The following article was written by my friend Professor Doug Aoki, a sensei from Canada who teaches Shin Ki Tai karate, a type of Wado Ryu. Sensei Doug is a karate traditionalist and student of karate history and philosophy with a voracious appetite for reading books about martial arts, and a passion for the "do" in karate do. This is a scholarly article that was not written for general viewing outside academic circles, so it's a little more formal than most of us are used to. However, it provides some perspectives on the martial arts that all of us need to consider, and it's well worth the effort of reading.

Photo of Sensei doug aokia sparring his son
The author sparring his son Alex

Teaching as killing the self
Why professors deserve to be beaten

When we first met, I felt nothing but good impressions from your subconscious, no guilt or remorse. With this in mind, I accepted you as my student. I must add that there are times when you need a sharp slap on the back with a thin stick to wake up your subconscious. Nothing we all don’t need from time to time.
Chiba Harutane1 (Craig, 1999, p. 47)

It’s well-accepted that cultural practices are structured in fundamental ways by the metaphors we use to talk, write and think about them, and teaching is no exception. But the acclamation of foundational metaphors regularly eclipses:

  1. How they remain figures of speech, regardless of their enshrinement as truth and
  2. How each figuration has crucial implications and limitations.

Exemplary are the pedagogical tropes that proliferate around nurturance and growth, whose meanings and applications reach far beyond their botanical provenance. Still, their material effects derive in no small way from how their etymology always persists in their usage—hence botany returns and elevates in teacherly dreams of students blossoming in a classroom. Yet a starkly different pedagogical metaphor is venerated outside of the ethnocentrism of the self-styled progressive West. In the Japanese martial ways, such as karate-dō 空手道, teaching is meant to be killing and almost all professors deserve a sound beating.

These martial ways are known collectively as budō 武道, and their logic is as unfamiliar as their understanding of teaching. The budō work through a constitutive indirection; the defining geometry of their approach is not the straight line, but the circle, the spiral and the oblique angle. In that spirit, I will come to killing in roundabout and eventual fashion, by first considering its more familiar opposite: the rhetoric of education as growth.

Personal growth and little doors       

In the here-and-now, personal growth has all the signifying transcendence of health—which is no accident, since the former is the latter in developmental guise. The healthy classroom is the one that fosters the growth of both student and teacher. Yet there is a nonchalant extravagance to this seeming homeliness, for its ideal is infinite and unending growth: the sky’s the limit. The teacher, in loco parentis, incarnates devotion to her/his pupils as a motivational speaker: “You can be anything you want to be.” At face value, the motto is absurd in its exaggeration. I could never have grown up to play in the NBA All-Star Game, sing Rigoletto at La Scala or win the Nobel Prize for Literature, regardless of personal diligence or the dedication of my teachers. In that respect, I am depressingly normal, no different from almost anyone not named Michael Jordan, Luciano Pavarotti or Doris Lessing. Nonetheless, the “you can be…” motto is near-sacred, precisely because it marries the steadfastly sincere to the utterly fantastic. The casual infinity of “you can be anything” becomes the very emblem of love when prefaced by, “my mother always told me….” Sociology has traditionally critiqued this kind of sloganeering for its Horatio Alger-esque “success by hard work” capitalist ideology, but I would like to turn the issue a different way. The motto is the ultimate version of personal growth, but what, exactly, grows in personal growth?

The obvious answer is the self, as a specific form of the person. Yet when we recognize that growth, by definition, means getting bigger or becoming more, it becomes apparent that the self being referenced is not the whole person, regardless of how frequently personal growth is touted in terms of the holistic. In an age of the medical consensus that the world faces an epidemic of obesity and overweight, despite the academic moral panic over anorexia, personal development is specifically uncoupled from bigger bodies (except those pumping up in the gym). The signal incarnation of personal development in this age is in fact the very opposite: almost everybody wants to lose weight; almost every body is supposed to get smaller.

Then the self that’s getting bigger when one grows as a person is incorporeal; it’s the internal aspect, not the external. The particulars of this inner self are complex and variable, but neither its complexity nor its variability stops us from regularly asserting that it’s what’s inside that really counts, regardless of the temptations of a pretty face or the perceived shortcomings of a flabby body. The inner self is taken as the true self, which is one reason education so widely aims at growth in knowledge, confidence, self-esteem, etc. Inside, bigger is better: a big heart is generous and trustworthy; a broad mind is open and adventurous.

