These Japs are all… Chinese to me

To tell them apart (the Chinese from the Japanese, I mean…) makes still one of my favorite avocation, whenever the occasion rises. Their resemblances and their differences, as people and culture, are coming together and going apart simultaneously like a tide. For someone like me, a typical Caucasian from Europe, understanding those “tides” and being able to recognize them at the first glimpse, was and remains an interesting, and as well entertaining study.
I suppose like many others of my kind, when I first started this, I only got back a look-alike feeling of… slit-eyes staring back at me. Probably (and rightly) just as I must have looked… pink skinned to them.
Nowadays, due to an increasing globalization, most people can tell the difference of Japanese sushi from Beijing duck, but what about the plates and bowls they are served on? Or the drawing that decorates them? The actual handwork of making them? Did you know that the famous chopsticks, though having the same principal and technique of use, they are not quite the same?
Even for a true connoisseur of Chino-Japanese culture, an archeologist let us say, there will always be a new field to discover. Like for instance, etiquette of behavior in a Kwon or a Dojo. In a Chinese Kwon the classical salute (one of many) is to join your fist into your open palm, while any attempt of “hand gestures” even as a salute is considered a hostile act in a Japanese Dojo, where you simply bow. A Chinese Sifu enters the premises and everybody stands up, while with the appearance of a Japanese Sensei the custom is to drop Seiza (seated on knees) on the spot.
As John Blofeld points out in his book “Taoism”, a Taoist garden appears to be in total chaos, while a Japanese Zen garden is arranged with the outmost extreme order…

Like in every field in life, if you combine ignorance, naïve-ness and stupidity, one of the results will be a new… aesthetic, more known as a junk culture aesthetics. The German expression for it is “kitsch”. In the case of (deliberately or out of ignorance) mixing up Chino-Japanese matters that regard the Martial Arts, the results are truly hilarious…  
If Japs are Chinese to us, I wonder what the following picture is, to the eyes of a serious easterner Martial Artist: The Ninja from Kentucky, with the Samurai sword, the Shaolin salute, the body building deformity, and all that wrapped up in a colorful… pajama. Not to mention the total mental confusion that will include some religion, a little philosophy that will suit us, a lot of western psychoanalysis and a solid rock opinion because we are skilled tongues. This surely is a… cross “training” that leaves nothing out, but in the end has… nothing in!   
Geography meets history
Nations make history as they go along, but a great part of this history is determined by geography. And whenever geography needed improvement they gave it a hand, by building castles on hills, walls around cities, outposts on strategic sites etc.
In the ancient world two factors were essential in the making of civilization. Influence from other nearby civilizations, in order to interact with, and stability of peace, in order to give it time to produce “fruit”.
By studying eastern history, we westerners discover that “these easterners” are… upside-down, in comparison to anything we have experienced in the west. I remember when as a young trainee, there were times when I thought of hanging myself like a bat, in order to learn my lesson straight…       
Since the talk is on “extending” geography with human structures, one good example of this is the following: The Great Wall of China, which extends beyond compare at the size of almost an entire continent, was not build to keep out the enemy, but to keep its civilization within!!! Unbelievable as it may sound, this was the original idea of building it (are you upside-down yet?)

More than we know, China is the oldest, deepest and greatest civilization of mankind. But it was never fully deployed, hence the phrase “don’t wake the great dragon”
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony was partly dedicated to the five most important inventions that China made along its history but five inventions is an understatement. If one reads his history correct, he will know that China could be easily renamed to “Invention-land” and I will respectfully decline in putting up the list here, since I got only… one life. Let’s put it in another way. Chinese did invent just about everything…
Nevertheless, an attitude of self-containment, constant internal turmoil, political change, plus the vastness of this country did not allow those inventions to flourish.

Japan’s story is… differently alike! There is no other way to put this and be correct.
Japan, deeply influenced by Chinese civilization, managed to form its own culture that became unique in character and proved to be flexible enough to transform, and sort of continue its culture into our era.
Small relatively in size, privileged by being an island, it was characterized by its Martial oriented people. The only two great attempts to invade it, by the Mongols under Kublai Khan in 1274 and in 1281 (Japanese were outnumbered in both invasions about 4 to 1) landed in the ocean.
To state for any nation that it is a “copy-paste” civilization would be an insult, but for the Japanese. Give them any invention, throw anything at them, and they will take it, totally absorb it, and develop it beyond recognition. Their abilities on that are equal only to the famous… Borg!

As nations, China and Japan had (have?) an eternal rivalry and as well a mutual respect, hidden many times. Both had ongoing internal conflicts and as well great periods of peace and prosperity. And both people’s ability of being polite, under any circumstance, is a virtue only taught by them to the rest of the world, a virtue that sadly can not be measured or appreciated. 
Historically speaking, in many ways the Chinese remind me of the ancient Greeks, while the Japanese remind me of the one city that became an Empire by its own hand. Rome! More than this, both… pairs remind me of their interconnections between them. The similarities on that are interesting, to say the least.
Maybe a step into the study of archeology could require modern museums to have Chino-Japanese and Greek-Roman exhibitions, side by side.      
Today’s Japan leaves little, if any, room for doubt, that it is one of the world’s leaders that is still reflecting some of the beauty of its past.

