Interview with Grigoris A. Miliaresis, Part I

Grigoris A. Miliaresis started training in the Japanese martial arts in 1986. He holds dan grades in judo, aikido and iaido and has also trained in Shotokan karate, kendo and modern naginata. Since 2007 he has been studying the classical naginata school Toda-ha Buko Ryu under licensed instructors Ellis Amdur (in Athens) and Kent Sorensen (in Tokyo). Besides training, he has written extensively about the martial arts in the Greek magazine “Monopati gia tis Polemikes Technes”, was the managing editor to the Greek edition of “Journal of Asian Martial Arts”, has translated more than 25 books on the subject (among them classics such as Miyamoto Musashi’s “Book of Five Rings”, Yagyu Munenori’s “Life-Giving Sword”, Takuan Shoho’s “The Unfettered Mind” and Donn F. Draeger trilogy “Martial Arts and Ways of Japan”) and runs a related blog (Budobabble []) available in Greek and Japanese.
He currently lives in Japan where he works as a journalist (and occasional photojournalist) writing about martial arts (“Panellinios Odigos Polemikon Technon” in Greek language [] “Hiden” Magazine []), the Internet (“Deasy” in Greek Language []) and Japanese culture (Greecejapan), “metamatic:taf”. He also blogs on various things Japanese (Nihon Arekore in Greek, English and Japanese languages and Zen Buddhism (Punkzen in Greek laguage []). Links for all the above and more can be found in his About Me page [].

So, to get things started: What we should know about modern Japan and we don’t?

GAM: Well for starters, it would be good to know where Japan actually is –a lot of people still think it is in China! (laughs) Seriously now, I do believe that there are a lot of misconceptions about Japan and this became painfully obvious in the days following the 3.11 earthquake disaster: people (and supposedly “learned” people at that) exposed their ignorance on all things Japanese for all world to see; I’m talking here about TV channels that have Tokyo offices for decades and analysts been quoted left and right and who are supposed to understand the way the Japanese think if their views are meant to worth anything. Still, I believe that the spirit of orientalism, a trend in Western societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries (and revived with the trippy “spiritualism” of the 60s) is still alive and strong. To be fair, though, Japan itself is partly responsible for this: they cultivate an image of their land that is far from true –or, to be more accurate, it is only part of what Japan today really is.
Here’s an easy example for you: one of the iconic images of Japan is the geisha, right? Now, as you can easily imagine there are not many geisha around (for various reasons –the basic being that it is a very demanding and very graceless job, precisely because these women need to be the epitome of grace in the presence of men who are, well, the exact opposite) but the Japanese still push them in the frontline of all tourism promoting material thus reinforcing the myth (and with it, the stereotype). So when Westerners, already filled to the brim with preconceptions, come to Japan they expect to see geisha roaming the streets (and by extension all the rest of the stuff that the Japanese promote as being “the essence of Japan” or “the soul of Japan”) and when they don’t they become disappointed and blame the Japanese for “cheating”. And they are right –in a way.
The problem is that seeing things from the Japanese perspective it isn’t cheating at all: they don’t oversell the geisha to attract tourists (OK, they do but not so much). They oversell the geisha –and Kyoto and the tea ceremony and the samurai culture and sumo etc.- because (a) they like to think of themselves as people who are defined by all those and, (b) because being Japanese all these things *are* part of their cultural milieu and, to some extent, they *are* defined by them. The difference is that for them these things come naturally: A few months back, I wrote in my column in Greecejapan that my almost 80 year-old mother-in-law who is a very advanced practitioner of the tea ceremony has a very keen interest in sumo. What I didn’t write was that she also has a very keen interest in professional baseball, that she also loves Disneyland and Korean soap operas and McDonald French fries and, as we discovered recently, she’d also love to own an iPad. For her all these things aren’t mutually exclusive; they are all part of being Japanese.
So to answer in a nutshell, there is one thing we should know about modern Japan: that Japan isn’t what our preconceptions or our fantasies or our myths or our presumptions make it in our mind to be –it is a real country with real people living real lives. And that in the mosaic of these lives some of the things we know (or think we know) about Japan –modern or past can indeed be found.

