Photo by Marcello Sidoti.  Source: Wikimedia.
Photo by Marcello Sidoti. Source: Wikimedia.




Can a westerner truly master Akido (or Taijiquan, Wing Chun, etc…..)?


I once again find myself noting that I should not be writing this post. The topic is fascinating, but I will be flying to Cologne, Germany, for the 5th Annual Meeting of the German Society of Sport Science’s Martial Arts Commission later this week.  This year’s Conference is titled “Martial Arts and Society – On the Societal Relevance of Martial Arts, Combat Sports and Self-Defense.”  I was asked to give one of the keynotes and while my paper is finished, there are a number of last minute details that I should be attending to.

Upon returning I will post my paper and a full report.  Paul Bowman, who will also be presenting a keynote, has already posted a copy of his paper here.  That should give interested readers a head-start on the conversation.

Nevertheless, I had the good fortune to run across a very interesting post at Budo-Inochi earlier this week.  Kai Morgan asked “Do Japanese people and Westerners experience Aikido the same way?”  Within it she summarized an article by Prof.  Jeff Dykhuizen titled “Training in culture: The case of aikido education and meaning-making outcomes in Japan and the United States,” published in the November 2000 issue of International Journal of Intercultural Relations.  Be sure to see Kai’s post for an excellent quick review of the paper’s major findings.   Unfortunately you will probably have to head to your local University library to find a copy of Dykhuizen’s essay.

I should begin my own discussion of this piece by saying that I liked this article.  It is a nice example of a well-designed, small scale, empirical research project tackling an interesting martial art’s related subject.  The author paid attention to both methodological concerns as well as a few larger research design issues.

In fact, I was a little surprised that I had never come across this article before.  One suspects that it might be better known in the literature on the Japanese martial arts.  In general there does not seem to be as much engagement between the various nationally focused literatures in martial arts studies as one might like.  One of the goals of this blog is it uncover pieces such as this and encourage a bit more conversation.  I suspect that many students of Chinese martial studies will actually be quite interested in the topics that Dykhuizen raises.

After all, most of us have run up against the notion that only a native teacher of an art can pass on an “authentic” version its transmission at one point or another.  Foreign students may study a system, but given their cultural background they will be unlikely to truly master it.  No less an ethnographer (and martial artist) than Adam Frank reported a conversation with a fellow Taijiquan student in Shanghai in which it was lamented that he did not enjoy the good fortune to be born Chinese.  While enthusiastic, as a foreign student, he would have no chance to actually penetrate the art’s “inner mysteries.” Nor are these insecurities confined to the Chinese arts.  One of the more interesting discussions in Bennett’s recent study, Kendo: Culture of the Sword, was the ongoing debate as to whether foreigners could ever grasp the supernal nuances of Japanese Budo.  And if not, why bother to promote Kendo abroad?

No sentiment is more irksome to many Western students of the martial arts.  On a technical level there does not seem to be any barrier preventing our physical mastery of a given art.  Yet there are always nagging doubts as to the “authenticity” of our experience and understanding of the art.  Rarely are we simply Kendo, Taiji or Wing Chun instructors.  We are always qualified as American (or Western) practitioners of the art.


Aikido demonstration.  Photo by Magyar Balázs.  Source: Wikimedia.
Aikido demonstration. Photo by Magyar Balázs. Source: Wikimedia.


How do we encounter the Asian martial arts?


This notion is troubling precisely because, on some level, one must wonder whether there is not some level of truth to it.  Scholars have noted for some time that the very act of cultural exchange (the passing of a practice or identity from one group to another) always entails transformation.  At the most basic level, different cultural systems are not mutually intelligible to one another.  They do not a share the same symbolic, linguistic and pedagogical resources. The act of translation implies an approximation, and hence a change, of meaning.

On a more fundamental level, two cultural groups often have very different interests and goals at any given moment in time.  A hippie in San Francisco in the year 1970, and a Chinese individual in Taipei, may both agree that Taijiquan is fascinating.  Yet their motivations and goals for taking up the study of their shared practice might be quite different.  Thus the transfer of any practice involves more than just finding a new set of terms and pedagogical practices to translate the art.  Often a new source of demand for the project must be articulated as well.

