Mastering the way of the warrior: No belt required

By Hamish Austin

When it comes to indulging expat-in-Japan cliches, I’m guilty as charged. Worked at an English school? Check. Ordered 10 beers for myself at the last call of a all-you-can drink party? Yep. Cycled around a mountain marveling at nature as if I’d never seen trees or birds before? Oh yes.

Yet the biggest cliche that I’ve embraced is Foreigner Takes Up Martial Arts. “Learn” would be the wrong word, seeing as how it implies sticking at something and progressing. “Take up” is more appropriate for those who, like me, flit from one style to another after encountering the slightest difficulty.

Different styles suit different personalities. Obvious reasons for studying a martial art might include self defense or keeping fit, while others are attracted to the discipline and spiritual side. For new arrivals to Japan, martial arts are an excellent way of immersing yourself in the culture, improving your Japanese and opening up new social networks. You’d have to be a pretty sad, uninspired sort if you just did it because you saw a Steven Seagal movie and thought, “Wow, this guy takes care of business.” But, alas, such was my case.

This shouldn’t be too surprising coming from someone who assumed "Mr. Baseball" was an accurate depiction of Japan. After watching "Hard To Kill" through a happoshu haze, I decided this was the stuff for me: aikido, or the “Way of Harmonious Spirit.” It’s a style designed both to defend the practitioner and protect the attacker from injury. I marveled at Seagal’s effortless movement and calm. Admittedly, when he smashed a pool cue over a drug dealer’s head, it seemed he had gotten a little sidetracked from the “protecting the attacker” principle. But no matter. It looked great, and it got results. I would hopefully never have to use it myself, except maybe to impress people at parties.

So began several years of false starts, roller-coastering enthusiasm and a lot of wasted time for every instructor I encountered. A critical factor in pursuing a martial art is to find one that suits your physical and mental capabilities. My baptism in aikido lasted a mighty three sessions, although the sensei and I both knew it was doomed after the first 20 minutes. I was too impatient for the subtle intricacies of the moves, footwork, or putting on the uniform properly. Extremely unsuitable.

Having moved on from Seagal, I still wanted to learn something, thinking it would be a rare accomplishment. Next was karate. Things were fine when I was standing in front of a mirror practicing the kata, but noticeably difficult when sparring with a person. I took kicks to the head better than anyone in the class, but that won’t win you tournaments. Explosive power and mental toughness were required. Again, unsuitable.

In judo, I didn’t even have a height and weight advantage, as it attracts some of the biggest fighters in martial arts. It also proved to be at least as technical as aikido; worse still, it had a scoring system, so there was no doubt as to who the loser was. Colored belts for levels simply reinforced this. If a junior high school girl complains about having to pair up with you, you know you’ve got problems.

It was a shock, then, when I discovered a martial art that matched both my temperament and ability. Fittingly, it took a child to lead me to it. When my son turned 5, he told me about an activity his friends did at the local gym. It was something called Sports Chanbara, and based on the name, I couldn’t imagine what it involved. I arrived at the gym to see adults and kids racing around, hitting each other with what seemed to be foam swords. And they were.

The instructor explained the basic rules, then asked me to join in. The object was to hit and not be hit. You could thwack any adult or child with your 60-cm "kodachi" sword, made of reinforced foam. Or you could simply run around the gym avoiding people for the duration of the game, which sounded like a smart strategy.

There were no belts, no levels and there was clearly no pain. As Steven no doubt did many years ago in his Osaka dojo, I closed my eyes and began to envisage my beckoning action film career. Under titles such as "Maim Thy Neighbor and Spill Your Guts," I’d play a sensitive yet violent monk, taking down cartels of crazed ex-marines with my trusty foam sword. The journey would be complete.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

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Is this supposed to be funny? Confessions of a lazy foreigner? if this is the status quo of foreign attitude and self discipline in Japan, no wonder all the old men glare at me on the train. I dont think studying martial arts in Japan is cliche at all, considering .00000001 percent of the population of any foreign country actually does it (and I am not one of them). I applaud anyone taking any class in this country and I roll my eyes at anyone that quits becuase of sloth.

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What the hell kind of article is this? I take mixed martial arts/kickboxing in Japan and was somewhat interested in reading this article at first. But it just ended up being some loser who can`t hack it at martial arts complaining and trying to find an excuse to do an "easy" martial art. This is actually coming from someone who is trying to master the way of the warrior w/o color belts(MMA).

