Sunday, September 30, 2018

Yes, Virginia, There Is Sexism In Budo

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D. doing Shinto Hatakage Ryu. (Photo copyright 2018 Deborah Klens-Bigman)
This is a guest post by Deborah Klens-Bigman, PhD. and Jun Shihan in Shinto Hatakage Ryu. A martial arts practitioner and teacher for more than thirty years, she has seen a great deal of the budo world, and experienced its good and bad. We as budoka are not perfect, and this seems like a good time to consider one area where the budo world could improve. Budo has never been a male-only practice, as can be seen most clearly in the number of women who've led, and lead, martial ryuha in Japan. Klens-Bigman Sensei is addressing an issue that should be of concern to everyone in budo.

First, I would like to point out that most of my teachers in my 30-plus years of training have been men - good, talented men.  And the vast, vast majority of my colleagues in budo are also men - honorable people I am pleased to associate with. But sexism in budo needs to be addressed; and I feel the need to address it very specifically, and right now.

The public discourse of the past two years has allowed for what pundits refer to as "tribalism" to come out into the light.  I think it is too early to know yet whether this is a good thing (what comes into the light can be confronted, and refuted), or a bad thing (normalizing behavior that many of us had hoped no longer existed).  All the while there have been some voices all-too-quietly pointing out that misogyny is ever present for all to see, regardless of “tribe.” Perhaps it is its perpetual "there-ness" that allows misogyny to be continuously overlooked, or disregarded.  Or, just perhaps, no one is very comfortable discussing it, so no one does.

Since I was a little kid sneaking out of the children's library into the grownup sections for further adventure, I was interested in hand weapons.  Not guns, but swords, knives, glaives, spears, battle axes, bows, maces - if you could hold it in your hand and wield it at someone, I was ON IT - at least in the bookly sense.  I lugged home books on arms & armor that were almost as big as I was. When I was traveling with my parents, nothing thrilled me more than climbing around castle ruins or forts, or (the best) going to a real medieval armory.  

My parents thought I might become a historian.  

Through all of this fascination, it never occurred to me for a single moment that my interest was weird or should be circumscribed in any way.  That is, until I decided to actually do something about it.

I tried fencing, which I enjoyed, but I was not happy with the competitive aspect of it (there was no historical fencing available like you can find now).  Likewise, I was not happy with the theatrical fencing I encountered in college; not just because it was fake, but because there really was no opportunity to take part in fight scenes featuring women.  I decided fight choreography was a waste of time.

When I first encountered iaido, I was very fortunate that my teacher, an Osaka native, had three daughters.  He had no problem whatsoever with training me. There have been few times in my life when I felt that I really found something important.  This was one of them.

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Jun Shihan, Shinto Hatakage Ryu (photo copyright 2018 Deborah Klens-Bigman)

Unfortunately, my sempai did not agree.  My first few months of practice, one of them told me that it was "not proper" for women to study Japanese swordsmanship.  I decided that was silly. My Japanese teacher was perfectly happy with me being in the dojo. However, this sempai arranged for me to miss a demo that my teacher wanted me to take part in.  Everyone else was there. The experience was mortifying. It was designed to make me quit. That was the first time I realized that not everyone had the same attitude when it came to women training in budo.

I should point out that most of the resistance to my practicing swordsmanship came from a number of my American sempai.  During my many training trips to Japan, I rarely encountered the feeling of being excluded. But more about that later.

I didn't quit.  I was stubborn. I kept going to okeiko.  I volunteered to organize demos (a job no one wanted) partly so I could not be left out again.  I trained hard. I watched. I listened. I learned. And I put up with a lot.

Budo training for women involves more than just wanting to improve your skills and develop your personality.  It involves enduring.  Enduring sempai who, instead of being willing to help you, try to hinder you, because something about being an onnakenshi just doesn't feel right to them.  It's walking into a seminar where you are the only woman (hint: You have to walk in like you own the place).  If no one knows you, it's getting the puzzled look as the guys try to figure out whose wife/girlfriend or (after awhile) mom you are.  It's also enduring looks at the inevitable banquet when wives and girlfriends eye you with suspicion because you are there by yourself.  It's being told you are "gender non-conforming," and that's supposed to be a compliment. 

