Let me tell you a story. It’s a bit complicated but I hope you will bear with me. To protect the innocent, I will use aliases, characters from the movie Toy Story. You may find it a bit comical but I promise that there is a moral to all this in the end.
To introduce the characters, let’s call the main protagonist Woody. He is a teacher of jujutsu and he studied in Japan. And he started this whole group of jujutsu practitioners.
There is Bo Peep. He and Woody used to train together in Japan. He is now a high-ranking teacher of the art but lives elsewhere in the world. He studied in Japan for many years.
There is Buzz. He is the senior student of Woody. But he never studied in Japan. He met Bo Peep through Woody.
There is Mr. Potatohead. He used to be a student of Woody but grew impatient and self-important. He didn’t like what Woody was doing in his instruction of jujutsu and complained to the Head Honcho in Japan. He also studied in Japan for a short time and met Bo Peep there but never trained with him.
Anyway, I will relate as best I can the particulars of this story. I meet a lot of people in my travels across the budo landscape. Woody is one of those interesting and highly skilled people I have met. He related this story to me. He was quite upset about it and when I asked him what was bothering him, out came this sordid tale.
So, one year, this group was having their annual seminar where they invite Bo Peep to come and instruct the students. And after the morning training session, they have a lunch break.
Now about the setting, it was held at a small private country club with adjoining golf course. And in the back of the clubhouse, there is a veranda overlooking the grounds and the veranda is typically where the company barbeques take place, where they cook the food and people mill about eating and socializing. The veranda is basically a porch enclosed by a railing. Typically, everyone would congregate on the veranda and eat and talk.
But this year, it was different. Unbeknownst to Woody, who at the time was busy cleaning up the space they used for the training session so that it would be ready for the afternoon session, they had decided to tell the students to eat their packed lunches on the grass. In effect, the veranda was off-limits to students. Woody was unaware of this as he was busy cleaning up with some of the helpful students who had kindly volunteered their time and energy to help keep the training space clean and tidy.
When Woody finished cleaning and came to join the group, he was appalled. Buzz was sitting chit-chatting with Bo Peep on the veranda, sitting comfortably in their nice chairs and patio table with sun umbrella, sipping drinks. Mr. Potatohead was busy making lunch for the teachers in the adjoining kitchen.
Woody was unaware of the plans that had been made without his knowledge. Who had decided that the teachers would be on the veranda? Who had decided that Mr. Potatohead was to make lunch? Usually Buzz would make the lunch since he is second-in-command. Why was Mr. Potatohead even there? Who had invited him?
And then Woody looked at the students sitting in little groups on the grass, uninvited to this private members-only party on the veranda. It rubbed him the wrong way.
He felt sorry for the students. They had saved up all year long and paid all this money to receive training from Bo Peep, had waited a whole year to see him and to meet him and hopefully to get to spend some time with this great teacher. But he was whisked away and horded over. He noticed that some of the students were watching the teachers laughing and enjoying themselves on the veranda, probably feeling a little envious or slighted perhaps.
He felt sad. He felt that a great injustice was being committed here. And he cared for the welfare of his students. That was why his students liked him. It was their money that had brought Bo Peep here. He felt angry too. So he decided to sit with the students and eat with them.
Of course, eventually, the teachers noticed this and asked Woody to join them. He didn’t want to. He saw the look in his students’ eyes and felt badly. But to make a scene would not do either. And he didn’t want to insult Bo Peep, the distinguished guest of honour, who wanted to speak to him since they were buddies from their Japan days. Reluctantly, he joined them. But he didn’t say anything about how he felt.
Mr. Potatohead then brought out the lunch and, eager to please his superiors, fawned on them and served them, to show what a good loyal student he was (even though he had been disloyal to Woody, his direct teacher). He tried to serve Woody. Woody smiled, politely declined and said he wasn’t hungry. Actually, he felt sick to his stomach. Mr. Potatohead was trying to appease Woody for his earlier insult in reporting him to the Head Honcho but Woody was not having any of it. He didn’t want any favours from Mr. Potatohead or to have anything to do with him.
Anyway, after serving the lunches, Mr. Potatohead sat down with the teachers to eat lunch with them. What?! Who had decided that? Mr. Potatohead, ever ambitious, had somehow found a way to join the teacher ranks, even though he wasn’t one. But he tried to bring up past memories with Bo Peep whom he had met in Japan, even though they had merely been acquaintances. And Mr. Potatohead, ever gracious and ingratiating, was smoothly chatting up Bo Peep. Woody fumed. What insolence. Buzz was no better. He was acting like king of the hill. Buzz had arranged the rental of the country club and was acting like a big shot, sitting back in his chair, lounging around, like the cat’s meow.
