We need to Modernize Budo to Save it

We need to Modernize Budo to Save it!
By Yulin Zhuang

Technology is like Pandora’s box: Once it is opened and released, no matter how much you want to put it back, you can’t. As much as some might want to turn back the era of the smartphone back to a time when people actually talked to each other when in the same room, that’s just not going to happen. The imperative of new technology is to force people and organizations to adapt and to survive, or to die. It is quite unfortunate that budo’s reaction to the technology of the past 50 years has generally been to simply ignore it. [1]

One of the attractions of budo in general has always been its constructed link to history and tradition. The values espoused are passed down from a semi-mythical bygone age; the weapons and armor deliberately archaic; and the most venerated are the greyest and wisest of the elders. When a sensei passes away, the eulogy often speaks of their vigor into their old age, in stark contrast to the typical dwelling on young achievements we see in sports athletes’ obituaries. This strong identification with the past is one of budo’s great strengths, and much debate centers around how to transmit those values to the younger generation.

Perhaps because of this, budo has always preferred to eschew the use of technology in favor of direct transmission. I recently heard a talk given by Matsunaga Masami-sensei where he talked about teaching his way of kendo through his body, by showing them what kendo is. It was a superb comment that was well received by the audience.

When I attended the International Budo Culture Seminar this year, I was required to sign a form promising not to distribute any video taken at that seminar publicly without the Nippon Budokan’s express permission. Budo students are regularly told to not post any videos of demonstrations or of teachers online (a proscription which is regularly ignored, judging from YouTube). I’ve never gotten an answer from a sensei that has satisfied me as to why this is the case. The standard answer usually involves some mumbling about safety, of untrained students picking up bad habits or misunderstanding things from just watching the video. There is the fear that someone not trained by a proper teacher will watch the video, claim that they know the technique, and cause trouble. This is a false argument for a number of reasons, but the main one simply comes down to this: It’s too late. Video already exists, from public embu and tournaments, never mind secret stuff taken inside a dojo. The horse has already been stolen, so there’s no point in trying to lock the barn door.

At a recent panel where we discussed what the ideal sensei should be like, Tanaka Mamoru-sensei of the International Budo University quoted a Buddhist proverb, which roughly translated to: “It is better not to learn at all than to learn from a bad teacher”. While the sentiment is noble, and one that I agree with to a large degree, it seems to be quite content with abandoning the vast majority of the international practitioners of budo who do not have a good teacher around.

If you have your choice of clubs, it may be worth traveling further to a better teacher than to simply go to the dojo closest to you. Even if you can’t go as often, this still may be better for your personal growth as a budoka. However, this is not the choice that most overseas practitioners have. For many, the choice is to learn from someone not far past the beginner stage – or to not practice at all. If budo is to survive, thrive, and even expand, it must find a way to better include those students currently being underappreciated. To find these students a good teacher to help them on their way. Unfortunately, apart from a sudden mass exodus of high ranking sensei from Japan to all around the globe (perhaps caused by the next big earthquake?), there seems little recourse aside from occasional seminars every few years.

Or is there?

Enter technology. Today’s technology puts greater power in creator’s hands now than ever before. Two decades ago my choice to live half the world away from my parents would have meant occasional scratchy long-distance phone calls, and possibly seeing their faces once every few years. Now, I video chat with them (almost) every week. It’s a running punchline that no matter how obscure or bizarre the need, “there’s an app for that”. So why doesn’t budo embrace these technologies? I have a few ideas that I’d like to see come about.

Embrace Video
My iPhone 6 can slow down time to a crawl, at a mere ⅛ speed. It fits in my pocket, and can record hours of video. With a few taps and swipes, I can send it to someone anywhere in the world, or upload it to a video sharing site for anyone to see. I can use a battery powered projector to show that video on any light-colored wall. Similar smartphones are everywhere, and the technology will only get cheaper and better as time goes on. Instant slow-motion high def replay is no longer the sole province of sports stadiums. So why not embrace this?

