Back to Proceedings Index
Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 1999

Borrowed Ritual, invention of tradition: the construction of the "traditional" martial arts dojo

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

This paper was inspired by an insightful presentation at the 1999 Central States Anthropological Society Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois.  Deborah Zelli, from Ohio State University, presented a paper entitled "Who needs Culture?  Borrowed traditions and sanitized rituals."  The paper described a woman psychologist who collaborated with a woman "trained as" (but, significantly, not identified as) an anthropologist.  The psychologist used descriptions of Native American healing rituals furnished by her collaborator to create ritualistic healing sessions for women suffering from breast cancer.  In the sessions, the psychologist explained to the women that their response to ritual stimulation was acultural and purely physical.  No matter how the rituals were cobbled together and regardless of their original cultural context, the rituals would have the desired effect on the women, which was to stimulate their immune systems to make them stronger and better able to fight their disease.  Zelli then went on to describe and analyze some of the healing sessions, noting at the end of her paper that she had not brought up ethical issues raised here for the anthropologist, though, she acknowledged, they certainly exist.

No kidding.

On a certain level, U.S. martial artists who derive or inherit their art forms from other cultures and recreate, interpret and transform them in the process of transplanting them here are engaging in similar activity.  This paper briefly explores some of the re-creations and transformations that have taken place in martial arts transferred from Okinawa and Japan to the US., but, unlike Zelli's paper, I hope to move beyond description to speculate on some of the meanings the transformations and reinterpretations engender.

I began my study of iaido in 1986 in New York City.  After only a few months' practice, I was still getting used to the quiet formality of the dojo - bowing, showing respect for seniors and teachers, and becoming familiar with Japanese expressions used in the course of practice.  Later that same year, I went on my first trip to Japan.  Though I was nervous, being the only female dojo member on the trip, and the "newbie" at that, I found very little difference between the kind of formalities we observed in our dojo and the ones I encountered at dojo we visited.  To be honest, our rituals are fairly simple.  At the beginning of class, we bow to the shinzen, a short scroll of calligraphy by our teacher, Otani Yoshiteru.  This is followed by a bow to the teacher, and lastly a bow to the sword, which is placed in a ritually specified manner.  At the end of class, we do the whole process in reverse: sword, teacher, shinzen.  I went to several Japanese dojo during my first trip, for iaido and kendo, and found their rituals to be quite similar to what I had experienced at home.

But as I read about and observe other dojo for other martial arts disciplines in the United States and elsewhere, I am struck by the adaptations made by Americans in their interpretation of the rituals and customs that surround traditional martial arts practice.  For anyone with an anthropological bent, this kind of thing is fascinating; however, for a traditionally-trained martial artist, it can be mystifyng, frustrating, and (actually) amusing.

Before we get snobbish about reinterpreted rituals, however, I can tell you how easily these kinds of interpretations and reinterpretations can arise.  Take, for example, the ubiquity of the word "osu," used as a respectful greeting in US karate dojo.  Any student of rudimentary Japanese knows that the more formal the greeting is, the more syllables it has.  For example, a simple "Ohayo" for good morning is less formal than the longer "Ohayo gozaimasu."  "Osu" only has about 1-1/2 syllables, which is very short.  "Osu" is actually untranslatable slang, which might be equivalent to saying "hey."  As a greeting, it is used between men only, who are of basically the same age and social rank.  Women never use it, and one would never say "osu" to one's boss (unless you were looking ahead to having a lot of free time on your hands).  Yet "osu" has become the standard respectful greeting.  Knowing this, I sort of flinch when an American martial artist says "osu" to me, and I don't correct them either, mainly because I figure they won't believe me, and also, because I know they intend no disrespect.

