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
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 What use these arcane and outdated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
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
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.