56. Race, religion and gender in budo

One would think that in this day and age, this subject shouldn’t even need to be mentioned. Unfortunately, there are times when people still don’t live up to color-, race- and gender-blind ideals. Here’s what I think: race, religion, ethnicity and gender should not be barriers to training in martial arts, especially traditional and classical Japanese martial arts. However, the reality is that it sometimes is a terrible stumbling block, even now, in the 21st Century.

Prejudice can cut many ways.

There are some folk who will not look at a teacher twice if he doesn’t happen to be Nihonjin, a “real” Japanese. They will immediately make a value judgment based on the slant of the teacher’s eye and the color of his/her skin. I’ve seen this in Americans, but some new friends told me of an instance over lunch in which they observed potential students from Japan walking away from their dojo because the teacher was Caucasian. I guess they thought nobody could teach classical Japanese budo unless they were ethnically Japanese. Hogwash.

There’s something to be said about knowing the culture in which a traditional art was embedded in, of course. But here’s the thing, and it’s something I argue all the time whenever culture vs. ethnicity is brought up. Culture is not the same as ethnicity. You can be born and raised in Japan, but that doesn’t mean you know diddly-squat about traditional Japanese culture if you spent all your time playing video games, and dressed up in cosplay and hung out in Shinjuku. On the other hand, a non-ethnic Japanese budo teacher might have spent half a century training in his budo of choice, he might have studied tea ceremony, or flower arrangement, or any number of Japanese cultural traditions, he might have learned the language and studied its culture, and thus in many ways, he would be “more Japanese” on the mats than the 21-year-old Japanese kid with punked-out Harajuku hair.

This interplay between ethnicity and culture may be clearer to me because of my living in Hawaii, perhaps. Cultural identity, ethnicity and culture can be pretty complex and contradictory. I have seen an ethnically pure Caucasian kid intoning traditional Hawaiian mele (“chants”) in Hawaiian, and if you close your eyes, you would swear he was an 80-year old Hawaiian kahuna (spiritual teacher) from the back country. He was taught, properly, the hula and chanting traditions from when he was an elementary school kid, and was as conversant in Hawaiian as he was in English. So how should his race bar him from being culturally “Hawaiian” since he lived, ate, dreamed and loved the tradition? My answer: it can’t. Culture is not something in the blood, it is in the heart. If someone will show me a gene that makes someone more culturally inclined to being a martial arts master, then I’ll change my mind, perhaps. Until then, I rest my case.

The same goes for a persons’ religion. Barring extreme fundamentalism of any religion, traditional, classical budo, and even koryu deeply influenced by mikkyo, should be an endeavor than anyone can study. This is particularly true of the modern budo, which were MEANT to be transportable and international, in a way, so that more people of whatever denomination (or lack thereof) could practice it. If your own religious beliefs are so strict, however, that you can’t follow some of the basic tenets of etiquette, however, we have a problem. But that’s YOUR problem, not the system’s.  Most budo are very egalitarian when it comes to religious points of view. Don’t want to bow because it runs counter to your religious beliefs? That’s like saying you don’t want to shake hands, or you don’t want to touch unclean members of the opposite sex, or you want women to always be inferior to men in the dojo, or you won’t work out with certain ethnic groups because your religion considers them inferior to you. It just won’t fly in the face not just of a modern dojo, but in modern, Western society. If you can’t deal with that, you can’t do modern budo, end of story.

A koryu may be more tied into particular Shinto and Buddhist deities, but I know devout Christians who see no real dichotomy between their practice and their religion. They tend to see it as a different expression of universal attitudes towards spirituality. If you are a strict religious fundamentalist, you may find trouble bowing to a guardian deity from the Shinto and Buddhist pantheons, but again, that’s not the koryu’s problem. It’s your own. By way of cross-religious interchanges, I’ve heard of devout Jesuit priests visiting the Daitokuji Zen temple in Kyoto, Japan, to learn Buddhist meditation techniques. Jesuits are deeply Catholic, but they apparently found in zazen a valuable way to understand their own spiritual attempts to better understand their own meditative practices.

As far as gender goes, there are differences between the sexes, of course. That’s what makes the world go ‘round. And the courtesies and etiquette should extend to the dojo, but as far as treatment per training, it should be more or less equal. I say more or less, because I believe we do have to make allowances for physiological differences. I wouldn’t do a chest grab on a woman right on her breast, for example. That would get me a slap in the face, or worse. I’d grab higher up on the collar for courtesy’s sake.