Woody was also sitting in his own comfortable chair but he was not relaxed. He sat stiffly, decidedly uncomfortable, his back ramrod straight. He didn’t feel relaxed. He faked it but his back was up. Things were going on behind his back and he didn’t like it one little bit.
He couldn’t stand it anymore. He was starting to see who his enemies were. He downed his drink, made a little small talk, and got out of there. He made an excuse to leave and went back to talk with the students.
He didn’t say anything about it at the time to anyone, even to Buzz whom he had trusted. Now he didn’t know who to trust. He hasn’t spoken about it since that time to anyone in all the years but he still remembers the incident vividly.
Wow. What a story. There is so much meat in this story to discuss that I don’t know where to begin.
OK, let’s start with teachers being segregated from the students. If you have ever hosted a budo teacher from overseas and had to bring him to your country, you know that you have to do everything. You will pick him up from the airport, drive him to your place, host him, feed him, entertain him, arrange every detail. But you also have the privilege that the teacher will be spending most of his trip with you, most of his time will be spent with you. That is valuable time. So, you do not need to worry that you will not have time to deepen your relationship with your teacher.
I understand that teachers want to talk with other teachers. But there is a time and place for it. You have a responsibility to the students as well. These are the people who have brought you to where you are now. These are the people who basically are financing this teacher’s visit.
Now, this situation with the veranda. You have an opportunity to team-build here, to deepen the bonds with your students. Seeing the visiting master from abroad is the highlight of their year. Some people have saved a lot of money to attend this seminar, money that perhaps they could have used for their kids or other important things. To shun them is an insult.
We’re the teachers. You’re the students. You eat over there.
It reminds me of a scene from the movie Aliens where the Colonial Marines have just awoken from cryosleep and are having their first meal together. There are two tables: one for the soldiers and one for the commander and his distinguished guests.
Across the room, at the other table (where the high-ranking people sit), Gorman sits with his creases perfect...the consummate strict NCO. Bishop comes up and takes a seat beside Ripley. He hands around a tray with cornbread on it.
At the soldiers' table, all the Marines watch the small group of high-ranks eat.
Looks like the new lieutenant’s too good to eat with the rest of us grunts.
Boy's definitely got a corncob up his ass.
From the movie: Aliens (1986)
I cannot stress enough how rude this veranda situation seems. If you want to just get the teachers together, then go out for lunch or somewhere private. And it is a seminar for the students, not for the teachers. You could have a teachers’ meeting some other day. And most teachers who bring over masters usually have different days set up for different groups of students: the main seminar for all ranks, one or two special seminars for yudansha only, and perhaps even private training sessions for the host and the master only.
But to do it openly, right in front of the students, is rude. Basically, you’re saying: we’re better than you. We deserve to sit up here. You’re not good enough to sit up here with us.
Like the excerpt from Aliens, you just create bad blood and people will come to resent it. If you’re trying to create a family (i.e., you want the students to consider your dojo/ your organization as a family), this is not the way to do it. There is a definite feeling of an inner circle and an outer circle. There is no team building here. We are not being inclusive here. On the contrary, we are being very exclusive.
I am a coach of soccer, football, and flag football in my school and also for local leagues in the community. If you want to team-build, where you want the players to bond together and work together as a unit, they must be together. And as a coach, you cannot distance yourself from it. You have to show the players that you too are a team player. No one is bigger than the team. You do things together. And as the coach, you need to lead by example.
In Woody’s case, he did the right thing, wanting to be with his students, like a football coach wanting to be with his players. He had the right intentions. Buzz and Mr. Potatohead were serving their own interests. They were not interested in the students’ welfare or feelings or at least, the thought never entered their minds. Either way, they are NOT thinking of the students’ welfare, that much is clear. And don’t think the students don’t notice. They do.
They could have made it a team lunch. Everyone eats together, one big, happy family. A little consideration goes a long way…
Secondly, the issue of gratitude. The students helped you to bring the teacher over. Unless you are rich and financed the entire trip yourself, you probably had to lean on your students for some of the funds needed to host a visiting teacher from overseas.
Showing gratitude. Being thankful. Before eating, the Japanese people say “itadakimasu”. Literally, it means “I humbly receive.” In a land where 3% of the land is arable and in the past, where the main sustenance were roots, few vegetables, and fish, you learn to be thankful for what the land is able to provide you and what you are lucky enough to catch at sea that day.
The students fronted the money. The students keep your dojo afloat. Without the students, you have nothing. Showing a little gratitude would have been a nice gesture. Inviting the students to join them on the veranda would have been a nice acknowledgement of the debt of honour.
