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Fewer Words - More Understanding

by David Lynch

Aikido Journal #111 (1997)

“No, no, no, that’s the wrong technique!”

“All right you two, sit down, and let the next pair stand up!”

“No, not there, kneel down over there!”

“OK, now you do the technique!”

This was the scene I witnessed at an aikido grading examination. It all seemed fairly normal, except for one thing—the commands were all in Japanese, even though there were no Japanese people present, the instructor himself was not Japanese and the dojo was many thousands of miles away from Japan.

It seemed strange to me that the Japanese language was used throughout the test, not only for the names of the techniques, but even for commands and reprimands like those repeated above. What was not so strange was that several of the students being examined obviously did not know what they were being asked to do.

The instructor spoke good Japanese, but I wondered why he felt obliged to use that language exclusively under those circumstances. It seemed like a case of “when in Rome, do as the Japanese do.”

It is, of course, none of my business how anyone else chooses to run their dojo, or what amount of Japanese they elect to use in the process, but I feel this example demonstrates a kind of linguistic imperialism that aikido would be better off without. The spectacle of a Westerner trying, consciously or unconsciously, to be Japanese, and doomed of course to failure, seems anything but harmonious.

Exposure to Japanese language and culture, through aikido, can be both educational and enjoyable and is one of the many indirect benefits of learning the art, but some individuals appear to lose more than they gain from this cross-cultural experience. In these cases, the first casualty seems to be their sense of humor, and the ability to laugh at themselves. As students, they are grim-faced and punctuate their training with odd, guttural sounds, and as instructors they tend to be intensely rank-conscious and overbearing. They bark orders, more often than not in Japanese, and demand that they be treated with special respect. But why?

Perhaps they are afraid that if they change anything—from the techniques learned by rote, right down to the actual words their Japanese instructors used in teaching them—their aikido might lose its authenticity. Or it may be that they are just trying to impress or mystify their students. Whatever the case, the result is unnatural at best, and makes the average onlooker wonder when they are going to “come off it.”

As for using the Japanese language so intensively in dojos outside Japan, at what point is this curious habit expected to end? Would the hapless students of these instructors be allowed to revert to their own language at the dojo door after class, or at some point in the car or bus on their way home?

Most Japanese, thankfully, are quite capable of laughing at themselves, and I am sure some of the rigid attitudes of these Western instructors would seem funny to them as well. But many Japanese can also display an intense nationalism which is tedious enough as it stands, without one having to see this aped and amplified by over-zealous Westerners.

I once heard a senior Japanese aikido instructor say that the words onegaishimasu and arigato gozaimashita were used respectively at the start and finish of aikido classes in every dojo throughout the world. He said these terms had to be spoken in Japanese because their “deep spiritual significance” could not be conveyed in any other language.

I could have told him of at least one dojo (my own) where neither of these terms is used, but the fact remains that these two Japanese expressions simply mean “please” (in the sense of “please train with me”) and “thank you.” They are no more spiritual than their English equivalents. As a matter of fact, in my dojo we have chosen to start the class with a silent bow and end with a “thank you” in English, and so far we have not been struck by lightning, or supercharged ki, for failing to use the above-mentioned “untranslatable” Japanese expressions.

I am not saying we should anglicize all aikido terminology, although such a move may ultimately be in the interests of the art, but it seems common sense to use the local language as much as possible, in the interests of better communication. If something can be easily expressed in English, for instance, why say it in Japanese?

What is the sense in issuing detailed instructions in Japanese to non-Japanese students?

It has been argued that having a common aikido terminology (i.e., Japanese) is a great convenience when aikidoka travel out of their own language zone. An Australian, say, arriving at a dojo in Germany, would at least understand the names of the techniques, so would not be completely lost. I do not think much of this argument though, as more Germans speak English than Japanese, and in any case, you do not need to know the names of the techniques to practice them, since usually the whole class are doing the same technique, and you only have to look around you to recognize what they are doing.

The exaggerated significance many Japanese give to their language is the subject of a book called, Japan’s Modern Myth - the Language and Beyond, by Roy Andrew Miller. The writer’s theme is that the Japanese have created a powerful myth around their language, in order to strengthen a feeling of national identity that had been damaged by various historical events.

