CONFESSIONS OF A NAVY SEAL
I made a confession recently to my dojomates. It's a secret I've kept for a long time and I wanted to share it with them. At morning practise, I confessed.
I am a Navy SEAL.
"You weren't even in the military," one of them said.
"You told me the only time you ever even had on a scuba tank was in the shallow end of an apartment swimming pool and you nearly passed out 'cause you couldn't figure how to use the regulator," said another.
"If you're a SEAL, show us your enlistment papers, some kind of proof," said another. "Introduce us to some members of your team."
Unbelievers. That fluff is merely window dressing; I tried to explain. I am a Navy SEAL because I have always wanted to be one. I feel like one. I conduct myself likeone. I even have a mentor who's taught me what he says SEALs learn and he's very happy with my training. what more proof do you need?
I'm thinking about leaving these guys and finding a dojo more amenable to my way of thinking. if some recent mail I've gotten is any indication, there are plenty of them out there. Places where my status as a Navy SEAL would not be questioned and would be properly respected. This mail came as a result of an article I did for Furyu recently. I was trying to explain the problems faced by Westerners wishing to train in a classical martial ryu (systems), or koryu. I outlined the nature of the koryu and mentioned the growing number of frauds that have emerged. I mentioned alleged ryu concocted entirely by self-appointed masters and others that are pale and mistaken imitations of the real systems. I pointed out some of the glaring discrepancies of those who are pretending to teach them. And I made some suggestions for those who wish to experience legitimate koryu, difficult as they are to find in this country.
In response, I heard from some readers who took exception to my arguments and explanations. Their responses may be summed up roughly in the following:
1. There is no clear-cut, exact definition of a classical koryu. Therefore any creature that comes along may be so labeled and those of us who take exception are snobs.
2. Practical skills are the only true and objective criteria of one's claims about associations or memberships in a koryu and these ought to take precedent over papers, licenses, or other documentation. If one "looks" like an exponent of a koryu, behaves that way, and demonstrates abilities we might expect from a practitioner of a koryu, they should be so considered and respected. No one "owes" anyone an explanation or documentation of their claims regarding membership in a koryu. It is boorish to inquire.
3.If one "feels" good about his practise, is sincere and trains with an "open heart," if one meets the expectations of one's teacher, that is all that is necessary.
4. No one in the West is really doing a koryu because a) we aren't ethnically Japanese, b) there is no practical implementation of these arts on the battlefleld, and c) all of them have been changed or altered with the passing of time and so claims of authenticity are meaningless and more an attempt to "say what we are a part of" than to establish a legitimate lineage.
It is interesting to note that such arguments, especially the last one, are relatively recent in origin. It is even more cogent that these arguments-again, especially the last one-come in large measure from exponents of questionable arts who, only a few short years ago, were vociferous in their protestations that their ryu were historically sound and a product of feudal Japan. They wrote detailed accounts of their rituals, training and curriculum, replete with lineage charts. Alas, more and more good scholarship about the martial koryu is being produced in English. It is becoming progressively harder to present claims that one's art is "400 years old" or that one is the inheriting headmaster of a ryu that's coincidentally escaped the scrutiny of generations of scholars and researchers.
With more being authoritatively written about the true nature and structure of these arts, the stories just don't hold up as well. Indeed, some practitioners have given up altogether even trying. They have fallen back and retrenched in their defenses. They now inform us that all history is subjective. That no one can really claim to be doing a koryu since times and attitudes have changed. It's rather like the fellow getting caught in a motel with his mistress who, when faced with more and more irrefutable evidence, eventually quits trying to make lame excuses and just whines that "Everybody does it."
Perhaps it is a product of our society of late, when heads of government resort to convoluted explications of the truth and quibble over "what the definition of 'is' is." But there seems to be an awfully lot of trying to explain away or rationalise discrepancies of these suspect ryu. There is too, a tendency on the part of many eager participants to assume a ryu is legitimate and to ignore any evidence to the contrary. "I've made up my mind; don't confuse me with the facts" is a slogan of these types. Instead of explaining the history and principles of their ryu, they now spend much of their time trying to defend them. Real koryu, as I noted in the original article, rarely need this sort of defence. Records are extensive. Lineages are easily available. Only in the West do we have so many koryu that are secret in origin, bereft of any objectively recorded history, and managed by masters who have not a single connection with any known martial art in Japan.
