“Japanese Customs” by Don Roley

In no way do I consider myself an expert in Japanese social customs. But I have seen some very bad cases in my time and I hope that by writing this I might help people from making honest mistakes. It is hard on those of us who have lived in Japan and tried our best to work within the system to be lumped together with those whom seem to think that the world revolves around them or their culture. Many gaffs are made by people who just don’t care. Many more are made by people who are just not aware of what they are doing. It is for the later group that I write this.

When you take a Japanese martial art in Japan the first thing you need to understand is that it is not a business to the teachers. It is a relationship. In many ways it is like a marriage. But unlike a marriage- one side, the teacher, has all the power. The students defer to the teacher and follow his directions. There is no negotiations, no pick and choose of what to follow or not. The student pretty much jumps when the teacher says jump and sits when the teacher says sit. Your only choice should you not like the situation is to sever your ties and leave. Again, unlike a marriage leaving this relationship is much cheaper. Since you place so much control over yourself when you enter into this relationship, finding a teacher worthy of that trust is important. I know of some people that look the other way in regards to ethical lapses of their teacher because they feel that what they are learning is more important. From a Western viewpoint with its ability to pick and choose it might make sense. But when you place yourself in a situation where you are controlled by the teacher like you do in Japan, you must be certain that the teacher is doing his personal best and is worthy of trust. This is why I look askance at people who pad their resumes with little (or large) lies to make themselves look good. If they are willing to lie to attract students, they fail the test.

One of the problems of following the wishes of a teacher is that Japanese society does not encourage situations that might lead to friction. The Japanese can be very, very indirect. It is maddening to those of us used to straight talk to have to consider that what is not being said might be more important than what is. But the simple fact is that when people live very close together friction is a natural result. And Japan has about half the population of all of America in a land mass barely larger than California- one of the 50 states. Worse, most of Japan is too steep to really encourage agriculture or cities. So you have large groupings of people in a few areas. About one third of the population of Japan can be found in a 100 kilometer radius of Tokyo. That can lead to a lot of friction, but violence in Japan is much, much rarer than it is in America. Even raised voices and arguments are so rare as to stand out. It may not be a perfect system, or even one some of us find satisfying, but it does seem to have kept the Japanese from killing each other off.

So in this respect, people working in a Japanese system like a martial art have to expect that things are not going to be quite as clear cut as we are used to in the West. This makes a huge difference.

For one thing, people in the west think that unless something is expressly forbidden that it is alright to act freely. We expect the rules and boundaries to be laid out in advance. Until we are told not to do something, we think we are free to act. But in Japan it is more common to ask permission ahead of time and assume that nothing is acceptable unless they know that the teacher is fine with it. You can imagine the problems this alone can cause. The western student thinks that since he has not been told to not do something it is fine but the Japanese teacher is expecting the student to come to them for permission before they take action.

To further complicate the problem, Japanese society is one that does not like to use the term “no.” Direct questions can tend to put the Japanese off. A great example of this is one faced by many visitors trying to reserve a room in Japanese. The conversation often goes something like this,

“Hello, I would like to reserve a room for tonight. Is there any vacancies?”

“Yes sir! We are completely booked up for tonight!”


And this is a situation that is relatively direct. The staff has said that there are no vacancies, but merely avoided the term “no.” In some situations refusing to acknowledge something directly is the only sign of refusal you might get. Again this may cause problems since the westerner walks away from a conversation thinking that his teacher has not said “no” to his request, but the Japanese teacher is aware that he has never said “yes.” I am even aware of some situations where Japanese have said “yes” when they did not want to because they are so accustomed to avoiding directly turning someone down. The cases I am aware of led to the Japanese resenting the westerner for putting them in that position in the first place. The westerner was often completely unaware that the Japanese only said “yes” because he was pressed for a clear answer and did not know that he was now in the bad graces of that Japanese.

Here is an actual conversation I had a while back with the supervisor I work under.

Me- “This summer is going to be very busy, isn’t it?”

