Aikido is a Japanese martial art. At least, its history is Japanese, and many of the most respected practitioners of this art are Japanese. As a result, much of our behavior is designed to follow Japanese language and customs. Following Japanese (or, really, Japanese-like) behavior accomplishes several things:
- It provides some measure of comfort for sensei, provided that this sensei is Japanese himself.
- It causes non-Japanese students to become a little more aware of themselves and their actions, because they are adapting to customs that are not inherently theirs.
- It encourages everyone to remember the history and ancestory of the art–after all, where we have been is often just as important as where we are going.
Kokikai Aikido is, I have been told, one of the most lenient in regards to adhering to Japanese customs. This theory has, so far, been borne out by my visits to other clubs and discussions with practitioners of other Japanese martial arts. Even so, I find that there are two traits in which adherence to culture becomes difficult: honor and respect.
Of course, honor and respect are highly important to our martial arts training. You could easily argue that, without them, our training is worse than useless. However, the Japanese treatment of honor and respect are very different from those found in the United States. I make no judgement calls here: by “different,” I do not mean to imply that any one system is better than the other. The system of honor and respect inherent to Japanese culture and the one found in the United States can each provide the practitioner the satisfaction of knowing they act with dignity.
Honor and respect, in a dojo setting, usually manifests itself in three ways:
- The sensei is Japanese, while the students are not. In this case, following a more Japanese-oriented honor system makes sense, as it is inherent to the teacher, and provides a means of teaching the students.
- The sensei is American and the students are American. In this case, following a more American-oriented honor system makes sense, as it is common to both teacher and student.
- The sensei is American, yet wanting to follow the Japanese tradition, and the students are American.
It is this last item that causes problems. Instead of the instructor following a system of honor and respect that both he and his students can understand, a hybrid system is creating that is a conglomeration of Japanese and American behaviors. This is not inherently bad; it is inherently confusing and frustrating to the students. The instructor, however good his intentions, will tend to pick and choose which aspects of each system he finds important. Often, the instructor will change his mind–what was a crucial point of honor per the Japanese system is unimportant today, while tomorrow it may become important again. The students, as a result, find themselves in a tailspin–forever attempting to guess what behavior is correct and what is not. While they might succeed well enough to please their instructor, they do learn very little that can be applied to other dojos or other situations.
It is my opinion that honor and respect are middle grounds. The instructor and students must agree (in some way) what is considered correct behavior and what is not. This is why I, personally, try to follow an approact that I call “conservatively modern.” In other words, I expect that I and my students treat each other the way we would treat an elder, respected member of our family. Honor and respect are too important to be guessing games–and it is too easy to create a maze of behaviors that leave students frustrated, because their best efforts still are not considered correct.
A final note: if you are a new student to Aikido, or any martial art, I offer the following: infuse each action with best intentions and humility. If your behavior is “disrespectful,” leave your ego alone and treat it as a learning experience. If your instructor fails to treat you in the same way–well, there are many places one can train. Your agreement to be a student implies a willingness to learn–not a willingness to break your own spirit.