Kantei Ryu's Arai sensei talking about brushes while writing "Kanjincho" (勧進帳) the title of a famous Kabuki play.
It’s interesting how even though you have heard something literally a hundred thousand times in a particular context, you only get to fully realize it through a very different one. I have seen it happening to me, I have seen it happening to most people I know and I have read it happens to everybody; I still don’t know why it happens but it does and I believe that if you are fast enough to realize it is happening, it can really help create a more holistic understanding of everything.
Almost all of my budo teachers have at some point or other praised the value of silence in teaching. And while most of them were just aping the “Japanese paradigm” (I say “aping” because what they were actually doing was projecting their own preconception about what the “Japanese paradigm” is), some of them (notably, my present teacher) really mean it and they have pretty sound arguments to support their theory.
The main argument favoring silent teaching, or more accurately, taciturn teaching is that it forces the student to focus more on what the teacher does; since what we do in budo is basically a physical thing and since we learn with the assumption that the way the teacher does it is the best way it can be done (which is the assumption if we are talking about something taught in a Japanese context) is it is far better to watch carefully the teacher’s moves and technique and try to imitate it than have it explained to you.
It’s not about words being tricky –which they are. It’s mostly about the difference between knowledge that has passed from the ears to the logical part of our brain and from there to the body and knowledge that has been acquired from a very thorough observation directly to the body; the second kind of knowledge is more direct (you bypass the middle man, i.e. the logical brain) and you gain something far more valuable in the process: a very high level of sensibility to what the other party is doing. And anyone who has trained in the martial arts for more than an hour knows how important this is.
So my teachers always said this. But did I listen? Apparently not, judging from the fact that whenever I came to teach (usually in a sempai-kohai situation or, for a couple of years, as a real teacher) I did it as verbally as humanly possible. Maybe it is because I’m too much of a verbal person anyway, maybe it is because I have grown up in a cultural context that considers the over-analysis of everything as the only way to understand the world or maybe it is because I was not really convinced that this way of teaching can really yield results. At any rate, not only did I over-teach but I generally appreciate teachers that they do.
One of the things I discovered in Japan and immediately fell in love with was what is usually called “Edo bunka” (江戸文化) or “Edo culture”; this is the culture of the townspeople of Edo, the old Tokyo and which has almost nothing to do with budo. The merchants and craftsmen which were the heart and soul of Edo for the period 1603-1868 created a colorful, multi-faceted and highly appealing (to me, at least) world which still survives to this day: from the ukiyo-e woodblock prints to Kabuki theater and from the manga comics to firework displays, there are literally hundreds of things that were born or developed in Edo and very much define today’s Japan both in terms of aesthetics and in terms of everyday life.
An aspect of this culture that I decided I wanted to learn was a style of “calligraphy” called Kantei Ryu (勘亭流). The reason I’m putting “calligraphy” in quotation marks is that Kantei Ryu (and its superset, “Edomoji”/江戸文字or “Edo writing”/”Edo letters”) is not an art like shodo (書道) but more of a lettering style used for the signboards and programs of the Kabuki theater. Whereas in shodo, an inscription is usually thought of as an one-of-a-kind masterpiece fit to be hanged in a tokonoma alcove and appreciated as a painting, a Kantei Ryu inscription is, well, an ad which will get thrown away as soon as the particular play is over. And like anything functioning in such a context, it must be repeated as is which means that if you decide you want to learn it, you are in for endless hours of writing and re-writing the same characters to get the details exactly right (which, BTW, also happens in shodo but for different reasons).
The title of my favourite Kabuki play "Sukeroku Yukari no Edozakura" in Kantei Ryu (left) and in normal block print (right). The Kantei Ryu writing was done by Arai sensei's teacher.
So I found one of the two teachers teaching this style (actually, it was Atsuko who found him for me) and I started attending his classes; besides having some personal students whom he teaches at his workshop, Arai sensei (that’s his Kantei Ryu name) also teaches amateurs like me in a couple of municipal and private cultural centers around Tokyo for a very low fee. And because students are amateurs and the fee is low, the lessons are once every two weeks; in other words, you only get two chances per month to have an actual lesson and have your teacher correct your, inevitable, mistakes and that for the most part you get to work alone.
Although this would be enough to make anyone hyper-vigilant about what the teacher does during class, I have to face a much worse situation: Arai sensei is not an academic but an artisan, a craftsman like the ones that are still found all around Japan, and especially Eastern Tokyo; this means that (a) he doesn’t speak any English, and (b) he mostly teaches by example. Yes, sometimes he talks during class but this is mostly to discuss some aesthetic concept with some of the more advanced students while correcting their work, to explain some historical connection between Kantei Ryu and this or that Edo period theater, actors’ guild or play or to make good-hearted fun at some student’s mistakes.
All this is fine and wonderful, but there is a little problem: my Japanese is (still) very bad. Yes, it is getting better every day, but it’s still a few hundred miles away from being adequate enough to discuss the aesthetics of Renaissance Japan as compared to the mass media influenced aesthetics of the 21st century. And even if we bypass the high talk, sometimes even his corrections elude me, probably because his speech is in the old Shitamachi dialect, the dialect people in his line of business and with his old-school Tokyo background talk. So the situation is: I get two chances a month to see from up close someone doing something I really want to learn and my lesson has to be 95% visual and 5% verbal.
There’s only one answer to that: super-extra-ultra-to-the-brink-of-a-life-and-death-situation attention! (Yes, the “life-and-death” thing is an exaggeration –but not a big one). The only way I can ensure that I won’t spend the next two weeks repeating the same mistakes over and over and I won’t get the same critical look from Arai sensei when he sees my homework is by watching VERY carefully what he does when he does it and try to decipher as much of his dialect as possible (also a very good exercise in focusing). And note that in this context “what he does” is not a huge cutting movement with a sword or a naginata but some infinitely small change in pressure on the tip of a ten centimeter brush. Oh, and that contrary to what happens in budo, your mistake is recorded on paper so you can always see how right you didn’t get it this time either.
What really bugs me is not the difficulty of learning this way. I am pretty certain that if I don’t quit (or die), I will learn how to write Kantei Ryu (I probably won’t become a pro or Arai sensei’s successor but I can live with that). No, what really bugs me is that after 25 years of training in half a dozen martial arts, and after having being strangled, thrown, hit by all possible combinations of limbs and with various sticks and other objects, after tens of concussions, dislocations, inflammations and bruises and after having discussed almost everything related to the martial arts at least twice, probably the most important budo lesson of all, the lesson of shutting up and really focusing as if your life depends on it, really sunk in when it came from a middle aged graphics artist who makes his living by writing in an obscure script the names of female impersonators. Go figure, huh…