53. Modern Budo: The “essence” of martial arts?

Some readers who don’t know me very well may think that all my rants and diatribes against the negative excesses of gendai budo (“modern” Japanese martial arts such as judo, aikido, kendo and karatedo) mean that I’m completely negative about them. I’m a koryu snob. That’s far from the case. I started off in a gendai budo as a kid, training in judo at a rented sugar plantation wooden building held together by the termites holding hands. I continued to aikido and karatedo, with some sidetracks to rudimentary kendo, and a bit of iaido and naginata-do. I covered as many bases as I could before I settled down into focusing on koryu (“classical” Japanese martial arts that predated the Japanese modern era, circa 1868).

What I decry are stuff like the rampant commercialism, the politicking and personality power plays, the large organizations that have forgotten the individual, and the forgetting of the martial nature of the budo, among other things. I love gendai budo. I just wish it, ideally speaking, wasn’t so full of such problems.

When looking at the technical aspects of modern budo, I will admit that when I began a focused study of koryu, I had some severe criticisms regarding their seeming distance from real applicability. This belief was no doubt inspired by the later writings of Donn F. Draeger, one of the first Westerners to write about budo and bujutsu (older martial arts, or koryu: you can call it koryu, bujutsu, koryu bujutsu, or even koryu budo) in a factual and very knowledgeable manner. Not only did I read his books from cover to cover, I had the unforeseen luck to have trained with him several times, and to have had several informal discussions with him, one-on-one, about his experiences and martial arts in general.

Draeger, a formidable judo and karate practitioner, moved more and more into koryu in his later years, becoming a master practitioner of the Shinto Muso-ryu jojutsu and the Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu schools. He also studied with some Chinese martial arts teachers and did field work in Southeast Asian and Southern Chinese martial arts. When I met him, he had grown sour on modern budo politics, and that was reflected in his criticisms of it as having missed the boat, gone astray, forgotten its roots.

Yet, even Draeger would wax nostalgic when he would shoot the breeze about doing randori in the old Kodokan judo hall, in the days before it had taken to being so money-hungry that it started to announce on a big banner draped against the side of its building: “Black Belt in One Year! No problem!”

Draeger once laughed and talked to me about his first encounter with the judo legend, Mifune Kyuzo, the last 10th dan master ranked by the founder of judo, Kano Jigoro.

“This little old guy walks up to me and wants to do randori, and I thought I would break his bones if I threw him!” Draeger recounted. It turned out that he was a lot harder to trip up, until finally Draeger gripped him by the lapel and sleeve and heaved him over his shoulders…And then, he was nowhere to be seen. He looked at the mat in front of him. He looked up. He looked left, he looked right. No old man in a jumble of bones on the floor. Then he felt a light tap on his shoulder. Turning around, he saw Mifune standing exactly where he was before he thought he threw him, a big smile on his face and a gleam in his eyes.

“I thought, ‘Oh, boy, I’m in for it now!’” he said. And he was. Mifune then proceeded to bounce the strapping ex-Marine officer all over the mats like he was a rag doll.

So Draeger had a complex love-hate relationship with gendai budo. He did so much of it, contributed so much to the spread of it, but was so disappointed in how it had seemingly forgotten its own roots.

As I noted, I held that attitude for quite a while until a fellow koryu martial artist changed my opinion. My friend, K-san, was in Hawaii on his honeymoon. Luckily for him, his wife also did a budo art and was understanding of his love for jujutsu, so he was allowed to pack his keikogi and spend some time with me and my other jujutsu friend, training outdoors in parks and secluded jungle clearings. Although we got a lot of mosquito bites, we managed to learn a lot from him. K was at most 135 pounds dripping wet, but he moved literally like that old adage, like “greased lightning.” When he executed a grappling or throwing technique, I felt like I was hanging on to the Warner Brothers’ cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil. It was like being thrown, choked or arm-locked by an unstoppable force of nature. He had incredible technique.

Besides being a master technician, K-san, even as a young man at the time, had done intensive studies in other martial arts, such as tai chi chuan and a very powerful style of aikido, in order to further his understanding of jujutsu. He did historical research into obscure branches of our jujutsu school and, when he was single, had enough time to even talk with and cross train with other jujutsu schools to compare methods and techniques.

