#4 The Idea of the Body in Japanese Culture and its Dismantlement

End of #1,2 and 3 The Idea of the Body in Japanese Culture and its Dismantlement  by Hiroyuki Noguchi  published in 20041.

The Philosophy of Kata

It is the way we view our own bodies – whether consciously or unconsciously – that decides which perceptual experiences we choose to value. In trying to achieve those experiences, we then establish the ways in which we use and move our bodies. In short, each and every motion made by a human being is a reflection of his or her own idea of the body. This is not limited to visible physical movement. For example, while it is true that our breathing is restricted by the structure of our respiratory organs, exactly what we consider a “deep breath” is determined by each individual’s view of the body. Similarly, while the act of eating cannot deviate from the structure of the human digestive system, it is our idea of the body that dictates exactly what feeling we consider “satisfying”, and when we feel we have had enough. And whereas our physical balance is affected by the force of gravity on the structure of our bodies, exactly what bodily sensation we choose to call “stable” depends on each person’s concept of the body.
Therefore, if a group of people possesses a distinct way of moving or using the body, it follows that they must share a common view of the body. The formal way of sitting in Japan, called Seiza, may generate nothing but a sense of restriction to most Westerners. For the Japanese however, sitting in Seiza traditionally brought a sense of peace to the mind. This way of sitting with both knees bent results in a sense of complete immobility. It halts the mind from intending any following motion, and in fact, executing sudden movements from this position is quite difficult. Sitting in Seiza forces one to enter into a state of complete receptivity, and it is in this position that the Japanese wrote, played music, and ate. In times of sadness, of prayer, and even of resolve, Capturecuisine

Seiza was indispensable for the people of Japan. Seiza was a Kata for receiving: a Kata that fulfilled the necessary conditions for one’s entrance into a state of true receptivity.
Seiza is an attempt to negate all awareness of the flesh, for flesh reflects human intention in excess. In trying to cancel out the mind’s volitional activities, the ancients had discovered this method of bringing harmony to the inner body by drawing out the sensation of the bones and seeking a sense of balance between the bent knees, spine, pelvis, hip joints, ankles, and other joints. In pursuing Kata, the Japanese of old placed importance on awareness of the bones over awareness of the flesh. By doing so, they had succeeded in negating the mind, and letting the body – the body, which belonged to Nature and not to the self – emerge “as is”.
However, in order to heighten one’s sense of the bones, the process of sitting in Seiza must follow certain rules. The act of bending the knees on its own does not negate awareness of the flesh. To start, one must stand leaning forward with knees slightly bent. Next, draw one foot backwards, both feet flat on the floor, and begin bending the knee of the leg in back. The front knee merely follows. Once both knees have landed on the ground, the big toes are placed on top of one another. With successful execution of this process, the thighs will end up being completely parallel to the floor. If the thighs slope down towards the knees, it indicates that the person has not truly entered into a bone-centered state. In this manner, Kata is not just about certain positions taken by the body. Rather, it is the entire process of movement required to achieve the inner perceptual experience of “receiving.”
This method of entering into Kata while seeking balance of the bones can be recognized in almost all fields within Japanese culture. For example, there is the Kata of Kyudo, the Japanese art of archery. In the standing position, the legs are spread wide apart so that the knees are positioned directly below the elbows when both arms are extended and spread to the sides at the height of the shoulders; the feet point maximally outward. kyudo-tir-arc-japonais