Photo of a thin man inside a fat one trying to get out
Could it be that instead of a thin man inside, some people house monstrous egos, struggling to emerge?

Then we have an inversion of Cyril Connolly’s proposal that inside every fat man is a thin one out trying to get out (1944, p. 58). Inside every successful thin person, apparently, is an enormous one content to remain there, as if the inner self of every healthy woman, man or child is a monstrous doppelganger. Yet getting bigger and bigger on the inside while becoming smaller and smaller on the outside is a harbinger of explosive catastrophe, which should alert us that something odd is happening. Personal growth marks the seamless union of common sense and contemporary education, but it is wholly out of step with global consciousness. Even before Al Gore switched careers, everyone outside of the lunatic far-right knew that unrestrained growth of population, industry, agribusiness and greenhouse emissions was good for neither us nor our planet. The contrast of the terrible peril of unlimited industrial expansion to the warm fuzzy goodness of personal growth is magnified by the grandiosity of the latter’s ambition. Insofar as programs like life-long education directly strive to overcome limits, growing too much as a person is an oxymoron. Nonetheless, even at the individual and bodily level, the health threats of over-industrialization reemerge with terrible irony. The lives of those who tower well over seven feet tend to be painful and short, because their merely human frames cannot cope with their very size. Genuine giants are, admittedly, exceedingly rare outside the basketball court or the circus, but a parallel example of unrestrained individual growth is much more common, familiar and terrible: cancer.

Malignancy is a defining anxiety of the age, but as it is only worrisome and not inevitable, the optimistic can shrug it off and the fortunate need never deal with it. Regardless of one’s temperament or fate, however, the very conviction in personal growth conjures a correlated monstrosity. When I was a child, flipping through the pages of Life magazine, I came across a sketch by a boy about my own age. Given the assignment to draw an ideal human being, the young artist produced a creature with thirty pairs of arms and legs, twenty eyes and a dozen mouths, a hideously perfect imagining of the faith that more is better.

The vision of the idealized self is very different in another cultural context, that of the budō. Bu 武 means “martial” and 道 means “way,” so budō designates what are popularly known as the martial arts, although in Japanese, art or jutsu 術 is conceptually quite different from way or dō. While the two ideas are too complicated, overlapping and contested than can be fully explicated here, as a working distinction the bujutsu 武術 or martial arts emphasize deadliness on the feudal battlefield, while the budō or martial ways emphasize spiritual transformation. The budō include the more familiar, such as jūdō 柔道 and aikidō 合気道, and the less well-known, such as kendō 剣道, the way of the sword; kyudō 弓道, the way of the bow and arrow; and naginata-dō 長刀道, the way of the halberd. The most widely practiced budō in the world today is karate-dō, the way of the empty hand.

Two Judoka in traditional clothing fighting. One is placing an arm bar on the other
Judo is one of the traditional Japanese Do, or Ways

The divide between East and West is figured by how the word budō itself is read. On this side of the Pacific, the budō are classified according to bu, the martial aspect, so that they are seen as akin to boxing, UFC mixed martial arts or WWE wrestling. In Japan, however, they are understood as , as particular incarnations of much more general ways of being. “Dō” is the Japanese pronunciation of the character 道, well-known as the Tao of Taoism. The budō are, at their heart, the same kind of cultural pursuit as the geidō, 藝道, the ways of art, such as shodō 書道, the way of the brush or calligraphy; kadō 華道, the way of flower arrangement, also called ikebana 生け花; and sadō, 茶道, the way of tea. The Japanese honor the great exponents of swordsmanship and the tea ceremony in exactly the same manner. In this way, the misconception of the budō as “martial arts” carries an accidental truth reminiscent of imaginary etymology, for the expert karateka 空手家 (practitioner of karate) is, in a strong sense, an artist very much like an accomplished actor of Noh 能, the classical dramatic form of Japan.

