Having received all my formal education in the UK and the U.S., albeit quite a few years ago, and having some twenty years experience in teaching university students in Japan, I suppose I am in a position to make some comparisons between these western countries and Japan. Since I have also practiced aikido in these three countries, though I have spent a much longer period of training here in Japan, I can also apply the comparisons to martial arts training in a martial art like aikido. I shall start by looking at education and martial arts education generally, and in following articles examine the concepts of teaching, learning and the syllabus in more detail.
Of course, one aspect of education is common to any society: it is a preparation for citizenship and a society cannot function unless its members have certain minimal standards of linguistic and cultural literacy, such that they can participate in the accepted social activities, such as marriage, military service, or political and civic activities. In the field of education, pupils and students need to pass public examinations of a uniform standard, in order to graduate from school or university.
In Japan, authority plays an unusually prominent social role in public life and this aspect of Japanese culture is very striking to foreigners. Japanese society has sometimes been called a ‘nanny’ society. Thus there is always someone around to monitor social behavior, give orders or advice, even for such seemingly simple activities as taking a bus or train to work, school or the shops, and very little is left to individual initiative. This way of thinking is seen in an unusually intense form in Japanese high schools, where every possibility is allowed for, in the form of a multitude of rules governing all aspects of behavior, so that nothing is assumed to go wrong. Of course things do go wrong and on these occasions I have sometimes seen university students, whom I wrongly assume to be mature adults, waiting passively for someone in authority to take charge of the situation and give orders. Japanese people inevitably obey without question anyone who appears to have superior knowledge or authority, like a university teacher, tour guide, or “expert” and especially anyone wearing a uniform. The martial arts fit this authority model very well and it is no surprise to me that they flourished especially in Japan, with its long history of military governments. Training in the martial arts is often portrayed as an excellent means of developing the individual, but in Japan the reverse side of this—the ura-gawa, is that such training is also an excellent means of reinforcing social control.
Thus, one of the fundamental aims of education is to be a socializing process outside the family. A child joins the relatively artificial society of school and progresses through the system until able to function in society generally, usually after graduation from high school or college. There are at least two aspects of this socializing process: learning to function as part of a group, and discovering the boundaries of the group. The distinction between education and training, common to both Japanese and English, cuts across this group/individual distinction. There is much common ground, so a lot of what takes place in a school might be regarded both as education and as training. However, I suspect that in Japan education generally is seen more as a form of training, but for me they are fundamentally different.
Education is rightly regarded by the state as a tool for creating model citizens, but for me it is a means to bring out someone’s potential as a person and this implies a very robust view of the individual. This is the first aspect. Another fundamental aspect of education is that it is in no way utilitarian. The realization of someone’s potential as a person is itself the reason for that person’s education. Nothing else is required as an additional reason, like producing a “model” citizen. Thus, the individual, rather than the state, bears the ultimate responsibility for education.
I look back with a certain fondness on my own high school education. This took place in a typical English “public school” (which is actually a private school), in classes of no more than about 20 pupils. There was a low staff/pupil ratio and the syllabus gave much time to explore interesting avenues of thinking, over and above what was required by the examination syllabus. Thus, I was taught to develop a critical attitude to what I was told by those in authority. There was always a readiness to question and this, of course, is fully in keeping with the methods of intellectual discipline espoused by the Greeks, especially Socrates. I still use the Socratic method in teaching my own doctoral students and they are somewhat unnerved by it. Rather than asking questions, my Japanese colleagues appear to be much happier telling their students what they should be doing. This latter learning model is the norm in high schools and universities and one of my earliest aikido teachers once told me that students should never presume to question those with clearly superior knowledge, such as professors. The task of students is to understand what those with superior knowledge have to impart. How they do this is another question. In fact I have found little signs of this critical attitude among Japanese students and I suspect that this is because the aims of education have become subordinated to the aims of training.
Two examples of education as training come to mind here in Japan. One is learning how to read and write the Japanese language; the other is learning a martial art like aikido. Mastering the Chinese kanji required to read a newspaper is a formidable task, which takes many years, and is way beyond the learning of, e.g., Latin or Greek vocabulary. I do not know of any interesting methods of learning kanji, other than rote learning, but having to master the kanji sets up a central example of training as a model of education, right at the beginning of a student’s educational career. Of course, there is a value in training as education at an early age, but the danger is that all education is seen as a form of training, geared to a particular goal, like passing examinations.
There are very practical goals in learning kanji: without such knowledge, the newspaper or book cannot be read. The goals of learning a martial art like aikido are much less clear. It is often called a modern budo, but the connotations of this word, especially for modern Japanese, are not often explored. Nevertheless, the model of such learning, especially in Japanese university and school aikido clubs, is also training: mastering a set of complex actions by constant repetition until the activity becomes second nature.
There are a number of activities, such as running, for which training is beneficial, but which need have no other goal other than the activity in question. Of course, one can run to win prizes or to keep fit, but one can also run because it is an enjoyable activity, in which one can take pleasure. Why would one take up a modern budo, like aikido? Perhaps to keep fit, perhaps as a means of self-defense, perhaps because of the “spiritual” value of training. These are all valid reasons, as is the reason that it is worth doing in itself, without any additional goal. It is in this sense that aikido can become a vehicle for one’s education.