Humanizing Tradition: Finding a Way Forward with Understanding

On a recent Judo coaches’ forum, one coach mentioned a sensei who typically had a cheerful disposition, happily helping young students learn a technique. However, on one particular day, the sensei saw a brown belt, maybe 18 years of age, “walking to his mat area with his belt slung around his neck.” The sensei proceeded to accost the student about “how disrespectful he was by wearing his belt around his neck.”

Another occasion mentioned by the coach was when the sensei unceremoniously kicked a brown belt off the mat because of the “disrespect” of an improperly tied belt. The coach stated that this lack of respect was because American Judo has become watered down and weak.

This coach embraced the behavior of the senseis because he felt Judo would become “muddied just like other martial arts have become.” The coach’s last opinion was that he believed in teaching “what Kano Sensei taught.” My goal with this installment on my blog is to address a few concerns with the rhetoric in this post and some of its comments.

First, I have heard on more than one occasion from higher-ups in the major Judo organizations that we need more students and more black belts to teach. However, people are espousing such practices as those mentioned above. There is a constructive way to build people up, encourage new generations, and grow the sport. Tearing people down because they don’t have their belts tied improperly, in my opinion, is not the way to do that.

The issue of respect is my second point of contention. I believe young people today are weak in respect and what the coach considered character because many of their teachers and parents set a poor example of what true character can be. Instead of breathing life into students, they drain them through trivial traditions and demoralizing language. Character development does not follow from adhering to abstract rules that have no legitimate application. That kind of expectation is not one of respect, but of fear and indoctrination, which is antithetical to the American social consciousness. Attempting to carte blanche apply Eastern traditional values onto Western psyche without tempering it with the reality that we are culturally different is, in my opinion, fallacious and inappropriate from a cultural perspective.

Also, let’s be completely pragmatic here: we are framing this as a respect issue, but we are seriously talking about a 2” piece of cloth that holds the uniform together. Prioritizing that over the human is not what Kano had in mind. He was a humanist, educator, and pioneer. I am sure he would question the tendency to hold to an abstract tradition, given his background in Utilitarian philosophy and progressive humanism.

My final point regards a comment by a Judo/BJJ practitioner like myself commenting on the thread “This nonsense is why BJJ is growing so much faster than Judo these days.” I agree with this statement to a point. While I believe there are many reasons why Judo is waning while BJJ is growing, this person has a point. The “coach” did not like that statement and replied that because we had not come up in the “old days” and didn’t take his position, we were somehow lesser judoka and part of the problem.

Looking at the overall comments on the thread and the claim that judoka like me are the problem indicates the irony and hubris plaguing American Judo in many ways. I left the conversation with this thought: I cannot tell the future of American Judo, but I can assure you that it will not have one as long as there are individuals that continue to believe as the abovementioned coach and several others on the thread do.

Photo of Joshua Clements (the Philosophical Fighter) and Olympian Marti Malloy.

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