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Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2001

“Is he going to get up and teach me, or what?”  Teaching styles East and West

By Chris Gilham

Dojo hopper supreme, I’ve trained as a student of iaido in over 25 dojos throughout Japan, from Okinawa to Tokyo, across Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and even a couple of dojos in Canada.  Based on those experiences I’ve made some general observations about the differences between Japanese and Occidental martial arts instruction.  Keep in mind that my observations are formed from the average: Every dojo is a little different though for the most part there are generalizations to be made.

The generalizations are also differences; the differences stem in part from different mindsets, or ways of thinking about the learning process in martial arts training.  The Eastern and Western mindsets deserve a much more thorough analysis than what I’m about to briefly give; however, I believe it’s fair to sat the differences have “almost” everything to do with the cultures in question, and the histories of those cultures.  In this case most Japan’s martial arts is one of those components of the Japanese culture that often truly retains “Japan qua Japan” cultural integrity, if I may be allowed to believe that I know what “Japan qua Japan” culture is (admittedly a bit of a stretch, having lived in Tokyo for four years in the late 1990’s).  However, I like D.T. Suzuki’s brief view of the differences in mindset between the two cultures:

“...the western mind is: analytical, discriminative, differential, inductive, individualistic, intellectual, objective, scientific, generalizing, conceptual, schematic, impersonal, legalistic, organizing, power-wielding, self-assertive...”

“...The East can be characterized as follows: synthetic, totalizing, integrative, non-discriminative, deductive, non-systematic, dogmative, intuitive (rather, affective), non-discursive, subjective...”

In a Ginko nutshell, the Japanese Iaido dojo does not engage in teacher led full-class instruction.  Classes are not formal or structured.  Students are often expected to initiate their own training.  Teachers do a lot of watching.  Teachers give “pointers,” not systematic breakdowns of forms, at least not all at once.  Learning is often self-guided, based on observation, “pointers” and intuition.  Pedagogy is based on facilitating individual, or personal growth in iaido through a series of discoveries, explorations and good old perseverance.

The Occidental dojo is formalized and structured.  Classes are mainly teacher-led.  Students are “fed” iaido “from a spoon” as it were.  Teachers do a lot of, well, teaching.  Explanations are given at length and in detail.  Learning appears to be teacher-guided, based on clear, concise instructions.  Pedagogy is based on direct group instruction and group practice.

Oh yes, there’s more but for the sake of brevity I’’ stop here in order to leave room for lively discussion.

Let’s all start from a common foundation: assume my observations are accurate.

Let’s consider these questions, if we can do so without opening a Pandora’s Box.

Which teaching style would/do you prefer and why?

Which teaching style makes for a “better” martial artist?

And in order to answer that question one must think about the goal of sword training today, as the All Japan Kendo Federation defines it - to improve the self - which is probably a universal goal among martial artists in Japan.


Suzuki D.T.
1960: Studies in Zen. Unwin paperbacks.