Bujutsu Fighting Gangs in East Timor
Written by Gaku Homma
January 5th, 2008
Wherever I teach, I usually begin with two thoughts.
“Human beings make the martial arts; the martial arts do not make human beings”.
“Bujutsu (martial fighting techniques) have been developed from man’s human instinct for survival. Budo or the Way of the Martial Arts has developed from man’s search for self”.
I have had the honor to visit many countries, especially underdeveloped countries, and have met many martial artists as they practice “on the front lines” in their native communities.
It has been fascinating for me to explore the development of the martial arts around the globe and to study the function and standing of the martial arts in local communities in relation to the social structures, cultural influences, religious beliefs and political environments in each country I have visited.
I have discovered that many of the challenges and problems are the same even in different countries with different cultural backgrounds, and that the martial arts have developed in many countries along similar lines. It is with this experience, and my 34 years of experience as a martial art instructor in the United States, that have formed the basis for my observations and opinions of the martial art situation in East Timor.
From November 17-22, 2007 I visited East Timor to teach Aikido. I was able to visit this faraway island country at the invitation of Sung Ju-hwan Sensei. Mr. Sung Ju-hwan is an instructor for the Korean Aikido Federation in South Korea under Ikam Yoon Sensei (www.aikido.co.kr) also just completed a tour of duty in East Timor as a United Nations Police Officer under UNPOL (UN Integrated Mission in East Timor). Mr. Sung is also a skilled security and marksmanship instructor and was sent to East Timor to train others on a one year tour of duty.
The country of East Timor (Timor-Leste) is home to the TAF or Timor-Leste Aikido Federation which has a current membership of about 30 practicing men, women and children. The TAF began in 2003 when an Italian Aikidoist was stationed in East Timor for about four months. Mr. Yoshikazu Wada, sent to East Timor by JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) practiced at the Azabu dojo under Kosaku Takano Sensei and volunteered his time to teach Aikido in East Timor during his off-duty hours from 2005 until 2006.
The year 2006 in East Timor was marked by civil unrest, internal war and the disruption of most civilian activities. It was during this time that all foreign residents were ordered to evacuate East Timor by all governments of origin. Wada Sensei worked as long as he could teaching Aikido until he was forced to leave in April of 2006. Aikido was not practiced again until the arrival in March 2007 of Sung Ju-hwan Sensei who reinitiated the program with returning Mr Wada and Mr. Ziad Ysuf Abuamer. Mr. Ziad Abuamer is an instructor practicing Aikido in Alexandria, Egypt under the Egypt Aikido Association and Kenji Kumagai Shihan who was also sent for active duty in East Timor as a UNPOL peace keeping officer in 2007.
In 2002, the Japanese Self Defense Military also came to East Timor to assist the UN in its peace keeping efforts for a two-year period. When they left in 2004, they left behind tatami mats used for their Judo practice which have been very useful for the practice of Aikido in East Timor today.
There is a lot of information available on the history of East Timor, but in a simple summary, the history of East Timor can be described as tumultuous. In 1999, violence erupted domestically in East Timor by anti-independence groups resisting departure from Indonesia; leaving many dead and over 150,000 as internal refugees. Today 39 countries have supplied 1,623 soldiers to serve as peacekeepers and nation builders with the United Nations in East Timor. A UN civilian staff of about 400 and a local Timorese support staff of about 10,000 works to keep our world’s newest independent country on its feet.
This struggle for independence in East Timor has had an interesting facet. According to local authorities, there are 15 to 20 gangs in East Timor that practice Bujutsu martial art fighting techniques under the title of the “Martial Arts.” Among these groups, fighting is a constant, and fighting to the death is a common occurrence. Much of the UNPOL’s time is spent policing what they call “the Martial Art War” in East Timor. This, as you can imagine, gives the martial arts a very bad name in this area. These gangs do not practice Budo. They are groups of young fighters who practice Bujutsu fighting techniques, and with a deadly attitude.
The average salary for foreign UNPOL Police is $3,000.00 US per month. Civilian advisors sent to East Timor earn on average $7000.00 per month. Locals hired by the United Nations as policemen for example earn twice the salary of the local police at $140 per month versus a local policeman’s salary of $70 US. This means at current UN intervention levels over 4 million dollars per month is being spent in East Timor mostly to quell violent attacks by rival “Martial Art” gangs. For East Timor locals, $1 US per day is considered as an average salary. In this kind of economy, the massive amounts of resources being spent on controlling these “Martial Art Wars” seems wasteful indeed. Think of what could be done to improve the local community in the way of education, medical assistance, social services, infrastructure development etc. if resources were not being used in an endless attempt to quell the violence. I believe that this “Martial Art” gang problem must be fixed before East Timor can emerge as a whole united independent nation. We need to figure out a way to change the mind and direction of these martial art gang leaders for any progress to be made.
In tackling this issue I think it is important to first examine the allegations. Is it correct to blame most of East Timor’s problems on these martial art Bujutsu gangs? Why has the label of “Martial Art Wars” been associated with these groups? What are these groups fighting about?
I think it is most important to examine these labels carefully and to look behind them to examine the true problems and the true origins of the issue. .
In Japan, the term “Martial Arts” incorporates the concept of Budo. The concept of Budo is a Japanese concept incorporating Do; meaning the way or path of the Martial Arts which includes moral reflection and higher philosophical thinking about the journey or path of the martial artist, not just the resulting mastery of physical techniques. The “highly educated” advisors and professional consultants sent by the United Nations to East Timor seem to have had their own misunderstandings about the difference between Budo and Bujutsu. The problems associated with the martial art gangs in East Timor and how they are dealt with differ depending on each advisors background, experience and education on the subject.
Fighting martial arts such as Bujutsu, Kakutogi and others have developed all over the world. These fighting arts are NOT based on the Japanese concept of Budo. They are based on the primitive instincts of man’s physical survival and need for protection. These are based on technical prowess and physical superiority without much thought or reflective philosophy. There are always winners and losers in these arts, and success can be measured in the infliction of pain, injury or even death.
We need to make a clear distinction between Budo and Bujutsu for the purposes of understanding the theories related to in this article and played out in reality in East Timor. The Martial Arts referred to in East Timor are arts of Bujutsu and are not related to Japanese Budo.
