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)