Someone asked on a discussion board “How important (or unimportant) do folks here feel Japanese customs are important to learning Aikido? It stuck me recently that a lot of the behaviours carried out during training have nothing to do with learning Aikido, but more to do with Japanese culture. Bowing on entering the hall, learning the names of the techniques in Japanese, folding a hakama in specific way, bowing when picking up a bokken, I'd even add shiko/knee walking to this list or even wearing a gi for practice. None of these, to my mind have anything to do with learning aikido, its like thinking you have to wear a beret to learn how to speak French properly. Most of us don't train in Japan and are not Japanese, so I don't know why we do these things any more. “
My short answer is, “If you strip all that away from Aikido, it’s not Aikido anymore.”
A Way, an artform, is more than just the discrete techniques that are taught. If Aikido is reduced to just the techniques, and the expressions of etiquette and tradition are removed, you’re making something else. A Way is all the parts that come together to make it a whole system. The aspects of Japanese culture inform the techniques and the values of the system. They are as important to learning Aikido as learning ikkyo is. This is true not only of Aikido, but of all of the Japanese ways.
A Way, a DO 道、is so much more than just the individual techniques. The etiquette teaches us how what we study relates to other people, and how we should treat them when we interact with them. I’ll stick with Aikido because that’s the example I started with. Aikido is about complex interactions between people. The etiquette that permeates training is all about how we interact with people. The techniques of Aikido are not Aikido. They are a means for learning the path and the way of thinking and acting that express Aikido. To paraphrase the old Taoist saying yet again, the techniques of Aikido are like the finger pointing at the moon. They aren’t the moon, we look where they point to be able to see the moon. If we get stuck on the techniques of Aikido, we will never learn Aikido. This is true of any budo, of any Way. The techniques are tools for learning the Way, but the Way is far more than the techniques.
In the dojo, pretty much everything is a lesson about the Way you are studying. The etiquette teaches lessons, the techniques teach lessons, the kata teach lessons, learning the names in their original language teaches lessons. If a person wants to jettison all of these parts of an art, they should really ask themselves if that Way is appropriate for them. Why should the etiquette be removed from Aikido? The etiquette regulates action in the dojo and makes it a safer place to train. It teaches respect and a different way of thinking about human interactions. The bowing and respect are critical to the ideas of Aikido and the way they are expressed during training is essential to the Way of Aikido.
Aikido comes out of Japanese culture, and the concept of DO 道 that has developed in Japan for more than 1000 years. To summarily remove all these aspects of Japanese culture would be to create a very different art, a different way that leads somewhere other than where Aikido leads. There’s nothing wrong with creating a new martial art, but you should be aware that’s what you are doing. The learning atmosphere, and the higher lessons about life, the universe and everything that are pointed to and taught by practicing a Way are very different when you change the etiquette and the clothing and the language.
All that bowing and using Japanese to describe what you are doing set a frame for your practice and establish a particular set of expectations about what you are doing, what the goals are, and how you will do it. Aikido, and other budo, are not ultimately about learning to use a particular set of techniques or how to do a particular kata. The techniques and the kata are tools for teaching students about principles of the art. The etiquette, language and clothes are also part of that.
Mastering the techniques of Aikido, or any Way (Do 道）, no matter how good one is at them, does not mean that you have mastered the Way. The techniques are some of the tools by which you learn the way, but they are not the Way. It is quite common to mistake mastery of technique for mastery of a Way, regardless of whether it is a martial way or a flower arranging way or a calligraphic way or any of the other ways that abound in Japan.
The Ways teach lessons about the world and how to live in it, using ordinary activities as their foundation. Each Way is a complete package, with it’s own etiquette and language and often even clothes that are worn for various activities. Given the thought and consideration that has gone into these Ways, I would be very hesitant to monkey with one without decades of experience in that particular Way, even if it is one as young as Aikido.
Those funny clothes and funny words and weird behaviors have a lot more to them then just adding another layer of useless stuff to learn that gets in the way of learning the important stuff.
If all you want from something like Aikido is the techniques, you are missing the real treasures of what you are studying. The techniques of any Way have only very limited application in daily life, but the Way of thinking, of moving, of being, that is something that can be used every moment of every day.