Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Yes the cliché is true: the martial arts are indeed omnipresent in Japan. Especially the nine that Japanese authorities have agreed to call “Nihon Budo” (日本武道), “Japanese martial arts” i.e. judo, karate, aikido, Shorinji Kempo (roughly a combination of judo and karate) amateur sumo, kendo fencing (and with it, iaido sword-drawing and 4ft staff-using jodo), naginata (Japanese halberd), jukendo (and with it, tankendo, ways to use the bayonet with or without the rifle attached) and classic archery, kyudo are being taught in hundreds of school, college and corporate clubs, public and private, their championships (especially those of judo and kendo) are being covered by the mass media, stores selling martial arts equipment can be found in all big cities, their most high-ranked and important teachers still live and teach here and, most important, they have a permanent place in the people’s conscience which means that if someone decides to take one up their circle will not consider them extraordinary.
On the other hand, the way most people understand the cliché is wrong. Since the martial arts are almost exclusively an amateur pastime, no one expects those involved in them will keep on doing them their whole life and those who do, i.e. those that eventually become teachers, are viewed with mixed feelings: they certainly receive some recognition for their accomplishment but they are also thought of as somewhat eccentric; if a person is a company director and a kendo teacher there is little doubt that the respect drawn by the former is much higher than that drawn from the latter. After all, yes, martial arts are indeed everywhere abut there’s no comparison between them and the really popular hobbies like golf (for adults) or baseball (for children) –the other day, I was explaining to a friend how three martial arts’ stores on the same street of Suidobashi are a joke if put next to the 200 plus guitar shops on the same street of Ochanomizu.
Referring to martial arts as “hobbies” often causes misunderstandings: the Japanese who are involved in them do it very earnestly but this happens because they do earnestly anything they do –be it golf, baseball, karaoke or trainspotting. Contrary to what many of their Western counterparts believe though, very few of them go deeper, to what is (erroneously in my opinion) called “philosophy of the martial arts”, that is all those theoretical elements that accompany the purely technical part of these systems. The reason? I obviously can talk for all of them but I believe the most prevalent is that they don’t need them: many of the things Westerners include in the package called “philosophy” are cultural elements present in all aspects of everyday life; as I’ve written elsewhere, some Western martial arts’ practitioners analyze ad nauseam the phrase “onegai shimasu” (お願いします) exchanged between teacher and students in the beginning of each practice – for the Japanese the same expression is something said, among other occasions, when buying a newspaper from the newsstand.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/ or see his interview in Tokyocheapo.