Kengaku, Vancouver, Karate, Kobudo, Kitsilano, Goju-ryu, Shotokan, Martial Arts, Kengaku
Yoshimura sensei checkign a student’s sanchin kata

Injuries, illness, burn-out and boredom happen to all Karate students and teachers from time to time during training. This doesn’t include the additional daily stresses we have in our lives with work and family which exacerbate things even more. It’s a miracle that some students can even come to practice at all! Yet in Japan and Okinawa you’re expected (within reason) to come to practice and watch even if you aren’t physically able to join in.

This may come as a bit of a surprise to some people, especially in North America, were we are often advised to stay away from training to rest and recuperate, but that isn’t the case in many dojo in Okinawa and Japan. Even if a student is injured she is expected to come to class and observe; this is referred to as ‘kengaku’ literally meaning to ‘look (見) and learn (学)’ or perhaps better translated as ‘study through observation’. It means that you use your downtown to watch other students and your teacher in order to improve your understanding of Karate-do (1).

This may not be possible for every single practice for practical reasons (you’re nursing a fever), but with a non-serious injury like a sore shoulder or back it certainly can be done for one or two practices.  Yet, most students would not even consider doing this because if they’re at the dojo and not in their dogi, then they’re not really practicing. However, that would be a mistake. Kengaku provides a unique opportunity to the student to sit quietly and watch training, not as a participant but as an observer, which can be more challenging for some students than actually training!

My own opinion is that kengaku shouldn’t be limited to times when a student is injured or sick. Kengaku at its heart is a feeling that should be held at every practice. It is an attitude of constant improvement: you observe yourself, your juniors and especially your seniors and teacher. Why? Because you want to look to them as a model of what your Karate-do should look like and how it should be performed. Karate-do is a traditional form of budo and much like a craft it has to be learned through careful observation of experienced practitioners.

Unfortunately, some students believe there is no value in observing others, perhaps with the exception of his teacher and himself. This kind of self-importance (ego) means the student ‘believes’ he is already skilled, which blocks his path to improve.

(1) In some dojo the term ‘kengaku’ is used to refer to a new student coming to observe a class for the first time before joining a dojo.