While in East Timor I learned of an agent report on the rebuilding of East Timor dated Sept 2006. If this report is correct, it lists the population for East Timor at the time as 940,000. It was reported that there were 29,000 young people in East Timor at that time that were registered members of Bujutsu martial art fighting gangs. It was also estimated that there were 9000 additional unregistered youths affiliated with these fighting gangs. The capital city of Dili has 13 districts, and each of the martial art gangs has branches established in each district in Dili.
According to this report, if correct, most martial art gang activity occurs with the involvement of a high percentage of the population. The report went on to qualify that the majority of criminals arrested in East Timor were members of these martial art gangs. With such a high percentage of Bujutsu gang members in the population, a high percentage of criminals makes logistical sense. It means that in this volatile environment and company of 29,000 people, some of these members might also be soldiers or even police. However you read the statistics, this report gives an impression that is clear: Bujutsu fighting gangs in East Timor are BAD NEWS.
I think that labeling these bujustu fighting gangs as BAD will not stop the problems in East Timor and will only serve to agitate the situation. BAD labels challenges members of these groups to believe more in their own leaders, recoiling from these insults with an emphasized sense of stubborn bravado. The sense of loyalty in these types of Bujutsu groups should not to be equated with a normal blend of common sense, common loyalty and reality. Desperation in these Bujutsu groups creates a furthering of the bonds of loyalty and negative labels only serve to encourage this.
Where then, do these Bujutsu fighting gangs originally get their techniques and ideas? From my experience as an Aikido instructor who has traveled to many parts of the world teaching Aikido and working with other styles of martial artists, my conclusion is that what has resulted in “Martial Art Wars” in East Timor and similar problems in other countries came from the movies and Hollywood…
In the Nicaraguan countryside I met a group of martial artists that were wearing handmade keiko gis, what looked like a hakamas, carrying homemade nunchuks and sticks and called themselves the “Samurai Gorilla.” I have met many of these kinds of groups in my travels who have developed their own surprising, sometimes scary and sometimes outright humorous interpretations of the martial arts. One thing they all had in common? They were all very, very serious about their practice.
In developed countries, especially in highly populated areas, after a new martial art movie hits the theaters, there is usually an increase in the number of new students at local community dojos. We saw this ourselves after the release of “Above the Law” (an Aikido-based martial art fighting movie) in Denver many years ago. You can tell these new students dream of learning the super stunts they saw in the movies but at least there is the opportunity in a structured dojo environment for students to realize that these expectations are not based in reality but what they have been told by Hollywood.
Those that live in isolation away from developed urban centers have little chance to learn the true validity of the martial art movies that make their way into their towns and villages. They have little information and no experience from which to judge. The psychological reality of their own conditions promotes insecurity, especially if they are living in areas plagued by poverty, violence and political instability. It is easy in this kind of environment to idolize the heroes in these “martial art” action movies. A cult-like mentality is not hard to emerge in the minds of Bujutsu gangs who have little else to rely on. Sometimes the leaders of these Bujutsu gangs manage to copy and develop a high level of technical proficiency (however mutated) in the martial arts they see on the silver screen; adopting the attitude of fighting to the death literally with their own concepts of honor. These gangs become a symbol of psychological confidence for the young people in their communities, and the more grotesques and intimidating these groups are, the better. Bujutsu uniforms bear patches of skulls and other frightening symbols. Tattoos and scars are a badge of honor. Initiation into these gangs requires a commitment to violence and divides the community by pitting one group against the others. If you think about it, this scenario is not so different from some of the problems evident in developed countries in other parts of the world.
It is not surprising to me that Bujutsu-styled martial arts are on the rise around the world or that the focus of these martial arts on peak performance and outlandish toughness has taken hold at an increasing rate; even to the point of violence and death.
If one cannot buy a toy new, one makes one in its liking from
what one has available with the tools of imagination and ingenuity.
I have had a lot of experiences with martial artists in many parts of the world, and by no means have all of my experiences been negative. I have met athletes, Olympians and community leaders that have come from these kind of Bujutsu fighting gangs; men and women who have risen to become a source of pride for their communities instead of a source of loyalty for the misguided. In East Timor there are 29,000 young people interested in these Bujutsu martial arts. I think if you looked carefully there are good people among them too.
As a tactic for dealing with the East Timor martial art Bujutsu gangs, authorities of UNPOL have been trying to introduce “real” Budo martial arts to East Timor in an attempt to dissuade the Bujutsu groups from their violent behavior. Authorities do not believe that the Bujutsu fighting gangs base their skills on the martial arts at all, relying instead on methods of brutality and weaponry of destruction. While positive in general, I have two concerns about this approach. In order to reach these Bujutsu gangs I think it is important to show them respect. To antagonize these groups my making them feel that their Bujutsu styles are inferior or not valid will not achieve a positive result. My concern would be that the next war might be between the Bujutsu fighting groups AND the Budo martial art groups which would nullify any attempt to quell the violence already prevalent in East Timor.
If a person needs protection from starvation, poverty, political conflicts or racial conflict, human instinct tells us to make ourselves scary and intimidating. The Bujutsu fighting gangs in East Timor have been used for just such a purpose, facilitating an attitude of physical and emotional protection. Images of dragons, shiny knives and tattoos all go toward glorifying this principal of protectionism. We need to understand this aggressive defensive posture. If we approach these Bujutsu fighting gangs by telling them they are wrong and incorrect I fear it will just further serve to isolate and insult them. I also am concerned that if current efforts to teach “correct” Budo matial arts ARE successful and young people begin to leave their old Bujutsu groups to pursue Budo martial arts that the Bujutsu leaders might escalate in their violent tactics to protect their positions and own organizations. Escalation in this case could lead to more terrorist-like activities using a higher degree of weapons meant for destruction. This is something we need to consider carefully if pursuing this course of action.
There are other mitigating factors commonly known in East Timor that add to the problem with the Bujutsu martial art gangs. There are people to be found in the shadows behind the conflict between gangs that may benefit politically or economically by the struggles between these gangs. I have seen this in other countries; a component of underground involvement from outside groups is not an uncommon occurrence. The benefits may vary from place to place but not the influence or the results.
