34. Niko Niko Sensei

Before he retired from his position as an elementary school principal, he was known as Niko Niko sensei to his young school children. “Niko Niko” is one of those onomatopoetic Japanese words that sounds like what it means, in this case, someone who’s always smiling. Hence, in translation he could be called “Principal Smiley Face.” He looked that happy and kind to little kids. They just loved him.

Walk up a dirt path to his ancestral family martial arts dojo, however, and you would find that Mr. Smiley Face’s real name is Takenouchi Tojuro, the thirteenth master of the Sodenke line of the Takenouchi school of martial arts, a lineage that goes back more than 450 years. (My own line of Takenouchi or Takeuchi-ryu is the Bitchuden line, an offshoot of the two main lines of the Sodenke and Soke).

Some martial arts folk might think the nickname somewhat odd, given the stereotype of a martial artist in the West, due to too many scowling, dour martial arts actors who mumble their way through scripts in which vengeance (“You killed my master/family/lover/tribe/dog/goldfish!!!!”) is the prime motivating factor in the story arc.

The kids loved Niko Niko sensei, however, because he was always smiling and kindly, hardly the epitome of the angry, violent-prone, bulging-muscle tough martial arts guy.  When he did do embu (martial arts demonstrations), however, his warrior’s gaze (kaeru no me) and kiai were frightening. Even before a technique was applied, his focus and presence could scare the heck out of an opponent.

Some might call this something of a split personality. I would call it practical and down-to-earth. The older I get, the more I realize that to get through everyday, normal social interactions, a good sense of humor, mutual respect and gentle humanity is the best way to live. Forever being on edge, tense and nervous, as portrayed in some martial arts movies and even in some dojo, is simply a cause for hypertension and an early demise due to stress throwing your hormones out of whack.

That is not to say that a budo dojo is a place where you just yuck it up. Far from it. But neither should it be a place where students fear that they are going to get their heads kicked in by their seniors if they forget to address them properly once or twice, or where their teachers act like unreconstructed military boot camp drill instructors from the bad old days before hazing was made illegal.

For me, a dojo should embody the best, classiest social attributes of the society it’s in. As a place for studying a martial “Way” (meaning a method of self-discipline to attain physical, mental and spiritual well-being), the atmosphere should be focused, disciplined, attentive and respectful. Students should be self-motivated to try to excel themselves. This being the case, there should be no need for negative reinforcement or verbal or physical punishment to motivate a student because he/she is already self-motivated to learn.

This sense of humane-ness, of humanity and gentleness within the obviously and a priori accepted conditions of physical danger and grueling regime of a budo dojo, was also a topic of conversation the last time I had a long conversation with my own Takeuchi-ryu teacher, Ono Yotaro sensei. He was commenting on the fact that after he had knee surgery a year before, he had gotten frustrated over the time it was taking for him to get back into some amount of physical shape so that he could do jujutsu again.

Then, he said he realized perhaps he had to stop grumbling to himself and use the time to THINK more about martial arts.

“I used to always say to my students, you start from one and go to ten, and then go back to one, as far as techniques went,” he said, referring to the old saying about how it’s important to always go back to basics no matter how advanced you got. But Ono sensei said that when he was laid up for a while, he realized the saying also referred to one’s spiritual training in budo.

When you are a child, you are innocent and wide-eyed, accepting of many things. Then you begin to make distinctions and develop into a discerning adult. Sometimes we become too rigid and dour, he said, and we have to realize that we have to return to the simple happiness and joy we experienced as a child.

It’s not exactly a return back to being as naive as a child, he noted, but more like a spiral upward. You return to the feeling of acceptance and youthful happiness, even though you do not discard your maturity, knowledge and experiences. Hence, you can be child-like, but not child-ish. So when you love, you love fully, without conniving or dissembling. When you train, you train because it is just so much fun to train, not because you are constantly worried about beating someone up or being beaten up.

Having a proper attitude will affect how well you advance into the higher levels of techniques, Ono sensei argued.

