Donn Draeger on Learning a Martial Art

Donn Draeger, Vancouver, Karate, Kobudo, Kitsilano, Goju-ryu, Lessons
Donn Draeger

Many Karateka outside of Okinawa and Japan do not believe in the customs found in traditional Karate dojo. Yet ironically these traditions are an integral part of the culture from which Karate sprang and are not easily dismissed.

One of these is the importance of the relationship between student and teacher. So much so, that the relationship is paramount and technique is secondary. The student learns by observing his instructor and maintaining a strong sense of propriety. This is not surprising since much of Japanese society is tied to Confucian ethics and beliefs.

If you think that these traditions are no longer valid or in practice nowadays, then I would recommend that you visit a Japanese middle or high school. Even to this day, students observe the teacher to learn and open discourse is at a minimum. Is this traditional method wrong? No, it is simply a contrast to a Western view which emphasizes a logical, rational, direct and scientific approach. In many ways this approach is intuitive, ambiguous and unconsciously emotional.

Neither approach is mistaken in my opinion, for that would be stating that one culture is right and the other wrong. Both approaches have merit. However, to restate things, more than proficiency in technique, methods of transmitting martial arts in modern Japan (i.e. from the Meiji era onward) are more concerned with the relationship between the teacher and the student.

I would like to quote from “Classical Budo” by the late Donn Draeger. I believe his explanation clearly illustrates the relationship between a teacher student, and the intuitive method as taught in Japan.

“The master knows when the trainee is in the right frame of mind to commence serious training. Such training, once initiated, begins and ends with the trainee in an attitude of intense alertness. Maintaining this alertness can be mentally exhausting. Training is a painful process of trial and error, of plodding with little explanation in a complex mire of technical difficulties. The master does not spare the trainee the burden of having to learn. He is overly critical of the trainee, calling attention to gross errors with terrifying coldness…..Great will and perseverance are needed by the trainee to carry him through the countless repetitions of basic movements. This is a time during which the non-essential is being eliminated and the essential brought to light. The trainee’s questions are met by the master’s laconic reply, “Don’t ask, train!” This is a time for “doing” by the key method of kata or prearranged form” (pg. 47).

I apologize if this is coming across heavy handed, but what I wish to emphasize is that there is an inherent cultural difference between Japan and the West with respect to learning or imparting knowledge. So before you throw out the baby with the bath water, you might want to rethink those traditions.