Monday, June 29, 2009

Surviving the Traditional Dojo: A Book Review

Terms like “traditionalist,” “classical,” “modern,” and “eclectic” get thrown around a lot in the martial arts. Sometimes, the martial arts world can seem like a war zone between two camps. One group seems frozen in time and place in Feudal Japan or Ch’ing Dynasty China. The other believes that anything created before Bruce Lee’s treatise “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate” is completely useless for modern times.

For me, practicing and teaching martial arts is a balancing act. We shouldn’t live in the past. On the other hand, we shouldn’t forget the lessons that history has to share with us.

Some modern stylists often treat me like I’m some kind of frozen chosen traditionalist because I will incorporate classical training methods, forms and weapons into my practice. Though I don't often use the traditional terms to describe techniques, I am very familiar with the terminology in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino martial arts.

Meanwhile, some hardcore traditionalists (mistakenly) assume I have no respect for the old masters who’ve gone before me. After all, I use modern terminology, keep up on the latest health and fitness news, and I support cross-training for martial artists. Unless I’m competing in a tournament or visiting someone else’s dojo or kwoon, my uniform consists of sweats, wrestling shoes, a t-shirt and a bandana to keep the sweat out of my eyes.

The reality for myself and other martial artists usually falls somewhere between those extremes. Matt “Ikigai” Apsokardu’s new e-book, “Surviving the Traditional Dojo,” illustrates this point. One thing I’ve always respected about his blog, “Ikigai” shows that there’s more similarity than difference between the various camps. Though he considers himself a traditionalist, he places a higher value on practicality than on blindly following tradition, a characteristic I’ve come to respect in him.

The book is very well-suited for beginners, as well as parents of beginners, in understanding martial arts, though advanced martial artists could benefit from regular refreshment of their basics. It introduces the proper Japanese terminology for the uniform, the instructor, your senior and junior classmates. But while the book is written from the perspective of a Japanese-Okinawan Karate sensei, it has a lot to offer practitioners of any art, whether Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Thai, etc.

Apsokardu is no fan of the current state of martial arts, particularly the commercialism which permeates the scene. He offers some great examples of a dojo vs. a faux-jo. Personally, I like the terms, “McDojo” or “Belt-of-the-Month-Club”, but faux-jo works.

He creates a great mental image for the reader as he compares the simple “Clean, modest uniforms” of the dojo to the “Fancy Uniforms with stripes, patches, logos, etc.” of faux-jos, which sadly, seems to be the norm these days.

There’s also a great deal of information on the traditional etiquette for practitioners of Japanese martial arts. Any new student, or that student’s parental units, would benefit from knowing what is expected of them in a traditional dojo.

From an athletic standpoint, there’s some practical, albeit basic information on stretching and warming up. Most of it should be common sense, but so many senseis, and other athletic coaches, tend to ignore this, much to their students’ and players’ detriment.

I hesitate to call this book a consumer guide, especially since the author eschews the commercial atmosphere of the current martial arts scene. But that is one of this book’s greatest strengths. The sections on “Warning Signs of Trouble,” “What to do if You feel At Risk,” and “Sensei Behavior You Don’t Have to Tolerate,” should be must-reads for any new student or the parents. In my 30-plus years in the martial arts, I’ve seen plenty of examples of all three.

The information on history also blows away the stereotype of traditional martial artists being completely adverse to anything new. His chapters on belt ranks, and his biographical information on judo founder Kano Jigoro and Funakoshi Gichin, who introduced karate to Japan, illustrates that the martial arts have been in a near-constant state of change.

The book closes with submissions from various martial arts instructors and writers, (including myself) on what they think is necessary to survive a traditional dojo. The suggestions are all pretty much just common sense.

But sometimes, that’s what we need most to be reminded of.

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