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Practicing Martial Arts in Japan Without Knowing Japanese

Don’t beat yourself up at the gym for not knowing Japanese. Check out these foreigner-friendly gyms in Japan.

By 6 min read

Japan is the birthplace of many martial arts. Aikido was founded in Ibaraki by Ueshiba Morihei. Mitsuyo Maeda, born in Aomori, pioneered mixed martial arts (MMA) after traveling the world to spread judo and was instrumental in the foundation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Karate, which has enough prominence in the world to be an official game in the 2020 Olympics, was developed for centuries in the Ryukyu Kingdom, now present-day Okinawa.

Whether you’re a lifelong enthusiast or just jumping into fighting sports, Japan is the perfect place to learn. Unfortunately, the language barrier can be an obstacle. The easiest solution is just to learn Japanese, but nobody wants to put their hobby on hold in the meantime.

Can you really learn martial arts in Japan without knowing Japanese? It worked out well enough for me.

You’ll probably embarrass yourself, but who cares?

“I should probably learn martial arts before wearing this around town.”

I’ve had the opportunity to train wing chun and muay thai in Tokyo for a couple of years. I’m also ashamed to say that my Japanese ability is atrocious. If I had spent as much time memorizing vocabulary as I have on learning to elbow people in the face, I would be the Chuck Norris of linguistics. And to be honest, at first, I was more self-conscious about going to a gym than I was about not knowing the language. I thought, at best, I’d annoy my trainers and embarrass myself in front of others.

And I’ll be real—you’re going to embarrass yourself sometimes. When you mistake hiji (elbow) with hiza (knee) and nearly send a flying knee into your trusting trainer’s groin, you’ll feel pretty stupid. Still, I kept at it, fumbling the language all along the way, and now I’m at a point where I’ve competed in a couple of amateur kickboxing matches. So while it wouldn’t hurt to know the basics before you start, don’t give up on the idea just because your Japanese isn’t up to par.

Trainers want to train. I asked my instructors if knowing the language is integral in learning martial arts, and foreigners and Japanese alike agreed that as long as you are serious about training, you can learn martial arts without knowing the language.

Learn Japanese in the gym

Dodge head kicks while practicing Japanese.

Not only will you start to feel and look great, but learning martial arts is a fun way to learn conversational Japanese. Jesper Nielsen from Denmark has been practicing wing chun for more than 25 years, teaching the Chinese-founded martial art to native Japanese and English-speaking foreigners in private and group settings in Japan.

“I picked up much of my Japanese at the gym,” he said. “It’s not a problem if you don’t speak anything. In the beginning, it’s more about watching, and then little by little, you’ll pick up words. Then, if you want to become better at Japanese, start conversations.”

Indeed, despite living in Japan, I had little opportunity to actually speak Japanese until I joined a gym and stepped out of my comfort zone. It’s a common pitfall. My friends, girlfriends, and coworkers all spoke English. You can coast under the radar pretty far in this country without having to “adult,” but you have more incentive to memorize words like yokete (avoid) when a fist is speeding towards you.

“It’s not about understanding with the brain,” Nielsen continued. “It’s about seeing what’s going on and copying it. Afterward, you might need a little bit more instruction, but in the beginning, it’s more about just coming. You just need a positive attitude. Be friendly and open. That’s what’s most important.”

It’s about moving, not speaking

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Hirokii Ishii is a former muay thai champion and teacher at Rikix in Tokyo.

My Japanese trainers had a similar response. I asked if it was challenging to teach kickboxing to foreigners who didn’t speak the language and was told it wasn’t a problem if the student is trying their best.

It was a scary experience jumping into a Japanese-only environment…in Japan. Still, my gym’s friendliness kept me coming back and renewed my confidence—not only in myself but also about living in the country. If you can learn to talk to your trainer about proper defense you can learn to ask the guy at immigration why he has denied you a three-year visa for the seventh time.

Yugo Kato is a current World Muay Thai Council (WMC) Japan champion and is one of my trainers at Rikix. He says that while it can be challenging to explain advanced techniques because he cannot speak much English, as long as students can follow along, he can teach them.

Hiroki Ishii, Kato’s coach, and a former Rajadamnan Stadium lightweight muay thai champion, also teaches at Rikix. “What’s important is the feeling that the student is trying to communicate and learn,” he told me. “Even if you can’t communicate in words, you can communicate with feelings.” A sentiment I admire but also find kind of ironic as I’m ordered pokafesu (poker face) after every painful kick to my shin.

I asked if there were particular words or phrases English speakers should know before learning martial arts at a Japanese gym. Kato said, “It’s nothing special, but it’s better to speak slower and softer than not saying anything at all.”

“Daijoubu! (it’s ok),” laughed Ishii. “Most situations can be resolved with this word.”

Foreigner-friendly martial arts gyms around Japan

Learn karate in Okinawa and you too can fight the ocean.

Of course, knocking out textbooks is an essential piece of learning the language. You’re not going to become a native Japanese speaker by working the heavy bag. But if you’re stuck in a rut, searching for a way to make friends, or simply want to shed some pounds, martial arts can be the key to kickstart your life in Japan.

If you’re totally uncomfortable with stepping into a Japanese-only gym, here is a quick list of foreigner-friendly martial arts gyms around Japan.

Aikido

Judo

Karate

Jiu-Jitsu

Muay Thai/ Kickboxing/ Boxing

Other

Any gyms we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments!

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