If you’re interested in Japanese culture and are especially curious about Japanese martial arts, it may have crossed your mind that there’s all sorts of styles out there. From Bushido to Hapkido, Aikido to Karate, Kendo to Judo, Jujitsu to Ninjutsu… Can anyone tell us what’s the difference – or even better – what’s the best of them? Well, you’re in luck, because I’m here to do exactly that. Let’s start off with Karate.
Karate is by far the most globally popular Japanese martial art – partly thanks to the success of the movie The Karate Kid and its follow-ups, and partly because it’s the most common martial art in Japan – so much so that it’s a mandatory element of the Japanese education system – heavily standardised and promoted by the Japanese government, it’s integral to Japanese culture. But not all Karate is the same.
Some karate is as good as the best of martial art. But in general, martial arts clubs claiming to teach Karate are generally among the poorest of martial arts clubs in the world. I tell this from experience – having attained a black belt in traditional Japanese Kempo Karate at the age of 9, and having won many trophies in my childhood. The problem with Karate is equally down to the amount of rubbish made up – be it utterly fantasised or distorted from reality – and the general lack of genuine technical detail within what’s taught. This of course is commonly cloaked under a veil of pride & arrogance exhibited by the average senior Karateka. Such arrogance isn’t just exhibited to compensate for the deficit of true skill in the average Karate club, it’s actively promoted in the majority of Karate clubs around the world today and I dare say it’s integral to popular Japanese martial culture. Of course there’s an exception to every trend – Japanese people are largely quiet and polite albeit simultaneously often hostile and arrogant; but there are many lovely Japanese people including many wise men and angelic women as you might expect to exist within a generally very quiet, calm and tranquil society. But as the great Chinese philosopher Laozi said: “Very quiet is not really quiet”. Meaning extreme subtlety is not really subtle – it’s extreme!
Living on an isolated island, Japanese are “insiders” and all others are “outsiders” – at least this is the view of many Japanese traditionalists. There is a genetic trend – the Japanese, on the surface, are a stronger race – as is evident in breakdancing tournaments for example where the Japanese and the Koreans dominate but the Chinese are unheard of. However, in their intrinsic softness – call it weakness if you will – the Chinese are often deeper-minded and offer more in the way of internal martial arts. That said, there are some Japanese martial arts which offer unique qualities not found elsewhere – even within Chinese martial arts. For example, Japan’s popular grapple-style martial arts such as Aikido, Judo and Jujitsu involve a lot of rolling around the floor – this is like a signature of Japanese martial arts, spurred by Japan’s “Tatami” culture – the culture of having lovely soft carpets on the floor of every home (and well-padded mats in the well-respected Dojo).
Aikido is especially good for rolling around the floor – Aikido is the most graceful and possibly the most technically well-grounded Japanese martial art.
Ninjutsu has the most diversity of rolling techniques – they even do backflips and diving through hoops (or windows), and there’s a couple of extra great things about Ninjutsu that aren’t found in any other popular martial art in the world today. These include the way they punch with fingers at right-angles, and the way the Ninja culture emphasises the significance of surprise and disguise. As the great Chinese philosopher Laozi said: “Use the expected to govern the country, use surprise to wage war, and use nothing to win the world.” Albeit an example of superior Chinese philosophy, the originally-underground Japanese martial art of Ninjutsu is the only popular martial art in the world that truly harnesses surprise. At least, that’s what they teach overtly. You could say Chinese Tai Chi is better cloaked because practitioners don’t appear to be a threat even when you see them clearly.
In summary, try Aikido, and possibly Ninjutsu as few teachers are able to teach this art effectively. Forget Karate as it’s nearly always utter rubbish, and don’t touch those quasi karate styles like Bushido with a barge pole as they’re referred to within the educated part of the martial community as Bullshido.
One thing Japanese has to its credit – or discredit, depending on who’s judging – is a regimented fashion. You can see this in the way their writing is more square than its ancestral Chinese script, and you can see this in the way most traditional Japanese martial arts classes involve wearing Japanese outfits and lining up a lot, doing a lot of bowing, often on knees, and in some classes even not speaking unless spoken to. Traditional Japanese martial arts classes are loaded with etiquette, which is useful in a class where people are learning dangerous moves that you don’t want being taught to thugs and madmen. You don’t want to your training partner to accidentally break your nose, do you? So Japanese martial etiquette has a very useful upside. On the downside, it’s a barrier to learning. The inquisitive student often feels inhibited from interrogating the teacher’s answers to his questions and as such doesn’t understand his techniques as swiftly as he might do in a more open-minded, casual classroom environment. However, the regimented fashion offers some form of reliability – you can usually be sure how much you’re going to gain from each class and that remains consistent on each training day.
Japanese culture, in essence, is like a hyper-organised version of Chinese culture. Organised thoroughly, and this often perverts the true meaning of things, but has its tangible advantages in a learning environment. There is an exception to every trend though.