Baptiste Tavernier – Jukendo, Budo & The Relevance of Martial Arts Today [Interview Part 2/2]
An interview with Baptiste Tavernier, Budoka, artist and writer. Baptiste Tavernier, born 1981 in France pursues a creative path that has led him from experimental music through the martial arts of Japan to the painter’s canvas. He discovered Budo at the age of eight when he joined his local judo club. while studying digital art and musicology in college he started practicing a rather rare martial art called Bozendo in France in 1999. He left for Japan in 2006 and joined the International Budo University for 8 years. where he focused on the study of modern Budo and traditional Bujutsu. He is now a Renshi sixth Dan in Tankendo, fourth Dan in Jukendo and Naginata, second Dan in Battodo, Sho Dan in Buzendo, and has some experience in Aikido, Judo, Tendoryu Naginatajutsu, Tatsumi Ryu Heiho and Isshin-ryu Naginatajutsu. Deeply involved in the international diffusion of Jukendo and Tankendo, he is now the chairman of the All Japan Jukendo Federation’s International Committee. He regularly writes articles in the Kendo World magazine and has published a book on Miyamoto Musashi’s Heiho Sanjugo Kajo, the 35 articles of swordsmanship that precedes the famous Book of Five Rings. Baptiste currently lives in Taipei, where he teaches Jukendo and Tankendo and develops his creative work. He has exhibited in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Miami, Taipei, Rotterdam and many other cities. During one of his numerous trips to Japan, this time on the occasion of the Kendo World annual Keiko Kai, he accepted our invitation and we met in early August 2017 for this interview. What is Jukendo?
Who practices it and how? So, what’s Jukendo? Perhaps due to some lack of knowledge, Well, some people know it, of course… Often, quite often, when you say in Japan that you practice Jukendo, people say: “Oh, you’re doing Judo and Kendo, that’s damn good!” No, no, no. It’s not Juu-Kendo, it’s Jukendo. And so, Jukendo is… Translated literally it means “the Way of the Bayonet”. There still is quite a romantic vision of Japanese martial arts. Often I get the impression that people get confused and put Chinese and Japanese martial arts under the same umbrella. That is, the Chinese martial arts have a very long tradition of civilian martial arts. Meaning practiced by civilians. And a very long tradition of military martial arts. And these martial arts ultimately coexisted but never really intertwined with each other. And so, there’s this whole romantic idea of the great master philosopher meditating and so on… Who, in my opinion, really comes from the Chinese civilian martial arts instead of the Japanese martial arts. And we often talk about the great Japanese masters, with this image of meditation, the philosophy of martial arts… I think we need to go to Japan and see how it goes, I think our view would change quite rapidly. And it’s true that historically speaking the philosophy of Japanese martial arts hasn’t been developed to the extreme, certainly less so than in China. All this to say that it may seem odd that we’ve been practicing a modern and philosophical martial art… with a bayonet. Quite simply, modern martial arts in Japan emerged with Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, in the late 19th century. Kano had some ideals, maybe not philosophical ones, but still some with strong values. That is, the use of Judo to train people, to show them something new, so they can work on themselves. Kind of similar to the saying: “A healthy mind in a healthy body” that we have in France. It was somewhat Kano’s ideal. On the other hand, when it comes to other martial arts in Japan at the beginning of the Meiji era, so at the end of the 19th century, the evolution of Kenjutsu into Kendo… it still is quite military. Let’s not sweep it under the carpet, it was introduced in schools not to develop great humanist minds, but above all, to develop strong bodies that could then go on to fill the ranks of the imperial army. I’m doing quite an historical leap here, because at first it wasn’t that way. But it quickly became like that. So regarding the philosophical side of modern martial arts… I think it’s necessary to put things a bit into perspective. From that point of view, the inclusion of the bayonet in modern Japanese martial arts makes sense. Because if you’re gonna train young people, train them physically and then morally in order for them to fight in the imperial army when they’re older, Kendo’s good, bayonet’s not bad either. Going back to the modern version of Jukendo. So, it’s practiced with a weapon. This is a very small one. A model for children. And it’s just a wooden rifle, like a Bokken or a Jo for the Aikidoka. It’s exactly the same thing, except there’s a little rubber at the end to cushion. And you handle it like a bayonet. We also wear an armor that’s more or less equivalent to Kendo armors, with some differences. And we fight like Kendo, but instead of having a Shinai, we “strike” each other, or more precisely, we “poke” each other. We thrust forward with the bayonet. So Jukendo, while certainly being a Japanese