“Happy Black Hakama” -Aikido with a Smile
By David Lynch
(Originally published in ‘Aikido Journal’)
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!
(My attempt at humour in the last line above apparently went over the head of the proofreader when I submitted the article to ‘Aikido Journal’ and a space was inserted between ‘pen’ and ‘is’, but for the benefit of readers I would simply like to point out this article is about humour in aikido, so I hope they won’t take it all too literally.)
Despite the above, I do take aikido seriously, but I take humour 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.
Humour 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 or philosophy without merely repeating what someone else has said or 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 Osensei’s admonition to, “always train in a vibrant and joyful manner.”
Unlike the brutal sempais described in the “Pyjamas” book, the founder of aikido himself obviously had a sense of humour, judging from the old movies where we 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 Osensei 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, Osensei 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 humour, 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.
By contrast there are other dojos in which you are encouraged to smile and relax at all times, the better to “extend ki”.
I have no doubt Osensei 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, but I nevertheless 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, for example, 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 “nononsense” 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.
You may picture a red-faced Lynch clawing the air in dismay, as one of the few people in the room to spot this faux pas, yet unable to correct it! The story illustrates the sort of comic scenario than can arise when you transfer something as Japanese as the aikido hierarchy to another culture, where the mention of “6th-dan” may well be treated, not with endless groveling, but with complete indifference. Although based on ignorance this reaction can be a useful leveler, and a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. Aikido instructors (of whatever rank, race or stature) do not have a monopoly on respect, and a white belt is just as worthy of this as a shihan in my humble opinion.
I recall the case of a high-ranking Japanese sensei who marched into a private dojo in the U.K. and announced he was “in charge” by reason of superior rank. Imagine his chagrin when he was told, “No you’re not, this is not your dojo, you can bugger off!” This little cross-cultural contretemps couldn’t have happened to a better person, given the reputation for sheer arrogance of the sensei in question. He clearly lacked a sense of humour as well. We all know of “Napoleons of Nikyo” and “Hitlers of Hijishime” who try to convince the world of their importance by dishing out pain and suffering to their cooperating ukes. This is such an obvious breach of trust they deserve to be dismissed with a laugh, though I appreciate that this may not be the most practical option if you are the uke. A regular source of amusement can be found by reading between the lines of some of the
stories about Osensei that are published as the gospel truth.
Like the one about the time he invited his students to attack him with various weapons, only to vanish from their midst like a “stream of air”, and reappear half way up the stairs 20 feet away. When asked for further demonstrations of this extraordinary routine he is supposed to have said, “Are you trying to kill me? Each time one performs such techniques his life-span is reduced by ten years.”
The skeptic with an eye for the ridiculous might ask how he knew this? How would anyone arrive at this figure?
If Osensei had practised this move less often we would presumably be able to ask him ourselves. Assuming he had actually done it half a dozen times, which would probably be the minimum to master such a difficult feat, he would have sacrificed 60 years of his life. It follows that if he had only done it once he would have lived to the ripe old age of 136! This would give us the opportunity to ask him about these mysteries and sort out a few other controversial matters any time up until the Year 2019 when he would finally pass away. In any case ten years of one’s life seems a ludicrously high price to pay just to show off to one’s students.
I suppose the “Life-shortening Waza of Morihei Ueshiba” will remain a mystery, just like the incredible shrinking bonsai trees that defy nature by growing downwards!