For 15 years, until he returned to the United States in 1984, Steven Seagal lived in Japan, spoke the language, studied the martial arts and became a master of aikido. Not only did he have a rare inside look at the Japanese martial arts establishment, but he penetrated it as few outsiders had ever done. He was a disciple of aikido's head master, he said, and also became a Shinto priest and the first Westerner to own and operate his own dojo (school) in Japan.
As a graduate of the old school, Seagal sees himself as a spokesman for traditional martial arts, the way things were and should be, and he resents the commercialization of something that was at one time a pure and spiritual undertaking taught by people like Morihei Ueshiba. In the 1930s, Ueshiba created aikido, which is based on love and harmony, its power derived not from sheer physical strength but from what its practitioners regard as a oneness with the universe.
"The martial arts have to be an endeavor in which you're trying to develop the physical man and perfect the spiritual self at the same time," Seagal said. "If what you're doing is devoid of the spiritual essence, it's nothing but street fighting."
When Seagal returned home, he became infuriated by what he considered a fast-food approach to martial arts. Seemingly, anybody who could break a brick could open a shopping-center dojo. And most Americans, says Seagal, have formed distorted impressions of the martial arts by watching too many Hollywood chop movies or cable television's mutant form of kick boxing, called full-contact karate.
The state of martial arts here, he said, "is deplorable," his normally serene, soft voice becoming agitated, his inner calm disappearing.
"There are great martial artists in this town," he said angrily, "and there are imposters in this town. The imposters are the majority. They call themselves masters and have bogus credentials. God knows where they came from or where they studied. When I ask them who their teacher was, they make up some name I've never heard of.
"They're the guys who were in the military and studied tae kwon do in Korea for six months and then came back here as a sixth-degree black belt. It's like the joke that every Korean who gets off the plane here is a seventh dan. Don't believe it just because they're Oriental."
Chuck Norris? Seagal frowned.
"I can't stand his movies," he said. "I can't watch them. Just because he's a movie star doesn't mean he's a great martial artist."
Television's full-contact karate? He shook his head. "I don't consider it karate or even Thai kick boxing, which I respect very much," he said. "It's become something else."
The latest Japanese import is the ninja, that mythical, black-clad assassin from ancient Japan. There are some people today who claim to be ninja, schooled at secret enclaves by wizened priests who probably called them "grasshopper." Seagal gets even more upset by the notion that ninja still exist.
"There is no such thing as a ninja," he said. "Anyone who says he's one is scamming you. It'd be like some jerk going to London and coming back to America and saying, 'I'm going to teach the secrets of knighthood.' If you want to learn the ways of an assassin, become an agent of the CIA or KGB."
To Seagal, 35, his is the only true path to perfection in the martial arts, and most Americans, he says, don't have the mentality or temperament for it. But not many Americans know at age 5, as Seagal did, that they want to become martial arts experts. Nor do they begin studying martial arts at 7. Seagal's vision was clear. In high school in Fullerton, he played very little football and baseball, even though he was 6-4, preferring to practice the solitary discipline of martial arts. At 18, he moved to Japan and began training eight hours a day for two years.
At first, the Japanese didn't take him seriously. "Some teachers won't even accept an American," he said, "because there are so many Westerners who think they can pay someone money, learn a few moves, go back to America and teach."
The Japanese don't believe, Seagal says, that Westerners have the inner strength to accept and endure the deprivation that's at the center of the training regimen.
"An American will say, 'He's having you scrub the toilet every day for two years before he teaches you anything? I can pay $50 and learn martial arts in two weeks and be better than you,' " Seagal said.
"But you have to understand that the way to enlightenment is through deprivation. They create an environment where you're not getting any approval for all the work you're putting in, you're not getting any sleep or love or attention, you're getting your butt kicked, and you're up before anyone fixing meals and cleaning.
"Then one day a teacher says, 'Yeah, you're doing a good job. I'm going to start teaching you.'