Thursday, May 12, 2011

Kashiwazaki Sensei's First Lesson

Our first formal class with Kashiwazaki Sensei began with a simple question:
“Why, when you sit seiza [kneeling], do you lower your left leg first and then your right?”

In an effort to demonstrate our knowledge of Japanese customs and their history, each one of us said in turn, “Because the Samurai carried their sword on the left side of the body.”

“Interesting,” Kashiwazaki Sensei replied. “Before World War II people went down to their right knee first and then their left when sitting seiza. So…. It can’t be related to the sword.”

As we bowed to begin class, Kashiwazaki Sensei posed us a second question, “Why do you bow?”
“Out of respect,” we replied.

“Yes, but why. Why is bowing a sign of respect?”

Sensei went on to ask us how monkeys, dogs, and even ships greet one another. In the case of monkeys, they show their rear ends. Dogs, as most everyone has seen, will allow other dogs to sniff their asses. Ships, in previous centuries, would fire an unloaded cannon as a form of salute.

“Why do you shake hands in America?” Sensei then asked me.
“To demonstrate that we have no weapon,” I replied.

“Yes,” Kashiwazaki Sensei said. “In all these cases, we are showing our weakness. I give you my hand to show you I carry no weapon. Ships fired an empty cannon to demonstrate they were not armed. Monkeys, Dogs, and other animals put forth their most vulnerable areas. Likewise, in Japan, we bow to expose our weakest point…. Our necks.”

Kashiwazaki Sensei explained that there are three reasons we bow in Judo. We first bow as we enter the dojo. This is a sign of respect toward the spirit or, one might think, God of the dojo. In the Shinto religion there are millions upon millions of gods that exist in the world around us. We bow to do honor to that energy that inhabits the dojo. (I like to think of it as “Tatami-sama”)
When we bow to our opponent before a match it is *not* a sign of respect; rather, bowing helps us bring our mind and body under control. When we finish sparring, then we bow to our opponent to show our gratitude and respect for training with us.

The purpose of Kashiwazaki Sensei’s lesson was two-fold. It is our responsibility to carry on these traditions and teach them in our home countries. Few people in America know the true reasons behind the actions they perform in a dojo. The second reason we were challenged mentally—and not physically--is because an action without reason is useless. We must always question. Why? Why why why? Why do we bow? Why do we sit seiza? Why is haraigoshi [sweeping hip throw] done this way and not another? Kashiwazaki Sensei touched upon a lesson that is very important in Budo and one that I believe is often forgotten: the mind plays a role equal to that of the body.

To return to our first question: why do you lower your left knee first when sitting seiza? Well, the answer is remarkably simple. Someone decided to make it the custom. During the 20th century—especially after the two World Wars—many countries created customs to help begin a new age. Tradition is important and it helps create unity amongst people.
It was also interesting to learn about the origins behind seiza or the kneeling style of sitting that is so common in the martial arts. Japanese only began sitting seiza since the development of woven bamboo mats [tatami]. Before the turn of the 18th century, floors were hard stone or dirt, impossible to kneel on for long periods of time. When tatami mats became popular, however, people sat in seiza to prevent their dirty feet from touching the clean floor. Furthermore, the ruling class in Japan realized it was much more difficult for a subject to jump up and stab them if they were seated in a kneeling position and wearing restrictive clothing or armor.

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