Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Legacy of Outcasts

Why are we doing this to ourselves?

Within the martial arts, students of a particular school will sometimes visit other schools, for varying reasons. Sometimes it’s because they’re looking for a change. Sometimes they’re looking to broaden their horizons. And sometimes, they’re just looking.

A student might also visit another dojo just to train. Maybe he’s away from his school on business or whatever, and needs a mat to train on. Maybe an aikido student who holds a shodan in Kodokan judo, for example, might occasionally visit a nearby Kodokan-affiliated dojo, just to keep his skills current. Whatever the reason, visiting another school can be exciting, fun, and complicated. I say complicated because there are rules for doing this. There are well-established protocols to follow.

And there are rifts. As sad as it is, there exists animosity and bad blood between some of the different styles and schools in the world today. This is especially evident if you’re an American student of Tomiki aikido.

I enjoy seeing other arts, other ryu. I consider it a kind of impromptu demo, and it usually makes for a good evening. Some schools welcome people from anywhere, and some even invite visitors onto the mat to train with the class.

But my friend's recent dojo visit wasn’t such a great experience. Aside from the other considerations (not enough room on the mat, too many students and not enough instructors, etc), he couldn’t help but feel a little offended when one of their instructors started bashing his school and sensei. At the time, he figured the best thing to do was just smile and continue watching the class. But on the way home, he couldn’t help but ask himself: Why would a seasoned veteran of the martial arts feel so compelled to insult a visitor’s school? What does a teacher gain by attacking another teacher like that?

I was reminded of the rift that exists between different schools of Tomiki aikido. Our sensei told us a story once about one of the reasons for the hard feelings between American Tomiki schools and Japanese Tomiki schools.

The story goes that once upon a time, in the late seventies or early eighties, when Tomiki aikido was still pretty new, especially here in the US, a bit of a disagreement developed between the Americans and the Japanese. At question was whether or not to continue teaching Tomiki aikido as a competition, as Tomiki Sensei had developed for the university, or to revert to Tomiki Sensei’s earlier, kata-based, non-competitive form of aikido.

A group headed by a prominent teacher in Houston (the prominent teacher within the US Tomiki system at that time) traveled to Japan to train with Tomiki Sensei’s original group. What happened next has been a matter of contention ever since. To hear the American students (and their students, and their students’ students) tell it, the Japanese – who were still practicing the competition-oriented version of Tomiki aikido – tricked the Americans into participating in a competition. During the match, the Japanese students sustained a number of injuries at the hands of the American students. The exact extent of the injuries depends on who’s telling the story, but a preponderance of the evidence suggests that they included several broken noses and at least one broken jaw.

Nowadays, proponents of the competition system claim that the American students failed to control their techniques and resorted to brute force, thus injuring their opponents unnecessarily. Adherents to the non-competition system (including my school) hold that the Americans were attacked by arrogant, Japanese students in an attempt to force a competition, and executed flawless shomen-ate techniques, and such injuries are the natural result of their ukes’ aggression.

The nucleus of story, or some version of it, is true. There was an impromptu competition of some kind, in which members of the Japanese club did sustain injuries at some level. I’ve heard enough versions from enough people to confirm at least this much.

I discussed it online about a year ago, with one of our counterparts on the Japanese side – an American student of people who were involved with the Japanese club in question, but who had no more direct involvement I did. The stories pretty well match, but are obviously propagandized by both sides. The American guys claim they were stud-muffins because they were ‘tricked’ into competition, and then beat up their Japanese aggressors, while their guys say that our guys were reckless and out of control with their techniques. The guy I talked to basically had the same things to say about my sensei (and our style) that my sensei has to say about him. Of course, they’ve never met, let alone trained together.

Being an outcast from the Japanese system doesn’t bother me, because I don’t believe that a competition-based system is any more combat-realistic than the old kata-based system, despite their appearances. As far as I’m concerned, these are little more than different ways to approach the same concepts. Don’t get me wrong – I have my opinions about which style is the more effective – but that’s not the point. It’s not the competition v. non-competition question that’s been bothering me.

What bothers me is the apparent rift that began when American students bloodied up a bunch of Japanese guys, in some kind of sparring event that was evidently born from an entirely wrong idea. Now, if I were to make some attempt at studying Tomiki aikido in Japan (or in some school based on the Japanese competition system), I’d want to keep my non-competition Tomiki background quiet. I might not be welcome if they found out where I came from.

This isn’t how it was supposed to be. We’re not on the mat to prove anything. We’re not training to show people from other schools how superior ours is. This is approaching the martial arts from a completely wrong view.

It seems like any time one school opens up, there’s some other school somewhere who considers them an outcast. Some proponents of the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu of iaido will say it about those of us who study the Muso Shinden Ryu. And there are no fewer than five different ryu claiming direct lineage (and therefore sole legitimacy) to the Mugai Ryu line. Are all the others, then, outcasts?

Isn’t it enough that we all train in the budo? Why do we all have to train in exactly the same budo, in order to be accepted? If you don’t like someone’s school because of something their teacher did thirty years ago, are you comporting yourself in the spirit of the arts, or are you simply holding a grudge? And if you’re holding a grudge, then who’s the real outcast?

It’s time we stop this nonsense, and begin to accept martial artists for what they are: our fellow deshi – because what we’re doing to ourselves in the name of old grudges isn’t worth the damage it has caused. Who knows how much we could have learned from each other if all these schools had been working and training together all these years?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Pink Faced Warriors

The Legacy of Japan’s Pink- Faced Warriors

Japanese tradition holds that a pale appearance on the battlefield is a mark of fear. For the samurai, of course, the appearance of fear was as formidable an enemy as any rival warrior. A samurai whose face showed fear during a battle could expect to be put to the sword by his own daimyo, even if the battle was won.

