Real fighting is not the primary purpose of budo
The japanese word budo is omnipresent in popular culture and yet, it is one of the most misunderstood, including by budoka themselves. I would like to briefly explain the origin of this term and describe its fundamental intrinsic contradictions. Those are mostly due to the fact that budo consists in the study of ancient warfare techniques, but less for the purpose of fighting than to provide a means of education and personal development. I do not intent to resolve these contradictions, but instead, I would like to propose some ways to understand them, and more importantly, to learn how to embrace them, so that one can make the most of budo.
The origins of the term budo
The word budo is composed of the characters bu (武) and do (道). Bu means “martial” or “war” [to learn more about the meaning of the character bu, you can read Jordy Delage’s detailed explanation here], and do, also pronounced michi, means “way” or “path”. In Chinese the character 道 (pronounced “tao“) does not only mean “path”, but also expresses a global vision of the world and an idea of unity. The Japanese have adapted the word do to serve in a more practical purpose, and when it is used as a suffix for an activity, not necessarily a martial art, chado (茶道, the way of tea) for example, do expresses a finite set of knowledge and a lengthy process towards achieving the mastery of a discipline. In its broad sense, budo is therefore a path of personal development through the study of traditions and techniques originating in the arts of war of the samurai (侍). Reinforcing this idea, it should be noted that several scholars argue that many koryu bugei (古流武芸, ancient martial arts schools), also called bugei ryuha (武芸流派, martial arts schools), from which modern budo are derived, did not have as a primary vocation to be systems of training for the battlefield either, and that they were in fact already, to a large extent, educational methods.
Careful consideration of the circumstances under which ryuha bugei first appeared, moreover, strongly suggests that these arts were never meant to be straightforward tools of war-that, rather, visions of martial art as a vehicle to broad personal education shape and characterized this phenomenon from its nascenceKarl Friday – Off the Warpath: Military Science and Budo in the Evolution of Ryuha Bugei – Budo Perspectives, Volume 1 (p.249-265)
Most koryu do have moral teachings, based on neo-Confucianism and often profoundly “work” on the human spirit, through practices derived from esoteric Buddhism and Taoism.Ellis Amdur – Interview with Ellis Amdur – Part 1: Martial Journey from Aikido to koryu
What is meant by “modern” budo
The origin of the use of the term budo is uncertain but it has often been used interchangeably in the Japanese literature with the term bujutsu (武術, war techniques). It is thereofre perhaps more relevant to focus on distinguishing kobudo (古武道, ancient budo) and gendai budo (現代武道, modern budo). When one speaks of budo today in most dojo (道場), one often means gendai budo, which designates a number of disciplines created after the Meiji Restoration (明治維新), i.e. 1868. Those include judo (柔道), kendo (剣道), kyudo (弓道), sumo (相撲), karatedo (空手道), aikido (合気道), shorinji kempo (少林寺拳法), jukendo (銃剣道), among others. The national organizations governing those particular nine I just cited are overseen by the Nippon Budo Kyogikai (日本武道協議会), which seems quite happy to refer to them under the generic term of budo.
What ties the two terms is the fact that, as previously stated, the gendai budo are forms that were created based on modified versions of older kobudo techniques, usually for the purpose of turning them into educational tools. Indeed, one of the major commonalities between all these gendai budo is that they were formalized in an effort to introduce them into the Japanese education system. It was Kano Jigoro (嘉納治五郎, 1860 – 1938), who first began work on modifying ancient koryu jujutsu (古流柔術) techniques, mainly those of Tenjin Shin’yo-ryu (天神真楊流), to simplify them and to make them less dangerous. One of the main reasons he did so was that he was seeking the approval from the Japanese government for his Kodokan judo (講道館柔道) to be taught in schools. After multiple attempts, and multiple technical changes made at the request of the officials, he finally managed, in 1889, to get his discipline recognized. It is also important to point out that his purpose was less to use martial techniques in a practical sense per se, than to infuse some Japanese culture and ideas back into an otherwise largely westernized education system.
