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Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision
Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision
by Stefan Stenudd
12-23-2010
Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

Everybody knows that the aikido principles can be applied in so many ways outside the dojo. But they also do good inside the dojo, on matters that don't relate to the regular keiko of exchanging ikkyo and shihonage.

I witnessed a wonderful example of this, a number of years back, when Nishio sensei had a seminar in our dojo, and it was time for Dan grade examinations. He presented a solution to a seemingly insoluble problem, with the skill of an expert diplomat.

When we arranged for the examination, we had a table with three chairs for Nishio sensei, me, and the translator. According to Japanese custom, Nishio as a senior should have the chair closest to shomen, then me, and then the translator.

But that would put me in the middle, which is the honor seat in western tradition. I just couldn't get myself to sit there, and I told Nishio sensei so, explaining why. In my mind, the only one who could sit in the middle was he. On the other hand, from a Japanese perspective it would be absurd to have me or the translator sit the closest to shomen. What to do?

Nishio sensei paused for a moment, while the complexity of the situation sank into him. Then he just ordered the third chair to be removed. With two seats remaining there was no middle chair, and therefore I had no problem whatsoever sitting on what had formerly been that chair. Likewise, Nishio sensei could sit the closest to shomen without causing any culturally dependent embarrassment.

A perfect solution for everybody -- except the translator, who had to sit on the floor. But he didn't mind at all. At least, he never complained about it.

In the world of diplomacy, complications of a similar nature appear all the time. Each culture has its own reigi, rules of etiquette. Although they are usually the same in essence, the intent behind the traditions, they can vary quite a lot in how they are expressed -- sometimes in contradictory ways. When world leaders meet, no one should risk losing face, so these things have to be considered very carefully.

Aikido is not that rigorously and delicately handled, although we might sometimes get that impression. It's not a matter of life and death. But I do like to see that Japanese and western customs can be matched, through compromise or solutions as clever as that of Nishio sensei.

It is vastly important that every culture represented is respected equally, as far as possible, or the situation will become an insult to the ones carrying the traditions ignored. Such insults are very difficult to repair, even if the people who were offended assure us that they don't mind and that they do understand.

Japanese reigi is not that easy to follow, in all cases, but we all try. To the same extent, Japanese aikido teachers and students should try to adapt to the customs of other cultures, the representatives of which they come across in the dojo and outside of it.

Nishio sensei was brilliant with that. He always took care to show respect for local customs and traditions. He always treated us with respect and politeness, although he was so much senior in every way, and nobody dreamed of demanding that effort of him.

For example, when I left him at the hotel at night, he always stood bowing at the entrance, as I got back to the car to leave. That was so embarrassing to me! My cheeks were red as I hurried like crazy to drive away, so that he would not stand there one second more than necessary. It could very well have caused a car accident, since I was bowing to him all the time, while getting the car into gear and driving off.

Not all Japanese teachers show the same respect. Some seem kind of spoiled by being revered by aikido students all over the world, so they forget that courtesy must be reciprocal. I have even seen this with some Hombu Dojo teachers, although they are supposed to represent the head quarters of world aikido.

Actually, I've seen it more on teachers on the middle level of the Dan grade spectrum, than on those most senior at the top of it. I guess it's a sign of insecurity -- or of succumbing to the temptation of exploring the possibility.

They should contemplate Osensei. I have learned from people who knew him that he spoke to everybody as an equal, although Japanese tradition and language usually call for old masters to speak from above. It's in their choice of words, in the grammar, and so on. Osensei did not.

Learning aikido is also learning this Osensei's example. No matter who has the highest grade or who is the teacher, we should treat each other with respect -- because as human beings we are equals, whatever the circumstances or the games we play at the moment.

Stefan Stenudd

Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido
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Old 01-02-2011, 05:18 AM   #2
SeiserL
 
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

Osu Sensei,

Perhaps this is why the principle of Aikido are thought of as conflict resolution rather than fighting. We can applied those context and content free principles anywhere, even to enter, blend, and settle cultural differences. Perhaps our diplomates and negotiators good benefit from training.

And in our training, it is a taking away the unnecessary and doing less that appears to often work the best.

Thank you for your thoughts.