After one training session at the grounds of a school I used to teach at, he said he wanted to walk across the campus to go to the University of Hawaii’s Bookstore. The college campus was right next door, so while I did some tech work on my computer graphics classroom, he wandered over, did some shopping, and came back in time for me to drive him back to his hotel room.

I saw that he had gotten his expected assortment of souvenirs from the UH Bookstore: logo t-shirts and hats. But what weighted down his shopping bags were books. Piles and piles of books on martial arts, all in English, from a variety of authors, from very respected writers to just plain weird stuff.

“Why are you buying all these books?” I asked. “You can get more and better stuff in Japan. Like this guy, he’s so full of shit. Why buy this book?”

K-san got philosophical. He said, “…Because I live in Tokyo, and our dojo is going to get more and more students from abroad. I need to understand how non-Japanese look at budo, how they think about budo in order to understand how to teach them. So any knowledge and information is good, even books by these people who you think are fakes. They tell me that this is how you Americans think about budo.”

He had a lot of books about modern budo. I thought of him as someone who had an encyclopedic knowledge of koryu. Why bother to learn about gendai budo? He had a reason that really impacted my whole understanding of koryu and gendai budo. If you take away the personality power plays, the stinky organizational politics, the bad teachers, the money grubbing, the debasing of gendai budo due to too much competition…modern budo has an important role to play in the evolution of martial arts.

I may be guilty of paraphrasing K-san here somewhat, but in essence, he said:

Don’t think of it as being koryu good, gendai budo ineffective. Think of it more as koryu is what it is, like classical music, and Gendai budo took that classical foundation and transformed it so that budo could survive in the modern era as a kind of sport, because most people would not be interested in koryu training purposes. They can relate to “sport” training, however. So were it not for gendai budo, all Japanese budo, including koryu, would have suffered and perhaps even died out.

What gendai budo did, K-san said, was that it distilled the essences of the various koryu. I can agree with that. I saw it happening in iaido, for example. When I started, there were only seven iai kata in the All Japan Kendo Federation’s seitei iai sets. Then they added three more, and then two afterwards, and altogether, the 12 kata were meant to represent the essence of several different koryu iaijutsu schools.

But K-san also made a deductive leap of thought. He said, take a look at the Kodokan judo’s kata sets. They represent not only the intact preservation of forms from a specific jujutsu school (like the Koshiki No Kata), but they are also revamped, rewritten and rethought sets of kata that are like the purest theoretical essence, the distillation of the purest form, of the theory of jujutsu (like the Ju No Kata).

People may look at such kata and think, ‘Oh, that’s just too symbolic. They have no real “street application,” but they were never meant to be directly used as combative or self-defense applications. They are the theoretical foundations put into physical movement, however, of what is BEHIND the seemingly more applications-based kata of jujutsu, or kenjutsu.

Having had some training in aikido, K-san even showed me an aikido technique. The way it’s done, it describes a large circular movement, he says. Then he showed me how a traditional jujutsu person would do a similar technique: smaller circle, less movement. But they’re basically the same, technically speaking, he said. What the aikido kata does is render the movement larger, to show the underlying theoretical basis of the technique. Understand that, and you can understand truly how the smaller, subtler movement works.

I suspect, too, that K-san had this insight from having studied tai chi chuan. Critics may decry it as impractical because most tai chi training focuses on going through the main form very slowly, making large, smooth movements, but K-san showed me how those large movements can be easily shortened and turned into practical jujutsu grappling and striking methods. By training large and slow, you pay attention to how you use large muscle bundles, body alignment and posture in the right way. Then, when you speed it up, your body strikes out like a whip snapping, but it only works because you have already developed a strong leg and hip foundation from which to strike, thanks to the slow, large movements you practiced.

It’s the same with the gendai budo kata. Large, stylized movements are the theoretical essence of concepts originally scattered in different koryu, repurposed and reframed.

The power of modern budo is when you combine proper training in those kata with competitive training. The combination should produce exponents who have proper technique for martial purposes, as well as the physical stamina, fast instinctive reaction and natural movements from sportive practice. The danger is if this balance is lost, and the practitioner only trains for competition, losing sight of the original purpose of gendai budo: it should be both a sport and a martial Way.

