Judo and kendo are part of law-enforcement training in Japan, and many police officers continue to study the martial arts throughout their careers. In most cases, the toughest dojo in a city in Japan is a police dojo. Civilians who have gone there for martial arts training or who are hardy enough to become members tell some harrowing tales.
“I would go to the dojo some nights, wondering if I was going to make it out alive,” one kendoka said of his training at a police dojo in Kanagawa. “I’d get hit so hard on my forehead that even wearing a helmet, my knees would buckle.”
“In other judo dojo,” recalled a young man who trained at a police facility while teaching English in Osaka, “they would back off when you were thrown and let you get up so you could take a grip and continue. Here, they’d be standing over you, and when you tried to get up, they’d grab you and throw you again. It just kept going until you learned to get to your feet a second after you’d hit the mat.”
How Samurai Enforce Japan’s Laws
From one perspective, the image of the tough police dojo speaks to a preconception involving officers who like hard physical contact and enjoy confrontation. That may be true. In Japan, however, some context is necessary to understand why things are that way.
Once the samurai caste was abolished in 1867, Japan created a national conscript army. They drew young men from the lower classes of society: farmers and tradesmen, mostly. Meanwhile, men of samurai ancestry were drawn to the police forces. That’s understandable because samurai had for centuries been law-enforcement officers.
A mentality had long existed among the samurai that they were the protectors of the other classes. The transition from protecting warrior to protecting police officer was natural. Today, Japan’s police forces are far more militaristic and, from an American perspective, far more intrusive in the lives of citizens. (One official task of Japanese police is “enforcing public morality.”) The koban, or police box, is a common sight on city street corners. Cops know who goes to work and when in their neighborhoods, and they don’t hesitate to stop and question strangers. When I visit one of my sensei, who lives in a small town outside Nara, it’s only a day or two before a police officer is at the door, politely asking who the foreigner is.
Foreigners living in Japan complain a lot, and rightly so, about the sudden stops to which they’re subjected. Asked to produce identification at the drop of a hat, they’re usually told that there’s been some criminal activity by non-Japanese in the neighborhood. Savvy foreigners, however, know that no matter how irritating this can be, it’s a good idea to be polite and respectful in any interaction with Japanese cops.
The Bushido Code of Japan’s Police
It would be a ridiculous exaggeration, though, to say that Japan’s police are its modern samurai. As in the West, the law-enforcement agency in any Japanese city is bound to have its share of less-than-perfect characters: the barely competent, the way out of shape and the plodding bureaucrat. It’s not inaccurate to say, conversely, that the esprit de corps of the police who are serious budoka is formidable. They tend to see themselves as the line of defense between criminals and society.
I’ve trained with some Japanese police. I was just a visitor, and clearly they were taking it easy on me. It was interesting to see them smoothly and efficiently adjust when I ramped up my energy. They always stayed a step ahead of me in their intensity. None of us ever really poured it on, but they always poured just a little faster and a little harder than I did.
Afterward, over sake and nibbles of fermented squid, I asked about the spirit of budo in the police dojo. “It’s simple,” one of the officers told me, his answer reflecting the samurai heritage. “I might not win, but I won’t ever lose.”
(Dave Lowry is a freelance writer who’s trained extensively in the Japanese and Okinawan martial arts.)