 I'd like to say the situation improves for women who teach, but it does not.  I've had men walk into my okeiko and immediately look to one of my male students as the teacher, because it's not possible that could be me.  I've taught seminars and offered correction to a male student who ignored me while taking the same correction from another man. I've encountered fellow budo teachers who implied I should be teaching women, or children, but not men.  Sadly, I gave a demo once and had a woman in the audience ask if there are "any restrictions for women" in learning budo.  Because she assumed that there are.

Klens-Bigman Sensei leading class (photo copyright 2018 Deborah Klens-Bigman)

 And it's rare, but it happens - someone being just a little too rough as a training partner, landing a tsuki in jodo with the intention of knocking you down, or knocking the wind out of you, at least.  Or, as a senior student, having a sempai publicly humiliate you in front of the whole dojo, because you "just don't know your place" (and having the kohai silently agree with him). The fact that I was correct in that situation was meaningless.  

One wonders why we bother.  Indeed, I have wondered, from time to time, why I bother.

There are a lot of reasons for persisting.  For one thing, not all budoka behave in the ways I have mentioned (though more of them do than I'd like).  Just like the guys, there is the fun of learning new things and gaining new skill and confidence. And I have been to seminars in Japan where I am not the only woman; indeed, where several of the women have menkyo and everyone treats me as though I have the same potential.  As I said, while I can't say that I never encountered male hostility in Japan, I can say that, generally speaking, when it comes to okeiko, people have treated me like any other student.  And most of the groups I have trained with are at least 1/3 female.

And that is all women want.  We want to be just like everyone else.  We want to be taught. We want to learn.  We don't want to be hit on. We aren't looking for dates.  We want to be taken seriously. And we want our expertise to be recognized.

Now and then, a young woman comes to the dojo, with a look in her eyes like I had so long ago.  It's my job (and my pleasure) to make her feel welcome. To help her understand that yes, you can do this.  I will help you.

And there are good memories, like the time my teacher gave me a bear hug after a class (in front of the sempai!) and said, "You're doing VERY WELL."  

I do this to keep my teacher's faith in me.  I do it for myself. And yeah, I do it for women.

Deborah Klens-Bigman doing Shinto Muso Ryu. (photo copyright 2018 Deborah Klens-Bigman)


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The PItfalls Of Budo

Budo is personal. I talked about that in my last essay. Budo practice can indeed transform who we are. If we’re not careful though, that transformation can take on aspects and go in directions that we shouldn’t want it to go. A lot of ink is spent detailing the marvelous benefits of budo practice, and the benefits are great: at the most basic, physical fitness, and moving upward to physical skills and confidence in high stress and conflict situations. Then there are the mental benefits; becoming calmer, more mentally strong and able to maintain an even mental keel even when the world is pushing you towards rash action.

These are all great. But what happens when you take a wrong turn and start acquiring attributes from you training that you don’t want? What if, because of your budo training, you become an arrogant, abusive jerk?

Judging from the many arrogant, abusive people I’ve met in the martial arts, the ones who don’t have any interest in the aspects of budo that have to do with more than just hurting other people, becoming a jerk seems to be far too common an outcome.

I’ve met the arrogant ones who will hurt you just to prove they are better than you, in some way only they understand. I don’t know how being happy to hurt someone so you can say you defeated them makes you “better”. I’ve met the abusive ones who feel entitled to harm those around them simply because they have more powerful technique. I’ve met the vindictive ones who will hurt partners that don’t do exactly as they want, or take out their frustration at missing a technique on their partner. I’ve been to seminars and met jerks who feel entitled to only train with senior practitioners, and pout when they have to train with anyone they feel isn’t “good enough”. Then there are teachers who only pay attention to their favorites and ignore everyone else. There are teachers who abuse their students with extreme training under the guise of making them tough.

Somehow, through all of the training meant to polish their skills and humanity, the jerks only polished their skills, not their selves. The lessons of budo are intensely personal. Instead of learning “mutual benefit and welfare” or “loving protection” they learned only to care for themselves and what they want. 