This was the usual stance in Kyudo up until the end of the Edo Period, and anybody taking this stance will know exactly how it feels to stand on one’s bones. This stance also makes it very difficult to tense the muscles in the arms. Therefore, the bow cannot be pulled by muscular tension in the arms; the archer must “receive” something into himself in order to pull the bow. Additionally, in Japanese archery, the target is aimed using not just one eye but both eyes. And it is not only the eyes that aim. The archer sees his belly and tries to make its shape into a perfect circle.
Similarly, the Kata for using the hishaku (ladle) in the Japanese tea ceremony, Sado, is quite difficult unless one’s awareness of the bones is heightened. The hishaku is used to scoop steaming water out of the kettle, and is then turned upside down to pour hot water into the tea bowl. But Sado rules state that when the water is poured into the bowl, the upper arm must rotate in synchronicity with the ladle. When the average modern person tries to do this, what follows usually is that the arm only rotates from the elbow and below; the upper arm does not. This is an act that can only be accomplished by achieving keen awareness of the bones through sitting Seiza.
Interestingly enough, a basic skill in Sumo wrestling is to grip one’s opponent by the belt and throw him by rotating the upper arm, just as the tea-maker does with the ladle. This skill, called Kaina gaeshi (lit. turning the upper arm) can only be executed by gripping the opponent’s belt with powerful engagement of the little finger. Only by doing so does awareness of the bones heighten, and without awareness of the bones, Kaina gaeshi cannot be accomplished.
Whatever the field, the numerous Kata in Japanese culture all share a common structural principle, demonstrating the sharing of a common idea of the body by the Japanese. All Kata are constructed without use of the flesh. Therefore concepts of tension and relaxation are irrelevant. A Bushi (warrior) holding a sword, a carpenter using a hammer, a dressmaker doing needlework – in each case, the object is never constrained by the holder’s hand. At any given moment, the sword can be slid out from the Bushi’s hand. The same applies to the hammer and needle. All are simply placed inside the Kata of the hand; they are not held by grip. Regardless of how light the tension, an object held by use of tension cannot slide out of the hand unless that tension is released. Meanwhile, objects placed inside the Kata of a hand, achieved through awareness of the bones, can easily slide out of the hand even if the shape of the hand is unchanged. In this way, the hand that does not constrain the object it holds is also unconstrained by that object.

