There is a term often used when listing the desired personal characteristics of a classical martial arts person, and that is makoto, or “truthful, sincere, without guile or subterfuge.”
Practically speaking, of course, deception and misdirection is an important part of a martial artist’s arsenal, from the basically physical to the tactical and strategic level. You feint a right hand jab to set up a left cross, for example. But what we are talking is not a martial technique, it’s the inner spirit of the practitioner, especially when dealing with his own comrades, teachers, students, family and friends.
Sincerity is a characteristic that is prized and admired in Japan, even if the result may end in disaster, or perhaps especially if it ends in disaster. Two of the greatest heroes of samurai legend and history are prime examples of makoto: Minamoto Yoshitsune, versus his skillful and scheming brother Yorimoto (who becomes the first Minamoto shogun); and Kusonoki Masashige, forever loyal to a fickle and blundering emperor.
So I find it truly odd that if makoto is a major characteristic of a classical budoka, on the Internet and YouTube there are a whole lot of (mostly) Western so-called martial arts “masters” who are faking it. They’re the opposite of makoto.
Now, it’s one thing to live out your fantasies in the privacy of your own bedroom, but to tout it about as real in order to attract fame, students and tuition is really hucksterism and lying at its worst.
“Yeah, well, they’re not hurting anybody!” is one defense I’ve seen in comments on YouTube or on the section that debunks fakes in the chat site called e-budo. Au contraire. They are sucking money from the gullible or uninformed. As someone with an ethnic Japanese heritage, their fakery also insults my culture and tradition. If it doesn’t “hurt” anybody, then why doesn’t any white brother stick a bone in his nose, wear an Afro-wig, strip to his skivvies and walk down South Central Los Angeles or Harlem chanting, “I be an example of African culture, bro’, booga-booga, ooga-ooga, gimme some’a dem missionaries for dinner!”? Why don’t you show up on an Indian reservation, dress up like a 1960s Hollywood “Injun,” and then dance around a campfire, whooping and hollering, “Hi-ya, hi-ya, hi-ya, I’m Chief Big Fat Hamburger Head! Me teach-um you about Indian culture, you betcha. $500 a workshop, I show you how to eat Spam from a can, shoot suction-cupped arrows, get drunk on cheap alcohol like an Injun, and do the Indian hokey-pokey, and I give you a diploma certifying you as a member of the Whatchacallit tribe!”
I’ll tell you why. It’s an insult to a cultural heritage that would anger a lot of people.
Yet we have people on the Internet, YouTube and in books claiming to teach Japanese “samurai” martial arts. And some e-budo posters wonder why I feel insulted? Give me a break.
There was one fellow up in what seemed like hillbilly country who claimed to be teaching such a “sa-moo-rai” martial art. He posted a self-learning video about how to use a “sa-moo-rai” sword, describing the guard, or tsuba, as a “toos-bah.” I nearly lost my snot laughing at this comment and the rest of the video, which displayed some of the worst examples of dickering around with a mogitoh that I have seen yet. Even the kids on YouTube with floppy hair over their eyes twirling iaito like cheerleader batons were better than this guy.
One grade up on the scale of fake-ness are the fellows who give me pause, who are actually somewhat skilled in their physical techniques, but are nevertheless as bogus as snake oil salesmen. They pass through initial observation, but a trained eye who has seen and practiced koryu budo will still pick them out after a few minutes of watching their videos. There’s something disjointed, herky-jerky, and technically awkward about their collections of made-up kata. They may be good at giving a good show, but something trips them up. It’s like seeing a sweater that looks perfect, but then you see a loose thread, pull on it, and then the whole kit and kaboodle unravels, revealing nothing but fakery.
One particular middle level fake stands out in my memory. The supporters and disbelievers of this teacher were raging at each other back and forth on e-budo. I happened to be cynical about the person’s claims, but allowed for the possibility that he learned something, perhaps, from somewhere, and augmented it with books and a certain amount of natural physical abilities. Then I stumbled into the page on his web site that claimed he was a master of “Japanese tea ceremony.” I took one look at a photo of his group doing tea and realized it was totally bogus. I’ve been doing tea for over 31 years. I should know. It doesn’t matter what style of tea you do, there are some basic ways you place a bowl and the utensils that make sense, and ways you place objects that make no sense at all in the context of chanoyu. The photo showed the “master” was winging it. He knew nothing about tea. I extrapolated my findings and took a much closer look at his martial arts videos, dissecting them more closely, and decided that he was a total fake. His silly version of the origins of his martial arts didn’t help, either. It made no sense compared to Japanese history and koryu chronology.
When I voiced my opinion on e-budo on the side of the denouncers, however, the rebuttal was amazing.
“I don’t care if he’s fake or not,” one person replied when confronted with the facts. “He looks good, so I’d still want to train with him if I could.”
Uh-huh. “Looks good” is better than “real,” is it? Gee. If you needed to excise a brain tumor, would you go with an ugly doctor who matriculated at Johns Hopkins, or someone who fits your idea of what a doctor should look like based on television shows like Marcus Welby, M.D., but who has been exposed as a dangerous quack?
However much the fakes bewilder me, more perplexing to me than them is the way they can accumulate a lot of willing and believing students. What is in a person’s head to want to believe so much that they will suspend judgment and common sense for something that is so obviously bogus?
