Isabelle Aubert from UCSD dojo asked me a series of questions dealing with women martial artists. The importance of these questions is so great that I will use it for the next few essays.
Much of what Isabelle stated to me is so valuable for every Aoinagi martial artist to read that I will just use her words quoted exactly. So, here we go on a journey that might prove to be quite exhilarating and informative.
1. Isabelle started, “At the women gassuku, Ceci, Barb and you gave us great information on the history of women in martial arts. I would be interested to learn more about the place of women in martial arts today.”
In my opinion Sensei Helen Nakano stands at the uppermost echelon of martial artists alive today. Her art is Naginata and she is the beaming light of excellence. Poise, grace, determination, focus, centralization, directness, bravery, commitment, power to love, expressiveness, compassion are but a few of the lessons where she sets the example for her students. I trained with her for four wonderful years and learned much of the compassion that some of you state I exhibit. I learned it from her, proudly.
She, I believe, is but the tip of the iceberg. Hidden in the secret arts of the orient are probably many women with similar martial qualities. I have met some but because of the very private nature of training in high-quality eclectic martial arts systems I have not had the opportunity to meet many. That does not mean that they do not exist. The women are there. Don’t be fooled into thinking they aren’t. Here are but a few other examples of fantastic women martial artists who I have been privileged to train with during the last 25 years.
Sensei (May) Kim, eclectic with emphasis on naginata (Sacramento) Sensei Bodenstein, kendo and iaido (Santa Monica) Sensei (Judy) Paglioso, karate and kobudo (Riverside) Sensei Yamaguchi, iaido and naginata (Los Angeles) Sifu (Sifu = Sensei) Ho ( Nepal) Sifu Soncha (spelling?), Penji-silat and kung fu (Chiang Mai, Thailand)
2. Isabelle continues, “I really appreciated your response to Shelly “Bully, Bully” and I do agree that a non-contact dojo will help women participation (and enjoyment). However, I was quite stunned at the Las Vegas tournament when I tried to find a women judge among the zillion of judges there. Finally, in the middle of the afternoon, I saw one women judge. Hourra! Victory! But still, only one?!”
Well, it saddens me to hear these words of truth about the Las Vegas tournament. And, it saddens me more to have to admit that it is more universal than just the Las Vegas tournament. Isabelle’s observation is correct. Women do not get equal representation as judges in most karate tournaments, and when they do get any judging assignments it is usually to judge other women or children. I cringe to tell you this truth, but truth will out. There is un-equal representation if not un-equal appreciation for women at most tournaments.
Aoinagi karate holds a tournament which, I hope, is and always will be the exception. At our tournament women judges are used and appreciated. I can think of no time at which women judges were not actively sought. Any dan-ranked woman (or man) who wants to judge only needs to understand the Aoinagi Scoring Method and she will be used. And if there are all women judges judging all men competition, so be it. I find their judging excellent.
3. Now, more from Isabelle in her own words: “Karate is still a male dominated art. Do you think that traditional (and from older generation) martial artists are not encouraging (or accepting) the integration of women in their secret world? Or is it possible that the affinity for karate is not as strong for women than for men (personally, I don’t think so!).”
ANY (Japanese style) sensei who does not accept women in martial arts is not traditional. The tradition of women in martial arts is unequivocal. Those who in 1997 do not accept the role of women in martial arts are only semi-traditional. They accept the tradition of the martial art’s form without knowing martial arts history. In the history of Japanese martial arts there may have been totally male dojo, but there were also integrated and totally female dojo.
The difficulty is not just pseudo-tradition. The difficulty is current attitude. Most Americans view karate as a sport. Sports are usually segregated. (How many female football, basketball, baseball, hockey players have been integrated into professional sports other than “women’s” teams? Don’t women have to play in the special “girl’s (condescension noted)” teams even if they are more proficient than the professional men? Why? It is certainly a mock tradition but it is also current attitude.)
Karate is treated as a sport in America and the current administrative attitude in America is that men are “better” than women in sports, hence little attention is directed at women in professional sports and in karate.
