Transcription of Episode 11 - Interview with Dr. John Donohue, Author and Anthropologist
Tim: Today, I’m speaking with martial arts author John Donohue, with a PhD in Anthropology from the state university of New York at stony brook. John constantly studies the blend of philosophy and action that the martial arts offers. He’s written several books of both fiction and non-fiction, including Sensei, Deshii and Complete Kendo and The Overlooked Martial Arts Reader. John, thank you so much for being on the show with me today.
John: It’s my pleasure to be with you Tim.
Tim: I enjoy hearing why people started training in the martial arts. (How they get, uhh) One of my goals here is to try to portray so many different elements of the martial arts and I think it’s important to realize why people like yourself who have had such an impact in martial arts and who martial arts has had so much of an impact over to understand why you started training. So, tell us a little bit about your beginnings in martial arts.
John: Sure, I, you know, I think the thing that really attracted me to martial arts was the blend of physicality, the sheer physical grace and beauty of a martial arts performance, combined with the fact that there was this very sophisticated philosophical dimension to it. And that seeing the two of those things integrated into one activity was both fascinating, as a westerner, you know, sports tend to be somewhat segregated out from ideology and things like that to a large extent. And so seeing that integrated was tremendously, tremendously interesting to me. And I would also say that one of the other things that really appealed to me about the martial arts, particularly the more traditional Japanese martial arts that I spent most of my time studying, was that there’s a real appreciation for the individual student’s effort and their willingness to stick with it despite their skill or lack of skill that the sensei valued the idea that there were some of you who was working hard at trying to acquire a set of skills with perspectives and that you’ve felt honored for that particular effort. So that’s really what sort of attracted me very early on to the martial arts. You know, I was a teenager in the 70s, of course, and there’s a, you know, the whole raft of, you know, Bruce Lee movies and Kung Fu television series and all that sort of stuff is coming out so it’s catching your attention. And then I had the opportunity to start to study in a serious way when I was in college. And I initially studied a Korean karate style, Tang Soo Do, and then transferred over to Stony Brook where I was very fortunate to be able to study with Mori Masataka who’s a very well known shotokan karate sensei in the New York City area. So I was able to study there and that was really the start of my fairly serious study of martial arts.
Tim: Hm. And how long did you train with him?
John: I was at Stony Brook, I trained with him for 3 years, then as I moved through graduate school and work and things like that I trained with a variety of other sensei, staying focused for
the most part in shotokan karate, though, during that period of time. And then I had an opportunity once again, when I relocated for job purposes when I relocated to the Buffalo area beginning to study kendo with Kimora Hiroaki at the Buffalo Kendo Club. So that was a very, very interesting experience because I have done karate while I was a student and my doctoral dissertation was on the cultural-symbolic aspects of the Japanese martial arts. And one of the chapters of my dissertation focused on kendo, as an outsider looking in. So I had the opportunity of doing just a little bit of Kendo as part of my participant observation as an anthropologist, and then later on, when I moved to Buffalo I actually got to do kendo for real as a true kendoka, with Kimora-sensei.
Tim: Can you tell us a little bit about that dissertation on the cultural-symbolic aspects?
John: Yeah, the book that was published, the book version of the dissertation is called “The Forge of the Spirit,” meaning “motion” in the Japanese martial tradition. What I was really interested in was exploring once again that link between the physical dimensions of the arts and the ideology that had evolved over four, five hundred years, relating to the reasons for martial arts practice and the rationale for this type of pursuit. So what I did was I looked at the historical development, obviously through, you know, feudal Japan focusing obviously on Japanese arts and then I looked at a couple of different case studies: I looked at Judo, I looked at Kendo, I looked at Aikido and show how each of these arts, although different, in some ways shared part of this martial tradition in Japan and were quite sophisticated not only in terms of their techniques, but in the way they thought about human action and purpose and ethical behavior and the role that this kind of training can play in forming a more well-rounded human being.
Tim: That’s really neat. I’d like to pick that up, I have a couple of your books here and I’ve been looking through The Overlooked Martial Arts Reader it’s one of the non-fiction books for the reader, for the listeners and it’s edited by John Donohue, because it’s just a compilation, basically of anecdotes and historical artifacts and all sorts of fascinating goodies from Japanese history and there’s even some Chinese history and other martial arts in there. It’s a really fascinating book, I’m enjoying it.
John: Yeah, well, great. I really tried when I started to put the “Reader” together I thought about, “You know, if I had to put what I thought or some really, really important and engaging excerpts of all the different things I’ve read that would give people sort of a good sense of what the martial arts have then and are now and could be in somebody’s life, what would I suggest?” So I have the ability to go and call through a lot of the reading that I have done as part of my studies both as an academic and as a practicing martial artist and try to excerpt what I felt were some of the best readings for people.
