3 Differences Between Eastern & Western Karate

“How did training go?”

“Great! Sensei didn’t remark on anything!”

That’s what I answered my friend after visiting a new dojo in Okinawa, Japan.

FACEPALM.

I was so naïve!

You see, if a Japanese sensei doesn’t criticize your techniques, it’s a BAD sign. That means you’re not ready to improve.

I thought it was a GOOD sign.

But what else would you expect from a 20-year old Swedish dude chasing his dreams in the birthplace of Karate?

Despite having studied at Okinawa University for many months by then, I still didn’t understand the Eastern mindset.

I decided to learn the hard way…

Here’s what I discovered:

1. Process Oriented vs. Goal Oriented.

In the West, we are hyper focused on goal setting.

Nothing wrong with that. I love smashing goals myself.

But in the East, it’s about the journey. It’s about reaching, not achieving.

  • Meaning – to get a black belt is not nearly as important as being one.
  • And to win a championship is not nearly as important as being a champion.

Get it?

That’s why the Eastern martial arts have the suffix “-do” attached to them (i.e. Judo, Kendo, Aikido, Karatedo etc.). Do literally means “path”, or “way”.

But of course, this is not a literal pathway. It’s a spiritual one.

A constant journey of self-discovery.

Progression over perfection.

2. Learning by Asking vs. Learning by Doing

In the West, we love asking questions.

Often we want the answer before we even know the question!

In the East, it’s the total opposite…

Typically, a Western student wants to know “what, why, how” before attempting an exercise. Otherwise they don’t see a reason for doing it, because they don’t know the goal (see previous point).

But the Eastern student is encouraged to find the answers by practicing.

The role of a Sensei is actually not to answer questions, but to aid self-discovery.

Again, it goes back to my previous point of being process oriented.

Learning in the East happens through the act of doing. The kinaesthetic sensation of practicing (versus the intellectual pursuit of questioning) leads to the answers being physically manifested in the flesh.

A Sensei can literally make you practice the same technique for hours before you finally “get it”.

That’s why the technical level is so high in the East.

Practice pays off.

3. Capitalism vs. Culture

Finally, let’s talk money…

In the East, a dojo is not run like a company. Why? Because martial arts are part of their cultural identity. It’s a life philosophy.

In the West however, many people offer Karate like any other service or product.

They call their students “customers”. They call dojo visitors “prospects”. They call themselves “CEO”. They don’t award belts, they sell them. They have binding contracts.

The list goes on…

I call these places McDojos.

In the East, this concept is strange. That’s why a Sensei usually has a side job (i.e. taxi driver, cook, janitor, school teacher), because the idea of monetizing their Karate expertise is unconceivable.

It’s a way of life – not a business.

___________

So…

Do you practice Eastern or Western Karate?

Personally, I believe in combining the best of both worlds.

Here’s how:

1. Set GOALS based on DOING, instead of ACHIEVING. For example; “I want to try my Karate skills in a MMA fight” (not: “I want to win a MMA fight”). This allows you to stay motivated, have ambitious goals and enjoy the journey too.

2. PRACTICE deeply, but with an internal dialogue of QUESTIONING yourself (i.e. “what happens if I do like this or that”) to keep evolving. This allows you to discover the techniques, movement patterns and training methods that suit you best as an individual.

3. Always prioritize PURPOSE over PROFIT. It’s fine to make money, your Sensei needs food on the table too. But do it with INTEGRITY. For example, a big “McDojo” conference recently offered me thousands of dollars to be their opening speaker. I said no, because it didn’t vibe with my values. Legacy over currency.

At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong way to do Karate.

It’s simply a matter of what works best for you! 🙂

That’s the Karate Nerd way.

Good luck!