Then what lessons does tea offer about karate-dō and teaching? The tea ceremony is traditionally held in a special place, a chashitsu 茶室 or tea hut. Subtle but rigorous Japanese aesthetics mandate a set of specific architectural elements for the proper chashitsu, but one aspect is obvious even to the uninitiated: its only entrance is two feet tall. This doorway is called a nijiri guchi 躙り口, which translates roughly as “crawling in space.” The great tea master, Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1591) invented the nijiri guchi for a very specific purpose.

[Rikyu’s] most famous pupil in the Way of tea was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the fierce warlord who ruled much of Japan during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Hideyoshi was passionate about the tea ceremony. He saw in its sober and refined elegance a goal he desperately pursued. But with Hideyoshi, it was always an inner battle between his wish for the simple beauty that he knew marked a true connoisseur, and his fevered and ambitious ego. He knew in his heart that the quiet simplicity of the tea hut was an aesthetic to be treasured. Yet it was difficult for him to give up the magnificent clothes and the fabulously expensive swords he wore, the trappings of his status as a shogun. He identified his position with these things, and he did not wish to be without them…. Sen no Rikyu devised the nijiri guchi so that if the haughty Hideyoshi wished to enter sincerely into the spirit of tea, he would have to humble himself and crawl through the door (Lowry, 2000, p. 36).

Photo of tea house showing the nijiri guchi
One cannot enter the nijiri guchi (tea house entry) without first humbling onesself - a deliberate facet of its design.

The tea ceremony is open to everyone, regardless of rank, status or power, but there is only one way to enter: on one’s knees.


Photo of two karateka bowing on a grassy hillside
A simple bow is anything but, for it represents a wealth of virtues and ideals, the most important being the willingness to humble yourself to another.

Karate-dō is likewise, and even more. It begins with humility, personified by the chajin 茶人, “person of tea,” on her/his knees, and ends in exactly the same place, one of many ways in which it is structured and practiced as a circle. From the outside, karate-dō seems all kicks, punches and wild screams, a particularly energetic assertion of the self, but its fundamental aim is the opposite. Funakoshi Gichin (1858 - 1957) was a schoolteacher who brought karate from its Okinawan birthplace to the Japanese mainland and worked to converge it to extant traditions of budō. To that end, he authored his Nijū kun 二十訓, “twenty precepts” for karate-dō (Funakoshi, 2003). The very first is, “do not forget that karate-dō begins and ends with rei” (p. 19). Rei means “bow,” but also all the bow connotes: “this bodily gesture is a reminder and result of giving up the self, as well as a catalyst that causes the self to be given up” (Aigla, 1994, p. 49). Often the bow is done in a formal kneeling position, seiza 正座, recapitulating how one must enter the chashitsu (the literal translation of seiza is “correct sitting”). Even when the bow is done from a standing position, its meaning and function are to make one smaller, so in contrast to diet and exercise regimes in the West, diminishing the body is not a way to grow as a person. In this respect, at least, the famously convoluted and paradoxical Japanese mind is much more consistent than its Western counterpart. In budō, the repeated bowing that is part of every training session is, as Aigla notes, both a reminder and a catalyst to keep working to diminish the self in all respects.

This is the first and foremost lesson of karate-dō, one taught again and again through the rest of the budō as well, both past and present. When George Mattson, 9th degree black belt in Uechi ryū karate-dō, was asked to identify the most important thing he learned from his sensei 先生 (teacher), he answered, “Humility” (Liebergott, 1996, p. 177). The great swordsman, Tsukahara Bokuden (1491 – 1572) wrote, “I carry these swords to cut off the buds of vanity that spring up in men’s hearts, chiefly my own” (Knutsen, 2004, p. 10). Furuya Kenshō (1948 – 2007), an ordained Zen priest and 6th degree black belt in aikidō, said his teacher told him, “Work until there is absolutely no trace of you left” (1996, p. 70).

For karate-dō, teaching is a way of transformation, of re-making karateka so they can pass through the nijiri guchi. Its project is the opposite of personal growth; it is to make students­—and teachers—smaller and smaller, until they finally disappear.

Nailing the professor

Photo of a busy university noticeboard
A professor's noticeboard can reveal a lot about the inner person...

There are severe implications for university teachers. A smart young doctoral student once told me that a professor at the university where she did her MA became a laughingstock when he posted a 9 x 11 glossy of himself on the bulletin board outside his office. I asked her, “If you walk down the hallways of your department, you’ll see that professor after professor has posted the cover of her or his latest book or academic award on their bulletin boards. What’s the difference?”

