Japanese Culture and Budo – September 5, 2013 – Kim Taylor, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph, Nanadan

I do the Japanese budo stuff, Aikido, Iaido, Jodo and Niten Ichiryu so over the last 30 years I’ve had to deal with the Japanese culture thing many times. Enough to actually wonder why it comes up so often. Later I may discuss the superficial arguments but for now I’d like to go a bit deeper.

Aikido is large and international, taught by thoroughly Westernized Japanese and Westerners so the “culture” didn’t really arise until the Westerners got highly enough ranked to be named examiners, which was we assumed, an automatic thing. Actually we figured the rank was the permission but apparently not. It was news to our local Japanese as well, that you had to be named an examiner separately from gaining the rank required. I have been out of the organizational side of the art for quite a while but I assume that bit of culture has been sorted out by a lot of Westerners leaving the organization or the organization smartening up. (Or both.)

Before you figure I’m just being persnickety and unfairly implying that the Japanese were changing the rules to keep control of the art through their local reps, there exist, tucked away in drawers, examiner’s licenses which were given to Westerners who were far from the rank required today. The rules actually did change and will continue to change with the circumstances in ways that have little to do with culture and much to do with the flow of money and control. When the art was small, Westerners had to be allowed to grant rank so the art would grow. When the art got big enough to support professional teachers, too many examiners meant a dilution of finite resources, hence the rule changes. (We can talk about the myth of finite resources another time).

Understand that I’m fine with maintaining control through rule changes, it’s up to those at the top to do as they wish, just don’t call it culture. Control is extra-cultural, it is universal, but culture is absolutely a tool of control. Who owns the culture, has the control, and the mechanism is exclusion, shunning from the group if the cultural rules are violated. Now, in a religious community that has a lot of force, who wants to be excluded from their family? But in the budo context, folks would be well advised to be careful what they try, the culture card is weak and can backfire.

A nice case study would be the Karate world where the links between Japan/Okinawa and the west were never particularly strong I suppose. Today the vast majority of students have almost no connection with Japan or its culture, and the art is rolling along just fine. The cultural connection started out weak and the control was never really there.

Aikido, as I mentioned, had a much stronger connection to Japan, or at least to the founder and his first generation of students, but with each generation that control by culture, the threat of exclusion from instruction by the Japanese is weakening. In that case it’s through the realization by some Westerners that they have been practicing for longer than the Japanese at the top. Take away their nationality (the cuture card) and assume the same amount of practice per week and you’ve got a reversal of seniority.

Small arts with first generation students are easily controlled by the founders because there is a threat, no training. Push too hard at the second and third generations however and they will leave, the threat of being excluded from instruction is ultimately hollow. The Western instructors are there to provide the instruction and they aren’t moving back to Japan any time soon.

OK I think I’ve got it shaped in my head now. At the beginning a few Westerners get instruction from the Japanese and that was the control, the direct contact of teacher to student. Actually not so much control as obligation, the natural debt a student owes a teacher. As the Westerners start to teach, their students have that direct connection to the Westerners, not the Japanese, there is nothing the students owe the original instructors except the respect you would give to your grandparents. At that point the ranking system kicks in, and the guys at the top control through that, rank comes from Japan so Japan gets the control. But that only works until the Westerners get near to rank-granting status, now the original Japanese instructors (the ones with the direct teacher to student connection) start to retire or pass away and even the “grandfather” status is lost, all that is left is the passing of money up the chain and the paper back down again.

What happens if the guys at the top start to crack down on all the “easy grades” being given to the Westerners? (In order to prevent the local Westerners giving out their own grades which makes them independent from the Japanese.) What happens is that they squeeze the students out of the organization. Change the rules and students get irritated, slow down the progression through the ranks and the students get unhappy (they want to progress not run their heads into brick walls). Tell the students that their teachers, their direct contact with the art, are ranked too high (who ranked them? are their examiners crap too?) and they get offended, you’ve just told them their teachers, the guys they have a personal relationship with, are no good. So who is good? Presumably those younger Japanese now in charge of the organization who will now take over the instruction of the students from the original generation of Westerners. Certainly that’s how the students will see it… and perhaps some Western students will like this, going with the Japanese will be a way of jumping the queue over their senior students.

But most will simply follow their teachers out of the organization and establish their own ranking system. In some situations and with enough numbers leaving, the original organization may well just have to take them back under new rules (which often look suspiciously like the original rules).

So far we’ve looked at the growth characteristics of most arts in the west, but there is one further example that works toward control and centralization over splitting into multiple organizations, and that is sport. The examples are Judo and Kendo, and they have a subtle difference. Any sport with a single or highly prestigious and nationally supported international championships can enforce a strict control from the top. Usually through a head organization and national bodies which suppress breakaway groups. The mechanism to suppress breakaway is of course exclusion from the championships, you join our group or you don’t play. Both Judo and Kendo have world championships, but the difference is that Judo went Olympic and Kendo has resisted. The result is that Judo control comes from Olympic organizations which tap into national sports budgets and are run like a multinational company. Kendo is still tightly controlled from Japan.

Nothing wrong with either case, there are arguments for and against both these models of sport/budo and maybe we can talk about that some day, but for now the mechanism of an international championships should be noted as a way to control a budo.

So we have teacher to student obligation, grading certificates and sports championships which all act as control mechanisms on an art. But wait you say, going back to the culture question, there are indefinable, intangible aspects of the art that only a study of, an understanding of the Japanese culture will explain! Take away the cultural intangibles and it isn’t budo! Fair enough, but I have to take that on faith, those things being intangible and my seeing nothing like that over 30 years of practice with local and visiting Japanese instructors. Certainly the budo which include sport (Karate, Kendo, Judo etc.) show no dominance by Japanese competitors that can’t be explained by the number ratios of competitors as vs. intangible cultural knowledge.

My own feelings, as a somewhat wishy-washy Japanophile (I like the zen aesthetic, wabi-sabi, not so keen on cosplay and anime, but I really really love some of the Japanese who have taught me) are that appeals to cultural intangibles are more a matter of maintaining control of students than trying to make better budoka.

I think I’ll leave it there for now.

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