Do Japanese people and Westerners experience Aikido the same way?

posted in: Academic, Aiki, Culture | 5
Aikido seminar
Aikido Seminar by Darij and Ana. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

This article is a summary of the academic paper: “Training in culture: The case of aikido education and meaning-making outcomes in Japan and the United States” by C Jeffrey Dykhuizen, published in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations 24(6):741-761 · November 2000


Studying a Japanese martial art (or any art, from any culture other than your own) can open a window onto a exciting new world.

The language side alone is fascinating. Words such as rei, kamae, and even the names of the arts themselves (Aikidō, Jūjutsu, Karatedō and so on) don’t translate precisely into English, which can entice us to study and reflect on their meaning deeply.

For example once you’ve understood that uke does NOT mean block (even though that’s how we often translate it into English) a whole new way of looking at your art opens up.

Dojo etiquette too teaches us alternative ways of being – a different kind of teacher / student relationship – another way of approaching learning – and so on.

But however much we study all these elements  . . .

Can a Westerner ever truly understand the art in quite the same way as someone who has grown up within the Japanese culture?

Professor C. Jeffrey Dykhuizen (Delta College) has done some intriguing research into these questions. He participated in or observed various Aikikai-style Aikido lessons in Japan and the United States, and collected data from individual native adult students from these dojos. He then analysed and compared the data to see if there were any differences.

When collecting data, Dykhuizen gave people four simple stem sentences – and a wide range of adjectives to complete them. He ranked their top selections in clusters. (Dykhuizen tried to make the words as consistent as possible across the two languages, by using the technique of back-translation.)

Here’s what he found . . .

 

Statement one: Ki is . . . ?

  ?? Japanese responses ?? US responses
Most popular answers Kind

Graceful

Peaceful

Soft

Rounded

Cruel

Ferocious

Hard

Tenacious

Second most popular answers Strong

Deep

Active

Beautiful

Graceful

Strong

Deep

Active

Third most popular answers Heavy

Tenacious

 

aikido women
Aikido by rudresh_calls. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

The Japanese aikidoka showed a more complex and nuanced understanding of Ki than the Americans. This is not surprising, as ki is a familiar concept which runs through everyday Japanese life and language. For example the word for weather, tenki 天気 contains the kanji for heaven 天 and ki 気.

Dykhuizen also noticed that the Japanese instructors often naturally referred to ki while teaching – for example one sensei explained that the only way to get a smooth, fast, yet powerful cut was to concentrate ki through the tip of the bokken (wooden training sword).

The American instructors however did not mention ki or energy during training, although they used anglicised “Aikido” words such as centering and connection. Dykhuizen explains that they didn’t deny the spiritual aspects of the training – but they also never brought them out explicitly.

 

Statement Two:  Aikido is . . . ?

  ?? Japanese answers ?? US answers
Most popular answers Beautiful

Kind

Graceful

Peaceful

Rounded

Beautiful

Graceful

Strong

Second most popular answers Heavy

Strong

Active

Cruel

Ferocious

Tenacious

Active

 

The American aikidoka tended to see Aikido primarily as a martial art, grounded in physical defence against an attack.

The US aikidoka also showed a slightly more nuanced understanding of the word “Aikido” than the Japanese! Dykhuizen explains this interesting finding as being linked to many of the US aikidoka being highly educated (far more so than the Japanese group):

In addition, informants and interview participants in the United States research setting reported having done a great deal of reading about aikido philosophy, and many admitted having ‘‘libraries’’ of literature about aikido – they actively studied about aikido in addition to training. As one American instructor stated, aikido ‘‘attracts people who are well-educated’’.

 

Statement Three: Aikido practitioners in the United States think aikido is . . . ?

  ?? Japanese responses ?? US responses
Most popular answers Beautiful

Kind

Graceful

Soft

Deep

Complex

Rounded

Ferocious

Hard

Heavy

Tenacious

Active

Second most popular answers Ferocious

Heavy

Tenacious

Beautiful

Graceful

Deep

Third most popular answers Strong

Active

Complex

 

As you can see, the Japanese aikidoka assumed that the US aikidoka saw Aikido in the same way that they did (see below)  – but they were wrong!

 

Statement Four: Aikido practitioners in Japan think aikido is . . . ?