You mentioned the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster –what is the situation after that huge event and its aftermath?

GAM: You know the 3.11 is a very complicated matter and one that, I believe, will be the basis for monumental changes in the Japanese society; I’m talking here about changes with results that might take decades to materialize but which will transform the face of Japan. I can tell you that not a day passes by without 3.11 being mentioned somewhere in the media, without getting updates about the stricken areas or facts about the power plant, without some event being organized for the relief of the people of Tohoku and the revival of the region. In other words they don’t forget that day and I doubt they ever will because for two generations of people (i.e. the people who didn’t live the war period) it was a wake-up call to how bad things can be in this part of the world.
Even more so, it was a bonding experience –and if the Japanese have one characteristic that sets them apart from any other people is that they are (still) a close-knit society. Before 3.11 they had started losing that but I believe the 3.11 brought it back; you know, because I was in Greece when the earthquake hit, occasionally, while walking on the street or riding the subway I find myself thinking that all the people around me were here that day, probably in the same spot (what with them living a very organized life and such) and wondering how they must have felt –towards themselves, towards each other, towards the land they live in and towards the system which they have created and rely upon and which failed them in some very spectacular and profound ways. 3.11 made them think and question a lot of things and this questioning can only bear some interesting fruit.

Japan has been one of the world’s superpowers: financial, industrial, cultural even. To what extent has the global economic crisis influenced it?

GAM: For me these are too deep waters –I’m an Internetologist and (very, very) amateur Japanologist not an economist! (laughs) The few things I can understand, I would summarize in a sports analogy –which is also funny considering I hate sports (laughs): when you are the world’s 100 m. silver medalist and you drop from silver to bronze, for you it is an enormous fail. But you are still world’s No 3 and this puts you in a different league from regular people like me who will need, say, 20 seconds to run the 100 m. or even regular athletes who will make it in 12: your fail was going 3/100 of a second down, from 9.69 to 9.72. So yes, Japan has felt the global crisis and especially hard at that, since its economy is largely based on exports and, yes, this crisis piled upon its domestic crisis which started in the early 1990s when the Japanese bubble burst, but a crisis in an economy so far advanced is much different from what European countries are experiencing now; I won’t even mention what *Greece* is experiencing since the two economies (and, most important, the mindsets that created them) probably couldn’t be further apart.

How does Japanese society combine its tradition with modern times?

GAM: This is much easier question! You see, the Japanese are a civilized people; with that I mean that their traditions are alive and evolving and as they go along and meet something they like or find worthwhile they take it with them, transform it and make it part of them. Most people don’t know that but many “traditions” of Japan only became traditions after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the abolishment of the feudal system –sitting in seiza as a general practice (i.e. outside the Emperor and the Shogun’s court) is one such example and baseball is another; that in the West we consider seiza “tradition” and baseball “aping the Americans” has more to say about our preconceptions than about the Japanese.
It all comes down to what I was saying before about my mother-in-law: the Japanese don’t fear that by celebrating Halloween (which has been a growing trend for the last ten years) will endanger their old holidays –Christmas has been celebrated for at least 50 years in Japan and no one thinks it will ever outshine the traditional New Year celebrations (the only night of the year that the trains run late is New Year’s Eve so people can go to the temples and the shrines for the “hatsumode”, the first visit of the year). In the same way the kabuki actors don’t feel they betray their centuries’ old traditions when they play in a TV series or a tea master doesn’t feel that drinking coffee every morning is blasphemy against a tea ceremony school they’ve been following for 50 years. When you feel strong in your culture (and this happens only if you have allowed it to permeate your whole life, in subtle and imperceptible ways) you can add anything to it and it won’t threaten it; on the contrary it will make it stronger.
Even more so, the thought that their traditions are in peril doesn’t even cross their mind! I have occasionally tried to start such conversations with people I meet and I’ve usually been left speechless seeing my worries being met with a puzzled look. This also happens to budo, you know: we spend hours on and offline blabbering about “old schools” and “modern schools” and “jutsu arts” and “do arts” and “martial arts” versus “combative sports” and all kinds of such stuff, right? And then we come across a couple of Japanese old school budoka who’ve been doing an obsolete school of kenjutsu all their lives and ask them what they think about, say, “rhythm naginata”, a new concept by the All Japan Naginata Federation (the organization that overlooks modern naginata i.e. kendo with long sticks) which is basically naginata gymnastics without the leotard but with music and all and they say “Of course we like it –it’s pretty girls doing something that takes tons of practice and do it well. What’s not to like?” And they don’t see any contradiction in that; they feel safe in what they are doing. They do know how it differs from rhythm naginata but they also do know and do appreciate the hard work present in that.