In terms of the degree of narcissistic investment and display, absolutely nothing. The academy is an institution that inveigles and forces academics to over-identify with their work, so that an academic’s face and publications are not-very-different exhibitions of the self. Again, the relevant metaphor is telling, for the professor’s texts collectively comprise exactly her/his face to the world of the university. In terms of reception on campus, however, the spectacles couldn’t be further apart. One condemns its exhibitionist as risible; the other goes beyond normal to admirable, the very symbol of success.

To be exacting, the normality and professional endorsement of advertising oneself through the stand-in of one’s work refutes the charge of narcissism, because to be narcissistic, it is not sufficient to merely love the self—it is necessary to love oneself to excess. How much is too much depends on who is doing the measuring, and in the ivory tower, that means other academics, who obviously find it more than acceptable to declare, “Look what I’ve done! What a smart boy (or girl) am I!” Loving oneself that fulsomely is not a character flaw in a professor, at least in the eyes of other professors (lest this be taken as a jealous diatribe, I freely admit that I am surrounded by colleagues who are much smarter, better published and justifiably more celebrated. Many of them, to my chagrin, would also outclass me in a contest of 9 x 11 glossies. There can be no dispute over their superiority; what is at issue is the different matter of their humility). When I mentioned the ostentatious display of book covers to a senior university administrator, his complete indifference reflected the standard academic attitude. Humility and its garish absence are trivial concerns on campus, which is why training in karate-dō is so vastly different from a professorial career. Nonetheless, some boundary of self love evidently still persists on campus—otherwise, the professor with his photo would not be unanimously derided.

I knew another professor—I’ll call her Dr. N.—whose reputation was deservedly both stellar and international. The number and prominence of Dr. N.’s publications were matched only by those of the awards she had received. Yet she was far from popular among her colleagues because she was not shy about informing them of her endless professional successes. Their communal and intense antipathy hints at how the academic negotiation of loving oneself is not at all straightforward. She was merely making the gesture of posting a book cover on her bulletin board, so the problem was not the structural “quality” of what she did (the act of public self-promotion), which conformed to professional expectations. The trouble was, instead, one of quantity: how Dr. N. repeated that gesture over and over—not for one book or article, but several; not for one award, but many. Her “offence,” therefore, was a different definition of narcissism as “too much.” Yet this version of excess is revealing: how can it be good to celebrate minor achievements but bad to celebrate much larger ones? Why do professors approve of someone publicizing her/his occasional and commonplace successes but denigrate the one does the same for her/his frequent and exceptional ones?

But consider the other side of this story. Dr. N.’s colleagues, as expected, were in the habit of celebrating themselves individually. If you greeted them in the hallway to ask how they were doing, they would take the question as an invitation to boast about their latest publication or award, even if they had given the very same recital to someone else just a few moments before. But they didn’t stop there; they also praised themselves collectively by extolling the collegiality of their department. Collegiality is an academic motherhood word, with some justification, as anyone who has suffered the immoderate malice of its absence can testify. Yet, in Dr. N.’s department, collegiality demanded that one join in mocking her. Solidarity is regularly achieved by disparaging a specific other, and professors are typical social creatures in that regard.

While the case of Dr. N. is very specific in its details, it is also characteristic of the university. There is a special nastiness to the academic temperament, one that is surely not universal across all professors, but just as surely not uncommon. College dean and karateka John Donohue (2005), muses, with tongue only partially in cheek,

The image I have of academia is one of a place filled with tremendously bright, insecure people. They do have bad glasses. And atrocious people skills. They are distracted, yet vicious when aroused. [In the university,] the nerds have filed teeth, like cannibals. (p. 144)

The most common targets of nerds with fangs are other nerds, so the anecdotes related above are more than anecdotal—they are illustrative, for they outline the tortuousness of how academics love themselves in public while sneering at others for doing the same. Advertising your symbolic image is a good career move, but displaying your literal image is pathetic. Foisting your latest accomplishment on every possible listener is standard conversation, but if someone else talks about a truly remarkable personal accomplishment that is the culmination of many others, then it’s clearly an instance of ego gone wild. You are then compelled to add your voice to the chorus of denunciation, especially since reproaching someone else for being narcissistic implies that you are innocent of the same, regardless of what’s on your bulletin board. You can eat your cake and throw it at others, too.

