Sunday, November 29, 2009

When to quit

About seven years back, I was in my naginata prime.

Work was a very distant second to training and my daughter was in the making. I was training three times a week regular practice on top of regular weekend seminars. It was the right way to train. I passed 3rd dan in one go, and 3rd dan is a major dividing point in the naginata world, which only runs the dan ranks up to 5th dan. (After that, it is only the titles: renshi, kyoshi, hanshi).

At that time, I also passed the test to become a nationally-recognized naginata shinpan (referee), joining a very small number of non-Japanese to have done so. Alas, since that time, my naginata career has not continued to soar, but that is another story for another time and place. For now, we are focused on accomplishments, not decline. And on quitting…

Some time after passing 3rd dan, a person may be ready for consideration for shinpan training. The final stages involve a pair of intensive trainings which culminate in the testing. The naginata world may be even more conservative than those of other Japanese martial arts, and the pass rate is not excessively high.

I managed to pass. Along the way, I had an encounter which will always stay with me. For the second intensive, we were joined by the nationally famous K Sensei. Atarashii “sport” naginata or not, no one could watch her motions and not be impressed. By the way, she has long been active in one of the more combative naginata koryu ryuha.

Somewhere along the way, I heard that she had a huge “blank” in her training, about 15 years. I couldn’t believe it, could not fathom it. She was nationally recognized for her skill, then stopped, completely, for fifteen years. Absolutely no practice.

This just could not penetrate my brain. No matter the reason – she decided to devote herself entirely to being a mother upon becoming pregnant. At that time in my life, it was alien to me. As for me, there would only have been one option: to reduce naginata practice yet continue, while devoting myself to parenting.

Not an option in Japan. This is a country where people – especially martial arts people – are very focused. You devote yourself to one thing and, with time, come to do it very, very well.

Anyway, sometime around her child’s high school years, this teacher returned to the naginata world and remains a strong and respectable presence to this day.

Slight change of topic, but related.

Some months back, I caught a ride to the train station with my ryuukyuu kobudo friend after practice. He is an interesting and supportive fellow, and we have begun to climb up the ranks together. That particular night, I was listening to the music he played in the car and liked it despite its mainstream feel.

Upon asking, I was told it was Yamaguchi Momoe. After some youtubing and wikipedia-ing and a look through The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture (Schilling), I learned quite a bit about her.

Now anyone who knew me Way Back in the Day may be surprised to know of my interest in a pop idol totally within the mainstream. True, I have been a Wang Faye fan for a decade since living in China, but I don’t divulge that information often, either.

Anyhow, something in her music caught me and drew me in. She was a very young pop idol, starting about age 13 in 1972 and quickly taking Japan by storm. That despite being a “love child” outside of marriage (a major taboo in Japan just a couple decades back).

After a string of hits she suddenly called it quits in 1980. Just like that. One final concert and tearful apologies for selfishly abandoning her fans. And it was over.

Many others in the fickle Japanese entertainment world have called it quits, only to revive their careers (or look ridiculous trying). But Yamaguchi Momoe remained true to her word – once she quit, she has never come back for a single appearance. She has opted for a quiet, domestic life on the outskirts of Tokyo.

What started this entire post was her words upon quitting the entertainment world at the height of her popularity: “I want to give my love with both hands”. Innuendo aside, this simple statement really captures something at the heart of Japanese culture. She was declaring her intent to devote herself solely to her husband and her domestic role. There was no possibility of her being a wife and a member of the entertainment world. Schilling’s Encyclopedia mentions that feminists were aghast at Yamaguchi’s decision to give up a singing career for her husband, but that millions of fans were touched by her devotion and resolution.

Whatever your take on this decision, she has stayed true to her word despite the clamoring of fans and has never once reappeared in the entertainment world. She quit one pursuit and devoted herself entirely to another. And, my wife informs me, she continues to live a few stations down the train line from us, still married and still domestic.

Back to the naginata world…there was another story I heard during that pivotal intensive when I gained my referees’ license. It involved a practitioner of Ten Do Ryu naginata, a centuries-old ryuha in which I was active at the time and maintain some commitment even now.

She was devoted to Ten Do Ryu and practiced endlessly at the home dojo outside Kyoto, which still serves as a home for the ryuha and as a gathering point for large numbers of practitioners several times a year. She got married and continued her practice. She had a baby and continued her practice. The story I heard had her back in the dojo less than a month after giving birth, the baby strapped on her back, running through the naginata techniques.

All of this comes back to me and my penchant for practicing more than one or two arts. For years (decades almost) my guiding principle was to never quit. Once I started a martial art, I could not quit. So I added one, then another. And here I am today, struggling to balance several martial arts. In recent years I have (regrettably) quit an art or two, and significantly reduced my commitment to others. But in choosing this way, I have strayed from the Japanese way of practice. Or have I?

There are those like K Sensei, one of my kendo teachers, 80-some years old and still going strong. Started young and never practiced any other martial art. And he has reached a height, a pinnacle, unseen by millions of others practicing kendo. I can go full bore against him and not touch him – and I am not holding back at all due to his age. But more importantly, there is a row of 7th dans in the dojo who face off against him weekly– and seem not to take many points at all.

There are also those who practice several martial arts. Of course they must specialize in one, but they have familiarity with others.

The question for me, though, comes down to when to quit an art. We can’t keep starting new arts without quitting some. I met one man who was devoted to a particular style of karate. A national champion in one country, he came to Japan for many years to continue his training and has since returned to his home country.

I had one hours-long talk with him after a few (??) drinks at the infamous annual budo seminar in Katsuura, Japan. We have had almost no contact since then, but his ideas left a strong impact upon me.

He was a karateka to the core and there were no questions about what his specialty was. Yet at the same time, he investigated a number of other martial arts in order to supplement his understanding of karate. He would study a number of years, then stop, just like that, once he felt that he had learned enough to add to his karate.

Like the naginata story above, I respected his idea yet it simply could not penetrate my head. I could not grasp spending a few years on an art, then setting it aside permanently. Why not keep karate as his main art, while continuing to explore martial art X or Y, to which he had already devoted a number of years??

It is one of the fundamental questions in martial arts – whether to devote yourself solely to a single art, or to pursue several of them, once a strong foundation is achieved. You know where I fit in this picture. This question has haunted me for years, mostly because of the criticism of those who are devoted to a single art. There seem to be two views, and they further seem to be irreconcilable.

My only answer is that it comes down to one’s personality. Some of us are just “built” psychologically to focus on one art and pursue it exclusively. Great, go do it. Some of us are just “built” psychologically to pursue a number of arts. Great, go do it. I just hope that we can respect each other while going and doing it.

Those of us in the latter group, in addition to the daily struggle of how to nurture more than one art, are sometimes faced with the question of when to quit an art. I have no answer for this, but I find much food for thought in the examples above.

Monday, November 9, 2009

What is fang song?

A reader’s request: A complete post about “fang song” would be in order.

That’s a tough one, which is why I have been putting this post off for several months. I still don’t have a good answer, nothing more than I could have said some months back. Fang song (放松) is a Chinese word simply translated as “relax”. But it refers to a deep, whole-body state of relaxation.

Far from having the tensed muscles so prevalent in external martial arts, the goal of fang song is to have a completely relaxed body / mind which will result, paradoxically, in smooth and strong actions with great power and speed.

You can practice (achieve?) fang song by progressively relaxing the muscles in your body, usually working from the trunk / center out to the extremities. But however much I relax, it seems I can go back through another cycle and relax even more.

Not much of an answer, I fear – thus I will call upon readers to give their own answers to the question, “what is fang song?” Please reply via the "comments" section.