martial art, comes originally from France. This may sound strange. Theoretical formalisation of bayonet fighting in Japan was actually carried out by the French army. It started with the first French military mission to Japan. which was in 1866, 67, 68… and who had been sent by Napoleon III. And then there were several other military missions in the 1880s and so on. And that’s when the Japanese bayonet was really formalized. That is to say, they started from French military teaching techniques, which were then adapted, digested and reformulated little by little with a Japanese syllabus. Nevertheless, cock-a-doodle-doo to us, because bayonet in Japan does come from France. At the time, it was obvious that they’re not talking about Budo or “martial WAY” yet. It was not “WAY” but really martial “ART”‘ That is, bayonet is taught at the military school, and even if they put on Kendo’s armor and even if they’re fighting, it is simply not competition, it’s not some a humanistic research about oneself either, the goal is purely martial. And it’s partly because of the bayonet that the Japanese army prevailed over the Russian army during the Russian-Japanese conflict with a technical superiority of the infantry on the handling of bayonet and other hand-to-hand weapons, but mostly bayonet, which had really never been seen anywhere else. If the Japanese had faced the French at that time in bayonet combat, I don’t think the French would have lasted very long. Because the Japanese really took on the French techniques and refined them. It is often said that the Japanese used the spear techniques from Sojutsu and combined them with what they had learned from the French to create the Jukendo. So it’s not false, but it’s not entirely true either… It’s a little complicated… There are also Kendo and Kenjutsu techniques which were adopted, the way to move for instance mostly comes from Kenjutsu’s techniques rather than Yari techniques (Sojutsu). Because it is true that in Yari, considering the Ozo-In Ryu or other spear techniques in Japan, there are very low positions, and ones that we simply don’t have in Jukendo. On the contrary, the Taisabaki is preferred, very light movements, nothing quite as rooted as it can be found in other traditions of Sojutsu. So it’s not that simple, it’s not a mix of Yari or spear/Sojutsu and French bayonet. It’s a whole bunch of influences that are mixed up. In fact, there has been a lot of research, a lot of failure. It is a process that stretched for many years before we finally got a syllabus of Japanese bayonet techniques. Jukendo is often associated with Japanese traditionalism. Can you tell us more about the propaganda that took place before and after the Second World War? I think it’s important to make a distinction between the martial arts that we now practice in 2017. In any case, the martial arts that can be described as postwar and the same martial arts, Judo, Kendo, Jukendo, Karate, Aikido… those same martial arts as they were practiced before the war. Of course, I am talking about the Second World War. It’s something that many people have a hard time grasping, whether it’s overseas or even in Japan – maybe less in Japan – but still… Starting in Japan from – without giving a specific date – at least around the 1920s and of course in the 1930s, the real purpose of martial arts at that time leaned toward supporting national militarism. At that point the martial arts are really made to create, generate soldiers for the imperial army. And there only was this one purpose. In general the martial arts taught in school, in all schools in Japan supported this idea of militarization of the country. Nowadays, modern martial arts, even the Jukendo, even the bayonet are thought instead be a tool. In Japanese they say: “Ningen Keisei”. It means, “working on yourself”, or in English it sounds like “self development” or “character building”. Basically, one is working on their weaknesses, our personality, to make themselves better in many ways. Now whether we practice Jukendo or Aikido, the purpose ends up the same. But if we come back before the war, it’s obvious that the Jukendo and the Tankendo are martial arts that are only meant to be effective and to kill or eliminate an enemy on the battlefield. At the same time, Aikido really began to develop and establish itself in Japan. You could call Aikido a civilian martial art, which means it’s a martial art for common folks and which, in fact, is built within the framework of the law. Technically, civilians are not allowed to kill anyone or hurt anyone. So Aikido, from this point of view, is an eminently civil martial arts because the idea is to control an opponent or in any case either to avoid him, or to control him but not to hurt him, or just slightly doing so. That’s on one side of the spectrum. On the other side of the spectrum, we obviously have the Jukendo, the Tankendo, who are truly eminently military and really made to get rid of an enemy. That’s an obvious opposition. We have Aikido, for example, and Jukendo. And you wouldn’t think that before the war, other martial arts such as Judo or Kendo were more or less on that side of the spectrum. Even