Articulating this theory is no less fraught. Despite appearances, I am not directly launching a comprehensive condemnation of academics, because the issue is not really one of individual failings. Instead, it’s about institutional forces and production. The academy, despite my more cynical suspicions, is not some weird magnet for social cannibals and graduate school does not necessarily weed out anyone with genuine people skills. But the academy is a machine that sharpens the teeth of those who work in it and are worked by it, and it is a place that fosters the nakedness of ambition. So if the theory is correct, academics cannot possibly accept it. When I reminded the aforementioned administrator of the lack of humility necessary to advertise one’s achievements, he protested that he knew professors on campus who were humble. This was a rhetorical diversion, since it didn’t actually address the point, but even on its own terms, being actually able to name the humble out of 4000 academic staff was a pretty compelling instance of exceptions proving the rule.

It may be that professors are no more narcissistic than anyone else, but that position would leap (or fall) from mere cynicism to outright misanthropy. I am not directly concerned here with whether self-adoration defines the human condition, although the possibility is deeply depressing. Yet I can state, without equivocation, that the institutionalization of narcissism is by no means universal across all cultures. The telling counterexample, as already outlined, is budō.

Drawing illustrating a stake getting hammered in
In Japanesee philosophy, bigging yourself up is an invitation to be brought back down to size

Obviously, self-aggrandizement by an academic is antithetical to budō’s fundamental aim of diminishing the self, but what may not be readily apparent is the severity of the budō apprehension of professorial conceit. A Japanese adage is, “Deru kui wa utareru” 出る杭は打たれる: “the stake that sticks up will be hammered down.” While the usual treacherousness of translation applies, the budō interpretation is straightforward and concrete. Dave Lowry (2007, October) illustrates the proverb with a story about two Hawaiian aikidōka who, while visiting a mainland dōjō, kept loudly pronouncing their aikidō to be superior until a tiny but extraordinarily skilled female yudansha 有段者 (holder of a black belt) got fed up and invited them onto the mat (p. 56). She proceeded to smack them around until they could barely manage to stagger off. C. W. Nicol’s autobiographical Moving Zen chronicles his experiences as a Canadian who went to Tokyo to train full-time in Shōtōkan karate-dō. He encountered a chauvinist Japanese determined to prove that foreigners could be no good at karate. When paired in fighting practice, the Japanese took advantage of Nicol’s inexperience and kicked him so hard in the groin that he passed out. When Nicol came to, he was treated and brought back to the dōjō to witness the same karateka taking a serial pounding from black belts assigned to deliver special instruction—and taking it well (Nicol, 1975, p. 40).

The Western professor who indulged in normal self-promotion in a traditional dōjō would get the same treatment. Pin up a book cover and get nailed to the floor. Such violence must horrify academics who pride themselves on their supposed civility, but their self-righteousness is made deeply suspect by how the mundane meanness of academic discourse, while rarely scratching the body, remains a violence that can cleave down to the soul. Academic freedom too often means the right to cut down others as a means or result of inflating the self. From the perspective of budō, the prevalence of academic maliciousness must be expected when no one is held accountable. Kiyota Minoru, a kendō sensei and chairman of the Buddhist Studies Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes that “emphasis on freedom, one of the major attributes of individuality, strongly enunciated in a democratic society, inflates the ego to the extent that it makes demands without assuming responsibility” (Kiyota, 2002, p. 112). For budō, teaching means diminishing the self through inculcating a consciousness of obligation.

The obligations of killing

A student is deluded when he enters martial arts with high hopes. The first thing a competent teacher will do is dash all those hopes and aspirations to the ground. If the student can’t survive a slightly injured ego, there is no way he can survive the training to come.
Furuya Kenshō (1996, p. 71)

Difficulty has been praised in philosophical circles for at least a few decades, but the budō take the necessity of difficulty in a particularly serious way. “If you are finding karate easy, then you are not doing karate” (Robb, 2000, p. 81). The difficulty is not just technical or corporeal, although it’s that as well; it goes far beyond how truly hard it is to master either a very advanced technique or the most basic of fundamentals. It’s the difficulty of overcoming one’s own ego, one’s own self, and how that deeply personal difficulty is fused to and forged by the inevitable hardship of training.

