33. Martial Arts Urban Legends

“Can you walk on rice paper?” The young man, stringy hair tumbling over his eyes like an oily mop head, asked me in all seriousness. He was a newbie in the college judo club where I was a senior student and a feisty, aggressive brown belt. Maybe I was the first honest-to-gosh Asian he saw in a judo outfit. It was the late 1970s and the TV series Kung Fu, starring a squinty-eyed David Carradine as a Shaolin monk who passed a hokey test by walking across paper without tearing it apart, was already being turned into another urban martial arts legend. The club was at an ivy-league college on the American East Coast, and the percentage of Asians attending the school at the time was very, very miniscule. So, dressed in a judogi, I must have looked exotic to this poor, deluded fellow.

I laughed and replied, “Nope. I WRITE on rice paper. That’s what paper is for.” Although I laughed it off, his question still pissed me off. What, every Asian knows kung fu? That was about as racist as the old Fu Manchu stereotypes I would also run across back in those days.

That must have disappointed the seriously deluded newbie, and I really hoped he would stalk out the door in search of a different school to feed his fantasies.  He looked like he was in need of better physical hygiene and even smelled a bit rancid. Unfortunately for me, he stuck around. He even came up to ask me to be his randori partner. I suggested he learn how to take breakfalls better before he try randori, but he insisted. Maybe he thought I would be like a Master Po, from that same TV show, spouting words of vaguely Taoist wisdom. Instead, I dumped his okole (rear end) around the mats, and finally ended up doing some newaza (matwork) with him, pinning and then choking him, but letting him go when the stench of his body odor proved too strong for me.

Believing without making any rational judgment in unrealistic martial arts urban legends for this fellow, and for others like him, can be harmful to their health. It can also lead to a great deal of irritation among the seniors and teachers who are really trying to teach them something REAL as opposed to junk fed to them by the entertainment media.

Those of us in budo have all heard our share of urban myths. Some of them had a basis in some kind of kernel of truth, perhaps, but mostly, they were just tall tales told around modern day campfires (like the television set) to scare, mortify or overawe us young ‘ uns.

Yep. The black belt legend? You start with a white belt but through struggling in the dirt and mud, it turns brown. Then you train harder and bleed and sweat and stain the belt black. Yep. The actual story about how Kano Jigoro formalized the dan-kyu ranking system and belt colors is just sooooo boring.

Why do you wear the hakama? One silly explanation is that samurai wore hakama to “hide their feet movement,” except that in pitched battle, the samurai hiked up their hakama and tied up the loose ends at the bottom so as not to trip over their own clothing.  Wearing a hakama was simply a reflection of the formal wear that samurai wore in their everyday life, as well as under their armor. It was, for the samurai, like wearing pants. You wore it because it was more formal than going around naked. Simple as that.

When modern martial arts appeared, Kano Jigoro (the aforementioned founder of Kodokan judo and the dank-kyu system) copied Western workout outfits of the time and introduced loose cotton trousers that gave a lot of freedom, albeit they weren’t as baggy as standard hakama. They were easier to wear, care for, and to practice in than hakama, and certainly didn’t feel as “formal.” Karate, when adapting judo’s keikogi, adapted the pants. Aikido also adapted the judo keikogi, but put a wrinkle on practice wear by suggesting that upper level students, or yudansha (“those with black belts”) should wear hakama to signify their rank and more dignified, elevated position, I suppose. Kendo, iaido and the koryu bugei never really broke with the older traditions, so the wearing of a hakama was not based on rank or position. You just wore a hakama because it was always worn that way in formal practice.

…Or a “black belt means you are a master of martial arts.” Not really. The first level black belt is called a shodan. I.e., a “Beginning dan rank.” In other words, you finally have BEGUN to start a serious study of the martial arts. So maybe you know how to tie the belt on right, how to form a fist and execute a kick. No big deal. There’s a whole lot more to learn, Grasshopper.

There’s the silly notion among some youngsters who frequent game sites and make comments on YouTube about a katana, the “samurai sword”: “Once a sword is drawn, it has to taste blood.” Yeah, in your Xbox-playing dreams. Pray tell me if this is true, how you then manage to clean, polish and maintain a sword that can’t be drawn out of its scabbard?

