originally posted April 11, 2002
Shita-ji & Shi-Age. This concept of “shita-ji” and “shi-age” is present in almost every traditional Japanese art. In polishing a sword blade, rough stones are used to correct the form and shape of the blade and remove any flaws. This initial step to correct the blade and prepare it for the final polish or “shi-age” is known as “shita-ji.” If the “shita-ji” is not done correctly or improperly or steps have been left out, it will always show up in the final polish or “shi-age.” Amateurs may not notice it because the blade will still appear shiney and the temper clearly visible. But an expert can tell immediately that the blade has not been polished properly or the polsih was done very cheaply. The inner beauty and quality is simply not there. More often than not, the initial or basic work is much more time consuming and difficult, than the final polish itself.
In throwing a bowl or vase, the clay must be prepared properly and this often takes much longer and involves more effort than actually throwing the vase itself. If the clay is not properly prepared, the final glaze will not hold or the whole piece will not do well in the firing.
In lacquer work as well, if the surface is not prepared properly (shita-ji), the application of the lacquer will be difficult and the desired result will never be achieved (shi-age).
In studying Japanese art, we learn to recognize the outer beauty of the work (shi-age) but we also learn to understand how well the inner workmanship has been executed or how well it has been constructed or put together (shita-ji).
In many ways, people and our training follow these same rules. We often judge a person by his outer appearances only (shi-age) but we never try to understand the inner person (shita-ji). Sometimes, the outer appearance of the bowl looks very good (shi-age) but many times, because it is not constructed well (shita-ji), we begin to see problems.
In a good handle wrap for the Japanese sword, for instance, the binding only gets better as you use it more and more. This means that the basic work has been properly executed. Sometimes, a sword handle wrap looks good at first, but when you begin to use it, it unravels or begins to looks bad beause we see that they started off with inferior materials.
Many, many years ago, I tried to encourage a new black belt by allowing him to teach class. He was so full of confidence and had good strength so he began to study other martial arts on the sly thinking that it would improve his own Aikido or impress everyone around him. He thought that he could hide his other training but it clearly showed up in his Aikido. Of course, when I could no longer have him teach class, he immediately quit the Dojo. For many students, it never occurs to them that studying Aikido more, is the way to improve one’s Aikido. We always think that “more (of something else) is always better.” Maybe most people can understand the “shi-age” because it is the most obvious and easiest to see, most people cannot see the underlying “shita-ji,” or the underlying quality. This is an essential important quality to develop in one’s training and in all things, I believe.
I sometimes see black belts trying to jam beginning students in Aikido practice. Competing in strength and trying to show off one’s strength to others, especially one’s juniors or those weaker, is not following the principles of Aikido at all. Sometimes, they think they are impressing their instructor, but it only makes me very sad and disappointed in them. I am not impressed, I only think, “How come they don’t know any better than that!” They may think they are impressing others by showing off their strength or knowledge but in this case, the cheap “shi-age” cannot hide at all the faulty and improper “shita-ji” lying below.
No matter how beautiful the outside skin of the watermelon is, the true test is the taste inside. How disappointing it is to pick the nicest looking watermelon in the store but take it home and find out that the taste inside is so bad and not what you expected at all. This also holds true to human beings as well. To forge the development of your innner self is the same as preparing the “shita-ji.” If you truly train your inner self well, the “shi-age” or final polish will always come out beautifully.
On the other hand, if you do not develop the basic techniques well, whatever “advanced” techniques you try will always look awkward and ineffective.