The Japanophile Syndrome

Back in the October 1997 issue of Traditional Karate, Russell Ward wrote in with a very interesting letter which was in response to one of my friend Harry Cook's articles. Harry had presented an opinion regarding Ki or Chi, which obviously touched a nerve with one or two people. What got me thinking was not so much the argument about Ki - I have my own opinions on that subject! - but one or two comments which were made in Mr Ward's letter and in Harry's response. In his letter, Mr Ward makes the point that "if we are going to benefit from the long experience of the Chinese in Martial Arts or anything else, it is not unreasonable to meet them halfway by, for example, learning their language". This got me thinking....

I have mentioned before that our study of Karate is a one of a totally oriental activity and to fully understand it, we may have to look deeper than just the technique of what we do. There are so many other factors that have a bearing on the complete package that is the Japanese Martial Arts. (I focus on the Japanese systems not from some point of prejudice, merely that this is where most of my experience lies and I can therefore make comment with some degree of knowledge). For example, a lot of the etiquette that surrounds the Japanese way of training has both a religious and military background. But not religion as we in the West understand it. Eastern philosophies are different from the orthodox religious beliefs of the West and speaking metaphorically, trying to get a square peg into a round hole does not work. What I mean by that is that trying to apply Western attitudes to an Eastern philosophy or practice might not ultimately produce the right result or understanding. So exposing ourselves to certain aspects of a relevant foreign culture might get us that bit further down our chosen path.

This could be why we find some who pursue the martial arts, begin to adopt various aspects of the culture from which their art originated such as has been suggested by Mr. Ward.. This can be beneficial in a number of ways. Firstly, having an understanding of the cultural background of the country from whence a system came can help us not just to perform but also to understand some more of the subtle nuances and thereby allow us to gain greater insight. For example why some of the etiquette that we find in the dojo is in place - why do we bow before and after practice, why we bow to each other before and after an exercise, why do we say Onegai Shimasu? I could go on as the list is long but hopefully, you see my point. Immersing oneself in a subject can lead to a greater understanding but where do we draw the line between what is acceptable and what is just downright weird!

I know the way I occasionally interact with other people is not always the accepted Western norm. Over the years, my training has presented me with the opportunity to think about and experience particular things in an alternative way to the accepted Western norm. I have now formed an opinion on these issues which are consequently different to the norm. Does that make me weird? As long as I don't cause anyone any harm what is the problem? After all, I am entitled to my opinions. However, if I were to start wandering down the street in full Samurai regalia and wearing two swords everywhere then maybe I would start to have second thoughts (and probably get locked up to boot!)... But where do we draw this line regarding the adoption of foreign cultural influences, attitudes, language even religions? That I will leave you to ponder on. Whilst you are thinking about that, chew on this too -

I was having a conversation the other day with my friend and weapons teacher Julian Mead, about the business of becoming a Japanophile. For those who have not been to Japan and yet are keen to try and understand the psyche of the nation and their cultural viewpoints, then reading books and magazines, watching films and documentaries and talking to those who have been fortunate enough to go are just a few of the ways they can begin to form an idea of what Japan is really like. But how accurate are these perceptions? Pete and I were talking with Julian about this very issue and Julian's responses made a great deal of sense and are based on personal experience. Regarding the issue of what Japan is like, his advice was that whatever perceptions you have prior to going, irrespective of how accurate you may think they are, forget them. Wait until you get there and form your own opinions based on your own experience, not warmed-over versions of somebody else's. He went on to say that it can be absolutely nothing like you imagined and then suddenly it can be totally as you would imagine it. Paradoxical is what I call it!

So why do some go through this process? Obviously, for the reasons already opined: to perchance gain a greater understanding of some of the more esoteric aspects of our Art. But there may be other reasons. Again Julian hit upon what, to my mind, is an accurate suggestion and reinforced my own opinion about the issue. That is to say that most Martial Artists are romantics to a greater or lesser degree. I don't mean romantic in the "red roses and sweet nothings" sense, but romantic in wanting to believe something conforms to our ideals or aspirations when in reality it may, or it may not. This is no bad thing as long as in doing so we do not encourage our own preconceptions on others, where they are based on conjecture and not fact. That would be misrepresentation.

This brings us full circle back to Harry's article about Ki. Is Ki as an "Intrinsic Force" a reality, or is it just a romantic belief in something which is really just a concept, and not a real, tangible, quantifiable thing? Make your own conclusions and have your own beliefs, romantic or otherwise, but think of your motivation for doing so before you impart them to others. Mr Ward is right too - we should at least entertain elements of foreign culture (in Karate's case, Japanese culture) in order to better understand our subject of study, even if we choose not to embrace them fully. And what is wrong with a little romanticism providing the underlying motivation is not to mislead others? After all, it is the romantic in us that will help to ensure the real Traditions of our Martial Arts are maintained, and oddly these Traditions can be the key to producing a realistic end product as opposed to a romantic interpretation based on the desire to emulate a foreign culture from a bygone age.

Copyright Phil Snewin 1998. All rights reserved