Recently there has been a significant amount of media chatter about ‘Cultural Appropriation’.
Susan Scafidi defines the negative aspect of cultural appropriation as, “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
It’s interesting to look at how might be applied to Western-based Budoka. Firstly I’m not so sure that the standard bearers for traditional Budo inside Japan worry too much about having their cultural practices and icons ‘appropriated’ by enthusiastic Westerners. Robert Twigger in his 1997 book ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ said in a specific and telling quote, “Sara thought martial arts were pretty silly. To a trendy young Japanese, aikido was about as sexy as Morris Dancing”. I suppose that the more archaic and, dare I say it, ‘traditional’ a Japanese martial arts the westerners tries to immerse themselves into the more bizarre it must look to the outsider.
A friend of mine is a long established practitioner of Kyudo; a while ago he invited me to his Dojo. I must have looked upon it as creature landing from another planet; even though I desperately sought common ground I struggled to relate to the ritual and obsession around what in actual fact was a martial art that was based around just one simple action; firing an arrow at a target. Of course I realise there was far more to it than that, and he was able to explain to me the cultural significance and deeply personal struggle that all serious practitioners have to come to terms with. But the ritual observances and the setting up of the Shinto shrine, all of which seemed to take up half of the session, left me wondering exactly what was going on? Was I perhaps witnessing a more exotic version of what the Sealed Knot get up to every major summer Bank holiday? Or was this something else?
The opening quote hinted at an ownership issue; I get that, and I also understand that in the hands of the truly ignorant cultural icons can be misunderstood, misrepresented or even abused. They may even evolve into ‘Cargo Cults’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult ). I’m pretty sure this happens in the martial arts, it’s all over YouTube, but I think most people can see that and just find it a bit….sad. But hey.
But here’s a thing. Let me explain this through the lens of Japanese Art, just to show that Cultural Appropriation is not a one way street.
Pre the arrival of western cultural artifacts to Japan the Japanese printmakers and painters had no concern with western ideas of space and depth in visual compositions. I have at home an original woodblock print by Japanese artist Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748) of an Ox under willows, there is only the vaguest nod towards anything that might relate to foreground, background or middle distance; it’s all based upon a very formulaic and decorative methodology. When the later artists were exposed to western art the game changed, Hiroshige, Hokusai etc. embraced the ideas of perspective and distance and in Hokusai’s case he created visual puns, e.g the swamping of the mighty Fuji by the great wave!
But, when Japanese artifacts arrived in Paris wrapped in throw-away Japanese prints, Post-Impressionists became fascinated by the visual conceits and ‘appropriated’ their methods for themselves – oh the irony!
‘Oxen’ by Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748)
Let me start by saying that I am in no way an expert in this area and I hold no recognisable qualifications; but I wanted to put a few thoughts together about body maintenance based upon my forty-three years of experimentation, failure and accumulated damage; some of it self-inflicted. (I started my Wado training in 1974).
I say that, but in actual fact I think I have been quite lucky; I have never broken a major bone and to my recollection I have only ever been knocked out once. In my early training I did some really stupid things, practices that are now considered Neanderthal and downright counterproductive; but you can almost get away with it when you have youth on your side. In your teens and twenties you believe you are indestructible and the Mantra, ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’, borrowed from Nietzsche, becomes an excuse for all kinds of damaging activities. In a macho society you all support each other in the delusion that if everyone is doing it then it must be right, and so ballistic stretching, repeatedly allowing yourself to be hit, throwing yourself straight into extreme exercises with no real preparation or warm-up all seem like the right thing to do.
They say that hindsight is always 20/20 but really; what were we thinking?
Thank goodness we are now all better informed. Developments in science, as well as information available on the Internet has resulted in us all being more knowledgeable. But even that doesn’t tell the full story. We are not all the same; our bodies don’t roll off a production line. We inherit our physical capabilities and limitations from our genes and in later life we carry around the burdens created by lifestyle, accident, illness and environment.
