I first took in the amazing sights and experience of Kyoto some 20 years or so ago now. The sophistication that one is witnesses to is everything one can imagine when they think of the rural traditions of Japan. It is a place that is steeped in history dating back centuries, not just for the amazing architecture and temples, Kyoto is where the Japanese culture flourished as it became the epicentre for many of the traditional arts and literature of Japan. 

I was then a little taken back this week upon hearing the news that one of the very areas of Kyoto that I stayed in for a while, as in Gion, will soon be enforcing a ban on all tourists or foreigners from entering certain areas. Knowing first hand that the Japanese people are some of the most welcoming and hospitable in the world, it makes you ask why so extreme measures have been taken. Especially so with the Japanese Government being very keen in recent years to promote tourism. Well, the answer is quite simple really. Gaikokujin or Foreigners being rude, obnoxious and disrespectful, whilst having little regard for the traditions, customs and inherent rules that are in place. With a growing concern that if something is not done now, then all could be destroyed, lost forever, or go underground. 

Here are just a few of the many points raised by the residents of Kyoto, Gion. Geisha are being stopped and harassed in the street, people are even trying to grab and manhandle them. The taking of photographs at times and in places that it is not respectful or dignified to do so. Rudeness and disrespectful acts in sacred places and Temples of worship. Temples, buildings and places of historical heritage have been defaced. These are only the tip of the iceberg. All of this is taking place despite there being warning signs and notices of possible fines. So all is quite shocking really isn’t it… In truth it is a case of people taking advantage of the Japanese hospitality and having a blatant disregard for the rules, to the point that the hosts have now said, enough is enough.

To understand things deeper, one needs to realise that the island of Japan was cut off from outsiders for centuries, and it has only quite recently been open to outsiders or Gaikokujin, for less than two centuries in fact. Mid 1850’s. So such outside behaviour is not being accepted, and rightly so.

In parallel to Karate, we have in recent years seen the rise of Karate tourism, both on the mainland and Okinawa. Personally, I have mixed views on things as there are certainly pros and cons, as in reality this has no influence on my relationship with my Sensei and the Karate training that I do. But, if the tourism approach enables serious Karate Ka to visit the homeland of Karate, be it in the more modern form in Japan or on the island of Okinawa, then it can be a good thing. Especially so if one doesn’t feel comfortable with travelling halfway across the world alone, or seeking out back street accommodation, a Dojo and Sensei. Then of course the comforting environment of being in an organised itinerary based group with large hall training gatherings is a substitute with many benefits. 

I do though feel that as visiting Karate Ka, everyone still needs to be a little reserved and act respectfully whilst abiding by protocol, local customs and heritage. And not of course become too complacent and do just as one wishes. Or… Just like we are now seeing in Kyoto, Gion, the Sensei and Dojo of Okinawa may one day have a rethink over their future direction regarding both accepting Gaikokujin into their private Dojo’s and teaching them Karate. Hopefully things will work out fine, and hopefully I will one day get to see the wonders of Kyoto, Gion again too. But, the future hasn’t been written yet, and so as Gaikokujin our actions will be closely watched and most certainly influential in any future decisions made. So, walking the path of respectfulness and caution is the correct one here for sure, or as the old saying goes “It only takes one to spoil things for all.”

Please note: Japanese people rarely say Gaijin these days as it is kind of a little impolite and rude, as it roughly means “Outsider or Outside Person.” Whereby Gaikokujin is seen as more polite, meaning “A Person from Outside of our Country.”