Supervisor- “Yeah, everything seems to be coming to a head at once.”

Me- “So many people take time off during summer where I am from, but that is not the case here.”

Supervisor- “Many people take time off in Japan as well. Were you thinking of taking time off in the summer?”

Me- “Well, a good friend of mine back home is getting married in July.”

Supervisor- “Oh heck! We can do without you for a week or two! Go have some fun with your friend!”

Me- “Thank you very much.”

You may note that I never directly asked permission. I knew that resources were tight for the time I wanted to take time off for. If it was a time that I knew I would not be needed, I could afford to be more direct.

The last two lines of the conversation might also have ended like this.

Supervisor- “I know how you feel. I am having to cancel a family trip we had been planning because of all the projects this summer.”

Me- “People just don’t understand how hard we work here.”

From a Japanese outlook, I would know that they do not want me to take time off. I never asked, they never refused. But if my supervisor mentioned having to sacrifice his family trip for work, I know it would not look good for me to push for me to leave them in the lurch. Luckily, I am not that important that they can’t do without me for a few weeks.

Avoiding putting people in situations where they might have to refuse directly is a sign of politeness in Japanese society. It takes an ability to judge the situation and pick up on certain clues. It is difficult without long years of practice. And it is not only for students asking their teachers. The teacher might make a suggestion to a student. These carry a lot more weight in Japan than in the west. Instead of a teacher saying “I want you to learn more about things like the tea ceremony while you are here in Japan” he might instead say, “I think that to really understand Japanese martial arts you need to learn other Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony.” Most Japanese students when told that would probably make plans to take a course. But if they did not, then there is no direct refusal to follow the teachers orders standing out for all to see.

What can be maddening is that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. A Japanese teacher might mention to his student that he really admires the foreigners who study things like the tea ceremony while in Japan and mean nothing more than that. He might mean that he thinks the student should study it as well, or he may not. Communication is not perfect, but it is two way. There is give and take in some of the dance of Japanese communications. If a teacher said that he admired foreigners who studied things like studied the tea ceremony, the foreign student might ask if he felt that studying it would be a good move for him. If the teacher responds that it would certainly help, that would take it to another level. But if the teacher said that he thinks that the student was already learning a lot about Japanese culture through his study of martial arts, it is probably safe to assume that it was no more than honest admiration for all foreign students who learn about Japanese culture. Again you see the pattern of no direct question and no direct refusal. But in this case, there is a lot more give and take and the signals are more subtle.

In Japan, before you study another art you are expected to get the permission from your current teacher. Some arts like Shorinji Kenpo and Katori Shinto ryu state in their rules that there are restrictions or outright bans on studying other arts while you study theirs. In many more situations the teachers may have problems with certain schools or teachers and these are not listed in the rules. But you will not easily get permission to train with them. Just because an art may not have an openly stated policy of refusing students to train with any other art does not mean that the student can train with whomever they want. Again, many westerners are listening for refusal that never seems to come when they should be noticing that they never hear words of approval.

It is customary in Japanese martial arts to require a written letter of introduction from the old teacher when studying another art. So there is not much need for these restrictions against certain schools or individuals to be made public. If the teacher does not want his students associating with someone else, they merely have to hold back the letter of introduction. There is little need to make their dislike of anyone visible to the public at large. Another aspect of Japanese culture is to avoid airing dirty laundry in public or causing a scene. It is popular in the west for martial arts figures to bad mouth others in martial arts magazines or on internet forums. This is very, very rare in Japan. Publicly taking a stand against someone goes against the pattern of avoiding friction. This does not just go for martial arts of course, but all of Japanese society. You are hard pressed to find shock jocks or their like in Japan. And you are not likely to find someone saying they dislike someone in public. They exist of course. And while rare, they get more media attention than they might in the west. But my impression of these people and how they are treated strikes me like the wrestlers that play the bad guy roles in America. People pay attention to their antics while saying they do not like them, and later rejoice in their downfall. The wife of a baseball team manager and a flyweight boxer are perfect examples of this that I am aware of. They got attention with their straight talk trashing others in the press, but when they tripped they got no mercy from the public.

