The sensei actually run with the women and drive them to work harder. Bukatsu is equally tough and equally important; the women train hard all the time.

In kendo, on the other hand, morning training is one of the best opportunities to improve your technique. Asageiko consists in “suburi” or basic striking practice. Several kendo bekkasei made it clear that, if you are going to skip one or the other, the afternoon bukatsu is less valuable as far as development goes. In Kendo, as with Judo, it is difficult to find a chance to spar with the stronger players. You can spend 40 minutes waiting in line only to lose in a thirty second round of sparring. Unlike with Judo, however, the Kendo sensei will actually train with the university students and, as I have heard, will pay attention to the bekkasei. This is a golden opportunity for training with sensei who are ranked some of the top in the world.

Budo Classes:
Classes are held from 9:10AM to 4:20PM Monday through Friday in four, 80 minute blocks. Budo classes focus on aspects of one’s chosen martial art. Topics include basic training, referee qualification, “Kata” (form classes) and “theory and practice” classes. Bekkasei also have the opportunity to try the martial art which they are not specializing in. For Kendo students, practicing Judo is relatively easy as it only requires a dogi. For Judo students, however, the basic Kendo class requires a full set of armor and may result a little more difficult. In addition, Iaido—a sword drawing and striking art—is also offered to all bekkasei.

Kata Classes
The majority of the bekkasei classes are “form” classes. Kata is a choreographed pattern of movements or techniques designed to demonstrate some aspect of a martial art. (Though the term “Kata” is also used in non-budo arts such as tea ceremony.) For example, the “Katame-no-Kata” or “grappling Kata” includes fifteen techniques used in newaza.
As a Judo bekkasei, you are required to take six kata classes. These include: Nage-no-kata, Katame-no-kata, Kime-no-Kata, Kishiki-no-Kata, Ju-no-kata and the Goshin Jitsu-no-Kata. Depending on the sensei, these classes are either brilliant and informative or a waist of time. Kashiwazaki Sensei, the current director of the Bekkasei Program and a fantastic sensei, teaches both the Nage and Katame-no-Kata classes while including information on both the history and modern usage of the kata. Other sensei, however, would simply play a video of the kata and maybe correct students while they practiced. To be honest, traveling to Japan to watch Kata video—all of which is freely available on youtube—is something of a disappointment.

The theory and practice classes were, again, highly dependent upon the sensei. Miakoshi Sensei, a seventh degree black belt and a very funny man, showed us variations on several techniques throughout his class. Furthermore, he encouraged us to fight from our weaker side—left, if we were right-handed—because he felt it was important to familiarize ourselves with fighting styles opponents might use. Kashiwazaki Sensei, on the other hand, encouraged us to make an instructional video in order that we might think more deeply on our own Judo. Unfortunately, other sensei just showed videos.

The classes, overall, were somewhat of a disappointment for Judo. Traveling to Japan only to learn Kata, which can be learned on the internet, was not what any of us had expected. The Basic and Theory classes were hit or miss, depending partly on the sensei and partly on the attitude of the students. The best one can do is take what is offered, when it is offered, and make the best of the rest.

In my next post I will continue with a review of the Japanese classes, the life in Katsuura and my final opinions on the Bekkasei course.

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