To be fair, this is probably a childish misinterpretation of the warrior attitude of not drawing your sword out unless you mean to use it. …And unless it is done in serious, life-or-death warfare. To sully the sword as a meaningless threat, as an instrument of bullying, or for a personal fight waged to settle drunken grudges were, to the martial artists of those times, a serious affront to the sword and to the warrior ethos. So “don’t draw it out unless it is for actual combat in battle” might be a more nuanced, realistic interpretation of the attitude.

Or take the recurring urban legend of the “Dim Mak” death touch. Just by a simple tap, a kung fu master can cause a delayed killing blow. Silliness. Most of the time.  Here is a case where urban myth may conceal a true mystery, perhaps.

I asked someone no less experienced than the late Donn F. Draeger about this one, and he smiled and laughed. In all his travels, he said, through Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, he never met anyone who could really knock him or his cohorts down with one light touch.

Then he stopped himself. “Except…” his eyes narrowed and he lowered his voice. “Except…there was one guy. Just one guy, and I think out of the dozens or so ‘masters’ we met, he was the only real McCoy, maybe. We were introduced to him and his gung fu was pretty good. Then we asked about his reputation as a Dim Mak master. He acknowledged it. My buddy thought he was full of it, so he gave us a demonstration. He tapped my friend on the shoulder very lightly, so light it felt like a feather. In the middle of that night, my friend woke up with excruciating pain. He tore off his shirt and found that the entire shoulder where he had been touched had swollen up and turned black and blue.

“The next morning, we went back to the gung fu master. He applied a lotion to the injured shoulder and said the swelling would go away in a few days. We asked if we could become his students. Surprisingly he said he would take us on. Except for one major restriction. In order to become a student of Dim Mak, you couldn’t have any kind of sex for at least ten years. And that included…” Draeger made a universal hand gesture for masturbation. “…Well, we looked at each other and realized that none of us could live up to that kind of discipline, so we thanked him and left. But he was the only real deal out of all the fakes we ran across.”

So, Draeger concluded, the reason that there are legends about the Dim Mak is that it really has a basis in truth, but to attain that kind of skill, one needed to sacrifice much of your humanity, and therefore in truth, very, very few people really had such skill. And I doubt that any Westerner who publicly declared himself to be a Dim Mak “master” truly understands the nature of such power and ability, else they wouldn’t be broadcasting it far and wide as a commercialized venture for profit. Such skills were not meant to be bought and sold like hamburgers.

So here you have martial arts urban legends: they may have some grain of truth to them, some may be childish misinterpretations, and some may be total out-and-out b.s. They might all be painted as childish silliness, not worthy of further attention, were not many of such myths still being promulgated as facts by people who should know better. And indeed, some of these myths do hurt people, at least in terms of their understanding (or misunderstanding) of Asian cultures and the martial arts that arose from them.

Over 30 years passed since I was asked if I could walk on rice paper, but some myths and legends still persist. And new ones arise.

A few months ago, someone asked to join our iai club. He said that he had studied under a teacher out in the countryside for a couple of years who had formed a new style of iai to go with his karate school. I noted that our own system was quite a bit older than his style, which was developed in the 1970s, and may not mesh with what he had learned, but he insisted that he would be willing to learn what I was offering.

The problem is, his glass was already full of ideas about “martial arts,” and he couldn’t empty it to start anew.  He soon enough began to assert some ideas that his teacher told him, which I began to suspect were either wrong or wildly misinterpreted due to his limited grasp of the Japanese language. When I tried to correct him, he insisted that HE was right.

There was the thing about the hakama. We had a long Christmas break, so I mentioned in passing that everyone would have the time to wash their hakama and have them nicely cleaned for the first practice session of the new year. He shook his head. “Oh, no, you don’t wash your hakama, ever!” I asked where he heard that notion, and he insisted that his sensei told him never to wash his hakama. I pointed to his hakama and to mine, noting that both were made of a rayon blend. Maybe his sensei was talking about a silk hakama. You can only dry clean those, or have them taken apart, like silk kimono, washed and then stitched back together again. But we’re talking about rayon, buddy. Polyester. Fake cloth. I throw my hakama in the washing machine all the time. It keeps it from getting too gnarly.

Oh no, he said. You NEVER wash your hakama. Samurai never washed their hakama.