I have already written in this article about the discrepancy between salaries of UNPOL staff and local East Timor natives. With about 2,000 UN Police, civilian and diplomatic staff and Australian and New Zealand military in East Timor, the economy runs on the US dollar and the US dollar is even used as the national currency. All foreigners residing in East Timor pay for goods and services at rates similar to those found in the US. For soldiers or foreign staff members to buy a hamburger for example costs about $10 US. The same hamburger for a local costs about $1.
There is an interesting example of the amplified revenue stream created by foreign presence on East Timor: If there was an accident on the road where a goat was killed for example, the the foreigner must pay a fine of $300 for killing the goat. . A pig brings $400, a dog $200 and a chicken $50. Compared to the local standard economy these are huge price tags for farm animals and wonderful windfall for the locals. It is not hard to imagine then that if an animal is accidentally hit on the road, that there is usually more than one “owner” that shows up asking for the settlement.
Of the UNPOL police in East Timor, only a few are from countries like Japan and Korea. While I was there, there were only two from Japan. Most of the international peace keepers are from other underdeveloped countries where a policeman’s salary might be $200-$300 per month. At a pay rate of $3,000 per month, these servicemen and women can earn enough in a one or two year deployments to build a very nice house back home. I have seen some of these houses in other underdeveloped countries and they are commonly referred to as “UN Mansions”.
Not only are the prices for food and animal casualties escalated for foreigners, rental rates in East Timor compete on the high side on an international scale. The rental rate for a one bedroom apartment hotel in Dili is the same or more as a one bedroom apartment in downtown Denver. The owner of the apartment building where I stayed on my visit in November does not live in East Timor, but for his 1 star level long-stay hotel he is making tens of thousands of dollars of revenue per month. I would bet that the owner of this building is not in any hurry to have the current “Martial Art War” situation resolved; it would mean a large loss of revenue for him if Foreign Service work in East Timor came to an end.
The economic benefits of the “Martial Art Wars” in East Timor are not limited to only local or personal benefits for individuals. On the international level, there are large oil fields located under the oceans surrounding East Timor. Having East Timor caught up in its own internal problems keeps this fledgling country from gaining international power and pressing its neighbors for its share of the oil and mineral resources within its boundaries. Therefore on an international level too there might be neighboring countries that are also not so eager to have this “Martial Art War” come to an end. Please don’t misunderstand me. I understand a little about world politics and there are always these kinds of factors in play on the international stage. It is not unusual nor am I condemning this, it is just interesting to consider.
My hope is for the 29,000 young people in East Timor. I hope for true understanding of their situation, how it came to be and all of the factors that might affect it. I wish for a light of hope and positive direction for their future.
Some readers might question why we should even care about the Bujutsu fighting gangs in East Timor. I imagine that the victims and the families of victims in East Timor will never forgive them. I firmly believe however that this situation in East Timor is a testimonial to the state of the development of the martial arts in our world today and I believe it is worthwhile to not only try to help in this situation but for the sake of the future of all martial arts to understand the evolution of how the martial arts in this country have developed in this destructive direction.
The Budo martial arts were first developed in Japan incorporating exclusive Japanese Samurai values and sense of honor. With the introduction of Bruce Lee, Hollywood took hold of the martial arts and created superheroes out of actors and stuntmen with a vast repertoire of exotic and unrealistic fighting forms. These action movies and their heroes have spread like wildfire not only throughout the United States but to countries ALL over the globe. For many of the political and individual reasons outlined in this article, the influence of these Hollywood movies have found their way into the fabric of the most far removed communities; sometimes with increasingly disastrous results. As a Japanese martial artist I have never been a fan of the Hong Kong and Hollywood promoters and producers who started this Martial Art Fighting boom through their creations. Their motivation was of course one of profit not ethics and their movies have increasingly descended into new depths of moral depravity and merciless violence. The effects of these movies sadly are now being reflected in the lives of the world’s innocents.
People living in small towns and villages have access to the kind of “entertainment” found in the glorification of killing and maiming and yet do not have the access to the educational tools and comparative teachings of morality that gives them the ability to discern that these movies are fiction not fate. They believe in the reality of the martial arts they see in the movies and have begun to adopt them as their own. One example of this is the growing popularity of “no holds barred” full contact, caged fighting competitions that can be seen most any day on television.
The progression of this ongoing phenomenon I believe is partly the responsibility of the Budo Instructors who have for the most part raised little objection to the development of the distortion of their arts. For you see, Budo martial art instructors have also benefited short term from this phenomenon with an increase in student levels; misguided or not.
How then is peace accomplished in East Timor? Who can accomplish this? I think the answer lies in opening the minds of the young leaders of these Bujustsu fighting gangs to give them a wider view of the possibilities their martial arts might have on improving the conditions of their families and even their own country. It is the practice of Budo and the philosophy of Budo that can change the direction for these leaders. I think it is also important for the political leaders in East Timor to strive for improving their leadership and increasing social moral standards by not backing or using Bujutsu fighting gangs as private militias or for political leverage.
The most important thing is to introduce these principles of Budo without diminishing the Bujutsu leaders or the fighting arts they have developed. The introduction of Budo martial arts needs to be presented without challenge to the established Bujutsu groups. Trying to recognize, negotiate and harmonize with the existing Bujutsu groups is a more feasible approach, utilizing respect for what the 29,000 young people in East Timor are interested in learning. A first step might be to provide a centralized location for all existing Bujutsu group to practice. A show of respect for the techniques of the existing East Timor Bujutsu leader could be accomplished by creating a NEW government-recognized East Timor Martial Art from the technical expertise each group currently excels in, creating a team out of the leaders, each leading in their chosen arena of skill. One leader could be in charge of weapon techniques, one leader in charge of hand to hand technique, one leader in charge of wrestling techniques etc. etc. This would give each current leader a chance to work together instead of against one another to create this NEW officially recognized East Timor Martial Art.
“The genie is out of the bottle” as the saying goes and it is too late to try to negate or diminish what has already been created in these Bujutsu groups. A better idea is to try to find a way to unite them with a sense of individual and national pride and accomplishment.
One can see only by candlelight in the predawn hours in Kathmandul, Nepal. As the dawn breaks, figures moving about in the shadows can be seen in the temples and shrines as they prepare for morning prayers. Street vendors arrange their daily wares for display on the coming bustling streets. It is 6:00 on a cold February morning.
