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Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2004

Culture in the Martial Arts: Cultural Aesthetics In Traditional Martial Arts

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

This paper is dedicated to the memory of my teacher, Otani Yoshiteru, from whom I learned a lot, but wish I could have learned more.

Most practitioners of traditional Japanese martial arts are likely to tell you that it is important that the art not be divorced from the culture of origin.  When you ask them why, they respond that such understanding enhances a sense of self-improvement that augments their practice, or that knowledge of an art's context and history also increases their depth of understanding.  The fact is, culture abhors a vacuum.  Ignorance of the cultural background of a martial art begs to be replaced with something.  If a given art is separated from its context and history, the practitioners will fill the void with what they know (or think they know).  What is left is not the art form at all, but something else.  The something else may resemble the traditional art form, but it will not be the same thing, lacking the indigenous cultural background which has now been replaced.  Sometimes practitioners of a given art form will deliberately strip its indigenous characteristics in favor of some other cultural milieu.  For example, "Christian" martial arts remove any aspect of an art form that conflicts with practitioners' religious beliefs (at least, no apologies are made for the changes, and the interest is not in preserving an art form so much as utilizing elements of it to a different purpose).

Traditional martial arts must be taught in context because you cannot really learn them well, and as they are, without it.  Aside from the history of a given form, there are certain aesthetic concepts, such as ma (aida), jo ha kyu, shu ha ri, in-yo, and koshi, that are essential to a deeper understanding of traditional Japanese art forms.  Each of these concepts deserves at least its own paper, if not reams of paper, but I will introduce them here.  These aesthetic concepts are not readily translatable, and hopefully the examples I cite will not be too simplistic. However, they can be taught, even to Western students.  These concepts are the backbone of what is often referred to as seiza bunka ("kneeling culture").  Seiza bunka includes tea, flower arranging, traditional dance and calligraphy, as well as traditional, or koryu  martial arts, including iaido and iaijutsu, naginata, and kyudo, among others.  These traditional art forms developed during the relative peace of the Tokugawa era, and it’s worth noting that the same traditional aesthetics inform them all.

Since time is limited, I will confine myself to a few concepts that I think are important to more fully understanding Japanese traditional martial arts.  None of these concepts figure very largely in Western aesthetics, at least not in the way they are looked at in Japan, and, generally speaking, aesthetic concepts almost never enter into discussions of Western sports.  Western dance considers aesthetic concepts (or lack thereof), but the vocabulary is different.  Martial arts, therefore, occupies a unique place; and should be considered as being somewhere other than a sporting pursuit or a purely aesthetic one. 

The origins of these concepts are not entirely clear.  Many originated in Chinese aesthetics over centuries, and probably developed in Japan from the Heian period (710-1185 CE) when Chinese culture was much admired and adapted to Japanese court life.  Though my interest here is in Japanese traditional martial arts, many of these ideas can be applied to some degree to Chinese traditional arts as well. 

The first concept that I would like to briefly explore is in-yo or, as it is more familiarly known here, yin-yang.  Notice I don't refer to this concept as "in and yo" because even though the elements are distinct, they cannot be separated.  Among other qualities, in represents coolness, the moon, and femininity, while yo represents the sun, heat, and qualities often considered masculine.  When I was a kid my boyfriend would insist that I must be yin, and he must be yang.  It took a while (and a few more boyfriends) to figure out that looking at in-yo as two distinct aspects that are separated from each other is totally wrong.  Everyone has and needs aspects of both, and to be too much one side or another (no matter who or what you are) is a bad idea.  In-yo therefore, is the complementarity or balance of opposites, not some sort of division between one type and another. 

It seems simplistic in the extreme to bring up in-yo to this particular group, except that not everyone gets it.  And even fewer people get, I think, that one of the goals of traditional Japanese martial art practice is to cultivate this balance of in and yo.  To give a broad example, the weak person builds strength needed to execute a form properly, while a strong person learns not to muscle through everything.  Ideally they are both moving toward a common point where their particular qualities come into balance.

In-yo can be found throughout Muso Shinden Ryu iaido (MSR).  One handy example is that the MSR iaidoka must draw back the saya (scabbard) as the sword is being drawn against an opponent.  This movement is repeated when the sword is returned to the saya.  There is even a form called "Inyo Shintai" in which this concept in particular is illustrated over and over again.  In-yo appears in virtually all of the other forms of the style as well. 

In-yo is a balance of opposites, but not a muddying of them.  Cheng Man-ching, the creator of the Yang style taiji short form, was once asked how fast that form could be practiced.  As long as you could maintain separation of yin and yang, he said, you could go as fast as you liked.  Senior students finally agreed that Master Cheng was talking about complete separation of weight from one side of the body to the other while stepping through the form, making the transitions from one side to the other smooth and complete.  Balance, not blending.

Like the familiar black and white symbol, the opposites make up the whole, they do not make up grey.  Not separating what your left and right hands are doing in an MSR iaido draw will not improve your technique; instead, you most likely won't be able to draw the sword at all in any efficient way.  Even Tenshinsho Jigen ryu iaido, which favors a shorter sword and no saya movement, emphasizes pulling the hips back with the draw to facilitate the sword being drawn and resheathed.  In-yo again.

