Back to Proceedings Index
Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2004

Culture in the Martial Arts: an Introduction to the 2004 panel of the Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D., Organizer

This year's Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts panel took up the general and highly complex topic of the cultural aspects of the traditional (or koryu) Japanese martial arts.  While it seems fairly logical that these forms (which would include, among others, iaido/iaijutsu, kyudo, and naginata) make more sense within their historical and cultural context, there is hardly any agreement that cultural context should be included in dojo curricula or what form such training might take.  

On the one hand, there are the hard-liners, who insist that koryu art forms can only be learned in Japan, and that they should not, or cannot, be taught effectively abroad.  The argument goes that only those with the patience, luck and cash to study a koryu art form in its indigenous milieu will be able to understand it, though they will not be able to transmit it to their countrymen at home in any meaningful way.

On the other extreme are those who feel that if an art is taught in America, perhaps by Americans, most likely only to Americans, the art must therefore be adapted to American tastes and cultural considerations.  It would seem this is the largest group of practitioners here, if one goes by the mainstream martial arts press as any guide. 

Outside influences have transformed more modern martial arts, for good or ill.  Gracie jujitsu and its subsequent Ultimate Fighting Championships are one highly successful example of martial arts transformation.

Then there are those of us who feel that with the right understanding of the cultural context, it is possible to gain some insight into a traditional martial art form beyond just technical execution of the curriculum.  Some ways to do this are by getting brief opportunities to train in the Japanese honbu, study the language and perhaps some other traditional art form (such as classical dance or tea ceremony), or some combination thereof.  If one thoroughly learns the art in this context, it is possible to pass it on in the same way.  Given that not even many Japanese people have access to traditional culture nowadays, and that koryu practitioners in general have declined in number, the future for some of these art forms may lie with people outside Japan as well as inside it.  

The three presenters at this year's panel were generally of the opinion that the last option is a viable one, but for entirely different reasons.  Moreover, acquiring cultural context can be accomplished in several different ways.

Michael Alexanian, who heads the Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu Michigan Dojo, regards learning cultural context as important, underscored by the fact that members are required to pursue some other aspect of Japanese culture as a requirement for study in his dojo.  He further points out that the Tamiya ryu iaijutsu curriculum also includes kenbu (literally "sword dance") and ginei, recitation of Chinese poetry.  These activities have been a required part of the Tamiya ryu curriculum for centuries.  The question of cultural context is almost moot for the Tamiya practitioner; cultural context has been a vital part of the Tamiya ryu practice long before its international expansion.  

Gil Gillespie's paper notes that some of the pervasive elements of many Japanese traditions, such as a sense of spirituality and intense dedication to training as a lifestyle, are what separate the Japanese budo from merely learning how to fight, or taking up a physically-oriented hobby.  He notes two incidents with Japanese traditional teachers, one a martial arts instructor, the other a tea ceremony adept, which shaped, and continue to shape, his practice.  Going to the dojo is not the same as going to a sweaty gym to work out; it is a place where one can develop oneself through practice, and achieve certain qualities that don't seem to come about in any other way.

In my paper I suggest that Japanese culture is important to studying a koryu because without certain cultural concepts, such as jo-ha-kyu, it cannot be properly learned to any extent.  Filling one cultural void with elements from another does not add depth to one's practice; outside influences turn the practice into something different altogether, worthwhile or not.  In some ways my paper echoed Gil's in the sense that traditional martial arts are not just a hobby.  Properly approached, koryu practice becomes an important part of one's life.

The discussion that followed was wide-ranging, as usual; and, as usual, nothing was really settled.  One of the points brought up was the subject of variation in the performance of kata, which has sometimes been referred to as "kata drift."  Of our wide-ranging discussion, it is topic that has stuck with me most vividly.  Perhaps that is the subject for next year's panel.

Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies