The Ju in Judo

Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte

The rest of us have to prove our manliness, or something, by standing up to some guy. A fighter never has that urge because he gets rid of it in his work. That’s why I say that, when everything else is equal, fighters are the best-adjusted males in the world.
— The Professional by W.C. Heinz, 1958
Photo credit:  Airbear Photography

Photo credit: Airbear Photography

Japan has an interesting culture of budokans. Every prefecture has one. A budokan can be roughly translated as the house (kan) of budo, the latter term referring to the samurai version of the knightly code of chivalry. Budo includes qualities such as justice, courage, benevolence, integrity, honour and discipline. Budokans are generally supported by the government and have excellent training facilities. They offer regular community classes and host local tournaments of the various Japanese martial arts.

Training with the Judo club at a local budokan in Japan provided me some insights about the culture of budo and aggression. The martial arts at the budokan seems to offer Japanese youth a culturally rooted rite of passage in sublimating aggression. The teachers teach various techniques all requiring courage, persistence and trust.  The members of the Judo club I train with are mostly men of all ages. The senseis constantly remind them that they are entrusted with each other’s safety and their focus should be on fierce play rather than winning at all costs.

The men of the Judo club epitomized budo. On the mat they threw, grappled, locked and choked with unmatched fury but lacked the meanness and cruelty symptomatic of frustrated aggression. Even in the heat of combat, they displayed a sense of fair play and concern for each other’s safety.

My experience at the budokan reminded me of a time when I visited the Samburu on a work trip. The Samburu are pastoralists who roam the dusty and drought prone plains of the lion infested Rift Valley province in Kenya.  What intrigued me was despite their indifference to lions, as dusk approached the Samburu would hurry back to their kraals. I was also curious about the phenomenon where many of the Samburu men had AK 47s slung across their backs, an incongruity among pastoralists. On asking, I was told that they were concerned about cattle raiders who had killed a number of young men recently.

Apparently, the Samburu tribes have always had a rite of passage, where an adolescent to be recognized as a man in his tribe, had to steal cattle from another tribe. Cattle raids were conducted according to cultural norms that prohibited killing and gratuitous violence. No tribe lost out on their cattle since they always stole back cattle from another tribe. Moreover cattle raids ensured peace by creating camaraderie and competition among the young men of different tribes. This rite was designed to help boys channel their aggression as they entered manhood. I had witnessed similar such rites to manhood amongst various indigenous peoples I had encountered in my work.

However the civil war in neighbouring Somalia had introduced AK47s into this mix. Cattle raiders, owing no allegiance to any tribe, used it as a weapon of choice. They roamed the Rift Valley, killing wantonly on their raids, and raided cattle not as a cultural practice, but for sale. In self- defence the Samburu men, had taken to arming themselves, leading to dangerous times where minor conflicts could spiral out of control.

While the jury is still out on whether human aggression is nature or nurture, here is an interesting fact. About fifty kilometres northwest of Johannesburg is Maropeng, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Maropeng (a Setswana word for ‘returning to the place of origin’) is where the 2.3 million year old skull of the Australopithecus Africanus was found. Among theories of human evolution, the Australopithecus is considered to be the humanoid link between ape and man.

The discovery of the Australopithecus in 1924 upset reigning theories of human evolution. It was offered as proof that the direct ancestors of humans were not herbivorous primates but the predatory Australopithecus, an aggressive, running, weapon using hunter of the African savannah. Subsequent research by evolutionary biologists showed that the aggressive drive wasn’t a mere response to stimulus, but a territorial instinct like the drive for food or sex.

It seems to me that Samburu were on to something. They had accepted the inheritance of nature, and used culture to nurture it in service of the community. Though a long way off from rural Kenya, I was witnessing a similar sublimation of aggression at the budokans.  Aggression was expressed in its most elemental form, at the level of the body, and then moulded into the high art of budo.  The Judo club was a sacred space in modern times where men embraced the raw aggression, which had seen them through the primeval savannah and kneaded it into a mature masculinity. 

Ritualized aggression at the level of the body had become a way of honest expression of self and dialogue with others. The men at the budokan were no different from the Samburu. They had taken the primal aggression of the Australopithecus and made it noble.  The dross of ruthlessness had been smelted into the gold of camaraderie.

In the increasingly violent world we live in, the need of the hour is an honest dialogue on how we raise boys and the rites of passage that can sublimate the aggression of young men into a mature masculinity. The natural fierceness of many men seems to be infected with an anaemic desperation symptomatic of the soul-destroying work in the new economy. We are witnessing a rise in overgrown boys who listlessly roam the Internet and shopping malls unsure of what they are seeking but yearning to feel alive. At times their bottled up aggression makes them susceptible to extremist ideologies resulting in appalling consequences for their families and communities.

We will probably never be rid of our aggression. Instead in the tradition of that old master of sublime aggression, Jigaro Kano, the founder of Judo, we must cultivate rites of passage that transform this unrefined energy into something majestic. We men need to transcend insecure machismo and wear our masculinity with the dignity of a warm cloak that nurtures.