Training, with its undertones of the trade school, is often regarded in faculties of education as the poor cousin to teaching. The budō invert that hierarchy. My university just held a “Festival of Teaching,” in which many teachers were celebrated for their excellence, a commemorative instance of elevating the university as a temple of knowledge. In the academy, knowledge has a transcendental status parallel to that enjoyed by personal growth in popular culture. The budō also value knowledge—but they see it as just a first step, as Sensei Rod Nobuto Omoto explains:

Photo of two Kendo fighters
If you think you know it all, then you don't. If you quit your do, then you understand nothing.

There are [three] types of people who practice kendō. One is the curious type. They come in and they quit, because they know the thing already. They learn men, kote, dō, tsuki [the targets of the body in kendō]. “That’s it? Oh, I can do that.” Knowledge. They stop at knowledge. But if they keep on pounding that knowledge, it becomes an art. “Aha, now it’s an art.” Some people quit there. They know the form and the art. But some people will keep on going, keep on pounding and pounding. And then…—it just disappears. You can’t quit, because it becomes you. (Sidney, 2003, p. 139-140)

空 is emptiness or the void. It can also be pronounced as kara, the first character of karate-dō, the emptiness regularly mistaken as referring to no more than fighting without weapons. The real kara, which is not specific to karate-dō but crucial to all budō, is exactly what Omoto Sensei describes. One is obligated to gain knowledge (and to teach it), but one is also obligated not to stop there, to keep working that knowledge—to keep training—until it disappears. Training, in budō, takes up where teaching (of knowledge) leaves off. This is where Omoto Sensei’s deceptively simple formulation turns sublime, because two things happen simultaneously when taught knowledge, pounded into art, is pounded sufficiently further in training: knowledge disappears and knowledge becomes the subject, because the subject is pounded away in the project of annihilating the self. The stuff of teaching/training in karate-dō is the superposition of one kind of emptiness on another, a commitment that you can’t quit because the ego has been killed.

The metaphor of “pounding” may appear alarmingly concrete, recalling the lesson taught to Nicol’s tormentor in the karate dōjō, but it is actually an understatement. Budō is not only a way of killing; it also understands its training as inextricable from killing—not as a “real” or brutal historical aim beneath the genteel trappings of spiritual aspirations, but as one and the same. This is training qua teaching as the killing defining tanren 鍛練, “forging,” the transformative work on the spirit. If lethality is taken out, then training fails. Diane Skoss (1999) writes,

One of my teachers has taught me that you enter the dō through the vehicle of the jutsu. In other (my) words, one uses the perfecting of killing techniques to progress along the way of perfecting one’s life. There’s danger, in my opinion, in striving too directly for spiritual enlightenment, without the tempering of striking to kill and being struck at to be killed (even when the blows are stopped just short of the target). It is often far too easy in these situations for the movements to lose their inherent “truth” as valid fighting techniques and to degenerate into little more than a choreographed dance sequence. Learning to give and receive the combative intention is vital. Yet, there’s equal danger in concentrating merely on learning to disable and kill without transforming the techniques into a confrontation with the soul.

A teacher and student endlessly repeating scenarios of killing each other may be absolutely outré to the committed and loving teacher in the West. After all, weapons kata 
—the formal, controlled exchanges of striking to kill and being struck at to kill—were distilled in and intended for real life-and-death confrontations on the feudal battlefield, not classroom conversations of the 21st Century. Yet the principle resonates even in seemingly much gentler worlds, such as those of painting and parenthood:

Andrew Wyeth was reminiscing once about the introduction to art his father, N. C. Wyeth, had given him. The elder Wyeth, a renowned illustrator, had insisted that Andrew spend hour upon hour in the basics of painting and drawing, learning to use the charcoal stick and watercolor brush to perfect on paper the vagaries of shape and shadow. He was rarely allowed to experiment or to deviate from the strict guidelines set by his father. Years after he had become the internationally famous painter he is today, Wyeth recalled his father’s words when he was asked if the rigid education might not have threatened to kill the emerging genius and creativity of the young painter.

“If it kills it, it ought to be killed,” N. C. said.

