The other day I received an anonymous letter that was critical of the grading practices of certain Japanese shihan teaching abroad. The writer lamented that the shihan in question had chosen favorites among their foreign students for rapid promotion while overlooking other more deserving senior students. The overlooked foreign teachers “need the recognition of rank” states the writer, because their competitors in other martial arts have higher ranks that they use “to sell their art to prospective students.”
First of all, I would advise people who agree with this viewpoint not to worry so much about high dan rankings as a prerequisite for succeeding as a martial arts instructor. Prospective students will be much more impressed by skilled and articulate instructors operating clean, professional facilities than by those who merely claim high ranks to attract students or who bill themselves as “Oriental experts.”
But my main purpose here is really to bring up the subject of a mentality prevalent abroad concerning Oriental martial arts instructors. For want of a better term, I will call it a “gaijin”—the Japanese term for foreigner—complex. I think this is clearly a factor in the mind of the letter-writer, who though critical of the Japanese teachers, still seeks their recognition. This mindset clings to the idea that Japanese, and Orientals in general, possess some sort of innate affinity for martial arts which enables them to achieve superior skill levels compared to Westerners. Naturally coupled with this way of thinking is the assumption that Oriental teachers have a deep understanding of the esoteric aspects of their arts to which foreigners may only aspire with great difficulty.
In the case of aikido, it was of course Japanese instructors who were the major forces in the popularization of the art in the West starting in the 1950s through the 70s. It goes without saying that, in addition to their superior technical abilities, the early Japanese shihan were the most qualified to articulate the spiritual side of the art since they had trained directly under the founder, Morihei Ueshiba. Those of us practicing back in the 1960s, I think, automatically assumed that the few Japanese we encountered—ever when they held the same rank as we did—were more highly skilled. I suspect that this attitude became ingrained in our minds and that we unconsciously passed it along in turn to our juniors.
Today, the situation has changed considerably. As I have pointed out in an earlier editorial, Japan is now third in terms of numbers of aikido practitioners worldwide, mainly due to the small number of full-time, professional dojos teaching the art in this country. Not surprisingly, there are many more skilled foreign teachers abroad now than in Japan because these individuals spend many hours a day on the mat and derive their livelihoods from teaching. Their Japanese counterparts are usually salaried workers who practice once or twice weekly as a hobby. Their level of commitment is far less, except for the most senior shihan who have been active for decades.
Although I confess I have not done a numerical comparison, I am also convinced that the number of books being published on aikido in English, for example, far exceeds the number appearing in Japanese. Moreover, we have seen further evidence of an acceleration of the growth of aikido abroad compared to Japan in our publishing business—the number of readers in Western countries has grown to nearly three times the figure for Japan. This trend shows no sign of abating and, though Japan will always remain the spiritual center of aikido, its most vigorous forward steps into mainstream culture are being taken in Western countries.
Going back to the letter I mentioned earlier, if those holding these views toward the Japanese shihan are truly dissatisfied with the status quo, my advice to them would be to consider declaring their independence from the organization that they feel has neglected them. The days when one was forced to seek out a Japanese teacher to obtain quality aikido instruction are now long past. There are many non-Japanese instructors who have attained high levels. In many instances, foreign teachers are better equipped to convey the message of aikido due to their strong professional and academic backgrounds, not to mention the fact that they are teaching in their mother tongue.
Also, on a philosophical plane, many foreign aikido adherents have “got” the founder’s message about aikido as a vehicle for achieving the peaceful resolution of conflict. O-Sensei’s views form an integral part of their teaching and this emphasis is one of the unique points of aikido that sets it apart from other martial arts. In fact, I find much more interest in Morihei Ueshiba’s ethical doctrine among foreigners than among the Japanese. Remember that, despite the fact that aikido is of Japanese origin, the founder’s views were expressed in a colorful, metaphorical language, peppered with specialized religious terminology that was completely incomprehensible to modem-day Japanese. Many of the Japanese shihan we have interviewed over the years have plainly stated that they were unable to understand his “lectures” and were anxious for him to finish talking so they could resume training. I have had similar experiences when posing questions about the founder’s religious beliefs. Most of the interviewees respond only in vague terms about such esoteric subjects or frankly admit they were unable to follow the founder’s speech.
The upshot of this is that, in one fundamental sense, foreigners are at no particular disadvantage in grasping the “essence” of aikido, even though they may have no knowledge of the Japanese language. The secrets of aikido reveal themselves to serious practitioners through the practice of the techniques themselves. I think aikido is really about developing a centered awareness within oneself and extending this presence powerfully in one’s immediate environment. This can be achieved by practitioners of any nationality and is not dependent on membership in a given organization or study under a Japanese shihan.
Stanley Pranin, editor-in-chief and publisher of Aiki News, which he established in 1974 in an attempt to provide accurate information for English-speaking aikido practitioners. He began his aikido training in 1962 in Lomita, California, and is now 5th dan. Since 1977 Pranin has lived, trained, and worked in Japan. He publishes a separate Japanese edition of Aiki News/ as well as a variety of aikido-related books. He is the author of The Aiki News Encyclopedia of Aikido, editor of Aikido Masters, and co-author of The Aiki News Dojo Finder.