Tradition

An article I wrote a while ago. I don’t like the ending, but what are you going to do, kill me? I didn’t think so.

We sit in the traditional seiza position with our legs folded beneath us, our fists resting on our knees. I glance at my classmates; we are all breathing heavily. Their uniforms are worn to tatters, ears swollen and cauliflowered. The black night is cold outside the window, and after such a grueling workout, I notice something that I’ve never seen before: steam is rising from our bodies. It curls from our shoulders, twirling wisps from the tops of our heads, before dissipating. A slight Japanese man, not much older than 30, speaks softly to the circle of students around him. I try my best to keep up, but my Japanese is not what it could be. Once he has finished talking, we straighten up our postures and bow, dropping our foreheads to the floor and muttering ‘Arigatou gozaimashita’

Stop. Rewind 30 minutes. My face is pressed into the yellow mats, my jaw supporting the full weight of a small but muscular Japanese man. I struggle to turn into a better position only to leave my arm isolated and vulnerable. He capitalises, pivoting over my body and rolling into a perfect armbar. I hold for a moment, still hoping for escape, but as he raises his hips against my elbow and pulls my wrist down, I feel a sharp pain in the joint and tap his leg three times in defeat. He releases my arm and we sit up smiling, slap each other’s hand, and go at it again.

I grab his gi at the collar and pull him into my ‘guard’, using my legs to control his weight. As I draw him in, I sense him overbalancing and hook my leg under his, turning and throwing him over my body. I roll with the momentum and come up on top of him, dropping onto his chest. He tries to wriggle free but leaves his arm across his own face. I move easily to the side, secure a grip engulfing his neck and arm, and squeeze for all I’m worth. It’s enough; as the blood to his head via the carotid arteries is cut off, the skin on his face reddens. After one desperate attempt break free, his hand tapdances all over the floor and I release him. The timer buzzes loudly, we shake hands and move to the side of the classroom, our energy spent. I’m battered, bruised, but grinning.

A CD player is playing a selection of punk music; currently, it’s a tune from the Offspring. The uniforms that surround me are blue, red and even black, adorned with a multitude of patches, logos, and personal insignia. They wear their lumpy, misshapen ears like badges of honour. One of them lifts his gi to wipe the sweat from his forehead and I catch a glimpse of an inked carp splashing across his belly and up his back. My instructor is sprawled out on the mat, shouting the occasional word of encouragement, watching fight videos, clipping his toenails.

It’s martial arts, Jim, but not as we know it. The seiza sitting lasts for only a few minutes or so. My teacher is not sensei, he’s just Tomari-san, a good friend. There’s no bowing, no signed scrolls, no framed black and white pictures of masters hanging on the wall. No grading fees, no compulsory uniform to buy from the teacher and no pressure to assimilate any type of culture or mentality. Just hard, honest training.

Stop. Rewind two years to Sydney, Australia. I’m being scolded for not bowing to a yellowing photograph of my master’s master’s master when entering and leaving the room. I’ve just paid my fees for a year upfront. Two pairs of ‘kung fu trousers’? Check. Two offical academy t-shirts? Check. Pair of authentic ‘kung fu slippers’? Check. All bought and paid for. Right, where’s the master I’ve come half way across the world to study under? He’s in the office. Office? I thought this was a kung fu school? My line of questioning is not going down well with my training partners. How dare I question sifu – where is my respect for tradition? What respect? What tradition? I’ve only seen this man walking around in a business suit jangling coins in his pocket. He’s never so much as shown me a punch. Why do I owe him respect?

Fast forward to two years ahead. Tomari-san does not ask me for respect, he doesn’t even mention it. He earned my respect in the first hour I was at the dojo when I watched him spar with every member of the class, including myself, and beat all of us effortlessly. There’s no question about my respect for the man.

Back to two years ago. Tensions are mounting. Why won’t the master teach me? I’ve paid my fees. I’ve travelled the world to be here. Sorry, he’s meeting a prominent local politician. Sorry, he’s having lunch with a news reporter. Sorry, he’s practicing for a demonstration. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Why don’t I go and practise my forms? So, I do. I stand in front of the mirror and wave my arms around, frowning hard and imagining that I’m getting better at fighting. If you’re more than fifteen minutes late, you do not get an attendance mark for the class. Leave early; no attendance mark for the class. Have a doctor’s appointment? That’s no excuse. The attitude of the school is wearing as thin as the cheap fabric of the ‘kung fu trousers’ I was conned into buying.

It’s last week. I tell Tomari-san, in halting Japanese, that I’m going to be late to classes during weeknights because of work. I notice that he is looking at my face, at the bruises, the flushed cheeks, the scratches. ‘Daijobu,’ he tells me, no problem. ‘Any time okay.’

At that moment, I realise what tradition really means. It’s not blindly following those above you, or those who have gone before. It’s leading the way for others, blazing a trail through the dogma, constantly reinventing the wheel, or at least doing your best to make sure the way it’s invented now is the best way.

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3 Responses

  1. Interesting look at your routine. I think you captured the pain quite succintly! Was that BJJ?

    Sounds like you had a bad experience with your previous school.

    Though I do not believe your former sifu was a bad man necessarily. Perhaps he had the best intentions, raising the profile of the art by meeting politicians and reporters, but something was lost along the way.

  2. Aye, that’s BJJ.

    I don’t know much about my former sifu, having spent a grand total of about 10 minutes in his presence.

  3. “At that moment, I realise what tradition really means. It’s not blindly following those above you, or those who have gone before. It’s leading the way for others, blazing a trail through the dogma, constantly reinventing the wheel, or at least doing your best to make sure the way it’s invented now is the best way.”

    You said that you didn’t like the way this ended. Dude, it touched me.

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