Uh. What? If anything, most samurai were sticklers for cleanliness, purity being next to godliness in their eyes. To walk around in a smelly hakama was really considered rude, but he wouldn’t accept my arguments. Okay. So maybe it was a glitch there, a kind of mental burp.

But his delusions began to pile up, abetted by what I realized was a real lack of understanding of the Japanese language and culture in spite of his living in Japan for a couple of years. This was really troubling, not just because it rendered him stubborn not just to my suggestions about hygiene, but also transferred to his inability to grasp a lot of the iai methods I was teaching.

I tried to teach him the basic first sets of kata. When he raised the sword over his head for a strike, he spread his fingers wide open and grimaced unconsciously like a kabuki actor in a woodblock print. I tried to correct him. “I don’t know if your sensei ever said this, but in our style, we don’t make faces,” I said. “Just look naturally, focus on the strike, and relax your face. Also, keep your fingers together. It looks rather overly dramatic and kabuki-ish if you open up your fingers like that. That’s just our style.”

He thanked me for the advice and then went back to his grimacing and big gecko-hand grabbing.

Eventually, I asked him how he was doing in his university classes. When he first approached me, he mentioned he was trying to get into graduate school in religion. He really needed to be accepted because he could then receive a graduate stipend to help support a wife and a young son. I wished him well and offered to give any advice or suggestion I could from my own research. Bad idea.

He subsequently said he was writing an important term paper for his Japanese religion class and it was about the “warrior philosophy.” He was basing his ideas on popular English language translations of Miyamoto Musashi’s Gorin Sho, the Hagakure, and Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido.

I made the mistake of laughing. He asked why I laughed. I said, “Well, that’s a start, but you’re basing your thesis on three books that are the source of a whole lot of misinterpretations, stereotypes and myths in the West.”

I shouldn’t have said that. It was like watching a cartoon and seeing steam rise above his head as he stewed in anger.

“Why do you say that???” he said.

Well, I’m in for it now, I thought. I might as well explain my opinion to him.

“First of all, Musashi wrote Gorin Sho only for his closest students. Even with all the koryu I do, I KNOW there’s a lot I don’t understand or know about his writing and only a student in his own style, Niten Ichi-ryu, would really know. That’s how those densho are written. Not everything is committed to paper. You need to have an understanding of the actual techniques. Short of that, there are some English translations that are really good, but I would recommend you also read it in the original Japanese. Maybe with a translation from the old style Japanese to the modern colloquial to help you.”

His brow was still furrowed. He admitted to not being versed enough to read Japanese, even though he spent a couple of years in Japan. “But what about the other sources?” he argued.

I replied. “Okay: the Hagakure. It’s the rantings of a really grumpy samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who became a priest who was forbidden to commit suicide when his lord died. He wrote during the Edo Period.  That’s 200-plus years of peace. He wasn’t a warrior going off to battle every month or so. He was a peacetime soldier dreaming of a romanticized past. That’s not to say that no samurai thought like him. I’m sure some did, but he was already romanticizing the past. If you look at some of the writings of some other bugeisha before his time, during his time and even after his time, you will find that he is really on the extreme end of a whole range of concepts of what it means to be a warrior. His is not the only voice or ‘way of the warrior.’ There’s a lot more ways.

“And Nitobe’s Bushido? Quaint. But look, man, this was written after the age of the samurai. The samurai as a class were long gone when Nitobe wrote this after he gave a series of titillating lectures in drawing rooms to the blue blooded women of Boston’s upper class. These are the notions of what it was to be a samurai by someone who was further from the era of the bushi than the writer of the Hagakure was. It’s also very much romanticized, pointedly for an audience in love with Orientalism.”

He countered, Well, then, if I shouldn’t use these as sources, what can I use?

I replied, well, you could use them, but with a grain of salt. And balance them with research into actual densho from older martial ryu which really went beyond romanticizing. I noted that a group in Kyoto practicing Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu had translated the sayings of the Hosokawa clan members that practiced iai. It was an interesting trove of information about the practical use of the sword as well as a source of sayings, philosophy and opinions about what it meant to be a warrior. I said that Otake Risuke, the training master of the Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu, had published a series of books that were translated into English called The Deity and the Sword, which included the heiho (martial strategy) of the oldest of extant swordfighting ryu in Japan. How Otake sensei explained “bushido” was worlds apart from the popular, romanticized notion.