Aikido had somewhat nationalistic and militaristic tendencies in some ways. Anyway, Kendo, Judo, Kyudo and even Naginata: before the war, there were no philosophical ideals, the goal was just to train soldiers. What’s interesting is that at the end of the war, the Americans banned martial arts in Japan. They were banned for about 5-6 years, maybe even 10 years. What’s interesting is that when modern martial arts started again, they adopted an extremely sport-like approach. On that side, they have somehow lost their martial attractions. But I think we can really talk about a martial sport. That is, even in Kendo, and I know that the Kendo elitists are going to shout loud and clear that Kendo is not a sport… But still, we have to face it, we have world championships, we have prefectural tournaments in Japan almost every week. We have a real emphasis on all competition techniques. Well, it’s got some good sides, it’s got bad sides, too. But well, let’s face it, the sports side took precedence over the martial side. As a result, all of those modern martial arts have been accepted again, as sports or disciplines that develop character in Japan. The only exception is the Jukendo because there’s this picture of a bayonet. So, it’s interesting because in the end, the goals of modern Jukendo and Tankendo are the same as those of Kendo or Karate, or Judo. That is, working on oneself and trying to improve oneself. Jukendo is mainly practiced by military personnel. Why isn’t there more diversity? Are there any practicing women? In public opinion, it is always a martial art that is a little, not banished or taboo, but which is classified, separate from the others. So, there’s this image of the bayonet, it is an instrument of death on the battlefield. It’s a weapon that was developed to kill. Which is absolutely true, indeed. But we also tend to quickly forget the death toll in Japan by the sword. The sword has a romantic side, the Samurai… which the bayonet can’t have because it is nothing but an old rusty knife that cuts very badly. Finally, very few people in Japan practice Jukendo and Tankendo. Actually, compared to other federations, you could say that at least 90% of them belong to the Japanese army. The so-called Jieitai, the self-defence forces. That being said, and for some years now, more and more women have been practicing. And it’s true, it was very masculine until now. And there are also more and more children. There is a controversy in which Jukendo can be taught as a compulsory subject at school. Is that true? It’s been spoken about for a few months now, in any case, it’s very recent in Japan, it generates some debate. The Jukendo is part of the 9 martial arts federations, encompassed in the Nippon Budokan. The 9 being: Judo, Kendo, Aikido, Karate… Sumo, Shorinji Kempo, and finally the Jukendo. As other federations and other disciplines, they have a right to be taught in school. When I say in school, I think about junior high school. So that creates a lot of debate in Japan, because a lot of people say it’s a resurgence of the militaristic, nationalistic pre-war Japan. A lot of arguments… I think this is a good debate, in any case, from a Western point of view it’s true that it may sound weird. To put a “rifle” in the hands of a child. Well, a “rifle”… not a real weapon, a wooden rifle with a bayonet for sports. It’s not obvious, I understand that right now. I do not think that there is a clear-cut answer to this debate. Teaching a child to split his opponent’s skull or pierce his throat with a sword or to use a bayonet. all in all, in the imaginative of fantasized world of martial arts, the result will be the same. From a pedagogical point of view, the Jukendo and the Tankendo can bring a lot of things, at least the same things as Kendo, that is: self-control, athletic ability, mental capacities, good reflexes… In fact everything that other martial arts can bring. The current controversy is mainly based on political games between Right/Left, Conservative/etc… As a martial arts practitioner, I don’t think that it’s up to us to weight in this debate, or to take a stand, I don’t think it brings much to the discussion to be honest. And there are only 2 schools in Japan where you can practice Jukendo! Indeed, like the other 8 martial arts allowed to be taught in schools, there are probably thousands and thousands of colleges that teach Judo and Kendo. All over Japan for the moment there’s a school that teaches Jukendo in Yokohama. And I think there’s a second one in Hokkaido. Or maybe they were talking about it and it wasn’t sure yet. So basically, there’s one or two. It’s okay, I don’t think we’ll have kids with a bloodlust tomorrow and a militaristic wave that will swallow up all of Japan. But that being said, you always have to be vigilant because there are always right-wing extremists, the kind of person who advocates for… ideas that aren’t necessarily the right ones. What would you say to someone who wants to learn a Budo? A lot of people think that martial arts are basically self-defense. That is, am I going to learn something that will allow me to defend myself if I’m assaulted in the street or if there’s