Thoughts on Martial Arts, Education, and Values

Society Culture

A new guideline requiring martial arts instruction in Japanese junior high schools has provoked considerable controversy on safety grounds. Taking a historical and philosophical perspective, martial arts instructor and scholar Kōno Yoshinori challenges the very premises of the government’s policy.

Until 1868, when the Meiji Restoration established a modern Japanese state, Japan was ruled by a class of warriors known as bushi. This system, which persisted for centuries, still figures prominently in the popular image of Japan around the world. Indeed, some people imagine that the average Japanese person is trained in the traditional martial arts even today. Nothing could be further from the truth, as indicated by the controversy surrounding the new government policy making budō (martial arts) instruction a mandatory part of the junior high school curriculum.

The new policy, which came into effect this April, is already causing practical problems, and critics warn of more to come. As a devotee of Japan’s traditional martial arts, I have my own take on the issue, based on my understanding of the history, development, and purpose of the martial arts.

A Brief History of Martial Arts in Japan

The samurai elite of the Edo period (1603–1868) differed from most other military rulers in belonging to a permanent class. This warrior class stood at the summit of a distinctive social order that shaped premodern Japanese culture. Below the bushi, in descending order, were the farmers, the artisans, and the merchants.

In theory, the Edo period class system was rigid and unyielding. But in practice it permitted considerable flexibility. While the farmers and townspeople who made up the “common folk” were technically prohibited from studying the martial arts, enforcement of these laws was lax. Particularly in the towns and villages under the direct control of the Tokugawa shogunate, it was quite common for farmers and townspeople to study the arts of the samurai. In fact, the famed Shinsengumi—a paramilitary force formed near the end of the Edo period to fight against revolutionaries seeking to topple the shogunate—relied heavily on people born outside the samurai class, including its top commander, Kondō Isami, and its second-in-command, Hijikata Toshizō (both farmers by birth).

It is safe to say, however, that none of these heroes was forced to learn how to use a sword. They were motivated to do so by their own admiration for the samurai and their arts.

All this changed with the Meiji Restoration. The Meiji government abolished the samurai and introduced universal conscription, requiring every reasonably fit male to undergo military training whether he wanted to or not.

After World War II, the US Occupation initially sought to suppress everything connected with the martial arts as part of its efforts to stamp out militarism. This policy was abandoned as the Occupation’s emphasis shifted to cultivating Japan as an ally in the Cold War. During the postwar era, martial arts like jūdō and kendō gradually gained popularity as competitive sports. Over the past few years, an initiative to make budō an integral part of the junior high school curriculum has been gaining momentum. Supporters of the initiative argued that requiring children to study a martial art would help to cultivate respect for traditional Japanese culture and values. This initiative bore fruit, and as of April this year, all Japanese junior high school students are required to take classes in Japanese martial arts. Most often this means jūdō, though some schools offer such options as aikidō and kendō.

Problems with Mandatory Budō

As someone involved in the martial arts, I have been approached by the media on numerous occasions and asked for my opinion on the new policy. It is difficult to sum up my views in a few words. But if asked whether I am for or against, I would have to say that I oppose it. This is not only because of the numerous practical problems it raises. I am also convinced that the new policy will do nothing to foster respect for traditional Japanese culture and values.

Take the example of jūdō, the martial art most commonly taught in Japanese schools. For jūdō to awaken an appreciation of Japan’s cultural heritage, it would have to impress students with the inventive ways in which our forebears learned to use their bodies, and offer an intriguing alternative to Western-style wrestling. I have serious doubts as to whether budō as practiced today can impress or inspire in this manner.

If budō has so much to offer, it should be possible to demonstrate its effectiveness in head-to-head combat with Western-trained athletes. In the past, such eminent masters as aikidō founder Ueshiba Morihei and the great Kashima Shinryū master Kunii Zen’ya were known for performing such feats, but nowadays there is hardly anyone who can emulate their achievements.

Today, the only thing that distinguishes jūdō from Western wrestling is the rules. In terms of training and the way one uses one’s body, there is no longer any significant difference. Pit a jūdōka against a wrestler, and the jūdōka has the advantage, providing they are wearing jūdō clothes and grappling by jūdō rules. Put them in wrestling clothes and apply the rules of wrestling, and the advantage goes to the wrestler. Nowadays this is common knowledge.

