Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences
Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2004
Culture in the Martial Arts: Cultural Aesthetics In Traditional
Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.
This paper is dedicated to the memory of my teacher, Otani Yoshiteru,
from whom I learned a lot, but wish I could have learned more.
Most practitioners of traditional Japanese martial arts are likely to
tell you that it is important that the art not be divorced from the
culture of origin. When you ask them why, they respond that such
understanding enhances a sense of self-improvement that augments their
practice, or that knowledge of an art's context and history also
increases their depth of understanding. The fact is, culture
abhors a vacuum. Ignorance of the cultural background of a
martial art begs to be replaced with something. If a given art is
separated from its context and history, the practitioners will fill the
void with what they know (or think they know). What is left is
not the art form at all, but something else. The something else
may resemble the traditional art form, but it will not be the same
thing, lacking the indigenous cultural background which has now been
replaced. Sometimes practitioners of a given art form will
deliberately strip its indigenous characteristics in favor of some
other cultural milieu. For example, "Christian" martial arts
remove any aspect of an art form that conflicts with practitioners'
religious beliefs (at least, no apologies are made for the changes, and
the interest is not in preserving an art form so much as utilizing
elements of it to a different purpose).
Traditional martial arts must be taught in context because you cannot
really learn them well, and as they are, without it. Aside from
the history of a given form, there are certain aesthetic concepts, such
as ma (aida), jo ha kyu, shu ha ri, in-yo, and koshi, that are
essential to a deeper understanding of traditional Japanese art
forms. Each of these concepts deserves at least its own paper, if
not reams of paper, but I will introduce them here. These
aesthetic concepts are not readily translatable, and hopefully the
examples I cite will not be too simplistic. However, they can be
taught, even to Western students. These concepts are the backbone
of what is often referred to as seiza bunka ("kneeling culture").
Seiza bunka includes tea, flower arranging, traditional dance and
calligraphy, as well as traditional, or koryu martial arts,
including iaido and iaijutsu, naginata, and kyudo, among others.
These traditional art forms developed during the relative peace of the
Tokugawa era, and it’s worth noting that the same traditional
aesthetics inform them all.
Since time is limited, I will confine myself to a few concepts that I
think are important to more fully understanding Japanese traditional
martial arts. None of these concepts figure very largely in
Western aesthetics, at least not in the way they are looked at in
Japan, and, generally speaking, aesthetic concepts almost never enter
into discussions of Western sports. Western dance considers
aesthetic concepts (or lack thereof), but the vocabulary is
different. Martial arts, therefore, occupies a unique place; and
should be considered as being somewhere other than a sporting pursuit
or a purely aesthetic one.
The origins of these concepts are not entirely clear. Many
originated in Chinese aesthetics over centuries, and probably developed
in Japan from the Heian period (710-1185 CE) when Chinese culture was
much admired and adapted to Japanese court life. Though my
interest here is in Japanese traditional martial arts, many of these
ideas can be applied to some degree to Chinese traditional arts as
The first concept that I would like to briefly explore is in-yo or, as
it is more familiarly known here, yin-yang. Notice I don't refer
to this concept as "in and yo" because even though the elements are
distinct, they cannot be separated. Among other qualities, in
represents coolness, the moon, and femininity, while yo represents the
sun, heat, and qualities often considered masculine. When I was a
kid my boyfriend would insist that I must be yin, and he must be
yang. It took a while (and a few more boyfriends) to figure out
that looking at in-yo as two distinct aspects that are separated from
each other is totally wrong. Everyone has and needs aspects of
both, and to be too much one side or another (no matter who or what you
are) is a bad idea. In-yo therefore, is the complementarity or
balance of opposites, not some sort of division between one type and
It seems simplistic in the extreme to bring up in-yo to this particular
group, except that not everyone gets it. And even fewer people
get, I think, that one of the goals of traditional Japanese martial art
practice is to cultivate this balance of in and yo. To give a
broad example, the weak person builds strength needed to execute a form
properly, while a strong person learns not to muscle through
everything. Ideally they are both moving toward a common point
where their particular qualities come into balance.
In-yo can be found throughout Muso Shinden Ryu iaido (MSR). One
handy example is that the MSR iaidoka must draw back the saya
(scabbard) as the sword is being drawn against an opponent. This
movement is repeated when the sword is returned to the saya.
There is even a form called "Inyo Shintai" in which this concept in
particular is illustrated over and over again. In-yo appears in
virtually all of the other forms of the style as well.
In-yo is a balance of opposites, but not a muddying of them.
Cheng Man-ching, the creator of the Yang style taiji short form, was
once asked how fast that form could be practiced. As long as you
could maintain separation of yin and yang, he said, you could go as
fast as you liked. Senior students finally agreed that Master
Cheng was talking about complete separation of weight from one side of
the body to the other while stepping through the form, making the
transitions from one side to the other smooth and complete.
Balance, not blending.