  ?? Japanese responses ?? US responses
Most popular answers Beautiful

Kind

Graceful

Peaceful

Soft

Rounded

Cruel

Ferocious

Hard

Heavy

Tenacious

Active

Complex

Second most popular answers Heavy

Strong

Beautiful

Graceful

Strong

Deep

 

Again, the US aikidoka assumed that the Japanese aikidoka saw Aikido in the same way that they did – but they were also wrong!

 

Conclusion:

Japanese aikido
51st All Japan Aikido Demonstration by L’oeil étranger. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

As you can see, the US aikidoka tended to emphasise violence and aggression in their answers. However, Dykhuizen explains that this doesn’t mean they valued or promoted violence in any way; there was no evidence at all of them teaching violence. It just means that they seemed to be more conscious of the martial side of their art, and used it as a central concept for their training and personal development.

Meanwhile, the Japanese aikidoka paid less attention to the “martial” aspects, and tended to emphasise social harmony in their teaching and practice.

But the most interesting finding is that the aikidoka from both countries seemed unable to imagine accurately how people from the other country would see Aikido. This shows how deeply we tend to “think from” within our own culture.

It’s an important finding for us to reflect on, both on and off the mat.

Dykhuizen suggests that one reason people erred in understanding the others’ perspective was not the practice itself – because the technique and bodily experience of Aikido are virtually identical across the two countries (his own research and personal experience back this up).

The symbols available to create meaning in each culture, however, (words, ideas and images) are different, and therefore what the experience comes to mean to individuals training in different cultures is distinct. So we can easily fail to realise that something else may be going on inside another person’s mind –  because the symbols we have to create meaning for ourselves are different.

Dykhuizen quotes Donovan Waite, a prominent American aikido instructor who has trained across many cultural settings as confirming that Aikido technique tends to be the same across various cultures – and yet he says, The culture makes the practice different, because it’s mentally different.

This is just one study, and as such it can’t be taken as gospel. But it does give us a strong reminder that what we see on the surface may belie all kinds of hidden difference and complexity going on underneath – whatever the race, culture, age, sex, or any other outward characteristic of the dojo colleague(s) apparently performing the same techniques alongside us . . .


Update – October 2016: Ben Judkins has taken this article as the starting point for a fascinating article on his own blog: Kung Fu Tea. You can read it here: “Culture, Experience and Understanding – Or, Who Can Master “Authentic” Aikido?”


jeffdykhuizenJeff Dykhuizen grew up interested in most things natural, asking the “why” question of things living and dying. He studied psychology and philosophy, served in the Peace Corps, then studied culture and how we humans learn and construct our various systems. Wanting to nudge things toward better, he now educates and works with others to build peace . . .

5 Responses

  1. Joelle White

    Whoa! This one made me think, especially as I’m training in Karate alongside a college student from Japan who is spending a year in the US. I’ve been noticing some differences in the way she views the art, but I just dismissed it as, “well, she just likes kata (forms) better and in Japan sometimes karateka are pigeonholed into either kata (forms) or kumite (sparring) and that’s what their training emphasizes.” Now I know there’s probably a lot of cultural things going on as well. Thanks! I think I understand my friend just a little bit better.

    • Kai Morgan

      Hi Joelle, yes you are right, and it even goes beyond culture – so many factors that make each of us who we are, and lead to everyone having their own unique inner world that no one else can ever really access – even if we outwardly look like we are all doing the same moves in perfect unison!

  2. E. B.

    Hello !

    A very interesting “summary”, and also very useful as I think that getting the academic paper will be a little bit difficult for me. The topic is, in my mind, quite important as my (short) experience proved me that the cultural bias can be reflected in the art itself. I forgot to say that I am french, and I am convinced that aikido’s perception is not exactly the same in my country as the american one. Perhaps “westerners” is an abusive generalization…

    By the way, I would like to ask your agreement to produce a translation in french of this article on my own blog, as I did it before for other contents (you can see an example here : https://paressemartiale.wordpress.com/2016/08/25/le-kendo-et-les-jeux-olympiques-nouvelle-version/). Of course, as usual, you will be credited and the original article linked from the translation.

    Best regards !

    Emmanuel

Leave a Reply