Dojo instant replay: Why not take a video of someone doing a kata or performing a technique, and then play it back for everyone to see right away, so that they have instant feedback? It’s as simple as having a smartphone, a pocket projector, and a light colored wall. Mirrors are a well-accepted didactic technique, so why not go one small step further to increase our self-awareness?

Long-distance video commentary: No sensei near you? No problem! Simply take a video of yourself doing the kata or a technique, upload it, and have a sensei in Japan watch it! They can write back with comments, or even record a video response where they show you what you did wrong. It can be a regular series–a different dojo gets commentary each week, shared worldwide. This is much cheaper and faster than round-trip airfare.

Instructional Videos: Let’s face it, many of us already scrutinize blurry videos of demonstrations for hints as to how to properly do technique. Not making better versions of these videos for students widely available is simply straining our eyes. Yes, I’m aware that some instructional DVDs exist–but the resolution is low, availability is patchy, and quite frankly, the prices are unreasonable. Making high quality videos of the basics available for free online will only serve to improve the general level. This extends past simply a demonstration of the kata, with some commentary. Video lessons can be built on themes as well–such as the proper application of ōji-waza, kata-in-one-breath, etc.

Online manuals and training
Let’s face it, many practitioners don’t own or can’t tell you off the top of their head where they keep their copy of the official rulebooks. Nor can they tell you off the top of their heads how to build a shiai-jo, organize a round-robin, the proper way to receive a certificate, or any of a multiplicity of things that don’t happen in everyday practice. I vividly remember an international naginata seminar where several high-ranking sensei from Japan were doing shinpan training, which consisted of several hours of teaching the trainees how to enter the shiai-jo, hand over their flags, what angle to hold the flags at, etc. Actually how to judge points seemed almost an afterthought. It’s not hard to build an online quiz to test people on these things to make sure that they know the material, before they attend a seminar, in order to maximize the time spent on things that can’t be taught via video or manual.

Dojo finder
It’s baffled me how hard it can be to find information on what dojo are near you, what time they meet, who the instructor is, etc. At the end of enbu, there’s often no real effort made to recruit students or point them towards their local dojo. Why can’t we introduce an international dojo finder? Simply input your country and postal code, and it’ll show all the dojos near you. Filter by art, and by practice time. Show information on their membership dues. Include contact information–at the very least an email address and a phone number. Maybe even include information on budo events. It shouldn’t be harder to find a dojo than to find the nearest pizza store. This also has the added bonus of making sure that no unapproved or unaffiliated dojos show up.

Training Menu App
One of the things I’ve noticed that has varied a lot in the dojo that I’ve been to is that the specific training menus vary from dojo to dojo. My sensei had us practice kata using giant steps, in order to build up our ability to quickly cover long distances. Another dojo I attended had variations on strike training that I had never seen before. These and more are shared on a purely ad hoc basis through informal contacts. Imagine an app that had a database of various training exercises, and one that could even recommend a training menu for you. I have an app that can help plan my gym workout, I should be able to have one to help plan my dojo training.

Online AMA Sessions
A recent trend online has been the “ask me anything” sessions, for example, on reddit. For me, some of the most valuable instruction I’ve received has been through asking questions after practice, when I can manage to track down a sensei. Why not hold the occasional online Q&A, where practitioners from around the world have a chance to ask the sensei anything that’s been on their minds?

To be clear, I don’t think that any of my proposed above uses of technology replaces or diminishes the role of having a good sensei in any way. It is a poor substitute to having an experienced high-ranking sensei teach you. But for practitioners without regular access to those high ranking sensei, tools like the ones mentioned above can be invaluable for their training, in between the yearly visits from sensei. Simply think of them as a form of mitori-geiko, training through watching. Even for those of us lucky to be training regularly with a high-ranking sensei, these ideas can help expand our point of view, teach us new things, and raise the general level of our budo.

Technology can help sensei spend less time on the mundane (wrong foot forwards, four steps not two, knot is tied the wrong way) and more time on the core of budo–how to think, how to react, and how to be a person. In my mind, it’s a win-win situation for all concerned.

[1] When I speak of budo, I refer mainly to the weapons arts, such as naginata, which is where my own experience lies.