That a director of my city's opera company would call me seemed a little odd. There are probably some monkeys who know more about opera than I do. But the director was inviting me to lunch, so of course I went.
I said most Japanese and Japanese-Americans probably view the opera as so ridiculously fictional that no one could take it as a serious historical commentary. In fact, I'd already heard from some traditional Japanese dance groups whose members hoped to audition for nonspeaking roles in the opera. I pointed out, however, that the promotional illustrations the company had come up with for the opera were "wrong." The director was confused. One illustration showed a woman in a kimono, holding her infant. She was clearly meant to depict Madame Butterfly.
"You have her hair in a long and straight ponytail," I said. "That style had gone out of fashion in Japan hundreds of years before the period of the opera."
"But she looks Japanese," the director said.
"Think about an illustration for Downton Abbey," I said, referring to the popular drama about life in early 20th-century England, "where the character depicted was dressed like Henry VIII. Imagine someone pointing out the historical inaccuracy and the illustrator replying, 'But the guy looks British.'"
I was reminded of this recently when I saw some people who claimed to follow a classical school of Japanese swordsmanship. Several of them were wearing bright pastel-red hakama skirts that had no stiff straps at the rear. These were colorful, to be sure. However, they are also the kind and color of kimono worn by miko, young women who serve as attendants at Shinto shrines.
My guess is that these hakama were offered for sale somewhere. (Buddhist temples in many Japanese cities have monthly flea markets where all kinds of goods find their way.) The practitioners probably saw a good deal and, lacking a sense of cultural context, decided to buy.
Western practitioners of Japanese martial arts must be cognizant of these cultural contexts, both to avoid looking silly and clueless (these would-be modern samurai furiously swinging their swords in what looks like the equivalent of a schoolgirl's uniform automatically removes them from serious consideration as martial artists) and to gain an accurate sense of what they're doing.
While not directly martial arts–related, perhaps you've seen women in a dojo or at a public event affecting an "Oriental" look by wearing their hair in a bun that's fastened with chopsticks stuck through it. Certainly, it appears ridiculous if you know that what look like chopsticks in formally dressed Japanese women's hair are actually kanzashi, or hairpins — which, by the way, doubled as weapons in close-quarters encounters.
The reader may say, "Hey, this isn't a fashion magazine. No dojo has any responsibility to correctly present Japanese culture as part of its training. Martial artists are not military re-enactors who strive to get every detail of their uniforms and behavior historically accurate.
"I agree. Frankly, I think much of karate training would be better if participants wore sweatpants or some other loose-fitting clothing. The culture of traditional Japan, however, is obviously important in many dojo, so if it's going to be integrated into training, why not do it as faithfully and correctly as possible?
The way to maintain a culturally accurate atmosphere in the dojo as it relates to Japan is not best approached by watching movies or relying on the advice of self-styled experts. Often, karateka who have spent limited time in Japan see traditions but don't really understand them in context. Which is why a strange hybrid version crops up in some American martial arts schools.
Shinto tori gates find their way onto the front walls. Statues of the Buddha sit in corners. Images of dragons and tigers are everywhere. It's all supposed to look like something out of the exotic East. For the most part, however, it looks like there was a big sale at an import shop.
Sometimes well-meaning practitioners will ask Japanese people in their communities about the right way of doing things. You only need to visit your local sushi restaurant and see the katana displayed upside down and backward to know that this isn't always a solution.
Unfortunately, there's no easy way to acquire the knowledge necessary to do things the right way in a traditional dojo. Even if one has a teacher who knows these things, it's a slow process. Be willing to learn. Be willing to be embarrassed when your mistakes are pointed out. Always be ready to learn more.
And above all, don't wear a pastel hakama.
Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit blackbeltmag.com and type his name into the search box.