The Humble Budoka
by Mark Colby Sensei
This article first appeared in the "SMAA Journal" Volume 13, Issue 4
The durability of budo has been made possible, in part, by its ability to evolve with the times. In fact, there are precious few absolutes that have survived the test of the past hundreds of years as they relate to budo today. Traditions and mores have twisted and turned before arcing exponentially in the years following the end of World War II; even the most fundamental tenets, such as yielding to the authority of your master, has dwindled to the point where listening politely prior to doing whatever suits your fancy stands well within convention in some modern martial arts schools. Old timers stand aghast when a young buck limps off the judo mat with a broken leg, worrying more about the leg and less the shame brought to the team.
One of the few absolutes that have survived the test of time is the notion that a true budo devotee maintains an air of humility. Even in the Olympics, there is a marked difference in the way victory is greeted in judo over other sports. Off the mat, the single most contemptible sin remains the transgression of boasting about past achievements, regardless of how monumental and irrespective of the truth.
Humility, like many budo covenants, tends to rub against human beings inborn tendencies. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that in our infinite ingenuity, budoka have found creative ways of scratching this particular itch without crossing the line of shame. With astute observation, one can see how some budoka seek to massage their egos without overtly violating the rules.
The most successful method of boasting without an associated loss of face is best accomplished with the help of an associate. The Japanese senior-junior system (sempai-kohai) has, in part, been developed for this purpose. It is the kohai’s (subordinate’s) expressed responsibility to act as the historical cataloguer for his sempai’s (superior’s) more noteworthy exploits. The most successful kohai inflate the truth over time, lending validity to their sempai’s red-faced denials.
In judo, for example, the Kodokan has recently allowed a handy way of socially acceptable self-aggrandizing in the form of rank insignia patches. In the past, all yudansha (“people with dan grade”) wore black belts. Red and red/white belts are often only used in formal settings. Before these patches, ascertaining someone’s rank required either asking (how gauche) or risking life and limb by requesting a spot of randori (free sparring). The position of the patch on the judo gi not only insures observation in the dojo, but also while folded, makes for prime display while riding the bus or sitting at the local pub. Of course, if someone should bring it up, or cast an eye in the patches direction, Japanese protocol demands a coy cloaking using any available item, and if none is available, it must be turned over.
Undoubtedly, the best certified ego enhancing contrivance in judo has the advantage of being both time tested and having a durability guaranteed for a lifetime. It is important to note that this particular tool has the disadvantage of requiring a good deal of pain and suffering to obtain. And it can make it difficult to get a date.
Of course, I am talking about the most prized item of them all: the cauliflower ear.
Here in Japan, a cauliflower ear can be earned in several ways, typically within the confines of the university or police judo team. For the most part, they are a relatively reliable predictor of being accepted by your peers and the resultant toughness this implies. In fact, in my experience, you are not allowed these holiest of marks until you have proven your mettle.
While this is a closely guarded secret, a bit of caution is required when assessing someone’s toughness based solely on the quality of auricle deformity. It is a medical fact that any dojo weenie can give himself a cauliflower ear by rubbing it really hard a couple hundred times every night before going to sleep. It takes about six months and hurts like a banshee—giving even these nocturnal chafers some due, I suppose.
The most legitimate way of bumping against the humility rule, which enjoys complete plausible deniability, and in no way violates budo convention, is to be especially accomplished at what you do. Such skilled people don’t need to brag. Television, newspapers, and the rumor mill massage their egos just fine. It must have been easy for Miyamoto Musashi to hang his head in utter humility after hacking quite a few armed men to pieces. Not to mention the likes of Bert Mackey Sensei sweeping his twenty-ninth Masters title in US judo competition.
This leaves the poignant question of what the rest of us contenders, near contenders, and even unproven technicians should do. Unable to rest on our laurels, and too old to rub our ears until they bled without looking silly, our choices appear limited to either fading into obscurity or blatantly violating budo doctrine. The problem with shrugging off convention and pressing ahead with our tale is that the results are nearly always diametrically opposed to the stated objective of trying to impress. For those who are either too young, or too dim-witted to have figured out what happens when the line of shame is crossed, know with absolute certainty that, regardless of pats on the back from the peanut gallery, everyone within ear-shot just demoted you to the rank of dunderhead for the evening.
A discussion about budo humility would be incomplete without a brief analysis of how the creators of budo—the Japanese—view Westerners’ attempts at adherence. At one end of the scale we have those Westerners who don’t even try. You know the ones whose gi look like a NASCAR, while they bounce around yelling “Yahoo!” after barely beating their opponents via a stunning penalty for stalling. In many ways, these are the easy Westerners for Japanese to understand, chalking it all up to a strange and bizarre culture. The Westerners who tend to confound our Japanese friends are at the other end of the scale, those who tend toward overkill. Walking with head bowed, speaking in whispers, telling anyone who will listen how poor their skill level is . . . just before raspberrying the unsuspecting one’s face into rough tatami mats. And then sucking apologetic thereafter.
All in all, budo humility is obvious when contrived and awe inspiring when achieved. It can only be gained with lots of practice, by listening to your teachers, and becoming as proficient as your natural abilities allow. Win as often as you can, but either way, end each bout with a dignity defined and shaped by your own sensibilities. Know that the real McCoy is only achievable by being confident. Confidence, in turn, is only achievable through diligence. Above and beyond all things, know that there is a reason budo humility has withstood the test of time. If your need to ask why, for judoka I suggest another 10,000 uchikomi throwing drills.
Lastly, know that no one will fault you too terribly for stacking the deck with a couple willing kohai, and Kodokan patches are available for 500 yen at the gift shop with proof of rank.
About the Author: Colby Sensei teaches and practices traditional Kodokan judo in the USA and Japan. He has practiced at the Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo for over 20 years.