In conversation with martial artist and author Robert Vernooy.
A small taster of a potentially larger collaboration between Robert Vernooy and myself.
I have known Robert Vernooy since 2007 and outside of our various Dojo experiences on Wado courses we have had some stimulating and in-depth conversations, often, but not exclusively, martial arts based.
This year Robert published his first solely martial arts book, titled, ‘From the Way to the Street’. The content is a series of essays, but with one central theme relating to the wider implications of Japanese Budo (and martial arts training in general) as it affects the individual and society as a whole.
Currently, the book is only available in the Dutch language, but I have been gently pressurising Robert with the hope that he has an English language version in mind, as I know that there is an audience out there.
We have been communicating backwards and forwards about issues that arise in the book and Robert has kindly translated tasty mash-ups for me to explore (examples of which I have included in this post, as a kind of conversation starter).
SELECTED SECTIONS FROM THE BOOK.
“The dojo is not a place for political propaganda but that doesn’t mean that the martial arts can’t or shouldn’t have political implications. Jigoro Kano’s famous adage ‘jita kyoei’ (often translated as ‘mutual benefit’) implies an active involvement in society and an acute awareness of our being political animals. Though Funakoshi and Kano were not political activists, they probably would have agreed with Schillers statement ‘All improvement in the political sphere should come from the ennoblement of character.’ Budo is often translated as ‘the way of war’, but, somewhat paradoxically, it is just as often referred to as a way of peace or harmony. In my opinion budo is not as much about fighting as about connecting and harmonizing with others in stressful circumstances and conflict situations. Ultimately it can be translated to any situation where it’s necessary to negotiate conflicting interests. And isn’t that just the essence of politics?”
TS: I don’t know if you have addressed this in other sections of the book, but what about cultural baggage? Or do you believe that these virtues are wholly universal and can transcend historical time and geographical location? And what about the ‘western goggles’ phenomena?
RV: Most of the (Confucian) virtues that are promoted in the Eastern martial arts can also be found in other martial arts and even in Scouting. Outward appearances may vary, but I believe the essence of what people consider ‘virtuous behaviour’ is pretty much the same everywhere. After all, we’re all human (at least most of us), and as such we have to relate to our social environment, whereby we try to seek harmony and avoid conflict. The number of ways in which we can achieve this is limited. As Patrick McCarthy is so fond of saying: ‘It is and has always been the human body, its common anatomical functions and weaknesses. Elbow bends this way, not that.’ I think you might say pretty much the same about the human mind, regardless of the cultural context.
TS: I know that across the various religions there have been efforts to create a ‘meeting of minds’, looking at common values that they can all agree upon – rather like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; all efforts in that direction have to be applauded, but you have to agree that cultural differences often confuse things? Add to that, things that happened in earlier time periods. In old school Japanese Budo (pre-Imperial period) the fighting strategies were unashamedly brutal, perhaps in a way that would not be tolerated today – some argue that contemporary Japanese martial arts have been de-clawed, like pampered house cats.
I think at a basic level we are all the same, but I am wary of the broad brush; similarly, with Mr McCarthy and his HAPV views, the, ‘we have all got two arms and two legs’ mode of thinking, I simply can’t buy into.
I was discussing this with someone else the other day; there is humanity and compassion woven into Budo. I think that they understood the danger of producing mindless violent goons and so drew upon Confucianism to act as a counterbalance (I think Confucianism has more to offer than Buddhism in that regard). There’s no escaping ‘politics’ when considering how people at any level fit into society; including the ‘warrior class’.
