Monday, November 30, 2020

"There is no East or West" Really?


Before you pick a fight, make sure you know what you're getting into.  (Video copyright Peter Boylan 2020)


"How many westerners studied in Japan for a significant amount of time? Few. In fighting, culture means very little. Step into the ring and put your fists up. There is no east or west."

Someone posted this comment in a discussion I am involved in. It seems like a pretty straightforward idea. In combat arts all that matters is what happens when you step into the ring. Everything in a combat art can be decided by getting out there and facing off with someone.

However, stepping into a ring is not the same as a street fight or close quarters combat. The rules are completely different. The rules in the ring are about both people coming out with all of their teeth and no permanent damage. Outside a sporting ring there are still rules. The other people in the fight might not bother to tell you what the rules are, but they have them. What rules do you expect? 

Fighting in a ring is dueling. It’s only 2 people, everyone gets the same equipment, and even when there is no referee, everyone including the spectators know if someone breaks the rules. Dueling is great for the ego.  I love doing randori in Judo. One on one with someone trying to throw me, choke me, pin me or make me submit to an arm lock is just about as much fun as I can imagine. When the world is not threatened by a plague, I try to do it a couple of times a week for as long as my stamina holds out.

Japanese classical budo of the Tokugawa Period (1604-1868) could be brutal stuff. Ambush and surprise attacks were considered quite acceptable. It wasn’t about arranging a nice formal duel if someone besmirched your honor. It was a vendetta and very little was off limits. Many of the classical systems that have survived include teachings about setting up an ambush or a sneak attack. These aren’t friendly dueling arts. These are arts of killing without getting killed. Forcing someone from a very different cultural tradition to fight so you can “see who’s better” is a risky affair. You may think you’re having a friendly duel, and the other guy may break your fingers right off the mark because that’s accepted in the culture he comes from. He may not know about the rules you follow in a friendly duel. This is not something you want to find out the hard way.


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What I do in a judo dojo fighting with my friends is vastly different from what I’ve done the few times I’ve had to do anything in “the real world.” Sport dueling is fun, but it really only proves who’s better at dueling under those particular rules. Classical Japanese budo arts have long traditions of fighting that aren’t about dueling in a *fair* environment. They assume that nothing is going to be fair and that everyone will use whatever is available to ensure that they are the one(s) who walk away. People who train for this sort of encounter really aren’t prepared to fight by your rules. Their trained reactions and instincts are not to go for the submission by arm bar, or to win by throwing you cleanly on your back. Their reaction is to snap the elbow or wrist the instant they have it, or to throw you on your head so that you get a concussion and maybe a broken neck.

Every culture has different expectations. In war in Europe and North America there is the Geneva Convention,  whereby if your unit is getting slaughtered, you can surrender and your enemy will take you prisoner, treat you decently and eventually trade you back to your side in exchange for prisoners your side has captured. Disregarding the Convention leaves a warring nation open to charges of international war crimes, when the conflict inevitably ends. European and North American rules of engagement are assumed to be followed everywhere.

Except that, historically, they have not been. Japan has a long tradition across a thousand years, not of taking prisoners, but of taking heads. Soldiers were rewarded based on how many heads they took and rank of the people who lost those heads. Surrendering and being taken prisoner was not an honorable thing to do. If you tried, you’d be so looked down upon for lacking the courage to fight to the last or take your own life that you would be tortured before they took your head from your shoulders.

These different ideas of what was honorable in battle didn’t clash significantly until 1941 when Japan began invading south east Asia and wresting control of European colonies from the British, Dutch, French and Americans. The Japanese had no tradition of capturing prisoners. They didn’t know what to do with all European and American P.O.W.s they suddenly had to deal with. They treated them with all the respect their centuries of tradition taught them a prisoner of war was entitled to: none at all.

On the other side, the Japanese were exhorted to uphold tradition and die an honorable death rather than be taken prisoner and abused by the enemy. Japanese soldiers who were captured were often shocked to be treated according to the western customs of the Allies.

