84. Damasare: Hidden in Plain Sight
“All war is based on deception.”
My friend was eager to show me the latest book in his collection. The book focused on one koryu, but also had sample kata from other koryu schools, including our own.
“But look at these photographs,” he said, smiling like a Chesire Cat about to spring something on me.
The pages he showed me had sequential photos of several kata from our martial arts school. But they were odd. They were so odd, I couldn’t chalk then up to regional or instructors’ personal differences. There was something just wrong about them, as if the people demonstrating didn’t truly understand the meaning of the kata, like they learned it by looking through a cracked prism at the actual techniques.
The demonstrators, who claimed to have master’s licenses in several koryu, also wrote that they had studied directly under one of the headmasters of our school. How could that be, I asked rhetorically, when their techniques were just…odd.
Ah, my friend said. Maybe it was damasare.
There might have been something unsavory about the writers that the headmaster didn’t like, but he couldn’t get rid of them. Maybe they kept coming around pestering the teacher, so finally the teacher taught them something just to get them out of his hair. Something wrong. And then he sent them off. They were secure and smug in their knowledge, but anyone who knows anything about the ryu would know immediately that they had learned a flawed, mistaken, and incomplete version of the kata he was taught. Good enough for general consumption, perhaps, but the ‘keys to the kingdom” were missing. Those who know could tell they didn’t get it right.
Deception is not just a technique used in warfare. It is an integral part of martial arts education, particularly the koryu, since they are closer to combative methods than pure sport competition. And I don’t mean just deceptive fighting techniques, like a feint to one side to set up an attack to the other side. Damasare, deceiving those who you don’t want to learn your methods, is a technique used to keep your school’s techniques within the school.
Deceptive methods to protect your methods from being co-opted by unscrupulous outsiders or even students of your own who you don’t trust go back a long way. One teacher of my school has suggested that he has found in records and documents examples that go back to at least the Edo Period (1600-1868 CE), back when our ryu had quite a number of dojo and several thousands students. You couldn’t trust all the students to have the ryu’s best interest in mind. The ones you can’t kick out but don’t trust entirely may be taught incomplete or wrong methods.
There were already some folk back then, he said, who were known to be “kata collectors.” They would train only long enough to learn enough upper level kata for their own purposes, then leave for another school without permission, train a while there too, and then eventually set up their own schools, with no allegiance to their former teachers without permission. The teacher, if he suspected someone to be like that, would deliberately teach him wrong methods, or give wrong or incomplete explanations. After all, back then you never knew if that guy from another fief who displayed a selfish, self-seeking personality, might face you in battle in a civil war. Why teach him stuff that could get yourself killed?
Not all ryu do this overtly, but I think some kind of damasare, of trying to retain methods or meanings only within the ryu, is in nearly all traditional koryu arts, and can perhaps be found in more “modern” budo too.
One of my karate friends said as much, when he began to study Okinawan karate in Okinawa, from teachers who were intelligentsia: professors, lawyers and doctors. They had the acumen and ability to research the origins of various kata. They had long conversations with him about the history of karate kata, and he concluded that a lot of the kata transmitted to Japan from Okinawa were incomplete, insofar that some of the more esoteric meanings were deliberately withheld from some Japanese students. That, too, was a subtle implication I got when interviewing Asai Tetsuhiko, the late Shotokan master instructor. He said that he frequently went to Okinawa to study older kata and kobudo that were not part of the original Shotokan curriculum in order to understand what was left out or forgotten.
That is one reason why I take askance at some karate bunkai demonstrations done in tournaments that take kata literally. Ostensibly, bunkai demos are performed to explain a set of moves from a kata. But many kata themselves are full of damasare. Some of the moves aren’t what they literally look like. So if you take a literal interpretation of a move, it may not necessarily be what it really means. For example, think about it. Stepping forward three times, with three alternating downward block in a kata makes no sense in a combative situation. Who would step backwards and try to punch you at the same place and fail, three times? Those aren’t blocks. And not all of them are at gedan level, I would conjecture. They are hidden techniques, hidden within plain sight. Those who don’t know think they are just three gedan blocks done one after another. Those who do know what they really mean…well, a lot of times, they won’t tell you unless you’re part of their school, and a trusted student at that.