Tim: Yeah, I think it’s a fascinating read for martial artists and non-martial artists alike. Now you’re doing a pretty unique thing by capturing some of the martial arts philosophy through fiction, too.
John: I’m a professional anthropologist but obviously I write for scholarly audiences. But one of the realizations I came to fairly early on my career is that I can probably reach more people if I made some of what I did a little bit more entertaining. And I thought that, well, the martial arts are intrinsically fascinating anyway. And the whole idea of violent action obviously lends itself to fictionalization and high drama. So what I tried to do was to create a fictional series of an American who is essentially going through the process of learning at a fairly high level the martial arts and obviously in a fictional setting there always has to be some sort of a struggle. So these are murder mysteries, these are thrillers and things like that. One of my real goals was to try to portray the impact of martial arts training and what the martial arts are really like and really about in a way that’s both entertaining, but realistic. Because I, you know, I’ve read enough fiction in my time to know that there’s a lot of great fiction out there but there’s also a lot of stereotypical and inaccurate portrayals of what the martial arts are like and what you can do and what you really can’t do and that sort of stuff. So what I tried to do was to try to make this as realistic as possible based upon all the years that I’ve been studying and banging around the dojo and yet at the same time communicate some of what I think is just really, really fascinating and really transformative about the martial arts. And I think the interesting thing is that I hear from people who read my books who are martial artists or hear from people who are, they’re in the military or they’re cops and things like that. And I have to say that I’m really happy to hear from them that they say “You know what, this was written by somebody who really knows what it’s like to be in the dojo and I think you’re doing a really good job of showing what it’s really like.” So that makes me tremendously, tremendously proud, that I’ve been able to, whatever my merits as a fiction writer, leaving that aside, but being able to communicate something of what I think is the true value and the true nature of the martial arts to perhaps a wider reading public.
Tim: Yeah, that’s a great idea. There are so many moonlighting dojos and signs on the plazas that just say ‘karate’ but don’t really portray the true meaning of martial arts to non-martial artists. If you don’t understand it already, it’s great to have something like this to get that philosophy and that aspect of it.
John: Yeah and hopefully it might interest somebody who maybe hasn’t thought about the martial arts as something that could be part of their real life. It’s taking them up to look at it, to think about it, you know, it’s more than something like a bunch of people in fancy pajamas jumping around a room. So I’ve managed to, I think as you mentioned in the introduction, I’ve
managed to publish and actually publish three novels so far in the series Sensei, Deshii and Tengu. And actually, next week, the fourth in the series will be coming out.
Tim: Great, and what’s the name of that one?
John: Kage: The Shadow. It’s all part of the series with the same cast of characters and so I’m looking forward to seeing that coming out, I’m looking forward to hearing from readers about what they think about it.
Tim: Great, well I’m definitely going to have to pick up some of those and for the listeners all of the links to the audio books and the new one when it comes out will all be on the website with the broadcast on Jon Donohue’s lineage page at the website, malineage.com.
And as you’ve worked on all these books and you’ve worked as an anthropologist and you spent a lot of time in the academic field, how has your martial arts training influenced you and your path through life? Maybe in the way you write or the way you conduct yourself as, even as an academic.
John: Well, I think martial arts training makes you a bit of a realist, hopefully it keeps you humble. In academia, for better or worse, there’s an awful lot of elliptical discussion. There’s an awful lot of avoidance of the real issue and one of the nice things about being a martial artist is that it teaches you in some ways to cut to the chase and to try to be as honest with people and as honest with yourself as possible. So that’s been good. So it keeps you humble. Sometimes, you know, as you go through graduate school, and you get a PhD and this, that, and the other thing. You know, you tend to develop a fairly high opinion of yourself. You know, you’re a smart person and you have all these degrees and stuff like that. Well there’s nothing like stepping out onto the floor of the dojo to get a good dose of humility back. There’s always somebody better than you are. And I think it’s tremendously grounding in some ways. It gives you a better sense of who you really are. So it helps you in that way. I think it’s also helped me approach things in a way, like an old Tai chi saying, you know, there’re some times we approach and there’re some times when you roll back. Right? That you need to be flexible in your approach to things. There’s more than one path to a particular goal. The key is to keep your eye on the goal but be willing to adapt to change and to be able to deal with what’s coming at you in as flexible a way as possible to let you reach your goals. And again, sometimes in academia, that’s not always a strong suit of people, so the martial arts have been very helpful to me in that way. And finally, I think martial arts training teaches you the value of hard work, of being industrious and being honest with yourself and being conscientious and keeping at something. The idea that something that’s worth doing is worth doing even though it’s difficult is an important life lesson and I think that working in the martial arts is one of the great places to learn that lesson.
Tim: Yeah, definitely. What about on the flipside, how has your academic lifestyle influenced some of your martial arts training?