Again, I hope that Aoinagi Karate is an exception. At Aoinagi Karate tournaments women do not have a separate division. They compete against the men at the same time (and often win). The best of our men competitors (George Rutherford [Seiunchin], Vince Rodriquez [Seiunchin], Phil Swiderski [Chinto] and others) know some of the best competitors they will have to face in competition: Barbara Sedgwick (Annanko), Ceci Cheung (Chintoshi), Jane Goodwin (Annanko), Sandy Pappas (Chintoshi), Julie Evans (Jiin) and many others. There is not one reasonable man arrogant enough to stand up and say that he could consistently defeat these women in a fair judging contest. The fact that in the last few years the men have won our tournament is only because some of the above women have chosen not to compete. If they were to compete the men would eventually if not soon fall.
As far as women being “integrated into their secret world,” I cannot speak for the rest of martial arts; I can only speak for Aoinagi. At Aoinagi women are integrated when and if they choose and to the depth which they choose. The requirements are the same for both men and women: Desire and some hard work.
Isabelle’s statement, “or is it possible that the affinity for karate is not as strong for women than for men (personally, I don’t think so!),” can only be evaluated on an individual basis. Some men “flee the coop” in the first month of training from a lack of or loss of interest or affinity. Other men stay a long time (Neville Billimoria, 21 years; Paul Billimoria, 20 years). Some women “flee the coop” in the first month of training from a lack of or loss of interest or affinity. Other women stay a long time (Barbara Sedgwick, 16 years; Ceci Cheung, 16 years). The affinity for karate, as the desire for karate, as for the commitment to karate, as the willingness to sustain training in karate must be taken on an individual basis and not viewed in generalizations. Some men are extremely dedicated and will endure rigorous training for long duration; Some women are extremely dedicated and will endure rigorous training for long duration.
4. Continuing on Isabelle’s line of thinking: “On a personal note, I quite enjoy training with men and I feel like I can learn a lot from them (different body type, mindset, personality, etc). However, I would be curious to know if the opposite is true. Most men seem to give women in the dojo an equivalent challenge than they would give to men but sometimes women are still being taken more gently than they should. I find that not respectful for both their own and their partner training (it is like that light hand shake that some men will give to women, holding only the tip of their fingers…I really have a hard time with that! We don’t have contagious diseases and we are not going to break in pieces if they give us a sincere hand shake!). Or we will hear the “Hey, not bad for a women!” classic. I’m sure the situation has got a lot better with the years but, like in many fields (I notice a lot of that in the research field I’m in), there is room for improvement. Maybe most men don’t even think of these issues…”
Well said. Men may not even think of these issues. (Men readers–take a moment to reread what Isabelle has said here and think on her issues.)
5. Isabelle then drops the bomb: “How do you see the future of women in martial arts?”
The forces in place in society are difficult to interpret. I believe that karate is moving more towards its inevitable demise as an art unless a few more students will take the opportunity to avail themselves of the richness of the menkyo processes including the teaching of the same to future generations. Karate is fast becoming a sport. With current trends in American views towards sports, men will continue to dominate the field of sports. Women don’t seem to get recognition, equal time, equal support, equal sponsorship, equal media coverage in most sports. Why would they get equality in the sport of karate? Until such attitude changes women in the sport of karate will continue to be second rate. And women will have a right to indignation. The future of women in karate may well be relegated to such position unless sports attitudes change or unless women assume a greater position in the art of karate and help to keep it alive as an art rather than a sport.
Aoinagi Karate is not a sport. It is an art.
In art women shine.
If you ask me what the position of women in Aoinagi Karate will be I can only answer that, I hope, women will avail themselves of the richness of the art and, biting the bullet, come forward to assume greater training, greater responsibility and greater recognition. This I hope not just for the individual, nor just for women in general, but for the good of the art of karate as well.
My hope for women in the martial arts is that they will find value in martial arts which is great enough for them to continue for a life-time of involvement. My hope for women in the martial arts is also that they will become so engrossed with the art that they will actively seek to learn martial arts and apply the principles so learned in their daily lives. I hope that they will become leaders in their communities and in Aoinagi Karate.
Ceci Cheung is such a woman. She amazes me. She is highly experienced, graceful, dedicated and married, yes married, and still finds time to take her training seriously to the extreme. Ceci is an example that women can and are right there besides the best of the men in Aoinagi Karate. Ceci is not a man, nor is she in the slightest masculine; Ceci is totally feminine and brings that femininity to her martial art in such a way that I and many others can only respect, love and admire. In my way of thinking Ceci is a role model, not just for the women but for the men as well. She has certainly taught me a lot over the years, why not you?