The first level underneath the Dasarath Rangasala Soccer Stadium is divided into spaces for vendors but at 6:00 each morning over 20 different martial art organizations come for practice. The spaces overflow with students spilling out onto the outdoor field and by the training pool. On average 500 to 600 young people come every morning before their days of work or study to practice diligently the different styles of martial arts offered in Nepal. I had never seen this before and heard that sometimes up to 1,000 young people participate in this simultaneous practice by different martial art groups. The Nepalese government recognized a need to organize these different martial art groups (similar to East Timor) and organized a central location and funding for participating groups and official acknowledgement and licensing through the Government Sports and Education Department. This centralized organization by the Nepalese Sports and Education Department is a marvelous working example of a successful solution to a similar growing problem. Now all of the different martial art groups practice side-by-side (if not together) under a watchful and encouraging eye.
The Budo martial arts used to be the exclusive property of the Japanese. Today Japan is losing this standing on an international stage. Even in Japan, the Japanese Sumo wrestling champions are not Japanese and Japanese arts with international organizations such as Judo, have current presidents and board members that are of other national origin. Korean and American teams win over the Japanese in international Kendo competitions and the international committee headquarters for the original Japanese art of Karate are now in France. I think that Aikido too will not forever be organizationally structured through Japan. It is a changing world, and someday I think that Japanese Budo instructors will have a much less defined and diminished role if this trend is not realized and acted upon.
Why is this happening to the Japanese Budo instructors? I believe that it is because we have become passive in a sense of superiority and ethnocentrisms. The power of the “Do” in Budo has been lost in the competitiveness of today’s international stage. Today it is the winning that is important and the winner is strong. The path or “Do” or samurai spirit of the artist is no longer of great consequence. It is now the win, not the way, and we need to do something about this. It is an illusion for Japanese martial artists to enter the world stage wearing what would be the equivalent of samurai armor, their hair in a top knot and carrying swords to compete in our modern sports arena type environment. Today many Japanese use the concept of Budo as a shield to protect them from reality; a defense that is no longer proving effective. Today Budo instructors from countries other than Japan only understand this sense of Japanese Budo as something easily diminished and respond to the Japanese with patronizing empathy. This empathy is sometimes misunderstood by the Japanese as true understanding of Budo which further disables appropriate growth in Japanese Budo instructors and hinders their ability to regain their leadership role in our world community
Martial Art Tournament organizers today do not care a great deal about the philosophy of Budo. They are looking for performance and a shot at the gold. Winning has become the only value and the Japanese have either not recognized this or are recognizing it very late in the game.
I have been talking about this for over 20 years and I believe this is an important time for the legacy of this generation of Budo instructors in our history. From our past, Japanese Budoka made grand advancements in the martial arts by making the Budo arts FROM the physical arts of Bujutsu. This was a profound development in the evolution of the martial arts and is now a development that is being threatened and reversed As Budo martial art instructors today we need to be thinking about the effects that the recent reversal in this evolution from Budo back once again to the prevalence of Bujustu has had on our world.
When I awoke that morning, I could tell that something was wrong. In the sky, Australian military helicopters hovered slow and deliberately, low on the horizon. UN police vehicles and military cars moved in quickly through the streets.
I had a meeting scheduled that morning with the principal of the police academy. At the meeting, I was told what was going on. East Timor’s President Halta (the second president since East Timor gained its independence as a nation in 2002) had been attacked at his palace and shot. The Prime Minister had also been shot in a second attack while in transit from his home. Luckily, neither shot had proved fatal. I was already scheduled to leave East Timor that day, and I was lucky that my flight was scheduled to leave before a complete state of emergency was declared and travel prohibited.
This was not the first time I have been in a situation like this. In 2005 I was lucky to get out of Kathmandu, Nepal during a political coup and government take-over. Comparing the two, this situation in East Timor was a little calmer, yet concerning all the same as anti-government elements attempted to assassinate the president.
I am not a military or political analyst nor am I a religious activist. I am, as I always have said, just a martial artist. I have been lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to many parts of the world, and have made many friends in many countries. I have not collected dojos in my travels to become direct affiliates of mine or of Nippon Kan’s; that is not my style nor is it my purpose. I enjoy the freedom I have in my activities, a freedom I would not have if my purpose was to recruit satellite affiliates. It is much better this way.
I am like a traveling performer. I like very much going to different countries when invited and I do my best to give and share what I know of Aikido wherever I go. My reward is only in how well my teaching is received. Applause at the end of practice is enough for me. I never receive payment for teaching. If my teaching is acceptable, students clap, if it is not, there is no sound. I enjoy the challenge of visiting the front lines in all kinds of climates, social and physical conditions and teaching the best way I can. Sometimes there are many students, sometimes there are not even mats to practice on or an uke to practice with. I have no wild ambitions to be a great teacher with hundreds of dojos. I go to practice and humbly respect the opportunities I have had. Without this strong conviction and humble approach I would not be able to visit countries suffering from political and social instabilities; or countries where Aikido is not a familiar art. Wherever I visit, I strictly adhere to my rules about not getting involved in local politics, social or religious causes. My purpose is to focus on Aikido and the small part I can play in its development in the world.
In East Timor however, the situation is clearly different in the sense that the martial arts are directly involved with the social and political problems of this new nation. Even sticking to my principal belief of focusing only on the role of the martial arts in a given country’s society, in East Timor this leads right back to a place of turmoil and the manifestations of unrest.
Before returning to East Timor I did a lot of research on East Timor’s history, current political and social conditions, and international relationships with neighboring countries. This research helped me to identify problems I wished to verify personally on my return visit. One of the primary questions that continued to plague me after my first visit to East Timor was about the so called “Martial Art Wars.” I still wanted to learn if these wars were true and if so, how and why.
In Part I of Bujutsu Fighting Gangs of East Timor I reported that there were 29,000 young people involved in the martial art gangs of East Timor. I also reported that these 29,000 young people had been labeled as the “root of all evil” by local officials and the cause of all problems in East Timor.
