I was very pleased to learn yesterday that my longtime friend, sempai, and editor, Annie Gottlieb, is 50 pages into the edit of my Kyokushin Beginner’s Guide: Replicating Mas Oyama’s Budo Karate in the Western Dojo. How great to hear that she calls it “terrific”, “compulsive,” and “easy to edit.” The previous post (see “Kyokushin Beginner’s Guide” tab above) shared the first part of the introduction. Here’s the second, a brief essay called Kyokushin’s Unconquerable Country.
Annie keeps herself very busy and the book is 300 pages long, but hopefully if I have it back within the next 6 weeks, I can have it to press in less than three months. We’ll see how it goes. I’m excited to share this one. Here’s one that all of my students should own, and can use on a regular basis to enhance their learning experience.
Introduction Part 2: Kyokushin’s Unconquerable Country
Kyokushin’s unconquerable country.
At least Mas Oyama considered it to be, and it is critical that we consider what it might mean to us in the West that our founder, Mas Oyama, at the very least believed the American personality, and to a lesser degree the Western one, to be the one in the world that was the most inhospitable to Japanese Budo, the martial way of Japan.
In recent years I heard an interview with Mas Oyama that was recorded in America during his final visit to this country where he first began Kyokushin’s amazing overseas expansion 40 years earlier. It was late Autumn of 1992, less than two years before his death, and he was here for Shihan Michael Monaco’s tournament in Rochester. Australia’s Shihan Cameron Quinn was interpreting. The interviewer asked Mas Oyama what he thought of America.
“Uh, oh,” I thought, “this ought to be good!”
And it was.
Mas Oyama responded by saying how a young woman he’d been traveling with had been brought to tears by how beautiful a country it was, i.e. by its landscape, and it was quite masterfully said since the uninformed listener would have heard, in Mas Oyama’s words and tone, how much he admired America.
And Mas Oyama had nothing personal against America or Americans, but I can personally attest, since I lived and trained in Mas Oyama’s daily presence for nearly two years immediately prior (from early 1990 up until just before the start of 1992), that Mas Oyama despised the influence that “the American spirit” was having, even on his Budo karate at home in Japan. If the Budo karate spirit was matter, for Mas Oyama the American spirit was antimatter. For six years prior to Japan I grew up a student of his nephew, Sensei Seong Soo Choi in North Carolina, knowing that Mas Oyama had given up on ever replicating the Budo karate spirit in this, the world’s last superpower. Into his residential program in Tokyo where I was finally admitted at the age of 19, I was told that Mas Oyama had said repeatedly that we would never admit another American. He believed America to be a lost cause.
Happily, I do believe that Mas Oyama had some hope for America in the end.
I know better than anyone that he put a great deal of personal effort into ME and my development while I was his only America student, and, although he was daily lecturing how “American spirit’ was the force most likely to undo his life’s work, I know that he was not directing that criticism at me personally. He loved the times that I broke through and demonstrated attitude that he would have considered unexpected given that I was an American, and I constantly sought to show him that I was aware. I do believe that in his daily lectures, Mas Oyama was waging a war to make ME understand the importance of Budo as a product of Japanese culture, and the importance of understanding that some certain attitudes contained within the American one, were destructively inhospitable to it. At the very least, the bottom line for me has always been that we can not take Budo karate for granted without very careful attention paid to the cultural differences between Japan and the cultures of the West.
Readers in other English-speaking countries should not let themselves off the hook. Your culture also differs from Japanese culture, and your culture has also been influenced by America. Many of you will have the advantage of having at least some impulse similar to Mas Oyama’s since American culture is having such an incredible influence on ALL the cultures of the word, and, that, in both good and bad ways. Karate teachers and students in most foreign counties will be able to identify, like Mas Oyama, ways in which America’s influence is, ALSO, influencing their young people in negative ways. Democracy is good, Coke and MacDonald’s hamburgers are bad. You get the point.
Mas Oyama certainly did.
So, what’s our responsibility?
What is important for us to keep in mind as we begin our study of Budo karate?