This is precisely the situation of the Asian martial arts in the West for much of the 20th century.  Authors such as Krug and Miracle have warned us that Western practitioners did not simply adopt the institutions and practices by their Asian teachers.  Rather they reimagined and appropriated these arts in such a way that they were made relevant to the cultural concerns of Western students.  Nor was this a simple, one time, affair.  Both Krug and Miracle point to a progressive process in which changing cultural conditions in the West (Miracle), and an advancing level of engagement with Asian culture (Krug), led to different sorts of engagement with the martial arts.

As an instructor within the Wing Chun system I must believe that I (and my students) can possess an “authentic” and legitimate understanding of the art.  Yet as a student of Martial Arts Studies I know that it is exceedingly unlikely that my own understanding of the art will be the same as one of my Kung Fu brothers back in Hong Kong.

Yet exactly how different are our experiences of the art likely to be?  Where did these divergences enter our shared community?  And what do they imply about our ability to build a global community around a set of experiences that may be more different than it first appears?

These are some of the questions that Dykhuizen attempts to address.  Rather than employing the same broad historical and theoretical approach favored by Krug and Miracle, he instead designed a much more detailed empirical study focusing on the divergence views of Aikido communities in Japan and the United States.  While we must always exercise caution in generalizing from the results of a single survey, I expect that the general patterns that Dykhuizen found might also be seen in a great many other hand combat communities.  Further, his specific mixed-methods approach, combining carefully targeted small scale survey research (N=120), with longer term (multi-sited) ethnographic studies, might provide a model for investigating similar questions across a much broader range of practices.

Prior to discussing this project I should note one additional fact.  While the attitudes and pedagogical approaches observed within these different schools (a few dozen in total) were allowed to vary, the actual approach Aikido being practiced by all of them was very similar on a purely technical level.  Indeed, the Pacific Ocean seems to have been no barrier to the technical mastery of the art.  Yet how did students understand and experience these techniques?

I will refer readers back to Kai’s blog post for a more detailed summary of Dykhuizen’s findings.  For the purposes of this article it is sufficient to note that the article advanced three research questions.  First, were there differences in pedagogy between the main research sites in Japan and the United States?  Second, how did Japanese and American students understand their own experience of Aikido?  Lastly, how did they perceive the understanding of the counterparts in the other country?  Did they see “foreign” students as having a fundamentally different, or similar, experience within the art?  Due to the constraints of time I will only be tackling the first two questions in this post.

The first of these was taken up via ethnographic investigation.  The author’s field work focused on two different Dojos in Japan, and a single shared Dojo (but with two distinct instructors, each running their own classes) in the United States. In addition to participant observation, a number of formal interviews were also collected during this process.

The final set of questions was investigated through a set of short surveys.  These were sent to about a dozen schools in Japan, and a similar sized sample the US.  In total 120 and 128 usable responses generated were generated across both countries.  This was the minimum sample size needed to determine statistical significance.

The surveys asked respondents to fill in the missing word for the sentences, “Aikido is ____?”, and “Qi is _____?”  Respondents were given a wide range of adjectives with which they complete these sentences.  The author then used statistical “Factor Extraction” techniques to determine which ideas (if any) were dominant within in a given community.  Further, by looking at the richness and the nuance of the outcomes Dykhuizen hypothesized that he could make some estimates about the level of sophistication with which a community approached a given question.

Nor was the author disappointed by the results of the study.  It turned out that Japanese and American students responded to these questions quite differently.  When asked to complete the sentence “Qi  is _____?” Japanese students were most likely to say: kind, graceful, peaceful, soft and rounded.  In comparison American students leaned towards: hard, tenacious, ferocious and cruel.

While the primary answers for the question “Aikido is _____?” were much more similar for both groups (beautiful, graceful, strong), there were some interesting divergences in the secondary associations that each group specified (heavy, strong and active for Japanese students versus cruel, tenacious, ferocious and active for the American students).