Most of the gendai budo we know today have followed suit at various times. Ueshiba Morihei (植芝盛平, 1883 – 1969) picked some techniques from the extensive Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu (大東流合気柔術) curriculum to create his aikido. The name was officially recognized in 1942 by the Dai Nippon Butokukai (大日本武徳会), the state body that managed martial arts education in schools before the Second World War.
Alexander Bennett discussing the origins of the Dai Nippon Butokukai and modern budo
The specific case of aikido
The founder of aikido is often praised for his revolutionary vision, but some evidence, most of which pointed out by aikido researcher Christopher Li, suggests that ethical and educational considerations were in fact also essential components of Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu as taught by Takeda Sokaku (武田惣角, 1859 – 1943), the teacher of Ueshiba Morihei.
The goal of Daito-ryu is the spread of “harmony and love”, keeping this to heart helps maintain and achieve social justice. This is the desire of Takeda Sokaku. Takeda Tokimune – Speech reported by Ishibashi Yoshihisa in 武田惣角伝 大東流合気武道百十八ヵ条 (p. 51)
These words are indeed very much like those of Ueshiba Morihei, who said for example:
Aikido is connecting the world with harmony and loveSpeech made by Ueshiba Morihei while on a trip to Hawaii on February 28, 1961.
An idea widely shared among aikidoka is that Takeda Sokaku was a feral individual with little time or regards for the laws of either men or gods, and that he only concerned himself with martial effectiveness. However, Li points out that the notes that Takeda Tokimune (武田時宗 1916 – 1993) took of his father’s teachings contain numerous references to Shingon Buddhism. Considering the fact that Ueshiba Morihei thoroughly studied Shingon Buddhism during his youth, it would have made him particularly receptive to such references if they were indeed made by Sokaku. Unfortunately, Sokaku did not leave any writings but the fact that all Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu schools that I know of have fairly strict ethical rules seem to comfort this idea. The rules laid out in my own Daito-ryu school are, I think, quite representative of that trend.
The most important thing for us is to live with a righteous heart. If this is in our mind, it will be in our technique. Students must train their minds in order to complete their training as human beings. This must be the ultimate goal. Takeda Tokimune as quoted by Ishibashi Yoshihisa in 武田惣角伝 大東流合気武道百十八ヵ条 (p. 13)
Moral shift and instrumentalisation
Of course, the introduction of budo in schools was quickly instrumentalized to instill militaristic values and ensure the support of the population to Japan’s expansionist policy in the early 20th century. It is also at this period that the term bushido (武士道) was invented – or rather rediscovered – and that it became widely used, hand in hand with the romanticized image of the samurai of yesteryear, in order to encourage a fervent sentiment of national pride. However, the techniques themselves were not meant to train soldiers, but instead, to develop personality traits that were compatible with the war effort. This is most likely why the dan (段, rank) grades, which were modeled on the military ranks, were adopted, and that the hierarchical and formal rules of most gendai budo dojo are often much more strict than that in many of kobudo dojo.
After the capitulation of Japan, budo were once again modified to fit the times. The older ones like judo and kendo, returned to basics dating from before their distortion to fit state propaganda, and the most recent ones, like aikido, were reformulated into entities that would be politically acceptable, not only for the US occupier, but also for the Japanese people itself, since many did not want to have anything to do with martial arts anymore in the aftermath of the capitulation. As a result, what was left of the warmongering considerations in budo was further reduced and their purpose as paths of personal development and harmonization with others and the universe was emphasized even more. As some arts such as aikido were formulated in the middle of the war, some of these moral aspects were emphasized even more explicitly. For aikido, this followed the gradual evolution of the founder’s vision during the conflict, from a fairly pronounced nationalism to a desire for harmony among peoples, a message that de facto facilitated the discipline’s acceptability by society. As for the concept of bushido, it still had good days ahead of itself as it became used to motivate the “corporate samurai” to kill themselves (sometimes literally) at the task of rebuilding the country.