RV: Okay, let’s talk some history. When do you situate ‘old school Japanese budo’? I think I agree with budo scholars such as Karl Friday that the precursors of our modern budo as they were practised in the relatively peaceful Tokugawa period weren’t meant for use on the battlefield, though undoubtedly they were more heavy-handed than the martial arts as we practise them today. (Do you know Friday’s article ‘Off the Warpath’?) Kata training doesn’t seem the best preparation for the massive and chaotic battles that were being fought before that time. I think that the Tokugawan authorities saw the martial arts within the framework of a disciplinary discourse, as an instrument to domesticate the samurai (a potential threat to the establishment) within a Confucian mindset. Hence the stress on peace, harmony, discipline, respect and self-cultivation. The seven virtues of bushido were hardly characteristic for the belligerent samurai in the Period of the Warring States (Sengoku Jidai). I don’t think that on the battlefield they had much use for ‘humanity and compassion’. I love the idea of budo as ‘ways of peace’ but historically I think it’s pretty much an invented tradition.
TS: I think I am agreement with you about all the misconceptions. I will go along with the dividing line between Koryu and Gendai Budo as being 1876 (a nice convenient marker that most people agree with).
Re. ‘Battlefield’ arts, I think Ellis Amdur said that of all the existing Koryu Budo/Bujutsu still around today, only a tiny handful can claim to have anything resembling battlefield techniques. Most martial artists hold on to an idea that their system has a close connection with the battlefield brutality of the earlier days – this is simply not true. The Koryu were founded and refined during times of relative peace.
When I mentioned martial arts being ‘de-clawed’, clearly this happened by degrees; the more recent one being when Judo adapted and sanitized old style Jujutsu techniques to make them safe to train in continuous randori. But even before that, weaponry and training equipment and methods were adapted considerably – think of Naginata and the shinai. Some techniques were adapted for civil society, e.g. arrest and restraint techniques use by law enforcement, no doubt the ancestors of these same techniques were designed to ensnare and butcher the opponent, showing no mercy.
One scholar explained that the romanticisation of the Samurai was all wrong and went so far as to describe them at one point as being a bunch of ruthless, bloodthirsty headhunters (taking heads as trophies was a common practice).
I think to unpick the historical tangle of how Confucian morality sneaked in would be a tough job. I did a lot of reading in this area, but to get a grip on it I had to go way back into ancient China. I agree with the parallels you drew with the Ancient Greek ideas; the Chinese were dealing with these very same philosophical questions independent of the Greeks and spookily at about the same time (you know the idea of the Axial Age?). But then you have to look at the way these ideas crossed into Japan and how the Japanese thought to use and adapt them. These were three schools; the Shushigaku (ideas of Zhu Xi), the Oyomeigaku (ideas of Wang Yangming) and the Kogaku (lit. Old School, the older traditions of Mencius and Confucius). It’s complicated.
Re. Karl Friday’s article; I wish everybody would read it! Link Here; http://arakiryu.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Off-the-Warpath.pdf
By the way; I have always baulked at the ‘Jutsu/Do’ interpretation most people tend to cling to.
RV: Yes, I know the concept of an Axial Age and mention it in my little history of bunbu ryodo. That Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha were almost contemporaries may not be coincidence but rather a matter of ‘convergent evolution’. (An interesting comparison between Socrates and Confucius is: https://www.san.beck.org/C&S-Compared.html )
The sociologist Donald Levine called Confucianism a ‘Chinese version of paideia’. Though the Greeks and the Chinese had different views on what an exemplary man (the kalokagathos and the junzi) and his position in the political system should be, there are striking parallels in the Greek and Chinese views on education as physical, moral and intellectual training. Maybe their goals differed but their Way was similar.
As for the distinction between ‘jutsu’ and ‘do’. This may also be an invented tradition (in older Japanese sources the terms, bugei, bujutsu and budo are used interchangeably), but I still find it useful to indicate a difference in focus. The distinction is probably more gradual than absolute but I think ‘budo’ is a better description for what we do than ‘bujutsu’, certainly better than kakugi or ‘combat sports’.
Conclusion (rounding off).
Obviously, this conversation could go on and on. What we have here is a snippet of the types of things that Robert and I dig into, when we have the time. If you want to add to the discussion, please feel free to contribute in the ‘comments’ section below. It would be fun to have others involved.