– by Steve Gilshenen
I am Australian. I teach Tai Chi Chuan. The thing is, I am an Australian teaching Chinese martial arts in Japan! That’s not something that is very common in the land of judo, kendo and karate. Add to that the fact that I have very basic skills in the Japanese language makes it just a little more difficult, or possibly a little more fun, depending on how you look at it. (English isn’t as widely spoken here as you may think.)
The reason I live in Japan is for my son. He is half Japanese and I wanted him to learn about his culture. Also, Japan is unbelievably safe, except for the occasional earthquake. So it made the most sense.
My Sifu (teacher) in Australia, is Henry Murray. He did his best to prepare me for what it would be like to teach Chinese Martial Arts in Japan but still, I really was not aware of how different it would be.
The first obstacle I came across was the name of my style. Although the Kanji symbols are the same, Tai Chi Chuan is pronounced Taikyouken here. Also, it is seen as an exercise for the elderly, which not that much different from Australia, I suppose. When you say the words “Kung Fu” here the first response is “Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master”. Next is, “How is it different from Karate?”. Even the Kanji for “Shaolin Chuan Fa” is seen to be “Shorinji Kempo,” and most of you will know they are very different styles! Even 和, the Kanji for “He” (He Style Tai Chi is my style of Tai Chi Chuan) was pronounce “wa” here, and I didn’t understand enough of Japanese to know that I could just as easily have explained that it was pronounce “her”.
Next was the challenge of letting people know that I was here. Luckily, the idea of Tai Chi Chuan being practised both for health and as a martial discipline was an interesting one to some friends of mine and I began teaching small classes. I taught a few Kids Classes at the schools where I was working, and although it was all on a small scale, it was a great start.
Without disrespecting anyone anywhere in the World, I’m not a big fan of the marketing systems out there for martial arts. I enjoy teaching and feel I have a responsibility to share what I have learned. The marketing systems I saw all seemed to advocate the “get-multiple-teachers-teaching-and-make-lots-of-money” approach. It may be great for some people, but it just wasn’t the way I wanted to go.
For me, I think the biggest step forward in that direction came from outside of martial arts altogether. I began working for an American ex-Marine named Chris Campbell, who owned English schools. (He is still one of my closest friends to this day). I noticed how Japanese people have tight networks which form when they are young and continue to support each other later in life. Many of their business connections are people they have known for many years. I decided it was beneficial for the English School where I worked to develop this same kind of system with other like-minded teachers and school owners. We have a great team now that also includes Japanese people from all walks of life. We help each other whenever we can. It goes beyond simple networking. For those of us whose blood relatives are far away, it has become another family. This type of community is great for connecting by word-of-mouth and I strongly feel word-of-mouth is the best marketing “tool” available to martial arts teachers. If I open a school and advertise, why would a potential student come to me? What’s so great about me that it would bring them in? That’s where public relations out-performs advertising a hundred times over!
As far as teaching goes, it isn’t much different from the classes I used to teach for my Sifu in Australia. However, I was fortunate enough to train privately at my Sifu’s house, and we had many conversations that increased my understanding. In contrast, the language barrier here stops a lot of the finer explanations. I find that it takes a lot more care on my behalf to really understand each student and to determine the best way to get the message through to them. I teach mostly in English, with Japanese used to explain some points. Being as I am a foreign teacher, though, the adult students see the English component as a good way to improve their own language skills. They are very enthusiastic about communicating and try hard to grasp the lessons.
The image of Japan is one of discipline and focus. That said, kids are kids the whole World over! The “Japan Way” is first to give kids much more freedom when they are young, then to increase the discipline as they grow. I found that in my own upbringing, the opposite approach was the norm. The children in my kids’ classes are excited to be learning Kung Fu and need to be directed the same way as children in Western countries. They enjoy seeing friends that they see only in class and they interact wonderfully with each other, but they need the same amount of direction as the children I taught in Australia. I speak more Japanese in the children’s classes than I do in the adult classes simply because of the need to ensure that safety is the first priority. The children I teach are all amazingly great kids.
There are not many other foreigners teaching martial arts here. However, I have been fortunate to meet a few and have become good friends with some. Luke Holloway of RAW Combat is a good example. He was teaching Silat and Tai Chi Chuan (Yang Style) then moved into Body Guard and Armed Forces training. There are others, such as the New Zealander teaching Bagua and a Filipino who teaches Kali. But there are not many. Most of the other Tai Chi Chuan schools focus mainly on Health but I have heard there are some Japanese Teachers that teach all aspects.
One very positive thing I have noticed is that there isn’t a lot of the “martial-arts-equals-fighting” attitude that one often finds elsewhere. People here are genuinely interested and fairly supportive of me being a foreign Martial Arts Teacher. However, one must understand the etiquette that goes along with it in Japan. I remember the first time I went to my friends Kendo Dojo and sat with him, with my feet facing the shrine. That is a big no-no. As I learned more I discovered that if you show the proper respect it will be reciprocated.
Tai Chi Chuan may have a deep history but it is not widely known in Japan how effective it is as a Martial Art. That is something I hope to change in the next few years.
Share this page