The first lesson in any dojo is etiquette, which is a formal means of expressing respect for your teacher, for your fellow students, and the art you are practicing. Etiquette and respect are fundamental to all of budo. Without it, we’re only learning how to hurt each other.  Some people manage to ignore this cornerstone of budo training and continue to think only of themselves. They can usually be spotted because they toss off their bow to the dojo casually and without feeling. Their bows to training partners are perfunctory at best. They don’t realize it, but their lack of respect for the dojo, the art and their training partners is clear to anyone who watches.

The most obvious lesson in budo, and the one that everyone is clear on before they walk into the dojo for the first time, is that budo teaches personal, physical power. The power to protect yourself and inflict damage on others is fundamental to making a practice budo. Less clear to people is that respect, discretion and self-control are also fundamental to making a practice budo. I’ve met too many people who sought to acquire the power without acquiring any discretion and self-control, much less respect for their fellow travelers on the path.

Acquiring physical power like developing skill in budo, often comes along with an elevated feeling of self-confidence. If this self-confidence isn’t tempered with a sense of humility while the budoka is training, that self-confidence can turn into arrogance and disdain for those less skilled or powerful. This arrogance and disdain is a poison that pollutes everything it comes in contact with. Arrogant, disdainful budoka aren’t worried about the health and welfare of their training partners or their students because they perceive that such people aren’t powerful enough to command their respect.

Budo training takes time, sweat and the collection of not a few bruises. For some reason, there is a tendency among budoka to think that just doing the physical part of  budo training makes them superior people. There is no magic in budo training that automatically transforms anyone who does it into a spiritually perfected and superior human being. It doesn’t just happen.  You have to work at anything you want to improve, whether it’s strike, a joint lock, or being a better you. All of these take work. Without it, none of these skills will improve.

It’s easy enough to forget about working on who you are when you’re busy acquiring powerful physical skills. The first time you realize that you really can dominate someone physically, there is a rush of thill. The danger lies in seeking that rush by dominating other people in and out of the dojo. There can be a thrill when you crank an armbar a bit more than necessary, just enough to make uke yelp a little. If you  to go after that thrill, you’ll develop yourself, but not in a way anyone else will like. You’ll become a bit sadistic and dangerous to be around because you want that thrill. What happens when you meet someone you can’t dominate? Do you turn up the strength to fill in for the technique that isn’t good enough? Can you see how this might poison someone?

I’ve seen teachers who brutalize their students because they can. I’ve seen others who are worse, and damage any student who gives them the least resistance. Often this is cloaked as “hard training that will toughen you up”. It’s not.  It’s abuse and it is strictly to feed the diseased ego of the teacher. These teachers tend to leave a trail of broken students who gave them a little too much resistance, and they are surrounded by students who make excuses for their teacher. “He’s just teaching discipline.” “It doesn’t hurt that much, and it makes you tougher.”  He’s not teaching discipline, and that’s not how you get tougher. It’s how you get broken.

My teachers have done their best to make me as skillful as possible. Not all teachers are like that. I’ve seen talented and dedicated students driven out of the dojo when they became too skilled. These skillful students are a threat to the teacher’s ego, because they might equal, or worse, surpass, the teacher. Anyone who gets too good is perceived as threat that could challenge the teacher’s spot as the dojo alpha. These students could become more popular, or they could start their own dojo and steal the teacher’s students away. These teacher’s insecurities can destroy a dojo, and will certainly mean that the dojo will never develop a healthy group of senior students who can support the teacher and perhaps take over the dojo someday when the teacher is ready to retire. Instead, anyone like that is a threat and has to go. Such a student might get hurt in a training accident with the teacher, or the teacher might start completely ignoring them. I’ve even seen students simply driven out of the dojo and told to never come back. These teachers have become addicted to the adulation and honor they receive as “Sensei” and they can’t risk having anyone around who might draw some of that attention away.

In budo practice, as in most things, you get out of it what you put in. If you work hard at the techniques you can become a skilled technician. If that’s all you practice you won’t be much of a person though. The people who work at all aspects of budo, polish their etiquette and their spirits, these people make themselves into fine human beings.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Budo Is Personal

Budo is personal. This seems like an obvious thing to say, but it is a truth that often is forgotten in a world filled with all sorts of ranks, titles, tournaments and awards. Budo isn’t about those. Budo is about developing your skills, and if you’re lucky, finding a Way that you can follow. Budo, in a way that can seem quite selfish, is about you. We are not ranks, titles, tournament victories or nifty awards.   Those are things that hang on us like ornaments on a tree. Take away the ornaments, and it’s still a tree.