To tell apart Chinese Martial Arts from Japanese Martial Arts is not that difficult if you give it a try. But I always had difficulty in explaining, without being misunderstood, that after being able “to tell them apart” comes to keep them apart
It is okay to read Sun Tzu’s Art of War and then read Hagakure, but if you are accurate you will keep those books on a different shelf, just as they were anyway, when you bought them at the bookstore. For a Martial Artist that means as well to keep them at a different place in his mind!
It helps a Martial Artist more, to study and deepen his knowledge according to the Art’s origin. Let me explain why. For any Martial Art to develop, it took many generations of Masters to bring it that way. And the mark of the culture of the particular nation which the Art belongs to, is there. We are talking about hundreds and sometimes thousands of years of evolution. “Jumping” from one culture to another and picking up what is “good for you” on the way, deprives you from taking your Art to its real depth. This is one reason why most practitioners go up to a certain point, failing to dive deeper into their Art. In whatever Art you have chosen, the better results that you might seek are not next door. You will not become better because you looked the other way, since this will only destruct you…       
The only problem is that I cannot argue about it, since I will look like a fool. What am I to say? If you practice Aikido stick to your damn sushi and forget about Beijing duck? But on the other hand, it could be that too, couldn’t it?

The Shaolin, the Samurai and Aikido in-between
The quintessence of Martial Arts is for them to be effective in their application of self-defense. This legacy stands above anything else during the passing from one generation to another. It is an historical fact, not speculation, that all Arts that lacked on effectiveness are today extinct. Time is the most caning endurance tester of all, and effectiveness is a true survivor of times.
Nevertheless, one crucial factor to consider is how one Art does achieve its effectiveness. If Aikido could answer for itself, it would point out one of its main principals that is “driving an aggressor’s force of attack back to him”. Compared to other Arts this might take a longer time of training in order to materialize, from being a sentence into becoming a praxis, but it still feels like nothing else on earth, each and every time you apply it. You will bring this huge person to his knees, with only a considerably small amount of pain for him, and the first thing that he asks, when he’s up again, is “how the hell did you do that?” only to get the, standard answer (by me anyway) “you tell me, because I feel the same surprise every time I do this…” Aikido is “magic” my friends, mainly in how it is effective!

To a westerner’s eye, the comparison between Chinese Shaolin Arts and Japanese Samurai Arts, seem to have a similar effect. Somehow the Shaolin Arts always gained first impressions over the Samurai on the how matter. This is quite understandable and there is a reasonable explanation for this, since the Shaolin were and are warrior monks, while the Samurai were… plain warriors, with mostly only death on their minds.
I have noticed on many occasions over the years as a Martial Artist that people tend to connect that “rightness” is on a monk’s side, and why not? You pray with one hand and… kick ass with the other. Personally, as a young boy, I was “in favor of the Chinese” on all parts for similar reasons, too. To the point where, if I had a time machine then and took the trip to visit me now, I would surely see me as no less than a… traitor!

Recently I found out that the Shaolin opened their first Temple in the west, in my homeland Germany. This turned out to be a success, so after Berlin the idea became to actually build a “real” Shaolin Temple in the country site (which is possibly already done by now).   

First impressions gained I said earlier, but are they really true and factual? If you put the best of theories, philosophy and intentions from any Art, Chinese or Japanese, and try to actually prove them on a practical level, Aikido is the one Art to… represent them even better. No matter what, if we keep in mind the concept of how Aikido simply raises the bar to a different level. Correction! It plays at its own game, would be more accurate. One might say “but of course, you’re practicing Aikido, what else would you say?” But please keep in mind the following: “Those Japs look(ed)… Chinese to me”, too. I am neither of either (Chinese or Japanese) but only a guy who has carefully chosen an Art to practice, having my eyes open to all directions in comparing it. But more than this, while being prejudiced against the nation where Aikido was created, my search proved me every step of the way wrong on that!    

There is a respectful number of Arts (not many though) with different ways of application, and thus different ways of expression. That I respect them all as they are, goes without saying. Aikido’s “drawback” is that it remains the most difficult of all to learn, not to speak about mastering it. I had a favorite “pattern of thought” that I kept on repeating to myself, in my stormy early practicing years, that were everything but easy.
“If you could transfer the ability of a Martial Art in a split second to an innocent young boy or girl, which Art would you pass on without any hesitation?”

I am glad as a person knowing that my choice on this one was always clear.

                             Two parallels, on the same route, to a different direction
                                                                             serving the same purpose…

August 28, 2008