The historical facts show that the gendai budo were not designed primarily as combat systems, nor even self-defense, but as education systems, and that for this to happen, much of the efficacy and the dangerosity of the original techniques had to be withdrawn.
The Japanese budo is hard-wired into saying that tradition is the be-all and end-all and that it must stay as is, because it is the way it has always been […] but actually, this totally goes against traditional budo because budo has always been about evolution, change.Alexander Bennett – Budo in Today’s Modern World
What budo are today
The mutation of budo continued according to certain parameters such as their more or less extensive dissemination (especially outside Japan), the need to conform to competitive sets of rules, and the emergence of lineages initiated by students of their founders. Interestingly, the few surviving kobudo actually tended to model their own evolution to that of the gendai budo, even to the point of long-standing enemy schools gathering within the same organizations, one of which being the Kobudo Shinkokai (古武道振興会), which entertains no ambiguity about the cultural nature of its role.
Today, in Japan, if you ask a person why they practice kobudo or gendai budo, the probability is very high that they will mention the ningen keisei no michi (人間形成の道, the way human perfection), or something along the line of “I want to learn more about my culture”. It happens at the level of the individual, but it is also found in the pamphlets of many schools, as well as in the statutes of their umbrella organizations. When I began my study of Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu, I was initially surprised by the fact that most of my classmates were primarily interested in cultural considerations and personal development, when all I was looking for were aikido techniques that “worked”.
Testimonies from Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu practitioners on the motivations behind their practice.
To get back to the gendai budo, traditionalists often accuse the introduction of competitions to be leading budo to their demise. Even though the existence of codified matches precedes the 1800’s, when one sees the technical poverty of judo today, and the often outrageous attitude of judoka on the tatami, one can only agree. Competitions indeed promote a very small number of techniques that work well in their specific context, and many judoka do not see the value of studying older techniques that would be illegal in competition. In my judo years as a child, we only studied a tiny part of the technical catalog that was displayed on the walls of the dojo, and the ultimate goal was always the medal. Sometimes, however, our teacher would organize seminars with high-ranking professors who would show us advanced techniques, but I still remember that we were all wondering why we were being taught these useless things by old men who proudly displayed red and white belts that meant nothing to us, since they were no longer representative of an ability to defeat someone in competition. This modification of techniques according to the rules is not novel though. Kano Jigoro himself integrated into his judo techniques of newaza (寝技, ground techniques) that he otherwise considered dangerous in the street, but he did it so that his judoka could avoid being defeated in the competitive environments by fighters who were less reluctant to going on the ground.
It must be said, however, that competition does not have to be only negative influence. As Alexander Bennett states in one of his books, one of the most remarkable forms of zanshin (残心, literally “the spirit that lingers,” which means a vigilance at all times) can be found in the stoic attitude of two kendoka during a match. The rules of kendo want the fighters to never let go of their zanshin, and if one of them is caught showing any emotion, either positive or negative, penalties ensue. Conversely, the judoka never miss an opportunity to show their lack of zanshin during explosions of joy or frustration in competitions. The competition can either strengthen a martial apsect or reduce it, but it is not to be considered as the main reason for a decrease in the martial efficacy of budo.
Alexander Bennett discussing the place of budo in today’s society
The more a discipline spreads, the more it changes and becomes diluted. Indeed, it is at the base that this expansion is done and as a result, the proportion of practitioners relative to the number of qualified teachers eventually decreases. Organizations often end up appointing teachers in a rush in order to meet the demand, even if it means causing a dan grade inflation in the process. This is why many koryu have remained deliberately discreet and small-scaled, so as not to have to reduce the standards too much, but the disadvantage of such approach is that many koryu have disappeared, or lost substantial parts of their curriculum, due to lack of practitioners to pass the torch to the next generation. Between those two extremes, I personally think that the current downsizing in aikido is not necessarily a bad thing for the discipline, at least initially, because people will eventually have to regroup and work together if they want to continue practicing meaningfully.