The four premises above all have some veneer of reason. They do not, however, withstand much scrutiny. Begin, if you will, with the suggestions of some that because there is a certain latitude in the exact definition of a koryu, that any and all presuming to be classical arts should be so considered. True, there is some play in definitions in the ancient and modem martial disciplines of Japan. There is similar play in Western subjects. We can argue reasonably over whether horseshoes or lawn darts are sports, for example. But we cannot, if words have any value at all, engage in a serious argument over whether giving birth is or isn't a sport. It isn't and tortuous bends and twists of locution, no matter how clever, will not make it so. Just because there is some looseness in the definition of a koryu should not be taken to mean that there is no definition at all.
There are in Japan at least a couple of organizations devoted to the koryu. The best known is connected with the Budokan, where it has its own office. If there is no definition of a koryu, what, we must wonder, do these organisations do? why have they certified some ryu and denied admission to others? Clearly, they have standards and criteria and while they may not be foolproof or absolute, an objective classification for bujutsu (classical martial systems) does exist for them. This seems to bother some in the West. I was informed that conclusions we might reach concerning the status of a ryu are, at best, "hazarded guesses," and that unless there is direct contradictory evidence, a determination of truth is well nigh impossible. Come on. We're getting into the realm of "You can't prove the Holocaust really happened," here, aren't we? I can't prove absolutely without a shred of a doubt that the classical bujutsu are not entirely the creation of a boatload of Zulu warriors who navigated to Japan and introduced them. (Don't laugh. I've heard explanations that weren't much less fantastic than this one.) But surely my conclusions on that thesis can be more determinative that a "hazarded guess." An open mind is one thing. A stubborn refusal to acknowledge a mountain of contrary evidence and a complete lack of substantiation for a ryu's legitimacy is something else. Sophomoric agnosticism and rhetorical gymnastics aside, we must on occasion make some judgements. Correct conclusions are reachable. It's just that they can be tough when we don't like the direction in which they head us.
The second argument, that physical skills ought to be a predominant factor in judging the historical validity of a ryu, is an appealing one. Initially, it makes sense.
Upon closer examination, It does not. Those who make it demonstrate exactly the ignorance of the nature of the classical martial ryu that accounts for so many of these misunderstandings. At least three flaws are obvious in it.
First empirical, "direct assessment of someone's skill" is not a reliable indicator of a ryu's authenticity. If you think so, then you'd better be prepared to acknowledge mine as the grand ultimate. I call it "Remington ryu." Haul out your katana, your yari, your kusarigama. Bring 'em all. We'll see how they stack up in close quarters against a 12-guage pump shotgun. Just because I'd blow the brains out of practitioners of every koryu exponent in Japan is not proof my ryu is an authentic example of a classical combative system of feudal Japan.
Remember; we're talking about schools devoted to arts that lost their practical applicability centuries ago. Judging their effectiveness is not easy, because we may not always be clear on what it was they were trying to do. Demonstrations of the techniques of any ryu demand a partner trained in them as well. With a willing partner, anyone can look pretty good, pretty effective. (This is particularly true when the observer doesn't actually know what to look for.) I suppose you could also participate in duels to the death to prove your ryu's efficacy. I'll pass, for obvious reasons, but also because, as with the demonstrations, we'd be getting off the subject. Most martial scholars who question a ryu's lineage are not questioning its methods. They are asking about its provenance. They are interested from a scholarly point of view, not in what the exponents may actually do. The failure to make this distinction speaks volumes of those who would apparently rather not confront it.
Let me give you an example. I pour you a glass of what I suggest is a Cote d'Cochon Burgundy, '08. It's one of the great vintages of all time. A bottle costs more than I make in a year. You sip it and ask, reasonably, to take a look at the bottle. "What's the matter," I say. "Doesn't it taste good? Don't you like it?" See how I've changed the subject? You may like it fine, just as a supposed koryu may look very impressive. We're not talking about how it looks or tastes, though. We want some reliable evidence of its history and lineage. This is not unreasonable. And if I were suddenly making up excuses-far-fetched excuses-for preventing you from looking at the bottle from which I'd just poured, you'd be justified in suspecting I have something to hide about the vintage. Those who brush off any inquiries into the history of their art with pleas of "just come train or watch a practise" are equally suspicious.