The terms “saving face”, “losing face”, etc are well known. Japanese society has a long history of putting importance on “face”. If you insulted someone a few hundred years ago, the probable outcome would be a duel to the death. The more public the insult and the more people would possibly laugh at you the more likely the chance for violence. Unless you want a whole lot of people dead, you have to evolve into a society that avoids putting people into a situation where they loose face. Putting your disapproval of someone out for the world to see can’t but help to cause that person to loose face. And Japanese avoid this whenever possible. Non-Japanese should not expect the bad news and low opinions to be made crystal clear for all to see. It goes against the foundation that keeps Japan so peaceful. Good opinions can be made public. Bad opinions have to be asked for. And it usually takes a bit of a dance to get the full story.

To illustrate this, I am aware of many arts claiming to teach a Japanese martial art outside of Japan without any real training or permission from the real school. The art exists in Japan and the teachers are often aware that there are people using their name fraudulently to teach. But I am not aware of any situation where a Japanese took a public stand and denounced an individual. I am aware of many foreign students of these Japanese teachers taking a very public stand against the frauds, but I am not aware of a Japanese doing the same. They may say that they have no schools overseas, or publish lists of approved schools. But to publicly single an individual out and say in effect that they are a fraud is just not something I can recall a Japanese ever doing.

So if a student is thinking of studying with someone else, they need to sound out their teacher about the matter. It is a matter of good manners. And they should expect to ask opinions that the teacher might have about the school before asking for permission. If you were to ask your teacher about a school of swordsmanship in Japan and his only response is, “I am sure they enjoy doing what they do” you might want to tread with caution. Things of course depend on the situation, the timing and the individual. But it is a good idea to listen for praise and approval rather than trying to note that the teacher would not directly forbid you from training with them.

In the Bujinkan, we are relatively free to do as we please. If we want to study something like Brazilian Jujutsu or Chinese Kenpo, we are not automatically forbidden like many Japanese arts are. But that does not mean that we can train as we please. There are cases where Japanese teachers may have problems with other arts or dojos. If you consider yourself a student of a certain teacher, you owe it to them to sound them out. The head of the Bujinkan, Masaaki Hatsumi, has expressed a wish that members do not train with certain ex-students of his. This is not published as part of the rules of the Bujinkan, nor do they discuss it much in public. But it is a fact. Some people dismiss the cautions as mere rumor and say that unless there is a specific, public announcement that they will do as they please. In some cases, they may merely be mistaken. In others, I think they are trying to get away with doing as they please.

Rumors can be false. But sometimes they can be true. Considering the lack of desire to air ill feelings in public for the Japanese, it is only to be expected that many things will be said in person and not published for all to see. To try to avoid trouble, Bujinkan members should take the cautious route when confronted with a story that is critical of someone. To believe every rumor is not what I am saying. But if many, many people are saying the same thing and there is no public denouncement from the source, then a sounding out should be in order before dismissing the stories as mere rumor.

The best example of how what might happen could be the unfortunate example of Stephen Hayes. For many, many years the stories had gone around that Hatsumi was not pleased with what he was doing or considered him to be qualified for what he was teaching. But the stories were denounced as mere rumors. There were no public statements to the media or inclusion in the rules of the Bujinkan, but it was common knowledge among everyone training in Japan that Hatsumi did not want his students training with Hayes or consider what he did to reflect on the Bujinkan. But many people did not believe the stories and there seemed to be a lot of confusion.

Finally, in May of 2006 I got an e-mail from Johji Ohashi, who takes care of things at training with Hatsumi. It was a note saying that Hatsumi had ordered him to take down Hayes’ name from the board of recognized judan in the Bujinkan. According to his note Hatsumi had said that Hayes had not been paying fees for years anyways and that he wanted the name taken down now. He suggested I pass the word along to others. I could hardly believe it. I had heard directly from Hatsumi himself many of the same things and more, but it was the public act that was so shocking. I had to see for myself. Sure enough, the name was gone. According to Johji, he had thrown the name plate in the trash, but it had been taken from it and put in a drawer by someone else. Later someone in the honbu dojo took it out to show me while we waited for class to start. Some time later, the name plate was disposed of properly.