I learned a lesson in gender equality early on when I met my first woman black belt in judo. I was fresh out of high school and doing judo in a rural plantation community dojo where the only practitioners were young boys and grumpy old Japanese American men. My first encounter in randori with a woman was on the college judo club’s mats. The black belt woman who wanted to work out with me looked like a young, tanned Julia Roberts. –Big, toothy smile, long brown hair, slim, sexy figure. How tough would it be? I thought, even as a brown belt, I should cut her some slack because, hey, she’s a WOMAN. Bad idea. She foot-swept me so fast, I landed on my rear end without knowing what happened. What she lacked in weight and upper body strength, she made up in speed and timing. Then she took me to the mats in newaza. When I was about to get out of her kesa-gatame, she switched to a shiho-gatame, right on top of me.

Getting smothered by her was at first surprising, and then, well, heck, it’s not too bad a deal to be held down by a pretty woman. But I just realized she had snookered me with her smile and beauty. She made me totally unprepared for her skill, and she beat me with a little strategem that I learned not to repeat again.

So I don’t place much reliance in using race, religion, gender or ethnicity as factors in the worth of a teacher or fellow student. I’ve been lucky in having teachers, especially Japanese teachers, who tend to think like that too. It makes for a much more egalitarian atmosphere.

And finally, one amusing observation: I recently met up with a fellow student of iai who worked with me reviewing some of my late teacher’s techniques. He’s Caucasian. The person I considered my main iai teacher was Japanese. But you know, the older people get, the more wrinkles and the balder they get, the more they look alike, regardless of ethnicity. And as I was training with him, I thought, geez, there’s something that’s familiar about him, like he’s channeling our old sensei…not just in his technique, but in his whole character.

I told another budo friend about my revelation. My senior had studied with our sensei, and another famous Japanese sensei for so long that when he did iai, even his facial expressions, and some of his English and Japanese phrases, came out looking and sounding like those teachers.

As a saying goes, if you study a traditional art long enough, your mind and body becomes endowed with, become dyed with the colors of your teacher’s techniques, personality and spirit. My friend’s techniques, spirit and character were full of the expansiveness of our late teacher. Such traits were conveyed beyond culture and ethnicity. He even LOOKED like our old teacher, in a way, with the set of his jaw, his focus and facial expression while doing the kata.

That, I thought, was argument enough against any such prejudice. Transmission of proper form, heart and spirit is a one-to-one human thing. It has nothing to do with the color of your skin, your gender or religion. It has everything to do with your heart.

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15 thoughts on “56. Race, religion and gender in budo

  1. I still remember standing in front of a very beautiful young girl and thinking I need to take this easy , about the same time as I was thinking that , WACK , blood nose black eye, and taken to the ground and pinned , all by this tiny 18 year old girl , best training lesson I have ever had , when training with women , I have never made that mistake again , in the last 25 years . I have no time for people and their prediges , learn from ppl who have something to teach you , so that is a win win for both parties, sometimes the most over looked person is the one you need to look for , I think , anyway good article,
    Regards
    Greg

  2. Another good one Wayne… having spent as much time in judo and budo training as I have, the points you make ring true for me and my experience. I’ve trained in many places in the world and the dojo and the people that make it what it is have always been a haven where people treated each other evenly based on their training habits more than anything else.

    I remember several of us on the ’68 All Marine Judo team were training in Kuniyuki Sensei’s Seinan dojo behind his house in the Watts area. A great few hours of training with just about every color skin pigmentation possible on the tatami. When we left and got back in the car to go back to El Toro where we were billeted, “THE RIOT” was getting underway. If we hadn’t had our dogi in the back window and the locals saw them, we most likely wouldn’t have gotten out of there. Of course we had no idea what was just beginning, but all we cared about was good judo.

    I always carried a dogi with me when traveling and felt no problems with walking into a dojo in Europe, England, Asia, South America, Canada, and Soviet Union knowing I would be treated well and taken care of… often, taken home and fed with a place to sleep, etc. Had trouble walking out a few times, “fresh meat” you know, but never anything about my race, gender, or color. Good thing my ukemi was really good for sure.