Thirdly, the main teacher is cleaning while the second-in-command is enjoying himself. Something is not right here. If the second-in-command truly cares about his teacher, he would have volunteered to do the cleaning to allow his teacher the time to attend to the guest’s needs, whether it be entertaining the guest or whatever. As Woody told me, since no one was doing it, he did it himself.
There are a couple of issues which bother me here. One, there is no sense of service to the greater good here. Everyone seems to be after their own interests.
Second, the second-in-command is not humble. Humility is a big thing in Japanese budo. The second-in-command is lounging around with the guest teacher, enjoying his status and the supposed perks that come with the attainment of rank (sipping drinks on the veranda while the plebes sit far below on the grass admiring them).
Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Your lord may be flanked by sycophants, who when facing him feign an air of morality, but who when looking down at the ruled give an angry glance. Such men, unless you lie low before them, will speak ill of you for something good you have done. As a result, the innocent suffer and the sinful thrive.
The state is your lord’s; so are the people. Those who serve in his vicinity are his subjects, just as those who serve him in the distance. Closeness or distance scarcely matters. For the lord, his subjects are his arms and legs; the legs may be a little distant, but they are no different than the arms. Because they feel pain the same way, the arms and the legs are neither closer nor remoter. When such is the case, if those who are close exploit those who are distant, those who are distant will suffer despite their innocence and resent their lord, who should come under no such cloud.
Those close to the lord are few – five to ten at the most. Those who are distant are many. Those who are many will turn away from him if they resent him. Those few and close, who from the beginning think only of themselves and not of their lord, and serve him in a way that makes people resent him, in an emergency will vie in turning away from him. When that happens, who will think of the lord?
Heiho Kaden Sho
Sycophants? Indeed! I like that. Yes, there are people who talk a big talk. They are gracious, conciliatory. Feigning an air of morality, that’s so true. Humility is so important in budo. In Japan, I have seen 5th and 6th dans in kendo wiping the floor themselves, refusing to let the lower ranks do it. They believe in remaining humble, not allowing themselves to get that big head, no matter what rank and accomplishments they have attained. On the other hand, I have also seen some in Japan that act like they are kings, arrogant and pompous. Humility is so important.
Anyway, what is my whole purpose in bringing this up and relating Woody’s story? To alert our teachers and senior students to the issue of arrogance and exclusion in martial arts. We may not even notice it, so used to it we are that there is an unwritten pyramid structure in most dojo organizations and groups. The teachers who are way above and beginning students who are at the bottom. Naturally, this hierarchy carries over to govern social situations as well.
But it doesn’t have to be that way and in some dojos that I have been at, where I saw the greatest cohesion and comradeship in the group, they all shared similar characteristics.
At Yoshio Sugino Sensei’s dojo, after class, they frequently had group get-togethers in the dojo to share a beer and have a chit-chat. Pull out the low tables and cushions and everyone sit down together. Great times. Intimate times.
In one of the kendo dojos in Fujisawa that I trained in, after every keiko, they would all sit together and have tea and biscuits and shoot the breeze. Teachers would sit there beside students in no particular order, in a small circle. Very friendly and collegial.
Kajitsuka Sensei’s seminar last year (2012), after the seminar, we all went for dinner at a wonderful Indian restaurant with all the students who wanted to attend. And there was no priority seating. I was not even sitting beside Kajitsuka Sensei but no matter, he had lots of devoted followers near him who would happily help him out if he needed it. It was a big square formation so everyone had access to Sensei and some asked questions or just chit-chatted with Sensei. It was very intimate and very friendly. What was the consensus afterwards? They all loved it. It was a chance to meet the master and really talk with him. But it was also a good chance to be together and enjoy the time as a group, together.
I still remember what Kajitsuka Sensei said to me during my interview with him in 2008:
Budo is like climbing a mountain. Everyone is climbing up the same mountain. I am just farther up the mountain than you. I have seen the path that you will take. So, I can point out some of the pitfalls that I have already encountered on my journey up this mountain.
However, you must realize that I am still myself going up this mountain.
We are all mountain climbers in the same group. But there are, naturally, some of us with more experience than the rest of the group…
I like that idea: a mountain-climbing group all going up the mountain together, as a group. But you notice, Kajitsuka Sensei mentioned the group many times. Old guys help the new guys but we all move together. Once we start to think we are better than the group, once we become selfish and self-important, then that is the end of the group. There is no way we’re going to make it up that mountain together. Something to think about for our teachers and leaders out there.
What’s the moral of the story? Don’t become too proud of yourself that you shut yourself off from and come to disdain the very people who helped you get where you are now.
Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.