History is not culture – Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan Iaido Renshi and Roukudan Jodo Renshi

It’s often useful to remind ourselves that history is not culture. Culture is what’s happening, history is what happened, specifically, what we remember happened.

Dave Green sensei made that observation on a trip to Japan many years ago in a photo essay somewhere in the moribund photo magazine I used to edit and publish. What we think of when we hear “Japan” is samurai and budo, what you get is kawaii girls (Idols?) surrounding the Tokyo Budokan.

I watched a rather repetitive documentary on African Masks wherein it was repeated dozens of times that “there are no significant masks left in Africa”. “The Europeans stole it all”. One hears the same everywhere, in very few places do you hear a member of the native group being discussed, who might say “tourist ware” about masks that ended up in Europe a hundred years ago. This I believe I heard from a Haida carver who was asked about the thefts of the colonialists.

Of course, old Haida masks are worth serious money.

Before I get too far away from the African Masks I’d like to point out that while kingdoms and cultures were mentioned in the documentary, one got the impression that there was such a thing as an “African” to carve a mask, and that artifacts dug out of the ground were the same as those being made in cultures as they exist today.

That’s like saying there’s a North American communion chalice. Geography is not culture either.

So religion, those masks in European museums “are religious items and ought to be returned”. First, tourist ware. Some collectors won’t accept a mask as valuable unless it was used in a ceremony because of this very tourist ware. Provenance! If someone wants to pay money for old masks, some modern carver will come up with an antique looking mask to sell them. This is a thriving business today, making antique stuff for collectors. Next, religion, specifically religions that haven’t been around for hundreds of years. Who gets to put a claim on artifacts dug out of the clay, from a culture that doesn’t exist today. The guys who own the clay? Would I have a cultural claim on a Huron or Ojibway arrowhead that showed up at my cottage? (Could be either one, they fought over that land hundreds of years ago.) Who cares about an arrowhead, it’s not worth anything, but if it was, which group would have the claim?

First nations is the same as African. Both terms irritate me. At the risk of being repetitive, geography is not culture.

There was a culture that produced masks, but the culture today isn’t that culture. If someone a hundred years ago carved masks that’s history. If someone is carving masks today, if only for selling to collectors and dealers as artifacts, or to tourists today, that’s culture. The tourist stuff would have better provenance, by the way, if you got the carver to sign it and give you a receipt.

If the masks have become worth a lot of money because of dealers and collectors, that’s the economics of the culture today, and perhaps a hundred years ago when they were being produced for the tourist trade.

Exploitation can go both ways, and it’s called economics. Those “childlike natives” with their “quaint customs” were no less shrewd than they are today.

What am I going on about? I’d like folks to think about budo in terms of history and culture. History is what the Samurai did in 1550. Culture is what we do today. An art that started in 1550 is historical, what we do as we practice that art today is cultural. Can we see a difference? “Japanese culture” is what the Japanese do today. The Edo culture of 1690 is history, the Sengoku Jidai of 1550 is a different history than the Pax Tokugawa of 1690.

If we look at Niten Ichiryu or Kage Ryu, the two arts that are on my mind at the moment, I can say that perhaps there are more people outside Japan than inside, who are currently practicing them. That is not the history of the schools but that is the culture right now. Culture is practicing the art, history is making lineage charts and finding old scrolls. Having a scroll is not the same as getting into the dojo and swinging a sword.

Years ago my iaido sensei asked me why I practiced budo, since I’m not Japanese. I suspect he was half kidding since he’s not Japanese either. He hasn’t lived in Japan since the mid ’70s, his Japan is history. Sure he’s genetically Japanese and historically Japanese but the Japanese tell him he’s not Japanese any more. Another senior in the iaido section has also been outside Japan for decades, he gets called a samurai. “He’s more like a samurai than a (modern) Japanese”.

Can you have converts to a religion or do you have to be genetically religious (born into it)? Can we, outside Japan, participate in the budo culture? Can I, today, learn from a modern African mask carver and call myself a carver of “African” masks?

I will, starting tomorrow and for the next three days be practicing with two headmasters of two Japanese sword arts that trace their history well back into… well, history. That those two headmasters are here teaching us Westerners would seem to indicate that the current culture of those two budo includes participants from outside Japan.

There you go, do you want anything more than that? If you do, maybe you’re more historically than culturally oriented.

Me, I don’t collect masks, I don’t deal in Japanese swords, I have masks around the place and I use swords. I try to remember that history is not culture. Neither is geography.

If you’d like to participate in the culture of budo as it exists now, check out the links below. Hope to see you tomorrow evening.

Kim Taylor
June 27, 2019


Guelph (Port Credit) Seminar – Kajiya Soke and Watkin Shihan on the weekend of June 28/29/30 (yes, Canada Day weekend) https://seidokai.ca/niten-seminar.html
Calgary Seminar – Watkin Shihan on the weekend of July 6/7 Stampede weekend!

August 10,11. Quebec City, Jodo seminar and grading with Eric Tribe, Ed Chart and Tsubaki sensei.

November 8-10 Annual CKF Fall International Jodo seminar and grading. (Kurogo sensei and TBA), Mississauga (Port Credit).

iaito, bokuto, bokken, jo, shinken, karate and judo uniforms, books, videos and other…

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