Aikido described

Several times a week I walk past the haberdashery shop where I bought the bits and pieces needed to make the wedding cake and I am reminded of the conversation I had with one of the women working there at the time. Rather than introduce the unfamiliar word "aikido" into the conversation, I'd previously said I was making little "judo" figures.

But when I needed the material for the hakama (the black pleated skirts) it clearly wasn't that straightforward, and I was asked again what martial art it was for. Reluctantly, because I generally avoid conversations about the martial arts with martially uninformed (that is, normal) people, I said "aikido."

"Is that the one with the sticks?" the lady asked.

"Well . . . no, you're probably thinking of kendo," I replied, because on the balance of probabilities (and previous experience) that would be the case.

"No, I'm sure it's aikido," she said. "They always bring their sticks, but they never use them. They just stroke each other."

Yep, that sounds like aikido. 😉

Wisdom of Koans

It is well known that Fudebakudo masters, drawing on the tradition of Zen, often torment and bemuse their students with koans. Sometimes a single koan is thrown before a student to disrupt reliance on  the intellect as a tool for understanding reality. At other times, a whole line of koans is used as a test of equinamity. Koans, once understood, are usually not discarded but instead left behind on the Way as both obstacle and encouragement to those who follow. Fudebakudo students recognise them as tokens indicating that an enlightened master has passed ahead.

Examples of classical Fudebakudo koans:

This post was formerly in the Forum. I was reminded of it during a contemplative moment (as a passenger) on the A34 (I think) on the way to Bicester at the weekend.

Book Recommendation: Mishima’s Sword

I just finished reading Mishima's Sword by Christopher Ross.

It's an engrossing piece of research concerning Yukio Mishima, the Japanese writer who famously (or, more accurately, infamously) killed himself in the "traditional" manner of seppuku in 1970. The book loosely takes the form of a journal of Ross's progress as he attempts to track down the sword that was used to decapitate Mishima, but it's also an account of Mishima's last day, and a scattered collection of analyses of both Mishima's motivation and others' reaction to what he did. Ross points out that in many ways Mishima was a combination of several taboos that, individually, Japanese society prefers not to confront; so altogether this makes him a fascinating and awkward figure. Despite the uneasiness or even dismissal with which many modern Japanese react to what he represented, Mishima's work is still widely read in Japan.

Ross's book, like Fudebakudo, quotes a line from the Hagakure (one of a few classic texts on the so-called code of the samurai) regarding the dangers of studying an art and merely becoming an "artist." Although Mishima was undeniably a literary artist, was he ever a warrior, a martial artist — or was he just playing the part? Despite adopting the forms of war in life (he had his own militia, and was graded in several martial arts) and especially in death, was he ever doing more than just bizarrely aping them? It's a provocative question, because it raises the issue of what anyone practicing a martial art in times of peace — let alone in a foreign culture — can do to be anything other than an actor, or, as Hagakure puts it, just an "artist." 

By the way, I had previously enjoyed Ross's entertaining Tunnel Visions (which, whilst explicitly consisting of insightful anecdotes and philosophical musing, delightfully carries the implicit message that a great many employees of London Underground are simply having a doss). Incidentally, aikido readers who are familiar with Robert Twigger's well-known book Angry White Pyjamas may also be entertained to discover that Ross is one of Twigger's flat-mates at the start of that book.

The Myth of the Oppressor?

Last night I was sitting in the pub, like you do, talking to a friend who explained how the shape of his face had been influenced by Thai boxing — a nose injury from falling flat on the mat, as it happens (he said: "People ask me 'Why didn't you put your hands out?', and I tell them, 'Because I was unconscious.'") I have to state my position now: I admire Thai boxing for effectiveness. Although I am not a Thai boxer myself nor ever could be, I did live in Thailand for some time so I have seen muay thai at its most authentic (Lumphini stadium, ringside, and in dusty contests in the villages of Esarn), as well as in its culturally-numbed but nonetheless devastating form in gyms and fight-nights in the UK. I set this out now to make it clear that what follows is not an attack on muay thai per se, but a rejection of the noble myth of oppression.

Anyway… we're back in the pub. My friend then said that Thai boxing had developed from a time when "they" were forbidden to carry weapons, so "they" had learnt to improvise with agricultural weapons and their own bodies.

My eyes roll. This must the the second most over-used canard in the martial arts (the first is, of course, the tedious one about the black belt; and the third is the nonsense about knocking people off horses with flying kicks). The Fudebakudo book lampoons it on p.85 by including shotguns and combine harvesters in the Agricultural Weaponry of the Okinawan Peasantry. Surely everyone couldn't have developed their fighting systems because they were forbidden from using better ones? Because if they did, as Marc MacYoung points out, it implies that the weapons art is the better one; after all, the first thing the uprising does when it rises up is grab the weapons. Otherwise, of course, the oppressors would disarm themselves, impoverish the peasants by handing them edged or projectile weapons, and then go about the business of controlling the armed peasantry with the superiority of an unarmed martial art.

Perhaps it's true; perhaps there may have been one or two occasions in history where an improvised or unarmed martial system really did emerge to rise up and overthrow the weapon-hoarding oppressors. But in reality this is exactly the kind of thing people would say if they were asked why they were fighting with second-rate weapons. "We haven't got any, because, uh, we're not allowed." Try it if someone ever tells you their style of pummel-wrestling is the best martial art. What, really, against a gun from over there? They think you're being silly; you're not. Did the current MMA system develop because its protagonists were forbidden by the ruling classes from using guns? Actually, in a way it did — but it wasn't an uprising.

The trouble with the "this martial art developed from oppression" position is that it rarely follows through to its logical conclusion. Instead, it turns in on itself. How often do such stylists practice against a trained enemy with a superior weapon? In their forms, in their kata, perhaps there's a moment when they "take a sword" (thereafter to use it, natch). But generally, in the application, the competitions, the kumite, one guy never gets the sharp sword or the gun. No, they both fight unarmed, or at least, within the system. So, isn't that oppressed peasants fighting amongst themselves? If so, how noble is that?

Of course, these are concessions to sparring and training in the modern world, up to a point. But it does make the noble argument of oppression somewhat irrelevant.