    Good times and memories.

    – Chuck

  3. Wayne,

    Another good one… having spent as much time in judo and budo training as I have, the points you make ring true for me and my experience. I’ve trained in many places in the world and the dojo and the people that make it what it is have always been a haven where people treated each other evenly based on their training habits more than anything else.

    I remember several of us on the ’68 All Marine Judo team were training in Kuniyuki Sensei’s Seinan dojo behind his house in the Watts area. A great few hours of training with just about every color skin pigmentation possible on the tatami. When we left and got back in the car to go back to El Toro where we were billeted, “THE RIOT” was getting underway. If we hadn’t had our dogi in the back window and the locals saw them, we most likely wouldn’t have gotten out of there. Of course we had no idea what was just beginning, but all we cared about was good judo.

    I always carried a dogi with me when traveling and felt no problems with walking into a dojo in Europe, England, Asia, South America, Canada, and Soviet Union knowing I would be treated well and taken care of… often, taken home and fed with a place to sleep, etc. Had trouble walking out a few times, “fresh meat” you know, but never anything about my race, gender, or color. Good thing my ukemi was really good for sure.

    Good times and memories.

    – Chuck

  4. I left judo because of gender issues. I miss it terribly, so this is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart.

    We don’t stand a chance of eliminating discrimination unless the behavior gets squashed each time it occurs. This takes a community effort, as the person or group being targeted by bias is usually the person least able to protest. All members of a dojo, I believe, are responsible for fostering the correct environment. That one-to-one communication you mention can’t happen when some members have to keep up a firewall.

    -Beth

  5. Beth,
    Agreed. I shouldn’t be, but I am always surprised that such behavior still persists all over the place. So it goes. On the other hand, the friendship and bonds that Chuck mentions also exists. It’s a great feeling to hook up with people who accept you as a fellow budo family members. Such a paradox.
    –Wayne

  6. The only overtly racist comment I have ever heard in a dojo was in a Judo dojo. That was in the last ten years.

    The most diverse dojo and arts I have ever trained in had very little overt “budo” identification, though they have direct budo antecedents…

    Has a Japanese born, but ethnic Chinese or Korean or burakumin ever been made soke of a legitimate ryu? This would I think really be an issue due to their presence in Japan and in budo over many centuries.

    Of course perhaps they have, but this background has been hidden….

    A Japanese American or South American? A mixed race Japanese?

    I’m curious, has a black African or African American been awarded a menkyo kaiden in a Japanese koryu?

    A Caucasian made a soke (again, legitimately…)?

    Just thoughts….

    1. Kit,

      Interesting food for thought. Can’t say I can think of any instance. Unless you count one conjecture one of my koryu sensei had, that the whole of the samurai class were originally Korean in origin, having brought Continental Asian technology such as horseriding, metalworking, leatherworking (which later became a trade only for the burakumin), and so on. The Korean connection is not stressed, of course, by the Japanese government, but the Hata and Mononobe clans, who were the guilds of craftspeople associated with the imperial court, were wholesale Korean, settled in the Yamato area and given ranks and property in return for their production. More to the point, I thought about it and I think one of the problems has been the relatively recent participation of non-natives in the koryu. Up until the end of WWII, it was a pretty closed system even for Japanese. Even someone like Nakayama Hakudo, fencing teacher to the imperial household, had a hard time gaining entry to the Tosa Eishin-ryu because he wasn’t from the former Tosa province.

      I suspect that as more of us “non-natives” continue to train, we’ll see more master instructors. But as far as soke, etc., I’m not so sure. I can think of one koryu where a friend has been given full master license, which means he’s pretty much free to go off and do what he wills as his own master. Other ryuha are more familial. One koryu only has one “sensei,” and that’s the lineal family head, it’s isshi soden, so to be a foreigner and become a “soke,” you have to marry into the family. Our TR line isn’t familial, but it’s been based geographically around the Kansai–Okayama and Kyoto. The main dojo of many koryu are also geographically centered. Koryu based on the guardians of the Kashima and Katori shrines are based nearby because they have to keep contact with the shrines that house the Kashima and Katori deities. With TR,it’s the deity of Atago in the Kansai.