First, I believe that far from it being something to be ashamed of, I believe that it is our DUTY to understand and embrace the fact that we might be disadvantaged. We live in an era where so much fracturing has occurred in the Kyokushin world that it’s easy for us, no matter who we’re affiliated with, to find someone to compare ourselves to in which we can feel pretty good about our own level of achievement. When Mas Oyama’s Kyokushin was one unified whole, everyone had no choice but to compare themselves to the whole wide world of Kyokushin. Now, however, the whole world of Kyokushin, for many of us, can be (if we allow it) a much smaller world indeed.
“We are good at what we do! We do it better than those other guys, we must be doing something right!” no longer necessarily holds as something to be proud of in the various small slices of the Kyokushin world.
This statement might cause some readers to take pause, but I would hold that it is our responsibility as karateka, really no matter where we’re training, to accept that fact that our karate is not good compared to what it should be. Is it not more patriotic, after all, to accept our deficiencies? Isn’t it only by doing so that might we truly open the doors to embracing ways in which we might improve? Of course we have learned to do some things well in the Budo karate dojos of the West, and even, for that matter, in the dojos of America!
Of course we can be proud of the achievements we’ve made!
But all one needs to do is to watch a present-day kata competition in a North American tournament to see how far we truly have yet to go. I’m not boasting about my own kata – far from it! – but I have had enough exposure to some folks who actually have a very good understanding of kata, for example, to know that there really aren’t, on the North American continent, very many folks who are teaching kata in a way that reflects its true meaning. The way kata is taught on this continent it might as well be something separate. People learn to fight, and people learn, separately, the mysterious dance called kata. You can beat someone up with the kind of karate learned separate from kata, but a mastery of self-defense? Your ability to defeat five attackers, all of them able, and half of them armed? Not yet with this North American Kyokushin. Not unless the five attackers are very wimpy, indeed.
If Mas Oyama were here today to focus on the West, and on breaking the back of trends that are counter to the development of a more authentic Budo karate, I know in my bones that he would be doing so, also, by trying to bridge the cultural gap that he didn’t have enough time to bridge during his lifetime.
Americans will never be Japanese, Canadians will never be European, a people’s culture is going to be their culture no matter what. However, the American example is certainly proof that cultures do spill, and can be spilled, across international borders to influence the development of foreign cultures. Sometimes this happens naturally: Coke and the MacDonald’s hamburger, for example, piggybacking on Democracy. But there is also a path of least resistance element to cultural exchange. Negative aspects of culture tend to trickle down hill, and that’s the final point that I believe it’s important for us to understand.
Whereas American pop-culture will spread automatically because it’s light, and free, and fun, and easy, that element of Japanese culture that is Budo will NOT spread automatically into Western culture because it’s NOT light, or free, or fun, or easy. We absolutely have to understand that it’s not natural. It won’t come automatically. We have to go and get it. We have to fight for it.
To adjust and improve our practice of Budo karate, as I believe that it is our duty to do, we have to work at it. We have to study. Sure, much of it will emerge through the blood, sweat, and tears spilled of hard physical training. But I would attest that, while that might be enough in the Dojos of Japan, here it won’t ever be.
In America, we spill American blood, American sweat, and American tears. It’s my opinion that we need to do some learning of how to spill, not even a few Japanese ones, but in order to really grasp Budo karate, because there’s also now an America-influenced pop-Japanese culture that’s not so comfortable with Budo either, we need to learn to spill a few samurai tears, some samurai sweat, and some samurai blood. At least if we VALUE doing so, we will gain some insight into Budo karate that we wouldn’t otherwise have had.
It’s my firm opinion that we would gain some insight that would please my teacher and yours, Mas Oyama.
Does this book advocate spilling blood?
Well, only in a matter or perspective. The book is not about warfare and we don’t tend to spill much actual blood in karate training. Rather it’s about how a beginning practitioner of Budo karate might best approach his/her training. It’s about developing attitudes and personality that is best receptive to the way in which you will experience Budo karate in your own Western dojo.