Traditional Budo

Traditional Budo
Robert Hunt

History is myth.  How we view it depends on whose myth we chose to believe.

If I were king of the world, (and I am convinced it would be a better place), there are two words I would expunge from the Big Book of Popular Modern Karate Terms. One is the word“traditional”, a term that always grates, the other is “budo”. I believe I read somewhere that it has been scientifically proven that the mere sound of those two words can raise a listener’s blood pressure at least 20 points, but I might be mistaken on that.

There is a belief among karateka and Japanese oriented martial artists that there once existed some sort of mystic medieval Japanese warrior code by which samurai lived and died and which survives today through the Japanese version of Okinawan karate and other Japanese martial arts. It included, among other things, complete loyalty to a feudal lord, unflinching dedication in battle, uncompromising focus on perfection, anti-materialism, benevolence toward the less fortunate and ritual suicide in face of dishonor.  It was called budo “the martial way”, or bushido, the “way of the warrior.” But, like much else in our modern world, it is mostly a fantasy. Worse than fantasy, it became propaganda to motivate soldiers to murder.

There were warrior codes in ancient Japan, but not the budo philosophy we so easily invoke. Samurai were ruthless survivors. They would betray their mothers (and occasionally did) if it improved their status or wealth or kept them alive in battle. The rare time they might commit suicide was in the face of capture and torture. They would benevolently cut the heads off of commoners who didn’t bow low enough. Perfection of technique was for the same reason that Wyatt Earp practiced shooting bean cans – survival.

The idea of a budo spirit came about during the Tokugawa era, when samurai no longer actually fought each other and violent death became an abstract. Samurai became civil servants and had time to contemplate philosophy, and their myths.

We like the idea of budo in the dojo, and what we imagine it represents. We want to believe we are emulating nobility, striving for ultimate perfection, reliving the warrior philosophy. It’s all good, a great philosophy by which to live, but budo, as it rolls off the modern tongue in karate parlance, is bogus.

The idea of a specific and noble way Japanese samurai behaved was brought to the attention of the western world by Inazo Nitobe, who wrote a book called Bushido: the Soul of Japan. It was published in 1899, long after the samurai were gone. The word “bushido”, however, was rarely used in Japan prior to Nitobe’s book and most Japanese of the day never even heard of it.  Nitobe, a Christian who learned English from an early age, lived in isolated Hokkaido with Calvinists, had no training in Japanese history, married an American, attended John Hopkins University and lived much of his adult life in the west.  He wrote the book in English for western readers. It had to be translated into Japanese (against his  wishes).

In 1899 the West only had a vague understanding of Japan. Japan was building an army and modernizing its government and infrastructure after 277 years of isolation under Tokugawa. Nitobe wanted to write a book that would Saigo Takamori portray his homeland in a favorable light, so he made up the fiction of the noble samurai. Humans, gullible as we always are, embraced it.

Later on, the Japanese fascist government that burgeoned under Tojo, looking for a way to motivate soldiers, exploited Nitobe’s book to instill the mythological Japan-is-superior-to-the-world, fake samurai ethic in the peasant soldiers it drafted into the army. Real samurai were gone, now anyone could play samurai simply by fighting to the death for Japan and murdering anyone who stood in the way. One only has to look at the “Rape of Nanking” to see how effective it was. Japanese soldiers committed atrocities that would make ISIS proud.

Post war Japanese karate was populated by men (and occasionally women) who were indoctrinated in, grew up on and preached the same simplistic budo myth – Japanese are superior, Westerners can never understand karate, “traditional” Japanese karate is the only valid art.

But, alas, there is no traditional Japanese karate. Karate is not a traditional Japanese art.  Japan’s traditional martial arts are bow, lance and sword. Karate is Chinese/Okinawan.  What is commonly referred to as “Traditional Japanese Karate” are the martial arts created in Japan in the 1930’s based on the Okinawan art of ti, by people like Mabuni, Funakoshi, Nakayama and Ohtsuka, then accepted into the Butotukai. If Okinawan karate can be a traditional Japanese martial art, then the hula can surely be a traditional American dance.

Even that pointless definition, however, has become so misused as to be meaningless. I once attended a seminar for a competitive organization. The moderator said that this organization was only for traditional martial artists and then displayed a screen slide showing the names of the styles therein. One name popped out – Shuri Ryu.

