Kaizen is a Japanese concept which basically means “continuous improvement”. It can be applied to business, engineering, management; in fact, just about anything. It is a very powerful tool for self development.
The idea is that you take one small area and work on it for a week. Depending on what field you are working on, it can be something as simple as just smiling more often (which can be good for building business or personal relationships). By the end of the week, it should have started to become a habit. Then you pick some other small improvement to focus on. After a year, you should hopefully have made 52 small improvements. This obviously all adds up to a very substantial (and very deliberate) overall improvement.
Very interesting you may say, but what has that got to do with martial arts? Well our grading system is roughly based on just this same principle. It should not be a surprise then that it was the Japanese that created the coloured belt system which was later copied by the Koreans, Chinese and many others. Most martial arts have gradings every 3 months though it will vary from style to style. Although Kaizen looks for a different subject of focus each week, it would obviously be impractical to have gradings every week. However, the belt system is clearly following the same underlying principle.
Each grade has clearly specified requirements for kata/patterns, basic techniques and sparring (free or pre-arranged) and generally the student will not move on to the next level of training until they have been examined for the current level. It is a very well defined and structured system that ensures that the student learns the required skills in logical and progressive sequence.
Another powerful tool for self development is goal setting. Everybody who teaches self development always recommends goal setting as it is a way to focus the mind in order to achieve the best results. The belt system sets our goals for us. As soon as we decide that we want to take a grading, we set ourselves the goal to learn the next set of techniques (or combinations), the next kata/pattern, and the next sparring drill. We also set ourselves the goal learning them to the required standard.
Kaizen is actually a very structured form of goal setting. The Japanese really took this process very seriously as they rebuilt themselves from the devastation the Second World War to become almost an economic superpower. The South Koreans who took a similar approach punch well above their weight economically for such a small country. Yet the principle of Kaizen is intimately ingrained into our martial arts and goes almost unnoticed as we take it for granted.
This is another serious lesson that we can learn from our martial art and take into every area of our lives. There is nothing in life that cannot be improved by looking for constant small changes and practicing them until they become ingrained, just as we do with martial art training.
Some purists will point out that originally there were no grades in martial arts. However, martial arts was usually taught secretively in very small groups, with a master and just a few select students. Those students would normally be motivated by wanting to stay alive if they become involved in a physical conflict (rather than scoring a point or keeping fit, etc).
They were warriors. Most of us today are not, but that’s OK, we don’t need to be. Our motivation and mind set is often different to their’s, therefore its reasonable that different things will work for us as worked for them. Gradings may not be necessary in small motivated groups, but make it much more practical to teach in today’s much larger classes.
It’s a shame that some people just become obsessed with getting a grade and they miss out on learning some of the finer points and applications that are not included in the grading syllabus. However, they still have to perform the syllabus for their grade to the required level so some standards are still maintained. There are definitely faults and limitations within the grading system. There are also many abuses on many different levels, by students and examiners.
But overall, it is a very good system which when you look at it more closely, teaches us a method to live by as well as for learning martial arts.