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I'd love to find a "martial art" that I could do with my 3-year-old daughter, even if it is just running around with a foam sword. I'll definitely be looking into Sports Chanbara, and maybe it'll prepare her for the more serious martial arts, because I'm just itching to get back to practice, but with a kid free time is a thing of the past, so if I have any hope of getting back to training my daughter has to take it up too.

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Painfully honest article and just right for Japan and most passing-through furriners. Lang may his lum reek.

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Foam sekigahara wars? Good way to let off steam (especially after a weekend of ultraman reruns). You guys are too harsh - lighten up - so big deal - Mr. Austin isn't an acolyte. He arguably writes well - which is also a martial skill. Can we wield TWO foam swords a la Musashi?

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Actually, Sports Chanbara is fun. And yes, it is possible to use two rubber sticks, so the wannabe Musashis can go at it :-)

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Cute article. Keep on writing.

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Who knows where things may lead:

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I am a martial artist of many years and was hoping for something deeper when seeing the headline... but enjoyed the article anyway. Having good honest fun in life is way superior to breaking bones and being super serious

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For all of you criticising the article, I direct you to the category it was filed under. "COMMENTARY" means it is not news, but the opinion(s)/musings of a single person.

KaptainKichigai, a foreigner "taking up" martial arts is what's cliche (as opposed to a foreigner learning martial arts). The author explains the difference in the article.

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I enjoyed your commentary - it made me smile remembering my own attempt 30 years ago, while working (yes) as an English teacher in Nara, I, too, boldly decided to take up the humbling sport of aikido. Weekly I would take the local train to a very rural station and trudge up the road amidst the rice fields to small zen-ji where my class was held. Not only was I the only foreigner, I was the only female, the only blond, the only practically everything. Several of my classmates were young zen acolytes who appropriately took their training very seriously. I lasted about four months until my sensei, a very virile man from Kagoshima, decided to flip me without any prior warning during practice. The devilish look on his face confirmed for me, anyway, that aikido may not be the sport for me! I did take away from that experience a very important life lesson: the way of redirection.

Thanks again for sharing! Hope you've had a chance to go for Sports Chanbara, Round Two with your son.

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I am pretty guilty of all the stuff he talked about. EXCEPT the martial arts. I drew the line there. I thought that was just too lame. What is the point of starting that when I am already 25 (now 28). I am going to get a black belt when I am 50? I chose to get a traditional Japanese tattoo (3 years running now 2 more to go). not that this is much smarter. this tattoo will probably get me into bar fights, and now I don't have the martial arts to defend myself.

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I thought that the article was light-hearted and fun overall.

And sctaber56, I'm in the same position that you were in, except for judo! I'm not the only female, but I am the only foreigner (and am blond), and the oldest student there (24)! It's pretty embarrassing to be flipped over by middle school aged boys, but luckly I've been able to keep up a fighting spirit!

I've never seen Sports Chanbara yet, but it sounds like fun!

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" What is the point of starting that when I am already 25 (now 28). I am going to get a black belt when I am 50? "

Where did you get those ideas from? In most martial arts you are marched steadily through the tests and get your coveted black belt within a few years. (If you meant "black belt" as a euphemism for "Bruce Lee like superhuman", that would be a different story.) And what is wrong with 50? 25 is young, 50 is still young. I meet people who take up martials in their 60s or 70s, so what? You just take it as far as it gets and enjoy the practise.

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I thought this was fun too, nice change from the usual here.

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What a cute article! I recently began martial arts too, but I was unaware of the gaijin trend. Oh well, I don't care, because I want to do it and it being a trend is not going to stop me!

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@InakaRider: がんばって!

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Funny article, I liked it. Needless to say, with anyone contemplating martial arts training, alot depends on you, and on the teacher. To those with kids who are wondering, just go and explore the various options. When taught properly, it instills discipline, the value of hard work, and dedication -- things you can learn in any sporting activity, really. Hope your kids have fun!

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I had done taichi in Canada and when I was in Nara doing to tourist thing there was a small group also doing taichi. I participated without breaking the circle then went on with the rest of my tour. Good times.

social interaction is greatly relaxed because whatever art it is, becomes the basis of communication and continuity, not biases and commentary

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