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.