Second, as I noted above, the nature of a classical ryu is not always or even often immediately obvious. This is critical. I'm thinking of one koryu I've seen in Japan, which has a silly-looking, exaggerated stepping pattern in many of its kata (prearranged patterns). It looks almost clownish. Not until you learn that these methods were developed for fighting in the muck of rice fields, stepping between rows, does the movement make sense. Koryu often look rather slow, even clumsy, when demonstrated formally. They are in disappointing contrast, in many instances to what we see on TV or movies. Every time you see a sword fight there, the combatants are jumping around, throwing in kicks, making acrobatic moves that took very effective. Outfit those combatants in the heavy, restrictive armour worn by the samurai at various periods in their history, though, and you'd see that those apparently slow, cumbersome moves of many koryu are perfectly efficient. The kicks and acrobatics would get one killed in a heartbeat. But if you don't know that, you will not make the correct judgement. You must also realise that most koryu contain methods that would be very difficult for you to assess. To those who believe they can examine a koryu and ascertain its practical effectiveness. I would ask, how are you competent to judge such esoterica as blowing a conch shell to signal troop movement? Knotting armour cords so perspiration won't jam them? Handling a serving tray so as to conceal a surprise attack with a hidden dagger? These are methods contained in koryu. Could you look at any of them and tell, with any degree of success, which are correct and which have been made up?
The third and most serious fallacy in this argument was best explained by one reader who insisted that "If it looks like a duck and talks like a duck. . ."
Ducks do not talk where I come from. But I believe his point was that if the practitioners conduct themselves as we think a bugeisha (martial artist) should, if they seem to have good skills in the use of some weapons or empty-handed techniques, that is a reliable sign they represent a legitimate koryu. The problem with assigning the title of duck to a beast given the way it walks and talks is that we must have a knowledgeable idea of exactly how it is a duck is supposed to walk and talk. The classical koryu, I'm sorry to say, are ducks that have been seen by very few people in Japan. Even fewer in the West. The readers of this magazine are probably among the most educated of the martial arts public in this country. Even so, if we were to arrange demonstrations of ten koryu picked at random for an audience of those readers, how many could identify even half of the ryu based upon their observation? Less than one percent.
Look at it another way: People have mistaken my competency in chado, the tea ceremony. Even people in Japan--those who know nothing about chado--have made incorrect assumptions about my skills in the art based on observing me at it. I've been taught and practised chado basics often enough and long enough to do a reasonable job of the simplest of them if I must. In the US, how many people would spot the flaws in my performance? Almost none. I can look like a competent chajin (tea master). But in the presence of a real expert, my mistakes and technical goofs would be recognizable in an instant. We all know of men who've passed themselves off as veterans, who can "talk the talk." They sound as though they were smack in the middle of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Put them in a room with real Vietnam veterans and their stories collapse. The real vet knows the right questions to ask.
I know this will be difficult for some readers to swallow because it means acknowledging that we don't know as much as we think we do. I don't mean to be insulting, but most Western enthusiasts of koryu have simply not enough experience or exposure to identify the differences between a duck and a goose. The uncritical acceptance of and enthusiastic participation in so many "classical ryu" which are patently fraudulent by these individuals is distressing proof.
Some readers argued that because they are pleasing themselves and their teachers and having a good time, that criticisms of their claims are mean-spirited and irrelevant. It is an argument that fails on at least two counts. First, these questionable koryu are, nearly without exception, demonstrating their art in public places, advertising themselves as inheritors of specific warrior traditions and presuming to be presenting a part of the martial traditions of old Japan. If they really were off by themselves, engaging in their practise, that might be fine. If you want to go off by yourself and believe that the Confederacy won the Civil War, hey, that's your business. But when you go to a classroom and teach that, or when you present it as fact to impressionable minds, it becomes my concern.