It’s the same with aikido. A lot of people think that it’s all about grabs and wrist locks. But Ueshiba Morihei, the founder himself, once let slip that “atemi is aikido,” or attacking vital parts is a foundation of the art. So that Kote Gaeshi technique: maybe the pugilistic attacker won’t try to grab your wrist. He’ll try a straight right punch. But the same attack to the wrist works whether it’s to a grab or a strike. Instead of reaching for the wrist, tori is really striking the wrist at a nerve bundle. But you say, “Oh, but why would I want to take a fall if it’s only a little wrist twist?” Yeah, but that pivot and turn of your wrist? It’s coupled with a left punch to your jaw, then the grab of your wrist with the left, then as tori pivots, his elbow smacks the other side of uke’s jaw. Those strikes to soften uke up really help him to go with the “flow.” And that throw, by the way, is a way for uke to survive practice. Done full speed, it’s really meant to dislocate wrists, elbow and shoulder while standing up if uke resists.
But if you practice that way, however, two bad things happen. One, you lose your training partners real fast. Two, you may lose sight of learning how to “flow” with the attack, since you’re so intent on causing so much wreckage to the attacker. That destroys the overall goal of aiki training: to develop a flowing, smooth body dynamic on the part of the student. So the actual “fighting” explanation of the move is hidden from most students even during training.
So those who know, know. Those who don’t…they make up weird bunkai.
For the koryu in the modern Internet and video age, it’s a tricky way to track who really learned the art and who just picked up a book or magazine, or learned only a few techniques and ran off claiming full mastery.
A while back a friend pointed me to a web site that featured guys in black t-shirts doing what looked like our ryu’s short dagger grappling techniques. However, instead of traditional weapons (kogusoku or wakizashi), they were using butterfly knives and flying around like monkeys high on caffeine. The techniques were recognizable as ours, though, although through careful scrutiny, I could tell that most of their kata were probably derived from a very good imitation of stuff they copied from books and videotapes. There were some deliberate change-ups put into the kata specifically to hide their real meaning. Anyone attempting to pilfer the techniques via videos of a demo or online videos would also copy the mistakes and omissions.
So that brings another kind of damasare: during embu, or formal public demonstrations, our koryu (and I’m sure other koryu) will deliberately change some aspects of their kata compared to what is practiced in the dojo. There is “kata for the dojo” and “embu style kata.” Instead of a particular strike point, for example, we attack a different point. It’s still a viable attack point, just not the particular one our style wants as a primary target. Members who know will immediately recognize the difference. Outsiders who don’t will surreptitiously video it, copy it and practice the demo kata without knowing what they are doing is not quite the right way to do the form in a dojo. They don’t know the difference. Plus, they’ll be outed as superficial kata copiers.
While on the face of this, a lot of damasare may seem like unwarranted paranoia, you should remember that its origins were in a time before copyright laws protected the owners of the techniques. It was also a time when there was a real possibility that some of the methods could possibly be used in battle or civil war against another clan. The less you shared with outsiders who you didn’t fully trust, the better. Why show potential enemies your style so that they could learn how to beat you, not in a sportive contest, but in a life or death situation?
Nowadays, the purpose of damasare has changed somewhat. It is used to mask the essence of the ryu from those who would steal the methods via printed media or videos and market it as their own.
With some of those outsiders, you could tell them to go away and they will disappear. Others are annoyingly persistent, and so you have to figure out a way to not give them the keys to your secrets as they keep showing up to train or buying all the DVDs and studying videso on YouTube.
The more a style is a koryu, the more you will see these kinds of damasare at work; to hide the methods from outsiders, from those who would steal the methods for their own greed and selfishness, from even one’s own students who do not exhibit the best of character traits, and from potential adversaries and possible future combatants.
Going past these hidden veils means proving yourself worthy not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Are you trustworthy enough? Or are you perceived as just another jerk who wants knowledge only for narrow, selfish purposes?