As an inner perceptual experience, heightening awareness of the bones creates the sensation of entering into the space between the flesh. To use another phrase, it is the entrance into the Ma or crack between tension and release of the muscles. While awareness centered on the bones is the normal state of awareness in Kata, if the intensity of concentration is to be further heightened, then the practitioner must enter into the various Ma or borders within the body. These are, for example, the perceptual borders between neighboring parts of the body, such as hip and buttocks, or arm and torso; or the borders between actual perceptual experiences, such as extension and compression, or expansion and contraction. Even deeper awareness involves the focusing of one’s awareness on a state in which one is neither self nor other, where one is neither the initiator nor the reactor. Paradoxically, this state is, at the same time, a state in which one seems to be both self and other, initiator and reactor.
The pursuit for Kata, seen in every aspect of Japanese culture, stems from the fact that the ancients of Japan had disco-vered value in states of “receptivity”, where one’s volition was canceled out. Once entrance into a “receptive” state is esta-blished through Kata, the ability to respond to one’s own will becomes remarkably poor. Any movement following one’s entrance into this state becomes entirely dependent, not on will or volition, but on what one “invites” or “receives” into oneself. For example, one can make movement occur through the receiving of Strength into oneself. Based on the Western view of the body, strength is produced by the tensing of muscles, which is in turn initiated by one’s volition. On the other hand, the Japanese believed that Strength was something to be “received” into oneself, something that arrived from a place unknown and therefore was entirely unrelated to any tension produced by one’s own volition. Strength was something that had to be perceived directly, without relation to muscular contraction. The Japanese use the expression Chikara ga waku (strength rises forth) to describe this direct perceiving of Strength, and the volition-negating act of entering Kata is what induces the rising forth of Strength from the unknown.
There are an endless number of tales, in which masters from various fields of art accomplish miraculous acts, which would be impossible through the use of strength or force in its normal sense. It is a matter of fact in the world of Budo that old men of tiny build can throw huge opponents with amazing ease. And while the Western art of ballet is unmistakably an elegant and beautiful dance form, it is unlikely that a ballet dancer would be performing after the age of forty. Traditional Japanese dancers, on the other hand, do not fade in strength or beauty even at the age of ninety. This is only because the dancer enters into a state of receptivity, in which Strength, rising forth apart from the dancer’s volition, is “invited” in order to induce movement.
What the Japanese artist in Kata, awaiting the arrival of Strength, seeks is the experience of Body moving spontaneously, without any involvement of the artist’s volition. The needle worker says that the “needle moves”. They do not say, “I move the needle”. The calligrapher says that the “brush runs”, while the carpenter claims that the “plane advances”. These expressions, in which the person is never the subject, describe work done through a kind of Strength that is not of volition or tension, and furthermore, conveys that the work is done spontaneously and in an improvisational manner through the arrival of Strength into oneself.
This feeling of “receiving” or “inviting in” is the basis of the Japanese’ sense of improvisation. Improvisation, for the Japanese, was not based on free will, in contrast to the concept of improvisation in modem arts such as free-style music. It meant the spontaneous occurrence of inevitable actions that emerge in the here and now. For this reason, improvisational acts are called “natural”, when the Japanese word for “natural” or “Nature”, directly translated, is “happens by itself”. Chuang-Tzu wrote of a master cook cutting up an ox for the king of Wei. When the king asks him how his blade could stay as good as new although he cut up oxen everyday, the cook replies, “When sense and understanding cease, the spirit moves freely.” [Kanatani, (1971, p.93)]. The cook explains that when cutting meat, if he just focuses without trying to plan or guess the right course for his blade, the crevices within the meat appear naturally, and the blade begins to move by itself [Kanatani, (1971)]. This is the sort of experience shared by Japanese artists and craftsmen  pursuing mastery of their Waza or art.
Thus, the artist’s capability was demonstrated primarily, by his “receptive” ability, or in other words, by the perfection of Kata. And secondarily, by having the speed necessary to respond to the arriving sense of Strength.
Here, speed does not mean quickness in responding, but rather that the artist’s action in response to the arriving Strength is “just right”. Matching Strength could only be accomplished by acquiring the “right” sense of Ki (timing). Do (degree), and Ma (interlude/ space between).
The mastery of Ki, or timing, involves being able to capture the beginning emergence of Strength. The word Sottaku no Ki describes the act of the mother bird pecking her egg from the outside, at the exact moment in which the hatching chick tries to pierce the egg from within. This act, which is “matching” at its best, is exactly the sense of speed sought by the Japanese. They were convinced that the observing of external facts was never enough if one was to grasp “right” timing in such a manner. Only by seeing within themselves and seizing the beginning of Strength’s arrival was it possible. For according to the sensitivities of the Japanese, the mother bird is not objectively observing the egg, she is merely acquiescing to certain demands that emerged within her body. The Japanese believed in a sense of correspondence – an exchange of the abstract – that did not involve transmission and receiving of physical information such as seen in the process of stimulation and response. Furthermore, this correspondence was believed to occur only when one entered into the noble state of “recepti-vity” called Kata.
Thus, to respond was to “correspond”. The Japanese love for Zen stems from the winning sense of speed found in Zen dialogues. It would not be an overstatement to say that the arts of Renka and Haiku poetry were able to take root in the culture for the same reason. We can also say, that it was this sense of “speed”, in the broadest sense of the word, which attracted the Japanese mind to the concept of Ichigo Ichie (one chance, one encounter). Such was the sense of speed pursued in traditional Japanese arts.
Mastering Do, or degree, means that after capturing “right” timing, one is able to execute a movement to the degree that is exactly appropriate to the emerging sense of Strength. This has to be the minimum required movement, unwavering, with no slack. The body’s Shin, or core, must move in order to accomplish this. A movement of “right” degree, no matter how minuscule, amplifies the arriving sense of Strength so that it reverberates throughout one’s entire body. And this is what enables the “invited” Strength to retain its force over the course of a certain activity. Such movement does not exhaust Strength. On the contrary. Strength is actually magnified through the acquiring of “right” degree, and this is one of the main characteristics of the concept of movement in traditional Japanese culture.
The mastery of Ma implies impeccable use of the interludes between actions. This is based on the belief that the pausing of one’s action, without breaking Kata, could make way for the arrival of a new sense of Strength from within the resonating lull. It is within this lull that one can experience the activities of the invisible or intangible. Ma is the underlying rhythm that brings all skills of art to life. The blank space within ink pain-tings, the beauty of naturally occurring sounds in the tea ceremony, the tokonoma, which represents the use of “no-use” – the overflowing rhythm of Life in Japanese culture is hidden within the Ma of activity.
This philosophy of Kata was a system of techniques for using the body that comprehensively involved the Japanese view of the body, their perceptual inclinations, and the distinct ways in which they used their bodies. This system, established most likely during the Kamakura and Muromachi Periods, became the foundation for Japanese culture. It cultivated the grounds for the blooming of Waza or skills in all fields, and was the driving force for the assimilation of Chinese civilization into the land of Japan. This system of bodily skills, which existed beneath and throughout all aspects of Japan’s culture, differed entirely from the Western idea of the body that was disseminated by the government and blindly accepted by the general population after the Meiji Restoration. Over the course of one hundred and forty years since the Restoration, the Japanese people had, in this manner, and by their own hands, paved way for the disintegration of the structural core of their own culture.

1Journal of Sport and Health Science, Vol. 2, 8-24, 2004. http : //wwwsoc.nii ac jp/jspe3/index.htm.

Sources des images

  • Stillfried & Andersen. Views and costumes of Japan d’après des négatifs de Raimund von Stillfried, Felice Beato et autres photographes. Vers 1877-1878.
  • Jordan Lloyd  Japanese Archers environs de 1860
  • auteur inconnu  cérémonie du thé chanoyu


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