I also noted that there are poems and advice in my own Takeuch-ryu system handed down to me from my teacher, but I was not able to show them to him unless he was a member of the ryu and he could read archaic Japanese.

Something must have gotten through his red miasma of anger because he calmed down enough to ask if I would be willing to read his paper before he submitted it. I said I would give it a look if I had time.

He never reappeared after that Christmas break, and he never showed me his paper. I suspect his professors, like me, found his paper to be full of simplistic concepts gleaned from misinterpretations of popularized sources. My only concern was that, in this case, a stubborn refusal to grow out of such adolescent romanticizing and a belief in urban martial arts myths may have cost him academically and financially. It may have impacted on a whole family’s destiny. But I tried to warn the student, to no avail.

Sometimes, some people want to so much belief in the myths that they don’t see the reality of what’s right in front of them, even if it hits them flat in the head.

12 thoughts on “33. Martial Arts Urban Legends

  1. Something I have a lot of trouble wrapping my head around is a common phenomenon: somebody comes along to learn something from you, then tells you that you’re doing it wrong and THEN gets made when you wont teach them.

    If you’re going to learn something from someone, your best bet is to do it the teachers’ way. At least that makes sense to me.

    “If you can’t find the truth right in front of you, where do you expect to find it?” – Dogen

    1. As a coach I have a “trick” that I use when I meet with resistance from someone who (ahem) already knows. I ask for their patience and trust and say the following:

      “Try it my way. If it works, you have learned something. If it doesn’t work, you have learned something.”

  2. Had a colleague some time ago that was interested in martial arts, a young fella. He told me that a samurai sword could not only cut through stone, but the stone would not even leave a mark on it. Of course I put him straight. Don’t know if he believed me. One year later he did get fired, he was not able to adapt. Wonder…

  3. Excellent take on the ‘interesting’ people one can meet while teaching a class. One can also meet them on the job and in the community.

    I work with a guy who attained brown belts in Kempo, and Hwrangdo. This was in addition to the green belt in Kodokan Judo, and the blue belt he attained in a form of Samurai Jujitsu I never heard of. Needless to say, he went on to explain: “… that he never went for a Black Belt, because in NY state he would have to register his hands as deadly weapons.”

    That said, there is a guy in my area that said the only martial system he ever respected was Krav Maga, because, as he said: “…those dudes are only interested in maiming and mayhem!”

    I also had a neighbor he said his 14 year old son was already an Instructor in a Taekwondo school. The child achieved this rank, after studying for the last 7 years, 2 classes a week, an hour apiece, non stop for at least 40 weeks a year in the last 7 years. I was impressed because it only took me 17 years at an average of 135 (2+ hours of instruction and practice each session) classes a year, to attain my instructors rank. I just figured I was a slow learner.

    1. Tom,
      …Or, the opposite thinking would be: why would you value a rank if even a 14-year-old can achieve it in seven years, without any thought to maturity, teaching ability, wisdom gained from worldly experiences, and the like? There may be some technical value to that rank, but as far as deeper meanings…?

  4. Tom, I used to do karate in a large organization. It awarded “junior” ranking, belts with white stripes lengthwise, to denote that the students have a kind of junior rank. I.e., technically their kata and performance against other juniors were very good, but really, even a 9-year-old, 80-pound tyro who could do spinning jumping back kicks three times in a row wouldn’t stand much chance against a 200 pound hulking adult brown belt, when it came down to sheer power punching. Anyway, such debates are, thankfully, the province of modern budo, which is another reason why I gravitated to koryu budo. Hopefully, I won’t have to make such considerations about ranks for a long, long, time. Kids simply aren’t interested in koryu.

  5. You can’t blame somebody for not knowing any better- don’t let another person’s stubborn nature frustrate you, it’s not a worthwhile reason to dislike a person.

    1. Rue,

      Possibly. I could be wrong. I could also be justified because that person reduced me to a stereotype as an Asian American. Then, stupidity is also lazy racism.

  6. I think that whole ‘Katana’s must taste blood once they are drawn’ rubbish came about because of the miniseries Shogun. Great book, good television but orientalism at its best. I am worried that when Fox remakes the miniseries soon all these ‘kenjutsu arts’ that have been long lost to us will come out of the hills.
    Great site Wayne. I an learning a lot.
    Thank you

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