I spent some time under the care of a very experienced physiotherapist who was helping me solve a particular joint problem. I always enjoyed treatment from him because of his blunt and frank explanations of how the body works and tales of the stupid things people do; it was worth every penny. I would advise anyone suffering with injury to seek out a really experienced physio; as someone once pointed out; you wouldn’t think twice doling out £300 to have your car fixed, what price do you put on your own body? The physio opened up a whole new world to me regarding the subtleties of the physical mechanism; how easily things can get out of whack and how resilient the body is; but it was the methods used to treat the injuries and imbalances that intrigued me the most; some of it coming out of a need to address engrained habits and the way the body, out of expediency, bodges its way through things.
Without turning this small article into a heavyweight study I want to boil everything down to a few basic pointers:
- Be informed and realistic about what your body can do (one size does not fit all) there’s no excuse for ignorance.
- Work your body in a way that it supports what you want to do with it. Don’t assume that everything you need for physical conditioning will happen in the Dojo alone. I learned this lesson from the late Suzuki Sensei. When I moved to the south of England and was able to train with him regularly I was initially surprised that we never did any warm-up exercises prior to the senior classes. We used to warm-up in any available space outside beforehand. Suzuki Sensei’s approach was that you are here to do karate not calisthenics.
- Remember, there is development and maintenance. As you get older maintenance becomes more important in that you need to maintain flexibility and core strength, particularly when muscle strength begins to decline; but if you aim for development then maintenance becomes a given.
- Be honest in identifying your body’s weaknesses, but also your limitations. For example; if you start your karate training later in life a jodan kick may not be possible for you outside of radical surgery, but really that doesn’t matter, mawashigeri jodan is one of many techniques used to solve a problem, and in reality it is unlikely to be the technique that gets you out of trouble.
- Don’t undervalue what you can’t see. By that I mean the benefits of body movement based upon training methods like yoga or Pilates cannot be overstated; but the external advantages are difficult to see. Internal structure and work on complementary muscles and tendons which support movement such as those found in yoga and Pilates are really valuable to martial artists.
- One last word of warning; the body is affected by the state of your mind. The mistake we make in the west is to split the body and the mind. If your mind is in the wrong place, or your thoughts, value and judgements are askew then this will wreak revenge on your body; maybe not at the beginning but certainly further down the line there are more possibilities of the wheels coming off.
For those of you who don’t know, Grayson Perry is a very successful British artist, initially a potter and past winner of the Turner Prize. He has branched out into lecturing and making TV documentaries. This book came on the back of a recent documentary series examining masculinity, called ‘All Man’ made for Channel 4. Perry is really interested in male identity (he is a transvestite and is married to a psychotherapist); in this book he takes an unflinching look at the position of men in today’s society.
You may ask why is a book on gender politics appearing on a martial arts blog? While acknowledging that martial arts today are not exclusively male, it’s difficult to escape the fact that they originate from a predominantly male culture and even though in the modern scene there are a lot of positive things sadly we still see aspects of unsightly macho strutting and posturing coming out of misdirected testosterone.
Something is clearly amiss when we look at statistics alone; 90% of all crime is committed by men, and at all levels of society and male suicide rate is at an all-time high.
Perry’s book is excellent at outlining the problem and the culture. While there have been some positive signs many men are clinging on to an outdated nostalgic view of masculinity; the embodiment of this is the fantasy of preparation for some kind of imaginary apocalypse; Perry says; “…we see this vision of masculinity rearing its head on TV programmes fronted by the likes of Bear Grylls or Ray Mears. They teach us how to survive in the wild, how to skin a deer carcass or build a shelter from tree branches. I would like to see them trying find an affordable flat to rent in London, or sorting out a decent state school for their children. These are the true survival skills for the twenty-first century”.
It is this same kind of fantasy that fuels the marketing of some of the less reputable ‘Reality-Based Self Defence’ schools. Add a liberal dose of the ‘Fear Factor’ and over-anxious urban dwellers will come flocking, particularly the unfulfilled male of the species, downtrodden and left behind clinging on to an outdated view of antiquated masculinity.
