The collective nature of training in Japanese Budo
You may have wondered (especially if you are new to the dojo) why we do things in certain ways, especially the warm-up (taiso). What I mean specifically with taiso is the way we count in unison and chant a response to the person leading warm-up. Well, this is an insight into the Japanese psyche and culture; it shows us the way Japanese perceive their role in society and duty to others in community.
Unlike many other martial arts or combat sports gyms, the traditional Japanese budō dōjō (martial hall of training) holds dearly the mandate to holistically develop people individually so that they can better serve the community collectively. Our dojo is no different in its mandate. You may not know, but the kanji (character) for samurai – 侍 – actually means to serve. The word samurai comes from the Japanese verb saburau, which means to serve someone and look up to them. Therefore, the role of samurai in feudal Japan was to serve and protect the emperor and all those within Japanese society – its peasantry, its craftsman, its fisherman etc. Our art Yoshinkan Aikido (養神館合氣道)comes from this time; its roots in Daito Ryū Aiki Jujustsu (大東流合氣柔術)– an unarmed fighting system of the samurai dating back 900 years – means that our dojo’s customs, our martial system of techniques, our methodology of training, our mandate if you choose to live it, is that of the samurai. Yoshinkan reflects the founder Gozo Shioda Sensei’s demanding life before the war; a true budō life under the tutelage of Morihei Ueshiba (O-Sensei) that stems from centuries of martial tradition. It was this martial lifestyle that was preserved in Japan at the Yoshinkan Honbu Dōjō (Yoshinkan headquarters). Needless to say, while the Yoshinkan preserved strictly in Japan the true sense of martial training in aikido as budō, other forms of aikido often failed over time to maintain its true budō roots as a practical martial art and system of self-defence. Unlike many other forms of Aikido that have been developed after WWII, Yoshinkan is more akin to the pre-war aikibudō techniques taught by O’Sensei, and therefore also closer to Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu than some styles of aikido developed after the war which reflect debateable practicality and effectiveness as a martial art. Therefore, Yoshinkan is true budō and carries the mandate mentioned above to foster the best version of yourself through hard, arduous practical martial training so that you can serve others in any way for the greater collective good of the community. And this collective spirit can all start with a simple chant in unison during taiso (warm-up).
The chanting you experience with ‘ichi-ni’ and returned with ‘san-shi’ etc. is a simple example of the collective approach to doing something. Yes, the cadence set by the leader of taiso is there to help you become warm, stronger, and more flexible so that you can execute techniques and not damage your body. But the cadence is also there so that the group can work as one to pull along individuals struggling or in less shape, ultimately improving the standard of the group collectively. Jacques Payet Shihan offers further insight into this in his recent book ‘ Uchideshi’ (2019:30) where he recalls his time beginning the life of a live-in student at the headquarters in Tokyo in the 1980s under the Yoshinkan founder Gozo Shioda Sensei and taking part in the police training classes. He writes,
I followed 10 cops into the main dojo. They started to run around the room with three or four other regular members and myself. I was really just following the crowd while I tried to figure out what was going on. The man at the head of the line would utter something and the entire group would answer in a cheerful and rhythmic way to keep everyone in step. I was charmed and I fell in with the group. I still had this rhythm in my head when the leader bowed to signify the end of the warm-up.
As I was to learn and experience later, Japan is a country where the group prevails over the individual. At schools, other education centers and even in sports, there would be a song or some other way to cheer everyone along. Getting every single member involved, to work as one, was one way of bringing the entire group together to achieve its highest potential.
The idea of uke (receiver of techniques) offering their body through providing strong attacks is another example of this approach to serving others so that they reach their highest potential in spite of you; uke merely serves shite (the doer of techniques) so that he/she can improve his/her proficiency and all-the-while become a better Aikidoka, a better person, and raise the standard of the dojo so that all others can do the same. Yes, this comes at a cost. The cost is usually individuality or as some may describe it, the ego. Is this such a great price to pay? I guess that’s a question only you can answer.