41 Comments

  • CulunGule
    Great article. As always, karate is something to practice all days, in our daily activities. It's an attitide, a way of living.
    • Thank you! Most definitely... it's a lifetime study!
  • Ben
    I must be a lucky one then as I seem to be progressing through a few corrections every lesson!! ? P.s. I am in Okinawa....
    • I don't think it's luck Ben-san! I think your sensei trusts and cares about you. Clearly, being a respectful Karate Nerd is playing a role ;-) Gambatte kudasai!
    • Paulo Teixeira
      A very nice article to read. I love your analogies on West versus East. Okinawan people are very pure and connected to the inner self.
  • John
    Outstanding Jesse San.
  • Evan
    Hi Jesse,This is a brilliant article! I experience these things with my Sensei, as you describe them from an Eastern standpoint. For this, I am grateful, as it grounds me, as a sometimes impatient 'want to reach the goal' type of personality. It has provided me a better balance. It is nice to be reminded through your article.And a word to you about your impact in the world. I have recently take a trip with my family (from Sweden) back to Canada, where I am from originally, and spent some time training as a guest with a club in Golden, B.C. Canada. When they got to know that I am living in Sweden, one of the first questions was "do you know Jesse Enkamp"? ...I had to laugh (only in good spirit for what you do...)! Your enthusiasm for karate reaches far!//Evan
    • Thanks for chiming in Evan-san! That's awesome to hear :) Cheers!
  • Maria Antonilli
    Thank You for a great thought provoking article Jesse Enkamp Sensei. I totally agree about combining the two worlds and taking the best from both. I have never been to Okinawa (am hoping to go next year) though my Sensei has so I listen to his experiences and draw on them from my own experiences. I think sometimes we as Westerners try to hard to be like the Easterners in Karate but without actually living in their culture it is difficult to see it through their eyes. That is why I am grateful to your self and my Sensei who can offer a Westerners insight to an Eastern world.
    • Most definitely! The social setting and cultural context are so easily overlooked, yet essential. Glad it resonated!
  • Fran
    By nature, I have always been more interested in the journey than the destination, which I think is one of the reasons why karate, and its philosophy, seem to suit me so well.And I'm always really pleased when my sensei corrects me, because I strive to improve all the time, and I'm hoping it means that he can see potential in me!
    • Hilary James
      Same here! When I said I didn’t feel ready for a recent grading session, our Sensei suggested going for my 4th kyu with a bit of extra help, but I declined. Perhaps he thinks I need extra encouragement (like some of the children), because I started at 67, but I’ve always enjoyed doing things well, and don’t mind in the slightest waiting another 6 months!
  • Barbara
    Throughout my training, I have always heard, "Ask a question and you will receive an answer. Ask yourself a question and you will receive many answers."
  • John B
    This is an excellent article and I am so gland that I learned under a Sensei who also trained for 5 years in Japan under Akiyama Sensei. I constantly strive to follow the same principles in my training and teaching.
  • It's certainly difficult being one of those instructors in the West :) Worth it though....even if the numbers are small, at least their are good people and good martial artists :)
  • Good article by the way :D
  • Kevin
    Love It!
  • Sue B
    Thanks for the article - I love reading others perspectives! I've recently taken up TaiChi and get the Eastern side and been practicing Karate for a few years - definately Western! I feel the difference in the respective dojo's - it's very enlightening ;)
  • Ian
    Jesse-san, Great timing for this article since I am just coming back from Okinawa. The cultural differences between dojo in Okinawa vs western dojos are legit. I like your point in the trying to draw from the best of both worlds.
  • Joster
    Good staff Jesse, we learn everyday of living, this is just the way. Shooting two birds with one bullet, that's interesting. Keep it rolling.
  • Great article again. I´m gonna share this with our students....
  • Isabella
    Thank you for the article. I am one of your little fans. My dojo is small, humble and my Sensie who is Japanese-American seldom praises me but is always correcting me. A very quiet person not smiley at all and for a long time I did not know what to make of him, I've known him since I turned 10 and I am 13. Exactly the mindset you are describing. Always enjoy your blog posts and your instagram feed.
  • Jihad
    Wonderfull article And it definatly makes sense .
  • Ron Taylor
    Great words Jesse, if only more western martial arts ? trained with this thinking we would all enjoy the journey. Thanks Ron
  • Paul Alphonce
    Great article brother. It real helps a lot getting something new every time I read your writings
  • Roly
    Great observations Jesse...thank you. Really got me to think about how we communicate to students in our dojo.
