In my Japanese Martial Arts, Aikido class there was an incident that reminded me of another incident from a few years ago in Japan. I was staying in Japan for 3 months and became friends with a man who played the drum in an ancient play form called Noh. If Japanese Kabuki Theater is similar to Shakespearean theater then go back a couple centuries and you will find Noh. Noh theater is very minimalistic with few props or staging, but lots of intense drama. I went to a Noh play to see my friend and it was a great experience. Though I couldn’t understand the words, I could understand a lot of the drama, there were spirits coming and going, and some kind of message about life and death.
After the show at my friend’s home he showed me his drum and offered to let my try it. He showed me how to hold the sticks and I tapped a bit. Then he corrected my hand posture and I tried again. I still wasn’t holding the sticks quite right. My wrists were not at quite the perfect angle. My wrists needed to be at a very odd angle making them hard to rotate. We kept forcing the wrists until it was uncomfortable, then I gave up. I was just a foreigner and so was excused. At this point I became totally repulsed at what I perceived as a Japanese obsession with perfectionism and tradition. I perceived Japanese resistance to the concept of modifying the hand position technique for the sake of higher goal of simply playing the drum effectively. My friend had learned this ancient art form from his father who had been a drummer before him. He had learned the technique, including the perfect wrist angulation from his father, and would pass it on to his child as had been done for a very long time. In Japan and much of Asia, honoring and preserving tradition is a basic part of culture.
In my Aikido class my teacher is including everything Japanese; language, bowing, his uniform. This is the way that Aikido is taught everywhere. It is always taught as a Japanese art form along with Japanese traditions. On the first day of class, we were doing forward roll exercises. From a crouched position with one arm leading we would tuck our head and roll. I watched my teacher (sensei) carefully and noticed his fingers were extended very straight, rigidly. I could envision myself jamming my fingers backwards so I chose to curl my fingers into a fist as I led with that arm into my roll. Darn, he caught me! Out of the entire class he spotted my curled fingers, that damn wrist thing again! He attempted to correct me but I told him that I was doing it intentionally for the safety of my fingers, so he let it go with a growl. I perceived that my teacher has been spending way too much time training with the Japanese. Hey, what can I say, I’m just an American.
When we Americans cut loose from our British rulers and their culture, we were glad to unshackle ourselves from their stuffy British manners and obsessions. We started a new world with new traditions, almost a new language, new ways of fighting, and a very new experimental form of government. We were willing to cut loose from all heritage and tradition and look at each aspect of life afresh, using what worked and discarding the rest. This is my American heritage, my new ethic, my new tradition.
But modern Americans also seem to be lost in a moral and ethical whirlpool, heading down the drain, in many social aspects. Americans seem to be fighting over every arena of life, not being sure what we value, except the right to choose for ourselves; self-rule. So I wonder if our American anti-tradition is really so beneficial to us? Many Asian cultures seem to have moorings that keep them stable. This is typical of Japanese society, their reverence for the past and respect for tradition is primary guiding force for society. Aikido is typical of the Japanese culture in many ways. The strength of Aikido as an effective martial art is preserving time tested techniques.
The strength in American anti-tradition seems to be that we are free to be innovative, to try anything if it works. Sometimes it is called “Yankee ingenuity”. With this approach we broke the bonds of traditional warfare and beat the British. We have led the world in technology-well actually much of our technology was developed by Asians in America. We have broken music traditions and came up with all kinds of rocky rolly stuff. In martial arts we have broken every tradition and developed MMA, Mixed Martial Arts. This is where all tradition is lost and the game is won by those who devise some new way of smashing an opponent. This is possibly the weakness of traditional Aikido; that it is stuck in tradition and resists innovation.
But in spite of all this amazing American flare, I still wonder if we aren’t desperately lost morally and ethically? I begin to understand the religious Americans who say, America was founded upon Christian principles and that we need to get back to those. They see those values as transcending tradition so it is more than empty tradition for them. The Japanese and many ancient cultures also struggle with a changing new world, but also insist on keeping moored to tradition, to their ancestors, and to ancient values. To the Japanese I would ask, “are you sure that your heritage is enough to keep you stable in this modern world storm; is your heritage transmitting principles of enduring truth, or merely outward forms of tradition?” To the Americans I ask, are you sure you can guide yourself without the wisdom of the past?