A part of the inner training of Budo is to overcome unconscious bonds10 min read

‘Boys, be ambitious!’ I came across these words recently. A British teacher working in Japan told me about these words, which he said has had a profound effect on Japanese youth. It made me wonder: ‘Have there been words spoken by Japanese which have had a deep effect on my own life?’ There have been such words indeed, but I realize that they have not been general maxims like ‘Boys, be ambitious!’ They were individual remarks which were said to me directly or which I overheard.

A few such words were spoken by Yukio Tani, my Judo teacher. I heard them when I was about 17, and they made a lasting impression, because I was very keen on Judo. Tani had a wonderful reputation. When I was taught by him, he was already over 50, but was still very skilful. Over 20 years before, my father had seen this small man defeating big boxers and wrestlers, apparently by magic. He was a sort of god to us, and his words made a great impression.

Up to the age of 15, Iwas interested only in music. I never took any exercise, so I was constantly getting ill. The doctor told me that I must build up a better constitution, and I began running every day. Then I came across Judo. Soon I was very keen and began training. Tani noticed this and gave me a few lessons. Encouraged, I used to begin practice at 6 p.m. and stay till the end at 9 p.m.

One evening, however, I felt very tired with a headache. At about seven, I picked up my towel and prepared to leave the dojo. Tani looked across and asked, ‘Where are you going?’ I replied, ‘I feel tired and I’ve got a headache. I’ll come tomorrow’.

Tani asked quietly: ‘If a man rushes at you in the street with a hammer, waiting to kill you, can you say, “I feel tired and I’ve got a headache, so come back tomorrow”?’ Then he turned away. His words were like a thunderbolt. I went back on to the mat and practised. After half an hour he said, ‘All right, go home now’. Somehow I felt I did not want to. I went on practising, but he gave me a little push with a smile and repeated, ‘Go now, go now’. This time I went.

Later in life, when I have promised to do something but then have been tired or sometimes even ill, I wanted to make an excuse. Tani’s words would return to me: ‘Can you say, “I feel tired and I’ve got a headache, so come back tomorrow”?’ Then I was able to put aside the tiredness and carry out the promise.

Another comment Tani made was not addressed to me, but it had a great effect. In those days the Budokwai members were mostly beginners and very clumsy. There were a very few skilful men to be models. So members had the idea that in a throw like ashi-harai you simply knocked the opponent’s legs away from under him. They had not much idea of tsuri-komi, though of course it was shown to them by the teachers. They often bruised themselves and their opponents too. Soon after I had joined, I saw one member bruise his toes badly against his opponent’s shin. He gave a loud cry and sat down on the mat, holding his foot and rocking to and from with the pain.

Most of the other members stopped practising and watched as Tani walked across. He looked at the toe and felt it gently, while the injured man was still giving little moans. ‘Only bruised’, said Tani. ‘Get up and sit at the side’. But the man still sat there, his face screwed up in pain.

Tani looked at him with concern. ‘Shall I call your mother?’ he asked. The injured man turned scarlet with embarrassment and got up quickly, hobbling off the mat. Somehow I felt embarrassed too. I made up my mind that he would never say such a thing to me. I did get injuries but I did not make a sound. I felt I would rather have the pain than hear the words: ‘Shall I call your mother?’

Later on in Judo I was in the general tradition of not making a fuss. It is much easier to endure silently when one knows that all the others do so too.

But I remember one occasion when there was quite a test. As a tall man, I used ashi-harai a good deal. On one occasion I met a tall Japanese who also used it. It was a sort of ashi-harai battle. Then, we moved at the same moment very fast. The feet met in midair; one of my toes were broken and the toe nail splintered. During practice one does not feel such things very intensely. I knew I had been hurt, but I thought it would be just a bad knock. My opponent in fact was only bruised. We went on practising, but began to slip. Looking down, we saw that there was blood on the tatami, and looked at each other: ‘Me or you?’ Then I saw blood streaming from my toe.

We wrapped it up and went to a nearby hospital, where one of the surgeons treated all our Judo injuries. He was a Kendo man. At that time there were a few Kendo men who felt that Judo was relatively modern and not quite in the traditional Budo tradition.

I sometimes felt his treatment of the Judo was rather— well— direct. No false sympathy there. On this occasion, he had to pick out the splinters of nail from the smashed end of the toe. He did it with a pair of tweezers, fragment by fragment. By now the toe was really hurting, and this of course was worse still. I managed not to make a sound or move the foot. He looked up at me once or twice during the little operation. What was going through my head were the words, ‘Shall I call your mother?’ No, you are damned well not going to call my mother!