John: Well you now, obviously it‘s made me into somebody who’s very interested in reading as much as I can about the arts, so, reading a lot about the history, reading a lot about the culture and philosophy. And that’s both a good thing and a bad thing; you get a lot of knowledge about a variety of things but at the same time you can’t let it sort of obscure some of the more immediate lessons that need to be learned in a dojo. But I think that my interest in the martial arts as a cultural phenomenon has sort of deepened my appreciation of what I’m experiencing as I’m training or as I’m teaching in the dojo. And also, in some instances, it gives me more to talk about. If I’m explaining something to a group of students or a group of colleagues that the fact that perhaps I may know a little bit more about the historical or cultural dimensions of the arts. It lends a certain richness to my practice and the things that I talk about while in practice.
Tim: Now let’s get back a little bit to your martial arts training. I want to talk about the kendo training that you had: what was one of the greatest lessons that you might have learned in that training that seemed to be one of the, one of the types of training that was most impactful to you? You have a certain lesson?
John: The lesson that stands out with kendo….is…umm.. Well, let me back up and say, one of the really interesting and engaging things about kendo is to the extent that you do an awful lot of sparring. There’s a lot of shiai in kendo. And what that really shows you is just how difficult it is to have, to make your art beautiful and effective at the same time. It’s fast, it’s furious, and I love doing kata because of, I think kata are tremendous learning tools in all sorts of ways. But in order to really understand just how difficult it is to make your art look sort of in real time, there’s nothing like engaging in shiai, in sparring, because it shows you, in some ways, how fast everything is, how hard you need to train, how good you really need to be in order to be able to do the art, and do the art beautifully. And that’s one of the things that kendo sensei are constantly, constantly hammering at you about. It’s not enough that you hit somebody on one of the target areas then you think you’ve scored. You have to hit them the right way. You have to hit them with technique that’s appropriate. Your stance needs to be good, your focus needs to be good. Years and years ago I heard about some kendoka who were at a special training session and they had, I think it was a Japanese national championship winner who was there, you know, giving them pointers. And they were like, “Oh God, you know, how do we get as good as you?” and he said to them, “Make your kendo beautiful.” And that’s the key. So the lesson for kendo, as I said there’s a lot of sparring in it and is that in order to be really successful in sparring you have to strive not simply to score points. You have to keep your focus on the art itself and trying to make it beautiful. The other important thing that you learn in kendo is just how much there is to learn. No matter how far you’re going and how long you’re training and
how hard you’re doing it that you’re constantly, constantly challenged to improve, to get better, to get better, to get better. So, yeah, the whole idea of getting a black belt or getting a dan grade is all nice – it’s good. It’s an appropriate milestone. But you never stop learning and there’s always room for improvement. And that’s driven home every time you step out on the floor in kendo because there’s always somebody, at least in my experience, who can beat your brains out.
Tim: [chuckle] Yeah, that’s a good lesson. Now, I’ve never asked this question before, but I kind of want to throw it out there to see what kind of answer I might get. But this last one I kind of want to leave on is, “What do you think your life would be like if martial arts was not a part of it, you’ve never started training?”
John: Wow. You know, I think, it’s a really interesting question because it’s very difficult for me to even think about…
John: …but I would say that, I’m not sure then where my studies would have led me. I am not sure, well, I think the impact it’s had on me physically is an important one. You now, I’d be even more of a wreck than I am now. I think… I think I’ll be a less, a less integrated and less balanced person than I am now because obviously you have the, you know martial arts are arts of integration in one way and I don’t mean to portray myself as a totally integrated guy but the experience of connecting the mind and the body, of pursuing a particular discipline, and a discipline that I find challenging, it is just has been transformative in some ways. You know, in academic terms, I’ve always been good at school. That’s like, what I’m good at. Which is why I stayed in school forever.
John: However, studying the martial arts, it was fascinating but really challenging. I’m not a natural athlete. I’m not somebody who, as a kid, was tremendously active. So that the martial arts, in some ways, helped me change, helped me get more oriented towards physicality in my life but also made me value the whole idea of integration. So, jeez, it’s a great question, actually, where would you be if the martial arts, you know, weren’t in your life, you know, I’d probably weigh 400 pounds and maybe sitting on a rocking chair, reading, you know, reading graphic novels or something. You know?
Tim: Great, well, I’m definitely going to put all of these links up for your books with the podcast, and I appreciate you being on the show today.
John: My pleasure to be with you and I appreciate the links, and hopefully some of the listeners would be intrigued enough to take a look at some of the novels.
Tim: Yeah, yeah definitely. Are there any thoughts you would like to leave us with before we part?
John: I think the thought I would leave them probably reiterate some of the things I've said is that the martial arts can be a completely transformative experience for people, if they’re willing to invest the time and care and effort into it and really pursue it in a way that’s going to, I think, going to honor their teachers and honor the arts that they’re studying.
Tim: Well, thanks again, John. I really appreciate it.
John: Tim, my pleasure. Anytime.