I was watching a series of interviews with Alex Bennett on the Seido equipment youtube channel yesterday. In Episode 7 (Series 1) he mentions that Japan generally has trouble with doing something in a new way. “Who will take responsibility if it doesn’t work?”, while he, being from New Zealand, has no trouble with trying new ways. He mentions that budo is the opposite of this reluctant attitude, that in budo it is almost required that you try new things. Budo is all about individualism and experimentation.
I have long thought that the martial arts in Japan were dumping grounds for the trouble makers and the rule breakers. If you look at the histories, you will see just how radical these budo guys were through the ages. At least the ones you get stories about, perhaps that’s why you get the stories. “I wish I was like that guy”.
Another research project there for someone, or a book.
In a later episode Alex mentions the current conservatism in budo, and as an example he mentions drinking water during class. Now that’s something that doesn’t occur to me, being old enough to be in the “tough it out” generation of school phys ed. My students sometimes just wander out of the line to get a drink, much to my frowny-faced consternation. I keep worrying that they’re injured. Alex mentions that kendoka frown on drinking during practice because it’s “not traditional”, and then mentions a research paper from a generation or two ago where it was suggested that performance was better without drinking during exercise. I’ve heard similar, the electrolytes get concentrated and your muscles thus twitch faster.
Rubbish I suspect, but it’s amazing just how fast a “tradition” can be established, invented, one might almost say. There are some who have researched “invented tradition” in the martial arts if I remember correctly, and this is not a new thing. Just think of all those lineages that get stretched back at some point, some of them all the way to the Minamoto in the 1100s or whenever it was.
When you hear about tradition in the martial arts, you should look for what that claim is substituting for. Often it’s standing in for a lack of reason or research. “It’s tradition” is pretty much equivalent to “because sensei says so”. Go ahead and accept it as a reason to do something, but don’t confuse it with any sort of rational argument.
The more standardized the arts have become, from the time of the Kyoto Butokukai in the late 1800s, the more “tradition” I suspect they have accumulated.
Bennett mentions that the arts have almost disappeared several times, mostly because they became useless as military arts. They survived by adapting to the times. Kendo survived by becoming an entertainment during the Meiji, and then by being adopted by the police as physical training. Similarly, Kano worked for decades to get judo accepted into the schools, as did the Butokukai and kendo a bit later. This was all done against the wishes of those who thought it was against tradition. There will always be those who say things like, “better the arts die off than become shadows of their traditional selves”.
Fixing the martial arts as some sort of cultural artifact floating in formaldehyde, stringing their bones together like a dinosaur in a museum, is, I would argue, against tradition. If they are not alive, they will not survive.
So hooray for the trouble makers and the rule breakers. Hooray for 22 year old Jigoro Kano who decided jujutsu needed to change to survive, hooray for Sakakibara Kenichi who figured he could make a bit of money putting on sword shows. Hooray for all the budo guys who took bujutsu forward to a worldwide audience instead of down an ever diminishing spiral to extinction.
Does that mean all the 22 year olds who are inventing a new koryu are doing good work? Talk to them in three generations, or even three years. If you’re going to get Darwinian about this, you need all the newly invented “traditions” to be selected against by the “forces of history”. Judo survived and became a worldwide art because the environment was right. Those arts, techniques, methods of training and methods of teaching that don’t fit into the environment, will simply fade away. Those that find a new generation will survive to carry the arts into the future. In 30 years I’ve seen several “new ideas” rise and fall. I’ve seen a lot of “tradition” fade as well.
What survives is what has always been there in the arts, a framework (as Bennett put it so nicely) that is adaptable to your needs for your whole life, and teachers who can pass it on. Bujutsu or budo, koryu or sport, it’s the teachers and not the techniques that are the vital links. That an art was impressive in the past has nothing at all to do with the present. Good teachers, good leaders make a good art.
The trouble makers and the rule breakers? Go read the history and write me a paper, then decide if you’re one of them.
April 16, 2018
Guelph Spring Seminar registration is open: