Aiki News #99 (1994)
“Foreigners are at no particular disadvantage in grasping the “essence” of
aikido, even though they may have no knowledge of the Japanese language.”
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–even 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.
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