Japan is the birthplace of many martial arts. Aikido was founded in Ibaraki by Ueshiba Morihei. Mitsuyo Maeda, born in Aomori, pioneered mixed martial arts (MMA) after traveling the world to spread judo and was instrumental in the foundation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Karate, which has enough prominence in the world to be an official game in the 2020 Olympics, was developed for centuries in the Ryukyu Kingdom, now present-day Okinawa.
Whether you’re a lifelong enthusiast or just jumping into fighting sports, Japan is the perfect place to learn. Unfortunately, the language barrier can be an obstacle. The easiest solution is just to learn Japanese, but nobody wants to put their hobby on hold in the meantime.
Can you really learn martial arts in Japan without knowing Japanese? It worked out well enough for me.
You’ll probably embarrass yourself, but who cares?
I’ve had the opportunity to train wing chun and muay thai in Tokyo for a couple of years. I’m also ashamed to say that my Japanese ability is atrocious. If I had spent as much time memorizing vocabulary as I have on learning to elbow people in the face, I would be the Chuck Norris of linguistics. And to be honest, at first, I was more self-conscious about going to a gym than I was about not knowing the language. I thought, at best, I’d annoy my trainers and embarrass myself in front of others.
And I’ll be real—you’re going to embarrass yourself sometimes. When you mistake hiji (elbow) with hiza (knee) and nearly send a flying knee into your trusting trainer’s groin, you’ll feel pretty stupid. Still, I kept at it, fumbling the language all along the way, and now I’m at a point where I’ve competed in a couple of amateur kickboxing matches. So while it wouldn’t hurt to know the basics before you start, don’t give up on the idea just because your Japanese isn’t up to par.
Trainers want to train. I asked my instructors if knowing the language is integral in learning martial arts, and foreigners and Japanese alike agreed that as long as you are serious about training, you can learn martial arts without knowing the language.
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