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?

1 comment:

Patrick Parker said...

A very interesting essay. Yes, I've heard those stories about the impromptu competition - heard them from both sides. People are funny, huh?