Like the familiar black and white symbol, the opposites make up the
whole, they do not make up grey. Not separating what your left
and right hands are doing in an MSR iaido draw will not improve your
technique; instead, you most likely won't be able to draw the sword at
all in any efficient way. Even Tenshinsho Jigen ryu iaido, which
favors a shorter sword and no saya movement, emphasizes pulling the
hips back with the draw to facilitate the sword being drawn and
resheathed. In-yo again.
The next concept under consideration is famously difficult to
verbalize. It is ma, the quality of moving through space and time
(also called aida). The character the Japanese use for ma is a
drawing of a gate, through which you can see the sun. The idea
seems one more of intuition than reasoning, yet an understanding and
cultivation of the sense of ma is vitally important in Japanese
traditional art forms, including traditional martial arts.
Ma is more than maintaining the proper distance between you and your
training partner, though that is the way most martial artists first
experience ma. The way in which one moves from one point to
another is also ma. Probably the easiest way to see this quality
of movement is to watch two experienced individuals perform the same
kata. The difference in the quality of their movement illustrates
their sense of ma. Someone who mechanically moves through the
form, as opposed to someone who evokes a sense of elegance (for lack of
a better word) can be said to have a poor sense of ma, even if the kata
is mechanically correct. Though we may not be able to exactly
state what is missing from their kata (or we may characterize it as a
lack of sense of commitment, or some other abstract idea), what is
really missing is ma. The difference is between someone doing the
kata "correctly" and someone doing it extraordinarily, and beautifully,
When two people with good ma perform a partner kata, there is a sense
of connectedness to their movement together that evokes a sense of
aesthetic satisfaction in the viewer, as well as the weird feeling of
not knowing what comes next (even though everyone knows what comes
A famous Japanese dance teacher I once interviewed told me that ma
could not be taught. Like talent, that other intangible,
you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality, either you had ma or you
didn't. After many years of watching people perform various arts,
I tend to agree, though I think that what ma one has can be developed
through proper practice.
As difficult as it is to consider ma in the Japanese cultural context,
it is even harder to consider out of it. Of Westerners, I think
comedians may be the only people who really understand ma, though they
refer to it as "timing." In a comic performance, if the ma is
off, everyone (especially the audience) knows it. Boxers also
need an acute sense of ma if they are to be successful in the ring.
The concept of jo-ha-kyu is very much related to the concept of
ma. Jo-ha-kyu is a multilayered concept. In the West, where
it is considered at all, it is known as a literary device that
underlies many texts of noh plays. Jo-ha-kyu contributes to the
sense of rising action in a play. Where it is considered in
martial arts at all, it is sometimes referred to as
"slow-medium-fast." While basically correct, both of these
interpretations are extremely limited and don't in any way convey the
importance of jo-ha-kyu and how it works in Japanese traditional arts.
Jo-ha-kyu is not just a literary component; it is the basis of movement
and vocalization in Japanese traditional performing arts. I
discovered this years ago at a kyogen workshop that I took with Andrew
Tsubaki, a teacher of Japanese theatre and kyogen from the University
of Kansas. Kyogen is a comic genre that is performed in
conjunction with noh plays in a traditional program (comic kyogen and
somber noh - there's that in-yo thing again). Dr. Tsubaki taught
us a movement and vocal exercise used by beginning kyogen
students. I don't remember the movement part that well, but part
of the form accompanied the spoken words, "Tarokaja, are you there?" a
master calling to his servant. The vocal technique, however,
involved beginning at a sort of low, slow growl, in which the word
"Tarokaja" was elongated, into something like "Tarooooookaja."
The following words, "Are you there?" were rendered with rising speed,
volume and inflection, until they sounded more like, "AAAAAAre
I don't remember (beyond this line) much of anything else about the
workshop, except I finally understood what jo-ha-kyu really was.
Jo-ha-kyu does not just organize the literary structure of an entire
play; it is found in every word, every line an actor says, and every
gesture that accompanies it. The effect of jo-ha-kyu is
cumulative, as all these layers build over each other, forming the
performance of the play as a whole. Damn. What a concept.
From a martial art perspective, jo-ha-kyu exists in every gesture that
makes up a form, every form as a whole, and every set of forms,
followed by all the kata that make up the entire style. For
example, in the MSR iaido form Shohatto, the draw and cut at the
beginning of the form is an obvious example of jo-ha-kyu, as is the
preparation and execution of the following cut. Iaido forms end,
invariably, with the opponent or opponents being vanquished
(kyu). Getting to that point makes up the ha section.
In Hasegawa Eishin ryu, the chuden set of MSR forms, there is an
exercise, hayanuki, that combines all ten forms done
continuously. The first three forms make up the jo section, with
the complex 4th, 5th and 6th forms making up ha. The balance of
forms feel faster and involve more traveling movement, culminating in a
simple draw and cut at the end (kyu). The cumulative effect of
hayanuki, properly done, is dramatic, made up of layers of jo, ha and
kyu. Looking at the MSR forms as a whole, few would argue that
the Omori (shoden) set of forms is not the "jo" for the style, and that
the Hasegawa Eishin ryu forms make up the ha section, followed by the
Okuiai okuden forms for kyu.