I came to East Timor this second time suspecting that the martial arts had been given a very bad name in East Timor and that this was being manipulated and used by others for their own benefit. In East Timor, all social problems, even poverty, illiteracy and violence are being blamed on the “martial art war problem”. “The Martial Art Wars” have become a political catch-all for all social ills in East Timor and little mention is made of other internal government deficiencies, insurgent influences, ethnic conflicts, corruption and other ills that plague the country.
One underlying reason in having a named culprit of ills like
the Bujutsu Martial Art Gangs is that it keeps an international
focus and monetary assistance in East Timor through the United
Nations’ involvement. The UN may be hesitant to get involved
in local ethnic social or political problems but seem readily
available to battle a large bag of ills under the name of “The
Martial Art Wars.” UN involvement in turn helps the struggling
nation keep its Democratic Nation Status. Fueling a martial art
war might be the brain child of international and local political
strategists, but as a martial artist, I am not happy with this
In Bujutsu Fighting Gangs in East Timor Part I, I introduced Sung Ju-hwan, a UN Police officer, instructor and Aikidoist on duty in East Timor. When Sung Ju-hwan first arrived he was briefed on the horrible problems with the martial art gangs. He spoke to me of his experiences. “Everything bad happening in East Timor was blamed on the martial arts. The martial arts had become synonymous with all social evils in the world. I felt ashamed when I arrived here because I too am a martial artist. I tried to start an Aikido class in Dili, but even before I started, other UN police officers, friends and sempai told me it was not only a waste of time, but would put me in danger. They laughed at the fact I even wanted to try. They made me feel like I was a bad person because I practice martial arts. I did not like the way the martial arts were perceived.”
As I returned to East Timor as a martial artist, I wanted to take a second look at the reported 29,000 young people supposedly involved with these martial art wars. I wanted to see if I could find the compounding factors of this problem from their perspective.
Looking objectively at the martial arts practice in East Timor, the understanding of the principles of the martial arts is at a very low level based more on the teachings of Hollywood and the violent action scenes of Bruce Lee or Steven Segal movies than true masters of these arts.
A truer mission to end the violence among the young people in East Timor under the guise of martial arts is to correct the misunderstanding and the differences between Budo and the Bujutsu fighting techniques they are practicing. This is a crucial responsibility for the martial art instructors in East Timor. If this understanding is not corrected, the state of the martial arts there will never improve.
The status and integration of Budo and Budoka into society varies widely from country to country; depending among other factors the way the martial arts were introduced to a particular society. For example, especially in Hollywood, the martial arts have been portrayed both as vicious and violent in cheap action films on one side and as an art to be used for honor and self development on the other side as in the classic “Karate Kid.”
Unfortunately it seems to be standard in underdeveloped or politically unstable countries that the more aggressive and violent southeast Asian martial art movies prevail, offering and exploiting the a very negative portrayal of the martial arts. Even more unfortunate is the fact that under the sometimes dismal circumstances in underdeveloped countries, these movies are empowering and popular. Not only are the young and deprived getting their information on the martial arts from low level action movies, the elite classes, government officials, educators and social leaders who have not formally studied the martial arts get their information from these same sources, and base their opinions on these images as well.
What has resulted in all levels of society in East Timor sounds
in itself like the title of a low budget movie--“The Martial
Art Wars of East Timor”--a situation that exemplifies the
recent history of the teaching of the martial arts all over the
To more clearly understand what has happened in East Timor I would like to review the history of the martial arts since the introduction of Bruce Lee and other martial art stars in Hollywood. One point that is clear to me is that the level of understanding of true Budo (martial art spirit) not Bujutsu (fighting techniques) has declined dramatically on an international scale since Hollywood became involved in the portrayal of the martial arts. Of course there are instances where Budo has been portrayed and accepted in positive and true ways but that would be the focus of another article for another day.
Let’s start with America.
Nippon Kan headquarters in Denver, Colorado (of which I am founder and chief instructor) has a cultural tour program with Denver and front-range elementary, middle schools and high schools to promote awareness of Japanese culture. Every year approximately 3,000 young people tour the Nippon Kan facility to learn about Japan, and the tour includes among other activities an Aikido demonstration. Thirty years ago when Nippon Kan first opened in Denver, we did a lot of Aikido demonstrations in schools, and other outside community facilities and I have observed by interacting with these children that their reactions to the Aikido demonstrations has changed over the years. This change I think typifies and reflects the changes in the understanding of the martial arts in general in the United States and internationally.
Today while children watch the aikido demonstrations performed for them at Nippon Kan they laugh or clap their hands. This reaction concerns me. They seem to see the demonstration as a movie, television show or video game; it is entertainment for them. Thirty years ago, children were quietly attentive, sometimes a little scared or shocked when they watched an Aikido demonstration. Their eyes would grow wide, and they would hold their hands to their mouths, some huddling closer to their friends, others holding their breath. What they were feeling inside was easy to read. What children today feel inside is not so easy to understand. Children today do not have this kind of reaction. In today’s world, martial art violence is common in movies and video games, making children numb to consequences of actual physical confrontation. They watch the Aikido demonstrations today like they are comedy routines, with no sense of the physical reality of the demonstrations. Most of the children that visit Nippon Kan today have rarely if ever experienced pain, heat, cold, hunger, severe illness, loud noise or bad smelling places, mosquitoes, flies or other uncomfortable situations first hand. They have only had these kinds of experiences and are familiar with them visually through movies and television. Children of today laugh when they see one of our students twist a fellow student’s wrist and throw them through the air into a break fall. I find it disturbing that children have become this anaesthetized by the modern media that permeates our societies today. Parents are naturally shocked and horrified if a school shooting takes place resulting in death or suicide but do not seem to make the connection between the make-believe world of violence they are exposed to daily on television and in the movies and the unfortunate manifestations that can take place in real life. As I have said, I believe Hollywood is a source of this problem that needs to be further explored by parents and educators alike.
There are many parents today that watch violent martial art movies with their children and then drag them off to a dojo to learn the very same skills of violence. They play video games with their children; killing off “bad guys” and think this is cool. Why do parents today encourage such exposure to violence for their children? I believe it is because this generation of parents themselves grew up in the original Bruce Lee era so they as well do not have a true sense of the reality on the subject. They are passing on to the next generation the distorted perspectives on the martial arts that they too grew up with as children.