Since we are at the subject of Japanese culture, how would you describe the Japanese language?

GAM: By re-quoting St. Francis Xavier, the first Jesuit missionary’s in Japan alleged comment to the Pope: Japanese is a language devised by the Devil to prevent the spread of Christianity in Japan (laughs). The problem is that coming to Japan without knowledge of Japanese means you’re royally screwed: for various reasons having to do with their history and the structure of their society the Japanese don’t speak English (or any other language for that matter) so if you hope to have any interaction with them you need to learn it.

Since you mentioned it, let’s turn to budo: even though many cultures had military castes, how was it that the concept of the “Way of the Warrior” developed only in Japan?

GAM: First of all we must define what we mean with “Way of the Warrior”. If we mean a creed to live by, a series of principles that men-at-arms should adhere to, this isn’t unique to Japan. Variations of that can be found in all cultures; to some extent, they still exist in the oaths taken by military and law enforcement officers all over the world and the code of conduct they are taught during their training. It is the necessary counterweight to their being taught how to kill: if such a training regime doesn’t also contain a parallel moral education what it practically does is create murderers.
If, though, with “Way of the Warrior” we mean the usual “Bushido” discussion, this is another story and one that brings us back to our preconceptions about Japan, the samurai etc. First of all it appears logical: the concept of “do” is indeed prevailing in Japanese culture, especially after the Meiji era (again, one of those “non-tradition traditions”) so the existence of a “bushi-do” makes sense, right? Still, the idea that all samurai lived by such a specific “code” as described by Yamamoto Tsunetomo and, much later, Nitobe Inazo is considered by all serious researchers that I know to be an invention of the two writers themselves in an effort to revive a past they wished they had lived in (maybe here it would be appropriate to remind to Aikicosmos readers that neither Yamamoto nor Nitobe were real “bushi”: Yamamoto was an early Edo era samurai born 60 years into the period, i.e. an administrator and Nitobe a politician and educator, son of a late Edo era retainer and born six years before the Meiji Restoration).
Perhaps it’s not that hard to understand the sentimental reasons that led Yamamoto to write “Hagakure” (a full century after the Warring States period) and the sentimental and political reasons that led Nitobe to write “Bushido” (in English, in the US, in 1900!) at a time when Japan was trying to find its place in a modern world it felt had passed it by while it was enclosed within the walls of Pax Tokugawa. But to consider these half-emotional half-dubious blathers as historical truth is a leap I think we’d better avoid. If we really want to get a glimpse of the warriors’ culture, we’ll be far better served by looking into the scrolls containing the transmissions of various extinct and extant old schools and the house codes of various daimyo (some also like to refer to the literature but I have my doubts since art in those ages tended to be more poetic and less realistic thus allowing for a lot of poetic license). In these historical documents we will see mention of ethics –and as I said before, this is to be expected from people dealing with matters of life and death- but we will also realize the fragmented nature of Japan until the Meiji era with the hundreds of clans, the dozens of daimyo and the warlords fighting each other. To believe that all those people who couldn’t even agree on whether they accepted the emperor himself or not would agree on a fixed set of values is absurd! 

The problem with Bushido is that it reinforces our preconceptions about Japan: we want the Japanese to be following a code such as the Bushido because that fits nicely with how we believe the Japanese to be. But this image comes from bad movies and bad literature –not from how Japan really is and was.