The next concept under consideration is famously difficult to verbalize.  It is ma, the quality of moving through space and time (also called aida).  The character the Japanese use for ma is a drawing of a gate, through which you can see the sun.  The idea seems one more of intuition than reasoning, yet an understanding and cultivation of the sense of ma is vitally important in Japanese traditional art forms, including traditional martial arts. 

Ma is more than maintaining the proper distance between you and your training partner, though that is the way most martial artists first experience ma.  The way in which one moves from one point to another is also ma.  Probably the easiest way to see this quality of movement is to watch two experienced individuals perform the same kata.  The difference in the quality of their movement illustrates their sense of ma.  Someone who mechanically moves through the form, as opposed to someone who evokes a sense of elegance (for lack of a better word) can be said to have a poor sense of ma, even if the kata is mechanically correct.  Though we may not be able to exactly state what is missing from their kata (or we may characterize it as a lack of sense of commitment, or some other abstract idea), what is really missing is ma.  The difference is between someone doing the kata "correctly" and someone doing it extraordinarily, and beautifully, well.

When two people with good ma perform a partner kata, there is a sense of connectedness to their movement together that evokes a sense of aesthetic satisfaction in the viewer, as well as the weird feeling of not knowing what comes next (even though everyone knows what comes next).

A famous Japanese dance teacher I once interviewed told me that ma could not be taught.  Like talent, that other intangible, you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality, either you had ma or you didn't.  After many years of watching people perform various arts, I tend to agree, though I think that what ma one has can be developed through proper practice.

As difficult as it is to consider ma in the Japanese cultural context, it is even harder to consider out of it.  Of Westerners, I think comedians may be the only people who really understand ma, though they refer to it as "timing."  In a comic performance, if the ma is off, everyone (especially the audience) knows it.  Boxers also need an acute sense of ma if they are to be successful in the ring.

The concept of jo-ha-kyu is very much related to the concept of ma.  Jo-ha-kyu is a multilayered concept.  In the West, where it is considered at all, it is known as a literary device that underlies many texts of noh plays.  Jo-ha-kyu contributes to the sense of rising action in a play.  Where it is considered in martial arts at all, it is sometimes referred to as "slow-medium-fast."  While basically correct, both of these interpretations are extremely limited and don't in any way convey the importance of jo-ha-kyu and how it works in Japanese traditional arts.

Jo-ha-kyu is not just a literary component; it is the basis of movement and vocalization in Japanese traditional performing arts.  I discovered this years ago at a kyogen workshop that I took with Andrew Tsubaki, a teacher of Japanese theatre and kyogen from the University of Kansas.  Kyogen is a comic genre that is performed in conjunction with noh plays in a traditional program (comic kyogen and somber noh - there's that in-yo thing again).  Dr. Tsubaki taught us a movement and vocal exercise used by beginning kyogen students.  I don't remember the movement part that well, but part of the form accompanied the spoken words, "Tarokaja, are you there?" a master calling to his servant.  The vocal technique, however, involved beginning at a sort of low, slow growl, in which the word "Tarokaja" was elongated, into something like "Tarooooookaja."  The following words, "Are you there?" were rendered with rising speed, volume and inflection, until they sounded more like, "AAAAAAre Yoooooooooou theeeeeeere?" 

I don't remember (beyond this line) much of anything else about the workshop, except I finally understood what jo-ha-kyu really was.  Jo-ha-kyu does not just organize the literary structure of an entire play; it is found in every word, every line an actor says, and every gesture that accompanies it.  The effect of jo-ha-kyu is cumulative, as all these layers build over each other, forming the performance of the play as a whole.  Damn.  What a concept.

From a martial art perspective, jo-ha-kyu exists in every gesture that makes up a form, every form as a whole, and every set of forms, followed by all the kata that make up the entire style.  For example, in the MSR iaido form Shohatto, the draw and cut at the beginning of the form is an obvious example of jo-ha-kyu, as is the preparation and execution of the following cut.  Iaido forms end, invariably, with the opponent or opponents being vanquished (kyu).  Getting to that point makes up the ha section. 

In Hasegawa Eishin ryu, the chuden set of MSR forms, there is an exercise, hayanuki, that combines all ten forms done continuously.  The first three forms make up the jo section, with the complex 4th, 5th and 6th forms making up ha.  The balance of forms feel faster and involve more traveling movement, culminating in a simple draw and cut at the end (kyu).  The cumulative effect of hayanuki, properly done, is dramatic, made up of layers of jo, ha and kyu.  Looking at the MSR forms as a whole, few would argue that the Omori (shoden) set of forms is not the "jo" for the style, and that the Hasegawa Eishin ryu forms make up the ha section, followed by the Okuiai okuden forms for kyu. 