At stake was nothing less than clan, family, or individual honor. No daimyo could afford to be embarrassed by fielding timid, frightened fighters, and for this reason, men were hired for private armies, in some cases, based on how well they bragged about their exploits in previous battles.

Of course, we are talking about Japan during the feudal era (sengoku jidai, or Warring States period), where sickness and malnutrition were hardly uncommon. Whether he was afraid or not, a warrior’s face could be greenish or pale on any given day.

So what was a samurai to do?

Well, there was more than one answer. The first – and simplest – solution was to wear make-up. Not a lot, but enough to cover any potential paleness. The samurai smeared a form of pinkish rouge on his cheeks. This practice is similar in nature to that of the geisha, using a white paste to hide any blemishes – or that of the lower-end prostitutes of the Edo period, who used a kind of white-wash to cover up the marks of disease.

On the battlefield, the samurai wore heavy armor, and it was customary then (as is it with soldiers now) to remove the helmet during a lull in the action. The samurai custom was to remove the helmet in a forward motion, and hold it in front of the face until any smudges or blemishes in the make-up could be fixed or removed. A warrior had a duty to his daimyo, after all. One’s face had to be reddish, as if angry or flushed with the action of the battle, and the unprotected face was not shown until it was suitable.

What remains of this custom can still be seen in kendo schools today. Customarily, the men (the kendo helmet) is removed with a forward motion, and held directly in front of the face. Then, with the men still held there, the kendoka removes his tenugui (a towel worn under the men) and wipes the sweat from his brow and from the inside of the men. Only after this action is satisfactorily performed can the men be lowered, to show the face.

Another, more expensive, solution was to purchase armor that had a red-lacquered interior. The highly polished red lacquer shined on the face of the wearer and gave him a rosy appearance. Without the red lacquer, metal armor took on a green patina with time and use, and left a dangerously pale look to the face.

This practice is also still seen in kendo today. The mengane (the metal frame around the face part of the helmet) is customarily painted with a high-gloss red lacquer or enamel.

For me, it’s fascinating to note that such a warlike people as the samurai could be so vain at the same time. But I’ve also come to expect certain things in my pursuit of an understanding of them. Virtually every aspect of Japanese life – not just for the samurai, but for everyone in Japan – was dictated by tradition, propriety, and military courtesy. Nothing was done without its proscribed method, and that method always had a particular purpose. When I came across the tradition of the kendoka removing the men in a certain way and decided to look into it, I knew I would find some centuries-old military tradition behind it.

I just never expected pink-faced, rouge-wearing warriors.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

You Can't Help But Love It

I love my training.

I don’t get to class as often as I’d like – generally, twice a week is about all my schedule will allow. But I love showing up on the mat and working with my fellow deshi. I enjoy the classes, and I honestly wish I could have started my training years ago.
A student should love to train.

Sounds obvious, right? But anyone who has ever spent any time in a dojo knows better. Any deshi of just about any school has seen those students who show up just to make an appearance, those who are more interested in joking and playing around, and those who apparently live for the opportunity to throw their ego around the mat like an unwilling uke.

And we all have to put up with them. But watch what happens:

In my school, there might be someone whose personality grates on the nerves of the other students. But if this were true, I wouldn’t want to use that person’s name here (it might be me – who knows?), because I don’t want to offend him or her. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to thing I’m using my essays to bash my fellow students. Of course, the bashed students would be right in taking offense to that. Not everyone who gets on other people’s nerves does so intentionally.

In my school – as in most other schools, I imagine – it would take a pretty serious breach of etiquette for someone to be asked to leave. I’ve seen it once or twice, and it’s not something I’d want to visit upon just anyone. Being kicked out of a dojo is – and should be – a punishment reserved for the most egregious offenders.

Most students fall somewhere in between. They’re not super-devoted, just-wanna-train types, but they’re also not getting kicked out for rudeness on the mat. Most folks in the dojo are just there, for whatever reason.

In my school, we do have some attitudes, but we also have a good number of real, serious students. These are folks who have a good time while training, and genuinely enjoy their time on the mat – but who also take their practice very seriously, and it shows in the quality of their art. These are the students who eventually become the embodiment of their school.

But there are also the students who place belt ranking above technique practice. Being a black belt is more important than becoming truly proficient.

And unfortunately, it is within this framework of psychoanalysis that new students begin their training. There’s so much going on between the different personalities that new students can be turned off in their first year. This person didn’t want to work with me; that person said something rude.

So there's this kind of student, and that kind of student; this kind of attitude and that kind of attitude. I've been guilty of it myself, and it's not good. All of this nonsense can detract from your work on the mat, and can eat into the quality of your art. And none of it is conducive to a positive training experience.

Here’s an exercise. Look up the shodan requirements for your school or art form. You have so many hours on the mat, so many performed kata, maybe even a specified number of competitions or demos. Time in ikkyu is measured as well, as is the required amount of proven knowledge and understanding about your particular ryu or style. There are also some intangibles, like the flow of a particular technique that other can’t seem to get right. But nowhere in the requirements for shodan do you see “worrying about what other people think of you.” In between kata and specific techniques, it does not say “popularity contest.”

Morihei Ueshiba (1886-1969), the founder of aikido, once told his students that they should always practice in a spirit of joy, and use their art to reconcile the divisions in the world. But he also said that we should train just to train, and that our training should be its own reward.

So enjoy your time on the mat. If you’re training with me, I’ll try to ensure that you have a good time. But the training itself is an important part of my life, and I need to be sure that it’s genuine, and not tainted by attitudes or some antisocial nonsense. Just train. If you’re on the mat for the right reason, you can’t help but love it.