The author also noted important pedagogical differences between all of the schools that he visited.  In general Japanese instructors were much more likely to discuss questions of Qi and the spiritual implications of the art.  Both of his American instructors, on the other hand, went to great lengths to emphasize Aikido’s status as a “true martial art.”  While they did not deny the “deeper” aspects of the art, Dykhuizen notes that they were much less likely to ever discuss ideas of Qi or philosophy with their classes.

Upon looking at his results the author concluded that there was a great deal of agreement between his ethnographic and survey data.  Students in America tended to understand, and hence experience, Aikido differently than their Japanese counterparts.

Specifically, Americans exhibited a notable emphasis on violence, where as their Japanese counterparts focused on harmony.  This was not because they were being taught to be violent in class.  Nor were their classes particularly violent.

Rather, American students were more likely to emphasize Aikido’s status as a “martial art.”  For them that very much placed the practice in the midst of a number of other images and ideas that were all associated with violence.  Japanese students, on the other hand, either played down the combative nature of their practice, or possibly they understood the “martial arts” quite differently.  Unfortunately the author did not really explore this second possibility.

Dykhuizen then concluded that many of the differences between the experience of Japanese and American students could be attributed to the variance in how they were taught (but not necessarily what they were taught).  He concluded that instructors were critical figures as they had the ability to shape and recast the material being presented to students in such a way that it advanced their own cultural paradigms.  Thus when an American student studies Aikido with an American teacher, he is not really being introduced to an authentic vision of Japanese martial culture so much as a different way of experiencing his own culture.

Expats in Shanghai are showing more interest in local Kung Fu Classes.  Source: News
Expats in Shanghai are showing more interest in local Kung Fu Classes. Source: Shanghai Daily


Asking the so what question?


In a number of ways the results of  Dykhuizen’s study are so predictable as to be uninteresting.  If there is a major fault with this study it is that it simply attempted to measure the size of an effect predicted by our basic theories of cultural exchange.  Of course those sorts of results are always helpful. Yet there is little new and novel in the finding that American culture colors the way that Americans approach the martial arts.  The only shocking conclusion would be to discover that this somehow was not true.

Still, as we dig a bit deeper into these results a few interesting discrepancies appear.  For instance, when reviewing his basic socioeconomic data the author discovered that there were some fundamental differences between the Aikido community in the US and Japan.  To begin with, the American community tended to be very highly educated, with nearly 17% of respondents having a Masters degree or some equivalent.  The number in Japan was much lower.

It seems that within the US this art systematically attracts a certain sort of student.  These relatively sophisticated individuals confessed, in their interviews, to deeply studying questions within the martial arts, and having personal libraries of books dedicated to Aikido.  Indeed, Dykhuizen noted that American students appeared to approach the question of “Akido is ____?” with a relatively greater degree of sophistication than their Japanese counterparts.

For the sake of argument I am going to simply assume that all of this true.  Ideally it would be important to see this demographic data independently verified by another study.  Yet as we think about this fact, a few deeper puzzles begin to emerge.  For instance, if these students have delved deeply into the study of Aikido, why haven’t they done the same thing with questions of Qi?

While reporting his results on the Qi question Dykhuizen speculates that the seeming “lack of sophistication” with which Americans approach that topic was a matter of their cultural distance from how the term is encountered in daily Japanese speech.  Yet one would suspect that the sorts of Americans who would dedicate themselves to Aikido and have masters degrees would also be more likely than their peers to take an interest in Japanese culture, or to have studied the language while in college.

If their personal study was enough to open an even more nuanced approach to Aikido than some of their Japanese peers, why could it not do the same for their grasp of qi?  One rather strongly suspects that these individuals did not develop this same level of understanding as they did not choose to delve quite as deeply into that subject.

Why not?  This is where we return to the (possibly) culturally bounded nature of these practices.  Perhaps these questions were viewed as uninteresting, or not relevant to a “real martial art.”

Admittedly all of this is speculation.  Yet I think it is an important conversation to have as it points to a larger weakness in Dykhuizen’s research design.  With such a small sample size it is difficult to control for too many competing hypotheses.  And that becomes critical when we think about the role of the instructor in the process of cross-cultural transmission transformation.