a terrorist attack… In my opinion, I may be wrong, but I think the answer is: No, it doesn’t do much good, honestly. To learn martial arts, be it Japanese or Korean or Chinese or whatever from a self-defense perspective, I would say that you might as well practice MMA. I think it’s much more effective, or even learn military combat techniques, I think that’s even more effective. Anyways, I think it’s a false debate, that’s not the subject. Martial arts practitioners, at least in Europe or in the West, continue to do so with somewhat of a… as we said before… a philosophical idea; working on yourself, with maybe meditation and well-being. And that’s something you can find in Japanese, Chinese and other martial arts. In my personal opinion there’s been a shift, a discrepency, between the image that foreigners or Westerners have of Japanese martial arts, and the Japanese vision and practice regarding their own martial arts. To put it clearly: In my experience, I know many foreigners who start Japanese martial arts because they are looking for something for themselves, or at least for their well-being or for a philosophy. In Japan, people who do Kendo or Judo, this “Ningen Keisen” thing, which is so often put forward in Japan, is almost non-existent. Basically, in Judo or Kendo, they talk a lot about personal development. They talk about it, but they only talk about it, there’s not much beyond talking. The competitive and sporty side takes precedence on many other considerations. There is a kind of misunderstanding. I can see it at the Budo University. We often have strangers who come to Budo University for a year to study philosophy, culture… all that martial arts nebula, somewhat fantasized, which exists nevertheless in some way. But they often have to face a martial arts training which is purely focused on the results of the next championship; there’s a competition in Tokyo next month, and so on, and so on… So the view is almost only sport-oriented. And this is the reality of things. There is a discrepancy that appears, incomprehension grows. I can see it, having listened to Judoka foreigners at the university, they were puzzeled too. We reached a point where foreigners were teaching Judo’s Katas to Japanese students because they didn’t know them. And I’m not even talking about the Kendo’s Katas, it’s the same thing. This gap that appears, the bigger it gets, the more problematic the situations will be. And I’m afraid, as the gap widens, that Japan will close up. People who come here to learn martial arts in Japan, I think that they really should… put aside their dreams, their fantasies and so on. They should just come with humility to learn everything they can. That is the technical and cultural aspects. Anyway, I see a lot of young people coming to the university, who end up… not disappointed but… who get disillusioned toward martial arts in Japan and martial arts in general. Globalization of martial arts is something that started about 20 years ago. For real. But we’re really just in the early stages and there’s still a lot of work to do about that problem. That gap that is emerging is also present in the next questionning: “Is my practice effective or not?” That is, if I practice Karate, can I defend myself? If I practice… say, Kendo, can I defend myself? It’s an idea that is rather… Western. I don’t think that in Japan they really raise that question. It’s… either a sport, or a kind of community practice, that is, they meet, they share a moment together, or it is a practice to reflect on oneself. But this idea that “I’m gonna use what I learn in a street fight or a bar fight.”… There aren’t that many street or bar fighting in Japan… Learning Karate or Aikido, in a street fight or when you’re assaulted, there’s a good chance that it won’t help you much. Unless you’ve practiced for years… On the other hand, the practice of martial arts can give some confidence to get out of a complicated situation. having the strength, either to negotiate or to discuss, without having to fight. And this is an ideal that has long existed in Japan, but I think that it’s really true. We have an ability to… de-escalate conflicts compared to people who haven’t done martial arts. That’s an interesting point and worth studying It gives some validity to the martial arts practiced today. Nowadays, what is the purpose of practicing martial arts? In Japan, there’s something really convenient. People say: “if you do martial arts, you’ll be a good person!” It’s what they call “Ningen Keisei”, which means to improve oneself as a human. It is easier to translate it into English than French. In any case, to improve oneself. We always assumed that all those who practice martial arts are necessarily good persons. Even though we’re still pretty far from the truth. To be honest… After ten years in Japan, in the world of martial arts you meet truly exceptional people, good people, interesting people…. but you also meet a bunch of people who are absolutely nothing of that. Neither interesting nor honest… or anything else for that matter. And you have to realize that just because you do martial arts it doesn’t mean that you will reach… heights