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Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2004

Culture in the Martial Arts: On the Japanese Culture in Today's Budo

Gil Gilham

The dialog persists within the international budo community over whether it is necessary any more to maintain all the various trappings of Japanese culture in its practice.  The various budo are practiced all over the world now, one argument goes.  International masters exist on par with the finest Japanese instructors.  What use is the Japanese language in French or Brazilian dojos?  What use these arcane and outdated uniforms?  What use all this bowing, training barefoot, and distracting and nonfunctional hierarchies and etiquette?

Simply because without these various accoutrements we are left merely with fighting, learning to destroy other humans more efficiently, perfecting survival in combat.  Within certain limited milieu, these perspectives make perfect sense; in the military, for example, or law enforcement, or various venues of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.  Cultural trappings here would be not only superfluous, but dangerous.

But the world of budo extends quite impressively and justifiably beyond these limited arenas, and it is to this far flung and diverse community that the question is more properly addressed.  Many practitioners walk with total comfort in both worlds.  They have chosen that there is something in Japanese budo that they find just as necessary as the practical efficiency of Close Quarters Combat.  That “something” is the essence of Japanese budo.

The critical element here is the matter of choice.  Even a native Japanese budoka (budo practitioner) chooses, although he does not choose the culture, which is simply part of his daily life.  From time to time he may go about his business barefoot indoors.  All day long he bows to all associates, and exists within several well-defined well-understood hierarchies.  He merely chooses to train.  And like all humans he chooses and defines the degree of spirituality to embrace from his culture. 

The dojo, merely the training hall to most of us, owes its origin and definition to the respected space within a Buddhist temple where one practiced “The Way (-do),” be it meditation, calligraphy, or martial arts.  So from the beginning, there are spiritual overtones to Japanese budo that do not exist in the martial traditions of most other cultures.  And again, the practitioner, even the Japanese one, must choose how much of this to include.

This question of spirituality in the martial arts also offers its own questions.  Do we mean spirituality in the sense of one moving closer to the larger questions of existence and its meaning, moving even into the realms of the Japanese kami (spirits) or deities?  This would be symbolized by the abstruse poetic discourses of aikido founder Ueshiba Morihei and his intoning of these deities, which confused even his closest students, along with his quasi-religious budo meditations, such as aikido training being prayer.

Or is spirituality in budo merely forging the fighting spirit, symbolized by the fighting Chinese Shaolin monks of blended myth and history, who propelled Asian martial arts into the world’s awareness?  This aspect of spirituality would focus on shugyo, austere training, again symbolized by Ueshiba as he would swing his sword in the snow or train under waterfalls.  The theme is often heard that Japanese budo trains body, mind and spirit in union.  This perspective on spirit would then be understood as the spark in the soul that impelled cinema’s Cool Hand Luke or Rocky Balboa to haul themselves, wounded and pain-wracked, off the deck to venture once again into the mouth of the cannon. 

Spirit in this sense embodies the human inner fire that has placed heroes from Homer's time to Kurosawa's in the face of death or defeat without thought of victory or consequence.  There is then a duality of the concept of spirit in Japanese budo.  Are they an in-yo circle of interdependent completion, or merely the coincidence of two interpretations of the English word “spirit?”  In the sense of understanding essence of Japanese budo, it doesn’t really matter, much as the medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides explained that it didn’t matter if the universe existed forever as Aristotle claimed or was created as per the Hebrew Genesis.

The spiritual realm remains a varied though crucial element in budo.  Would it be eliminated if Japanese culture were to be removed?  Almost certainly, except to the degree that any martial art fosters fighting ferocity.  Spirituality in budo, like the much sought after hei-jo-shin (a constant calm or peaceful state of mind), are long term assets of training.  They develop over long years.  They cannot be actively pursued, like techniques.  They just happen.  To some more than others.  To some earlier than others.  In another of those great paradoxes that permeate budo, they are actually by-products of the training that produces them.  You just know spirituality and hei-jo-shin when you see them.

Another controversial aspect of Japanese budo are the concepts of –jutsu and -do, first introduced into Western consciousness by Donn Draeger’s writings and still topics of argument and definition.  A –jutsu is a martial art, a style of combat techniques; a –do is a martial way, a life pursuit that embodies an endless path toward personal refinement.  Many insist the dichotomy to be superfluous, and the distinction carries much more weight with gaijin (foreigner) budoka than it does in Japan.  Yet there is aikido and there is aikijutsu. There is iaido and there is iaijutsu.  Would even the names persist if there were no difference?

Chuck Clark Sensei of Jiyushinkai Aikibudo has described the difference thusly: When you’re in the dojo doing it it’s –jutsu; when you live it daily in your life it’s –do.  I like that.  And if we were to remove the Japanese culture from our training we would remove the possibility of climbing The Path of –do.  That is a particularly Japanese mindset.  Calligraphy, flower arrangement, brewing tea--these mundane endeavors are common to many cultures around the world.  Even among Japanese they are often done as daily routine.

But enter the Ways of shodo (calligraphy), ikebana (flower arranging), and chanoyu (tea ceremony) and you enter another world.  No gaijin, however curmudgeonly, will ever forget his first attendance at a tea ceremony.  Among adepts in these pursuits, the doing takes one far beyond this world, though never beyond This Moment.  They walk a Path, exactly as martial artists: the dedication to form, precision, balance, beauty of perception and execution, the list goes on.  Each of these ways is a metaphor for life to its practitioners.  The first time I saw iai sword, I didn’t flash on martial arts; I flashed on the exquisite grace and precision of Hiromi Katsumata’s tea ceremony on the slopes of Fuji-san many years before.

That night in the village of Suyama Hiromi had each of my family perform chanoyu, trusting these fumbling barbarians with her priceless utensils.  How hard could this be, thought I?  Hell, it’s only brewing tea and I just watched her do it!  Naturally we all know how hard it could be, and just how clumsy and inept I was.  Yet even in that briefest of exposures, I was allowed a glimpse into the transporting experience of chanoyu.

On a return visit to Japan 10 years later, I met the older brother of a friend.  This older gentleman was highly ranked in kendo and iaido.  After several of us emptied a large sake bottle and spent a memorable evening examining his museum quality sword collection, Mayumi Sensei departed then returned with a single sword, a gift to me.  Our spirits had connected, he told me, and he made me promise to train in iai as well as aikido when I returned to Florida.  Thus began my 14-year iaido journey that continues today.  And there has never been a moment that I put that iaito (iai sword) into my obi that Mayumi Sensei has not been with me, nor a sword form that I have tried to do correctly, and with some elegance, that Hiromi-san did not assist.  There never will be.

When I enter our dojo, or any good valid dojo, I leave the outside world at the door.  I get the feeling most folks get when they enter their church.  When I change into my uniform and don that archaic hakama*, I change into another person.  I am no longer the beat-up paint-spattered overworked peasant that entered; I am transformed into a seeker after the Way.  I would not be so presumptuous as to call myself a warrior, yet the martial realities of my surroundings and my endeavor take over.  I am in a special place to take part in a special art, fortunately with special people, all of whom have undergone the same transformation.  And when I bow off the aikido mat or the sword floor, I take that with me into my life’s footsteps.

Remove the Japanese culture from budo and the poetry becomes prose.  Perhaps excellent and effective prose, but limited and unfortunately altered.  And in all the cultures of man the keepers of the special Way have been the poets.

* Pleated, wide-legged trousers worn for practice.

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