To put the matter simply, western students do not need an American teacher to introduce Western elements into their understanding of these practices.  Being immersed in American popular culture they will be perfectly capable of doing that on their own.  Indeed, it was probably fanciful and Orientalist representations of the Asian martial arts that brought them to the Dojo’s doors in the first place.  I would venture to guess that much of their subconscious understanding of what a “proper” martial art is was already set in place years before they ever started to train.  Students of martial arts studies should never underestimate the power of “youthful fantasies” and first impressions.

The real question is whether a teacher might be able to short circuit this cycle.  Would a Japanese instructor in America be able to convey his or her experience of the art to their students?  Or might an American instructor in Japan (someone like Alexander Bennett) be able to shake students out of simply accepting the unstated link between the traditional martial arts and “national identity?”

I suspect not.  Adam Frank had many Chinese teachers, but still doubted whether his experience and understanding of Taijiquan was the same as theirs.  Nor do western students seem to have any difficulty projecting their own orientalist fantasies onto flesh and blood instructors.  Indeed, escaping all of this to create a real bond of mutual understanding and engagement between a teacher and a student is one of the great challenges (and rewards) of life in the martial arts.

Yet again, we find ourselves slipping into the realm of speculation.  In this case that is necessary as Dykhuizen never included any cases in his study where the teacher and students came from a different cultural background.  Not only did he fail to include such an instance in his ethnographic work, but he went so far as to throw out survey data on American students studying in Japan or Japanese students practicing in America.  Including these observations, and expanding the scope of the ethnographic fieldwork, would have been necessary to actually understand a teacher’s impact on the student’s experience of the art separate from their immersion in popular and media culture.

Leaving these questions of research design aside, perhaps the most important question to consider is what might motivate research like this?  If the author’s concern is simply to measure the amplitude of a predicted effect, or to make a point about the dangers of trying to transport pedagogical practices across borders (as is the case here), then all of this remains a harmless exercise.  Yet one strongly suspects that many readers will be approaching a paper like this from a different perspective.  Informed by their own anxieties and backgrounds in the martial arts, they will look to this article to discover whether an American can ever learn “authentic” Aikido.

The introduction of this paper begins by noting that the cultural differences exhibited between sub-population in a single location are almost always more interesting than the nominal variance observed between states, yet it immediately goes on to ignore its own warning.  The author was careful to select similar “representative” schools in Japan and the US for his study.  But what sorts of results would he have found if he had included the notoriously brutal Tokyo Riot Police Aikido dojo in his study?

Alternatively, what if this study was reimagined with a longitudinal aspect?  What results would we have found if we surveyed high school Kendo students in Japan in 1920 vs. 1940 vs. 1960?  I suspect that the magnitude of the variance in those answers would have blown away anything that Dykhuizen found in his research on contemporary Aikido students in Japan and the US today.

The essential problem is that so many of our discussions of cultural translation begin within the assumption that there was ever a single unitary unchanging view of a martial practice in its home country.  Modern students want so very badly to point at a single performance at a given moment in time and proclaim “that is authentic Aikido,” or “that is authentic Taijiquian.”

Yet the martial arts are a process, not an event.  They are rarely unitary, and they never stand still.  To paraphrase Adam Frank, martial identities move.    They move within their home regions and between various socio-economic groups.  They move through time and from genre of popular culture to the next.  They even move linguistically, culturally and globally.  Every one of these movements transforms and diversifies these arts. Every resulting scion is an “authentic” practice.

Simply to confirming that this process happens within the martial arts is not terribly interesting.  Upon thinking about this article a little more deeply one is left to wonder “So what?”  Yet more studies completed along similar lines might begin to give to us a better idea of where these arts move, how specifically they travel through the global community, and why some variants of a system survive while others die off.  Perhaps this article matters because it points to the potential of future empirical investigations within martial arts studies.




If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read:  The Tao of Tom and Jerry: Krug on the Appropriation of the Asian Martial Arts in Western Culture