Jo-ha-kyu also can illustrate many martial arts classes.  A teacher might start the class off with a set of some sort of warm-ups, followed perhaps, by intensively working on some kata or other, and ending, if it is karate or judo, in kumite.  In iaido, the intensive work on individual kata may end with partner forms, or with a cutting exercise or some other intensive activity.  In Tenshinsho Jigen ryu classes, we often finished with an exhausting pair exercise called Irohauchi, in which the partners alternately cut and block kote (wrist), men (head) and do (torso) targets, trading blocks and cuts back and forth until one exhausted partner steps out.  The class therefore ends with a feeling of energy, even though everyone is actually very tired.

Wabi and sabi are often mentioned together; and though they are often found together in various Japanese aesthetic pursuits, they have slightly different meanings.  Wabi suggests an aesthetic sense of poverty or simplicity, and sabi suggests a feeling of rusticity and loneliness.  Sen no Rikyu, a tea master who lived just before the start of the Tokugawa era introduced (or reintroduced, we don't know for sure) these elements to tea to counteract Shogun Hideyoshi's taste for vulgar wealth and ostentatious display, so it is useful to consider a tea ceremony hut as an example of wabi and sabi together. 

Tea ceremony participants first walk down a short path, which is simply landscaped and designed to remove them from their sense of everyday life, to the entrance of the hut.  The entrance is small and slightly above the ground, so participants must crawl into it.  On a practical level, samurai attending a tea ceremony could not easily draw a weapon, and would in all likelihood need to disarm upon entering.  In the expressed aesthetic sense, the small entrance also evoked humility.  Sen no Rikyu tried to promote the idea that in a tea hut, there should be no rank (i.e., wabi).

The tea room, as nearly everyone knows, is empty except for a single scroll or perhaps a single flower in a vase.  Wabi is evoked by the idea that there are no other possessions in the room.  There is nothing else to distract participants from each other and the ceremony that is taking place.  The small room also allows participants to feel the outside world is far away, evoking a feeling of sabi. 

How do we get wabi and sabi in the martial arts?  In the contemporary world, where entertainment and flash seem more important to many public martial arts performances than anything else, it’s a good question.  The answer lies in a more traditional dojo.  A modern example: in an old-style judo dojo, everyone wears a white gi, usually devoid of club patches or names.  An older student may wear a fading, frayed black belt, which indicates not only his rank, but symbolizes his years in the art.  He could get a new belt, but perhaps his teacher gave him this one, so he still wears it to honor his teacher, who is perhaps no longer alive.  Someone in a plain white gi with a worn belt suggests wabi and sabi together. 

The last concept I want to consider is yugen.  To be honest, I would have picked something else, as, though a lot has been written about yugen, nothing has come very close to actually saying what it is, which makes it a lot like ma, in a way.  Recent events have unhappily begun to acquaint me with yugen, however, so I will attempt to explain it here. 

Zeami Motokyo, a 14th century noh performer, playwright and commentator, attempted to describe yugen as a sort of sad beauty.  Zeami said yugen escapes the young performer who, though he may be admired for his physical charm and technical skill, is still a youngster.  Yugen comes about when a performer has lived long and seen much.  Though his technical skills are no longer at their peak, there is a indefinable sense of melancholy born of personal life experience that informs the older performer's work and leaves an audience powerfully moved. 

Yugen, however, is a rare quality.  Life experience can defeat, rather than enhance a performer's abilities, and it was the rare individual who could harness his experience for aesthetic expression, rather than having the audience just feel sorry for him.  Zeami considered yugen the most beautiful, but the most difficult concept to master.

As an example from Western theatre, two very famous turn-of-the-20th-century actresses, Elenora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt, were also great rivals and performed the same star vehicle roles.  In one role, Bernhardt's technique was so superb the audience rose to its feet, stamping and applauding.  When Duse played the same scene, she evoked so much pathos, the audience wept.  The writer of these incidents suggested that Duse's "method" style acting was somehow more "real" than Bernhardt's histrionics, but I think Duse's performance was an expression of yugen.  Whatever of Duse's life experience informed the role, she had turned it into an aesthetic tool to use on her audience (and it worked).

What about yugen in the martial arts?  It is as hard to see there as it was in the actors of Zeami's day, yet it exists.  Michael Alexanian once showed me a tape of the Tamiya ryu iaijutsu soke, Tsumaki Seirin, at an enbu (martial arts demonstration) when he was in his early nineties.  At first, I was somewhat distracted by simply being astonished that a man of such an age could move at all, let alone wield a sword.  After that, however, I could not help but be profoundly moved that a man who had literally spent his life in the martial arts could show his love of it by performing even at his advanced age.  Without a doubt, some 30-year-old could probably outclass him technically, in physical strength and even beauty, but he could never match the depth of conviction and feeling Tsumaki Soke brought to that enbu performance.  On a personal note, when one's teacher passes away, you become aware that everything you do after him evokes your experience with him.  With some luck, and a lot of hard work, a student can incorporate that experience so that others who see or study with her can also see it.  Those who have seen or felt that know what yugen is, too.

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