If you were to mount a production of a Noh drarna and attempted to pass off the performers as members of a centuries old school of that drama, members of the Japanese community, the theatre world, and any number of Japanese cultural organisations would be rightfully indignant. The same groups would be indignant if you turned out some bowls on a pottery wheel and had a showing of your work, advertising it as being in the tradition of Ogata Kenzan or some other great Japanese potter, when in reality it was nothing even close. Members of the community who have an appreciation for Japanese culture, especially those who have links with a traditional koryu have a similar right to be angry when those ryu are misrepresented, or when something someone dishonestly claims as a classical ryu is demonstrated.
This argument is often accompanied by the assertion that so long as students are having a good time and pleasing their teachers, they won't really mind-and ought not-if their "ryu" was concocted in a basement in Newark a couple of years ago instead of on a battlefield in early Japan. Really? So students who've put in twenty years of effort and money and time and who are told one day that, "Oh, by the way, your teacher just made up all this after watching some samurai movies" shouldn't be upset? After all, if he's had a good time, has practised sincerely and uncritically followed his teacher's advice, that should be, runs the argument, the fundamental criteria.
I'm sorry to say that I don't deal with these kinds of students very often. On the contrary, I get letters ftequently from students who, when presented with the sad truth of their ryu, are devastated. They have invested enormously, financially and emotionally, in their efforts. To disseminate a fakery is simply cheating. Those cheated are bound to be outraged. If I sell you a "Rolex" you discover to be a fake five years later, I doubt your dissatisfaction will be assuaged by my argument that, well, it's kept perfect time hasn't it? Earlier I used the example of the married jerk caught in a motel with his girlfriend. Should he be the husband of someone you know, would you use the same reasoning advocated in this argument with his wife? Gee, Laura, you had a good time in your marriage, you worked on it sincerely, and you were uncritical of your husband's participation in it. Just because he got caught in the sack with his girlfriend shouldn't make you feel bad about the whole enterprise. After all, you didn't do anything wrong.
(One reader, by the way, asserted that if, for instance, you are being told you are learning jujutsu when in fact you are merely being taught modem judo, your time and energies are not wasted because, after all, "'good judo is good judo." This is utterly incomprehensible to me, I must admit. It is like contracting to learn Spanish when you are instead instructed in German. You ought not complain because, after all, good German is good German.)
Let me be clear. The classical martial koryu of Japan are a profound facet of that nation's heritage. They are a kind of living antique. They are every bit as valuable as works of art in a museum. When fraudulent versions of them are propagated and presented as the real thing, for whatever reason, a kind of cultural vandalism is incurred. It is not all that different from defacing a work of art. Or from exhibiting in your own museum objects that aren't what you say they are. You are distorting part of a country's culture. You are claiming or at least insinuating that you are a part of a heritage-and representing it-when you are not. You have no such right. Those who are a part of a koryu should and will take exception to your crime. No one has a right to appropriate the name of an authentic koryu and "teach" methods of any kind, whether they may superficially resemble those of the ryu or not. If they create their own, they should clearly advertise it as such.
Arguments of sophistry, suggesting there can be no objective view of historical subjects like the history of a ryu are transparent, never advanced by those with facts on their side, always by those who have reached a conclusion and will go to any rhetorical lengths to defend them.
Further, while the koryu have a number of good reasons for continuing into the 21st Century, "making me feel good" is not one of them. The fact that you enjoy your practise of a phony ryu is not a justification for participating in a fraud. Wishing you were a bugeisha (martial artist), conducting yourself as you believe a bugeisha would, are noble motivations. They are not a magical passport, though, that will transform you into a member of a bona fide ryu.
If those who have advanced these specious arguments cannot summon up the intellectual integrity to confront their own inconsistencies and irrationalities, a sense of common decency ought to at least give some pause to their advocacy of guileful or inauthentic martial ryu.
I'm sure there are those who will disagree, who will continue to take exception to these responses and explanations. They may even be creative enough to come up with some entirely new rationalisations for believing in various deceptions and inaccuracies. I wish them the best of luck. Heck, as a proud Navy SEAL, I even salute them.