of integrity and… understanding of oneself, wisdom or anything. That’s bullshit. In fact, everyone is looking for something in their practice and put what he wants in it. If you really want to try… to renew yourselves, to improve, to seek, to try to understand a culture that’s very interesting, but if you want to be an asshole for your whole life, you can practice Aikido for 40 years, it’s not gonna change much. Japanese people sell that stuff a lot, martial arts, Budo, it’s kind of the attractive point: “if you do martial arts, you become a good person.” It might be possible. But there’s no guaranteed. Let’s see… In my opinion, what’s particularly interesting is that… it allows you to discover a culture. Because whatever they say, Japanese culture is very far from ours. As European or French. Understanding a culture allows us to better understand the martial art we practice. We can’t really say that we have reached a certain level. Of course, you have ranks, you can be 8th dan, whatever, but I don’t think it’s out of humility, but after a while you finally accept, understand, that you never know enough and that there’s always a next step. You can be better than you used to be, or you can be better than other people, there’s always something beyond, always something further to do. People who retire either have nothing more to teach, or they realize that their level they’re at is no longer sufficient in order to keep their political position or whatever. But people who practice earnestly, they practice until they aren’t able anymore, either because of illness or old age… Is it better to practice in Japan? Would you recommend specific Dojos? Do you have to come to Japan to train? Personally, I say yes! Despite everything, even if you can learn many technical things in Europe, – of course it depends on the discipline. Some disciplines have less Sensei, or worse technical level abroad than in Japan. But for example in France, Aikido is developed at a high level, with personalities like Christian Tissier… or back in the days when there was Tamura, who passed away since… There’s a very good level in Kendo too. Well, in Jukendo there are no practitioners in France, nor in Europe, or very few anyway. We can’t compare to that level. Even in Karate, the level is very good in Europe. So, the technical level, it is easily acquired in Europe. However, technique isn’t everything. The cultural aspects, historical aspects… I think that you can get them only in Japan. And unfortunately, only if you speak Japanese and if possible if you can read it. Because if you don’t speak Japanese, if you can’t read Japanese, you miss a lot of things. And if you speak Japanese, you can learn a lot by talking to people. There will always be something to grasp from the culture. There are translations of many books like: Gorin no Sho (Book of Five Rings), Heiho Kadensho (Munenori) and so on… which are certainly very good but which will not replace reading of the original versions. So that’s why I tried to learn as much Japanese as possible. To be honest, I’m not that good. I have a hard time. For some, it takes 3 months to translate a book, for me it’s 4 years. But in the end I think the struggle is worth it. So coming to Japan is interesting. Now, under what conditions, that’s the problem. Because in Japan, you have everything; You’ll find very friendly dojos with a very good technical level, with very good teachers. and you can find dojos where you won’t get much. So being introduced is the most important thing in Japan. The best thing is to know someone who knows someone who knows someone who can get you into a dojo. It works that way, because if you come without introduction, they’ll welcome you, but you’ll never learn anything. It’s a rather difficult aspect that foreigners have a hard time understanding. And so where to train is a difficult question because it depends on the discipline. If you practice Judo, Kodokan is probably good, but there are probably other very good dojos some other places. If you do Aikido, Aikikai is fine. but there are really good dojos in other places too. For Kendo, you can go to Budo University, the IBU. But there are also other universities where they are very good. The best thing is to get in touch with the people who know each discipline and who will be able to guide you. If you come by yourself, it’s risky… If you’re lucky you can find some good dojos. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time… and money too! It’s not a trivial choice to come and train in Japan but if it’s done under the right conditions, it can only be positive. If it’s done in bad conditions it will most certainly be negative. Would you like to add something to conclude this interview? I think it’s positive for Aikido practitioners to do Daito Ryu too, or to practice old Jujitsu schools or even Kenjutsu because it’s very close. You have some things from Yagyu Shikage Ryu… Even in Onoha Itto Ryu; some concepts are complementary. For Kendoka, to practice Iaido or even Aikido. So it’s interesting at the beginning to collect a lot of knowledge in different Budo and then choose a Way and try to refine it as much as possible.