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Happy Black Hakama - Aikido with a Smile

by David Lynch

Aikido Journal #121

Retired to the country, a hundred miles from the Auckland dojo I supervise, I only get to train once or twice a week.

But I do have time to think, and to present some of these thoughts, for better or for worse, in writing:

Lynch Sensei is past his peak;

He’s down to training once a week;

But writing time he can afford;

His penis mightier than his sword!

Despite the above, I do take aikido seriously, and plan to get back into daily training as soon as we have built our new “bush dojo” here in Whitianga. But I take humor seriously as well, as I feel it is one of those essential human values that distinguish us from the lesser creatures — apart from the laughing hyena, of course.

Humor is a useful tool for exposing some of the “sacred cows” of aikido for what they are, and for pricking some of those inflated egos that are all too common in the dojos of the world. Sometimes, too, there is nothing else for it but to laugh when we encounter, on our aikido journey, something, or someone, totally frustrating and abstruse.

If I were inclined to write a book on aikido (which I am not) it would have to be a book of jokes or cartoons. To write a book on technique and philosophy, without merely repeating what someone else has said and without slipping into dogma, would be a major challenge.

Besides, all the good titles are taken: “Angry White Pajamas” is a classic; the title says it all! Another ingenious title was, “What is Aikido?” which was cleverly followed by the sequel, “This is Aikido”, thus paving the way, no doubt, for, “This is Aikido Too” and “This is Aikido Too — 2”, and so on.

A book on the various training travesties I have witnessed, called, “This Isn’t Aikido” would probably come across as a trifle too negative so, yes, it would have to be a book of jokes: “Happy Black Hakama” or something along those lines; something to reflect the human side of aikido and counterbalance the inhumanity, egotism and plain stupidity; something more in keeping with O-Sensei’s admonition to, “always train in a vibrant and joyful manner.”

Unlike the brutal sempais described in the pajama book, the founder of aikido himself obviously had a sense of humor, judging from the old movies where you see him playing a lighthearted “cat-and-mouse” game with his ukes.

A judo friend of mine experienced this at first hand in the early 60s when he was invited by O-Sensei to attack him “any way he liked”.

Realizing he would probably be recognized as a judoka (the cauliflower ears were a giveaway) he decided to use the element of surprise, and to attack with a karate kick — but he never saw or felt what happened! He just flew through the air and landed with a thud. When he got up, slightly dazed, O-Sensei had apparently vanished! He turned this way and that, but could not see him — for the simple reason that the old man had sneaked in behind him and was turning around with him, in perfect sync, much to the amusement of the onlookers. It was only when my friend received a tap on the shoulder that he realized the joke was on him.

If that’s isn’t a sense of humor, at the highest level of aikido, I’d like to know what is.

And yet there are some dojos in which training is taken so seriously that laughing could get you expelled — while in others you are encouraged to smile and relax at all times, the better to “extend ki”.

I have no doubt O-Sensei could also be deadly serious, but, to me, it is the mark of a true master to be able to issue such an open-ended challenge and then treat the attack so lightly. Clowning around in that way could be fatal to lesser mortals like us. Nevertheless, I feel there is a great need to lighten up a little in our training, and I am convinced nothing is lost, in terms of “martial effectiveness,” in so doing. (Why are some people so intent on proving, “my sankyo is stronger than your sankyo”? It makes no sense to me.)

Laughter is a universal language, but jokes are extremely difficult to translate from one language to another. I was once called upon to interpret for a government minister who suddenly departed from his speech and cracked a joke. I knew that by the time I had translated it into Japanese the joke would have assumed the consistency of a lead balloon; so I said, “I’m sorry, but the Honorable Minister has just made a rather pathetic joke which is scarcely worth translating, I would appreciate it if you would laugh.” The audience roared!

Laughter can be a spark that bridges the culture gap and reminds us of our common humanity. If some senseis fail to appreciate this, some of their students, unfortunately, carry their rigid attitudes to the extreme. When I first joined the Ki no Kenkyu Kai, I wrote enthusiastically of my impressions to an aikido colleague in the U.S., only to receive a ferocious reply telling me that if I ever mentioned “ki” again it would be impossible for him to continue corresponding with me! He belonged to one of those “no-nonsense” dojos — poor sap.

To ki or not to ki, to smile or not to smile, to grovel or not to grovel? These are just some of the challenges facing us non-Japanese aikidoka, as we tackle an art that originated in a culture very different from our own and that is peopled with personalities ranging from the perfectly pleasant to the plainly paranoid.

Some cross-cultural situations provide rich comedy material, and I had a taste of this myself once when a well-meaning friend gave an impromptu speech at one of our dojo functions. He rose to his feet and said my students were lucky to have a teacher who was a “shodan” in, not one, but several different styles of aikido. Obviously, he knew that “shodan” meant “black-belt” (which already put him ahead of the game in terms of cross-cultural savvy) but he did not know he was speaking of the lowest rung of the ladder.

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