  • Colleen
    Thank you for this article. I have learnt some much from karate and continue to learn. I smiled at your point about questions, when I started I asked a lot of questions constantly and my Sensei would often not respond but in the next training session I would 'find ' my answer. I am grateful that we practice Eastern Karate in the West.
  • Sylvie
    Very interesting article! Always a pleasure to read you!
  • Neill
    Thank you for having integrity.
  • Graziela
    That's a really interesting article, because I think a lot of people won't have the chance to experience this difference for themselves. And as we're talking about differences between eastern and western senseis: How is the relationship to your sensei in the East? Is it more like being friends or not? I would consider me and my sensei friends, not close ones, but we get along.
  • Kip Watson
    Hi, Jesse, Cracking article. My daughter has joined a club in Dorset... not a McDojo thankfully. Watching her working at Kata, reminded me of a journey I'd started. But stopped after a major knee injury prevented me from walking for almost three years. The 22 years I spent with Shotokan was quickly rekindled, now my wife, daughter and I are members of a Goju-Ryu Karate Club. A total shift of styles but so good to get back to traditions. Your article is a very clear insight of the differences between East and West... Thanks.
  • Jyrki Innanen
    Great article, again ? Based on Jesse's definition I seem to be very Eastern karateka: 1) process oriented 2) learning by doing & asking (& doubting :) 3) culture over money, most def! But still I feel like I am very Western karateka. Why? Because of logic. I feel the logic in Far East is very different than in the West. Actually, logic could have been the fourth dimension in Jesse's inspiring article. Or was it actually hidden in asking questions section ;-)
  • Andy Jones
    Great article. I find that due to the "McDojo" culture (nice word by the way) students are sold the premise that they will "get fit" or learn "self defence" and this is not true. If you want to get fit then hire a personal trainer (you will improve your fitness much faster) and if your aim is self protection then hire a body guard. Karate and other martial arts are fighting arts and should be treated as such.I find that in a lot of Dojo I have visited there is far too much discussion and conversation and far too little of the doing aspect. With practitioners talking about being a martial artist rather than actually bring a martial artist. I find that this is due to lack of fitness and mental endurance. More "martial artists" need to walk the walk rather than talk the talk. ?
  • Richard Fields
    Jesse; great observations. If I had set goals I don't know if I would still be doing this but after just turning 71 with 43 years in, I still want see what is over the next hill.
  • Joel
    Having practiced Karate in the Philippines when I was young, And now practicing and starting teaching in UK this is spot on. I remember my Senseis having all day jobs and you pay as you practice. You can also practice without paying, as long as you talk to them, help them clean the dojo etc. They do it just for the love of it. I understand that obviously now its different here in UK - there are alot of cost to cover. But all of what you said have make sense, having experience the both worlds - we can combine to the two and have a happy medium. Thanks for the good article Jesse Sensei.
  • Barnabas Ricky Budhi Kusumo
    Hi.. my name is Ricky. I'm Indonesian. Here we separate (mostly) karate into Karate for Self Defence or Traditional karate and Modern karate for Championship. So in Traditional Dojo.. we only practice for higher achievement of karate training. We always do Kihon, Kata and Kumite. In the other hand, for karate modern, we only specific in Kata and Kumite for championship. Everybody does the same exercise from white belt until black belt.
  • Kenneth N Westergaard
    Good article. I thought the article was so good that I have translated it into Danish and posted it on our Facebook page. Hope it's okay. I myself come from a non MacDojo but from a dojo where socialization is important and where we train karate because we like to train karate. I think everything you do for the karate in the world is amazing, what you do is a dream of every karate student. I am looking forward that maybe one day you will do a seminar in your neighbor country Denmark. I think my Sensei would happily open his dojo to you. Good luck on your journey.
  • Zeb
    What is your Karate Style Sensei Jesse
  • Cool article. When I went back to my karate lessons last year, I realised I prefer the Eastern way, although at the time I didn't really know it was it. I just did lessons for the sake of myself, for my personal improvement, rather than just to receive a belt. I know now that the belt is nothing unless there is knowledge to support the colour/level. I actually didn't even want to take the belt exam, as I believed I was not at the satisfactory level, but one of the senseis convinced me to do it anyway. Glad that he did.

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