What are you saying?

There you are, in the dojo, trying to remember what your arms, legs and body need to do and your Sensei comes over and says, “no, no, tsugu ashi, not irimi.”


 You thought you’d come to learn throws, pins and attacks, but to add to your confusion you have to learn another language.  “Why can’t they just say it in English?” you might rebelliously mutter from the side of the tatami.  Oops, I mean mats.  “Why are we having to converse in Japanese?”  And as someone who had a little aptitude for learning languages in school this was more of a challenge than learning how to land safely.

So what’s wrong with English?

An obvious example is the naming of weapons.  Stating if training with a boken, jo or bo is considerably more compact than stating if training with a wooden sword (which could be any type of sword), a middle size stick or a long stick.  Plus, why not use the name of the weapon.

Extending this onwards then if a technique has a name, then why translate it?  Which neatly leads on to the next point. . .

Turning the question around, why should the language be English?

People learn Martial Arts on a global basis.  At my Aikido dojo we have people from France, Germany and Poland, who started learning Aikido long before they came to the UK.  Instead of having to learn new names all over again, they could rapidly integrate into the school and knew exactly what was meant when a technique was called for.  Attend an international seminar and it eliminates the need to wait while someone translates, “ko uchi gari,” into every language present on the mat.


To switch between two languages when describing techniques is messy.  I would honestly be confused if someone asked me to demonstrate tani otosi followed by major outer reap.  I had to stop and think about that even as I was typing, never mind when I have a keen queue of jitsuka ready to test me.

How I learnt

As I stated at the start, languages where not my best subject at school.  So I am surprised with the number of Japanese terms that I have absorbed.  How do I do it?

  • When techniques are demonstrated I think or say the Japanese name and then provided myself with the translation.  If I’m not sure, I ask.  (Though I have recently flummoxed a 2nd Dan this way, he thinks purely in terms of Japanese, but this doesn’t work for me).
  • Being fortunate enough in my training to be taught by a Sensei who randomly checks we know the Japanese and English terms for everything around us.  Be this obi (belt), mats (tatami), dojo (hall of the way), or names of techniques.
  • During group warm up exercises instructors count in Japanese.  Instead of listening passively I try and pre-empt the numbers in my mind or say them quietly.   OK, I still can’t get past six but at least I have learnt the first six.  (And yes, I’m aware there is more than one way to number in Japanese!)
  • Including key phrases in my write up of each session, checking these in books and online.

Go for it!

So you can learn the language of your Martial Art.  That 1st Dan (Shodan) who teaches your Sunday class might be spouting out Japanese terms like sparks from an arc welder, but at some point he had to go through the process that I (and you) are going through.

Useful web-pages

Aikido terms: http://www.aikidofaq.com/dictionary/alphabetically.html

Jitsu terms: http://greenvilledojo.net/jjterms.html

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