Following what you just said, I understand that there must be quite a few differences between Japanese and Western dojo that a Westerner will come across if they visit Japan. Could you point out some of these differences?

GAM: Indeed there are –but not always the ones most would expect! First of all, we must keep in mind that there are hundreds (probably thousands) of dojo in Japan so all dojo can’t be the same: there is a huge difference between a university kendo or judo dojo where a hundred young bucks train every day to find an outlet for their energy, a kenjutsu dojo where a dozen middle aged men meet once a week, basically to get away from their wives and the archery dojo of Ogasawara school which has been also teaching etiquette and protocol to the emperor’s court since the 11th century. There are some common assumptions though: since you join a dojo you are expected to know how to behave (which, if you are Japanese you already know anyway because this is what it means to be Japanese) and to try your best; this means to train earnestly and seriously since, well, you asked to be part of this dojo. But all those who expect to find a Cobra-Kai, pseudo-military environment will probably be disappointed; I don’t mean that they don’t exist, mind you: university dojo are often like that but in these dojo such behavior serves a different purpose which has nothing to do with budo.
Once again it is a matter of culture: budo is a part of Japanese culture. And I don’t mean all Japanese are samurai and all that nonsense; I mean that pretty much everybody knows what budo is: if you tell someone you are learning jodo they’re not going to look puzzled and ask “Who is Joe Doe and why you’re learning him?” They understand what it is and generally speaking they have a modicum of respect for it; at the same time they think of it as a hobby (and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way because they are extremely serious with their hobbies) so they can’t really understand why someone would see it as something more than a hobby –as is often the case with some of us Westerners. For them it’s ordinary: Oh, you’re doing kendo? I used to do a little kendo back in college but I also used to play baseball at high school –how about those Giants, huh?
One thing that is great though, and it is something you can probably find only in Japan is the level of practice in a dojo –which also comes from budo being a part of the broader cultural matrix: in our dojo in the West we get our instructor (who is, say, a 5th dan) and a few senior students (who are 2nd or 3rd dan with the occasional 4th dan thrown in) and that’s about it –in a dojo in Japan the instructor will probably be a 7th dan and there are going to be at least a dozen of 5th and 6th dan seniors and at least another dozen of 3rd and 4th dan “semi-seniors”. This means that every time you pick a partner and start practicing you’ll get an education that back home would rarely happen. And of course, this being Japan and your partners being all Japanese you’ll also get an education in Japanese language or in Japanese customs and some insight to the Japanese way of thinking. *This* you won’t find anywhere else and this alone makes it worthy to actually come and train in Japan.

Could you tell us a few words about the koryu (old school) you are practicing in Japan?

GAM: Sure, although you’d be much better served if you checked the web site ( my teacher has made about it –he is much more knowledgeable than me and I don’t just mean the obvious difference in knowledge because he is a teacher and I’m not! Anyway, its name is Toda-ha Buko Ryu and it is a rather small school focusing on the naginata, the Japanese halberd. We train in the use of three different kinds of naginata (a normal naginata, one with a crossbar at the point where the blade meets the shaft and a big naginata called “nagamaki”) but also in the use of the sword, the kusarigama, the yari and the bo.
It is a very interesting school and one that has been around since the mid-16th century even though it was never one of the “majors” like the Itto Ryu or the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu; it was based in the Chichibu area in Saitama (“Buko” is the name of a mountain in that area) and it came to Tokyo probably sometime in the mid-19th century. I still can’t figure out exactly how it managed to survive all these years, especially without the patronage of someone powerful (although the Suneya family that was responsible for nine generations of its transmission was pretty important in the Chichibu area; still is, by the way) but I know for a fact that it been very much alive today must be undoubtedly attributed to Nitta Suzuo, my teacher’s teacher and 19th headmaster; some of the most exceptional members of the international koryu world were her students and these people have set up dojo all over the world, ensuring that the tradition will remain alive and, most important, vibrant; I want to stress that last part because one of the things I realized painfully in Japan was that many koryu are mere fossils, completely devoid of the vigor they once possessed.

Interview with Grigoris A. Miliaresis, Part IΙ