One of my goals before coming to study in Kyoto was to practice karate-do in Japan. I began shitō-ryū karate-dō when I was seven years old back home in California and I spent much of my childhood and early adulthood in the dōjō. Away at school in Boston, I have found it difficult to continue competition training and I mainly practice or teach when I am back home during vacations. Therefore, other than summer breaks, it had been a while since I had trained rigorously and continuously. Before leaving California, I talked to my sensei about karate-do in Japan, wondering how different it would be and whether I would be able to fit in easily. My sensei told me about locations in Osaka where I could practice, but, luckily, I was able to find a club that practices shitō-ryū karate-dō at Kyoto University.
Since I began practicing with the Kyoto University karate club, I have learned a lot about both karate techniques and also relationships within Japanese extracurricular activities. The first thing that was apparent to me was the senpai-kōhai social hierarchy within this club, which is prevalent among various groups. Though I had studied a bit of keigo before, I did not actually have experiences in which I could practice, so my keigo knowledge was put to the test during my initial contact with the club through email. When I showed up during the first week of the semester, I could immediately discern who were senpai and team captains. Though this karate club is taught by senpai who are either graduate school students or fellow undergraduate students, kōhai still bow to them in passing. Yet, at the same time, high and low level belts all train together and I was impressed by the skills of the lower levels students. Thus, the senpai-kōhai relationship is definitely intimidating, but the respect towards other members the club produces a great practice environment.
Additionally, I have learned quite a bit about kumite, or sparring, technique. This club splits up based on those who want to practice kata, or form, and those who want to practice kumite. I stuck with the kumite group, mostly because that’s what the majority of the group practices. Back home in my dojo, I take on a senpai role to many of the younger kids and I am expected to teach at times. At Kyōdai’s practices, I am once again kōhai and I have had to adjust my training mentality to accept critique and to be willing to change my techniques. This was not an easy thing to accept at first, but, truly, I know that I have learned a great amount of new skills. As a result, I have become more comfortable and confident in my kumite techniques thanks to Kyoto University karate club, and I hope to bring back what I have learned to my dōjō.