Lynn Seiser PhD
Yondan Aikido & FMA/JKD
We do not rise to the level of our expectations, but fall to the level of our training. Train well. KWATZ!
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Old 01-03-2011, 03:57 AM   #3
Stefan Stenudd
 
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

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Lynn Seiser wrote: View Post
And in our training, it is a taking away the unnecessary and doing less that appears to often work the best.
Indeed. Lao Tzu would insist it's also what works the best with everything in the world. Wu-wei, non-action...

Stefan Stenudd
My aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido/
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Old 01-03-2011, 04:18 AM   #4
SeiserL
 
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

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Stefan Stenudd wrote: View Post
Indeed. Lao Tzu would insist it's also what works the best with everything in the world. Wu-wei, non-action...
In NLP we would say only change the little thing that makes the change.

I also heard that the glass is not half empty or half full, the glass is too big.

Only do that which really matters. And do it subtly enough that no one (icluding yourself) knows you are doing it.

In Sum-i painting they use the minimum amount of ink to suggest the scene so the viewer must participate to see it.

Lynn Seiser PhD
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We do not rise to the level of our expectations, but fall to the level of our training. Train well. KWATZ!
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Old 01-04-2011, 08:31 AM   #5
Tony Wagstaffe
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

Seems common sense to me.... Of all the Japanese people I have come into contact with and got to know, most were very polite and some were arrogant....... If I feel I have been polite to those of arrogant attitude and dismissed by their arrogance I just returned the compliment by ignoring them as if they weren't there.....
I find that the same wherever you go.......
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Old 01-04-2011, 11:24 AM   #6
SeiserL
 
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

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Attilio Anthony John Wagstaffe wrote: View Post
Seems common sense to me....
Yes agreed.

Unfortunately, IMHO, common-sense is nor too common anymore. It has been replaced by complicated-sense creating more confusion, conflict, and chaos.

That is why the simplicity for Sensei's response was very nice. As was the translators reaction to it.

Lynn Seiser PhD
Yondan Aikido & FMA/JKD
We do not rise to the level of our expectations, but fall to the level of our training. Train well. KWATZ!
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Old 01-06-2011, 01:47 AM   #7
Stefan Stenudd
 
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

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Attilio Anthony John Wagstaffe wrote: View Post
some were arrogant.......
Arrogance is immediately recognized as such, all over the world. Therefore, I believe there are only two ways to be able to be arrogant: either you're blind to people around you, or you get the impression that they allow it.

Stefan Stenudd
My aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido/
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Old 01-06-2011, 06:12 AM   #8
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

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On the other hand, from a Japanese perspective it would be absurd to have me or the translator sit the closest to shomen.
I disagree. Although I do think this is a great example of conflict avoidance.

Josh Reyer

The lyf so short, the crafte so longe to lerne,
Th'assay so harde, so sharpe the conquerynge...
- Chaucer
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Old 01-07-2011, 03:57 AM   #9
Stefan Stenudd
 
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

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Joshua Reyer wrote: View Post
I disagree.
Do you mean that I am mistaken about the Japanese custom regarding seating and shomen?

Stefan Stenudd
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Old 01-07-2011, 11:13 AM   #10
R.A. Robertson
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

Quote:
They should contemplate Osensei. I have learned from people who knew him that he spoke to everybody as an equal, although Japanese tradition and language usually call for old masters to speak from above. It's in their choice of words, in the grammar, and so on. Osensei did not.
R. Kobayashi Sensei, founder of Seidokan, went to Japan to pay his respects to O Sensei. They were seated on the floor with each other, and O Sensei started to bow very slowly as he said, "So very grateful to you for helping to spread aikido."

Kobayashi quickly bowed in response, doing all he could to keep his head lower than O Sensei's, according to rank, custom, and respect. But O Sensei's head kept getting lower and lower as he talked, and by the time he finished speaking, his forehead was touching the floor.

Kobayashi was mortified, and said he wished he had a trenching tool that he could use to find a lower position. But he took from it a profound lesson in mutual respect and equality.

Sensei Kobayashi was always an extremely humble man to begin with, but I think he was deeply moved by the example of O Sensei.
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Old 01-07-2011, 11:16 AM   #11
Keith Larman
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

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Ross Robertson wrote: View Post
Sensei Kobayashi was always an extremely humble man to begin with, but I think he was deeply moved by the example of O Sensei.
I spoke with Mrs. Kobayashi about this story fairly recently. It was a great reminder of the reciprocal nature of respect and honor. Thanks for posting it.