It's very tempting to adapt out of the ordinary customs and rituals into customs and rituals we can all feel comfortable with.  Frederick Lohse, in his Journal of Asian Martial Arts article entitled "Self-transformation and the martial arts in the American cultural environment" (1999), uses Vincent Crapanzano's theories about social identity to discuss the ways in which martial arts groups in United States dojo organize themselves, create their distinct identities, and project that identity of themselves to the wider, non-martial arts, world.  Though these reinterpretations may strike some strictly traditional martial artists as being silly, I can assure you that they are very much real to the people who perform them.  To be honest, I'm not going to do anything to annoy a two hundred fifty pound "daidokoro ryu" karateka - would you? (1)

Lohse uses several examples of adaptation in martial arts practice in the US; for example, the military-style nature of karate training here most likely stems from the first generation of practitioners and teachers and United States: servicemen (1999, 17).  I can add many others: a New York City judo dojo where traditional teaching coexists with Africa print gi and original kata reminiscent of video games and ninja movies.  Another teacher on the US East Coast gives his senior students instruction in some kind of swordsmanship, but insists that before they can practice, they learn to dance.  Following what he told me was an old Norse or Celtic adage which states that no one can be a good warrior unless they can dance, he brings in a waitress from the local sushi bar to teach his senior students "Tanko Bushi" ("The Coal Miner's Dance").  He told me he could tell who was not ready to take up a sword in his dojo by noting which students thought that learning to dance was undignified, versus those who met the requirement.

Inevitably, the reinvention of ritual in traditional martial arts in the US ends up mystifying practices that make more sense in their original cultural context.  The resulting mystification is appealing to certain individuals who feel they're being initiated into some alternative way of understanding life and society.  In most cases, this is a benevolent product of transplantation (and may well provide practitioners with insights they would not have gained elsewhere).  In its less-positive sense, however, it can evolve into an "us vs. them" mentality that may prove unhealthy for practitioners.  Wayne Muramoto, and his poorly titled but well-meaning editorial "Are you in a martial arts cult?" (1997) outlined some of these concerns.  Though the extent of such practices are unknown until headlines are written about them, rumors persist on the Internet and elsewhere in the martial arts community.  Every time a "Heaven's Gate" style incident takes place, concern surfaces among some martial artists: "Should I issue a statement on this clarifying that my after-school Taekwondo class doesn't practice mind control?" (2)

While some examples are kind of silly or even might cause concern, others have a deeper purpose.  Shibata Kanjuro XX, who holds a hereditary title as bow maker to the Emperor of Japan, and is a teacher of Heki ryu Bishu-Chikurin-ha kyudo (a style of traditional archery), is Shinto by faith, but 20 years ago he met Trungpa Rinpouche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk.  Rinpouche asked Shibata to teach kyudo as a form of standing meditation to his Tibetan Buddhist meditation students.  By his own account, Shibata was concerned about the future of kyudo in Japan, where it is mostly done as a target shooting sport (Klens-Bigman 2001, in press).  He agreed to teach and not only transplanted his form of kyudo from Japan (where the style has few students) to the United States and Europe, but changed its spiritual orientation as well.  Shibata's type of kyudo is now thriving at different Tibetan Shambala monasteries and meditation centers in the United States and parts of Europe, setting itself up somewhat in opposition to other forms of kyudo still practiced in Japan and around the world.

Other martial art forms which are perhaps less fortunate, end up adapting more wholeheartedly to Western competitive sport.  To be fair, competition in some "do" forms began in Japan, but one doesn't have to be a close observer to notice the pressure of professional sportsmanship currently taking over US pastimes.  As judo and karate have moved further into sports arenas and out of traditional dojo, older teachers, however faintly, express regret at the lack of traditional training.  William Graves, a judo practitioner and U.S. Olympic coach and referee, told me about the split between judo kata and judo as tournament fighting.  According to him, the split is complete - practitioners of judo kata will not spar in sport competition, and competitors (including the U.S. Olympic judo team) do not learn kata - they only practice sparring.  In their spare time, they apparently snipe over who is practicing "real" judo.  Ironically, the founder of judo, Kano Jigoro, insisted that one had to train both in kata and kumite in order to learn proper judo.  Graves does not see this rift ever healing (Graves 1999, n.p.).

