109. Having a Moral Compass in Budo

Budo, like any human endeavor, has its own share of scoundrels, liars, cheats and crooks. There are also people who may not be engaged in illegal activities, but whose moral, ethical and spiritual compass are less than stellar. Way less. How you deal with that is your own kuleana (“property,” as we say in Hawaii), but you have to live with yourself, and you shouldn’t lie to yourself about the choices you therefore make.

Yes, you’d like to think that all the budo talk about martial arts being an endeavor to improve one’s mental, spiritual and physical health is true, and to a certain extent, I believe it is true. But it is also a decidedly human experience, and humans are nothing if not fallible.

I write this because on a popular budo discussion site in that I participate in, a question arose about a particular Japanese budo ryu that has somewhat unsavory ties to people who probably did some things during World War II that would be considered war crimes. …Like summary beheading of prisoners and civilians, for example. Or using noncombatants for bayonet practice. …Stuff like that, which are not very nice, indeed.

Arguments went back and forth, between supporters and students of that ryu and those who simply could not condone that connection. There was also some harping of moral equivalencies and “situational” morality. That is, America dropped atomic bombs and perfected the art of fire-bombing cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilian men, women and children, so everyone is guilty of something. Or, the old “that was war. That’s what happens in war” excuse.

I’m not even going to touch that. What really bothers me is if, as it seems, some of those who perpetrated such atrocities are actually proud of what they did. Then I have a problem. Things happen in war, yes. America was the “good guy” in World War II, but that doesn’t condone anything our country did that was morally repugnant, simply because the other side was the “enemy.” The fire-bombing of Dresden, the destruction of civilian lives from American bombers, the killing of Okinawan civilians, some of whom were my relatives…these are events that should never be glorified. That way lies moral bankruptcy. It happened. It was bad. Let us pray it doesn’t happen again. But it will. And only our attempts at mitigating such effects of war makes us any different from the enemy, those who care not one bit about putting civilians into danger, or using them as human shields, or killing them randomly because they are “soft targets.” Our morals and ethics are the only things that make us different from those who we consider to be our enemies.

The Toyama-ryu iai organizations, as I understand it, based their sword methods on the training that former military officers received at the old Japanese Imperial Army school, the Rikugun Toyama Gakko. A modernized method of using a katana-style sword was developed after it was found that Western-style sabers weren’t as effective against Jigen-ryu swordsmen in the Satsuma Rebellion. The Japanese Army also observed that World War I style trench warfare favored weapons like bayonets (hence jukenjutsu) or the katana over a one-handed fencing saber. Hence the reintroduction of sword methods based on a katana-style bladed weapon, with simplified, more “practical” techniques.

As one acquaintance told me, most of the founders of the modern Toyama-ryu wanted to keep the practical techniques and turn it into a true budo, but they deliberately hoped to discard connections to the imperial military, and to the nationalistic and fanatic imperialism that brought Japan to its disastrous war. To that end, they seem to have succeeded, creating an internationalized organization that stresses what other budo stress: a healthy mind, healthy body, healthy spirit.

There were, however, some individuals who seemed unrepentant, or who played up the aggressive, fascistic chauvinism that haunts the nether end of Japanese martial arts. Their students try to wave away these people’s odious pugnacity, but for me, there has to be some kind of moral compass. You either condone those people’s statements and therefore their position on Japanese atrocities, or you don’t. I don’t. That’s my own moral compass.

But an internalized code of ethics doesn’t just stop at the role a martial art played in World War II atrocities. When a teacher is obviously abusive, chauvinistic, sadistic, greedy or unethical, do you make excuses for him/her, and delude yourself into thinking, “Well, it’s really all about the training, nothing else”? No, it’s never ONLY about the training. A teacher’s unethical or abusive behavior will rub off on you, sooner rather than later. As the saying goes, when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas (unless it happens to be my dog. I give her frequent baths so she is flea-free!).

One of my friends saved up many years’ worth of income in order to go to Japan to study aikido. He ended up accepted into the dojo of a very, very famous teacher, and he thought he was in budo heaven. Then he noticed how many of his fellow students were being constantly injured by the teacher. “I must have fallen wrong as his uke,” they would say. Or it was their fault for not taking the lock better. Students, especially foreign students, were always hurt, with dislocated shoulders, elbows and wrists. They came in with bone bruises, black and blue welts, and black eyes. They were being abused, and like many people who are victims of abuse, they made excuses for their abuser. It was only a matter of time before my friend thought that he was going to be hurt, too, even though he felt he had survived so far because he was young, strong as a bull, and fairly tough. But the final straw to his own moral compass came when he found out that the famous teacher, who was married, was sleeping with various female students in the room above the dojo.

He had enough. He left and ended up in a far better situation, training with even better teachers at the Aikikai Hombu dojo in Tokyo, and then finding his way to various koryu teachers.

Another acquaintance spent thousands of dollars studying under a teacher who he thought was a bona fide koryu teacher. He even built his own dojo on his property to house his training. But as soon as he made contact with others in the koryu community he found that most established practitioners considered his teacher to be a fake. The evidence presented to him were so powerful that he approached his teacher, who vehemently denied the accusations at first, then avoided answering pointed questions about the origins of his supposed ryu, until finally he admitted that he made the whole thing up. But he told the acquaintance that he would not admit the truth to others even under oath. My acquaintance was devastated. Should he himself be quiet and a party to this lie, or should he leave, and end up in uncharted waters, bereft of all the connections, friendships and money he had invested in this system over the years?