What can we hope to develop via budo
As we have seen, studying a budo for the exclusive purpose of martial effectiveness, whether on the battlefield, as in the street, is to expect that budo be what they are not. One can thus ask the question of what is the point of studying so-called disciplines such as karate, aikido, or judo. It is precisely here that a budo take all its value: it is the journey that counts, not the goal. A life spent studying one or more of these gendai budo would not be a wasted life, if it is done with the right goals and expectations in mind.
The techniques are only one of several components of budo, and although their learning outcomes emerge via the perfecting of these techniques, notions like etiquette, zanshin, and kiai (in the sense that Ellis Amdur describes) are equally susceptible to yield said outcomes. Budo are (or can be) much deeper and more complex than mere self-defense systems. One learns to interact with others and to conform to a context and its social conventions, in order to harmonize interactions. This later point is where the actual meaning of the term harmony is found, when speaking about wa no budo (和の武道, budo of harmony). One learns to know oneself, to control oneself, and to surpass oneself; it is ningen keisei. One also learns to use one’s body more optimally (tanren), to manage space, and so on. Akuzawa Sensei constantly talks about this when describing his own Aunkai Bujutsu (阿吽会武術)
The budoka is expected to learn the moral values of respect, humility, pacifism (though some may debate the use of that particular term) through the perfecting of a martial choreography or through competition. Therefore, it is very important to understand that efficacy is not the primary objective of studying a budo, just as reaching the target is not the primary goal of kyudo. Even within the koryu, no one would think of criticizing a demonstration of hojutsu (砲術, the art of handling the black powder gun) for their lack of practicality in modern warfare. Hojutsu is an ancient, highly formalized, martial discpline that makes use of obsolete techniques. This observation is pretty valid for all other budo, be they empty-handed arts or otherwise.
To conclude, I would like to say that despite this, the techniques taught in budo are still martial techniques, and that with minor changes, they can recover varying degrees of effectiveness, depending on the schools and teachers. In my own study of Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu techniques, I was able to learn the original forms of aikido techniques that we all know, and one of the outcomes was a substantially increased efficacy. However, if one really wants to learn something purely practical, whether it is a method of combat or self-defense, it is probably more sensible to turn to a modern military or law enforcement method, which would be much better adapted to current environments.
Between personal development and efficacy, the budoka is left free to choose where to put the cursor, and this is one of the wonderful features of budo. However, one should always keep in mind that going too far one way or the other would result in denying the very nature of budo. Budo are living paradoxes, they are arts of life rooted in death techniques. They cherish traditions but change constantly. Rather than feeling embarrassed by these apparent contradictions, one should embrace them, because it is precisely the fact that we are trying to find the right balance between these that make us worthy of the title of budoka.
- Amdur, Ellis – Old Schools – Freelance Academy Press
- Benesch, Oleg – Bushido : the creation of a martial ethic in late Meiji Japan
- Benesch, Oleg – Inventing the Way of the Samurai – Oxford University Press
- Bennett, Alexander – Bushido and the Art of Living – Japan Library
- Bennett, Alexander – Kendo – Culture of the Sword – University of California Press
- Boylan, Peter – Musings of a Budo Bum – BookBaby
- Friday, Karl – Off the Warpath: Military Science & Budo in the Evolution of Ryuha Bugei – Budo Perspectives, Volume 1 (p.249-265) – Kendo World
- Gainty, Denis – Martial Arts and the Body Politics in Meiji Japan – Routledge
- Li, Christopher – Tokimune Takeda – Aiki Kuden and Hiden
Many thanks to Jordy Delage for his help with proofreading.