For the past 30 years, the practice and presentation of the Budo martial arts have steadily declined, losing a philosophical focus and reverting back to Bujutsu forms of fighting techniques. Parents and children alike have grown accustomed to the martial arts as a form of violent entertainment. The ability to discern what is real and what is imaginary has been lost and many different social problems have developed from this misrepresentation.
During the 1970’s, the Japanese were always the “bad guys” in Hong Kong-produced martial art movies, which more often than not were filmed in the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Los Angeles(AB: I don’t think that’s true. Honk Kong cinema was almost universally filmed in Hong Kong. It would have been enormously expensive to shoot in LA or Chinatown. Bruce Lee never filmed a movie in the U.S.). A typical storyline for these early martial art epics would revolve around the plight of mom and pop restaurant owners struggling to maintain ownership of their restaurant in the face of threats from Japanese with bad attitudes. Mom and Pop would put in a call to Hong Kong, and Bruce Lee (mom and pop’s nephew) would soon be on his was to save the day. He would arrive at the airport in the USA dressed in his Kung Fu outfit, ready to rumble with the bad Japanese guys. The story always ended the same way. Bruce Lee would beat up and triumph over all of the Japanese bad guys who always wore black uniforms and keiko gis.
During the 1970’s, San Francisco’s Asian population was made up primarily of Chinese and Japanese Americans. Internationally, Japan’s economy was going through a boom period and the Japanese were behaving rather financially boastful on the international stage. Under this global economic scenario, other Asian populations enjoyed beating up the Japanese in the movies out of a sense of jealousy over Japanese economic prosperity. There were also lingering hard feelings and stereotyped ill will left over from WWII and the Japanese occupation of many parts of Asia. Thirty years ago, the Vietnamese and other Asian refugee populations were not as established in the United States as they are today, and in those earlier days, these communities struggled desperately to survive in their new surroundings. Powerful Asian martial art heroes like Bruce Lee and other South East Asian movie stars were held in high esteem as role models and also served as an outlet for the frustrations within their community’s circumstances.
For all of these Asian communities at this time in American history, the Americans were still the “good guys” and hosts in this new homeland. The Japanese then made a good target and outlet for the portrayal of violence actions and a release of frustration for these newly found Asian American communities. The negative portrayal of the Japanese in Asian martial art action movies of the day started a wave of movement that has torn at the image and philosophy of Japanese Budo martial arts ever since.
Movie story lines have long been used by countries all over the world to promote political positions; this is not unique only to Hollywood. War-time propaganda films have been around since WWI and in the United States in the 70’s and 80’s there were many Hollywood-produced movies that portrayed ethnic and international struggles with political overtones. There were movies about the takeover of American markets by Japanese auto manufacturers during the days the Japanese were buying up America as well as movies about an Italian-American boxer named Rocky who finally beats his Russian adversary during the cold war. Some of these movies have become and remain classics.
Fantasy, fiction, non-fiction or documentary, there is always damage to the community of whoever is portrayed as the bad guy on the “silver screen.” Beginning in the 70’s, non-Japanese Asian actors dressed in black keiko gis and choreographed martial art Bujutsu fighting techniques scenes. They called it Japanese Karate, butit was not, and it was not from Japan.
These movies were made on very low budgets; and as such the black-and-white uniforms made it easier to distinguish the good guys from the bad. Just like the hats in cowboy movies, whoever is wearing the black hat or the black uniform is the bad guy and it did not take long before Americans assimilated what they were seeing in these movies and formulated new assumptions about Japan and the Japanese. Some Americans at the time did not know there was any difference between China and Japan and I personally have had people ask me in the United States, what part of China Japan was in.
Bruce Lee’s United States acting debut came on a television drama that first aired in the United States in 1966 called The Green Hornet. In this fictional portrayal, Bruce Lee played the part of Mr. Kato, a Japanese American butler with martial art skills. The series was a hit and a boon for all Japanese martial art dojos in the United States at the time. It is was the popularity of this television drama that helped to launch the popularity of the martial arts in the United States and Japanese martial art instructors eagerly jumped on this bandwagon of popularity.
The authenticity and philosophical content of the Japanese martial arts as portrayed in the movies and television from the start was not protested by Japanese Karate and other Japanese martial art Budo instructors during these early years. Instead Japanese instructors took advantage of the newfound interest in the martial arts in the United States, even posting Bruce Lee posters in their dojos to attract new students, thus reaping new profits from this elevation in interest… however distorted. Japanese instructors mistakenly believed that the rising popularity of the martial arts might also be due to skills of the Japanese martial art teaching community when in actuality it was Bruce Lee on TV. Falling in step and in turn perpetuating the distortion of true Budo martial arts, Japanese instructors picked up the torch and took the opportunity to line their own pockets with proceeds from what has become a large part of the downfall of the true spirit of Budo in the martial arts not only in the United States, but around the world.
What began with Hong Kong and Hollywood martial art action movies took root in martial art dojos in the United States as some Japanese instructors embraced this new image and newfound influx of students. They changed their teaching to match the images portrayed in the movies, forsaking many of their own principal philosophies and disciplines. This furthered the decline of true Budo teaching, a lesson that many of these first-generation Japanese instructors in the United States did not learn until too late in their teaching careers. Many lost their way and lost their connection to their original Budo spirit by chasing a Hollywood dream. I know some of these instructors personally and have listened to them as they lamented “IF only there were one more movie boom…”.
Perpetuating this phenomena for further generations, some of these instructors produced students who also missed the essence of the true Budo spirit of their arts and without any sense of the loyalty commonly built between teachers and students, would break away from their instructors organizations at will to start their own money making enterprises.
In the end, some of this first generation of instructors in the United States not only destroyed their own careers, they damaged the very Budo martial arts they came to this country to teach. They cannot criticize the decline of the martial arts in the world today because they played a role in this decline by jumping on the Bruce Lee Boom Bandwagon and sacrificing their own integrity for profit. Now dojos sit idle and the massive wave of students are gone. Instead of understanding their own hand in their downfall they blame instead the influx of new Korean martial arts for stealing their business.