Ultimate fighting contests, which have evolved over the past ten years, ostensibly seek to "restore" the "fighting spirit" of martial arts competition, but instead have obliterated generations of development of martial arts as a means not only of learning to fight, but becoming better people, an evolution traced by Cameron Hurst (1998) and others.  If anything, ultimate fighting is helping to eliminate centuries of development of one the best aspects of the Western tradition: sportsmanship.

So, out of the amusing, disturbing, and just plain curious adaptations and reinventions in Japanese martial arts practice in United States, what good, if any, can we say comes out of it?  It's easy to point out the negative aspects of these adaptations, but harder to find positive benefits.  Nevertheless, I believe that some exist.  For example, Terry Nosanchuk has done research finding that children who study martial arts (the exception being those who study in highly competitive, sport-oriented dojo), are less likely to fight or indulge in bullying behavior.  It's possible, though the research is incomplete, that the orderliness of modern karate and judo dojo, combining traditional etiquette with discipline adapted from military training, may contribute to their less destructive behavior (Nosanchuk 1998, n.p.).  Shibata Kanjuro, in allying his kyudo style with Shambhala Centers around the world, has increased the accessibility of kyudo to anyone - regardless of age, weight, or physical strength.  Unlike other martial arts forms, in which you may find perhaps one person in their 50s or older, with the majority of practitioners young adults or even children, a Shibata first shot workshop will find seniors, children, teenagers, young adults, and middle-aged people of all shapes and sizes. Shibata's adaptation has made kyudo more accessible to more people than it was before, not to mention giving the lie to the idea that one must be young and fit to take up a martial art.  In the United States, were only 28 percent of the whole population regularly exercises, that has to go down as a creative way of performing a public service.

There are certainly more ethical issues than the ones I have outlined here.  Martial artist/scholars (some even in this room) are exploring interpretations of martial arts as a form of religion in the US.  I have read essays that tout martial arts as a cure-all for childhood trauma and nervous breakdowns, even as a way for women in US prisons to gain some form of empowerment and control over their tragic situations (non-violently, of course).  I have not even broached the idea of money in all this.  (Snake oil for sale in the form of taiji?  Why not?)  As I and my colleagues sift through all the layers of meaning being piled on martial arts practice by both well-meaning and self-serving individuals, I think the only weapon that can be employed as a corrective in most cases is practice, practice and more practice.  Whatever is truly embedded in martial arts can only be accessed in that way; which is why we're all here tonight, right?

1. "Daidokoro" is Japanese for "kitchen."  "Daidokoro ryu" is a slang expression in some martial arts circles - it sounds authentic, but means "kitchen (sink) style" suggesting practice that consists of whatever techniques a teacher can acquire or think up.

2. The "Heaven's Gate" incident refers to members of a small religious group who committed mass suicide in California in 1997, apparently in response to the appearance of the Halle-Bopp comet (for details see de Tollenaere 1997-98).

Works Cited

de Tollenaere, Herman
1997-98 "Heaven's Gate Mass Suicide in CA: some early remarks"

Graves, William
1999 Personal communication.

Hurst, Cameron
1998 Armed Martial Arts of Japan New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Klens-Bigman, Deborah
2001 "My heart is the target: an interview with Shibata Kanjuro" Journal of Asian Martial Arts (in press).

Lohse, Frederick
1999 "Self-transformation and the martial arts in the American cultural environment" Journal of Asian Martial Arts 8:1, pp. 10-29.

Muramoto, Wayne
1997 "Are you in a martial arts cult?" Furyu No. 8 v.2.4 pp. 79-80.

Nosanchuk, Terry A.
1998 "Martial arts, the non-violent way?" Paper given at a panel on the topic, "Why study the martial arts?" at the Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Zelli, Deborah
1999 "Who needs culture? Borrowed traditions and sanitized rituals" Paper given at the Central States Anthropological Society 76th Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL.