The future of Budo is something which must come from Japanese themselves7 min read

The future of Budo is something which must come from Japanese themselves. No foreigner can decide it for them; nor can any single Japanese decide it. It must come from the inner life of the Budo tradition. But sometimes the interest shown by foreigners can help to reawaken interest in Budo among Japanese themselves.

Furthermore, to see how other countries have developed— or have failed to develop—their own traditions can be a hint for Japanese. I will now take the example of how the Western ideal of chivalry changed as it led to the ideal of the English gentleman. Chivalry developed among the European knights, especially the Normans, who brought it to Britain. It taught not only the ancient Roman virtue of bravery but also kindness to the weak, especially women, and respect for defeated enemies. The respect for the defeated was a big advance on the Roman idea: Romans were merciless. Their famous slogan was Vae victis! or ‘Woe to the vanquished!’

(It must be admitted that in actual war the knights often relapsed into the Roman way.)

The Norman chivalry was for a long time taught only among knightly families. Later it was gradually extended to ‘gentlemen’. They were a grade below the knights but had to be from a good wealthy family.

The common people were not taught chivalry and knew it only from popular songs and romantic epics. They were not expected to practise it. Shakespeare for instance despised what he called the ‘mob’, that is, the common people. Julius Caesar begins with these lines about the common people: ‘You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!’

By Shakespeare’s time, the 16th century, a new idea was coming up. A big change had begun in 15th century England. (Perhaps Shakespeare himself was an example: he was at first despised because his father had not had the money to send him to a university. Yet he became famous in his lifetime.) The enormously popular poet Geoffrey Chaucer declared that a gentleman is to be known by his good behaviour, not by his birth. A man is a gentleman, proclaimed Chaucer, only if he behaves well.

There was a verse of that time: ‘There are these four virtues—Honesty, Kindness, Freedom and Courage. No one can be a gentleman if he lacks three of them’.

In other words, he must have at least two. It is typical of the British that this ideal does not require one to have more than two of the four virtues to be considered a gentleman. Of course, it is better if he has three—better still if he has four. But we do not expect such perfection to be common. (I am reminded of a phrase in a letter of Yamaoka Tesshu: ‘Every man has seven bad points’.)

I may add here that the virtue of freedom has been an enormous advantage to us in national life. We respect the freedom of others to be eccentric. To be eccentric is often a sign of genius. But in many countries, eccentric people are disliked and persecuted. The British respect for freedom is one reason why for centuries there have been many new ideas arising in Britain.

However, even when complete, the ideal has some big gaps in it. Nothing is said about inner calm. Courage included endurance of pain. This was especially a Roman virtue. At school we learnt how Scaevola, a Roman hero captured by the Etruscan enemies about 500 B.C., was brought for interrogation. There happened to be a fire in the room. One of them said, ‘Answer our questions’. Scaevola walked to the fire and thrust his right hand into it. The interrogators watched in amazement as the hand blackened and shrivelled. Then he faced them and said, ‘Ask’.

It is pleasant to read that the Etruscans freed him and allowed him to return to Rome. (Romans would not have been so chivalrous.) The Romans honoured him by giving him the name ‘Left-handed’; Scaevola means left-handed. His descendants played a large part in Roman history for six centuries. Some of us schoolboys were impressed by this. When I read about Nobunaga’s death, dancing in the burning temple, I said to myself, ‘Scaevola!’

This sort of grand-scale heroism is outside ordinary life. But there were also small-scale incidents in the tales of chivalry which could be tried. As a boy I read how a Knight and his servant were travelling and stayed at a poor inn, where the beds were full of fleas. ‘The servant was scratching all night, but the Knight lay still’.

On one occasion, when my family were on holiday, we were overtaken by a storm and had to stay at a little inn. My bed had fleas in it. I resolved to imitate the Knight, trying to lie still and letting them bite. After two or three bites, they stopped and I began to fall asleep. Then I felt a new bite and automatically scratched. I concluded that the Knight in the story must have stayed awake.

As a student at London University, I joined a Spartan-type group. Once a week, we bathed in the icy water of a deep pond; it was a special achievement to break the ice in winter months. About this time I began Judo and heard from the old teacher that the traditional samurai always washed his face in cold water, ‘so that it would remain firm even after death’. From then on for over 20 years I never took a hot bath. I used hot water only reluctantly just to shave.

But there was a gap in the code of chivalry: there was no inner calm. The Knights were passionate people. The gap was filled in the 19th century by reviving the Roman virtue of inner undisturbability, not merely outer calm. The nation as a whole began to cultivate it. There was a familiar saying on the Continent: ‘the calm Englishman’. Anti-British writers, like the popular novelist Jules Verne, often laughed at the British for stupidity, but admitted that they were calm.

There was, however, another big gap in the gentleman ideal, which was never filled. I realized this gap for the first time when I went to Japan. Our list of virtues—Honesty, Kindness, Freedom, Courage and also Calm—says nothing about culture at all. This compares very unfavourably with the Japanese tradition. Of course, not all the Japanese warriors were cultured. But they were ashamed if they did not have some culture, and they respected culture in others, whereas in Britain the gentleman did not feel ashamed even if he had almost no knowledge of literature or music.

True, a few refinements in behaviour were expected of him and his wife. But the ideal was fine character and especially self-control, and not culture. There were indeed many highly cultured and intelligent gentlemen. But culture and intelligence (dare I say it?) were regarded as extras, so to speak. They were desirable, but not essential.

There was, and still is, a criticism: ‘He is too clever’. No Frenchman would make such a criticism; he would never think one could be too clever. But the English word ‘clever’ corresponds to ‘zuru-gashikoi’. We both associate extreme cleverness with cunning.

There was even a view that too much culture could be somehow weakening. For instance, a general who was also a poet might be regarded with suspicion. General Wavell, later Viceroy of India, published a book of poems. But they were not his own; his book was an anthology, called Other Men’s Flowers. It used to be said that if a soldier wanted to publish poems, he did it under a woman’s name.

Perhaps this attitude has begun to change now. There is more poetry in the newspapers, magazines and on the radio. Changes in Britain are very slow, but it may be that the ideal gentleman will have to practise some form of culture. In the last 40 years, the whole concept of the gentleman has been under attack from socialist egalitarians. But socialism has been a disastrous failure all over the world. It failed in the fields where it claimed to be strongest: economic organization, scientific advance, education and freedom. So the gentleman ideal may have a strong revival. But it cannot be revived in its past form: it must find new forms.

In the same way, I believe, the Budo ideal too is beginning to find new forms. In the little history which I have given above, the gentleman ideal found new life in the 19th century by reviving the old Roman idea of inner calm, not merely outward stoicism. So too, I am sure, the new forms of Budo will incorporate elements which were there in its past, but which did not come to flower.

© Trevor Leggett