Worse, what human trait makes them stick around when confronted with undeniable evidence that their “master” is a lying huckster only out to make an indecent buck? If a fakester has no shame and has no makoto, what does that say about the student who suspects his teacher is a fake but still goes along with the charade, enabling the liar to continue spreading his untruth?
There was one celebrated fake several years ago who was making a ton of money, traveling around the country giving seminars for his bogus koryu. One of his top students admitted to a friend that his teacher had some…well, let’s just say…oddities. Like when he was shooting a video tutorial for his sword art, the fake teacher was seen taking breaks between each kata to consult a book written by Otake Risuke, a master teacher of an actual koryu school that was not the same as what he claimed to be teaching. So he knew his teacher was just making stuff up on the spot, cribbing from Otake sensei. Still, that person persisted in training with this fake for several more years, even though he had some misgivings, before finally leaving in self-disgust.
Another student spent his own money to build an incredible wood-floored dojo for that school on his property, but as he progressed higher and higher in rank, the questions he had about the legitimacy of what he was doing loomed larger and larger. Was he putting good money and time into something that was not what it was advertised to be? Finally, after his teacher repeatedly dodged some pointed questions, he confronted the teacher, threatening a lawsuit if he didn’t get any answers. He got them, alright. The master admitted to faking all of his style, but told the student that he would never admit it to anyone else and that he should shut up or face some personal threats to his body and family.
Fed up and not willing to really slog through court, the student finally quit the system, and was in despair over having spent so much money on a dojo for that fake school. He then managed to pick himself up, wipe away his injured pride, and sought out and worked with legitimate koryu and modern budo teachers to resurrect a training regime for his dojo, sans the fake school.
His story has a reasonably happy ending, but one wonders about all the other fakes running around. I can be optimistic and say that while the Internet and YouTube makes it easy for the fakes to proliferate, it’s also made it easy for people with a more discerning eye to pick them out and unmask them.
But human nature knows no bounds, either for good or bad, even here, in Hawaii. At the very same dance studio where I rent time to teach my budo, there was for a brief period when a so-called master of ninjutsu, mikkyo Buddhism, aikijujutsu and who knows what else pretended to teach his secrets to a willing band of starry-eyed students…fore a fee, of course. For all the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve only had, at most, maybe five or six students willing to put in the sweat and effort to learn authentic koryu. I don’t tell them stories that they will be able to fly through the air or become the next Jet Li. I tell my students that budo training will only help them get a little healthier physically, mentally and spiritually if they are willing to put in the effort.
But on the other hand, I walked into the studio a bit earlier and caught the fake’s routine, a mix of circus hucksterism, snake oil salesmanship, outright lying and fakery. He and his friend claimed to be ninja masters. Yep. They were ninja masters because they wore black clothes (the buddy topped off his outfit with a beret) and kung fu black slippers. They claimed that they could heal illnesses, reconfigure your “chi” through training and “special private consultations.” The room was packed to its gills.
The fake’s buddy claimed to have studied esoteric Buddhism in Tibet. He said he received his “mastery” when the head of the temple simply chanted, “bara-bara-bara-bara” (I kid you not, his example of chanting was gibberish). I was changing into my training outfit in a quiet corner but had to keep myself from bursting out laughing.
My closest budo friend spent three years undergoing training at Koyasan, the mountain fastness of the Koyasan Shingon-shu Buddhist sect. He knew every mikkyo-related esoteric Buddhist practitioner in the state from the Shingon and Tendai sects, and he had heard neither hide nor hair of these two fellows.
Yet, the two had the room packed with eager-faced acolytes, willing and wanting to believe, believe, believe! There were over 30 glassy-eyed faces lingering on their every word.
Finally, to close the lecture and snake oil sales pitch, the fake’s buddy let drop that he was also a “tea ceremony master,” and could do a tea service for them, also for a fee, of course, and then passed out his business card. Boy, I wanted to get a card too, just to follow up on that tea master comment. And in passing, I wanted to ask him what school of tea he belonged to, since for all the years I’ve been doing tea in Japan and Hawaii, I had never seen his face before. He and the first fake skeedaddled, along with their eager entourage, before I could get to them, and then my own students started to file into the studio for their lessons.
I was left wondering, and still wondering, what is it about such fakes that brings people out of the woodwork to WANT to believe, and who want to believe a fake so much that they overlook and bypass the reality that is right in front of them. I had an authentic chamei and teaching license for tea. I had ranking in an authentic koryu. Yet for all that, the bogus masters had more students in one night than I had my entire life of teaching budo, and certainly more than I have had in tea, where I haven’t yet felt worthy of teaching. But at least I’ve got my certificates and permission to teach. The starry-eyed believers simply walked past me, oblivious.
The moment was full of irony. If they had waited a few more minutes, they would have been able to meet my friend, who truly was a Shingon minister, who truly trained and meditated up in a cold, isolated mountain, who could truly chant all the sutras by memory.
By hitching their fate to a fake, they missed the truth standing right next to them. One wonders how many people go through life like that, missing out on the incredible true mystery, wonder and beauty of living a real life, settling instead for fakery, illusions and fantasies.
That, I thought, was the true sadness of the situation. The fakes themselves will have to answer to God in the end for their willingness to hoodwink others, truly an evil act. But the followers who are willing to suspend their own common sense are the really tragic figures. They missed out on the greater beauty that reality could offer them by chasing after a lie.