In sports, there are still a lot of classical judoka in Japan who feel that having weight classes in judo competition is a sign of weakness, not a matter of fairness.  For them, the best judoka is the one who wins against everyone.  I’m really not prepared to fight in an open division with the heavyweights and super-heavyweights. For decades in Japan this was the only way competition was done.  In sumo, for example, though there are many rules and traditions of competition, there are no weight classes, only rankings according to where competitors stand in regard to their opponents.

If you’re going to fight, make sure you know the local rules. When I first moved to Japan I had a hard time understanding the local judo rules. I’d done judo for 4 years by that time and had fought in many competitions under International Judo Federation rules. I’m thick and slow. It took me a while to get it through my head that people in Japan don’t automatically use the IJF rules to run local shiai. “Local rules” is a real thing. If you’re getting ready to fight, make sure you know the local rules. Fighting, like most things we humans do, is a cultural activity, and if you don’t know the culture, watch out. What you don’t know can hurt you.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-BIgman for editorial support.


Jonas Correia Filho said...

Very interesting article sensei... I am blessed to have experienced fighting or drilling many different people from all over the world...

Cultural exchanges is very interesting on martial arts point of view... at the end we learn from them all...

Coincidentally exactly 3 years ago I received your book in my hands, expecting the second volume

Dirk Bruere said...

A real fight is not fun, is not sport. It's always life or death, because even if nobody is armed the intention is to inflict as much injury and pain as rapidly as possible usually with no regard to the danger to life it poses whether by accident or design.

Sihan said...

“They treated them with all the respect their centuries of tradition taught them a prisoner of war was entitled to: none at all.”

Except for the truth, as always, is a bit more complicated. The Japanese forces treated their Russian prisoners-of-war well after the fall of Port Arthur in 1904. So much so that Japanese civilians complained about the misbehavior of the POW’s brought to Japan proper where they were treated somewhat like guests. There are at least three causes of the mistreatment of POWs by the Japanese during the Pacific War. First, the Japanese forces were overwhelmed by the massive numbers of prisoners after their successive victories during their march through South East Asia. Prisoners for which they lacked the resources in order to care for them properly. Something the allies, mainly the Americans, did not face. Not only because of the doctrine of fighting to the death as applied forcefully by the Japanese military but also for the (in)formal policy of the Americans not to make prisoners. Because not all Japanese believed in fighting to the death and would have liked to surrender.

Second, due to chronic manpower shortages of the Japanese military, they had to shorten the training of new personnel drastically. Therefore training in how to treat prisoners-of-war that officers were supposed to get was shortened or dropped altogether. Officers and NCO’s who in later war crime trials claim that they weren’t aware of the Geneva Convention and what it entails weren’t lying or being coy, they just were never told about it. Many Korean guards at the construction of the infamous Thai-Birma railroad were for the greater part illiterate or hardly literate farmer boys whose command of the Japanese language was minimal at best and whose only training was a couple of months of physical abuse (binta in Japanese military jargon). They were made responsible for the behavior of the prisoners and for things that went wrong. Often physically, meaning they were beaten up by the Japanese officers. As shit rolls downhill you can imagine the consequences for the prisoners.

Third, there was a strong racial component in the mix. The Japanese were really fired up about the way the US had imposed quotas for Asian immigration before the war. Combine that with the arrogant attitude and disdain of many of the Western POWs towards their captors and you have an atmosphere where violence will thrive.

In short, making the link between the abuse by the Japanese soldiers of their prisoners and their martial culture is highly questionable. If only for the fact that in the greater part of the Tokugawa period the samurai were more bureaucrat than warrior. In the end, many a low-level samurai were actually of merchant descent whose father or grandfather had bought the title. A famous example is Ito Hirobumi. It is this kind of samurai who have initiated the transition to the Western ideals of progress and enlightenment.