Since the 70’s, many martial art magazines and books have also hit the scene. Many of these publications have been filled with graphically detailed descriptions of deadly fighting techniques, even offering weapons of destruction for sale by mail order. Many of the articles are written by unqualified “instructors” without any attempts at authentication by publishers. Martial art magazines have long been filled with articles by “closet martial artists” with the credibility of the MySpace Internet sites of today. It is very concerning to me to think of the damage that can be inflicted by young people and adults with mail order weapons and “how to” instructions in a magazine. The publishers of these magazines seem to have thought much more about their profits than possible repercussions. It is even more concerning to me is that the name of Budo has been used to sell this junk, adding perceptibly to the degradation of the true Budo martial arts.
Following Bruce Lee, the next on the scene were the occult type martial arts typified by the Kung Fu TV Series (1972-1975) which focused on secret powers and secret knowledge in the martial art training of fictionalized Chinese monks. While at least the message had a better sense of honor, it also laid the way for any type of self-proclaimed guru or “master” to introduce his brand of secret knowledge through the yellow pages.
Next came the Ninja boom featuring the ones that can fly, walk up walls and cling upside down to ceilings with ease. With the introduction of these super Spiderman-like characters, the portrayal of the martial arts completely departed from the realms of Japanese Budo; becoming instead a gymnastic performing art that stretched even the greatest imaginations. Dojos opened that taught secret ninja techniques in the 80’s and performed special ceremonies for students in search of the supernatural. I have heard of dojos that seriously trained students in the art of becoming invisible and practiced regularly the skills of plucking flies out of the air with chopsticks. If I was to name this phenomenon I would have to call it the “brainwashed cult movie martial art syndrome.”
There was a story told by Buddha during the days he walked his path in shuygo (training) while a young man before his enlightment.
Once upon a time, there was an old man who earned his living by carrying people across the river on his back for a penny. It was a common practice in those days before bridges were commonplace. One day a traveler hailed to the old man to carry him across. When the old man agreed, the traveler walked across the river atop the water and jumped on his back. The old man soon shook the traveler off and yelled back at him. “No man walks on water. You are not a man.” With that the traveler changed from his human form back into a monster and slunk away under the waves.
A “monster” of profit-seeking hopped onto the back of Hollywood and Hong Kong in the 70’s in the form of the martial art movie boom that was not shaken off by those that knew there was something intrinsically wrong with the imagery that was being created. Today the Japanese Budo martial arts have paid the price of having ridden this monster down into the depths. What has resulted is the reversal of the Japanese Budo martial arts back to the fighting arts of Bujutsu all over the world. In the far corners of the earth, people have a mistaken and negative image of the martial arts fueled by worldwide exposure to these fantasies of the silver screen. The spirit and pride in Budo has been lost, swallowed by Bujutsu and other primitive forms of human combat such as the modern day manifestations of Pro Wrestling, Ultimate Fighting, Mixed Martial Art competitions and the like. On this path, what will we see next, a return to the Roman Coliseum watching men and animals fighting to the death? It is not so different today than in Roman times, the entertainments in both involve the same lust for blood, power and profit.
Once the transformation is complete, the contestants still wear keiko gis and black belts, but inside there is no heart or spirit of Budo left to find. What exists instead is a new generation of martial artists with training completely divorced from the true principals of Budo.
In early Japan’s history, the Japanese developed the fighting techniques of Bujutsu to make formidable warriors with strong physical and mental skills for war. There was something missing in the early Bujutsu arts and Bujutsu spirit which lacked the capacity for compassion in the pain or suffering of others. Practicing these techniques made formidable warriors but not artists who practiced Budo. A yearning for higher understanding added religious and philosophical training to the practice of the Japanese warriors resulting in the Japanese Budo arts.
There is a very distinct line that separates the two. Budo is the study of martial arts including higher reflection and compassionate thinking. Bujutsu is the study of martial art techniques used to maim and kill without thought of the suffering of others. It may take a great deal of time, but I feel it is very important to begin again the task of illuminating the differences between these two approaches to the study of the martial arts. Budo evolving once from Bujutsu and once again needs to rise to the forefront of our teaching. This should have been done all along but in my experience with martial art organizations there are a minority of instructors that do so.
Japanese Budo instructors of today may be confident in their physical and technical mastery of the Budo arts but have had a declining impact on the world’s image and practice of the martial arts. Language is one considerable international barrier especially when faced with the effects of the martial art movie industry. Another reason is a lack of conviction and adherence to principle, hopping on with the monster and riding the Hollywood wave of fame and fortune.
A side effect in Japan has been especially apparent in the traditional Japanese Karate society where I have heard instructors blame their dwindling student numbers on Korea who still claim to be the origin for the arts of Kendo, Judo and even Aikido. This historical point on the true origin of these arts has never been academically challenged and settled once and for all. Instead the Japanese martial art communities just complain emptily about Yamamoto Spirit or Samurai Spirit which without clarification compares to a rifle without bullets. Big show without impact or direction.
In international martial art organizations today most of the countries representatives speak English fluently. Many high-ranking Japanese instructors still speak little or no English which gives them less command at an international level. This inability to master the English language speaks to an underlying misdirected pride in all things Japanese; assuming that Japan will always hold command over the martial arts.
Bujutsu martial art groups and dojos have grown like wildfire all over the world, leaving the DO in BUDO behind in the process. Developed nations have sophisticated legal systems that can control violent behavior with the rule of law, but in underdeveloped countries the situation is different. Threads of lawlessness, corruption and resistance to control have begun to weave themselves into the fabric of world wide Bujutsu martial art practice in many countries of the world. Bujutsu artists earn a reputation of being uneducated, violent fearful by instigating endeavors like public fighting challenges, violent dojo take-overs, destroying property at national heritage sites by breaking bricks with their hands or even fighting exhibitions against animals. All of these demonstrations I have heard of or seen myself and are a poor representation of the power of the martial arts.
Citizens of other countries with less access to outside world influences yet with serious religious beliefs whether they be Catholic, Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist, are more sensitive to this kind of violence. They believe that what they see in these public displays of violence and in the movie theaters is true; that all martial arts and martial artists are bad people. With this kind of reputation, bad attracts bad and situations worsen everywhere.