This may not seem like a big deal to some, but it is a clear statement for anyone who knows the Japanese. Many people from other arts I know had trouble believing it as well. This sort of action is about as extreme a case as you can find in Japan. Most cases do not get this far.

And for those who might be tempted to contact me in regards to Hayes, I will share something that Johji posted on his web site.

Although the latest news from the Hombu seems to have surprised many people, the facts involved are very simple. Soke has decided that the person in question has moved away from the Bujinkan and so he is no longer recognized as a Bujinkan member. His name placard has been removed from the 10th dan board in the Hombu Dojo. (Soke doesn’t care if people call it a Hamon or not.) I hope this clarifies the issue. Please stop making a fuss on the Internet. There is no need for discussion on this matter, but you can contact Soke if you are REALLY concerned.

I echo the idea that if you are really concerned about the matter, you should not take it up with the messenger. In other words, I am not interested in debating the matter. It is a fact, contact Hatsumi himself if you don’t believe me. End of discussion.

But this is not how most bad events end. It is an unusual case. I think it was due to the confusion and people being led to believe something was part of the Bujinkan that led to the need for these actions. In most cases, the world at large never need know of anyone’s disapproval, maybe not even the person himself.

This is another facet of Japanese culture that is a source of trouble for those unfamiliar with it. To avoid friction and causing people to lose face, most of the time when a Japanese has troubles with you or your actions they will not show it openly. To those that are not quick on the uptake it may be that they never find out that many people dislike them. If you fall into disfavor you may never be told it directly. You may hear about it through a mutual friend trying to play the role of peacemaker, but not directly in a situation that could lead to disharmony. It may sound like people talking behind others backs, but in many cases it is a form of appeal for others to step in and try to help with the situation.

What does this mean for martial artists? The following quote by Ellis Amdur illustrates the possibilities.

“Nishioka Tsuneo, master instructor of Shinto Muso-ryu jojutsu said to me in a conversation that for him, the modern-day equivalent of hamon (expulsion from a ryu) is to ignore a student who offends him. They are welcome to to practice in his dojo, but he will either completely neglect them, or with utter dispassionate indifference “praise” them, saying, fine, that’s very good. Carry on.”(Taken from “Koryu Meets the West” Page 172 of Koryu Bujutsu; Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan. Edited by Diane Skoss and published by Koryu Books. ISBN: 1-890536-04-0)

Again, this follows the pattern of avoiding public displays that lead to ill feelings or loss of face. But for someone honestly on the path of excellence, being allowed to wallow in ignorance is the worst off all situations. You go to your teacher to not just be shown new things- you could do that with a video. You rely on your teacher to show you what you need to know, including the points you are weak in. But as Tsuneo said, if you have gone against the will of the teacher, he may only praise you.

If you live for praise, this may not be a bad situation. People must make their own choices. I honestly believe that there are many folks in the Bujinkan who have more interest in praise than they do in acts that may help them improve in budo. I do not write this for them.

The realities of Japanese socialization may seem overwhelming. Sometimes it seems that way to me even after all the time I have spent in Japan, speaking the language and dealing with the people. But in the end an honest outlook and a desire to do the best probably will take you a long way. If you make small mistakes, the Japanese are most likely to forgive it. They know how difficult their language and culture is and even seem to take a perverse pride in it. If you have an honest heart and make a good effort to find out how best to act, I am sure you will probably do well. It is those that do not seem to make efforts, or seem to be aware of the rules but try to exploit them, that seem to have the biggest problems. I hope this piece helps those with good hearts to reexamine what they do and perhaps make their future dealings a little less turbulent. But I know we will make mistakes. Don’t let them get you down and never stop trying to increase your understanding.

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