Perry’s view is that the decline of a particular model of masculinity has been going on for ever. For our generation of men masculinity has traditionally abided in the rigours of physical labour, a muscular idealised noble savage. Shipyards, mining, the boxing clubs of the old East End of London, these areas of male life have all but disappeared; but there is a primitive urge there, unfortunately it tends to manifest itself as a kind of comic parody of masculinity; as Perry says;
“One reaction to the redundancy of the traditional male role has been the rise of a kind of cosmetic hyper-masculinity. I see it as an overtly performed version of working-class manhood. The shiny muscles, tattoos, loud music and loud cars all hope to pump out the message that he’s still a real man despite the collapse of heavy industry and a clearly defined status. These performers pay great attention to detail: hair and beards are groomed in precision lines; torsos are waxed till they resemble figures from computer games.”
He also takes a swing at corporate blandness and the assumption of male control in the workplace; as he says, masculinity is not IN the background, it IS the background!
In no way is Perry’s book a manifesto; it does not set out precisely what the new twenty-first century man should be, neither does it act as a sop to overly militant feminism, it just asks men to GET REAL, stop living in a fantasy world and take your responsibilities seriously (particularly as the right kind of role models for the next generation).
In a Dojo situation a male instructor needs to think long and hard about how he presents himself. The good news is that there are many excellent role models who have a good head on their shoulders, are humble about their abilities, kind, compassionate and are comfortable in their own skin. Unfortunately you also come across far too many little boys hiding inside men’s bodies.
As a footnote; Perry made reference to Chuck Palahniuk’s book ‘Fight Club’, (the movie was good, but the book much better), but I would also have liked him to have referenced ‘American Psycho’ by Brett Easton Ellis, which for me epitomises toxic white collar masculinity and narcissism gone mad; as relevant today as it was when first published in 1991. The male political models are currently out there now, strutting their stuff; just think of Trump, Kushner, Bannon and latterly in the UK our own upper-crust version, the entitled members of the ‘lucky gene club’, such as Osborne, Cameron and Johnson et al, these are all part of the problem and certainly not models for the future.
For further reading I also recommend Steve Biddulph; who is excellent on anything to do with raising children, but for this topic his book ‘Manhood’ is another really thought-provoking read.
I thought it was time to write something technical, though normally I am loath to do so as I get frustrated with people who ‘learn’ from the Internet, and I have recently had to deal with unscrupulous individuals plagiarising my past articles (this is why I haven’t published any lengthy articles in a long time).
But here goes anyway.
In my attempts to work with my own students on sharpening their paired kumite and develop a real edge to their practice I recently listed a whole catalogue of aspects and concepts that must be ticked off if students are to get under the skin of what is going on. Inevitably some of these concepts are interconnected; this was where the idea of Mikiri came in.
Mikiri is basically the ability to judge distance by eye and act accordingly. Naturally this is linked to timing as well. In Wado paired kumite the ability to perfectly judge the danger distance, or the potential and reach of an opponent’s technique is vital. But all of this may have to be calculated in a split second. In Wado and other Japanese Budo you can see references to this quite frequently and it becomes more critical if weapons are involved; this means that calculating for one distance (kicking of punching range) is far too limiting; for example, an eight inch blade gives the opponent an eight inch reach advantage.
But this is only a part of what I want to discuss.
We are actually amazingly well-equipped already; we actually do this stuff naturally. Picture a moment from everyday life when we have had to drive an unfamiliar vehicle; something much larger than we are used to. Imagine if you have to manoeuvre the vehicle down a narrow street with parked cars both sides, and, amazingly you succeed; a calculation just based upon a mere glance at your wing mirrors and the distance they occupy. Or even just walking or running. When running you instantly calculate the half second before your heel hits the ground and then all your muscles coordinate beautifully and propel you on to the next stride; and this happens hundreds if not thousands of times! You only really notice it when something goes wrong, e.g. on rough ground where you miss that pothole sneakily hidden behind a clump of grass and then the landing is jarring and the muscles have to go into emergency mode to stop you going head over heels.