I have personally visited countries plagued by internal conflict
and war. I have met fighting Bujutsu groups that did
not have much common sense or social morality much less any sense
of martial art Budo spirit or philosophy. I have also
met Bujutsu martial artists that seemed to have been
brainwashed by watching bad martial art movies and had developed
cult-like spirits. I always found these encounters to be very
unreal, even though to these people, in their circumstances they
were very real indeed. I reflected after such encounters that
behind every one of the local instructors that were teaching
these distorted variations of the martial arts, stood a Japanese Bujutsu instructor
who had promoted this kind of teaching; teaching that has spread
and evolved into teaching of violence and destruction complete
divorced from its origins in Budo.
Returning to the Bujutsu Fighting Gangs of East Timor, on this second visit to East Timor I sought to understand what the reported 29,000 people involved in the martial art gangs believed. I discovered that many of the groups had cult-like beliefs based on shamanistic powers and distinguished themselves with self mutilation. Mostly I learned that these groups did not attack each other, but spent their time either indoctrinating their own members or were involved as mercenaries for right-wing anti-government factions. Both ends of the spectrum seemed to be searching desperately for a sense of identity not only for themselves but an identity to show to the world. Some of their methods and motivations were similar in many ways to youth gangs in the United States. They as well had their own tagging systems of graffiti, hand signals and body tattoos to mark their associated identity and territory.
The capital city of Dili is different than other more remote areas I have visited in the sense that even in a city of widespread poverty, satellite dishes and antennas crowd the skyline. Everything from Yakuza movies to MTV is available to residents and much of the behavior of the Bujutsu martial art gangs was learned and reinvented from what was piped into to their households. The violent behavior emulated by the Bujutsu martial art gangs is not the natural behavior of the East Timor people.
Politics also plays a large role, as the Bujutsu Fighting gangs are led in many cases by the reorganized militia groups disbanded by the UN peacekeeping forces. What used to be open fighting militias became what today are camouflaged as private “security companies”-- Bujutsu gangs and religious groups. These phenomena I have seen in other underdeveloped countries as well.
I found it true that East Timor does have Bujutsu fighting gangs that do not base their practice in the concepts of Budo. There are some groups that have adopted techniques from original Indonesian martial arts and there are others that have developed their own style from a variety of different styles and origins. They use their Bujutsu gang activities to make themselves strong and to intimidate other groups, but I still believe there is a lot of potential for positive development in these young people. I do not believe it is fair to label or stereotype all 29,000 of them as “bad.” If we can find the positive in their fighting spirit, it could be used to rebuild their country and change the direction of their future.
It is the responsibility of all of the countries that are currently supporting the new democracy of East Timor to develop the potential in these young people. This is also the way of true martial art Budo.
For officials to label the resistance against the government in East Timor as just a “Martial Art War” I think is questionable and dismissive. There are many reasons for the civil unrest in East Timor and what is most concerning is the potential for manipulation and control of these groups for personal political advantage. Many benefit from maintaining the need for current UN and military assistance. Those who would exploit these martial art groups for their own political gain are much more dangerous than the Bujutsu gangs themselves.
I met one local leader in another country suffering from internal wars that would solicit the help of local militias from both sides to start fighting each other so that his village would receive government funds and other social aid. For him, this was a common tactic to help take care of his people and was executed fairly routinely without any sense of guilt or shame.
My final conclusion is that East Timor does not really have any “Martial Art War.” The problems in East Timor are no different than other parts of the world struggling with their own economic and political stability. For reasons involving race, religion, struggles for power, social equality or simply revenge, the reasons are the same everywhere. In East Timor, these problems just manifested themselves in an unusual way within the overly overt influences of the Bujutsu martial arts.
The official reports on the martial art wars in East Timor seem a bit like a Hollywood movie themselves. They seem to have been written by foreign observers and officials who had little or no martial art experience, drawing their conclusions based on their own personal biases with no more information than what they might have observed in movie theaters or in low-level Bujutsu dojos in their home countries. Some of these reports about the “Martial Art Wars” have also been released by the intelligence community, so possibly these reports are being used as a distraction. Their reports can be found with ease on the internet and in other publications so perhaps they are sending this message to the world to serve another purpose. Telling the world that there are martial art wars being waged in East Timor has brought aid from the UN and other sources that might not have been so readily available if the area as distressed for other reasons. Blaming all of the internal problems and violence in East Timor I found from my experiences is not truly realistic.
If the definition of a martial art gang or a “Martial Art War” is to use a bow or a stick in combat or practice forms of shamanistic type practice, then internal conflicts all over the world could be said to be “Martial Art Wars.” To stereotype conflicts by labeling them for their methods and not try to understand the underlying causes for problems is missing the point. What if those in conflict were throwing stones at one another? Would you call it a “stone throwing war?” Following this line of thinking there is no Martial Art War in East Timor. As I concluded in Bujutsu Fighting Gangs in East Timor Part I, I believe there are very real problems in East Timor, but these problems are being camouflaged and misrepresented by this catch all title. In East Timor’s case, this title of martial art war is a convenient way to solicit foreign aid and involvement.As long as it is successful in doing so, the problems will remain. Using the term of martial art wars is a clever ploy by politicians and government officials who use the bad images conjured up by this phrase to their benefit.
This situation does not honor all of the Budoka who sincerely practice the Budo martial arts around the world. This problem in East Timor is a perfect real life example of the resulting consequences of the actions of the martial art instructors that did not do enough to protest the images made by Hollywood and by instructors and dojos who promoted these images looking for profit and not the clarification of the art. It is our fault that the name and teaching of the martial arts has sunk lower than gang warfare in countries all over the world.On both of my visits to East Timor, I met many martial art leaders and instructors and I never felt in danger or ill at ease. All of the instructors I met were well mannered and showed me sincere respect as a Japanese martial artist. I hope that the young people in East Timor do not fall prey to the manipulation of outsiders. My advice to all of the young martial artists in East Timor is to avoid fighting; it is a waste. Work instead for what is good for you, your families and your country. Take a step back and think carefully before engaging in endless and self destructive distraction. If you continue to fight one another it only gives outside influences more of a chance to control your lives. I wish for peace in East Timor before the day comes when you wake up to find all your country’s resources and your spirit gone. Don’t let your future be taken like the sandalwood that once was so plentiful in East Timor.