I was once asked by a young and eager student who was thinking about coming to Japan how much Japanese he should study before he came. I answered him with a pretty forceful “none!” I had good reasons for my answer at that time but have since reconsidered my ‘stance’ on the subject. First, let me try to explain how I felt on this subject when that student asked me.
In my experience, when someone comes to Japan and they are honest in their approach to learning the martial arts, be it Karate Do, Kendo, Judo, or any other Japanese martial art, they will be taken in and given an opportunity to prove their dedication almost every time and in pretty much any organization. It is what happens during this first encounter that determines the course of stay and indeed the relationship that will be formed or not formed. This is the 第一印象 Daiichiinsho, the First Impression and this is probably one of the most important yet seldom advertised social norms in Japan. The impression that you make on Japanese Sensei and others in the Dojo will stick and, for the most part, determine future opportunities to train and learn in Japan there and or elsewhere.
With this in mind, the amount of Japanese language one has learned prior to coming to Japan could be a benefit or a hindrance. However, if one has no language ability this changes the equation. If this is the case then there are no expectations and the visitor falls into the category of 客さん Kyaku San, Guest. People in this category are not judged on how much they know or how well they can speak, in my experience, they are only judged on sincerity of purpose and dedication to training, in short they are judged on their character. The rest of the communication will take care of itself. Yes, it will be difficult and laboured but, it will all work itself out. The only draw back to being a visitor comes if you wish to be more because, honestly access will be limited. But, the stay will be amazing and the experience will still have the potential to be life changing. For these reasons I suggested that the young student not learn any language and come as a 'guest' and learn as he went. I don’t know if this was good or bad advice but I meant well.
If I had the opportunity to answer him again knowing what I do now, I think my answer would be slightly different. I would make a distinction between Japanese language and culture and definitely urge him to learn about culture and customs before coming to Japan.
I do feel it is important r everyone who is serious about their Karate Do training to learn Japanese language at a certain point in because without it our knowledge of the art and the philosophy will be somewhat hallow. Let me try to expand on this thought a little bit. Without the language understanding we can become very good at the 術 Jutsu Technical aspect of the art but our deeper understanding of the 哲学 Tetsu Gaku, the Philosophy or the 原理 Gen Ri, the Principle or Theory of the 技 Waza and their intended applications which create the art as a whole may be considered shallow or even worse, completely lost to the practitioner. Therefore, in order to deepen our understanding of the complete art a level of language proficiency is recommended. Moreover, language ability coupled with cultural understanding is what binds cross-cultural friendships not technical proficiency. Never the less we should all try early in our training to develop the total package by working on our technical, linguistic and cultural understanding. I cannot stress enough that proficiency in only one of these areas is not enough especially in the long run. Language ability alone does not equal proficiency or fluency especially when talking about philosophies just as theoretical application of techniques doesn’t mean anything without practical experience. But, deeper cultural understanding can, in my opinion facilitate the growth of all three for these areas.
It is no secret that Eastern (Asian) and Western (North American) philosophies differ greatly. It is for this reason that I feel a deep understanding of the core cultural principles is necessary for language proficiency and in the long run technical proficiency. This is what I try to teach at Buntoku High school in my communication classes and what I continue to dedicate myself to in my studies. It can be very difficult at times not to give into the initial ‘autopilot’ response to any given situation or conversation we all fall victim of this. The first step is recognizing our autopilot responses and developing the eyes to see the local response. This is the first step in developing our ability to read the situation or 空気読む Kuuki Yomu that I mentioned briefly in a previous post.
I think the most important skill needed to be successful anywhere you go in the world is being able to adapt to your environment. The only way we can do that is by paying attention to the details. It is a fact that language is built on culture and grows and changes with that culture. To devout our time to studying a certain amount of symbols and sounds but ignore the cultural aspect we can easily become lost to the correct application. The same is true for 空手道基本 Karate Do Kihon, the basics of Karate Do. We do not train them to become ridged but rather so that we do not lose our center and become off balance. However, if we become too stiff and fail to adapt to the situation we will surely be defeated. The trick is to develop a strong core that will not be off balanced while also maintaining a flexible veneer that is able to adapt and apply what is learned appropriately. In this sense physical ability or technical proficiency are affected by both linguistic and cultural understanding.
After rambling on for a while, I guess what I am trying to say is that we need to develop strong basics in the above mentioned areas (technical, linguistic, and most important of all cultural awareness) if we want to become more than just a guest to the Japanese Sensei. The funny thing is that no matter how you slice it, becoming proficient in these things will probably take a life time.