He finished fishing for splinters, set the toe and bandaged it. As I prepared to go, he leaned back with a half-smile and said: ‘I should think that was extremely painful’. I stood up, and he gave a little nod of approval. I realized that I had passed, in his private book, as not merely a foreign Judo man but also as a proper Budo man.

Tani said one thing about which I have never made up my mind. In my early days at the Budokwai, I was a member of the team which had matches against Oxford and Cambridge Judo clubs. They had no black belts, so our team was limited to kyu grades also. Once I was the captain. I had just got a brown belt, or 1st kyu grade. It was a team of five, and the contests were a five-minute nihon-shobu.

In this event Cambridge had won two matches, and the Budokwai had won two. So my contest was crucial. I quickly won a first point and I thought, T must not risk a counter’. I did not attack seriously again and gave no opportunities to my opponent. I won, and the team won.

But Tani would not speak to me afterwards. During the car ride back to London, he said nothing to me at all. Only when we parted, he said, “Coward!” I have never made up my mind whether this remark was justified. I can see that in the long run, it is better to practise attacking, even though one may sometimes lose to a counter. But (this is my British feeling, I suppose) I was a member of a team; this was crucial to the team. If I had been a member of the team—and my captain had lost by attacking again when he had already won—I would have said he was a fool.

My policy today (another British compromise) is to take the risk when I am alone, but if I am in a team I think of the interests of the team first.

What would be the traditional view of Budo?

There are some things which we have always thought to be natural and correct. We have never imagined that they could be any other way. Such beliefs may last all our lives. We never examine them. We think, ‘Of course, that is so’.

Part of the inner training of Budo is to overcome such unconscious bonds. It must apply not only in the training hall but to life in general. It does not mean to change our ideas just because they are old or traditional. But we have to learn to see clearly where our beliefs are too narrow. Sometimes it is only when we go abroad that we find that people can think in other ways. But we must be alone among the foreigners; if our own countrymen are there too, we shall support each other. Then our fixed ideas will not change.

The Budo principle is meant to apply in other fields too. So before giving the Judo example, I will give one from music.

When I was a boy, I trained as a pianist. At age 15, I wanted to become a professional pianist, but my father would not agree. I was furious: I gave up music and took up Judo instead. Still, I can say that I knew about Western music. But when I first went to Japan, I had a surprise. I got to know an old Japanese lady, who had two daughters. Both played the piano, and when I went to their house, they invited me to play the piano. She would listen to that without saying anything.

Sometimes they put on a gramophone record of an orchestra. Usually then the mother would go out of the room. I asked her once, ‘Don’t you like the Western music?’ ‘I don’t like the orchestra music’, she said. ‘It is all so high up: i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i. And she waved a hand high above her head. How ridiculous! But later, I thought about her remark. For the first time I realized that indeed most Western music has the melody high.

Our famous women opera singers are sopranos, who sing mainly at least an octave above middle C. On a violin only the lowest string can sound a middle C. It is true that the orchestra has cellos which play deep notes. But they rarely have the melody. On the piano, most notes of the melody are played by the little finger of the right hand, which sounds the highest note. Pianists have a very strong right-hand little finger. They can rest the hand on a table and hit it strongly with the little finger without moving the others. It makes a powerful rap.

The Japanese lady was right. I had never noticed that

Western music is high. And curiously, the older a classical composer became, the higher his music became. It is clearly heard in later Beethoven and Wagner.

Still, her remark did not make me change my appreciation of Western music. Unlike children’s beliefs, the fixed idea had been reinforced by long practice and gone very deep. Theoretically I recognized that she was right. Western orchestral music has slipped higher and higher up the scale and is unbalanced. But it did not lessen my appreciation. When I went to live in India, I became interested in Indian music, which is in a lower register. (In Japan I was always so occupied with Judo, the Japanese language and Zen Buddhism that I had no time to learn any Japanese music.)

Physical training of Budo tries to get rid of the limiting habits we are born with. A strongly right-handed or rightfooted man must develop both sides. Similarly, the inner Budo training must overcome inner habits, for instance, of always being on the attack or always defending and waiting to counter. The compulsive attacker must learn to wait; the compulsive defender must learn how to be a whirlwind.

This principle of learning is hinted at in many of the old Budo traditions. The serene warrior of yin must be able to imitate the raging warrior of yang, though remaining inwardly calm.

© Trevor Leggett