The weakness of koryu, K-san said, is that the way it is practiced nowadays, there is very little room for competition. In and of itself, competition is not ever going to be a goal of koryu, he said. But the intense training and catch-as-can manner of competition helps to make a student very physically capable and flexible in his/her reactions, something hard to reproduce in kata-based training.

In both systems, there are workarounds that ameliorate the weaknesses. K-san noted that good modern budo training always includes some form of kata to strengthen the use of proper muscles and posture for application of techniques. In koryu, there are built-in training methods to deal with developing conditioning, instinctive reactions, and the problem of dealing with a resistant opponent. K’s ideas and observations of such training methods go beyond the parameters of this little blog, so suffice it to say that I was really impressed with how he laid out his observations and approach to teaching koryu.

Koryu is not gendai budo, and vice versa. They are different. But they are not antithetical. Gendai budo is the distillation of koryu. But koryu is the roots of modern budo, and it would be a shame to lose those koryu arts, since they are the unprocessed origins of Japanese martial arts.

Draeger mentioned to me several times that, if I had enough time, I should study some kind of Chinese martial art. In doing so, I would see the contrasts and similarities, and come to understand my own Japanese martial art much better. In like manner, if one did or had done a modern budo, and then studied a koryu, or vice versa, you would come to understand one’s core system of study much better. So it’s not a matter of whether koryu or gendai budo is better. It’s a matter that they are parts of a whole fabric of martial arts systems, each with the potential to add to the whole pot of knowledge, if done right, and if approached with the right attitude.


19 thoughts on “53. Modern Budo: The “essence” of martial arts?

  1. Very good.

    I often feel a fish out of water. When I train in modern budo (Judo), I am an odd man out: I’m the guy that does not roll over to my stomach and cover up to prevent the opponent from pinning me “since he has only five seconds and the ref will pick us up!” Nor am I the guy that can figure out the arcane rules definitions for why I can’t grab a leg, and why, after all, in randori my opponent is discussing that with me when it isn’t shiai…

    Then I’m the guy who the next day goes to a BJJ club…doesn’t even rate as “budo,” most from a Japanese MA background will tell you… and draw a connection between a technique we may be practicing and a traditional method for dealing with a short blade, or execute a takedown from the knees while “rolling” (BJJ’s randori – we mix both trainings and so we R&R or “randori and roll” ) and note the iaijutsu unarmed application of it, as people look at me funny…

    Then the next day is working with a naginata in my back yard after yardwork (no ukemi were necessary that day, thank you!!)

    What I have found is very, very few people share that. Some people “did” Gendai Budo (often said with a barely suppressed sneer) but no longer do so because the koryu is just “so more effective, ” but they are gasping for breath and tense as steel cables the minute they cross hands in anything other than a cooperative exercise…

    Or they sneer at “sport” yet can’t manifest even basic postural or technical effectiveness when someone is not tanking for them as they do in their “other” modern budo, but isn’t resisting, either.

    Or laugh at that funny old fashioned stuff, equating it with strip mall karate or the worst of aikido or “Kung Foo,” though they have never seen anything at all like the strongest practitioners in a legit koryu school, tending rather to base their idea of effectivesness on whether it works in MMA…

    They don’t get how a combination of them actually makes for a much more well rounded- and frankly in my opinion a much more accurate representation technically, of what classical warriors actually did. The only reason I got a feel for this is that I have trained with people in ALL of these things, and still do so. I love using a classical jujutsu move on a black belt BJJ-er with MMA experience and who has trained with some of the best in the world- and they just think it is some odd or interesting variation of some BJJ technique….which actually it is!

    The prejudice we see of koryu/gendai and sport/budo is a luxury of the modern era, of dilettantes – as you described in a previous post, Wayne – of people who no longer seek to glean whatever they can from whichever of these wonderful arts that might improve their understanding, broaden their horizons, or make them see a fuller picture.

    Just like this K-san you describe.

    Instead far too many people are busy making far too many excuses, trying to find people who agree with them and settling comfortably in, rather than asking truly difficult questions and trying to find the answers to them in the physical realm of somebody else’s mat or dojo.

  2. I think budo training without some form of randori is “hollow”… there must be some form of “testing” along with kihon no kata as well as other kata that are designed to teach situations that are outside the form of kihon geiko.

