Lap Dog Syndrome


One of the things that I’ve been noticing in martial arts classes the last number of years is an increase of what I call “lap dog syndrome.” This is where a (ever-larger, it seems) number of people will hang around at the front of the class where Sensei watches people train between teaching techniques. When Sensei has stopped the class to teach, what you see behind him is a line of people standing there with their arms folded like a line of Stormtroopers. There is so much posing and posturing, people laughing at Sensei’s jokes before they are translated when their knowledge of Japanese is nowhere near close enough to understand what he just said. People “guarding the front of the line” when Sensei is doing calligraphy for people in the class. The new Vanguard. They don’t seem to realize that there never used to be one, so we can probably do without one now as well. But to be a conduit to Sensei is a position of power.

There was a time (when I visited in 1995 and moved over in January 1997) when there were 4 foreigners who were the seniors, and people respected them for the time they have lived in Japan, their Japanese ability, their skill, and their relationship with Sensei. These gems of the Bujinkan have been eclipsed by social climbers, those who want to be in the forefront, those who want to be on film, those who want to be seen as seniors, those who desire the admiration and respect of others.

There was a time when the translation was automatically deferred to the person in the room with the best Japanese language ability, by default and out of respect. Now we have translators jumping over each other, interrupting each other, cutting each other off. Everyone wants to appear as if they know something. Someone will butt in and translate something just because he happens to know a few of the words in the sentence that Sensei just said, even though he is lost at the next sentence. At the last class I was at, there were 4 people trying to jump in and translate, while the person with by far the best Japanese, who has translated at many overseas Taikai as well as rendered many of Sensei’s books into English, sat at the back of the class completely unacknowledged. His Japanese is 50 times better than anyone who was translating – and all of the translators knew it. Or should have.

People ask me why I don’t translate anymore, and this is the reason. I have no desire to compete with someone who wants to translate so badly that they won’t defer to someone else in the room who is more skilled at Japanese – and I don’t mean to me, I mean to the person in the room who is more skilled at Japanese. In my own case, I also got tired of being interrupted one moment and then asked for translation help by the same person the next moment when they got stuck. I’m not a Bujinkan social climber, I’m not a Bujinkan lap dog. I don’t care about placing myself between Sensei and everyone else as a conduit. I’m just a guy who likes Bujinkan martial arts and enjoys training.

I encounter a lot of people who seem to have little else in their life than the Bujinkan and their status or rank in it. The Bujinkan is their life, and they derive their whole sense of identity from it. Bujinkan business cards, Bujinkan blogs, Facebook profile photos and photo albums that are nothing but Bujinkan and ninja paraphernalia. People seem to be trying to compensate for something by filling up their life with the Bujinkan itself, rather than using the Bujinkan arts as a means of approaching life in general. This type of thing has increased exponentially in recent years. The “seniors” who were keeping everything in check for years are gone – moved away from Japan or training more quietly – and the new generation is completely different. The older generation used to put the younger “pups” in place when they got out of line or talked about things they knew nothing about. Now its the “I’m ok, you’re ok” be-politically-correct game, while everyone not-so-secretly jockeys for position at the front of the line.

Well, this isn’t a very positive post. But a number of people have been asking me my thoughts on these issues for some time now. Its not a very politically-correct way of addressing the questions. I still have a lot to learn from Sensei. He laughs and is patient no matter what happens, and no matter who he is dealing with, no matter what the size of the ego is. He carries it off without a hitch. I’d really like to be able to do that someday. But if I were him at his age and had been putting up with as much as he has for as long as he has – I’d probably have already retired. So few people seem to realize the patience and forbearance that he needs to have just to put up with us all.

Sensei keeps a good perspective on the Bujinkan. He told me in 1995, “I don’t need the Bujinkan. I could fold it up tomorrow and it wouldn’t mean anything to me.” Bujinkan ranks are also not in the 9 schools that Hatsumi Sensei is Soke of, but ranks in the “Bujinkan”, a 30-year-old martial arts organization. People should keep this in perspective and not think of themselves more highly than they ought simply because they have a high rank in the Bujinkan. Just because Sensei is a genius at martial arts doesn’t mean that we are as well simply because we go to his classes and have a high dan grade and stand around and laugh at his jokes. It is important to laugh – its good for one’s health and good for mental equilibrium. But it helps if you get the joke and aren’t just laughing to make everyone else think that you got it.

It won’t be long before the Bujinkan is a a crossroads. The glue that holds it all together – Sensei – will move on to do his own thing. He lives life as a martial artist and as a human being – not as a slave to his own organization. We should follow that example and strive to become more well-rounded human beings as well, not simply highly visible and highly ranked Bujinkan members. When Sensei moves on, it will be interesting to see what happens. In preparation for that time, what I think we need in the Bujinkan today is more sincerity, more humility, and more people who can see themselves openly and honestly and who sincerely work on polishing themselves – not because of the Bujinkan, and not because of Sensei, but simply for the love of the arts.

(Comments to the original version of this post are preserved here.)

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Posted on July 22, 2009, in Bujinkan and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I originally wrote this post almost 2 years ago, and it received little to no attention because the blog wasn’t being promoted. Actually, I almost didn’t make post the original blog entry because I thought it might be too controversial. Two days ago I posted a link to the blog on my Facebook Wall, and yesterday I was directly contacted by 16 people with positive feedback about this one entry – so it seems it did hit the spot, in a way. Thanks for your expressions of support and solidarity on this topic.

  2. Marc Dillembourg

    It definitely hit the spot…Constructive criticism is always good Shawn !!! Helps unveil some measure of Truth and it encourages Change in those whose Eyes and Ears have been opened…

  3. Still very much like this post!
    I wonder how many lap dogs will realize themselves being lap dogs, and how many of them is open enough to change their behavior…

  4. Very true Shawn. Old school folks where training is key and everyone else in ones life is respected as guides in our lives. Now, these newbie social climbers …or brown nosers is just lost little puppies. Much respect to sensei to be patient enough and understanding to feed them knowledge while the brown nosers look like little kids demanding to be heard. Sad really. It would have been nice ir it would be nice ti have a drill seargant slap each one that gets out of line and tell them their spoiled political correctness attitude have no place in training. Just my two cents. Great job on the article.

  5. well said Shawn

  6. meaningfulideas

    Thank you for this SHawn… 7 years later!
    I’ll be sharing this with my class.

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