The Hybridization of Budō

There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs, but a major factor is the westernization of the martial arts. Ever since the early years of the Meiji era (1868–1912), Japan has been eagerly emulating the West, sometimes adopting Western culture wholesale, in others cases grafting it onto Japanese cultural forms. Japan’s martial arts were no exception.

In modern kendō, for example, “good posture” generally means shoulders back and chest forward. Traditionally, though, the ideal posture of a swordsman was quite different, with the chest slumped and the head slightly down—not the sort of pose that is likely to win praise in a dōjō today. Similarly, the standard grip on the handle of the shinai (bamboo sword), with the right and left hands spaced a few inches apart, is largely a modern development (although it was introduced experimentally, along with other grips, when the long shinai came into vogue near the end of the Edo period). A close reading of the traditional sources confirms what one discovers through actual practice: With the hands close together, the burden shifts from the arms to the core muscles, ultimately enabling one to wield the sword more swiftly. The advantage is more pronounced with a real sword, but it applies to a shinai as well. These are some of the ways in which the Japanese desire to emulate the “advanced” civilization of the West transformed ancient Japanese sword technique into the kendō we see today—a very different art.

Modern jūdō is the product of a similar process. The emphasis on Western learning in the early Meiji era led to a rejection of the traditional martial arts, including jūjitsu. Kanō Jigorō succeeded in reviving jūjitsu in the form of jūdō by stressing its scientific aspects, citing the principle of the lever. In the process, however, he excluded some of the subtle principles of movement that characterized older jujitsu, including moves by which the masters of old were able to unbalance an opponent with a single touch.

Learning to Fall

Since Japan entered the modern world, then, westernization has undeniably transformed both kendō and jūdō into something quite different from the Japanese martial arts, marked as they were by subtlety and finesse.

On the other hand, given the decline in the physical fitness of the Japanese people in recent years, it might be argued that anything is better than simply doing nothing. As bipeds, human beings face an ever-present risk of injury from falls. Teaching young children the falling techniques basic to jūdō and aikidō as early as kindergarten would help to improve overall fitness and lessen the risk of injury.

Although it is the job of the Ministry of Education to formulate physical education policies with such considerations in mind, I do not expect it to reverse its course at this stage. But if the schools are to teach jūdō, I would urge them to make every effort to teach children good falling techniques to reduce the risk of injury later on.

I would also suggest that the best way for adults to instruct children in the martial arts is to foster interest and enthusiasm in the early grades. In almost any area of study, people who pursue a subject out of a sincere interest achieve more than those who study it because they are forced to do so.

Integrating Physical Activities into the Curriculum

My own theory is that education in the primary grades should focus on reading and writing, history, and physical education. Reading and writing are the essential building blocks for everything that follows. But at this level subjects like arithmetic and science can be integrated into the history curriculum, and presented in the wider context of the development of human culture and civilization from prehistoric times. Such a curriculum would make the most of children’s natural curiosity and desire to learn.

I am also convinced that incorporating physical activity into these lessons would be an effective way of making it easier for children to understand and remember their lessons. In studying the Pythagorean theorem, for example students could build a right-angled triangle by driving three stakes into the ground, three, four, and five meters apart, and stretching a rope between them. Lessons combining mathematics and rudimentary construction activities like this would impart real-life knowledge and skills that children could apply in a wide range of situations later in life. For me, the martial arts are all about learning to confront serious problems in the most straightforward and efficient way possible. I am convinced that introducing children to this kind of practical, experience-based learning from their earliest years would have all kinds of benefits in terms of their later development.

In today’s increasingly confused world of nuclear accidents and monumental government debt, the martial arts offer an unparalleled means of improving students’ discipline and self-reliance—if they are taught properly. But there is no denying the harm budō can do if taught incorrectly. Looking at the state of Japanese society today, my conclusion is this: Before we adults undertake to foster traditional values in our children, we must take stock of our own values first and consider the meaning of human life, without being blinded by the relentless pursuit of economic gain.

(Originally written in Japanese on April 13, 2012.)

Edo period education tradition Judo Westernization middle school kendo Kono Yoshinori martialarts aikido Meiji Restoration Shinsengumi Kano Jigoro jujitsu falling technique