He chose living an uncertain future in truth than continuing a falsehood. But again, things worked out for the better. He reached out to other koryu practitioners, and is now enjoying a beneficial relationship with several of them, learning traditional and authentic koryu, now a master of his own dojo, without having to deal with an overbearing and insincere sensei.

So really, having a strong moral compass is usually better than being a hypocrite or a having no ethics. It often ends up for the better, as the rules of karmic retribution seem to be at work here. If you apply a moral compass to your budo training instead of leaving it at the door, chances are it will serve you well in the long term.

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18 thoughts on “109. Having a Moral Compass in Budo

  1. Thank you for your thoughts on this topic. They were encouraging. I recently found myself in a similar situation and one person suggested to me that “it was a shame” I would throw away all I had invested into training. How could I not!?

    It is better to recognize badness sooner rather than later. This allows you to get back on track that much quicker. In other words, better to find out about something uncomfortable or bad now rather than to spend 20 years training in something only to find out you’ve spent your life furthering a lie.

    1. Thanks for your input. Yes, you make a good point…however painful, it’s better to get out sooner than later.

      1. It assumes that what you believe is badness is actually badness and not just, say, an egocentric response to criticism by your Sensei. It also assumes that everyone in the ryu (except you of course) have no concept that something could be better/different.

        Its like calling the people training in the fictitious Karate Kids Cobra Kai deluded. The ideas that the teacher promoted were actually valid and sincere but, for me, lacked compassion. (Minimal compassion is what one would expect if one had to use their martial arts to fight to survive.)

  2. I am glad you wrote this. I know of teacher who has a harem of women black belts. Plus he busted up new student to show how tough he is.

  3. Another well done article from someone who clearly knows right from wrong. If the training is ‘off’ it’s moral center then cloaking it in East Asian Martial Art History, mysticism, and/or the cult of the Sensei…or any other excuse is just that…an excuse. Any creditable Instructor should never partake in any activity that is off it’s moral center. The mark of a good person is one who refuses to be drawn into any activity that is off their moral center…! Just saying…thank you Sensei!

  4. Perhaps the foreigners at the famous aikido teacher’s dojo were being hurt because they demand “special” treatment (because they’ve gone to so much trouble to get to training). And perhaps it was better at honbu because honbu prefers to having paying students than to not have them.

    Why can’t a skilled, talented, experienced, knowledgeable martial artist invent their own ryu? Because teachers in a related ryu don’t consider it “bona fide”??? Musashi invented Nito Ryu. Gonnosuke invented Jojutsu, Kano invented jodo. Uchida invented Tanjo jutsu. Ueshiba invented aikdio. Funakoshi invented karate. Lee invented Jeet Kune Do.

    Are you saying that if I choose to train in the same martial art as one whose practitioners at some time in the past committed unsavory acts then my moral compass is awry? I understand that the samurai were known to test their swords on a hapless passerby (something which I find at least psychotic if not evil). As every koryu has come from the sword then every koryu practitioner today must have an awry compass!

    I was uchidachi for a kenjutsu shihan last year. We trained with bokken and I got hurt a bit. Early on I was unsure if I would be able to continue. As the days progressed I realized that I could feel the seishin of his cuts. The punishment I took was a very small price I’ve gladly paid for that realization.

  5. To everyone I’d like to offer this:

    Its not about whether you think that a martial art is legitimate. Nor whether a martial art is relevant. Nor is it about the providence of a ryu. Nor is it about the quality (technical ability, relevant knowledge) of a teacher. Nor is it about how you think training should be run. Nor is it about condemning those who believe in keeping the martial aspects of a martial art. Nor is about creating a performance art to entertain spectators. Nor is it about satisfying those with whom you don’t train. Nor is it about judging others.

    It is about being sincere!

  6. I know martial artists who have survived combat that were either “good” or “bad” people. I understand gangsters love their children and family just as much average citizens do or do not.

    Maybe martial arts is just a skill one is good at and not related to morals. Only when you hurt people in the population does become a negative.

  7. Who wrote this? I can’t find the author. I’m in Melbourne and I am having the exact same experiences in under a year! I have found one decent Sensei who is dedicated to his form very much so. But this is a great blog and very true and it’s outside of Japan what I have before me!
    I only started last year and at one of the training facility’s (I multi train) within roughly 4 ½ months one of the married instructors was messaging me explicit rubbish so I left. Another place that I went to invited me via a Sensei who knew them to ask about there school only to tell me I had to drop my current form to train with them there, otherwise you were mixing forms. They were white guys! And the school was a HYBRID of forms because the man who founded it was a white guy! Who trained in several forms while alive so it was his take on it? Hello! Any one can train how they want but I sincerely doubt that that type of outlook does not affect how you truly are in all aspects of your life its self aggrandising and exposing your essential superiority complex in my (humble) opinion. I thought it was many rivers blend into one big ocean but I guess it really isn’t for a lot of hypercritical people. Do you have a page or something else? This sort of thing is really important. Budo needs this kind of evaluation of its self it is vital it doesn’t get buried under the need for power over others but is driven by a harmony.

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