Do I need to speak Japanese to learn Kempo?

If you’re new to martial arts, you’re probably worried about understanding what is going on.

Maybe you’ve watched a few YouTube videos, maybe you’ve been to visit the local dojo to see what happens. Maybe you just took the plunge and attended your first class. However you did it, you’ve seen martial arts in action.

There were all these foreign words, and it was confusing.

Do you need to learn Japanese now? (Or Chinese/Korean/etc, depending on your martial art.) Will you be completely lost unless you do?

Thankfully, no.

As for me, I love languages. I like the challenge of picking up the new vocab, the new sentence structures, getting to know a new culture through their unique phraseology. If that also describes you, then great – go ahead and learn some Japanese if you want!

But if the thought of learning a new language fills you with horrific flashbacks to chanting “amo amas amat amamus amatis amant” in school, don’t despair! To learn a martial art you need no grammar, and only a few basic phrases.

Not required to learn a martial art!
Not required to learn a martial art!

Why use Japanese at all?

There are a few reasons we use Japanese in class. Our martial art began in Japan, so that was its original language. Some of the terms don’t translate very well, or to translate them properly you’d need a longer phrase, which would get tedious quickly.

Then there’s the fact that, as part of the International Kempo Association, we regularly travel and train with dojos in other countries. If we all use Japanese then we can all understand what is going on – at least the basic instructions. I did my fourth dan grading at an international seminar in Japan, and the sensei that ran the grading spoke no English. And yet, as if by magic, I still understood what he wanted me to demonstrate.

If I’m honest, it’s also because it sounds way cooler. Which would you rather learn, soto uke zuki or outside block, punch? **

How much Japanese do I need?

Grammar: zero. We very rarely speak in full sentences! Short commands and names of things are the main focus here.

Vocabulary: eventually, maybe a few hundred words. I’ve not counted. By the time you’ve been coming for three months or so you will probably have around 50 that you recognise, and at least ten or so that you can actually pronounce with no thought required.

Most of them are things you’ll encounter multiple times every lesson, like “please” and “thank you”, along with “left”, “right”, “forwards”, “backwards”, “punch”, “kick” and “block”.

Ok, so “pow” and “blap” are not Japanese words, but at first it might seem just as random. Don’t despair. (1966 Batman)
Ok, so “pow” and “blap” are not Japanese words, but at first it might seem just as random. Don’t despair. (1966 Batman)

A few of them will be set phrases which you don’t need to translate directly. Just know that tenchi ken dai ichi is the name of that kata, and that hakusetsu is that pressure point.

How will I learn it?

You’ll pick up all this slowly, over time. Do NOT panic if it all sounds like gibberish to start with. Nobody expects you to be perfect straight away, that’s kind of the point of being a beginner!

Listen to what is going on around you. When the sensei is teaching, they’ll use a lot of words, and they’ll say the same thing in multiple ways and demonstrate at the same time. For example:

Hiraki sagari to hidari chudan gamae, kamae! Ok, we’re left foot forward. Check your stance, are your knees bent? Are your feet a good distance apart? Make sure your fists are pointing forwards, not twisted in towards the middle.

When they got to “kamae!”, everyone around you got into stance. Now you know that “kamae!” means “get into stance”. We’re left foot forward, so I guess one of those words must mean left?

With enough repetition (and remember, we do basics every class, so you’ll get a lot of repetition!) it’ll slowly sink in and before you know it you’ll understand the whole sentence.

Sometimes, the sensei will directly explain the meaning of a word, if it helps with the explanation.

We’re going to learn uchi uke zuki today. Uchi means “inside” and uke means “block”, so this is a block with the inside surface of the arm. Make sure you’re blocking with the arm, not the fingers.

What are the benefits of knowing some Japanese?

You can definitely learn Shorinji Kempo with very minimal Japanese, but there are a few benefits to extending your knowledge a small way beyond the basics.

Some words that sound very similar can have multiple meanings, and understanding the context helps you to know what is going on when you learn a new technique. For example, uchi can be 内 inside or 打ち strike, and knowing which it is will help you to guess what moves will be required.

There are also some great YouTube videos of techniques and demonstrations which are narrated in Japanese. Automatic translation doesn’t always catch the nuances, especially of specialised martial arts vocab, so knowing a little yourself can help to understand where the auto-translate has made errors.

Never give up!

Learning the unique vocab for any new hobby can be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort. As long as you keep attending classes, you’ll learn new words and practice old ones every week, so you’ll soon know more than you expect.

If you want a head start, why not check out our list of helpful vocab?

Published by Nicola Higgins

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something* martial artist, Girlguiding Brownie and Ranger Leader, and actuary. She somehow also finds time to read, fuss her cat, and occasionally spends time with her husband. * please note that "ten or more" is still something.

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