Monday, January 9, 2006

Falling in love again?

It dawned on me recently certain pleasures and joys of my life, which I had either forgotten or neglected and then embarrassedly tried to forget, have come back to life within me. To name a few: my desire to visit Montana and Wyoming, my esteem for Fr. Jaki's witness, my old love for rowing and erging, my taste for Scorsese and (pre-Rocky-&-Bullwinkle-and-Analyze-This) De Niro films, and now, my interest in judo. That's right, though I kept it secret for a while here in Taiwan, and have actually never addressed here at FCA, it's true: I like judo and I did it for a few months before World Youth Day. (The shrewd and those among with too much free time should have gathered as much from some early entries on my Amazon Wish List.)

I intended to return to judo (róu dào 柔道) quickly upon my return from Europe (September or so), but between post-WYD fatigue, new-semester fatigue, fall-illness fatigue, heavy-writing-commitments fatigue, a general disaffection for my dojo (which I find too small, too laissez-faire in its instruction and too populated by teens and small children), and, finally - why lie? – an occasional albeit genuine repulsion towards paying to fight a grown man and get tackled or thrown by him[1] - for all these reasons, I've put it off till now. (Oh, and let's not forget the shame of going back so late despite having expressed my intention to return promptly after summer. Sigh. What little "face" I as a foreigner have in this culture I do not too blithely risk.) But no longer. My desire to return to the mat is envigoratingly palpable and grows every day.

Alas, knowing my luck, just about the time I get back into the swing of judo, the school will shut down for Chinese New Year. Maybe just in time for me to hop back on that erg...?!

[1] Believe it or not, I've done my small share of reading about martial arts and "real" self-defense training and, after a little reflection, was not really that surprised to hear judo described by a leading combat trainer as the best all-around training for a real fight, or real self-defense, bar none. (This fact grates like nails on chalk in the ears of my friend who is a serious tae kwon do student. But, hey, facts is facts.) Aside from judo's natural ability to train your body holistically, according to the relentless, unpredictable and fluid demands of live close-quarters competition, and even aside from the vital technical skills judo brings to bear in a dangerous encounter, the most basic advantage of judo for "combat readiness" is the fact that at every single practice you get real live psychological training to face and handle an aggressive human being.

Now, lest you get the wrong idea about me - "The Cogitator, a violent psychopath?!" - I like judo because it is pure and visceral. For one thing, judo is a serious workout. It requires stamina, flexibility, agility and strength sufficient to withstand sudden attacks and/or to complete sometimes stunning throws. I also like judo because there are no overly technical chops, kicks and hops (these things are what you learn either in advanced judo or jujitsu, from which Jigoro Kano derived judo). There are no nifty gadgets, pads, weapons or special shoes. In judo, there is just energy, balance, timing, strength and - above all - the wisdom of "strategic relenting." Effective "relenting" in judo is tied directly to its name (柔道), which translates from Japanese (here, via Chinese) as "the supple or soft [ró] way [dào]."

Contrary to some popular conceptions, including my own several months ago, it is not judo's lack of "hard" blows, like those in gong fu or tae kwon do, that make it soft; in fact, when people encounter judo for the first, they are struck by just how not soft it seems! Indeed, the "soft" (ró 柔) nature of its name is prima facie misleading. Far from being gentle and fluid in the manner of a ballet, judo is "soft and supple" in the characteristically Japanese sense of taking more aggression than you give until you absolutely must return it and overpower your opponent. Judo is soft because it requires you to move with an internal softness, almost passivity, according to your opponent's energy. Rather than forcing and jerking your way into a "hard" artificial move, judo requires you to remain soft (at least within your spirit, since true physical passivity would get you tossed about like a sack doll) until the key moment: then even a soft or supple action suffices to overcome your opponent. The "passive" suppleness of judo to which I just alluded refers to the essential technique of exploiting what your opponent gives you; in this way, you become the softer, more relenting, athlete. Exploiting your opponent's actions does not merely mean receding back as he pushes you, so that you may "sick" him into a backwards throw; it also means giving him your weight in unexpectedly, and thus victoriously, greater abundance if he pulls you. A final aspect of judo's softness has everything to do with its most fundamental skill: falling (ukemi). If you can't fall correctly, you can't do judo. Period. This is why the first phase of any judo training consists of drilling the proper falling technique. (See what I mean about "falling" in love again with judo?)

It didn't dawn on me till this moment, but I am happy to say a final good of judo for me is the "cultural catharsis" it can and should be. Any regular readers here will know - why lie? - I have an unfortunate but undeniable bias against Japan. How apposite and redemptive it is, then, for me to love a quintessentially Japanese sport! Ad majorem Dei gloriam!

Here are some good articles on the things I've discussed in this note:

Fundamental Principles of Judo by Kenji Tomiki

The Study of Falling by Neil Ohlenkamp

Judo: The Gentle Tao by Alan Watts

And a whole gaggle of others!


Anonymous said...

Dear Elliot,
You've really opened up pandora's box now. The pros and cons of each particular martial art are given enormous attention in the related literature, and I imagine, on blogs. I have some experience learning Kendo and Aikido in Japan, and hence, my input. From my discussions with my teachers there, it seems that those interested in learning a martial art with the intention of maximizing their defensive capabilities should rather move away from the various do (hmm, let's see if I can add the Kanji here: 道)to the jutsu forms of martial arts, such as Aikijutu, and other traditional combative martial arts (i.e. the pre-Meiji restoration forms which still can be found in various dojo in Japan). The key common thread is an emphais on the transmission of the 'usage' of various techniques. Scholars such as Adam Hsu would argue the same for Chinese martial arts: here one should look not necessarily for particular styles but rather particular approaches to the respective martial art, and again, the emphasis is on usage.
Having said that, it would also seem to make sense to learn a style which is particularly well-represented in the region where one lives. I'm surprised you haven't taken up something like Bachichuan or Baqua. I had heard that certain teachers in Taiwan still maintain these forms in their pure combative essence. I don't know whether it would be possible to study these elsewhere and it seems a bit, well, unfortunate (although highly focused) to ignore these while you have the unique chance to learn them.

But in any case, all your points about Judo's benefits are valid, it seems to me. One anecdote: I remember speaking with the technical instructor at the Kodokan, and I asked him about a key difference between the current Judo scene and the 'old days'. His answer: 'Before, there was no sound except the sound of people training. Now there's chatting. And the other thing, when someone wins a match, they raise their arms in the 'gut's pose' if they win a bout [the Japanese expression for the victory pose]." He looked positively disgusted at that. Perhapse there is a spiritual lesson here?


Diego de la valle said...

I don't know if that TKD friend was me or Chandler. I would give a short dissertation like the previous guy, but I'm on the phone right now. Or else you'd be hearing a little about Shotokan. I can't believe you're going back to Judo!! Take a real Japanese martial art! Haha :)

Pop said...


More to come, but about your Amazon hallway is filled with books...let's hold off on the next wave until I can clear the deck! Ha!

Terri said...

Hi Elliot, glad you'll be going back to Judo but seriously keep being careful...

hey, write me a letter...I didn't bring your emaill address with me. Thanks, Terri

I. Shawn McElhinney said...

What initially made you decide on judo over the other martial arts Elliott?

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