But, what is interesting is that when you have to deal with a punch or a kick this well-coordinated judgement eludes you. The reality is that your mind becomes the real enemy; you become overly cautious, fearful of the intent of your opponent and often we just over-compensate.
A conversation with a Japanese friend who has a background in swordsmanship informed me that this same concept is an important part of engaging with the traditional Japanese bladed weapons.
But it’s no use just acknowledging the concept; it’s what you do with it that counts. In training there are multiple opportunities to practice it; not just the formal kumite but also within free sparring; observe how close or far away you are when dealing with a committed attack. Congratulate yourself if the attack misses you by a whisker, or scrapes your skin; but be aware, that is only the prelude…. The opponent has given you a window of opportunity; if you don’t condition yourself to take it the concept becomes redundant and meaningless.
This takes an awful lot of training.
Not a book about martial arts at all, but one that relates to the martial arts.
Professor Michael Puett is a Harvard professor who lectures on oriental philosophy. His classes are oversubscribed and often host around 700 students (how is that even possible?). The popularity of the lectures comes out of the promise that these lectures will change your life!
Puett repackages the teachings of Confucius, Mencius and Lao Tzu, etc. for a modern age and presents the ideas of these ancient Chinese teachers in a transformative way. The book contains material from the lectures compressed into themes and chapters making it all very accessible.
Confucians and Neo-Confucians have always had bad press because they have been blamed for Chinese rigid class and social structures, reinforcing gender discrimination and even promoting insular selfishness within the society. This is all a bit lazy for me. The rigidity of the last years of the old Chinese national structure, pre-Mao, was epitomised by the Civil Service exams in which the applicants were expected to memorise huge amounts of the ‘Classics’ to demonstrate their worthiness. Although this served the Chinese well in the earlier centuries the decaying husk it turned in to just proves how things go when they develop into ‘institutions’ and lose their meaning becoming fossilised relics of what may have originally been fresh intelligent philosophies on how to live the good life.
This re-packaging of ancient Chinese philosophies gives a refreshing perspective on ideas that are woven into most oriental martial arts and we can easily discover these ideas within Japanese Budo. Have you ever wondered about how ritual is used within Japanese martial traditions? Puett’s unpicking of the importance of ritual in Confucius’s ideas is a revitalising breath of fresh air that blows away the fustiness of institutionalised ‘rites’.
Mencius (372 BCE – 289 BCE) comes across as the voice of reason and has always been a particular touchstone of mine. His views on humanity, development, growth and spiritual cultivation all fit in neatly with the ideals of the man of Budo.
Puett challenges us to think differently, he questions some of our very basic assertions and asks us to re-frame our references; this was refreshing and made me think that perhaps some of my own assumptions need a more rigorous grilling.
The section on Chi is a real myth buster.
His explanation of spontaneity and how it can reach a high level only after prolonged prior training follows the exact model that most martial artists adhere to.
It is a very thought-provoking read and deliberately breaks free from entrenched ideas about how with think the world should work. Definitely worth more than one read-through.
In another posting I mentioned the importance in Wado karate of focussing on Principles. Here I am going to present another angle to maybe supply a slightly different perspective.
Principles are not techniques; they are the essence that underpins the techniques. These work like sets of universal rules that are found within the Ryu. Don’t get me wrong these are not simple; they work at different levels and in different spheres. An example would be how these Principles relate to movement. There is a hallmark way of Wado movement; something that should be instilled into all levels of practice, from Kihon and beyond. If in a Wado training environment technique is prioritised at the expense of Principles of movement then students are learning their stuff back to front. The technique will only deliver at a superficial level; the backbone of the technique is missing.
This is where I think that learning a huge catalogue of techniques in itself is of limited application, and particularly mixing and matching techniques from other systems; it may work but only to a certain level. To me personally this approach lacks ambition and has a limited shelf life.