Shuri Ryu was created out of the imagination of the late American, Robert Trias, in the 1950’s and 1960’s after exposure to some martial art towards the end of the Second World War. The katas he devised bear scant resemblance to any antecedents in Okinawa. If I make up katas to create my own style, will someone call it “traditional” in 50 years? I think the competitive organization’s founders were thinking money more than tradition.

The battle of Sekigahara, in 1600, was probably the most important battle in Japanese history. Tokugawa Ieyasu had amassed an army of his own combined with the Daimyo’s he had convinced to join him.

Part of the opposition was the Satsuma clan from Kyushu, under the direction of a man named Shimazu. This was the same group that later conquered Okinawa and arguably provided the impetus for karate. About halfway through the battle, Shimazu decided the fight was a bad idea, took his soldiers, snuck out and went home, leaving his comrades to the mercy of Tokugawa. Such desertions were common in medieval Japan. So much for samurai loyalty.

At the beginning of the Meiji era, 277 years after Sekigahara, Satsuma descendent Saigo Takamori joined other samurai to make war on modernization in the Satsuma rebellion of 1877. You remember the movie (I have seen it three times).  An alcoholic Tom Cruise finds redemption among a noble group of samurai peacefully practicing batto jiutsu and contentedly living their lives according to the principals of budo when a newly minted, Western mimicking, whiskey drinking, evil capitalist wants to wipe them out to make room for his railroad.

Hollywood only knows one drum beat, doesn’t it?  A broken American flees the worthless, materialistic society that has alienated him, to find redemption, salvation and a good Emperor Meiji woman, among a pre-industrial society of spiritually superior noble warriors who are being pursued and destroyed by that same American society – dances with samurai. Remember the scene in The Last Samurai where Katsumoto and company ride into town and the lower classes along the way bow. It wasn’t out of respect that they bowed.  It was fear of benevolently getting their heads removed at samurai whim, as was the privilege of the day under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Great budo there!  The masses were only too happy to see the oppressive samurai class dissolved. Saigo Takamori, on the other hand, wasn’t. It meant he would lose his rice stipend, his exalted position in society and have to go to work for a living. No wonder he rebelled. At the end of the Second World War there were Japanese who were tried as war criminals because they used American soldiers’ cadavers, and sometimes living American soldiers to test their sword cuts. Some were found guilty and executed. At least one went on to become a great sword master for American neo-budo-ists due to a lack of evidence.  If one is looking for people who are consummately disciplined, endlessly persevere and strive for ultimate perfection, one need look no further than Olympic athletes.  If one is looking for people who practice the true “way of the warrior”, with honor and dedication to their country and their compatriots, treat the less fortunate benevolently and faithfully follow leaders into battle, one need look no further than the United States Marine Corp. What is traditional karate anyway? Why is Shotokan or Wado Ryu or any other modern style traditional? Should Wado students adhere unerringly to and mimic unflinchingly the art that Ohtsuka made up – Ohtsuka’s rendition of Funakoshi’s rendition of Itosu’s rendition of Matsumura’s rendition of 17th century katas he picked up somewhere in Okinawa or China?  Where does tradition end and mindless imitation begin?

The Japanese military as well as karate “masters” loved the idea of complete, unquestioning allegiance. It got Japanese soldiers to commit horrible atrocities and created a generation of loyal karate followers who never question a teacher no matter the lack of knowledge or how ridiculous the art taught.

The word budo is simply a way to look down one’s nose at what other people do. “My karate is more valid than yours because you practice for tournaments and I only practice the real thing, using real bunkai and striving for perfection.”  I teach tournament kata to kids at the Chandler Martial Arts Center. The kids there practice and perfect their kata more than you or I or any other “traditional” martial artist ever did.

You want budo? You want striving for perfection? You want dedication? Come to the dojo on Sunday morning and watch three rooms full of kids diligently repeating katas – quiet as
a church except the muffled rustling of working uniforms slapping arms and legs. That’s spirit, not some fictitious ethic from medieval Japan.

If you are interested in a view of the world of early Meiji Japan, where samurai accountants are surprised to encounter one among them who actually knows how to wield a sword, check out a film called Twilight Samurai.  Filmed in Japan by Japanese, it shows another side.

As for “traditional budo”, you decide, but be careful where you use the words, you might raise someone’s blood pressure too far.

For more information on this topic, please see: “The Way of Total Bullshit” –

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