“Before the surgery, I used to stop at my thinking, where I thought, for example, having a powerful ki (spiritual energy) and presence was the essence of one’s mental and spiritual abilities when doing a technique. Now I don’t think so…I think the essence is having nyuunanshin (a flexible spirit), which is like being like a frog, or a baby…”

He explained, for example, the “kaeru no me,” or “frog’s gaze.” That’s a term our system uses for how your eyes are fixed. When doing a technique, one should have the unfathomable gaze of a frog, as it is ready to capture an insect. The insect has no idea it’s about to be dinner because the frog doesn’t let on what it’s thinking through its expression or eyes.

Ono said he used to think the kaeru no me was because you were so tough, your eyes would display a tough, hard gaze.

“But you know what? A frog doesn’t know tough. A frog just knows being a frog. So whether it’s about to swallow an insect, or whether you grab it in your hands and it suddenly has to jump away, its eyes and expressions are the same. You see no pretense, no expectations. A frog’s gaze is just like a baby’s eyes. You look in the eyes of a contented baby, that’s the same gaze a true bugeisha (martial artist) should have. The eyes will see everything and react naturally, out of his own years and years of training, without pretense, foresight or falseness. You don’t have to look mean or tough, because ‘looking’ or ‘acting’ is just that.  You’re just acting. You’re not BEING. You have to arrive at a point where, like a frog, if someone tries to grab you, you just get away. A frog doesn’t have to spend time thinking, oh, gee, he’s grabbing me. I need to execute kata number 45. No. The frog just jumps to escape. It’s already in its nature to jump. Your jujutsu has to be in your nature so you can react naturally.”

I recalled this conversation because a friend and I were discussing the video of Takeuchi Tojuro sensei we saw on YouTube. As I mulled over the discussion and the video, I recalled the many different videos I saw of top martial artists doing iai and grappling. Some of them had that kind of kaeru no me, some of them didn’t.

Looking mean and tough, by the way, is different from having kaeru no me. The former is not kaeru no me, it’s just looking so hard, you look like you’re brittle and easily shattered. Having kaeru no me is having a sense of focus, but also being elastic and able to improvise, react easily and counter. I found some master teachers with the same kaeru no me who were in different ryu, such as the late Iwata Norikazu sensei, who was a Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu teacher that my own iai teacher, Ohmori Masao sensei, highly respected. I also saw a number of iai teachers who were so rigid-looking in their gaze, they looked as brittle as glass about to be shattered.

Technically, the latter may have been pretty good. But they weren’t super-good. They still looked like they were too tight and rigid.

How many dojo have you entered and observed a teacher and/or sempai strutting and puffing his chest out like a proud peacock, acting tough and ready for a brawl? If you want to ACT tough, I suppose you can learn how to strut and prance like that kind of martial artist. As for me, I’d prefer studying under someone like Niko Niko sensei. He doesn’t have to act tough. He IS tough. He has nothing to prove, so he’s as happy as can be.

In martial arts, some people want to learn to act. I’d rather be.

6 thoughts on “34. Niko Niko Sensei

  1. Another real gem of a keeper Wayne. It’s almost midnight in Dallas when I read this and am so jazzed now with the powerful and also loving picture you’ve given of this Sensei and Smiley Face. It’s difficult to go to sleep now for a nine O’Clock koshukai in the dojo. I wouldn’t have missed reading this for anything! Thanks

  2. A timely topic, Wayne. We’ve been reading Dave Lowry’s article on ‘Entering the doorway’ and discussing it after practice (http://www.koryu.com/library/dlowry6.html) this week, so this makes a great follow-up. One of my students recommended this post to me, he’s a fan of your blog (as am I!)

    As ever, you’ve got me thinking again… Thanks!


  3. Some people fail to see the seperation between their life and the dojo, and others keep them seperated too much. The rituals around entering the dojo and starting/ending training or kata teach us how to switch from being the person who is good to be with and the person you don’t want to cross. Keeping and maintaining the balance between your fighting persona and the persona you show to friends and family is the challenge of budo.

    Great post, thanks for sharing it.

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