The underpinning Principles are not modern inventions, they originate way back in in early days of Japanese Budo and were forged in a very Darwinian way. These were created and adapted at the point of a sword by men who witnessed violence and blood; these things were deadly serious, no delusion, no fantasy, instead sharp reality. Those days are gone but the Principles stretch forward into the future, but they are vulnerable and the threads can easily be broken, we ignore them at our peril. It sounds dramatic, but in a way we are the custodians of a very fragile legacy.
If we look at the life of the first Grandmaster of Wado Ryu, Ohtsuka Hironori, it could be said that he had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. There is a connection between him and the men of the sword who experienced the smell of blood, particularly his great-uncle Ebashi Chojiro who we are lead to believe experienced the reality of warfare probably in the Boshin Senso (but that needs to be confirmed by someone more knowledgeable than me.). Traditional martial arts supply a direct line into the past and their values come from concepts that underpin Japanese Budo of which Wado is part.
Principle is the key that unlocks multiple opportunities and techniques. This works surprisingly well. The human psycho-physical capability is amazingly sophisticated. I have often come across students asking about the problem of learning techniques on both sides. My reply is that personally I have had no trouble switching from one side to the other. I remember hearing about sleight of hand magicians who have to learn a piece of complex manipulation with one hand and spend hours and hours of laboriously practice (and failure) to master the trick. But if the one-handed trick was to be switched to the other hand then the learning time was dramatically decreased. This is an aspect of body memory and it is not to be underestimated, it is complex, multi-faceted and amazingly fast when compared to a more calculated thought-based approach.
There are lots of Japanese terms relating to martial arts that in the West have become either talismanic or even fetishised. I am certain that there people out there who are non-Japanese speakers who may even collect these terms and phrases.
For me, they are interesting because when you examine them and try to get a handle on what is going on you really have to figure out how they fit into the whole of Japanese culture both historical and present, and that is a challenge in itself.
One phrase that cropped up recently in a conversation over beer (as most of these types of conversations seem to be recently), was ‘Shugyo’.
I remembered an explanation by Iwasaki Sensei about three types of training; ‘Keiko’, ‘Renshu’ and ‘Shugyo’. Keiko was explained as just hard physical training, it could include all the supplementary stuff like strengthening, conditioning, etc. Renshu was like drilling, refining, engaging with the technical aspects. Whereas Shugyo was a period of total emersion, some say ‘austere training’. Sensei explained that to engage in Shugyo you had to imagine some kind of martial arts monk, someone who has nothing in his life apart from mastering his art. At the time the idea seemed appealing; particularly the bit about turning your back on the world.
But there are other ways to think about Shugyo. Does it really have to involve a split away from society? I don’t buy the idea of meditating half way up a mountain, except perhaps on pragmatic grounds (where else can you find peace and quiet?). I am also sceptical about the Taoist monk retreating from the world. I’m more for the Neo-Confucian idea that practice and enlightenment can be found in the marketplace and the hurly-burly of city living.
I am coming round to the idea that Shugyo isn’t perhaps some all-defining experience; a one-off commitment like a pilgrimage. And the idea that you are guaranteed to come out the other side enlightened and cleansed with mastery at your fingertips is perhaps a little too romantic and creates fodder for the fantasists. It also seems to leave no room for one of the rude facts of life….failure.
Perhaps Shugyo is more episodic. It is possible that some people have engaged in Shugyo without even knowing it? Maybe those times of intensity were just seen as ‘rites of passage’ but in reality ticked all of the ‘Shugyo’ boxes. Admittedly they weren’t self-directed, but those grinding relentless repetitions were focussed, unforgiving and as near a perfect hot-house as you were ever going to get. I am thinking particularly of those long, long hours on whatever course or camp it might have been. But here’s the question I have been asking myself; if those were episodic ‘Shugyo’ opportunities were they well-spent? Or did they happen at the wrong time in our development; or beyond that, did we have the right material to work with?
From a personal viewpoint; with the right material, the right direction and the right background, the best time is…now.