His son now agrees. “If it isn’t strong enough to take the gaff of real training, then it’s not worth very much.” (Lowry, 1985, p. 77)

Photo of Kendo master Chiba Harutane
Chiba Harutane's father had particularly brutal teaching methods...

Of course, the budō, despite being kindred to Wyeth’s art education, remain starkly different, because for them, killing is more than a startling metaphor. The kendō sensei of Darrell Max Craig, Chiba Harutane, was also tutored by his own father. Chiba was educated to use, not charcoal or watercolors, but the bokken 木剣, a wooden sword shaped and balanced like a live blade and quite capable of a killing blow. Craig (1999) relates the following conversation:

“What happened, Sensei, if you didn’t understand how it worked?”

“Oh, that’s when you would be on the receiving end of an accidental hit on the head. My mother told me once I lay on the dōjō floor for a day and a half.”

“Why, Sensei?”

“My father told my mother that I was thinking.”

“Thinking about what?”

“Father said that I needed time to think about what I was doing wrong.”

“But Sensei, you might have died.”

“Father thought that if you died, then you weren’t learning the waza [技 technique], and he could start at step one with someone new who might be able to learn it. It’s really quite simple, Darrell: you need to practice very hard.” (p. 11)

Ornamentation of the self and the whiteness of death

Of course, there is no reason that all teaching should be like training in a traditional dōjō nor that students should be cracked on the head and left comatose on the floor, but education in the West does need a sharp slap with a thin stick to wake up its subconscious and recognize that principles foundational to its teaching practice are ethnocentric at best and, in the view of budō, corruptive of the soul exactly as far as they nurture growth.

The pedagogical attitude of karate-dō is given in the clothes on one’s back. The dō is not pursued in pastel lululemon wear. Instead, the practice uniform, the keikogi 稽古着, is white and unadorned. Compared to street clothes, the keikogi appears odd, quaint and even decorative, precisely because of its lack of concern for fashion or quotidian utility. But it is much more than a signifier of difference, just as its aesthetics, like those of the Japanese artistic ways, are more profound than folk charm. Its most familiar element is the colored belt, which even outsiders know indicates progressive rank, right up to the fabled black belt. In the translation to North America, the belt system has become deeply problematic, but, for that reason, revealing of both Eastern and Western ideals.

Konishi Yasuhiro notes, “Karate-dō aims to build character, improve human behavior, and cultivate modesty; it does not, however, guarantee it” (McCarthy, 2008). At times, a karateka gets outraged because he2 didn’t receive the promotion he thought he deserved, while someone he holds to be his inferior gets graded up. Suppose that the comparison is accurate in terms of kicks, punches, blocks, etc. If the discontented karateka, who I will call S., is truly superior in all technical respects, then what he got from karate-dō was genuine proficiency. What the other got was a belt.

Then who was robbed?

By his very complaint, S. demonstrates that the true object of his desire is public acclaim. Strutting around with a new belt is the direct equivalent of a professor pinning up a book cover, which is why the budō recognize both acts as ornamentation of the self. What kind of culture forms S., for whom profound learning without a new decoration wrapped around his waist is deep injustice and unfairness? The answer: the same kind that results in the kind of successful academic who could really benefit from some dedicated teaching by a team of black belts.

For karate-dō, S. is a failure of the worst sort, and whether his roundhouse kick is swift, high and hard cannot mitigate his failure. The irony is that S., in obsessing on the belt, misses what is right before his eyes, just as the typical professor fails to acknowledge his/her flagrant lack of humility. The essence of the keikogi cannot be found in the signifying detail of the belt; it can only be understood in the relation of the elements to the whole. White is a conventional color of purity, but it is also the Japanese color of death. The keikogi of karate-dō sensei show the yang of their black belts against the yin of deathly whiteness, because, exactly to extent that teaching and training matter to them, they do not come to praise the decoration of the self, but to kill it. This is the essential lesson from the dōjō floor.

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[1] Japanese names are given in the traditional order of surname then given name.
[2 Male pronouns are used in this section deliberately, not because women are immune to the faults described, but because the most egregious examples in my experience have been male (which deserves a discussion beyond the scope of this paper).


Doug Aoki
10752 85 Ave
Edmonton AB T6E 2K8