I run into people who are so hyped up with worry about their rank or passing their next test that their budo becomes a stress-filled mess. Budo practice should lead one to be calmer and to have a more balanced perspective. It’s easy to forget that when so much time can be directed towards preparing for a rank test, and even more money and effort spent getting to the test site in some far-flung city.

Much of practice can be consumed with getting ready for tests.  In the Kendo Federation, there are tests to pass every year when starting out, so it seems like new students are always preparing for a test. Forgetting that iai, for example, isn’t about testing and rank can get lost in the whirl of test preparation and test taking. Rank should be a recognition of how much you’ve learned, instead of a validation of ego. It’s hard to make the distinction though when you’ve worked for a year or more to prepare for a test. Pass or fail, with that much effort invested in the process, the results of the test can overshadow the results of all the time spent practicing and improving.

In budo, as in any do , or way, there is no ultimate goal that can be reached. The point is to practice each day, and each day be a little bit better at budo and living. The process of improving doesn’t have an end point. In a world focused on results, where we check off the accomplishment of each item on our task list and where results are emphasized, sometimes to the point of ignoring everything else, this sort of thinking is easily overwhelmed and washed away.

Budo isn’t limited to a finite goal.  Implicit in the vision of practice as a way, a path, is the idea that roads don’t really have an end.  You can always continue, sometimes in the same direction, and sometimes in a different one. The path doesn’t have an end point. We practice. We train. We polish ourselves. As people, we’re never finished growing and changing. One of the ideas of do is that we can influence how we change. We’re not just stuck with the random influences that life throws at us. We can make conscious choices about how we are going to change and grow. Each day life changes us. Are we simple clay molded by our experiences with no input into what we become? Budo, and all ways, insist that we can choose how we change and influence what we become.

Musings Of A Budo Bum by Peter Boylan
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For each of us, the journey is personal. Practice is personal. The lessons are personal. The changes are very personal. Hang around a good dojo for a while and you will see new students, timid and unsure of themselves, transform their minds and their bodies. If we let it, and focus some effort on it, keiko, training, can profoundly change who we are. The most common transformation is for someone meek and physically unsure of themselves to become skilled and confident in physically dealing with other people. That’s the obvious transformation. How else might budo training transform us?

I find that budo can help change almost any part of me. All I have to do is bring the part of me that I want to change into the dojo. Just as the only way to change my skill with a sword or stick is for me to take what I want to change with me and train with it, if I want to change something that is not as easily seen as a sword cut or staff strike or a punch or a throw, I have to take it into the dojo and begin working on it.

In Kodokan Judo, one of the core principles is the idea of jita kyoei 自他共栄, often translated as “mutual benefit and welfare.”  I haven’t seen many people come into the dojo looking to change themselves to consider how their actions can create mutual benefit for them and their training partners, but I’ve seen many people implicitly learn this and begin incorporating it into who they are as they spend time in the dojo.  They begin to  consider how directly their thoughtfulness or carelessness impacts the people they train with, who trust each other to train together without harming each other. I’ve seen people who were strong, powerful and disdainful of others train themselves to strong, powerful, gentle and considerate of others.

The story of a weak, timid person coming into the dojo and learning to be a powerful, confident fighter is common (and true!), but what other ways can we change ourselves through training? The wonderful thing about budo keiko is that it is a time set aside for changing aspects of ourselves that we want to change. That’s what makes training so personal. We are taking time and effort and directing it towards changing ourselves in some way. The potential for personal development and transformation is tremendous.  

We’re not simple clay molded by what happens to us. We have choices to make about what we become and how we change. Those who work at developing their entire self, who work on humility, graciousness, kindness and compassion usually succeed in becoming more humble, gracious, kind and compassionate. Budo is a way of interacting with the world. It’s about how we deal with the world around us. It’s about how handle the stress and mess of life. Practicing budo impacts how we relate with all the people around us.

Budo is personal. It’s about developing and refining who we are. It’s not about the flashy stuff on the outside. It’s not about the ranks and belts and trophies and the awards. It’s about who we are and how we deal with the world and the people around us. Ultimately, that creates a lot more satisfaction than any rank or case of trophies.