As a serious karateka, do you need to travel to Japan? Do you need to go to the homeland of budo to gain the perspective necessary to understand your art? No. Yes. Maybe.
No, you don’t need to travel to Japan to train — not in terms of technical training. The notion that you do is decades out of date. True, there was a time when the technical level of karate in Japan was much higher than in the United States. Those days are gone. American-born karate teachers have mastered the technical skills of their art and polished their teaching skills in an extraordinary way since I took up karate in the late 1960s.
There are some remarkably good sensei here. That’s not to say they’re common, however. (In my opinion, nine out of 10 karate “teachers” are not really that and have no business trying to teach an art they don’t understand.) Great karate sensei are hard to find, but they are here, and you can learn the technical aspects of karate from them. So in that sense, no, you don’t need to go to Japan to polish your karate.
You’ll notice that above, I used the word “technical” several times. If you want to learn karate’s physical technique, yes, you can be taught it here. If you want to learn the spiritual aspects of karate, I would say, with some reservations, maybe you can learn that here. Maybe.
There are sensei in this country who have some grasp of the spiritual dimensions of karate and budo. Their numbers are few. If one in 10 karate teachers is really a teacher in a technical sense, then one in 1,000 has a real understanding of karate as a spiritual path.
Few American sensei speak or read Japanese with any fluency. Few have any in-depth familiarity with Japanese spiritual and aesthetic concepts. While their mastery of technique is sometimes quite high, their understanding of budo’s spiritual dimensions is often poor. Or nonexistent. In many cases, it’s compromised by having read too many silly books about Zen or samurai philosophy and by superimposing their own ideas on top of that.
It’s very important, while we’re in the realm of “maybe,” to note that a trip to Japan for karate training is not a guarantee you’ll be exposed to the spiritual realities of the art. There are plenty of Japanese sensei who are clueless about these. There are karate frauds and sadistic brutes in Japan. There are karate teachers there who indulge in all sorts of goofy, pseudo-Oriental philosophies that sound exotic and profound but that are mostly nonsense with no legitimate historical connection to karate or budo — just like there are in the States.
Your chances of being correctly taught the spiritual dimensions of karate are better in Japan, true. But just like in America, if this is your goal, the answer to the question of whether you’ll get it in Japan is maybe.
As for the "yes" answer ... there are some facets of karate you can learn only in Japan. They’re not technical or necessarily spiritual; they’re cultural. Karate developed in Okinawa and evolved as a budo in mainland Japan. The cultures of those places played as much of a role in karate as, for example, Christianity has played in the art and culture of Western civilization. Japanese culture cannot be removed from karate, not if it’s to remain real karate.
That’s not to say one must be Japanese to practice or understand it. However, one must have some understanding of and appreciation for Japanese culture to acquire a broad and mature understanding of karate as a complete art and way.
If your goal in the dojo is to develop the physical aspects of karate, fine. Go to a nearby school and challenge yourself. But if you want to grasp karate as a do, as an all-encompassing way, sooner or later you must go to where it became that. The lessons of karate to be learned in Japan are not all or perhaps even mostly taught in the dojo there. They’re learned as you interact with a culture that’s markedly different from yours.
It’s learning that form and formality are not dead, not merely rote behavior but a way of teaching a perception that leads to an entirely different way of dealing with the world than you may be used to. It’s being exposed to a culture in which what’s not said is often far more important than what is. It’s experiencing a culture in which much that you’ve taken for granted doesn’t apply — one in which you must be flexible and patient and calculating to survive.
Westerners have had a long and often strange relationship with Japan. Our ideas about it have been influenced by romantic preconceptions, by popular novels and movies, and by our own imaginations. For a karateka going there for the first time, the experience can be humbling, disillusioning and frustrating. It also can be exciting, educational and meaningful. And you’ll be surprised at how often it can be all of the above. So do you need to go to Japan as part of your karate training? No. Yes. Maybe.