Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Gishi (False History)

 Ayamachitewa aratamuruni habakaru koto nakare.
If you make a mistake, don't hesitate to correct it.
Japanese proverb

 (Falsified History)
Lies, Damned Lies and Martial Arts History

It is unfortunate that no literary wit in Japan took on the mythos of knighthood with the ferocity and brilliance of Cervantes with Don Quixote; the often hilarious skewering of delusional and self-serving behavior and oceans of justification masquerading as chivalry (as it never really existed) still resonates.

By contrast, Japanese men-at-arms have had the opposite in authors like Nitobe (who did not train in combative arts and married an English Quaker), author of Bushido (at best, an apologist tract, at worst deliberate obfuscation of feudal-era history; it is not hard to imagine that he would have found himself at a loss to explain Japan's bloody past to those in his new social circle and so sought ways to compare bushi to the similarly mythologized knights errant of Europe), and Herrigal, author of Zen in the Art of Archery (a German national who, despite living in Japan for some time, never attained any level of proficiency in the language and was, by his own teacher's accounting, 'confused' about what was being shown- any implicit meaning, Herrigal seems to have ascribed to 'Zen' even when that was not remotely the point); not to mention Ratti and Westbrook's fantasy, Secrets of the Samurai, and untold other material that helped to forge some fairly heavy misconceptions.

Due in to books of this type, the party line (in English, at least) has for more than a century been that the warrior caste (bushi or samurai) were protectors of peasant farmers, exemplars of decency and morality, holding honor above all things while adhering to the ancient bushido (warrior way.) It is, as Capote said, “pretty to think so” however, it's wrong; romantic, but wrong nevertheless.

While there certainly were folks who distinguished themselves as paragons of virtue, they were not the norm. In fact there was a 150+ year period in which the easiest way to get ahead was to either kill your boss outright or switch allegiances part-way through a battle and pick-up the pieces after. Even the Tokugawa family (who ruled Japan for over 200 years) did this to ascend to power*.

It bears mention, of course, that it's not just the cultural stuff that were hit with a veneer of untruth either. Applications (jumping, spinning and flying kicks were used to unseat cavalry, oi tsuki from karateka bored holes through armor, re-purposed farming implements were the first line of defense against brigands, etc.) and personalities (Ueshiba Morihei studied a number of arts that contributed to Aikido's creation and he was called O Sensei due to his excellence as an instructor) both received the treatment as well.

So what? Why does this matter, after all, they're just stories and if they have inspired generations of students, who are we to mess with the natural order? Where's the harm? It's simple- many of the stories that we read and heard as a young people were of uncompromising loyalty, fealty and honor; of invulnerable masters accomplishing improbable feats. If part of a traditional transmission includes passing on lore (providing cultural context) are we not doing our juniors and students disservice by continuing to perpetuate fiction? Perhaps it's time for us, as a community, to not take as gospel the many stories (or even the meanings of forms) that we've inherited, and to make research an important component of our training... perhaps strongly encouraging our juniors to do the same. Yes, it's a lot of work and in the short-term, we lose a single (but important) component of tradition. What we gain though is better understanding of not just the history of our arts but the context in which they came to be (and with that, how and why they were designed to work as they do.) Who knows, we may come across some great new stories... and heck, maybe these un-embellished bits of history will be things that we can proudly pass on- not as myths, but as true and important parts of the living traditions that we devote so much time and effort to practice, study, embody and teach.

Yours in the joyful spirit of research,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*Tokugawa Ieyasu (who established the dynasty) promised his terminally ill mentor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, that he would serve as one of five regents to Toyotomi's son, Hideyori, ensuring the latter's succession to the role of Shogun. Instead, following the death of Toyotomi in 1598 and his most loyal regent in 1599, Tokugawa reneged on his promise, and continued to consolidate power; in 1600, victory at the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara, heralded the last major hurdle to uniting most of the Japan into a single nation, under single rule, as begun some 40 years earlier by Oda Nobunaga and continued by Toyotomi.

So happy-endings all around, right? Except, what of the young son, Hideyori? His castle was attacked by the Tokugawa government in two famous campaigns (responses to claims that he'd been disloyal by actively plotting an insurgency- charges that seem to have been baseless) and was forced to commit seppuku (a form ritual suicide 'reserved for the bushi' that entailed disemboweling oneself with a knife while 'attended' by a trusted swordsman to act as kaishaku [second] whose job it was to remove the head [while leaving a flap of skin to prevent the head from rolling away] after the requisite cut had been made but before the principal could utter a cry or otherwise dishonor himself) in 1615, just a few months shy of his twenty-second birthday.

Monday, April 20, 2015


Hayatochiri (Coming to a [False] Conclusion)


Quick disclaimer from the pitiful excuses department of the dojo- Happy 2015- things have been busy but I'll be making a greater effort to update this blog.

The human brain is a remarkable instrument, capable of astounding feats of calculation, memory, reason and piercing insight.  It is, however, when combined with our limited sensory abilities (compared with most other species on earth) and propensity to rationalize, easily fooled, coerced or outright convinced into stupidity.

In the context of learning almost any art or way, we as students find ourselves confronted with some bit of oral history that has been 'repeated enough to be true.'  An easy conclusion to draw is that because one's seniors are, well, senior, that they must have some kind of special knowledge, borne from years of training...

This can encourage the repetition of dumb tropes (the Bushi [Samurai] were paragons of virtue and honor) dangerous myths (OUR Super-deadly-technique-X TM will always work in every situation and against all comers) and just plain idiocy ('the reason for the zenkutsudachi [long front-stance posture adopted by some modern karate schools] is because when the samurai threw their spears...*' )  Beyond repeating factually incorrect things though, it's not uncommon to come to conclusions about our own experiences that we (genuinely) believe but objective listeners might find less convincing.

A particularly striking example of this was overheard when two retired law enforcement officers (and longtime practitioners of combative arts) were exchanging stories recently.  One, a big, hearty fellow, related that during an arrest he found himself engaged in a three-plus-minute grappling session for his service weapon- the upshot of this for him was that his training provided him with superior stamina which allowed him to triumph.  While it's easy to be glad that the 'bad guy' didn't succeed in wresting control of the pistol away from the officer, that conclusion seems... dubious.  Yes, conditioning is essential in combatives.  Beyond that though, it was luck- had the 'bad guy' been in better shape, that story could have ended very differently (and probably not told by the officer.)

http://dict.regex.info/cgi-bin/j-e/FG=b/BG=w/jap/%cc%f5?TR Wake (wah-khey- reaching a conclusion based on judgement and research) proves to be a better tool than Hayatochiri.  A number of us present for that story had the same reaction, "I'd change the way I train." Just as with any stage of practice and study, there will be times when facts aren't comforting, but continuing to cling to impressions that we drew as younger people doesn't help and in fact, often serves to retard growth.  That is especially true when looking at the 'technology' that underlies our art(s) of choice.  No art does everything, but earnest training, learning what the strengths and weaknesses of what we do and honest appraisal about where we are in that continuum are hallmarks of a mature practice.


*Every... single... thing about that is not just wrong, but so utterly nonsensical that even just typing it elicited a cringe.