Jo-ha-kyu also can illustrate many martial arts classes. A
teacher might start the class off with a set of some sort of warm-ups,
followed perhaps, by intensively working on some kata or other, and
ending, if it is karate or judo, in kumite. In iaido, the
intensive work on individual kata may end with partner forms, or with a
cutting exercise or some other intensive activity. In Tenshinsho
Jigen ryu classes, we often finished with an exhausting pair exercise
called Irohauchi, in which the partners alternately cut and block kote
(wrist), men (head) and do (torso) targets, trading blocks and cuts
back and forth until one exhausted partner steps out. The class
therefore ends with a feeling of energy, even though everyone is
actually very tired.
Wabi and sabi are often mentioned together; and though they are often
found together in various Japanese aesthetic pursuits, they have
slightly different meanings. Wabi suggests an aesthetic sense of
poverty or simplicity, and sabi suggests a feeling of rusticity and
loneliness. Sen no Rikyu, a tea master who lived just before the
start of the Tokugawa era introduced (or reintroduced, we don't know
for sure) these elements to tea to counteract Shogun Hideyoshi's taste
for vulgar wealth and ostentatious display, so it is useful to consider
a tea ceremony hut as an example of wabi and sabi together.
Tea ceremony participants first walk down a short path, which is simply
landscaped and designed to remove them from their sense of everyday
life, to the entrance of the hut. The entrance is small and
slightly above the ground, so participants must crawl into it. On
a practical level, samurai attending a tea ceremony could not easily
draw a weapon, and would in all likelihood need to disarm upon
entering. In the expressed aesthetic sense, the small entrance
also evoked humility. Sen no Rikyu tried to promote the idea that
in a tea hut, there should be no rank (i.e., wabi).
The tea room, as nearly everyone knows, is empty except for a single
scroll or perhaps a single flower in a vase. Wabi is evoked by
the idea that there are no other possessions in the room. There
is nothing else to distract participants from each other and the
ceremony that is taking place. The small room also allows
participants to feel the outside world is far away, evoking a feeling
How do we get wabi and sabi in the martial arts? In the
contemporary world, where entertainment and flash seem more important
to many public martial arts performances than anything else, it’s a
good question. The answer lies in a more traditional dojo.
A modern example: in an old-style judo dojo, everyone wears a white gi,
usually devoid of club patches or names. An older student may
wear a fading, frayed black belt, which indicates not only his rank,
but symbolizes his years in the art. He could get a new belt, but
perhaps his teacher gave him this one, so he still wears it to honor
his teacher, who is perhaps no longer alive. Someone in a plain
white gi with a worn belt suggests wabi and sabi together.
The last concept I want to consider is yugen. To be honest, I
would have picked something else, as, though a lot has been written
about yugen, nothing has come very close to actually saying what it is,
which makes it a lot like ma, in a way. Recent events have
unhappily begun to acquaint me with yugen, however, so I will attempt
to explain it here.
Zeami Motokyo, a 14th century noh performer, playwright and
commentator, attempted to describe yugen as a sort of sad beauty.
Zeami said yugen escapes the young performer who, though he may be
admired for his physical charm and technical skill, is still a
youngster. Yugen comes about when a performer has lived long and
seen much. Though his technical skills are no longer at their
peak, there is a indefinable sense of melancholy born of personal life
experience that informs the older performer's work and leaves an
audience powerfully moved.
Yugen, however, is a rare quality. Life experience can defeat,
rather than enhance a performer's abilities, and it was the rare
individual who could harness his experience for aesthetic expression,
rather than having the audience just feel sorry for him. Zeami
considered yugen the most beautiful, but the most difficult concept to
As an example from Western theatre, two very famous
turn-of-the-20th-century actresses, Elenora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt,
were also great rivals and performed the same star vehicle roles.
In one role, Bernhardt's technique was so superb the audience rose to
its feet, stamping and applauding. When Duse played the same
scene, she evoked so much pathos, the audience wept. The writer
of these incidents suggested that Duse's "method" style acting was
somehow more "real" than Bernhardt's histrionics, but I think Duse's
performance was an expression of yugen. Whatever of Duse's life
experience informed the role, she had turned it into an aesthetic tool
to use on her audience (and it worked).
What about yugen in the martial arts? It is as hard to see there
as it was in the actors of Zeami's day, yet it exists. Michael
Alexanian once showed me a tape of the Tamiya ryu iaijutsu soke,
Tsumaki Seirin, at an enbu (martial arts demonstration) when he was in
his early nineties. At first, I was somewhat distracted by simply
being astonished that a man of such an age could move at all, let alone
wield a sword. After that, however, I could not help but be
profoundly moved that a man who had literally spent his life in the
martial arts could show his love of it by performing even at his
advanced age. Without a doubt, some 30-year-old could probably
outclass him technically, in physical strength and even beauty, but he
could never match the depth of conviction and feeling Tsumaki Soke
brought to that enbu performance. On a personal note, when one's
teacher passes away, you become aware that everything you do after him
evokes your experience with him. With some luck, and a lot of
hard work, a student can incorporate that experience so that others who
see or study with her can also see it. Those who have seen or
felt that know what yugen is, too.