Japan Notebook: Budo Education

So the overall theme of the seminar was the educational power of budo, catalysed by the Ministry of Educations decision back in 2006 that, beginning next month (Japan’s school year starts in April), budo training would become compulsory for first and second year junior high school students. In the documents I’ve seen there were vague references to ideas like “education for discipline,” instilling pride in traditional culture, and generating in the kids an appreciation for “form” (a term usually left undefined). Such notions were “in the air” back then, and appeared in some popular books, but ultimately the motivation seems to hark back to the same thing every generation hears from it’s elders: “Kids these days…”

Not that there are no problems, but personally I take the Confucian view on such matters: if the kids seem lost, corrupt, and to have lost a sense of virtue and morality then it is only because the adults whose behaviour they look to for models have become lost, corrupt, and lost their sense of virtue and morality. But rather than have the matter dissolve into “Physician heal thyself,” the question is whether budo education can help.

I think it can. Or could. Looking around at others, and even at myself, it’s obvious that years spent focused on budo have changed us, and often for the better. So there is that potential as long as it doesn’t devolve into mere competitiveness, something schools already have quite enough of. But there is a vast difference between spending years training with good teachers in something you personally value and sense the depth of, versus being forced into a situation where you must engage in an activity superficially, over a short period with an inexperienced teacher who will have little choice but to conceal his/her lack of knowledge behind a facade of authority.

To quote one of the hanshi at the seminar, the MOE has been “irresponsible” in making this move, and so the efforts, whatever their original intent, seem unlikely to succeed. Much of the problem derives from the way they fixed on this idea and then seem to have left the implementation as an afterthought, something for lesser beings to work out. There should have been more of an organic process from the beginning, starting perhaps from what they hoped to achieve and then charting a way to do so, rather than just throwing out the idea and expecting it either to work (in which case they take credit), or fail, in which case it will be the fault of the schools, the teachers, or again, the kids.

Alas that is often the MO of Japanese academia: take an idea that may actually have some merit, then bury it in a truckload of anecdotes, speculation, specious reasoning, and logical fallacy in the hope that maybe some of it will stick.

As it stands, four main problems seem to have emerged. The most important is the lack of qualified instructors. How are teachers supposed to teach something that they themselves do not know? Moreover, how can they expose kids to the deeper meaning of budo if they haven’t experienced it themselves? Some of the budo organizations have offered short workshops where PE teachers can gain familiarity with basic techniques in isolation, but the deeper values — the very things the MOE pretends they want to instil in young people — can’t be learned that quickly.

The second problem is the lack of equipment. Equipment-intensive budo like kendo or kyudo obviously come at a significant cost, and the sizes of the kids — quite varied at that age — guarantee that a wide range of equipment will be needed. But even judo, which at first glance might be thought to require no special equipment beyond clothing, traditionally uses tatami mats for practice. Schools that don’t have such mats have to buy them, and one of the presenters at the seminar estimated that some 80-90,000 mats are needed. At retail prices that would come to almost 3 billion yen (US$32M). No doubt this will be a great blessing for the tatami industry, but it’s not clear that the MOE are giving schools any budget for them, or other needed equipment.

The third problem is curriculum, and the different budo organizations have scrambled over the past few years to develop a curriculum that would introduce kids to their art while avoiding injuries, and putting too much pressure on both students (many of whom will have no interest) and on inexperienced teachers. In some cases all that can be hoped for is to give kids a quick taste so that, if they are interested, they’ll be encouraged to seek continued practice on their own later on, though that too can be dangerous (virtually all of the deaths among students during judo training have occurred during after-school club practice, which is sometimes unsupervised). There’s also a real question of whether establishing, say, kendo as the official budo of a school will mean that all other forms will be implicitly discouraged.

And finally, after all of the work and debate that has gone into this, it turns out that the final MOE guidelines call for just 10 hours of budo instructions per year. What can be done in 10 hours per year? Nothing much. Like many other initiatives, it seems like this is budo education in nothing but “form:” a show put on at the expense of schools, teachers, the budo organizations, and ultimately, the students.

It didn’t have to be that way, but it seems we’re stuck with it for now and can only hope that enough of the kids will find something of value in what they learn to take it to the next level. My one suggestion is to replicate seminars like the one I just attended all over the country, bringing together both the kids and highly experienced teachers for, say, a week-long intensive program, and let them try different budo, to get a sense of the commonalities and the differences, and both see and interact with high-level practitioners. The problems will still remain but it seems like a more inspirational approach.

This entry was posted in japan, japan notebook, kyudo, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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