Japanese Martial Arts and Kanji: Gaining a Deeper Understanding of the Technique

Japanese language can be confusing – it’s different than the English we speak in many ways. This means understanding certain things can be challenging and ambiguous when studying a Japanese Martial Art.

Ambiguity and Context

The English language is a very difficult language full of ambiguity; we’re used to it because for many of us it’s our first language. For example, take the word “left” – do I mean the direction like “turn left” or the verb “left behind”? Our understanding of the word is built around the context of how it is used, and Japanese is very much like this. When spoken, it is up to the listener to infer meaning by the context of the conversation, just like we did above. Yet when reading a sentence, their is no special way to spell “left”, so it is purely taken based on context. When it comes to writing, Japanese is different.

Specificity of Kanji

Japanese has 3 different writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. While the first two are similar to an alphabet, giving a symbol for a sound, Kanji is a pictograph based language, giving a specific symbol for a meaning.

Kanji is also the older system of writing, so for many of us studying older Japanese Martial Arts, things were written with kanji. To make things more confusing, Kanji can often be pronounced a multiple of ways, depending on how it is read. This means words spoken can mean a host of things if the listener is not careful about the context of the subject.

Confusion on Japanese Martial Arts nomenclature

We had a Judo seminar where a 6th Dan (i.e. very skilled) teacher came to teach at our Ninjutsu dojo. If you’ve studied martial arts – especially Japanese martial arts – you’ll know that there are lots of similar techniques across different arts and lineages that simply have different names. Even  in our art, depending on the lineage, the same technique may have multiple names.

On top of the skill of the Judo sensei, he also happens to be fluent in Japanese – which is always a bonus. He demonstrated a technique we also study, and called it (if I remember correctly) “Kotegaeshi” – which means wrist crush/break. He pointed out that “you probably have seen this technique, just called something else.” I replied “we refer to it as Omote Gyaku”. He paused and said “okay, so like one-handed reverse”. “No, like outside reverse” I commented. He then said “oh, well omote means one handed, but it probably was coined by a non-Japanese person since it is a strange way to say it”. I was puzzled by this, so I did a little research. It was true that omo-te could be interpreted as one-handed. But I realized we were talking about different Kanji.

The Difference in Meaning behind a Japanese Martial Art Technique

When we say “Omote” we mean “Surface”, as in the outside of a ball or other object. But you could also interpret it as meaning what’s obvious – what’s on the surface. This makes sense, since we also have a technique that is the opposite of omote gyaku – ura gyaku. Ura can be interpreted as “inner”, but also as “hidden” or below the surface. This means the very name of something can have a huge amount of depth and meaning to the understanding of the technique – by simply understanding the meaning behind the word.

So when you’re looking up Japanese Martial Arts techniques, take a minute to check out the kanji and use something like Google Translate to find out what exactly is the meaning behind the name. You might find some little insight into the Japanese Martial Art technique and your training as well.

Shidoshi Hamilton

Scott Hamilton is an 8th degree black belt in the Bujinkan, and travels regularly to Japan to train. In addition to being the owner and head instructor of Todai Dojo, Scott is also the CEO of a national manufacturing company. He has also received training in other martial arts, and in-depth modern weapons training.

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