    Within Jiyushinkai curriculum, our randori method is taught at beginning around sankyu. Randori (my translation = taking something out of chaos, etc.) for us begins very slowly with the idea that while going very slow (ippon me) we understand that it replicates going as fast as possible so that we don’t try to get out of trouble/solve a problem by speeding up. We can’t speed up if we’re already at terminal speed. This is very difficult to do… that’s why we begin to learn it very early. As we get more skilled, we begin to speed up but keeping to the understanding of learning to “win while almost at the point of losing.” Eventually, skillful budoka can go at top speed with control.

    I’ve been told by a number of well-known koryu practitioners that the training and other aspects of our practice is very “koryu-like” but with the idea of growing and being willing, appropriately, to change certain things that most koryu do not change unless it’s done by the highest level practitioners that are more or less starting their own ryu-ha.

    The idea of thinking that individual waza should be thought of as “invincible”, etc. is antithetical to the way I’ve grown up in budo training. Continuing linked waza (or even something “new” that fits the necessary situation) until the action is over is absolutely necessary. If the first waza “wins” then it should almost be a surprise but at the same time each waza should be an expression of your inner intent to end the situation instantly if possible. Ukemi, even to the necessity of falling, if necessary should lead into another waza… always.

    This isn’t meant to be a “commercial” to attract attention… rather, it is one method of training with randori being one of the dominant aspects along with kihon no kata, both solitary and with a partner, and multiple attackers as well in our training.

    – C. Clark

  3. I am under the impression the Kodokan’s kata syllabus lacks the esoterica that inform koryu kata training. If this is true, I cannot help but think their appreciation at the hands of people like K-san has less to do with anything the kata might have represented and more to do with his inspired conjecture.

    1. John,
      Having done judo for many years before jujutsu, I’m not sure if K-san’s conjecture isn’t true. There may be some things lacking in Kodokan judo kata, but I really suspect there’s stuff in there that are simply not visible to most judo players because they haven’t had much cross training in other armed and unarmed combative arts. But, it’s all a point of view.

      1. I think it’s in the kata. I was hardly exposed to any kata besides nage no kata and ju no kata (and got lucky with the ju no kata, because a dojomate trained with Fukuda sensei for about a year), but I definitely got the vibe in ju no kata.

        I think most judoka simply do not do enough kata to get it, and when they do do kata it’s with a terminal goal: i.e., gotta do kata to get promoted. The kata I usually saw was mannered and stilted and disconnected — a far cry from the koryu kata I’m accustomed to. I started seeing much more latent in judo kata during the brief period when I was training in both koryu and judo.


  4. A really interesting paper, Kit. I think “old timers” like Chuck and me, who trained under “older” judo teachers, have a lot of affinity for Shishida’s conclusions.

  5. Mate your blog is quite interesting, I wish I was there to train with Don as well, he is a legend and I enjoy re reading his many books over these last 20 so years, yes some 35 years ago I started learning judo, it’s a shame most arts are now sports , lost something in these new forms I think, as well as how you can’t train ahhh firmly as some one will sue you if they get a bruse or a cut , I don’t mean that you can not be responsible to each other ,but you cant be -soft -when training in budo or bujutsu , it was for survival in warring times , not a play match in a sport competition.

    Anyway I look Fwd to your next article


    1. Thank you Greg. I can’t say that I knew him very well. Other people spent more time with him, but what little time I did have to train with him was…interesting, to say the least.

  6. Beth,

    Back when I was doing judo as a college student in Upstate New York, I had the good fortune to have attended some seminars with the late Dr. Sachio Ashida, from whom I learned many of the judo kata. He had the breadth and knowledge to really explain the intent and theory behind the kata. As immature as I was at the time (my wife thinks I still am!), I thought it was an invaluable insight into the basic theories of judo. But yes, a lot of the other folk thought it was just something you did to get a promotion, and once done, forgotten about until the next promotion.

  7. Ju no kata and Itsutsu no kata have great depth of principle of ju that is very powerful. Importance of interal power in between the waza not just during connection with the aite. Real essence of aiki.

