Monday, August 19, 2013

Is it still Aikido (Iaido/Jodo?whatever) if you take away the Japanese clothes, the bowing and the etiquette?

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. 


Frank Schugar said...

While you wouldn’t wear a beret to learn French, you likely would try French food as part of learning the language. At least my French teacher in 1983 insisted that we do so. As has my daughter’s French teacher in 2013. Culture is linked with the activities that grow in that culture.

About the language: two comments if I may.

Part of what we are doing as we study our Way is stretching outside our comfort. I could be taught a Major Hip Throw, but by learning instead O Goshi my mind is pushed in a direction, which isn’t native to me. This is an intrinsic good.

Also, at least in Judo, the names are informative. O Soto Gari is not Ko Soto Gari. Instead it is the major, outside reap, not the minor, outside reap. Learning the names in English doesn’t give me the opportunity to, nor levy on me the requirement to, seriously consider what is in the name. Working with pieces of another language slows us down and causes us to think about what we are learning. I believe this leads to better technique. This may be less true in a style where the names tie less clearly to the action, but in Judo the connections are usually clear.

Ronin scholar said...

(Actually, berets are Basque, not French, so wearing a beret to learn French might just get you some funny looks.)

This post points out (but does not go far enough) some of the conundrums (conundra?) inherent in teaching an art form outside Japan. Students don't want, or can't afford (presumably) the funny clothes, et al. that are, I think, an integral part of a practice. I have just taken a leave of teaching at one place (a community college) in part because the students, with a rare one or two exceptions, were never serious enough to even want to dress properly (let alone come to okeiko regularly). I just found it increasingly frustrating.

Students who try to learn Japanese classical dance wearing leotards or sweats will quickly be really confused, since the movements of the dance are intricately intertwined with the movements of the sleeves, obi, etc. that were part of the dance's evolution. Likewise, in iai, trying to wear a sword without the himo of the hakama to support it does not work so well, either.

Leaving aside practical considerations, Peter is perfectly correct in stating that the techniques of aikido (or other budo) are the means by which the path is realized, not the path itself; much the same way that Japanese dance is not about learning choreography (or shodo or kado is not about simply copying what your teacher has done).

Steve said...

This is a quote from a very senior Budoka who has lived in Japan most of his life.


"Are you Japanese? Do you in Japan? Do you speak,read and write Japanese perfectly?

No, well then you need to understand that 'Japanese Budo', despite what you have read and been told by your instructor about even by Japanese themselves is not about improving and perfecting *your* character, it's about improving and perfecting the *Japanese* character and because you not Japanese and you do not live in Japan you cannot begin to understand an alien set of ethics, morals and values of a society you are not a par of.

The Budo Bum said...

Steve, I'm curious which senior budoka said that. I've spent many years living in Japan, and although my Japanese is not native by any stretch of the imagination, this is the first time I have ever heard anything like this. My teachers, all of them Japanese, all them in Japan, have never said anything remotely like this. I know many other budoka who have spent years living and training in Japan who would be very surprised by such an attitude also.

Entrenando Aikido said...

Thank you for your researched post. I think that I can do aikido without the gi, aikido is a way of life. In our dojo people who begin are not wearing immediately the gi, we have one beginner who is already three month and he is still wearing tracksuit. Of course when you are sure that you will seriously learn the art you should adapt. But it do not depend on the clothing, neither on the bowing, it is something you feel or not.

John said...

Nicely said. On Steve's comments: I cannot read the Five Rings in Japanese. I need to rely on translators. Not all of them are knowledgable about Budo, nor perfect at the period Japanese. No two translations seem to be alike. I miss out.

Some words should not be translated. When I see a student refer to Ikkyo as an Arm Bar, their technique is missing something. Someone who calls Kotegaeshi the Wrist Twist is likely not doing it well.

Until recently in the USAF, it was a given that Japanese people were going to be Shihan and no one else. That only changed in the last decade.

Djedra said...

This is a great blog and a superb article. I'm new on blogger, so maybe I'm being foolish, but how do I sign up to see your blog?

The Budo Bum said...


Thank you for the complipment.

There should be a box at the bottom of the page that you can click on to get notices when I put up new posts.

Carlos E said...

I can make a good guess as to which "Senior Budoka" Steve is referring to and have heard the same thing from him and at least one other Senior Budoka - both men from opposite coasts of the USA.

As for me, forgive my last posting to this but is an issue near and dear to me. I look at it this way: if you take away the neck scarf, hat and khaki shirt, is it still a Boy Scout? Well, it depends on both conduct and attitude. If they are correct in those two things, then the uniform (while nice to have and I personally desire) does not the budoka make and yes, the art is STILL "Japanese" at its core. Remember... the HIGHLY respected and regarded Don Angier of Yanagi Ryu trained on cardboard box vs. tatami until he could get better, wearing street clothes until he could get better.

Draven Olary said...

Steve said:

This is a quote from a very senior Budoka who has lived in Japan most of his life.


"Are you Japanese? Do you in Japan? Do you speak, read and write Japanese perfectly?

No, well then you need to understand that 'Japanese Budo', despite what you have read and been told by your instructor about even by Japanese themselves is not about improving and perfecting *your* character, it's about improving and perfecting the *Japanese* character ... "

Strange enough, I agree with this part of the statement. The Art is transforming you, your way of breathing, your way of walking, your way of approaching things in day by day activities. It makes better your "japanese self".

With this part :

"and because you not Japanese and you do not live in Japan you cannot begin to understand an alien set of ethics, morals and values of a society you are not a par of."

I disagree but I can see his point.

Draven Olary said...

I will try to be the devil's advocate. Training is not stopping the moment you left the dojo. You can do things that help you in an art you train without having your karate-gi or hakama on.
Yes, there are things you can't do without the proper equipment, but lets not forget they used their day-by-day clothes when they were training in empty-hands martial arts before creating the specialized equipment. And I know that nobody will agree, but a good training session with your "street clothes" on (done one time, not more) will give you a hint on what you can and what you actually not do if someday you will need what you learnt. I am not an adept of fighting outside dojo, no wallet is more important than life, but ...
Training with weapons - iaido especially - needs the equipment since these were their day-by-day clothes. But still with a bit of effort you can train in iai without it. You just need an obi (not a karate belt) and to know how to tie it correctly. It will do the job. We are snobs in a way, saying "you don't have a karate-gi, you don't train in karate". It came with the almost lost understanding of martial from the art. In old times they were training to survive, in our times we are training for all the reasons in the world, but not to insure our survival.