Miller thoroughly, if somewhat stridently, debunks the concept of the purity of the Japanese language and points to many examples where the language is used to bolster quite unscientific claims of uniqueness and superiority.

Aikidoka would also be interested in Miller’s comments on kotodama (or kototama, to use O-Sensei’s pronunciation), the so-called “spirit of the language.” Miller calls this concept “an entirely spurious attempt to make the Japanese language appear essentially different from all other varieties of human language.” (Note, however, that his remarks are not aimed directly at the religious rituals surrounding kototama, as practiced in some aikido schools.)

In visiting the Auckland branch of one of the modern Japanese religions, I was surprised to find prayers being chanted in Japanese, even though—once again—there were no Japanese people in the group and the priest in charge was in fact an Indian immigrant from Fiji. He was conducting a healing session which involved reading invocations, in rather shaky Japanese, from a romanized script. When I suggested that translating the prayers might enable those receiving them to know more precisely what blessings were being conferred upon them, I was told: “These prayers will only work if they are read in Japanese, because Japanese is the purest language in the world.”

One would have to wonder about a religion that apparently closes its doors to anyone unable to speak a certain language. On the other hand, there could well be some purely sonic merit in droning certain sounds rather than others, but in that case one would expect a less bigoted explanation of the choice of language.

I do not advocate deculturalizing aikido, such as by doing away with the hakama and dogi and substituting jeans and T-shirts, and I recognize the difficulty even in discussing or writing about the art without using a number of Japanese terms. But surely we should be aiming for better communication, not the pedantic use of Japanese terminology at all costs. And it seems regrettable that the language is being used as yet another tool for some people to exert power over others.

Aikido, especially its universal humanistic philosophy, must surely be strong enough to withstand translation into other languages, and it seems very narrow-minded to imagine otherwise. The Way is both Japanese and international, and cannot be confined to any narrow national boundaries.

I am not, despite the above comments, against the use of Japanese language in dojos outside Japan; it’s just that I think this should be tempered with common sense.

Just how much Japanese should be used in aikido is a problem we face every time we publish Aikido Journaland we are trying to develop a core list of terms that do not need translation and to decide which others should edited out, which should be translated and which explained in detail via a glossary. Imagine having to translate the word ki every time it is used! A ghastly thought, but at the same time we must remember that many of our readers have little or no Japanese language knowledge and we owe it to them to make things as clear as possible.

I should like here to pay tribute to our tireless translator, Derek Steel who has the most difficult job of translating the bulk of our articles from the Japanese edition of the magazine. Much of the material is so esoteric than even Japanese people have difficulty understanding it, so trying to convey these ideas in English is extremely taxing. Derek is conscientious of this and will often provide various alternatives to cover every possible shade of meaning. It is my job to edit the material and this involves some hard decisions, and finding a balance between an accurate translation and what our readers are likely to understand. (If anything seems to be lost in translation it is more likely that it has been lost in the process of my editing.)

In principle, Aikido Journal’s aim is to use as few Japanese words and phrases as possible—and I feel this should be the policy in dojos outside Japan as well—and to introduce important Japanese words and concepts in palatable doses.

When we feel it is necessary to use a lesser known Japanese term, for reasons of technical or cultural importance, we use the “first time only” rule, whereby the first appearance of the Japanese term in an article is italicized and followed by a translation in parentheses, while subsequent usage in the same article is neither italicized nor explained. Where we feel it is necessary, Japanese technical terms are further explained in a glossary.

We have also opted for Western name order when writing Japanese names, since this is still the rule in the English-language media—hence “Morihei Ueshiba,” not “Ueshiba Morihei” even though the latter is the proper name order in Japan.

Titles used by martial artists also present a problem, as many of these have no English equivalents. If we were to list all the different titles and names used for Morihei Ueshiba, at different times and by different people, for instance, this would probably take up several paragraphs. In the interests of clarity we will sometimes opt to use someone’s name alone, without all their titles, though this is not intended to be disrespectful.

Aikido Journal is, after all, an English-language publication and there seems little point in filling it up with Japanese words that only a few of our readers may be able to understand.

Shihonage would work just as well, or just as badly, by any other name.