“Gaijin Complex,” by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #99 (1994)

The other day I received an anonymous letter that was critical of the grading practices of certain Japanese shihan teaching abroad. The writer lamented that the shihan in question had chosen favorites among their foreign students for rapid promotion while overlooking other more deserving senior students. The overlooked foreign teachers “need the recognition of rank” states the writer, because their competitors in other martial arts have higher ranks that they use “to sell their art to prospective students.”

First of all, I would advise people who agree with this viewpoint not to worry so much about high dan rankings as a prerequisite for succeeding as a martial arts instructor. Prospective students will be much more impressed by skilled and articulate instructors operating clean, professional facilities than by those who merely claim high ranks to attract students or who bill themselves as “Oriental experts.”

But my main purpose here is really to bring up the subject of a mentality prevalent abroad concerning Oriental martial arts instructors. For want of a better term, I will call it a “gaijin”–the Japanese term for foreigner–complex. I think this is clearly a factor in the mind of the letter-writer, who though critical of the Japanese teachers, still seeks their recognition. This mindset clings to the idea that Japanese, and Orientals in general, possess some sort of innate affinity for martial arts which enables them to achieve superior skill levels compared to Westerners. Naturally coupled with this way of thinking is the assumption that Oriental teachers have a deep understanding of the esoteric aspects of their arts to which foreigners may only aspire with great difficulty.

In the case of aikido, it was of course Japanese instructors who were the major forces in the popularization of the art in the West starting in the 1950s through the 70s. It goes without saying that, in addition to their superior technical abilities, the early Japanese shihan were the most qualified to articulate the spiritual side of the art since they had trained directly under the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba. Those of us practicing back in the 1960s, I think, automatically assumed that the few Japanese we encountered–even when they held the same rank as we did–were more highly skilled…

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  1. Jan Robberts says:

    Hi Stanley,

    Great article! I’m sometimes wondering who the high grade is for… Is it for the recognition within the art, or does the person want a higher grade to attract and impress others? It doesn’t really matter, what does is the feeling inside. How do you feel? Do you feel like a beginner, a new Dan grade, or a Dan grade of high rank? Does your belt, or grading certificate match this? If not, is this really important?

    As long as we can learn, practice and help others to improve both in-and out of the Dojo and as long as we’re not needing to show how good we are but rather seeing how well our students are progressing and enjoying the process, THAT’s important. (Ego has little or no place in society and certainly none in our Dojos)

    Let’s just admire all those who are practicing at any level assist where we can, and be humble enough to acknowledge our own need for continuous improvement.


  2. O Sensei is reputed to have been most interested in theologic esoterica, so interested that his Japanese students had a hard time following him. Otherwise, some of the Japanese instructors I’ve met spend time on philosophy, to the extreme discomfort of their seated gaijin students, but most just train.

    Now, imo, much of aikido training favors short folks. Go ahead and do koshinage on a 5′ partner if you’re over 6′. Same with shihonage. To the extent that Japanese are shorter on average than Americans or Europeans, that’s an advantage. But size has advantages of its own. Kondo Sensei of Daito Ryu is large compared to his ukes in the video. One of the surprising facts of O Sensei’s skill was that he was able to neutralize larger people’s size advantage. So, does size favor smaller people? imo, again, only very skillful smaller people.

    Eventually, the writer’s point has to do with commercial success. I’ve never been convinced that is a particularly valid objective of budo.

  3. Jens Pohlmann says:

    Close to all Japanese martial arts – modern, traditional or classical are sociocultural networks of hierarchy with one or a few people on top of a pyramid. It is very natural and very human for a person to feel neglected, unappreciated or even violated if their status (rank) in the hierachy is not in line with their level of skill and/or seniority compared to others in the same hierachy – what else are titles and ranks for if not to label the position of an individual in a hierachy of skill and/or seniority?