      Even with isshi soden, one CAN teach, and become a master teacher capable of teaching on one’s own, though, and more and more I’m seeing non-natives reaching those levels. Phil Relnick, for example, has full menkyo kaiden in Shinto Muso-ryu jo, from what I understand, and is fully capable of ranking people within his group, bar none. He is also fully in charge of the Katori Shinto-ryu for North America. One of my sempai in TR has a teaching level where she can pretty much grade and rank up her students up to a very high level, and I think in a few years she may gain the highest rank possible save for “soke.” I think there are perhaps two other non-natives who may reach that level in a few years as well.

      On the other hand, I’ve heard of and seen more problems in more modern Japanese budo concerning ranks and non-natives than I have in the koryu, even though the koryu appears more “traditional.” I think with the koryu, heck, people are just glad they have someone willing to train and carry on the tradition, be they brown, black, white, purple or polka-dot. When budo conjoins with big-power organizational politics, money and big egos, bad things happen.

      –Wayne

  7. I think I need to add something to what I wrote above (sorry for the double post btw, first one didn’t show up so I did another… like lots of my screw-ups in life, I had the best of intentions :- ) ) The additional comment is: I think the general morphing of judo into IJF “jacket wrestling, wanna be spectator sport” has changed judo for the worse. Kano, of course, was “complaining” about the beginnings of kyogi (競技) judo mentality and practice was showing up in his writings in the late twenties. I think he finally gave up and distanced himself from the problem because very few people were listening. It’s become more “who can beat who” instead of the wonderfully problematic intent from both judoka to be trying their best to get an ippon and not get caught themselves while, at the same time, not really caring who “won” as long as the waza and experience was the best judo possible.

    I know there were problems with many male judoka not wanting to train with female judoka. One of my teachers refused to stop wearing a joshi obi so that when the men ended up looking up at her (happened often at the KDK and the Keishicho “meat market”), they would know it was a woman that had just made that waza. Overall, though, my experience was very good for me until the sport attitude flavored with international politics accompanied with cheating began to happen.

    @ Beth, Sorry for you experience. It’s sad to hear that you lost something that should be there for everyone that has the heart and willingness to take part. You’d love it on the tatami in our dojo.

    – Chuck

  8. Wayne

    Yes, all my Asian Studies classes those many years ago spoke of the same thing – the question now would be why it is not stressed, let alone by the government, but by generations of masters PROUD of that potential Korean ancestry….. seems you’d have a better shot with K-Pop these days!

    I think the Tosa example is also one of exclusion….”not from around here” and probably “doesn’t talk like us.”

    1. Kit,
      Yes. Last I heard, Asian TV dramas and K-Pop stars were such a hit among middle aged and young women in Japan that they had package tours to Seoul for them to see the TV studios, sets, locations and meet with some of the male stars. Go figure.

      –Wayne

  9. OUr aikido dojo had almost no women. Now that has changed, there are 2 out of the 30 or so regulars.The sensei is Japanese, who received direct ” transmission” form O’Sensei through the green tea ceremony, apparently that was a prelude to shodan. Nevertheless, there have been instances of inappropriate behaviour,by sensei and his high ranking belts e.g., comments that don’t have to be repeated here, and the sensei actually dating a young woman who was a 1st kyu. This awful behaviour is tolerated by the mostly male members of the dojo, who are all hoping to get “Direct transmission” from the sensei, who got “direct transmission” from Ueshiba. This is one of the reasons I left. I believe that although aikido can be beautiful, ( and perhaps a good enough reason to study it ), but it is completely anachronistic in today’s world. Samurai don’t roam the streets, carrying swords.And woen shold never be subject to that kind of behavior.

    Great thought stimulating post !

  10. Wayne,

    Yes, it was bad, and I was glad to have left it.. It was an epiphany when I had realized what a waste of time it was, and I should get out ASAP. I’m happy to see you’re content with where you are in koryu bujutsu, and it seems to me in retrospect, to have been the better path. I liked your aikido article, it was absolutely correct. I suggest all aikido practitioners read it.

    1. Mark,
      Hope things are better now. Whatever martial art you pursue, you can do without abuse or someone taking advantage of you and your fellow students. That’s just needless headaches.
      –Wayne

  11. Mark, Well said… that’s absolutely the way it should be. Now, with regard to reality…. Best of luck. That’s why all of us should make our conduct with respect to your values be as (or possibly more) important as our skills in the physical realm of our practice

    – Chuck

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