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Old 05-30-2011, 02:02 AM   #12
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

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Stefan Stenudd wrote: View Post
Do you mean that I am mistaken about the Japanese custom regarding seating and shomen?
Stefan, my apologies for coming back to this so late. I'd completely forgotten about this thread, and only found it again recently searching for something.

My disagreement is not with your understanding of the custom. Rather it is with the application of the custom. The rules of etiquette are to forestall insult, problems, and issues; ideally they should not cause such problems. In my experience, Japanese people are perfectly willing and capable to bend customs and rules of etiquette if doing so promotes the greater wa.

In particular, when issues of translation arise, translators tend to be "attached" to the status of the person they are translating for. It's understood that their particular seating is set-up for ease to do their job, regardless of their actual status. Not that it's consciously thought of this way, but as an example, I often translate for the soke of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu. In these situations, as his assistant I'm temporarily elevated to his status, given that I am speaking for him. Despite the fact that the people I am translating to may outrank me or be my senior by many years, I sit at a position of much higher status.

I never met Nishio-sensei, but I have no doubt in my mind that he would have been perfectly happy to sit in the middle, with the translator next to him (closest to the shomen), having had it explained to him that you were putting him in the middle as the seat of honor in accordance to Western etiquette. It may have been a bit unorthodox (since you imposed Western etiquette upon the Japanese etiquette), but by no means absurd. Or, alternatively, he could sit closest to the shomen, the translator in the middle, and you at the other end; in such a case the translator would not be sitting in a seat of honor, but attached to Nishio-sensei's seat of honor (set up in the Japanese style). It would be less a matter of three positions, but three chairs making up two positions. Particularly if the translator was positioned slightly behind Nishio-sensei.

I wasn't there, and have never met Nishio-sensei, so it is admittedly presumptuous for me to suggest this, but it seems to me that Nishio-sensei's decision was less the resolution of a crux of etiquette, but rather a resolution of your personal problem. I think he perceived that the issues of etiquette were very important to you, and he responded in the easiest way to resolve the issue for you, without contradicting you or negating your feelings. If you had an issue with three chairs, then removing one of the chairs would solve the problem. I only say this because I've heard nothing but good things about Nishio-sensei's bearing and personality, so I find it hard to believe that he would be such a stickler for Japanese etiquette that he'd make the fellow translating sit on the floor rather than sit himself in anything other than the unequivocal Japanese kamiza position. And it seems to me that, while Nishio-sensei solved the issue in a way that saved face for everyone (except perhaps the poor translator), the whole issue could have been resolved right from the beginning, without even bothering Nishio-sensei, if you, knowing both Japanese and Western etiquette, had just chosen one to follow and gone with that. Nishio-sensei's response was good, but IMO this would have been ideal.

This is really a nitpick more than anything, and by no means should be taken as disagreement with the larger point of your excellent article.

Josh Reyer

The lyf so short, the crafte so longe to lerne,
Th'assay so harde, so sharpe the conquerynge...
- Chaucer
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Old 05-30-2011, 09:25 AM   #13
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

Quote:
Nishio as a senior should have the chair closest to shomen, then me, and then the translator.
Why not just have Nishio as a senior in the chair closest to shomen, then the translator, and then you???

The head of the table is the main position in my country so maybe I don't get that middle chair custom.

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Old 06-05-2011, 11:24 AM   #14
Stefan Stenudd
 
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

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Joshua Reyer wrote: View Post
My disagreement is not with your understanding of the custom. Rather it is with the application of the custom.
Josh, many thanks for your interesting comment. I'm sure that there would have been many other splendid solutions to the situation, for example both of us ignoring it completely. Still, I was impressed by how Nishio sensei found his way around it.
He was always very careful to respect the customs in countries he visited, so it's quite likely that he did it for my sake more than his own.

Stefan Stenudd
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Old 06-05-2011, 11:27 AM   #15
Stefan Stenudd
 
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Re: Aikido Solution to a Cultural Collision

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Tim Jester wrote: View Post
The head of the table is the main position in my country so maybe I don't get that middle chair custom.
Depending on the setting, the head of the table can be the main position in Sweden, too, if that person sits by the short side of the table. That was not possible in the situation I described.

Stefan Stenudd
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