    The issue of ranks and titles becomes even more imminent if a person is head of a dojo. Whether the person/people on top of the pyramid are Japanese shihan or Gaijin shihan really does not make any difference in these matters.

  4. What a great and insightful article. Even in the 70′s, Mr. Sugano, when students would asked him to sponsor them so they could get a visa to live in Japan, “to train better aikido” (thereby in my view insulting his superlative and dedicated standard of instruction) would respond cooly, “What for? The standard is higher here,” thereby in riposte praising our dedication to the art.

    Of course we were incredulous, all being smitten with the glamour of distant old Japan that we mostly got from the movies and books. When they asked him why, he simply replied, “Japanese are busy trying to become westerners and more interested in Armani suits and the stock market. They’ve lost interest in the old ways. Whereas you guys are all trying to become samurai and striving to that goal very well…”

    And so the natural outcome appears to be bearing fruit.

    Good reading.


  5. On the money Nev…..and still somewhat true today….because of Hollywood BS on this….UFC/MMA have shown NOT to be True at all.

  6. Wagner Bull says:

    Aikido is a japanese thing and it is something that is taught through japanese culture, so foreigners will never learn it exactly as the japaneses can.

    Of course that Aikido is a Way to teach a universal essence, the “DO”.

    This “DO” can be learned by foreigners (non japanese) but not just practicing the japanese methods, it is necessary intuition too otherwise it will be impossible.

    So, westerners can learn the goal of Aikido….but not Aikido.

    We, westerners, we can say that we practice Aikido like the japanese but this is not true. We practice something similar .

    What is better?

    It depends on the comprehension of the practicioner about the essence of Aikido that is universal.

    In Japan they say that are many ways to reach the top of Mount Fuji.

    In order to reach the essence of Aikido there is the Aikido taught in Japan , or the Japanese Aikido, and the Aikido taught in foreign countries or foreign Aikido.

    An example?
    Tell to a western begginer : ….”Aikido involves the training of “Kokoro”.

    Does one think he will understand at once what this is about when “kokoro” is translated as : “heart”???

    Of course not….but the japanese yes.. because he hears this word since he was a baby so he knows what “kokoro” is. This is the same with most AIkido cultural environement.

    But if you say to the westerner: .. “Aikido is for .training your mind, your emotions, your character, your spirit….your soul” …maybe he will get quite close…but just quite close.
    Because the word “kokoro” does not exists in foreign languages only with many years of training he will understand but due to his own training and perception.

    The same with “Ki”, “kokyu”, “musubi”, “shugyo”, “harai” “missogi”, Budo, and even AIKI, and hundreds of other that are vital for correct communication in Aikido.

    Another example even more basic, people translates AI as “harmony”….but if one starts practicing AIkido looking for Harmony it is very different of someone that studied the Ai kanji and knows exactelly what “ai “means.

    The secret of Aiki in techniques relies exactly in how this kanji (japanese ideogram) is composed.
    How many western aikidoists knows the real meaning of the kanji “AI” ???
    Very few..and this is just one word!!!
    The barrier is cultural…there is not way to overpass it completely. When we are born in one place and stay there until 10 years old….it is impossible to change 100 per cent. Stanley Pranin speaks a lot of languagges, but his american accent is there always no matter in what language he is expressing himself, the same with almost everybody.
    Of course there are rare expections…but execptions does not count in the subject in analysis.

    Of course, an American can understand better the essence of Aikido than a japanese..but not Aikido.

    Aikido is a japanese thing….only japanese can understand it, of course if they train hard.

    Aikido Journal, books, semminars, etc…are very good to diminish the difficulty, but will never be sufficient to go over the cultural barrier.

    The good side of the story is that even good japanese instructors can not teach westerners the essence of Aikido as well as we westerner teachers can do exactly due to the same culturar barrier. So, God is fair fortunately… those that dedicate their lives trying to learn the essence of Aikido studiying Aikido under the japanese format being “gaijins”.

    Wagner Bull

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