I don’t make a living from budo. I probably either break even or lose money from overseeing a little training group. I give up one night a week, because that’s about all the time I have outside of work and family obligations, to drive through rush hour traffic to get to the dance studio where we train. If I didn’t love budo training so much, and if I didn’t have fun doing it, I wouldn’t be doing it, that’s for sure.
Having fun doing budo may seem so obvious it barely needs stating, but sometimes I wonder. Once I observed an aikido class that was supposed to have been a topflight dojo on the East Coast. The one thing that I remember which really stood out for me was the nearly frigid silence. The teacher showed a technique and the students bowed to him, and then paired off to repeat the technique. The only sounds you’d hear were the slip of feet on the mats, the slam of body on the mats, and the occasional grunt of pain. It was intense, to be sure. And earnest. But smiles when a technique worked nicely? Easy laughter at the sheer joy of practicing? Nope. The practice tried so hard to be SERIOUS that there seemed no room for spontaneous levity or expressions of enjoyment.
I’ve also been a student in aikido and karate classes where that kind of stolid seriousness cast a gloom over the training. Gruff instructors grunted only their disapproval, and obnoxious sempai lorded it over the beginners, trying to intimidate and harass them with their superior techniques. Not fun at all.
Lest you think I’m saying budo training should be a nonstop comedy routine, I’m really trying to make the argument that good practice, day in and day out, should be balanced. Hard, physical training should be alleviated by a natural, calm and open teaching atmosphere that allows for beginners to make mistakes, to correct themselves, and for everyone to enjoy the practice without feeling intimidated, belittled or afraid to express themselves.
This comes from my experience training with some extraordinary teachers. The best of them were not only technically proficient, they could also explain and dissect the techniques, and they were self-confident enough to let you grow and enjoy yourself. My judo and aikido teachers in college were among the first foreigners to study at the postwar Kodokan and under Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of aikido. One of them had also started judo under Kawaishi Mikinosuke, the famed judo master who taught in prewar Europe and who specialized in groundwork. He polished his standing technique in Japan under such teachers as the great Mifune Kyuzo and Inokuma Isao. He could ask me, “Where do you want to land?”If I pointed to a spot on the mat, he could grab me and dump me on my back in randori on a spot the size of a dime, no matter how hard I resisted.
Our matwork training was so hard and so intense, when I was given the chance to be a “dummy” training partner for the 1976 US Olympic Judo team, my dojo mate and I were able to tie up the Olympic-level judo players on the ground, to our mutual surprise. So lots of smiles, lots of discussions and lots of explanations were not antithetical to hard training.
I also trained for a while with Quintin Chambers and Donn F. Draeger in jojutsu. Because I had read so much of Draeger’s groundbreaking books on budo and bujutsu, and I had heard so much of the legendary Chambers, I was intimidated by both of them at first. They both turned out to be gentlemen of the first degree. Draeger, in particular, was a powerful technician who could bring out the best in you as a student. On the other hand, he had a wickedly bawdy, corny sense of humor, as an ex-Marine would have, and sometimes his stories about his crazy experiences in Japan had us nearly rolling on the ground in laughter. He could do a really good impersonation of Nakamura Taizaburo sensei getting pissed off at somebody.
Maybe like attracts like, but over the years since I began to move more and more into koryu, I found teachers who echoed my own sense of humor. Ohmori Masao, who I consider my primary iai teacher, was a kind and gentle elderly sensei when I met him, but he chuckled a lot when he taught me. Maybe he was laughing with me because I was so earnest about learning as much as I could from him, and it was his way of saying, “hey, cool down, take it easy, relax and don’t tense up.”
When I started training in koryu bujutsu under Ono Yotaro sensei of the Takeuchi-ryu, I thought he was both one of the smoothest, incredibly efficient jujutsu persons I had ever seen, and one of the funniest as well. He was so technically brilliant, his mind worked so quickly, he was so gifted in his martial arts, his landscape architecture and his shakuhachi flute playing, that he exuded a joy to life that was just infectious. He could be talking about the hiden (secret teachings) of Japanese gardening in one breath, and in the next, taking apart the meaning of an okuden jujutsu kata the next, while making a funny running commentary on both.
So when I returned to Hawaii after studying with such teachers, I was hard pressed to find teachers who had the same caliber, technically, intellectually and personality-wise, like my teachers in Japan. Then one day I was listening to Public Radio. The host was interviewing a Tai Chi Ch’uan teacher. She had studied directly under the Wu family in Hong Kong for over ten years. She was the real deal. And yet, I was impressed that she didn’t carry herself with any trace of arrogance or false bravado. In fact, she laughed a lot in the interviews. I thought to myself, “I like her sense of humor!”
So I joined her classes and lo and behold, not only was she down-to-earth, she truly did have an incredible amount of knowledge, which she willingly shared with me, especially when she found out how crazy I was about martial arts.
I think, therefore, from my experiences, that such teachers who balance humor and naturalness with technical mastery are at ease with themselves and their abilities. They don’t have to constantly prove anything to anybody, and they act without stilted mannerisms, militaristic discipline, or sullen, gloomy silence.
I have two very good friends. One started his own aikido club, and the other friend established an Okinawan karate dojo. Both are madly in love with their martial arts, and both smile a lot when they teach because they just love being able to pass on their arts. Their dojo are both nonprofit, so budo is truly a labor of love for them. They love teaching martial arts so much they just laugh and smile a lot when they teach. But in observing their classes, there is no lack of proper technique and hard training. It’s just not taken so glumly, like taking foul-tasting medicine. They love the training, and they express that love.
Maybe it’s just me, my friends and my teachers. Maybe there’s other ways to teach martial arts that are just as valid, each according to one’s own personality. Certainly, if you are deadly serious about training in martial arts to reach the caliber of international competition, you probably have to be fanatically intense in your training. There may not be room for joy and good humor. But for what I call the typical machi no dojo (community dojo where all levels of practitioners train day in and day out, for years on end), the amount of joy blended with rigorous training I found in my teachers’ classes were a perfect combination.
I can only hope that I can pass on that blend of joy and hard work to my own students, so that in finding that joy, they will continue to train for a very long time. After all, if they enjoy the training, I’m sure they’ll keep coming back for more.