  8. One aspect of this that I think is very important to how people perceive this stuff is the self-chosen balkanization of so many martial arts practitioners. I am amazed at how many people judge others and other arts based on narrow perceptions from their own practice. Typically in budo this manifests as aikido people doing aikido, Judo people doing Judo, koryu folks often defecting from one or the other and then only doing that.

    This is plainly evident in several different martial arts forums,I have noted in particular in the forums devoted to a single art; the kinds of things that get talked about are at times almost astonishing, for example, about Judo and its practice from aikidoka that have never done judo. I also see that people tend to generalize minimal experience with another art to the entire art “I met a Judo black belt and he said Judoka hate kata and only do it for promotion!” or other arts are dismissed entirely based on experience with a single practitioner who may or may not have significant rank, may or may not be any good, and may or may not be a good example of that art regardless…..I have seen people specifically avoid even dipping their toes into the “unfamiliar waters” of other arts, even though their own forebears in the martial arts did exactly that!!

    In contrast looking at the folks posting here it is pretty clear a wide experience in various types of budo has been gained, integrated, and made to serve an overall greater depth of comprehension of the one or the few arts folks have chosen to stay with.

  9. As a side note I have done a very little Ju no kata at a seminar with Eiko Shepherd sensei, and I found the overall manner of its practice to belie some of the very martial applications that became obvious when doing it under the watchful eye of a person who actually knows what its about….

  10. Kit, and others…

    To be honest, part of the reason I began this blog, besides giving me a chance to vent and practice writing essays, would be that I could control the direction of discussion by picking and choosing my own subjects. As it evolved, I realized that most of the posters added greatly to the interchange of knowledge, including my own, because of their vast experiences that often preceded (a nice way of saying, they’re older than me!) my own, or they trained more extensively in systems and so have a deeper understanding of some of my musings, and can add to or counterpoint my thoughts.

    Yes, one of the problems with some of the online forums, even general martial arts ones, is that discussions all too often fall into the “my art is better than your art” pissing match. Certainly, we end up eventually in a system where we think we belong, where we think we are learning best what we most want to learn. But without enough prior experiences, both in budo and in the “outside world”, there’s no leavening, no wider understanding of how a particular system fits, or sometimes doesn’t fit, depending on the way it is interpreted or misinterpreted.

    Several people commented that my criticisms of the way some budo are practiced is just “hating,” and everything is beautiful, etc., etc. But without careful critiques, any art–martial or otherwise–can fall into mediocrity. Rather, when I ranted about aikido, or judo, koryu, or whatever, it’s from the point of view of someone who really loves this stuff, and wishes such arts would exemplify the best, and not the worst, that they can be.

    Ju No Kata to me is jujutsu writ large. As in, like if you do Tai Chi Ch’uan, a very large circular movement in the form is mainly about developing balance, grace, etc., but shorten the move and speed it up…and it’s an eye gouge. Or a deflection/punch. It’s all there. Just like in Ju No Kata. All the concepts of old style jujutsu; the disbalancing, push-pull, feinting and repulsing, the suppleness against force…are there. That is one heavy duty kata.


    1. Wayne, near the end of the main entry, you said gendai budo was the distillation of koryu. But there are two possible results of distillation, aren’t there?

      On the one hand, you have a distillation which takes a vital liquid and boils off the fluid chaff to leave something that has had its essence concentrated.

      On the other, you have a process which strips away everything vital, leaving it bland and lifeless.

      There are two layers of this (at least). One is the initial distillation by the creator of the kata, who pulled important principles and compressed them into a training form. Another is when the kata is transmitted and practiced — and this can be concentrative or devitalizing.

      I’m thinking a lot about this as I’m relearning to see the world around me, and start to break down which of the vital things I see are necessary to convey the experience to another set of eyes. Which marks, of what types? What are the angles? What are values? How to they relate? What can be expressed explicitly, and what is best implied? What is my role?

      It takes a long time to understand what’s going on. Theory will only get one so far. The best kata reveal as much of the essence as they can. The rest is up to us.


      1. Beth,

        Interesting thought, and one which I also realized after I posted it. There’s distillation and concentration, and there’s sucking away the vital essences. It’s a double edged sword, like so many things in life.


  11. It’s the “razor’s edge”… the point of the balance of opposites. Long spoken of in spiritual writings as the necessary path that is narrow but critical in actual practice. The place of real power.

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