Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On Language and Budo

A number of people sent me comments about a recent post.  They were telling me there is no reason to learn the Japanese or Chinese etiquette and terminology of their Japanese or Chinese martial art because they don’t live in Japan or China.  Let me address the idea of not learning the traitional terminology of your art.

The language used  is important if you are going to train with people beyond your immediate group. French is the language of Ballet.  A ballet dancer can go anywhere in the world and dance with others and they can communicate clearly and without giving offense because they share a common vocabulary of French terms that are recognized as the language of ballet.  The same is true for basketball.  It originated in the US and has spread around the world.  The common terms, the vocabulary of basketball, are English.  If you fence, you learn the vocabulary of fencing.  

All this is true for budo as well.  I have trained on three continents in many countries with people who speak all sorts of different languages.  We could train safely and effectively because we all shared the common vocabulary of budo.  The first time I discovered this was in the US with a Japanese guest to the dojo. He didn't speak English, but I knew the vocabulary of Judo and we communicated just fine.  When I moved to Japan, I still didn't speak Japanese yet, but I was perfectly comfortable in the dojo there because again, I already knew the common vocabulary of budo.

Budo terminology is a technical jargon and it serves much the same purpose as technical jargon on a sailing ship (to use another seemingly antiquated technology and skill for comparison).  On a sailing ship, there are no ropes. During a big storm or other emergency, there isn't time to explain which rope is needed, so there are technical terms that make that clear.  A piece of rope that doesn’t have a specific use yet is a line.  If it’s used to tie off a particular part of the boat, then it becomes a bow line or stern line or some other specific sort of line.  The lines that raise and lower the sails are not lines.  They are halyards. The lines that control the angle of the sails when they are up are called sheets.  On a sailboat there are no ropes, so don’t bother asking for one.  The same goes for right and left.  Never used.  Everything is either starboard (the right side of the boat when on the boat and ffacing the towards the bow) or port (the left side of the boat when facing the bow.).  Don’t even bother asking about right and left.  No one will use the terms. 

Why not?  Aren’t right and left perfectly good and useful for every direction that needs to be given.  Actually, no, they aren’t.  If someone on a boat needs a rope pulled in now, they don’t have time to explain that it’s the one on their right side, not your right side but their right side, and it’s the one that controls the angle of forward sail.  Nope, they have time to say “Pull in the starboard jib sheet!”   Absolutely no confusion there.

Budo terminology does the same thing, and it does it effectively across borders and languages.  I can go anywhere in the world, and say “Uchimata” and judo people will know exactly which technique I’m talking about.  The same is true in kenjutsu and iai if I say “kirioroshi” or “monouchi.” If something dangerous is happening, I can yell "Yame!" in any Judo dojo in the world and expect that everyone will understand, no matter what languages they may speak.  Everyone knows what I’m talking about immediately.  There’s no need to explain.  The terminology is common across borders, cultures and languages if you’re doing Japanese budo.

That’s the point of technical jargon.  It makes things clear without a lot of explaining.  This particular point is not a cultural issue.  It’s a communication issue.  If you are doing a Japanese martial art, you need to learn the Japanese terminology so you can communicate with other practitioners. It’s the lingua franca of the art wherever you are.  If you study a Chinese art, learning the Chinese terminology is essential for effective communication.  If you don’t know the standard terminology of your art, you won’t be able to understand books about your art because they will be using the terminology.  You won’t be able to have a discussion on a bulletin board or in the comments section of a blog about your art because you won’t know what people are talking about.

Having a common vocabulary is critical to communicating and learning about your art.  Without it you are isolated from the rest of the practitioners in the world who share a common vocabulary.  I'm not saying you have to learn a foreign language, but you do need to learn the shared vocabulary of your art if you are at all serious about it.

Insisting on your local language is fine if you plan to never train with anyone outside your immediate circle.  If you do plan to ever travel beyond your hometown, or to receive a guest there, or read a book about your art, you need to learn the vocabulary of the art you are practicing.


D Suter said...

A great response!

John said...

I agree with everything you have said, except for Aikido. I can stay in an association, but the language is very set for each individual association - language is a statement on loyalty and allegiance. There are several dojos in my city less than 20 minutes apart and the language is somewhat different (Kanai versus Tohei versus Yamada versus Toyoda.)

One issue that does come up for me is some terms do have more depth than an English equivalent will convey. Ki is not easy to translate. Ikkyo is not a term used in every Aikido dojo, but even when it is a student will want to call it an arm bar - which doesn't really represent the technical knowledge referenced.

I enjoy your articles, thank you.

dogsbody said...

Actually, there's one rope on a boat. It's attached to the clapper of the ship's bell. Don't ask me why a bell rope gets to stay a rope when nothing else does. --Your trivia for the day. Good article otherwise.

The Budo Bum said...

Thanks. After years of sailing, I didn't know that. Thanks!